Chapter 1

 

I am ancient and empty, the purest and most beautiful dark. Your Lord came to destroy my warrior. How foolish you were.

 

 

Death and Rescue 

 

(Thorem, North Highlands)

 

Inky clouds barrelled into the snow-covered slopes of the White Cap Mountains. In darkness they drowned the highland plains that stretched all the way to the Icy Sea.

“Obar, it’s pissing it down. Let’s get in, snatch the little bastard and crack on back to the boats,” Falan hissed.

Obar lay on his belly in sodden mud, eyes fixed on the farmhouse window where a single candle still flickered. “No, not till the candles are out,” he said, “hush your noise, and move on my call.”

 

Wind howled about our lonely farm.

“Night love,” I heard my mother say, her voice faint against the storm.

I climbed the loft’s ladder to bed. “Night Ma, night Pa,” I called back, pulling fleeces about me.

“Keep warm,” father said with an ironic laugh, and blew the last candle out.

Wrapped up tight, I shuffled into the hay that lined crudely cut planks. It was a slight space, covering only half the living area below where my parents slept. The winter snows had only just melted and the nights were still bitterly cold.

I shivered, listening as rain hammered on sodden thatch like drums from an age far gone. I could hear Ash, our hunting dog in the yard. His barking was nothing new. The weather worried him, and I paid him no mind.

But then Ash stopped, and his silence stirred me.

Rising from my blankets, the world seemed to slow as I peered from the gable window. Wind whipped through my hair as blue-black shadows shifted in the torrential darkness. Men emerged; shifting shapes that swept over our cattle fence and into our yard.

“Ma, Pa,” I shouted. “Get up, get up!”

A terrible impact splintered the door. My father shouted and I froze, heart pounding. A second thunderous crash, and the door swung open.

Raiders burst into our home.

“You dare come here…” father roared; but the sound of metal slicing through meat reduced his shouts to bloody splutters.

I stood at the banister staring; my breath caught in my throat. His body crumpled to the floor.

My mother broke the quiet with a desperate scream, “run Aelfheah, run!”

Another ducked through the doorway carrying a torch that cast sinister shadows sprawling across the walls and floor. His leathers were caked in grime, his beard a mess of matted hair.

He passed the torch to another and grabbed my mother’s hair, it shone like gold in his muddied fingers. He yanked her around with cruel ease and put a rusted blade to her throat. Her eyes shone a cool blue, in fiery shadows.

“I love you, Aelfheah,” she said.

Into alabaster skin, the knife bit, and my mother’s eyes widened. He jerked his hand sideways, stared up at me, and smiled.

My world stopped.

For the briefest breath, a clean line glistened crimson in ivory, then blood erupted and bubbled.  She choked and gasped but refused to scream. I stared into opal pools that became grey as the light left her. I retched but could not be sick.

He released his grip and my mother fell to lie beside my father. “Stay where you are you little shit and you might just live!”

Hatred washed like icy water into my gut, a desperate and impotent fury. I could not drag my eyes from my family. A sinister stain crept from their bodies and over wooden planks.

A boot creaked on the bottom rung of the loft’s ladder and like a dam burst the world came screaming back.

I turned, and in three fluid steps leapt through the lofts window into the night. I landed hard with a thud and rolled in thick mud.

Angry shouts sounded above me, “his bloody jumped, go round, go round, he’s just there.”

“Where?” men called back.

“Here you stupid bastards, here! Falan bring the torch.”

Without pause, I lowered my head and ran. I sprinted past Ash lying lifeless. The world turned orange behind me as raiders lit torches for the hunt. I hurdled the yard fence and disappeared into the south field.

I heard cursing; words that would claw me back. “Stop you peasant shit, if you run, you’re a dead man.”

Their words pushed me as a following wind, and I thundered with desperate strides through weeping grass that whipped my eyes.  My bare feet sank into drenched troughs, but the mud would not slow me. I ran. My lungs burned, my heart pounded, but still I ran, twisting and turning. I cleared the south field, leapt the far fence, crashing through bracken into the woods beyond.

 

My breath came in bursts as I crouched behind a thicket of sodden thorns. I held it for a moment and listened. They were further now, and I was sure they would not see me hidden. Flames stalked the south field, but not all the raiders carried torches.

Occasional voices would call unseen, closer than the spluttering light. I held my breath again and waited for them to pass. Then, like some hideous sunrise come too soon, a larger glow loomed in the distance. Tears streamed through the grime on my cheeks, and I watched my home disappear in fire and smoke.

“There’s a trail here, a print. Look at the nettles broken.”

They were closing in and I needed to move. My legs were leaden, my body soaked with freezing sweat. I hauled myself up and stumbled into the wood. I ran through silhouettes and shadows, twisting and turning, tripping, and crashing. Brambles surrounded me. I dropped to all fours and scrambled into them; thorns tearing at my skin. When I could not squirm any further, I fell as though lifeless into the greasy mulch and stayed still.

The world was black and cold, and I weary beyond words. The god of the mountain had abandoned my family. Numb to his rejection; I vowed to stay awake; they would not catch me.

 

Crows squawked an urgent alarm. I did not open my eyes, but I was awake. My mind swam nauseously and the world span.  A sharp pain shuddered through my left side. Cold and aching, the horror of last night came flooding back. Images of my mother and father felt as though they would drown me.

I gasped for breath. A second kick made me open my eyes. It was winter’s early morning, the time when colours are not yet vivid, and a ghostly light bathed the forest. I could see brown speckles on the head of the iron bolt, and the wood grain of the crossbow more clearly than the face behind it. Still, I recognised the red-rimmed eyes of the man who had killed my family. Fury burned but I dared not move. I closed my eyes in acceptance, breathing hard.

“Falan don’t shoot him you bloody fish bait. We’ve got to take him back, Hakam said.” A voice shouted, and for a moment I thought my execution on hold.

“Hakam won’t know. What the pits do we want with a little shit like this for? I came here for gold, not to kidnap peasants.”

We had livestock, but they had not taken it. We had ourselves, but they had slaughtered my family as though worthless.

“Why?” I whispered.

“Just because, you useless shit. Now drag yourself out here before I put a bolt in…”

I winced at the sudden twang and a thud, but there was no pain. I opened my eyes tentatively and stared at the bolt still resting on the runner.

Falan’s expression froze, though his eyes widened slightly. A dark-wood shaft quivered above his left ear with sleek brown feathers that fluttered in the breeze. Through shattered bone above his right ear was an arrowhead, slick with blood. He fell, and bracken cracked as his body hit the floor. My breath bursts from me.

Two other men dressed in the same dirty furs and leather stared into the surrounding trees, searching.

Before either of them found the danger, a second arrow whistled from the shadows. A second raider fell, a black-feathered shaft buried deep in his chest. He groped helplessly at it, blood bubbled in his mouth. His legs twitched as he lay dying on the ground.

“Come out here, I’ll gut you like a fish, you cowardly bastard,” Obar yelled at the trees.

 

A woman walked easily from the shadows into the light of morning, and Obar fell quiet. Dressed as a local hunter, she wore green and brown leathers that hugged her slender form. A war bow was slung across her back, and on a belt about her waist hung two broad hunting knives. A hood made her face a pool of dark, from which her breath misted in the winter’s air.

Advancing with a serpentine glide she held Obar in a spell of her own, as she closed on her prey. The rhythm of her step oozed a dangerous confidence. Then, a twig cracked underfoot; a crow cried, and the spell was broken.

Obar shook his head, and his face darkened, “Bitch,” he screamed launching at her, short axe raised for the kill. As he charged, he screamed, spittle flying and boots crashing.

In one fluid movement, the woman drew a blade and thrust up. It slid through the soft underside of Obar’s chin and sank handle deep. Blood burst over leather gloves.

Impotently, Obar hung, like some grotesque forest carving.  His axe fell to the leaves as the woman held him for a moment, observing his face with a stony silence. she ripped the blade free, allowing his body to fall. There were no gasps, or kicks. Casually, the woman squatted, and wiped her blade on his jerkin.

Morning birds singing and a soft breeze rustled through evergreens and birch were the only sounds. Sheathing her knife, the woman stood and went to retrieve her arrows.

I crouched in my nest of thorns, too frightened to move.

Pushing her foot on the rigid chest of a dead man, she pulled at an arrow shaft and needed to twist at the same time to get the broad head to slice free from the ribcage. She checked the shaft was straight and the fletching secure before cleaning the arrowhead and returning it to her quiver. Without a glance in my direction, the hunter made to leave. Both relieved and abandoned, I went to speak, but the words would not come.

But before I lost her to the woods, she paused. “Are you coming?”

I sat, dumbstruck, my gaze fixed on the remaining arrow lodged in Falan’s head.

I could not see her face, but she formed her words as though smiling. “Arrows are hard to pull from skulls. Stay here or come; decide now.”

I scrambled from my hiding place and followed cautiously. I was cold, exhausted, and more than a little wary.

“Take some boots and a coat,” she added.

I looked at the surrounding bodies, dirty and stinking. They had killed my family and even their garb repulsed me. But Obar’s looked the newest, and I could not walk bare foot.

I followed, in a filthy fur coat and some ill-fitting boots. Dazed, I placed one foot in front of the other through the Southwood. I stared at the leather heels leading the way. They were of a fine cut, well made and not over worn. Her trousers and jerkin were of the same quality, double stitched, clean, and new. Not the clothes of a lady but neither the clothes, as I had first suspected, of a common hunter. And her skin was too dark to be a highlander.

Consumed with grief, the world drifted past. But a part of my mind raised questions: Why my family? Why chase me, a farm boy, so far into the woods? Who was this woman? And where were we going?

“Where are we going?” My words faded into the rustle of leaves and the rhythmic crunch of my boots. As the words left my mouth, I felt embarrassed by the weakness of my voice.

Crunch, crunch, crunch, fell my heavy feet as she glided. There was no answer, no pause. Crunch, crunch, crunch, freeze.

Standing statue still, she raised her right hand. Like a rabbit discovered I dared not blink, let alone breathe. Her hand fell. She turned right and took six long strides into a light-dappled clearing. It was carpeted with winter’s dead grass, and buds not yet in bloom.

Tethered and cropping at brown tufts were two horses. One, a seventeen-hand midnight black, the other two hands shorter, a sleek chestnut mare. Both were saddled and ready to ride.

“Who are you?” I ventured.

“Who are you?” she replied, seeming irritated.

“I’m no one, just a farm boy,”

“Then grow up, and fast. I need more than a farm boy,” she said, and the conversation was over.

 

Fluttering over the acrid smoke that hung over the far north, a pigeon released from its cage, wheeled towards the icy gullies of the White Cap Mountains. Through the pines below rode two riders, ill at ease in each other’s company.

As the bird beat its wings furiously, the fresh air of the mountains drew it homeward. It crested a snowy pass between two lofty peaks and eased its flight, down into the hidden valley below, gliding west on a cool breeze, towards the sea.