Chapter 1 - Excerpt
Braeth straightened from a crouch beside the fire where a gill-skewered herring roasted for himself and his twelve-year old grandson Vachel. Up-mountain on the snowfields, beyond the spring-green fairplain but close enough to be discernible as human beings, two figures moved. With awakening dread, Braeth squinted at the pair.
A drift of wind blew downhill and his two dogs sprang to their feet. The animals' silver-tipped black hackles rose, their amber eyes glowed, their throaty growls rumbled. Braeth fingered the hilt of the long thin blade belted at the waist of his kirtle.
"Kohba and Sehya do not like them," Vachel said. He thrust his thin arms through the slits of his horsehide cape and picked up his arrow case and bow as he scrambled to his feet. "They must be Tarns. Come to gain warrior prizes."
Braeth’s gut clenched. His grandson spoke true. The men would not have traversed crevasse-riddled mountains and risked scalding by sudden steam bursts from hidden geysers for any other reason. The vicious eastern tribe members prowled the western fairplains, hoping to find lone Nahlauks to rob and kill. And they would already have seen Braeth’s breakfast fire.
He had no desire to confront them. He was a man of medium build, not as stout as his Nahlauk comrades and certainly not as large of frame as the Tarns.
"Damn them!" Anger swelled within him. At the enemy for crossing Fala, at himself for bringing his grandson into danger, at his son Thorpe for suggesting Braeth and Vachel should conduct an early foray on the northern egg cliffs.
The last full-scale raid on Braeth's village by the warriors from Esstarn had come five years ago, when Vachel was only seven. Did the boy remember?
Braeth turned to look at his grandson. Expectation pinked the milk-white cheeks, lighted the dark brown eyes, parted the full lips with quick indrawn breaths. Of course Vachel remembered; his favorite playmate had been killed. And as any warrior must, he had erased from his mind the horrendous memories of the battle.
But the visions of it seared Braeth's soul. Nahlauk faces hardly recognizable after multiple strikes of enemy hackers. Limp bodies pinned to village wall and dwellan door by long, chert-tipped arrows. Women torn and ravished. Children trampled under the thrashing hooves of horses driven mad by intentional feeding of deliriweed.
Vachel would not see that. He would see only an opportunity to please his warrior father, avenge the death of his young friend, enter his twelfth-year with honor in battle against Nahlauk’s sworn enemies.
"Two of them and two of us," Vachel said and shook his arrow case to loosen the night-damp shafts one from the other. "We are evenly matched." But behind his studiously brave facade lurked the shadow of fear, a phantom the boy would resolutely thrust aside.
"They are a warrior and his minion," Braeth said quietly. "And would not be out here if not well seasoned."
"Do you not trust my skill with bow and bodkin, Grodda? Da has taught me well."
"Yes, the Ain Eternal forgive him."
From the snowfields came a roar as if a monstrous fist had slammed into the mountain. Braeth had no need to look upon it. It was a snowslide. The White Slayer. In seconds it would over-run their camp.
Braeth grasped his grandson's arm and hauled him backward toward the shelter of the rock outcropping under which they had spent the night.
"Kohba! Sehya! Come!"
The two large dogs plunged into the recess under the overhang, and he and Vachel fell against them. Tumultuous air raced ahead of the white tidal wave and eddied into the shelter. The wind whirlpooled, sucked out stones, fistfuls of lichen and chunks of damp earth. Outside their refuge, Braeth’s waensledde, although five strides long and its basket laden, lifted as if borne on invisible sea waves and spiraled away.
The White Slayer slammed the roof of the overhang, which shook with the mighty weight and showered bits of itself at the shelter entrance. One moment Braeth glimpsed Fala’s blue Fifth-month sky, the next a tumbling mass of snow slid nearly to his feet and blocked the opening.
Vachel, sprawled atop his grandfather, struggled to right himself. The boy’s words came thinly as if driven through teeth clenched with indignation. "Those cravens. They set the White Slayer upon us."
"Perhaps, Vachel, but it does hide us from them."
"Da says there is no honor in hiding."
Braeth sat up. Bowing his head, he ruffed the dirt particles from his nape-length dark hair and short beard, at the same time thanking the Ain Eternal for sparing him and his grandson from the snowslide. "And Helgist the Truth-Sayer says there is no honor in sacrifice. Do not be so eager to forfeit your life."
"Helgist! Ha! The old woman has lost her courage."
"The old woman has lost five of her family to battle. One was your best friend. Do you not miss him?"
"Better dead than a slave to fear." Vachel’s sharp-spoken words echoed those of his father. Braeth winced.
For a long time the only sounds were the dogs' panting and whining, and an occasional thump as another small rock dropped from overhead.
"All those hours collecting eggs wasted," Vachel grumbled. "And three dozen of them were kittawaeks."
Braeth did not reply, but only admonished the dogs to be silent. He did not believe the Tarns would leave without trying to find them. A waensledde holding only a few supplies would not be considered a prize. No, they would want two fine Nahlauk bows and two bone-handled bodkins, for the weapons would prove that enemies had fallen. The tribal strangwitta would not care that one of the victims was only twelve years old.
In spite of his willful determination to appear fearless, Vachel had a gentle heart and a tendency toward compromise. By contrast, Braeth’s son Thorpe was foolishly bold, stubbornly unyielding, had inherited the traits from Edri, his Nahlauk mother. Even though he was not a full-blooded member of Nahlauk, the villagers respected Vachel's father for his strength and courage as well as his fighting skills. They called him Thorpe the Favored, for he was the only villager who had ever caught the spotted bane disease and survived.
As to where Vachel, Thorpe’s only son, had acquired the kind soul he struggled to conceal, Braeth could not have said. Braeth had come from the continent of Prand, but he did not remember anything about his parents, or how, in his own twelfth-year, he had been cast upon this island that lay near the top of the world. The Nahlauks had taken him in, cared for him, let him life-mate with Edri; yet after nearly forty-one years they still called him Braeth the Visitor.
Grandson and grandfather crouched under the overhang, one determined to gain esteem even if it meant dying, the other equally resolved to stay alive at whatever cost to honor. The length of time they dared remain in their shelter was limited to the amount of air the cramped space provided. Braeth prayed it would be long enough that the Tarns would grow weary of searching, take the waensledde and go home.
But too soon the air grew thick with the outbreath of humans and animals, and Braeth determined they could wait no longer. The danger above ground was probable; the danger below ground, certain. Braeth ordered Kohba and Sehya, "Here! Dig! Up!"
Barely visible in the darkness, their panting and excited whimpering evidenced their immediate response. Flagging plumed tails stirred the dank air, and snow showered over Braeth’s thighs as he knelt. He compacted it, shoved it into the crevices of the overhang, saving as much space for himself, Vachel and the working dogs as he could. His breeches and kirtle of sheepskin treated with flummar oil repelled water, but the sleeve-ends of his sark clung to his wrists like bracelets of ice. He regretted he had taken off his gloves to prepare breakfast, for his hands soon ached and burned. He thought of warm things, as Helgist had taught him. Hearth-fires, mid-summer sun, steaming hotpools.
Vachel brushed against him. "I can help, Grodda."
"Thank you, Vachel, but there is scarce room for me to move. Please remain quiet and conserve our air."
Kohba and Sehya dug steadily at an uphill slant, as they had been taught to do on command. As Braeth worked, trepidation edged out of the darkness and crept up his arms to tighten his shoulders. Perhaps the dogs would not reach the top of the slide before the shelter was filled with the dug snow. His hands became numb stumps he hoped were doing as he intended. Time passed, the dogs clawed and whined, Braeth tamped snow.
"Grodda." A faint tremor had crept into the boy’s voice. "Are we to die here like den-trapped foxes?"
"Kohba and Sehya will dig us out. Soon we shall see the light of day."
But in his heart, Braeth feared. In a few minutes there would be no place to pack the snow, no room to move, no fresh air to breathe.
Why had he done this to Vachel? Why had he not defied Thorpe and refused to bring the boy to this fairplain so far from their village? Was it because Falan custom decreed that when a boy entered his twelfth year, he should do man things? That was partly the answer, but the rest was that Braeth cherished Vachel’s company, wanted to spend time alone with him. Would that selfish indulgence cost his grandson’s life?
The dogs stopped digging and slid back down their tunnel into the shelter, their panting loud in the stillness. Braeth sensed their anxiety. The fear that had sat his shoulders insinuated itself into his body, squeezed his heart until he thought it would stop beating. Vachel pressed against him. The boy's trembling lessened as his breathing grew labored.
If I must die, Braeth thought, so be it, and I go to you, Ain Eternal, without misgiving. But, please, do not take Vachel. Let him grow into the fine young man I know he will be.
So intense was Braeth’s prayer that he was hardly aware of the brittle, tinkling voices overhead until Kohba barked. The sharp noise slammed against Braeth's ears, and jolted Vachel into brief movement. Again came the clear sounds of quick-spoken words.
Braeth could hardly believe what he was hearing. Eld Nahlauks claimed that chattering little snowsprites helped those in trouble on the fairplains, but he had thought that to be only myth. Now he was sure the tales were true.
"Icewinks, Vachel!" he cried. "Not Tarns! We are saved!"
The boy regarded him through drowsy eyes, then as hope kindled, he struggled to sit upright. Braeth extended a helping hand, gladdened by the strength of Vachel's grip.
Kohba and Sehya began digging with renewed energy. The snowsprites' chatter from above continued, and soon stubby white fingers met flying black claws. With a screech the icewinks drew back. Yapping and whining, the dogs heaved themselves up the incline of the snow tunnel. Fresh sweet air flowed down the shaft. Vachel sucked in long deep breaths and looked at his grandfather.
"I was never really afraid, Grodda."
Braeth gave him a half-smile and squeezed his shoulder. "I know that, Vachel."
Presuming the icewinks would not bring the boy to the surface if danger existed, Braeth boosted him up the tunnel and white hands reached to help. He retrieved his and Vachel’s bows and arrow cases before following. The passageway's length verified that the dogs could not have dug through the slide in time to prevent them all from suffocating. If the snowsprites had not come...At the top of the tunnel, Braeth paused, lifted his face skyward and whispered a prayer of thanks to the Ain Eternal.
Braeth climbed out, glancing around as he did so. A few feet away, three icewinks urged Vachel to stand. Gazing at them with awe, the boy did as they requested. Then, one hand shielding his eyes, he scanned the surroundings. "The Tarns are gone, Grodda." The relief in his expression negated the disappointment in his voice.
Ah, Vachel, Braeth thought. You are all bluster.
The snowsprites helped Braeth to a sitting position. He tucked aching hands under opposite arms, and the icewinks clutched at his elbows. "Upupup. Onyourfeet. Movemove." The words came so quickly they were almost unintelligible.
Bareheaded, shoeless, clad only in knee-length white fur kirtles, the snowsprites were no taller or heavier than a child of eight years. Straight pale hair fell upon their thin shoulders; white-lashed ice-blue eyes flashed with impatience. With a sprite on each side and one pushing from behind, the icewinks hurried Braeth and Vachel south.
The slide, its surface blistered with debris, had left a wide trail of broken and uprooted bushes and displaced boulders. On either side of it lay pale green slopes, freckled with brown lichen, blushed with pink-flowered heather. Up-mountain, the snowfields from which the White Slayer had descended gleamed pristine in the mid-day sun.
Even if encouraged by the warrior and his minion, the slide should not have come this late in the year. Could it be that the Nain--the everlasting antithesis of the Ain Eternal--had assisted them in their attack? Braeth closed his eyes wearily against the thought. Fighting with men was bad enough; opposing the Nain would be impossible. He could only hope the presence of the icewinks meant that the Nain was not nearby--had gone if he had ever been there.
The snowsprites continued to urge Braeth and Vachel to run and they stumbled around the obstacles the White Slayer had left in their path. Cold and cramped from kneeling so long in the shelter, they could hardly stay on their feet. Vachel tripped, fell against Kohba and steadied himself with hands spread on the dog’s broad back.
"Nonono." The icewink nearest Vachel took hold of his waist and tugged him away. "Runrunrun."
Of a sudden, an immense dark cloud descended upon them. Kohba’s black lips curled, a growl rumbled deep in his throat. Sehya halted in mid-stride. The icewinks vanished.
Mystified by the quick-come half-light, Braeth hesitated, unsure what to do.
"What brings this, Grodda?" Vachel stepped away from Kohba and looked around, eyes wide. He took his bow and arrow case from Braeth, who yielded them without protest, knowing the boy would feel safer with weapons in hand.
"I do not know," Braeth answered. "But I think it has nothing to do with man."
Not twenty strides away from them, inside the roiling murk, lightning knifed. It stabbed the icefields, sent showers of snow fountaining, loosed the odor of hot damp earth and smoldering lichen. Inverted cones of angry air spiraled up, their touch-points tracing patterns on the snowfield, their funnels flaring into enormous flat-headed, dirty-white rings.
Although he saw no human forms, Braeth sensed a presence--no, two--within the swirling mass of mud, snow and plant debris. From the maelstrom emanated powerful surges of sweet, pure goodness that alternated with strong pulses of cruel, vile evil; the conflict scraped Braeth’s soul as he looked on, entranced.
He and Vachel stood at the dark cloud’s edge, buffeted by its tearing winds. Out of the corner of his eye, Braeth caught a glimpse of movement from Beings small and white before the icewinks slammed him and Vachel to the ground. From behind them, arrows whispered over their heads. The Tarns had not gone. They had waited for their intended victims to come out of hiding.
Thankful now for the brush and debris that had previously hampered their movements, Braeth squirmed behind an uprooted clump of heather. "Stay down!" he shouted at his grandson and hoped for once the boy would obey.
Rolling onto his side, Braeth lay his bow on the snow. With cold-numbed fingers he fumbled for an arrow, drew one from the case and fitted it onto the string. While his adversary knew his approximate location, Braeth would have only seconds to locate his target and release. Heart thudding, he summoned the courage to sit, and swung the bow forward in the same motion.
The two Tarns slogged toward him across the face of the slide. Even had he not been sure before, Braeth knew them by the fiery red of their bristly beards, and hair that straggled from under their fur hats. He let the arrow fly at the one on the right. As he did, he wished he had aimed at the other. The one who staggered and fell forward onto the shaft was only the minion. The warrior he served lunged ahead, horse hide cape flaring behind him, bow at the ready.
"Well shot, Grodda!" Vachel shouted and rose to his knees, his own bow in position.
"No!" Braeth screamed, but already the Tarn's arrow had found its victim. As its force twisted Vachel around, Braeth saw the shaft protruding from his shoulder.