By Jon Sprunk
Pyr Books (391 pages, $16, June 2011)
Warning: Adult language
Caim pitched forward as a stray root snagged his toe. With both hands bound behind his back, he would have fallen if not for the men holding him upright.
They had been marching for some time now, first across snow-covered fields and then along a hunting trail through woods that turned out to be deeper and more extensive than he first assumed. The trees grew taller than Caim had ever seen before, some more than ten times his height. Masses of black briars with finger-long thorns made travel in a straight line impossible. In the distance rose the dark outlines of hills against the starry sky. If they were the southern tip of the Kilgorms, that would put him roughly southwest of Liovard.
His captors were fifteen cloaked men, including Keegan and his large comrade. Kit flitted among them, peering under their hoods and occasionally darting ahead. Every so often she returned to report her findings, which weren’t much. They were local men, which he had already guessed. None of them wore anything heavier than a thick woolen jacket, but each man held some type of implement in hand, however, whether it was a simple truncheon or a rusty thresher. The big man, Ramon, was their leader, although how Kit discovered that when the men hardly spoke was a mystery to Caim.
A light appeared through the trees ahead. Small and flickering at first, it grew brighter as they traveled, even as the path became more uneven, sometimes disappearing altogether for a few yards before it reappeared. Another few minutes brought the party to a wide clearing lit up by three bonfires. Sturdy boles as wide as a man’s height surrounded a patch of ground seventy paces across.
His captors ushered Caim to the center between the fires and surrounded him. Most of the solemn faces watching him were bearded and sun-bronzed. They wore their hair long, some in braids. Their garb was wool and buckskin. These were men of the earth who toiled for their bread, not soldiers, and certainly not practiced killers. Keegan stood in the circle. In the firelight it looked like the youth was poking himself in the leg repeatedly with his sword. While Ramon pawed through his satchel, Caim tested his bonds. The cord was rough hemp; strong, but it had some give to it.
“What are you going to do?” Kit whispered from above him, like she thought these men might overhear.
Caim shot her a glance instead of replying and noticed something odd. At first he thought it was a trick of the light, but then she moved to hover before him and the effect remained the same. She appeared less solid than normal, if that word could be applied to Kit. Faded. Caim bunched his hands into fists behind his back. Another damned mystery, as if he didn’t have enough trouble on his plate.
Ramon dropped Caim’s bag on the ground. His cloak hung open, revealing a white fur mantle draped across his shoulders. “Who are you?”
Caim looked the big man up and down. “You tell me. You seem to think you already know.”
“Feisty little shit, ain’t he?” another woodsman said. “Sounds like one of Eviskine’s Nimean lapdogs by the way he talks.”
Caim recognized the man and his boar spear from the roadhouse. He had long hair, black as pitch, and a strong, square chin.
The other spearman from the roadhouse stood beside him. “Maybe he’s a priest sent by the Church to help us.”
The black-haired woodsman smacked his fellow in the back of the head. “The Church and its priests can go fuck themselves! They ain’t never done us no favors, unless it was holding out their hands for an honest man’s coin.”
“Coins, he has.” Ramon held out a hand. Gold and silver glittered on his palm. “Enough to buy Glynburn Abbey. All Nimean mint. Did the duke send you to sniff out our whereabouts?”
As the woodsmen leered at the coins, Caim relaxed his shoulders. “I’m done answering questions until I know who’s asking them.”
Ramon pulled out his great axe and set the head on the ground between his feet. “You already know my name. Ramon, thane of the Gilbaern clan. The rest of these lads are my men. Now, answer my question before I kill you where you stand. Are you a spy for Eviskine?”
“I’m from Nimea,” Caim replied. “But I am no man’s spy.”
“He’s lying,” a slack-jawed man said. “You can see it in his eyes.”
Caim fixed the man with a glance. “Insult me again and I will not forget it.”
The hung-faced man took a step forward, a wooden mallet in his hands. Ramon shooed him back in line.
“You shouldn’t provoke us. We deal swiftly with our enemies.”
Caim chewed on his tongue. These men were obviously serious, but for all their dedication, they were an undisciplined lot. Yet they carried themselves like men spoiling for a fight.
“What are you waiting for?” Kit asked.
Caim didn’t know what was happening to her — Kit’s voice was softer now, barely audible over the crackle of the fires — but he had his hands full.
“Who is this Eviskine?” he asked.
“He’s the fucking Duke of Liovard,” the dark-haired hunter growled.
Ramon scowled, and a scar down the cleft of his chin darkened. “Enough games. Keegan says you bested a dozen of the duke’s best men, but I say he ran before the first drop of blood was spilled. I say you never killed any soldiers.”
Caim met the big man’s gaze. He’d faced down his share of bravos before. His first few months in Othir had been consumed with a constant stream of challengers who wanted to test the newcomer. It wasn’t until he put a fair number in the ground that the rest learned to avoid him. In his peripheral vision, he spotted a shadow entering the clearing. Alone, it undulated across the snow. He hadn’t called it, not exactly, but it had come to him just the same, as if sensing his dilemma. Caim flexed his hands inside his gloves. He hadn’t come this far to fight a bunch of woodsmen, but he also didn’t want to end up in a shallow grave in the forest.
“You’re right,” Caim said. “I didn’t kill any of the soldiers at the roadhouse.”
He yanked his hands apart. The rope held for an awful moment. Then his fingers slipped through. At the same time, the shadow leapt up to land across Ramon’s eyes. The big man shouted, reaching up. Caim spun around behind Ramon and kicked the back of his knees. The axe fell from the big man’s fingers as he tumbled forward. While the others watched, Caim grabbed their leader in a chokehold. Ramon clawed at his face, but his fingers found nothing to grip. Caim looked around the circle. The woodsmen might have overwhelmed him if they all rushed in together, but they held back.
Caim released Ramon and stepped away. At his silent command, the shadow disappeared. Ramon snatched up his axe and lurched to his feet. He raised the weapon over his shoulder. Caim didn’t move.
A slender figure pushed into the circle. It was Hagan’s daughter, with Caim’s bundles slung over her shoulder.
“Li!” Keegan shouted. “What are you doing here?”
“He’s done nothing to deserve this, Keegan,” she said. “He saved your life, and this is how you treat him?”
“Be quiet!” Keegan hissed. “He bewitched Ramon. We all saw it.”
Liana snorted. “I saw Ramon fall for a child’s trick. Some dirt in his eyes. Nothing magic about that.”
“Well?” Caim asked Ramon. “Are you going to strike me down?”
Anger smoldered in his eyes, but he lowered the axe. “I will not kill a man until he’s proven to be our enemy.”
Caim shivered as an eerie noise buzzed in the back of his head. All of a sudden, a heavy weight dragged at the center of his chest, sucking the air from his lungs.
Kit, her faded eyes wide with foreboding, shimmered before him. “Caim!”
“I feel it,” he whispered as loud as he dared. Something was happening. Was it tied to Kit’s fading? He had no idea, but it seemed a good bet. He said to Ramon, “You have to leave. Now.”
“If you mean to threaten us —”
“I’m not threatening you.” Caim took a deep breath. He’d felt this way before, back in Othir when he first met —
“Something is coming. If you stay —”
A distant howl broke the stillness. Heads turned as the baying was joined by another, and then a third, all coming from the east.
“The Hunt!” someone said, but Caim wasn’t sure he heard right.
“Ermin!” Ramon said. “Go take a look.”
The woodsman didn’t move at first, but a harsh glare from Ramon sent him running off toward the trees.
“What is it?” Caim asked.
A hoarse cry cut off Ramon’s reply. Branches snapped as something staggered out of the forest. It was the woodsman, Ermin. He stared at them, his face rigid in the firelight. Then he fell over, the haft of a spear buried in his back. Yowls cut through the night as a line of huge shapes erupted from the trees like a pack of wolves running on two legs. But these wolves carried great wooden shields and steel weapons.
Several of the woodsmen backed away at the sight of the wolf-men racing toward them. Ramon lifted his axe and stood his ground. Caim launched himself at the girl. Keegan pulled his sister away, but Caim slapped the youth’s sword aside and reached under Liana’s cloak to slip his suete knives from her belt. A huge shape reared against the firelight. In trying to protect her, Keegan had pulled his sister into the path of a marauder. A wolf’s head, with fierce eyes and sharp fangs, perched on the barbarian’s head. Ivory trinkets clacked from a cord around his neck — human teeth.
The barbarian swung a war-axe with a gray crescent blade. Gritting his teeth as all of his injuries cried out, Caim yanked Liana out of the weapon’s path. Quicker than a cat, the barbarian reversed his momentum and nearly took off Caim’s head with the backswing. Caim pushed Keegan and his sister back, putting himself between them and the bestial warrior. The barbarian brought his axe down in a swift overhand chop. Caim felt the wind of the blade’s passage on his face as he leaned out of the way. He sliced open the wolf-man’s arm from wrist to elbow, but the barbarian acted like he didn’t feel a thing, swinging his shield as he spun around. Caim jumped back.
The clash of weapons echoed through the clearing. The barbarians had the look of reavers from the north, relentless warriors who raided and pillaged at will, leaving little behind but corpses and burnt-out shells. Ramon stood toe-to-toe with a wolf-man, both of them screaming as they swung their axes with abandon. Liana and Keegan had drifted away from the melee.
Caim grunted as he blocked another attack. Though his leg protested and his forearm burned, he threw himself into a roll that carried him behind his foe. Pushing aside his pains, he slashed with both knives as he came to his feet. His left-hand suete got caught up in the wolf-man’s shaggy cloak, but the other blade pierced his lower back. Dripping spittle from his beard, the barbarian whirled with a ferocious chop. Caim ducked under the swing. His left-hand suete ripped open the barbarian’s middle, spilling blood and entrails down the man’s breeches. Yet even as the Northman fell to his knees, he grabbed Caim by the arms and tried to pull him to the ground. A crack to the side of the head with a knife pommel put him down.
Breathing hard, Caim looked around. Several bodies lay on the ground, but many of the woodsmen had escaped. Bestial screams echoed from the trees. There was no sign of Ramon, although his corpse could have been among those scattered around.
Caim found his satchel on the ground as he limped over to Keegan and Liana. The youth held out his sword like a talisman. The girl clutched two long bundles to her chest, his sword and bow, still in their wrappings.
Caim took back his possessions. The buzzing in his head persisted. “You two all right? I see you managed to stick around this time.”
The muscles in Keegan’s cheek twitched. “I’m no coward.”
“That’s too bad. I was starting to think you were the smart one in this bunch. Come on.”
Caim didn’t wait, but took off. Keegan and Liana stuck to his heels. He didn’t know what he was going to do with them. Get them back to their father, he supposed. The problem lay in eluding pursuit with the youths in tow.
The trees on the other side of the bonfires loomed like a company of silent sentries. Caim glimpsed a flash of metal among the underbrush a split-second before something hurtled out of the darkness. He dragged Keegan and Liana to the ground as the missile zipped over their heads. Five men in steel helms and leather coats emerged from the trees. One was clad in mail. Caim recognized them as he climbed to his feet. The soldiers from the roadhouse and the duke’s son. What are they doing out here?
Caim looked over his shoulder as the soldiers advanced with drawn weapons. Keegan was helping Liana up and almost stabbed her by accident. Clenching his jaws, Caim reached out to the shadows. They swarmed out of the trees like a plague of locusts. One soldier with wild, yellow locks turned and ran back into the woods. The others pummeled themselves with their fists as the shadows slithered inside their armor.
Caim called off his minions before they killed. For a moment, they remained as if testing him, but then left with sullen slothfulness.
The duke’s son stood alone as his men writhed on the ground. When Caim approached, the young noble slashed the air with his sword. Caim blocked it and punched him flush in the nose. The duke’s son fell on his back in a jingle of mail links.
Caim kicked the lordling’s sword away and crouched over him. The point of his knife hovered over the young man’s eyes. Do I let him live, and possibly have to face him again, maybe at the head of an army? Or kill him now and get it over with?
The buzzing in his head had gotten worse. No matter how he tried to ignore it, the droning remained nonetheless. The duke’s son looked up without expression. With a frown, Caim touched the man’s throat with the tip of a knife. Then he stood up and beckoned to the siblings. They stepped around the soldiers and joined him under the trees.
“What are we going to do?” Liana asked.
“Hide,” Keegan said. “Wait for them to leave, and then I’ll take you back home.”
“I’m not going back!”
“Yes, you are!”
Caim ground his teeth together. Somewhere nearby, Kit was probably laughing her ass off. Shouts echoed through the surrounding forest.
“Quiet!” he whispered. “Hiding is a good idea. Do you know someplace nearby?”
Keegan chewed his bottom lip for a moment, until Liana hit him. The youth rubbed his arm and glared at her. “The hills. There are places they won’t find us.”
“Secret places,” Liana added.
Caim considered the idea. Getting to higher ground was a good plan, as long as they didn’t starve or freeze to death. For now, he’d have to trust these people.
“All right. We’ll —”
The words caught in his throat as a sudden pressure expanded behind his breastbone, squeezing the air from his lungs. Fighting the pain, he motioned for Keegan and Liana to go ahead. They looked at him for a moment.
“Go on!” he growled.
Keegan led his sister away through the trees. Caim waited until they were gone before he turned around. Something moved beyond the bonfires on the other side of the clearing. Then he saw it, a black pillar emerging from the space between two tree trunks. The pressure in his chest throbbed as a figure stepped out onto the snow.
The warrior was huge. His thick arms swung like tree trunks as he strode into the clearing. A cloud of shadows clung to him like a cloak ripped from the night sky. Yet it wasn’t the intruder’s size or the company of shadows that slowed the blood in Caim’s veins, but the armor that encased him from crown to foot — plates of black steel with scalloped edges that seemed welded to his body. Caim had seen that style of armor before. In his dreams, the night the soldiers came to kill his father.
Caim froze as the visored helmet turned in his direction. Before he realized what he was doing, he started back into the clearing. He stopped himself. The shadows crowded around his feet, their touch colder than the winter air, while long-buried emotions roiled inside him. He had come north to find some clue related to his mother’s disappearance, and the gods had sent him this darkly shining gift. He wanted to go out there and peel the armor from the giant’s body, and then go to work on the flesh underneath until he got some answers.
Two Northmen entered the clearing. They looked like children beside the armored giant. One tossed something into the nearest bonfire. Caim saw it just before it fell into the flames. A severed head.
He let out a slow breath. He wasn’t in any shape for another fight. Cursing, he jogged back among the trees in the direction of the siblings. His leg ached, worse than it had in days, and his arm hurt so much he wanted to cut it off. How fast could he move with two kids hanging on his apron strings? Not fast enough. The Northmen would be on their trail with a vengeance. Unless they were distracted.
Caim gathered up the shadows around him. They whispered and crooned in the trees overhead. Taking a deep breath, he sent them back toward the clearing.
Through the canopy of branches, the horned moon emerged from behind a bank of clouds. Its rays cast silver halos around ice crystals hanging in the trees. Caim pulled down his hood and concentrated on keeping his footing.
It was going to be a long night.