A Novel of the Averraine Cycle
By Morgan Smith
Copyright © 2015 Morgan Smith
All rights reserved.
Trompe As Writ Publications
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This book is a work of fiction. Nothing in this is remotely based on actual events nor does it take place in any earthbound locale. None of the characters or situations has even a smidgen of reality about them, nor did I write it to get back at my legion of enemies or my arch-nemesis. If you see yourself in one of the characters, you either need a stiff drink, a change in your medication, or a long, hard look in the mirror.
Cover design and artwork by Mandi Schrader. Photographer: Rod Heibert. Model: The Partially Examined Wife. Many thanks to Dark Ages creations for loaning the armour and weapons. If anyone is in Calgary and needs a nice chainmail shirt, those are the people to see!
News comes late and slowly here, when it comes at all.
But there were two missives today, brought to me by the last traders, stragglers working their way through the valley before the snows come. One was from the Reverend Mother, approving my request to stay on permanently in Rhwyn. I could sense her puzzlement, though. She wants a further explanation, and I cannot give it to her.
The other was about the babe. Born weeks too early, it seems, but hale enough, nonetheless. It was the old man who sent word, and he has questions, no doubt, and suspicions, aye. He’s a canny one, though, and he couched it all in unexceptional words. Nothing outright, nothing that could alarm anyone, but he knows something is wrong, that’s plain enough. He puts it down to that old stand-by, a hard birthing giving rise to the sad-mother sickness. It’s common enough. But underneath the careful phrases, I could sense his disbelief and his disquiet. She hadn’t been easy, he wrote, even before she was brought to bed.
What can I say? Mayhap time will ease their anger. If they can just keep their secrets, if they do not shout from every hilltop what a poor, misbegotten creature we wrought, if the Goddess has a care for the babe – it might yet come aright.
The silence was vast, broken only by the sporadic sobbing breaths of the woman crouched over that little, twisted body.
I watched the villagers with interest. As neighbours, they were usually a dull lot, but their reactions to this tragedy needed comprehension. The corpse was not pretty, and they were doing their level best not to look too closely. One of the women was kneeling beside the child’s mother, trying to offer comfort.
Her heart wasn’t in it, though. Even from a distance, her tense shoulders and shadowed eyes shouted soundlessly what every one of them was thinking.
“Thank the Goddess, it wasn’t one of mine!”
I understood that. You couldn’t blame them, it might easily have been one of theirs, after all. It already had been and likely would be again, if someone didn’t do something soon.
They were grateful when Eardith arrived, brisk and business-like, but with that rough sympathy they understood. She was strong, opinionated, stern and forthright, all qualities that would have given her nothing but trouble in a larger, more sophisticated place. People in those places are accustomed to having their priests excuse their little transgressions quietly. Eardith’s advice and solace tended to come with a bracing dose of sarcasm and common sense.
I had shared her cottage peaceably for nearly three years. She didn’t pry, she didn’t gossip, and, luckily for me, she never refused to assist anyone in need.
She looked at me over the mother’s bowed head, and I just nodded. Yes, it was pretty much the same as the other ones. No, I had no idea how to prevent it.
Lord Owain and his forester Joss came around the side of the village’s only inn, looking grim. Owain went straight to the women by the little corpse, resting a hand on the mother’s shoulder in helpless sympathy.
“Something,” said Eardith, “will have to be done.”
Well, that was obvious. It was the third such incident in less than a seven-day. There was a fresh grave already for Briega’s next-to-youngest, and Gair’s daughter was lying ripped and nigh-on bloodless, barely clinging to life. Folk murmured that she was a lucky one, but I wasn’t so sure. If she lived, which seemed unlikely, it would be with a scarred face and a useless leg along with the memory of a savage and horrific attack.
Joss had stopped by Eardith, whispering something swift in her ear. Her reaction was neither helpful nor promising: she merely looked, if it were possible, more shuttered and bleak than ever.
Owain, having nothing he could do for the grieving, began to organize the removal of the body, and issuing orders for caution, patrolling, not letting the youngsters out on their own, all of which had been said from the start. What could you do? A toddler waking in the night and creeping out to use the latrines wasn’t something you could prevent, not really.
Gradually, the crowd dwindled, the women rallying around the bereft parents and bearing them off to the inn, a few of the men coming back with a hurdle to carry the little scrap of dead humanity off to the shrine. In the end, it was only Joss, Owain and Eardith left.
And me. They were all looking at me.
I was, for all intents and purposes, the only armed and mildly dangerous person here, and I filled no identifiable village role. I was easily the most expendable person they knew.
“Wolf scat, up towards the ridge,” Joss said. “Like the others. But there are three, not two, this time.”
Wolves don’t do this, I thought. Wolves don’t walk into a village and wait patiently, night after night, for human prey. But Joss was a woodsman, through and through. He knew as well as I did we were not dealing with ordinary wolves.
Hungry ones might, I supposed, go after a child out alone. But it had been a mild enough winter and an early, pleasant spring. The hills were teeming with game. We had untouched sheep in the pens and unmolested hens in the coops, if it came to that. And the children had not been eaten, merely savaged and left.
A rabid wolf might go after a child. One rabid wolf, maybe, but rabid wolves do not act in groups, and a rabid animal is not usually given to patience or patterns. This was becoming all too predictable.
“Lady Caoimhe?” This was Lord Owain, and I didn’t need for him to spell it out.
I knew what they wanted. There was no good reason I knew of for me not to give it to them.
“Joss, you’ll go with her.” Owain wasn’t very good at giving orders, they always came with the faintest of questioning tones trailing in at the end, but Joss was used to this and just shrugged.
Eardith was already moving off, down towards the path leading to the shrine. I caught Joss’s eye, said “A half-glass, and we can meet at the crossroads,” and trotted after her, catching up as the path led off into the trees.
I didn’t speak. Eardith, if she wanted to tell me anything, would do so in her own time, and I was never one for asking questions, anyway. Instead, I listed in my head the things I needed: hunting spears, my long knives, something to eat in case we were out past midday…
What I liked about Joss mainly was his silence. Occasionally we hunted together, or in high summer, took a little boat out onto the lake and fished. Beyond noting some form of imminent weather change or remarking on tracking potential, we rarely spoke, and that suited me. What happened in the village, the endless litany of who was angry or in love with whom, or who was a lazy sod or a lucky one – I couldn’t see what any of it had to do with me or why I should care. I just lived here, on a probably temporary and barely tolerated scrap of allowance that Eardith’s authority had allotted me.
When I got to the crossroads, where the cart track threading north through Rhwyn met the road west to Davgenny, he was squatting by the evidence the wolves had left behind, but he rose soundlessly and headed to the little trail that veered back into the hills, halting only to wordlessly point out the signs that they had passed here as well.
It looked almost as if the wolves had stopped to have a conference. There were three depressions that spoke of animals sitting for some time, prone and indolent in last year’s dead grass. There were paw-prints that circled, as if at least one of them had paced restlessly, bored by some vulpine debate.
I squinted up into the mountains beyond Rhwyn Vale, where mist still clung to the trees.
There was an overgrown and unused twisty little pass out of Camrhys somewhere above us, theoretically a concern for Lord Owain, but far too small and too treacherous to accommodate more than a really courageous mountain goat or a desperate fugitive with nothing to lose. Owain scarcely heeded it. Certainly there was no organized effort at patrols: he hadn’t the manpower.
If he’d sometimes hinted that my attention there might be welcome if I cared to put the effort in, Eardith had rather discouraged me from venturing into the mountains too much. The pass was of no use to anyone, she said, and a solitary traveller could easily come to grief out there.
The wolves – if wolves they were – disagreed. The signs pointed resolutely eastward and upward out of the valley.
Technically, I was Joss’s overlady.
To be perfectly exact, I was Lord Owain’s overlady, simply because of a thoughtlessly bestowed bride-gift, although Owain had never once given any indication that he was aware of who or what I was. He called me “Lady” out of simple good manners and neither he, his wife nor anyone else in Rhwyn behaved as if I was anything more than a stranger who had stumbled into their midst. Someone Eardith had given sanctuary and a quasi-legitimate place to, for reasons she had not shared. I hadn’t intended this as my destination, and it was a good couple of weeks after I’d arrived that I became aware myself that I owned this valley.
So, when we came to where the wolf signs ran out, still pointing inexorably east up into the heights, and Joss turned to me and asked, diffidently, what we ought to do next, I was mildly surprised. I had expected him to either remain in charge or to abandon me to whatever the wolves had in store. Instead, it seemed as if he expected me to determine his fate, and that was odd.
The kindest thing, I thought, was to send him back. Whatever we were tracking wasn’t ordinary or safe, I was fairly sure of that. But if we were to have any hope of ending this disagreeable interlude, two people likely had a better chance than one.
Hells, if we were to have any chance of picking up their trail out along the rocky terrain ahead, I needed Joss, who had that peculiar intuition that all good woodsmen have, that uncanny ability to out-think any animal and anticipate their actions.
“They’re up there somewhere. With luck, we can find their lair and make an end of it.”
Joss gave me a mildly exasperated look. The wolves would hear and smell us miles before we came across them. I just shrugged. It wasn’t as if there was some better plan in the offing.
A glass or two later, I was beginning to think better of this. We had worked our way out of the thinning trees and traversed an expanse of rocky scrabble only to come up against a sheer drop of a deep gorge that seemed to extend for miles. The only way around appeared to be looping back towards the tree-line and heading further east where the rift veered away from what seemed to be, from this distance, a wooded slope up towards that unusable pass.
When we made it that far, the trees were dark and closely ranked, blotting out almost all of the sunlight, and the silence lay on us, heavy and unsettling. Every footfall echoed. It had been long and long since people had come this way.
There were faint signs that we were on the right track, though. At least there were according to Joss. I had the minimum hunting skills anyone in my position would have had, in that the more obvious evidence was clear to me, and I could move soundlessly enough not to be a hindrance. The tiny changes and infinitesimal clues that Joss relied on were out of my league, though.
At some point well past mid-day, we stopped to pull out packets of bread and cheese and to rest in that oppressive silence. Far off, I could hear the faintest echo of a brook or rivulet tumbling over rocks, but that was all I could hear, beyond our own breathing. No wind stirred the branches overhead, no sunlight filtered through the dim of the shade and no birdsong enlivened the air. It was, as they say, as quiet as the grave, and rather nearly as chilly.
After a bit, we went on, threading our way among the trees in an erratic route governed by those indefinable traces Joss seemed to see, still eastward and more or less upward ever higher towards the slim break between two scarred peaks that signaled what had once been a pass. It had only ever been suitable for smaller pack-trains and roaming bands of less than competent bandits across a now highly contested border. Rock falls had closed this pass long ago, if I remembered correctly; rock falls and laziness on the part of those traders and outlaws who had just moved on to use other passes or given up trying altogether.
Joss stopped so suddenly, I almost walked into him. I had just enough awareness not to grunt out loud in surprise, but peered into the gloom ahead.
There: the slightest moving shadow among deeper shadows. I didn’t dare so much as breathe, mentally cursing at my own unreadiness and reversing my grip on my spear, and then carefully easing back a step as smoothly and quietly as I could. Joss, at least, had not been as careless. His hand slid to the quiver at his hip and slid an arrow out, suddenly nocked and ready in one swift movement.
I felt, rather than heard the beginning of a growl behind me and whirled, crouching instinctively, just as an enormous gray shape hurtled towards me. My spear came up just in time to catch the beast at the shoulder, throwing him off course as the tip glanced away down his side, and the shock of that weight wrenched the shaft from my hands. I heard the whistle of an arrow behind me and then an uncharacteristic curse from Joss and the thunk! as something connected with a tree-trunk.
There was a snarl from the trees, the sound of branches crackling, and then, as suddenly as they had come, they were gone.
Joss was still kneeling, another arrow nocked and ready. I retrieved my spear.
“Well, they aren’t stupid,” I said. Joss shook his head, and rose, still watchful. He seemed angry, although with someone like Joss, it’s hard to tell.
“Is it worth going on?” I asked. “I mean, we won’t be surprising anything now.”
“Den can’t be far off,” he said, finally. “No point in stopping now.”
“Fair enough. But do me a favour? Don’t get hurt. I swear I won’t carry you back down if you do.”
He grinned. “You, neither.”
After a while, it seemed as though the trees began to thin, although we still walked in shadow. The early spring had not penetrated this far and there was a fair bit of snow in patches against the gnarled, exposed tree roots.
We came to a place where the rock began to reassert itself through the soil, great walls of granite where scrubby bushes clung desperately to tiny footholds in the crevices and we passed into a kind of ravine of smooth, grey stone walls reaching up towards the sky and yet there was no more light here than when we had walked among the trees below.
I stopped, frowning. There was something not quite right about this. The rocks were too smooth, too even, there were small stone piles that seemed just a bit too regular, too deliberately placed to be natural, and a sense of vague familiarity was tugging at me, like a housecat begging to be let out to mouse.
For just a moment my vision wavered. Things shivered and blurred at the edges and then, just as suddenly, they stilled, and I caught a strange, fugitive chill of something being about to break, wide and wild.
My hands were moving to my belt and pulling out my long knives without bidding, and they were on us, leaping down from a rocky ledge hidden by a few bits of bush and the shadow of the stony ridge above.
One knife, by some lucky chance, caught the first one perfectly at the heart, but I went down under the weight, losing my breath and precious seconds in the process. There was a roaring in my ears and blood everywhere and I heaved at the wolf carcass, half-crawling and half-rolling out from under, wondering if I was too late for Joss.
He was still standing, though he’d abandoned the bow and was fending off a second huge grey beast with the spear I’d loaned him, his back against the rocks, and blood dripping from his left arm. I tucked my feet under me and lunged toward the wolf, yelling, in the vain hope of distracting it.
The sound and the movement worked, just a little. The wolf slid its gaze just that hair sideways and Joss, Goddess love him, jammed the spear down his gullet. The reacting rage and convulsively renewed attack flung Joss brutally against the rocky ground, but he hung on, somehow keeping the wolf at bay, until the damage caught up to it and it sank, whimpering and gushing blood, onto the ground.
For one long moment, it was as if the world caught its breath, more still than death.
And then I thought of the third wolf and looked up, scanning the rocky walls around us. Behind me, Joss drew a struggling breath, wheezy with the effort and I thought idly he must truly be in some pain or he would have never made a sound.
I was already reaching for his bow and fumbling for an arrow without conscious thought when a vague smudge beside an oddly shaped tumble of rocky scree resolved itself into a massive grey hulk, gathering its force under it, the biggest wolf I had ever seen, or even heard of.
I needed three grains of the glass, but I only had two, I reckoned. Still, I drew my breath and held it, and thought hard about aim.
The wolf was already in motion as my arm pulled back, mid-air and nearly on me when the arrow released.
But that’s the thing about a pointblank shot. Even I could not fail to hit a beast that big, straight on and squarely in its chest.
There is always that moment, when a danger is past, where the world seems a better place than it did before. The miraculous continuance of one’s own life lends a kind of sweetness to the reality, a mix of relief and remembrance, melting into a giddy gladness and a celebratory mood.
Or so I’m told: my own reactions had always been less intense, and infinitely more cautious, but generally, I understood the theory.
This time I felt not even a hint of faint joy in finding myself still on this side of the grave. Nor did Joss, I guessed. He groaned and sagged to the ground, still dripping blood. I retrieved my knife where I’d dropped it in my scrabble for the bow and cut away at my shirt hem to make a clumsy bandage for him, filled with a curious sense of urgency to be gone and far away from this rocky, barren place and these three wolf corpses.
Then I felt it.
The faintest of tremors, just the once.
Imagination? No, there it was again, just the tiniest bit stronger.
Once more, and this time it was a trembling in the ground that I truly felt, as if the rocks were somehow settling deeper into their place, bracing themselves against who knows what.
But that was suddenly the least of my concerns. I could have forgotten that moment. I would have forgotten it.
The wolf I had killed, the big one…shimmered, outlines hazy, and I swear for just a moment I saw a man there, as eerily beautiful as evil ever could be, and his eyes alive and triumphantly malevolent, staring at me as if to memorize my features for some future day…
And then, nothing.
The wind rose and fell again with a tired sigh, and the animal corpses, the rocks and the trees were all once more utterly and completely ordinary, inanimate and without menace.
Joss said nothing, his eyes wide and fixed on me. He watched me bind him up without so much as a word, struggling to his feet to help me collect our bits of scattered gear and then taking the lead in our slow journey back down the hillside.
We didn’t look back at that uncanny place. Our eyes and thoughts were firmly on leaving, eager, the pair of us, to be back in our village. It wasn’t until we’d gained the deeper woods that it occurred to me that the day was nearly spent and that we were too far out to think of safe hearth-sides, warm dinners and mugs of ale just yet.
So we found a spot sheltered by a fallen tree and a bit of stony hillside, and I gathered firewood while Joss rummaged one-handedly in his scrip and produced a bit of dried meat and a few crusts. My contribution was the leather flask of raisin wine I’d absentmindedly packed for midday and then forgotten.
We ate what little we had, and I passed him the flask, all without more than a grunt or two to indicate what needed doing next.
“You’ve nerves, you have,” Joss said suddenly. “You’d not a moment to spare or room to think in – I’d have cut and run, I would.”
It was possibly the longest speech I’d ever heard him volunteer. Blood loss must be making him delirious. I pointed out that I’d not had much choice, and that the closer the wolf was, the better my chances, anyway.
He shook his head.
“And I thought you were for leaving me, if I was hurt,” he said, as if this clinched something.
“Your legs still work. And to be honest, your mother is scarier than any wolf. I didn’t fancy telling her I’d dropped you off as a bad bet.”
In the morning, the world seemed a safer, friendlier place. Even a little of the weak, early sun began to make its way through the trees a bit as we stifled the last embers of our fire, gathered our gear and headed at a gentle pace down towards home.
Once there, we were met by the unsurprising news that Gair’s daughter had died in the night.
Our killings were received with some relief, although I felt bound to point out that we could not be absolutely sure all danger was past. There could be more wolves. No one really wanted to think about that, not even Eardith, seemingly, although she coaxed every detail of our encounter from me.
More, in fact: I found myself telling her things I wasn’t aware of at the time.
He had been wearing a long, dark blue tunic with even darker embroidery at the cuffs, the man-wolf. Circles and stars in deep, deep blue, eerily similar to the marking of the soldiers and servants of the royal house of Camrhys.
Possibly, Eardith said, a runaway criminal who made it through the pass. I don’t know why she thought this was reassuring. A man who was a wolf? That sound and vibration? It did not seem to me that anything at all had been resolved, and I could see that beneath her calm, Eardith was puzzled, and wary, too. With no further explanation forthcoming, though, all I could do was to be vigilant.
But the days slipped by and no more signs or calamities occurred. The village rebounded, mourned their dead and buried them, and became occupied with springtime traditions.
There was a festival to plan for, and the first of the traders coming north to look forward to. In the meantime, the village got on with planting crops and gardens, the shearing and the repairs from winter’s depredations on roofs and fences. We fell into the usual seasonal rounds and chores, as familiar and as ordinary as breathing.
I continued to wake before dawn, going out to the back of Eardith’s tiny garden and running through warm-up stretches and pointless sword drills as the sun rose, then chopping the day’s wood and hauling water from the spring. I ate, I cared for the animals, and then, if I wasn’t drafted into some communal chore the villagers needed all hands for, I ran through more pointless drills, cared for my unused weapons, saddled my horse and hunted, or merely walked the woods and meadows aimlessly.
The weather had been variable in the days after the wolves, keeping me close to home. One morning finally brought a light mist and Joss turning up with the offer of a day’s fishing. The thought of something beyond last autumn’s dried meat and wrinkled turnips for supper was irresistible.
It was one of those days. The sun chased away the damp, the fish were co-operative, the company and the exercise of rowing, along with the concentration required, were just enough to still my thoughts. I felt satisfied and calm as I walked back to the cottage, three good trout in my creel, and thinking how pleasant it might be to go on like this forever.
There were two horses tethered on the grassy verge outside Eardith’s cottage, and one of them was a horse I knew.
I ought to have turned south, I thought. I ought to have left that first morning, rainstorm or no, and gone south to Glaice. Better still, I ought to have sold my horse in Dungarrow town and bought passage on some trader ship bound for Fendrais, or Raeth, or Istara, even, and sold my skills to the highest bidder.
Too late for weeping now, I thought, and pushed open the cottage door.
They said ill winds blew at her back. They said she was cursed, a hex, and a jinx. And it was true: everywhere she went, no matter what she did, misfortune seemed to follow in her wake. But that, of course, wasn’t the worst of it. The evil that seemed to track Caoimhe throughout her life had caused many tragedies. She fled her old life, trying to lose herself in anonymity , but the unholy circumstances of her birth, and the machinations of those who sought to use her existence to further their own schemes followed her still. Can she overcome a long-dead evil and finally be free? This is the "teaser" edition, excerpted from the first book of the Averraine Cycle.