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Winterbirth

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Winterbirth

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Author: Brian Ruckley
Publisher: Orbit, 2006
Series: The Godless World: Book 1

1. Winterbirth
2. Bloodheir
3. Fall of Thanes

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

An uneasy truce exists between the thanes of the True Bloods.

Now, as another winter approaches, the armies of the Black Road march south, from their exile beyond the Vale of Stones. For some, war will bring a swift and violent death. Others will not hear the clash of swords or see the corpses strewn over the fields. They instead will see an opportunity to advance their own ambitions. But all, soon, will fall under the shadow that is descending.

For, while the storm of battle rages, one man is following a path that will awaken a terrible power in him -- and his legacy will be written in blood.


Excerpt

PREFACE

They say the world has fallen far from its former state.

In the beginning there was but one race. It failed the Gods who made it and, though it wounded their hearts to do so, they destroyed it. In its place they fashioned five which they put in the world to inhabit it, and these were the races of the Second Age: Whreinin and Saolin, Huanin and Kyrinin, and Anain.

The sky turned a thousand thousand times and beneath the gaze of the Gods their children prospered. Cities, empires, rose and fell. But at last the Huanin and Kyrinin wearied of the cruelties of the wolfenkind, the Whreinin. Despite the will of the Gods they made war upon that race, and they destroyed it utterly and it passed out of time and history. For this deed are the Huanin and Kyrinin named the Tainted Races. And upon that deed were the hopes of the Gods broken, for they saw that what they had made was flawed beyond mending, marred by an unyielding vein of discord and hubris. The Gods took council upon the highest peaks of the Tan Dihrin, where the rotating firmament grinds sparks from the mountain tops, and they chose to look no longer upon the failure of their dreams and to suffer no longer the rebellions of their children. They left the world, departing to places beyond the thoughts or imaginings of any save their own kind, and with them went much that was best in the peoples they abandoned.

This is how the Second Age ended and the Third began. It is how this came to be a Godless World. That is what they say.

PROLOGUE

I The Third Age: Year 942

The solitude of the wild goats that made their home on the rock faces above the Vale of Stones was seldom interrupted. The Vale might be the only pass through the high Tan Dihrin, but it was a route that led nowhere: the bleak and icy shores of the north were home only to savage tribes. There was nothing there to draw traders or conquerors up from the lands of the Kilkry Bloods to the south.

When a sudden river of humanity began to flow up and over the Vale of Stones, it therefore sent unease darting through the herds of goats on their precipitous territories overhead. Bucks stamped their feet; does called for their kids. Soon, the cliffs were deserted and only the mute rock was left to witness the extraordinary scenes below, as ten thousand people marched into a cold exile.

The great column was led by a hundred or more mounted warriors. Many bore wounds, still fresh from the lost battle on the fields by Kan Avor; all bore, in their red-rimmed eyes and wan skin, the marks of exhaustion. Behind them came the multitude: women, children and men, though fewest of the last. Thousands of widows had been made that year.

It was a punishing exodus. Their way was paved with hard rock and sharp stones that cut feet and turned ankles. There could be no pause. Any who fell were seized by those who came behind, hauled upright with shouts of encouragement, as if noise alone could put strength back into their legs. If they could not rise, they were left. There were already dozens of buzzards and ravens drifting lazily above the column. Some had followed it all the way up the Glas valley from the south; others were residents of the mountains, drawn from their lofty perches by the promise of carrion.

A few of those fleeing through the Stone Vale had been wealthy -- merchants and landowners from Kan Avor or Glasbridge. What little of their wealth they had managed to salvage in the panic of flight was now slipping through their fingers. Mules were stumbling and falling beneath overladen panniers, defeated by the desperate whips of their handlers or the weight of their loads; the wheels and axles of carts were splintering amidst the rocks, cargoes spilling to the ground. Servants cajoled or threatened into carrying their masters' goods were casting them aside, exhaustion overcoming their fear. Fortunes that had taken lifetimes to accumulate lay scattered and ignored along the length of the Vale, like flakes of skin scoured off the crowd's body by the rock walls of the pass.

Avann oc Gyre, Thane of the Gyre Blood and self-proclaimed protector of the creed of the Black Road, rode amongst the common folk. His Shield, the men sworn to guard him day and night, had long since abandoned their efforts to keep the people from straying too close to their lord. The Thane himself ignored the masses jostling all about him. His head hung low and he made no effort to guide his horse. It followed where the flow carried it.

There was a crust of blood upon the Thane's cheek. He had been in the thick of the fighting outside Kan Avor, his beloved city, and survived only because his own Shield had disregarded his commands and dragged him from the field. The wound on his cheek was little more than a scratch, though. Hidden beneath his robes, and beneath blood-heavy bandaging, other injuries were eating away at his strength. The lance of a Kilkry horseman had pierced the Thane through from front to back, breaking as it did so and leaving splinters of wood along the tunnel it drove through his flesh. He had a fine company of healers, and if there had been time to set his tent, to rest and tend to his wounds, they might even have been able to save his life. Avann had forbidden such a delay, and refused to leave his horse for a litter.

What was left of the Thane's armies came behind. Two years ago the warriors of Gyre had been one of the finest bodies of fighting men in all the lands of the Kilkry Bloods, but the unremitting carnage since then had consumed their strength as surely as a fire loosed upon a drought-struck forest. In the end virtually every able-bodied man -- and many of the women -- of the Black Road had taken to the field at Kan Avor, drawn not just from Gyre but from every Blood: still they had been outnumbered by more than three to one. Now barely fifteen hundred men remained, a battered rearguard for the flight of the Black Road into the north.

The man who rode up to join his Thane was as bruised and weary as all the rest. His helm was dented, the ring mail on his chest stained with blood, his round shield notched and half split where an axe had found a lucky angle. Still, this man bore himself well and his eyes retained a glint of vigor. He nudged his horse through the crowds and leaned close to Avann.

"Lord," he said softly, "it is Tegric."

Avann stirred, but did not raise his head or open his eyes.

"My scouts have come up, lord," the warrior continued. "The enemy draw near. Kilkry horsemen are no more than an hour or two adrift of us. Behind them, spearmen of Haig-Kilkry. They will bring us to bay before we are clear of the Vale."

The Thane of Gyre spat bloodily.

"Whatever awaits us was decided long ago," he murmured. His voice was thin and weak. "We cannot fear what is written in the Last God's book."

One of the Thane's shieldmen joined them, and fixed Tegric with a disapproving glare.

"Leave the Thane be," he said. "He must conserve his strength."

That at last raised Avann's head. He winced as he opened his eyes.

"My death will come when it must. Until then, I am Thane, not some sick old woman to be wrapped warm and fed broth. Tegric treats me as a Thane still; how much more should my own Shield?"

The shieldman nodded in acceptance of the reprimand, but stayed in close attendance.

"Let me wait here, lord," said Tegric softly. "Give me just a hundred men. We will hold the Vale until our people are clear."

The Thane regarded Tegric. "We may need every man in the north. The tribes will not welcome our arrival."

"There will be no arrival if our enemies come upon us here in the Vale. Let me stand here and I will promise you half a day, perhaps more. The cliffs narrow up ahead, and there is an old rockfall. I can hold the way against riders; spill enough of their blood that they will wait for their main force to come up before attempting the passage twice."

"And then you will be a hundred against what, five thousand? Six?" Avann grunted.

"At least," smiled Tegric.

An old man fell in the crowds that surrounded them. He cried out as a stone opened his knee. A grey-haired woman -- perhaps his wife -- hurried to help him to his feet, murmuring "Get up, get up." A score of people, including the Thane and Tegric, flowed past before she managed to raise him. She wept silently as the man hobbled onward.

"Many people have already died in defense of our creed," Avann oc Gyre said, lowering his head once more and closing his eyes. He seemed to shrink as he hunched forward in his saddle. "If you give us half a day -- if it has been so written in the Last God's book -- you and your hundred will be remembered. When the lands that have been taken from us are ours again, you will be named first and noblest amongst the dead. And when this bitter world is unmade and we have returned into the love of the Gods I will look for you, to give you the honor that will be your due."

Tegric nodded. "I will see you once again in the reborn world, my Thane."

He turned his horse and nudged it back against the current of humanity.

Tegric rested against a great boulder. He had removed his tunic, and was methodically stitching up a split seam. His mail shirt was neatly spread upon a rock, his shield and scabbarded sword lying beside it, his helm resting at his feet. These were all that remained to him, everything he had need of. He had given his horse to a lame woman who had been struggling
along in the wake of the main column. His small pouch of coins had gone to a child, a boy mute from shock or injury.

Above, buzzards were calling as they circled lower, descending toward the corpses that Tegric knew lay just out of sight. His presence, and that of his hundred men, might deter the scavengers for a while longer, but he did not begrudge them a meal. Those who once dwelled in those bodies had no further need of them: when the Gods returned -- as they would once all peoples of the world had learned the humility of the Black Road -- they would have new bodies, in a new world.

From where he sat, Tegric could see down a long, sloping sweep of the Stone Vale. Every so often he glanced up from his stitching to cast his eyes back the way they had come. Far off in that direction lay Grive, where he had lived most of his life: a place of soft green fields, well-fed cattle, as different from this punishing Vale of Stones as any place could be. The memory of it summoned up no particular emotion in him. The rest of his family had not seen the truth of the creed as he had. When Avann oc Gyre, their Thane, had declared for the Black Road they had fled from Grive, disappearing out of Tegric's life. In every Blood, even Kilkry itself, the blossoming of the Black Road had sundered countless families, broken ties and bonds that had held firm for generations. To Tegric's mind it was a cause for neither regret nor surprise. A truth as profound as that of the Black Road could not help but have consequences.

An old man, dressed in a ragged brown robe and leaning on a staff, came limping up the Vale. He was, perhaps, the very last of the fleeing thousands. Though they were close to the highest point of the pass, the sun, burning out of a cloudless sky, still had strength. The man's forehead was beaded with sweat. He paused before Tegric, resting all his weight upon his staff and breathing heavily. The warrior looked up at the man, squinting slightly against the sunlight.

"Am I far behind the rest?" the man asked between labored breaths.

Tegric noted the bandaged feet, the trembling hands.

"Some way," he said softly.

The man nodded, unsurprised and seemingly unperturbed. He wiped his brow with the hem of his robe; the material came away sweaty and dirty.

"You are waiting here?" he asked Tegric, who nodded in reply.

The man cast around, scanning the warriors scattered amongst the great boulders all around him.

"How many of you are there?"

"A hundred," Tegric told him.

The old man chuckled, though it was a cold and humorless kind of laugh.

"You have come to the end of your Roads then, you hundred. I had best press on, and discover where my own fate runs out."

"Do so," said Tegric levelly. He watched the man make his unsteady way along the path already trodden by so many thousands. There had been, in the gentle edges of his accent, no hint of the Gyre Blood or the Glas valley where Avann had ruled.

"Where are you from, old father?" Tegric called after him.

"Kilvale, in Kilkry lands," the man replied.

"Did you know the Fisherwoman, then?" Tegric asked, unable to keep the edge of wonder from his voice.

The old man paused and carefully turned to look back at the warrior.

"I heard her speak. I knew her a little, before they killed her."

"There will be a day, you know, when the Black Road marches through this pass again," Tegric said. "But then we will be marching out of the north, not into it. And we will march all the way to Kilvale and beyond."

Again the man laughed his rough laugh. "You are right. They've driven us from our homes, cast even your Thane out from his castle, but the creed survives. You and I are not fated to see it, friend, but the Black Road will rule in the hearts of all men one day, and all things will come to their end. This is a war that will not be done until the world itself is unmade."

Tegric gazed after the receding figure for a time. Then he returned to his sewing.

A while later, his hand paused in its rhythmic motion, the needle poised in mid-descent. There was something moving amongst the rocks, back down the pass to the south. He carefully set aside his tunic and half-rose, leaning forward on one knee.

"Kilkry," he heard one of his warriors muttering off to his left.

And the shape coalescing out of the rock and the bright light did indeed look to be a rider. Nor was it alone. At least a score of horsemen were picking their way up the Vale of Stones.

Tegric laid a hand instinctively on the cool metal of his chain vest. He could feel the dried blood, the legacy of a week's almost constant battle, beneath his fingertips. He was not afraid to die. That was one fear the Black Road lifted from a man's back. If he feared anything, it was that he should fail in his determination to face, both willingly and humbly, whatever was to come.

"Ready yourselves," he said, loud enough for only the few nearest men to hear. They passed the word along. Tegric snapped the needle from the end of its thread and slipped his tunic back on. He lifted his mail shirt above his head and dropped its familiar weight onto his shoulders. Like smoke rising from a newly caught fire, the line of riders below was lengthening, curling and curving its way up the pass.

The horsemen of Kilkry were the best mounted warriors to be found in all the Bloods, but their prowess would count for little where Tegric had chosen to make his stand. A titanic fall of rocks from the cliffs above had almost choked the Stone Vale with rubble. The riders would be greatly hampered, perhaps even forced to dismount. Tegric's swordsmen and archers would have the advantage here. Later, when the main body of the pursuing army came up, they would be overwhelmed, but that did not matter.

He glanced at the sun, a searingly bright orb in the perfectly blue sky. He could hear the buzzards and the ravens, could glimpse their dark forms gliding in effortless spirals. It did not seem a bad place, a bad day, to die. If, when he woke in the new world the Black Road promised him, this was his last memory of his first life, of this failed world, it would not displease him.

Tegric Wyn dar Gyre rose and buckled on his sword belt.

II The Third Age: Year 1087

Mist had draped itself across the village, so that water, land and air had all run together. The domed huts were indistinct shapes, bulging out of the morning vapors here and there like burial mounds. Dew lay heavy on the cut slabs of turf that covered them. A lone fisherman was easing his flatboat out into one of the channels that meandered through the reedbeds around the village. There was no other sign of life save the wispy threads rising from the smokeholes of one or two of the huts. Not a breath of wind disturbed their ascent as the trails of smoke climbed high into the air before losing themselves in the greyness.

One larger hut stood apart from the others on raised ground. A figure emerged out of the mist, walking toward it: a youth, no more than fifteen or sixteen. His tread left deep prints in the mossy grass. Outside the hut he stopped and gathered himself. He stood straight and looked around for a moment. He breathed the damp air in and out, as if cleansing himself.

As the deerskin that hung across the opening fell back into place behind him, the interior was cast into a deep gloom. Only the faintest light oozed in through the small hole in the center of the roof; the peat fire had been dampened down to embers. The youth could make out the indistinct forms of a dozen or more people sitting motionless in a semi-circle. Some of their faces were touched by the glow of the embers, lighting their cheeks a little. He knew them, but it was an irrelevance here and now. On this morning they were one; they were the will of the place, of Dyrkyrnon. In the background, all but beneath the reach of even his acute hearing, a dolorous rhythm was being chanted. He had never heard the sound before, yet knew what it was: a truth chant, a habit borrowed from the Heron Kyrinin. They were seeking wisdom.

"Sit," someone said.

He lowered himself to the ground and crossed his legs. He fixed his eyes on the firepit.

"We have sat through the night," said someone else, "to give thought to this matter."

The youth nodded and pressed his thin lips tight together.

"It is a heavy duty," continued the second speaker, "and a sad burden that we should be called upon to make such judgments. Dyrkyrnon is a place of sanctuary, open to all those of our kind who can find no peace or safety in the outer world. Yet we came together to determine whether you should be turned out, Aeglyss, and sent away from here."

Aeglyss said nothing. His face remained impassive, his gaze unwavering.

"You were taken in, and given comfort. You would have died at your mother's side if you had not been found and brought here. Yet you have sown discord. The friendship and trust you were offered have been repaid with cruelty. Dyrkyrnon suffers now by your presence. Aeglyss, you shall leave this place, and have no discourse with any who make their homes here. We cast you out."

There was a flicker of response in the youth's face then: a trembling in the tight-clenched jaw, a shiver at the corner of his mouth. He closed his eyes. The peaty smoke was thickening the air. It touched the back of his throat and nose.

"You are young, Aeglyss," the voice from beyond the smoldering fire said, a little softer now. "It may be that age will teach you where we have failed. If that should be the case, you will be welcome here once more."

He stared at the half-lit faces opposite him, a cold anger in his look.

"You came to us out of a storm," said a woman, "and you carry the storm within you. It is beyond us to tame it. It is too deep-rooted. When it is gone, or mastered, return to us. The judgment can be rescinded. You belong here."

He laughed at that, the sound harsh and sudden in the still atmosphere. There were tears welling up in his eyes. They ran down his cheeks but did not reach his voice.

"I belong nowhere," he said, and rose to his feet. "Not here, and therefore nowhere. You are afraid of me, you who more than any should understand. You talk of comfort and trust, yet all I see in the faces around me is doubt and fear. The stench of your fear sickens me." He spat into the embers. A puff of ashes hissed into the air.

Aeglyss cast about, trying to find someone in the enveloping darkness of the hut. "K'rina. You are here. I can feel you. Will you deny me too?"

"Be still, K'rina," said someone.

"Yes, be still," Aeglyss snarled. "Do as they tell you. That is the way of it here: tread softly, always softly. Disturb nothing. You promised to love me, K'rina, in my dead mother's place. Is this your love?"

Nobody answered him.

"I loved you, K'rina. Loved!" He spat the word as if it was poison on his tongue. He could not see through his tears.

"I only wanted..." The words died in his throat. He sucked a breath in. "This is not fair. What have I done? Nothing that another might not do. Nothing."

The shadowed figures made no reply. Their obdurate will lay between him and them like a wall. With a curse that almost choked him, Aeglyss turned and strode out.

After he had gone, there was a long stretch of quiet. Almost imperceptibly at first, then louder, there came the sound of stifled sobs from somewhere in the shadows.

"Save your sorrow, K'rina. He is unworthy of it."

"He is m-my ward," stammered the woman.

"No longer. It is for the best. He has too much in him that is wild and cruel. We cannot free him of it, for all that we have tried."

K'rina subsided into silence, muffling her grief.

"He's right in one thing," someone else said. "We are afraid of him."

"There is no shame in that. He is stronger in the Shared than anyone we have seen in years, even if he lacks the knowledge to use that strength as he might. When he was only playing cruel games, whispering in ears and working a child's tricks, we might overlook it. But now... the girl still cries in the night. If he remained amongst us there would be greater sorrow in the end."

"Wherever he goes in the world, there will be greater sorrow," said a man with wild, dark spirals etched upon his face. "It would have been better to put an end to him. Blood will fill that one's footprints. Wherever he goes."

Copyright © 2006 by Brian Ruckley


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