Excerpt from Heartwood

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Winter has come.
It walks the leafless forest and the frost-rimed fields.
It spreads its mantle of snow on the sleeping earth.
It breathes on the waters and locks them in silence.
It whistles on the hilltops, piercing the air with its bitter song.
It devours the sun with fangs of icicles.
It clasps my hand with frozen fingers and chuckles as I shiver.
Winter has come, wearing a crown of holly leaves.

Chapter One

Fear is the enemy.

Careful not to awaken his brother, Darak flung his mantle over his shoulders and eased aside the bearskin that hung across the doorway. As cold as their hut had been, the frigid air outside stole his breath. Stifling a cough, he swiped his watering eyes with the back of his hand.

Scudding clouds hid the face of the moon goddess, but to the north, pale stars flickered, their light too faint to show more than the smudged shapes of the nearest huts. Old Sim’s snores offered a droning counterpoint to the whimper of a babe, quickly muffled as it found its mother’s breast in the darkness.

Darak quelled the unexpected rush of resentment the ordinary sounds evoked. He had only himself to blame. When Tinnean declared his intention of becoming the Tree-Father’s apprentice, he had dismissed it as a whim. After the ceremony took place at Midsummer, he had convinced himself that his impulsive brother would soon tire of the rigorous training. When his brother remained resolute, he had argued with him. Then came the series of calamities that had devastated the tribe, driving concerns about Tinnean’s future from his mind. Autumn found his brother spending every evening with the Tree-Father, leaving him to sit by the fire pit, fighting the emptiness of their hut and the bitterness of his memories. Since then, he had clung to the belief that his brother would realize his error, that like all the men in their line, he would follow the hunter’s path.

Foolishly, he had thought time was his ally. Now he knew better.

Control the fear.

He had learned to banish the old fears that stalked his dreams as soon as he awoke. This new fear was harder to conquer. During the day, he held it at bay by driving his mind and body hard, but during the long winter nights, it crept close, a stealthy predator seeking his most vulnerable points. Sleep offered no escape. Better to remain awake, alert, prepared for the inevitable attack.

He paced back and forth, his footsteps crunching too loudly in the hard-packed snow. He would not lose Tinnean. He would not.

Control yourself.

Stillness should come easily to a hunter, yet even when he forced himself to lean against the wall of the hut, his hands kept clenching and unclenching. Silently, he rehearsed the words again. Sling and spear, bow and arrow – those he had mastered, but if he was going to stop Tinnean from ruining his life, words were his only weapons.

He was still trying to find the right ones when he sensed movement. He straightened as the bearskin fell back into place. Of course, Tinnean had come out without his mantle. Darak shrugged off his and wrapped it around his brother.

“I couldn’t sleep either,” Tinnean said.

Darkness masked his brother’s expression. Was that tiny hitch in his voice proof that Tinnean had changed his mind or was he simply nervous about the morrow’s ceremony? Darak knew well how doubt could assail a man at night. He would never wish Tinnean to suffer, but it was only one night, after all, and surely worth a little pain to make the right choice. He took a deep breath, readying himself to utter the words he had chosen, the words that would convince Tinnean to abandon his foolhardy path.

Before he could speak, Tinnean grabbed his arm. Taut as a drawn bowstring, Darak searched the village for an enemy.

A sliver of white light pierced the sky. Tinnean’s fingers fumbled for his, just as they had when he’d first glimpsed the Northern Dancers as a child. He’s still a child, Darak thought. And he still needs me.

The streamer of light writhed like a snake impaled upon a spear, then exploded into a translucent veil of green and white that filled the northern horizon. The hairs on Darak’s neck and arms stood upright as fiery bolts of light shot through the night sky. Beside him, Tinnean’s voice shook as he whispered the prayers of protection. The messengers of the gods could herald good as well as evil, but always the appearance of the Northern Dancers foretold change.

The bolts of light grew soft and fluid, curling around each other, twisting into huge, glowing circles as they wove the wild pattern of the dance. Tremulous fingers sprouted from the bottom of the veil and groped earthward, the innocent rose darkening to stain Tinnean’s upturned face blood red.

Darak reached for the bag of charms at his neck before he remembered that he no longer wore them. Quickly, he flicked his forefinger against his thumb three times. After that, he could only wait; the dance could last until dawn lightened the sky.

Instead, between one breath and the next, the sky flames simply vanished. Darak blinked, his eyes adjusting to the sudden darkness. Perhaps the gods listened to Tinnean’s prayers; in the moons since Midsummer, they had never answered his.

He was still staring skyward when Tinnean tugged his hand free.

“I must go to the Tree-Father.”

Before he could stop him, Tinnean raced off. Once, his brother would have looked to him for answers; these days, he was always running to Struath.

Long after Tinnean’s figure had disappeared, Darak stared into the darkness. Then, with a muttered curse, he flung back the bearskin. Why ask the shaman to explain the signs? Even an ordinary man knew they foretold disaster...




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