Cover artist Sarah Adams
Cover art copyright © 2012 by Mythic Island Press LLC
He lurks beside the forest road, a charming, well-armed young murderer, not altogether human. She draws near, a contrary shepherdess fleeing an unwanted marriage. When he overhears her prayer for help, whispered to the Dread Hammer, he decides to grant it--and love takes him by surprise. But love proves a greater challenge than murder.
An enthralling, dark tale of love, war, murder, marriage, and fate.
Praise for The Dread Hammer:
"...It is the amount of heart this book has that really sells it for me. It is a book that falls into the gritty fantasy label for sure, but with a certain amount of sweetness. I will be reading the second of the duo in the near future, and have no problems recommending this one." —Fantasy Review Barn
The following text is an excerpt from THE DREAD HAMMER by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 2011 by Linda Nagata, originally published under Linda Nagata's pseudonym Trey Shiels. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.
Visualize my brother, Smoke, as he stalks the forest road. He is a shadow, lost amid the mottled shadows of the trees. The woman he hunts does not see him. She is alone, hurrying south toward Nefión. A gauntlet of imagined fears lies before her--roots to bruise her toes, windfalls to block the way, wolves within the shadows--but none of these slow her pace. They are nothing against the fear that follows behind her--and my brother's presence she suspects not at all.
He is a murderer, my Smoke. Though he's just eighteen, at least 172 lives have ended against the edge of his sword. Maybe more. It's likely there are slayings I haven't discovered yet. Smoke doesn't keep count of the dead, but I do.
Smoke crept to a vantage along a curve in the road. Peering past a veil of late summer leaves, he watched the woman approach. She carried a sack over one shoulder and held a staff in her hand. She walked south with great haste, until she was stopped at the curve by a puddle of rainwater and ox dung that stretched clear across the road. She hesitated, staring at the mire with a distressed gaze. The gush of her breath was the loudest sound in the forest. "Rot it," she whispered. "I am not getting my boots wet."
Using the staff to balance, she edged carefully around the puddle, brushing up against the leafy screen where Smoke was hidden.
By her ugly clothes he knew she was Binthy--a tribe of sheep herders and farmers who lived in the plains north of the Wild Wood. Binthy women were well known for their poor taste. They dressed like boys as often as not, in breeches and tunic with a shapeless wool poncho to keep warm, and so it was with this woman--though she was a pretty thing, despite it.
Smoke admired her youthful face, tanned brown from a summer in the sun, flushed now, and glistening with exertion. Her black hair was bobbed just past her shoulders. She showed little care for it, having tied it crudely with a braided string behind her neck. She had a sweet mouth and a graceful nose, but as he studied her it was her eyes that captivated him. They were a deep-dark black, framed by heavy lashes and full of heat.
As she arrived on the other side of the puddle she stopped and turned, using those exquisite eyes to search the forest shadows on both sides of the road. She stared directly at Smoke's hiding place, but still she didn't see him.
Next, she looked back the way she'd come. She held her breath, the better to listen. Smoke held his breath and listened too, but there was only the sound of a breeze rustling the tree tops. Her pursuers were drawing close, but they had not caught her yet.
She set out again, renewing her frantic pace, but she had not gone ten paces when Smoke stepped out onto the path behind her. He allowed the leaves to rustle, and she whirled around as if she'd heard the growling of a wolf.
Smoke grinned. She was a pretty thing. "Here you are alone," he observed.
Her mouth fell open. Her eyes went wide. But she was a shepherd girl accustomed to guarding the sheep from marauding wolves and in a moment she had her staff raised in a defensive pose.
He cocked an eyebrow. "Are you afraid of me?"
She lied to him from the first. "No!"
Her defiance excited him. "Then you are the only one. All the other women, they feared me at the start. There is no help for it. I have a fearsome aspect."
She actually had the temerity to look him up and down. What she saw was a tall, lean, youth, with handsome features and laughing eyes that glittered green as if with their own light. His honey-brown hair was tied in a tail on top of his head so that it cascaded in a plume down his back. His only flaw was a three-inch, sunken scar that ran from the left side of his throat down to his shoulder, spoiling the curve of his neck. He was dressed in tailored breeches and a green silk tunic, both badly worn, and over all, a long, brown, leather coat. On his back he carried a sword and a bow, and at his waist, two knives. Brown leather gloves protected his hands. His tall boots were mud stained, and scuffed with wear.
He took a step closer to her. "It's a wonder that you're here in the forest, all alone."
She lied to him a second time. "I am not alone."
"No longer," he conceded, "now that I'm here. Tell me your plan. Where is it you're going?"
She raised her chin in brave defiance. "I am going with my kin to Nefión. It's only that my brother annoyed me, so I ran ahead to escape his teasing. He'll be here soon, though, along with my father and--"
Smoke took another step toward her. This time her knuckles whitened around the staff and she stepped back two. "Come no closer!"
He shrugged. "So what have you brought to sell?"
"Nefión is a merchant town. What have you brought to sell there?"
As she pondered an answer, Smoke took his turn to look her up and down. He imagined the pretty figure that was surely hidden beneath her dirty poncho and dowdy clothes, and for the first time he noticed that she had a sweet scent, a feral perfume that stirred his desire. By the time his gaze returned to her face his mouth felt oddly dry and his heart was beating faster than need required. Never before had he felt so drawn to any woman.
When he spoke again his voice had gone soft and husky. "I am taken suddenly with a fancy for you."
"Oh, no!" Her eyes narrowed and she raised her staff higher, ready to strike.
He scowled in indignant surprise. "But why not? I like the look of you. And besides"--(it had only just occurred to him)--"I am in need of a wife."
She should have been impressed with his willingness to do right by her, but it wasn't so.
Her mouth opened, and then closed again in confusion. A glint of desperation lit her eyes. "I-I don't think so!" she stammered, backing slowly away. "If you had me for a wife, it would be a very sad thing for you. You are a good man, I can see it. So I will tell you in all truth, I would make you a terrible wife. Terrible! I am like a boy in almost all things. Likely I would poison you with my cooking, and rats would run through my house. The chickens would not be put away, and the children would be dirty and ill-mannered and I would forget to keep an eye on them and they would fall in a well or be eaten by wolves. If you want a wife, you should make your way to Nefión. As you say, it is a merchant city and so there must be many young women there better suited than me."
By this time she had opened a considerable gap between them. Smoke felt her readiness. He knew that in another moment she would turn and flee. "You give too much credit to the women of Nefión. I've seen them. They're not like you. I've never seen anyone else like you. You're a wild thing, silly as a wolf cub, but very pretty, and you smell very nice. It's you I fancy. Come, say you'll be my wife."
"No! Stay away from me! I don't even know your name. You are some crazed forest spirit, I think."
He scowled, annoyed at her resistance. "Crazed? Me? What have I done that's crazed? You, on the other hand, have shown no hint of good judgment, fleeing to Nefión as if you will find sheep to tend there. I warn you there are no sheep, and if you go there you'll soon discover that all you have to sell is yourself."
She blinked in doubt, but then resolve came over her again. "No, I am going. I will not go home."
He rolled his eyes in exasperation.
She seized that moment. While his gaze was turned imploringly skyward toward the Dread Hammer, she fled, racing away south along the road.
Smoke laughed in delight at her daring. Then he slipped again into the trees and he pursued her in utter silence, with a speed she could not hope to match.
A brook crossed the road a quarter mile farther on. Smoke came first to the ford. He waited until the woman drew near, then he stepped out from the mottled shadows to meet her. "Tell me your name."
A little screech of terror escaped her. She skidded to such a swift stop that she fell back on her rear. But she was up again in a moment. "How can you be here ahead of me? Are there two of you? Who are you?"
"I am one and I am alone, though I would have you alongside me. Please tell me your name."
"It is Ketty! My name is Ketty, and I cannot be your wife because I am already betrothed."
Smoke nodded. "I know. You don't care for him. He's near your father's age and has already used up two wives--so you ran away."
Ketty's lips parted in a round "O" of astonishment. "How do you know that?"
"Haven't you told me?"
"I've never seen you before! I only ever said such things when I spoke my prayers to the Dread Hammer."
"Just so. I heard your prayer. It's why I'm here." Smoke lifted his gaze to look past her. "He's coming along with your father, you know. They're riding horses and they're very near. You can't outrun them." He looked at her again. "But I'll kill them for you."
To his surprise, she greeted this proposal with horror. "No! My brothers and sisters will starve if my father is not there to care for them."
"Ah, I hadn't considered that." Smoke frowned, thinking hard. "I'll spare your father then, if I can, but I'll slay your betrothed."
"No," Ketty insisted, even more firmly. "I do not care for him, but he has small children too and no wife--" The sound of hoof beats interrupted her. They came with a cantering rhythm, faint at first but swiftly growing louder. Ketty made a frightened moan as she spun around to look.
"There's not much time," Smoke pointed out. "So what do you want me to--?"
Ketty gave him no answer, but instead turned and fled, east into the trees. She went with no grace at all, crashing through the ferns and sliding in the moss, leaving a trail a child could follow. Smoke looked after her in exasperation. Why did she have to make this so difficult? It would be a simple thing to cut open their throats . . . though of course she was right, there were children to consider.
So with a great sigh he set his soul to glide along the threads that lay beneath the world. In doing so his worldly reflection--that part of him that Ketty saw as a man--was dissolved by the speed of his passage. If Ketty had been watching she would have sworn he transformed into a long plume of scentless gray smoke that streamed away between the trees though there was no wind to carry it.
Ferns grew lush between the trees. Ketty bounded through them, until Smoke caught up with her. In a swirl of gray vapor, he manifested not two steps ahead. She had no chance at all to stop. With a tiny cry she crashed into him, knocking him off balance, even as his arms closed around her.
He made sure they fell together. He went down on his side to avoid breaking his bow, and the ferns closed over them. They would have been nicely hidden if Ketty hadn't started to struggle. Smoke rolled her onto her back, pinning her against the ground as he hissed in her ear. "Be still or they'll know you're here! If they come hunting you, I'll have to kill them."
"What are you?" she whimpered. "I saw you. You were smoke--!"
He scowled at her, lying helpless beneath him in the green twilight under the ferns. "That's what my sisters named me, but you don't have to name me the same."
"Smoke?" she whispered, as the vibration of the cantering hooves rumbled up from the ground.
"It will be fixed if you say it again," he warned.
Her brow wrinkled in abject confusion. "Smoke?"
His lip curled. "It's done then."
"Are you a forest spirit? One of the Hauntén?"
"Hush now. They're here."
A man's deep voice boomed over them. "Ketty! You clumsy sow. You left a trail for me to follow as plain as the forest road." Fern fronds crunched under the horses' hooves. "I brought my whip, Ketty, and your husband."
Ketty opened her mouth. Smoke clapped a hand over it before she could protest that the widower was not her husband yet. She stared up at him with wild eyes. Stay still. He mouthed the words. Do not move. Do not show yourself.
She nodded tentatively and he took his hand away. Then he reached out again to the threads that formed the weft of the world and, seeming to become a heavy pall of gray smoke, he sank away into the moist ground.
The living soil was a reflection thrown off by a maze of fine threads in the world-beneath. Smoke let his awareness divide and slide across the threads' tangled paths as he hunted for a spirit of mist. There were many ancient forces within the weft and warp of the world-beneath. Most of them were too dangerous to disturb, but the mist was one Smoke did not fear. So when he found it, he woke it up.
It stirred, sleepily at first. He called to it again.
Such forces expected to be summoned only by the Hauntén, the forest spirits. Smoke was not such. The mist was overcome with anger when it realized this. It boiled up out of the ground, determined to chill and deceive the insolent creature that had dared to waken it. It came so swiftly that its cold, billowing vapor startled the horses, making them snort and draw back.
Both men were nearly unseated. They cried out in consternation. Then the one who was betrothed shouted to Ketty's father. "This is a haunted place! It was not my wife we heard crashing away, but some enchanted creature."
Ketty's father was a braver man. "The print of her foot was on the road. It is her, and if you would have her for a wife, then stay and find her!"
But his horse danced beneath him, close to panic, snorting, stamping, turning in circles. Smoke heard the outraged pleas of the crushed ferns, Send them away! Send them away!
Since that was the result Smoke desired anyway, he consented to the task.
Following the threads back up from the ground, he manifested behind a tree, and at once he let go a great screech like the cry of a banshee.
The horses reared and whinnied. Ignoring the shouts of their riders, they plunged back to the road and fled, galloping north, returning to the safety of their home.
Smoke wiped the wet of the mist off his forehead. "It would have been easier to kill them," he groused.
Ketty made no answer, and when he went to look for her he discovered she was no longer among the ferns. "Ah, Ketty, you are a clever, wild wolf." Closing his eyes to listen, he heard faintly the rustle of her passage. She was fleeing east, away from the trail and deeper into the Wild Wood. If she had doubled back, crossing the trail to run west instead, he might have let her go. Running west would have been a bad sign. The Puzzle Lands lay to the west. He'd been born there, and had run away, and was determined never to go again. But Ketty had run east, straight toward the sanctuary of his secret holding in the Wild Wood as if she knew the way and was eager to reach it.
"Ketty, you can't deny we are meant for each other." With a pleased smile he let his reflection dissolve again and he set out after her, an errant shimmer of smoke breaking free of the mist's cold temper.
Our prayers are spoken to the Dread Hammer, but other spirits can hear them too.
Long ago the warriors of the Lutawan king used to come north into the Puzzle Lands to hunt and abuse our people, and to take our women south to be sold like beasts in the marketplace. We longed for vengeance and prayed to the Dread Hammer to teach us the ways of war. Koráy of the Hauntén overheard our prayer and alone among the forest spirits, she felt bidden to answer it.
Leaving her mother and her sisters, Koráy glided west along the strong threads of the world's weft until she came to the very edge of the Wild Wood, but from there she could not bring herself to go on, not while she still heard her mother's voice calling her home through the maze of fine threads that bound her to the Hauntén.
So Koráy prayed to the Dread Hammer to break those threads. Afterward she could no longer summon the forces of the Wild Wood or move as smoke along the weft of the world, and when she looked at the world and the world-beneath, she knew they were not the same.
Koráy wove new threads, and with them she bound herself, heart and soul, to the people of the Puzzle Lands, who later named themselves the Koráyos people, and who call those of us who are the descendants of Koráy "the Bidden," because Koráy came when she was bidden to do so.
The Bidden had served as guardians of the Puzzle Lands for five generations, but they were not kings. The Koráyos people ruled themselves, deciding right and wrong and settling their internal affairs through councils and judiciary, but all authority for security and defense belonged to the Bidden--first to the Trenchant Dehan, and then to his twin daughters, Takis and Tayval.
The twins were forever linked to one another by Koráy's binding threads. Takis was eldest, if only by an hour. People said she was a spirit like Koráy--proud and bright, a born leader. She was a warrior by choice, a diplomat by need, a seductress as the chance presented itself, and a beloved figure to the Koráyos people. By contrast, Tayval was an enigma. She was rarely seen outside the family hall at the Fortress of Samerhen, and she never spoke, not even to the Trenchant. Many assumed her to be simple, but the truth was otherwise. While Takis was the bright face of the twins, Tayval was the source of their deep intellect and power.
Both were in conflict with their father, the Trenchant Dehan.
"I differ from my father," Takis said softly, whispering into the ear of the Lutawan general as they lay together in her tent, with only a single oil lamp to hold back the night's shadows. "I think our conquest of the borderlands is a mistake. Holding this territory doesn't make us more secure. It only feeds resentment, and makes it harder to negotiate what I want--a true and lasting peace between our people."
The general lay on his back, his eyes closed, a half smile on his lips as he listened to her . . . or perhaps he was just enjoying the warmth of her breath against his ear. Certainly he was relaxed, pleased with his prowess and deeply satisfied. Takis had seen to that--and she was well equipped for the task. Still young at twenty-six, comely if not beautiful, dark haired, green eyed, with a warm-brown, well-balanced face and an athletic figure, she had easily won the general's appreciation.
"I have a heartfelt regard for you," he confessed in a gentled voice.
His was a strong and handsome face with a proud nose and chin, smooth lips, and a sun-darkened, brown complexion. His black beard was neatly trimmed, as was his black hair. Takis had enjoyed him as a lover--she was a bit befuddled by how much she had liked him. The taste of his skin had pleased her so much more than other men she'd known. Even better, she liked his temper. Nedgalvin felt like a man who could think for himself and could think in radical new ways while still knowing how to appease the old guard. How else could he have been promoted to general at the age of thirty-seven?
Takis said, "In my experience, a man who finds himself welcomed into his enemy's bed is inclined to think he has already won the war. Are you such a man?"
He opened his eyes to look at her. "Are you such a woman, to bring the battlefield into your bed?"
He stiffened, as if suddenly suspecting that she had a knife hidden in the bedding.
She smiled at this revealed fear. "It's not my ambition to bring you down Nedgalvin, but to raise you up."
He gave her a crooked smile. "You have already done that, lady, quite effectively." Then he rolled onto his side, reaching for her, as if ready to start all over again.
"In a more permanent fashion!" Takis protested with a laugh, letting him spill her over onto her back. He set about kissing her cheeks, her neck, her breasts, while Takis said, "I tire of your king. I think war is his only amusement."
"Perhaps you're right. But I have more diverse interests." His kisses wandered ever lower on her belly.
"Ah, but you are a rational man."
"I was, before I lost my head over you."
Takis drew in a quick breath as he gently spread her legs, tasting what was there. Her fingers grasped at his hair as she whispered, "A rational man--like you--would make a better king."
He stopped his ministrations, raising his head to gaze at her with anxious eyes. "Don't speak such words, Lady. They will be heard. Know that my only ambition is to serve the king."
Takis nodded somberly. "That is right and proper, whoever the king may ultimately be."
"Are you a kingmaker, Takis?"
"I cannot negotiate with the existing one, so it seems I'm forced to be." She sat up, shifting so that she was cross-legged in the bed. "Think on it, Nedgalvin. Peace would be a benefit for both of us, but peace is impossible while the Lutawan king preaches that our oppression and enslavement is mandated by your god."
Takis knew the true name of this god was Hepen the Watcher. He was cast out of the north long ago by the Dread Hammer. But in the south people had forgotten his name and called him only 'God.'
"The king speaks for God," Nedgalvin said as if by rote. "You must submit to him to be saved."
"We would rather be saved from him."
The general winced. He sat up in turn. "Is it true you're a witch who can read a man's mind?"
Takis laughed. "The Dread Hammer is not so cruel as to force me to wallow in a man's unfiltered thoughts."
The general did not share her humor. "I wish you could hear mine now. I dare not speak them."
"Because the king hears all things?"
The general nodded.
"Whatever the reach of his mind, he can't penetrate the Puzzle Lands. Will you cross the border and come to me so we may speak freely?"
"I'll open the way for you."
"I would be missed."
"For a single night?"
"Can I trust you?" he wondered.
"You must chance it, but I assure you it's a chance worth taking. Will you come?"
He thought on it for many seconds, and in truth Takis could not read his intention. Then at last he nodded. "I will come."
Takis smiled. "Then our present negotiations are done. Return to your own encampment now. But two nights hence, an hour past sunset, come alone to the Trader's Stone--you know where that is?"
"Yes, but there is no pass over the mountains there."
"There will be when you come. Ride past the stone, toward the Séferi Mountains. The way will be open. We call it Scout's Pass. The trail is very narrow at times, but once you reach the crest, you'll see Fort Veshitan." She cocked her head, studying him thoughtfully. "I'll tell you this, as a token to affirm my good faith. All the women who flee from the southern kingdom seeking refuge in the Puzzle Lands are housed for a time at Fort Veshitan. There are at least a hundred there at all times, being schooled in our customs. This is how I know it's possible for your people to learn new ways. Will you come?"
The general's face had gone stony, though whether to hide his anger or his eagerness Takis could not say--nor did it matter. He must prove his own good faith. "I will come," he said gruffly. "But only if you withdraw all your troops from the region around the Trader's Stone, and from this hidden pass. I will not risk being seen in an act of treachery."
"The way will be open to you," Takis said again. "As a sign of my good faith I will withdraw all my troops and also the spells of deception and confusion that protect the pass."
The general nodded. "So be it."
They both dressed. Then Takis walked with the general across the encampment, each one flanked by their own escort. At the edge of the Koráyos lines they bid one another a formal goodbye. The general and his men mounted their horses and set out toward the Lutawan encampment, marked by a scattering of small fires more than a mile away.
Takis stood watching their retreat until her sister, Tayval's, voice spoke crisp and emotionless in the back of her mind. Don't hope too much.
"Perhaps he's braver than he seems," Takis said softly.
Two women on watch stood nearby. Both looked up at the sound of her voice, but only for a moment. The Koráyos soldiers were used to Takis, "speaking to ghosts."
Takis bid them both good night, then returned to her tent, alone.
There is the world, and then there is the world-beneath. In my mind they are separate places, but Smoke is like the Hauntén in that he sees no separation and moves easily in both. He's like the Hauntén in that the lives of inconvenient people mean little to him. He's like the Hauntén in that his eyes shine with an emerald gleam when the light is dim. He is often mistaken for a forest spirit, but Smoke is not Hauntén. It's not in his nature to summon the forces of the Wild Wood as the true forest spirits will do.
And yet for reasons no one understands, Smoke is not like us.
We are the Bidden. We are bound to the people of the Puzzle Lands by the threads laid on our family long ago by the Hauntén named Koráy.
The threads Koráy wove bound all her descendants for five generations--all, that is, except my brother, Smoke, whose heart was not entangled until that day on the forest road.
Ketty ran, not knowing if she was more afraid of her father's wrath or of the mad Hauntén. She ran until her lungs burned, until she couldn't take another step. Then she collapsed, rolling beneath the fine, trembling branches of a pale green bush, the better to hide herself. She lay on her back, her chest heaving, already unsure from what direction she'd come.
A minute passed and her breath quieted. Several more minutes went by and still she heard no sound of footsteps. Maybe she'd escaped? She hoped so. Truly. Although there had been something sweet about the mad Hauntén, despite his bluster . . . and something tantalizing in the scent of him as he lay against her in the ferns, something like sun on rocks, or dark red flowers . . .
But it wouldn't do to think on that. She had to get to Nefión.
So Ketty gathered her courage and crept out from beneath the bush, moving as quietly as she could manage. She looked around--and gasped when she saw Smoke standing only a few feet away. He was leaning up against a tree trunk, his arms crossed in an attitude of patient waiting. As their eyes met he greeted her with a pleased smile. "I'm glad you changed your mind, Ketty. I thought you'd be more stubborn."
Ketty leaped to her feet, regretting how she'd let her thoughts stray--but he couldn't know, could he? "What do you mean?" she asked with a hammering heart.
"How did you know this was the way to my holding?"
"Is it?" Ketty looked about at the endless, undistinguished trees. "I didn't know. And I don't want to go to your holding! I was just running away from the forest road. I don't dare set foot on it again, my father could return. Tell me please, is there some other way to Nefión?"
His cheerful aspect changed at once to something fearsome. His green eyes glittered with a dangerous light. "You still speak of Nefión?"
Ketty shivered. The thread of her life felt suddenly fragile, but she held onto her courage and answered, "I do. There is some other way, isn't there?"
He scowled and shrugged exactly like a resentful boy. "There are countless ways if you make your own path."
Again, Ketty looked around. Every direction seemed the same to her. "Won't I become lost?"
"Yes, of course you will. Lost or eaten."
"I won't be lost if you show me the way."
"And why would I do that?"
Making an effort, she put on her sweetest smile. "To show me your kind heart."
"I don't have a kind heart, and nor do I lie, as you do."
"Oh, rot it!" She bent to pick up her staff. "Just tell me which way the forest road lies. I'll take my chances there."
"It lies back the way you came!"
"Right! Of course it does. And, well--"An embarrassed flush warmed her cheeks. "Which way is that?"
He turned his gaze briefly skyward, as if imploring the Dread Hammer for an extra share of patience. Then he fixed his green eyes on her again. His anger had faded, leaving him perplexed and maybe a little hurt. "Ketty, why do you pretend not to like me? Why do you play at running way?"
Her treacherous heart wondered the same thing, but she defied it, and him. Thumping her staff against the ground, she said, "You are the most astonishing creature! So utterly spoiled. Look at you--pouting!--because I have not agreed to take you out of the blue as my husband."
"You only refuse because you're stubborn. You want me. I know you do. You're just too proud to admit it."
"That is not true."
"And you should be flattered that I want you."
"You are so vain!"
"So? I have good cause. I'm beautiful. My sisters always said so." He licked his lips and spoke more softly. "You think so too. I can hear your heart beating faster when you look at me."
"That's because I'm afraid!"
"You even like the way I smell, don't you?"
She blushed. "You are impossible! You will drive me to distraction! Even if you are beautiful--and I'm not saying that you are!--I don't even know you."
"You know me. You've named me."
"Smoke? What kind of a name is that? That's not a man's name, but then you're not a man are you? You're a forest spirit. One of the Hauntén."
This was too much for him. He drew back, affronted. "How have I harmed you, that you take such delight in insulting me? Of course I'm a man. How could I fancy you otherwise?"
"Today you fancy me, but what of tomorrow, next month, next year? What will become of me when your sudden fancy turns to someone else?"
"And who should it turn to?" He looked around, his arms spread wide, palms up in a helpless gesture. "Who else is here to distract me?"
Ketty was stunned. "You live alone in the Wild Wood?"
"I told you I am but one and I am alone. Don't you pay attention to anything I say? Ketty, you must cease this argument and yield to me now. There's no good reason for you to decline."
"Oh, yes there is! I don't fancy you."
For a moment he appeared too stunned to speak. Had he never considered such a possibility? But a moment later a bright smile chased his doubt away. "Ketty, you are such a liar."
She bridled. "How dare you speak--" But just then a cloud shifted, sliding from the face of the sun. A brighter light reached through the leaves to flicker over his handsome features: his pretty, golden-honey hair, his fine nose, his white teeth, his sparkling green eyes. The scar on his neck was cast into shadow. Ketty blinked, her heart racing and her throat gone dry. "It's just . . . I planned to go to Nefión."
Smoke stepped closer. He held his hand out to her. "It's better here. No one comes here. It's a hidden place. Your father will never find you, and I'll share it only with you."
She thought it over. To go with this creature was surely a mad thing to do, and yet her treacherous heart was urging her to give in, if only for the present. "I am very tired," she conceded. "Maybe I could stay at your house tonight before I go on to Nefión?"
Smoke took his hand back. He lifted his chin. "You're as nervous as a she-wolf just out of the den."
"Well, if you don't want me to come--"
He bared his teeth. "Oh, I want you. Very much."
She shivered, but when he turned to go she yielded and followed meekly after him. What choice did she have? Better to go with the mad Hauntén than wait for the wolves to find her.
The Wild Wood was an old, old forest. Perhaps as old as the world, though Smoke rarely paused to consider such things. Bright green ferns grew in the gloom beneath the trees, their fronds hiding a clutter of fallen branches. Looking less happy than the ferns, azaleas and berry bushes bided against the day a storm might bring down an elder tree and open their dim world to light.
It would not be this day. Above a scaffolding of old branches the trees still held on to their summer leaf. The canopy shuffled and swayed, sending random glints of light tumbling to the forest floor. The glittering was quenched occasionally when clouds passed over the sun, but it was still a fine day, one of the last of summer. Smoke thought there might be a fog that night and rain tomorrow, but he didn't fret on it. Tomorrow would take care of itself. Today, his only concern was to bring Ketty to his holding.
Of course they had to go on foot and this annoyed him. He hated walking. Why bother with it when he could slide with great speed along the threads beneath the world? But Ketty couldn't follow him on that path so he was forced to walk with her.
It was a very long way. He hadn't realized how long, since he'd never walked it before. The farther they went, the farther it seemed they still had to go and so, frustrated, Smoke went ever faster. He was sure that as soon as he brought Ketty to his holding, as soon as she saw the pretty cottage he had built, the last of her doubts would be chased away and she would confess that she did indeed love him.
Her distant cry startled him. He looked back to find that she had fallen behind yet again, and so again, he waited for her. He was already carrying her sack. She'd been willing to let him do that, though she insisted on keeping her staff.
"You should be better at walking than I am," he said as she came huffing up.
Her temper flashed. "You are taller than me, and you haven't been walking for two nights and a day without rest, and you are Hauntén."
"I am a man."
"How much farther?"
He thought on it, feeling the pull and stretch of the threads. "Some while yet. But there's a brook not far from here. It's a good place to rest."
Far off through the trees there came the sweet wail of a wolf's howl. Another answered it, and then many took up the song. It was a misty sound, floating down from the tree tops. Smoke closed his eyes, the better to listen, until he felt Ketty clutch his hand. She was trembling. "Are you afraid?" he asked with an amused smile.
"They are wolves!"
"Of course they're wolves. I like to follow them sometimes when I'm hunting." He laughed. "It annoys them when I take the fawn they wanted for their own dinner."
"They do not hunt you?"
"Why would I let them?"
She looked up at him with her dark eyes. Such pretty eyes. "And the bears?" she asked. "Are you afraid of them?"
"No, nor the lions. And you don't need to be afraid either while you're with me. Now come." His hand tightened on hers. "The brook isn't far, and you'll feel better in the sunlight."
But to his exasperation she shook off his hand, and insisted she would follow two paces behind.
In unnumbered spring floods the brook had polished clean a field of smooth gray stone that now, at summer's end, flanked its glistening water. Ketty lay back, her head pillowed against her sack and her eyes closed as she basked in the golden light of afternoon.
Smoke stood gazing at the pretty turn of her face. He did fancy her. He truly did. Never before had he felt this way about any woman. But he was discouraged. Why would she not admit that she cared for him too?
The song of wolves reached them again. Ketty stiffened. After a moment she spoke without opening her eyes. "Is there anything in the Wild Wood that can cause you harm?"
"Don't worry on it. We're nowhere near the dark heart."
Ketty opened her eyes, raising her hand to shade them from the brilliance of the sky. "Then there is something you fear?"
"The Hauntén live in the dark heart of the forest, but I don't go there." For as long as he could remember he'd felt a dread of the Hauntén and their fastness deep in the Wild Wood. But he did not tell this to Ketty. "My holding is hidden, and safe. No one even knows it exists, and I'll kill anyone who learns it."
Ketty sat up. "So you really would have killed my father, if I'd let you?"
"It would have been better. Less risk."
"You speak as if you've killed men before."
Smoke laughed. "Did you truly wonder? Of course I've killed men before. It's nothing and I don't care about it." He walked down to the water's edge where he knelt, gazing at the shapes of fishes swimming at the bottom of a deep, calm pool.
I don't care about it.
Without warning, a sick heat stirred in his belly. He grimaced, and then he heard himself speaking in a soft voice that hardly seemed his own, "I don't like to kill women or their children."
The words were hardly out when the feeling passed. Why had he spoken at all? "Don't think on it," he told himself in a whisper. He stood up again and in a firmer voice he said, "Come, Ketty. The days have grown shorter, and we still have some long way to go."
He turned, and was surprised to find Ketty already on her feet, her sack slung over her shoulder, and her staff raised against him as fear and fury waged in her eyes. "You've murdered children?"
He was taken by surprise and his own temper flashed. "They weren't your people! And anyway, it was a war. The Trenchant commanded it."
She was aghast. "The Trenchant? You're a Koráyos warrior? From the Puzzle Lands?"
"Ketty, will there never be an end to your questions? You try my patience!"
"Answer me, Smoke! Are you a Koráyos warrior?"
"I was, but no longer. Now can we go?"
"No." Ketty took a step back. "I don't want to go any farther with a bloody-handed servant of the Bidden."
Smoke's hands squeezed into fists. A flush heated his neck and cheeks. Ketty must have sensed his perilous mood. She gasped, stumbling away as if expecting him to come after her with his sword. He wondered if he should.
Then again, the wolves were hunting.
"Go on!" he told her. "Go on your way. I'm young yet. I'll find another woman." He turned his back on her and walked on, so used to walking now that in the tumult of his thoughts he forgot there was another way.
Leaving the sun-warmed rock, he slipped into the shadows of the forest. That was when Ketty called after him in a tentative voice, "Smoke?"
He ignored her.
She called him again. "Smoke!"
He berated himself. You're being a fool! He knew he should go back and kill her. It wasn't likely that she could evade the wolves and find her way out of the forest, but it wasn't impossible either. And if she escaped? If she spoke of him? If word of his presence got back to the Puzzle Lands? He couldn't risk it!
So turn around and kill her!
He only walked faster until she cried out after him, "Smoke, wait!"
Her command stopped him short. It wasn't something he willed. His lip curled in frustration. He told himself to walk on, walk on, but he stood rooted in place. Curse the prayers of women! He was bidden by them, especially when it was one woman alone and in need.
Ketty's boots rustled thoughtlessly in the leaf litter as she bounded after him. "Smoke."
To his surprise she caught his hand again. She looked up at him with a glint of tears in her dark eyes. But he shook his head. "You're too difficult, Ketty."
"I know I am, but it's because I was born wrong. My mother said I was born under the red moon. Its spirit crept inside me, and that's why I am like I am. My brothers and sisters are all good and obedient, but I'm not. I'm stubborn, and lazy, and pig-headed too--and I always argue."
"Ketty of the Red Moon," he said with disdain. Then he reclaimed his hand and set off again. But he wasn't thinking anymore of killing her. He knew he couldn't do it. He'd have to rely on the wolves no matter the risk.
But she wasn't cooperating at all. Instead of going on her way, she was trotting alongside him. "Smoke, would you . . . really find another woman?"
"You've given up then?"
"But I think we're bound together."
He stopped again and glared down at her.
She blinked hard as tears threatened to spill over. She spoke in a choked voice. "I . . . I was thinking that maybe--if you're done with murdering--that maybe you're better company than wolves."
His smile blossomed. He couldn't help himself. "That's not what you were thinking." He touched her soft cheek and to his delight she actually leaned into his hand. "You were thinking how much you'd like to spend tonight in my bed."
That spoiled it. She drew back, wide eyed. "No! Well, sort of . . . but I don't like it that I have no choice!"
"You had a choice between me and the widower, between me and the wolves. I don't have any choice at all."
"I'm supposed to feel sorry for you?"
"Kiss me anyway."
"Or go to the wolves?"
"You already have the soul of a sharp-toothed wolf. Don't deny it! You're a wild thing."
"All right then." She set her hand on his left shoulder--but her attention was immediately caught by the deep scar on his neck. "Did you get that in battle?"
"That was from a Lutawan officer named Nedgalvin. I'll find him and kill him someday."
"It looks like your head was almost cut off!"
"It almost was. Now kiss me."
He was awash in her presence. Ketty must have felt the same way, because she needed no more encouragement. Standing on her toes she stretched up to press her lips against his--
And Smoke chuckled deep in his throat. "You don't know how to kiss, do you?"
She drew back. "And what do you expect? I've never kissed anyone before."
"I have, and it's done softly. Like this." He bent, and brushed his lips against hers, and then he went deeper, and as he tasted her mouth he felt a mesh of binding threads weaving tight between them.
"It is such a very little cottage, isn't it?" Ketty said, in a very small voice.
It was day's end, and they stood on the edge of a dainty round meadow of tasseled grass. Five deer had been peacefully browsing but at Ketty's voice they startled, bounding away along the bank of a brook that ran along the meadow's southern edge, until they disappeared within the towering forest. Mist gleamed all along the brook's course, made golden by the setting sun, but on the meadow's north side twilight had already come. A hill stood there, studded with tumbled gray boulders that wore cloaks of moss. A scatter of stunted trees grew between them. At the foot of the hill, flanked by groves of young aspen already gold in leaf, was a tiny round cottage of wattle and daub. It had a single door, woven of sticks. No windows looked out from its brown walls. It huddled shyly beneath the wide overhang of a thatch roof that it wore like a tall, conical hat. Faint skeins of smoke seeped up through the thatch, to escape into the sky.
Smoke looked on it with great pride. He had built it himself, alone. It was the first time he had ever built anything. "It's a perfect round," he bragged. "As round as the sun, so fine that a hearth spirit has come to live there, and keep the fire lit."
Ketty pressed a knuckle against her lip and spoke with some despair. "The smoke is coming up through the thatch. Why is there no chimney?"
"Because this old way is better. The smoke keeps the small creatures of the forest from making a home in the thatch, so it never leaks."
"But there is no proper door."
Smoke shrugged. "I wove a door from the wattle, but don't worry. There's hide on the inside to keep in the heat."
"And the palisade?"
"There's no need for a palisade. No army will come here to assail us."
"But what of the wolves? The bears? The forest lions?"
Smoke laughed. "Ketty, you worry too much!" He took her hand and kissed her cheek. "Come! Come see our home--and our bed!"
He set off trotting across the meadow and Ketty had no choice but to follow at his hurried pace despite her aching legs. They came to the door. It was fastened only with a loop of leather. Smoke unhooked this and pulled the door open. Ketty peered in, but it was so dark she could see only a faint glow of coals.
Smoke swept her up in his arms. She yelped in surprise. "Put me down!" she cried, even as she clutched at the front of his coat.
He grinned. "You're always playing."
He bore her over the threshold, into a murky, smoke-shot darkness relieved only by the red glow of a central hearth, and by the golden shimmer of the hearth spirit, visible for a moment before it sank into the warm, dry ground.
Ketty yelped again as Smoke dropped to his knees. He spilled her onto a pallet stuffed with straw. Her hand still clutched his coat. She stared in fascination at his green eyes, glittering in the darkness. Then she pulled him closer. He kissed her lips as she lay there. He kissed her face and her neck, even with his weapons still on his back.
She returned his kisses. She even found her lips brushing the deep scar given to him by a Lutawan soldier called Nedgalvin. It should have repulsed her, but everything about him seemed suddenly precious.
The cottage was quiet for a time. The hearth spirit returned. But soon after Ketty shed her poncho and Smoke gave up his weapons. Then a noise of sighs and moans and murmurs frightened the spirit once again, and by the time quiet returned, the sky outside was filled with stars.
Though we've waged war against the Lutawan king since the long-ago days of Koráy, none of us has ever seen him. Whether he's one man sustained over the centuries by magic, or a succession of men, I cannot say. I only know that his people hate him. Given half a chance, the young women from the border villages will abandon their families and flee north to throw in with the Koráyos army, against their own people. Not one of them has ever betrayed us. But their presence in our army infuriates the southern king and makes it difficult to negotiate a truce.
Two nights after her tryst with General Nedgalvin, Takis set out from Fort Veshitan in the company of Chieftain Rennish who commanded the irregulars, and Chieftain Helvero who was charged with holding the captured lands south of the Séferi Mountains. They went on horseback, following a winding trail up through thick forest. The Séferi were steep, rising in knife-edged ridges, but they weren't high. Tall pines and massive hemlocks grew all the way to the summit.
The riders crested and started down again. The trail reached its end a few minutes later at a lookout above Scout's Pass. They left their horses among the trees and walked out onto a pier of rock. A gazebo stood at the farthest point, its roof and half-wall providing a token shelter. Starlight and a sliver of setting moon illuminated a sheer drop to the pass on one side, and on the other, a deep and very narrow canyon. The borderlands began at the foot of the mountains--a mixture of tall grass and groves of trees, and beyond, farms, now mostly abandoned.
"We should burn off more of those groves," Takis said. "They provide too much cover."
Rennish was nearly fifty, tall and slim, with short hair and a narrow face. She'd trained Takis in combat, and Tayval and Smoke too, and as commander of the irregulars she spent much of her time deep in the field, so she didn't hesitate to disagree with Takis. "The cover benefits us more than the Lutawan forces--and if you burn it off for no good reason you might find some Hauntén who object."
"Are there Hauntén in the borderlands?"
Rennish nodded. "I don't think they live there, but now and then, I see them."
"Look there," Helvero whispered. He was younger than Rennish by many years, a powerfully built man, and though he tended to be rash and ambitious he'd proved his worth many times in combat.
Takis followed his pointing hand to the plain far below, where a horse and rider had just emerged from a grove close to the Trader's Stone. Takis watched him--she had no doubt it was Nedgalvin--as he rode through the grass toward the stone's tall, wind-sculpted spire. The Trader's Stone had marked the start of the pass in a long-ago time before it was hidden.
Nedgalvin paused beside the stone. Turning around, he held his right arm out to his side and raised and lowered it three times.
At this signal a long line of horse soldiers issued from the trees, riding in silence toward Nedgalvin.
Takis let out a long, disappointed sigh.
Helvero snorted. "I never took Nedgalvin for a fool. Does he truly believe this pass unguarded?"
"Perhaps he trusted me," Takis said.
Long ago Koráy had fenced the Puzzle Lands with a maze of defensive spells that had been reinforced and augmented in the generations since. The passes were disguised, the trails hidden, but the way would open to those who were welcome: Koráyos warriors, nomadic merchants, the tribal peoples of the Wild Wood and the far north. But any who were unknown or unwelcome in the Puzzle Lands put their lives at risk if they tried to cross the mountains. If they were lucky, such intruders might find themselves on a well-marked trail that doubled back on itself in a long exhausting loop, returning trespassers to where they'd started. If they were not lucky, the trail might take them into a trackless forest, or to the edge of a crumbling cliff or to a mountain torrent that could not be crossed, and then when they turned to go back, the trail would be gone.
Sometimes, invaders would simply be steered into a trap.
Takis sensed the presence of her sister Tayval in the binding threads. Tayval was far away, secure in the Fortress of Samerhen, but she was also in the world-beneath, poised like a spider at the center of a web of ten thousand threads radiating outward, woven into the structure of the air, the land, the mountains. If Tayval should pull on one of those threads a wind might rise, a storm might brew, or a hidden pass might be revealed--as tonight, when Scout's Pass lay open to General Nedgalvin and his men.
The general's soldiers caught up with him. Moonlight glittered on their spear tips. "At least two hundred," Rennish said. "He intends to take the fort, at the very least."
Takis watched as the horses climbed in a winding line up the trail, to disappear beneath the pines.
She had deliberately tempted Nedgalvin by telling him of the refugees at Fort Veshitan. The god of Lutawah, Hepen the Watcher, despised women. He allowed them to be sold by their fathers and owned by their husbands and any women who objected to this natural order were beaten, and if they still couldn't learn right and proper behavior, they were executed. But sometimes a woman would escape and flee north to the Puzzle Lands. Many of these refugees chose to become soldiers in the Koráyos army. Their conversion to strong and competent fighting troops directly contradicted the teachings of the Lutawan king, and infuriated the men who made up his army. No officer loyal to the king would forego the chance to slaughter the refugees who believed themselves safe in a Koráyos stronghold. Even if no man in Nedgalvin's company survived to return, word would escape, and those young women who were thinking of fleeing might then think twice.
Takis had hoped Nedgalvin would be different. She'd hoped that he could think for himself, that he would prove to be a rational man. She'd set her heart on it and her disappointment was bitter. "Damn you," she whispered, feeling suddenly as if her heart would tear in two. She had liked him! But more, he had been bright and irreverent and courageous, and despite Tayval's dour council, she had let herself believe he was capable of setting aside five generations of animosity, that he had intellect enough to see a different way.
She had imagined too much. "So we go on without him," she said, with only a slight tremor to her voice. Ever since Koráy had taught the craft of war to the people of the Puzzle Lands, no company of the Lutawan army had been allowed to come over the Séferi Mountains or through the East Tangle. Takis did not doubt it would continue so for another five generations, so long as the Bidden survived.
But if we do not? Tayval asked, speaking their shared fear.
Both sisters knew that without the Biddens' maze of defensive spells, the Koráyos people must eventually be conquered, and not because they were weak. They were fabled warriors, men and women both, trained to the field. But they were few. Measured against the great cities of the south, the Koráyos were a tiny tribe. Without the spells of the Bidden to keep the Lutawan king at bay, his warriors would come. If the southerners lost ten thousand men each year for ten years fighting to gain the passes, they would still come, and eventually they'd break through. Then the Puzzle Lands would be overrun and the Koráyos people forced to live by the cruel customs of the south--or murdered when they refused.
So Takis and Tayval dreamed together of making peace with Lutawah, and securing the future of their people--and if peace could not be made with the wicked creature worshiped now as king, then they would do all they could to see a new king set in his place--but it would not be Nedgalvin.
In the world-beneath Tayval tugged a thread, and the trail to the pass faded from sight. She twitched another thread--a concert of others--and a false trail opened.
Leaning over the gazebo's half wall, Takis watched, until far below she saw the line of horsemen emerge from the trees to follow the false path Tayval had laid for them. They entered the narrow canyon.
The moon had sunk so low its light couldn't reach into the defile, so Takis listened to the distant clip-clop of the horses' hooves to gauge their progress.
It's time, Tayval said.
Takis straightened. "It is time," she repeated aloud, her voice grim. In her heart she did not believe there would ever be another general more suitable for king-making than Nedgalvin.
Tayval tugged on a thread, and the night's quiet was shattered by a great crack! and then by a deafening crash of stone as a cliff gave way in a thundering avalanche and the ground trembled.
Takis walked back to her horse.
Nedgalvin rode at the head of his column of men. The trail was steep, and the horses labored to climb it, but he was grateful for the dense forest that would keep them hidden from any eyes watching from above.
The Bidden witch had said to come alone, and he might have done it, just for another chance of a night with her. Takis was an entirely different creature from the dull and stupid women of the south, who required guidance in the least task. She was mixed blood, of course, part Hauntén and maybe not truly a woman at all, but something more. Nedgalvin had met enough Koráyos women on the battlefield that he suspected all of them were descended from the bastard daughters of wandering Hauntén. They were bright, strong, and daring. He smiled to think of the temerity Takis had shown. It was her ambition to be a kingmaker! To tempt him to treason . . . and he might have listened. The kingdom was shot through with rot. Everyone knew it, though no one said so aloud.
But Takis had made a mistake when she told him about the fortress where the refugees were housed. The deepest rot in the kingdom was among its insipid women, those who whispered to one another of sisters and daughters who'd made a new life in the north. Such women were like sheep. If one wandered, another would follow without thought, and another after her, and so it was that many hundreds had disappeared into the Puzzle Lands where, no doubt, they warmed the beds and kept the kitchens of Koráyos masters.
The exodus must stop. The Lutawan Kingdom depended on both the labor and the wombs of such women. Nedgalvin was determined to end the whispers. He would take Fort Veshitan and slaughter the refugees he found within its walls. It was the right and proper thing to do.
Beneath the trees, the setting moon did little to show the way, but as they left the trees and entered a narrow canyon, the moon's feeble light was extinguished altogether by the high walls. After that Nedgalvin rode with his lantern in hand. Its faint beam picked out the trail. Several minutes passed. Then suddenly his horse snorted, sashaying to the side, its tail whisking the air in irritation. Nedgalvin raised his lantern to see what lay ahead, but his light didn't reach more than a few feet. He urged his horse on, but it refused, so he dismounted. Behind him, other animals were stopping--champing, stamping, blowing--while farther back in the dark came the clip-clop of more hooves. Wind soughed through tree branches, and a tiny stream trickled beside the trail.
Cautiously, he moved forward on foot. Soon the beam of his light picked out a tumble of stones across the trail, and a few feet farther on, a cliff wall studded with sparse brush and stunted trees. He frowned. Had he missed a turning in the trail? He cast his light to the right, walking several paces, hoping to discover the proper way. Then he turned about and explored to the left.
But there was no way forward.
Suddenly, he understood. He spun around, bellowing to his men, "It's a trap! Turn around. Retreat to the lowlands. All haste! Do not wait--"
His last command was forever lost behind a great, thunderous concussion, as if God had driven an ax into the mountains above and split them wide. Then came a deafening roar that shook him, blood and bone, shook the very ground he stood on. His light went out as grit pummeled him from all sides and a wind blasted up the canyon. He screamed at his men to run, run! But he couldn't hear himself. He couldn't hear them. He could see nothing. But he knew where the cliff was. Ignoring his own orders, he began to climb.
When Smoke was little he'd awake in nightmare, always the same one, a dream of being trapped in a crushing cage of blood and bone and no matter how he kicked and struggled he couldn't free himself. Once he said to me, "My father wanted me to die in there," which is of course the truth.
My father calls Smoke his demon child, but if my brother is a demon it's our father who made him so.
At first Ketty was afraid. Not of Smoke--not so much--but of the unseen perils of the Wild Wood: the wolves, the bears, the lions, the Hauntén, and the vast labyrinth of trees that held her isolated from any other human presence.
She didn't count Smoke as human. Not entirely, anyway.
"Why do you live so deep in the Wild Wood?" Ketty asked him, on that first morning in the little round cottage.
He was crouched at the hearth, frying fish he'd collected from a trap in the brook. "I can do what I want here. And my mind is quiet. I almost never hear voices."
"You heard mine."
He nodded, smiling to himself. "And for that I'll always be grateful."
Ketty thought it odd that such sweet words could be spoken by a murderer, but really, it was better not to think too much about what Smoke might have done before she met him.
Very quickly, their life together took on patterns. On most days they went into the forest to gather roots, fruits, herbs, and nuts against the coming winter. They never hurried, but spent the hours laughing and kissing and talking of inconsequential things. These days passed sweetly.
But every few days Smoke would go alone to hunt.
The first time he was gone Ketty stayed in the cottage with the door closed, while all her imagined fears gathered around outside. But as the days passed her imagination grew less fevered. Soon she worried only a little about the wolves, the bears, the lions, and the Hauntén. Then she would stand at the cottage door and listen to the murmuring of the brook and the gossiping of the trees as they spoke to one another in rustles and creaks on topics beyond her understanding, until late afternoon finally brought a happy shout from the forest, "Ketty, I'm home!"
Then she'd run to meet Smoke as he came striding through shafts of mist-drenched sunlight with the quartered carcass of a deer over his shoulder, or the meat of a forest sow--and despite the blood and the smell she'd hug him gingerly and kiss his mouth, because even if he wasn't entirely human he was showing himself to be a good husband, in every way that mattered.
Smoke marveled at the binding threads that tied him to Ketty; each day there were more than the day before, all of them tight and strong. He felt her always in his thoughts. Even when he was far away he knew if she was content or if she was concerned. If anything should come to threaten her he would know it and be able to return to her within seconds along the world's weft.
But there was nothing within his holding that would bring her harm. The beasts of the Wild Wood knew his will and didn't trouble him, and if any woodsman dared to venture so deep into the forest, Smoke would know it by the trembling of the threads--and such a trespasser would be dead long before he could follow the scent of wood smoke to the cottage.
The days passed, until winter chased away the brief autumn season, laying crisp snow across the meadow. On that first snowy morning Ketty was happy. With her bare hands she scraped up the snow and packed it into a rude clump. And to Smoke's astonishment she flung it at him when he turned his back. When it exploded against his shoulder she ran away laughing and only after several seconds of thought (and another snow stone bursting against his chest) did he understand it was a game.
"Don't just stand there," she scolded him. "Defend yourself!" And a third snow stone went flying on a path that would take it past his shoulder. He caught it instead and flung it back at her underhand--though he made sure to miss. But she was caught by surprise, and jumped back anyway--and he was there to catch her, heaving her over his shoulder. She laughed, her hair wild in her face. "Put me down, you idiot. This is not how it's played. You must make your own snow stones and throw them at me--"
She shrieked, when he made as if to drop her, but of course he caught her again, setting her feet gently on the ground. "Never, Ketty," said. "You're precious and I would never hurt you. I don't understand how any man could."
"It doesn't hurt, silly." Then she laughed at herself. "Not so much, anyway."
All that day Smoke was quiet, seeming wrapped up in thought, which was not his way. Ketty worried. "Tell me what's on your mind," she urged him, as they lay together that night, with only the glimmer of the hearth, and the hearth spirit, for light.
He sighed. "Do you know why men are cruel to women?"
She turned toward him. "Smoke! You are never cruel to me."
"Not me, silly. Men like those in the Lutawan Kingdom. Men like your father. He especially should have loved you. I think men like that have evil hearts."
"No, my father wasn't evil."
"Then why did he beat you? It makes me furious even to think on it!"
She kissed his nose, his eyes. "Hush. Don't be angry. I am Ketty of the Red Moon."
He laughed. "You're a maddening woman, it's true."
"Ha! But anyway, he wasn't so angry when my mother still lived."
Smoke didn't answer right away, so she kissed him. For a while. Finally, he spoke. "I didn't have a mother."
"What?" She propped her head up on her hand and frowned. "What do you mean, no mother? Where did you come from? Out of a tree? Conjured from a fire?"
"Cut out of a corpse."
She tensed, reminded again that he wasn't quite human. But then she guessed the truth. "Your mother died in childbirth, right? Why don't you just say it, instead of making it sound like you were born in evil? Women die giving birth. It's a sad thing, but it happens." Again, his answer was delayed. She said, "I heard of a boy once, whose mother died minutes after he was born. His father had four sons already. He cared nothing at all for a fifth. He claimed the infant was evil. He took it away from the breast of his sister, carried it into the forest, and left it there for the wolves."
Smoke sighed. "My father gave me no name." Then his teeth flashed in a grin that banished his somber mood. "My sisters--they're twins--they were only eight years old when I was born, but they decided they had to steal me away. I suppose they found some woman to nurse me, though I don't remember it. I remember them though. They played with me like a doll. For ten years! They were the best mothers."
Ketty smiled too. "And did they finally grow tired of you? Or have babies of their own?"
"No. My father came one day. He spoke to them gently, saying I was too old and they couldn't play with me anymore. They were eighteen then, grown women, but they cried when he took me away."
"And did you cry?"
Smoke snorted. "In front of my father? Ketty, even at ten, I was not that foolish."
"He made you become a warrior?"
"Did you want to?"
"It's what we do."
She squeezed his hand, suddenly frightened. "So it's at least twice you've almost died. First when you were born, and then when that soldier Nedgalvin cut your neck."
"He didn't hurt me so much."
She shivered, squeezing closer to his warmth. "Liar."
"He was trying to cut your throat, wasn't he?"
"Why do you want to talk about him?"
"Because it makes me afraid when I think what could have been. Smoke, if he had killed you we would never--"
"Shh . . ." He set his fingers against her mouth. "He didn't kill me. I hate him though. And someday I'll kill him."
Ketty went to sleep soon after that, but Smoke was left restless by her questions, remembering that night:
He hadn't been afraid, going in. He'd been in the field only eight days, but Chieftain Rennish's irregulars had already raided two villages, both deeper in the borderlands than the one they would hit that night. No one anticipated much trouble.
Most of the Koráyos soldiers waited with their horses in a hollow among the hills, but Smoke had gone ahead with Chieftain Rennish. As dusk came, they were crouched on a brush-covered hillside, watching as the villagers came in from the fields.
The fields and the village were both well kept. Round houses had been laid out in neat, concentric rings split by a single straight lane. Where the lane passed through the center of the village there was a square, with a common hall on one side and a plank-walled church on the other.
Scouts had reported Lutawan troops billeted at the village the night before. Smoke saw no sign of the troops now, but it didn't matter. By the Trenchant's command, any village that gave support or shelter to the southern army--willingly or not--would be burned to the ground.
As the last of the villagers disappeared into their homes, Chieftain Rennish turned to Smoke, and nodded.
It was Smoke's task to go in first.
He reached out to the threads that lay beneath the world. His reflection became a streaming gray vapor. He entered the village, made invisible by the encroaching dark. Moments later, his human reflection took shape within the shadow of the common hall.
For several seconds he made no move, only listened.
He heard the clucking of chickens, the rustle of pigs, but nothing more. There was no murmur of voices, no smell of supper cooking, no people in sight at all.
Yet in the weft and warp of the threads he felt the gravity of some two-hundred people, far more than indicated by the number of houses. So he knew the Lutawan troops were hiding in the dwellings--they must have been there all day--in expectation of this twilight raid.
Smoke grinned. Chieftain Rennish was in for a surprise.
Or she would be, if he didn't warn her. He started to slip again beneath the world. He was already half-gone to smoke when a flaming arrow ignited the thatch roof of a small shed across the street.
He stared at it, stunned.
Fire was the signal he used to alert Chieftain Rennish and summon the charge.
The flame took hold while he was still trying to understand where the arrow had come from.
Then several things happened at once.
A chorus of Koráyos war cries resounded from the south, followed instantly by a thunder of hooves storming toward the village. An arrow shot past Smoke, missing his ear by a whisper. And a commanding voice shouted from somewhere nearby, "All forward!" And with that command, doors flew open, war horses were squeezed through doorways, and one after another, riders vaulted into their saddles.
Smoke pulled his sword and attacked. The nearest Lutawan had only one foot in the stirrup when Smoke split his spine. Another fell with a slit throat. Then an officer who had made it into the saddle spotted Smoke and bore down on him at a gallop.
Smoke retreated beneath the world. He emerged again across the square, the plank wall of the church at his back. The Lutawans were all on horseback now. They went charging off to meet the oncoming Koráyos militia--all but the officer who'd targeted Smoke.
He had turned his horse around and was spurring it across the village square straight toward the church. Smoke glimpsed him: a tall man, lean, strong, with black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. As he bore down on Smoke he raised his saber high, anticipating the downward stroke. Smoke bared his teeth. Time to retreat again. Once more, he prepared to slip beneath the world, but this time the officer took him by surprise. He threw his sword.
Smoke was young, barely sixteen. This was only his third battle. He hadn't known it was possible to throw a sword with any accuracy. Then again, the blade missed its true target. It should have struck him full in the throat, severing his windpipe or his carotid artery, but instead it caught him at the curve of his shoulder and neck. The blade struck with force enough to hurl him backward against the plank wall of the church. The point of the sword passed through his neck and bit deep into the wood, pinning him.
Again, he set himself to slip beneath the world.
Or he tried to. But nothing happened. He didn't go anywhere. He sensed the threads, felt their warp and weft, but his human reflection refused to yield. The steel of the sword had pinned him in the world.
The Lutawan officer brought his horse to a skidding stop and vaulted from the saddle. Smoke grabbed for the hilt of the sword--he had to pull it out!--but he couldn't reach it. The officer drew a long knife from a sheath at his waist--and Smoke did the only thing he could think to do. He wrenched his body down and to the side, letting the sword cut itself free. Hot blood cascaded over his back and chest. "Hauntén demon!" the southerner swore as Smoke dodged the first thrust of his knife--and then Smoke slipped away.
Nothing about him ever changed when he ran the threads, so he didn't bleed out even though it was some long time later when he reached Samerhen. He went straight to his sister Tayval where she was reading in her room, and collapsed in a bloody heap on her carpet.
She saved his life, pinching the threads that underlay his body and stemming the flow of blood. Afterward it took her many hours to suture his severed muscles and sew his skin closed.
He learned later the officer's name was Nedgalvin. Chieftain Rennish had lost one-quarter of her troops that night, before calling a retreat.
On the next morning Ketty woke abruptly. Lurching to her feet, she stepped past Smoke, stumbled to the door, yanked it open, and took two steps in her bare feet before falling to her hands and knees in the fresh snow. She retched up bile and a remnant of supper.
Afterward she was tired, but in the afternoon she was smiling again and she ate some soup. The next morning, though, her illness returned.
That night Smoke lay awake beside her, fearing and fretting that a winter sickness had found her. Such spirits could bide where they were not wanted, slowly eating away the sweetness of life, leaving only a wasted husk where once a laughing person had been.
He resolved to hunt the consuming spirit, but when he felt the threads it was not sickness he discovered but something small and far sweeter. "Ketty," he whispered. Then he kissed her cheek and gently squeezed her shoulder. "Ketty, wake up."
She stirred and looked at him in the fire's light, her gaze puzzled.
He set his hand--very gently--against her belly. "It's a magical thing. There's a baby here, growing inside you."
She set her hand over his. "Are you happy?"
"I don't know how such a thing could be."
A puzzled note entered her voice. "Do you not?"
"That's not what I meant."
"But are you happy? I was afraid you'd be angry."
"Angry? Why would I be?"
"I don't know. I mean, it's the way of the world that we should have children together . . . don't you think?"
"I think it's a magical thing."
"Then you're happy?"
"I think so . . . Ketty, you already knew?"
"It is the way of the world, my love. Why are you surprised?"
The Bidden are a mixture of Hauntén and human. It's an unnatural blend and our children are rare. My father, the Trenchant Dehan, was the only child of his generation. He loved and married a Koráyos woman who safely bore twin daughters, but died in agony giving birth to my brother, Smoke.
My father tries to find a new wife. He's had many lovers, but none that suit him.
I and my sister have enjoyed many lovers too.
But it seems our kind must be in love to conceive a child--a deeply inconvenient prerequisite, I must say.