Excerpt: Prologue to The Storm of Northreach
Before I finished the end, I looped back to the beginning.
The tree branch digging into his buttocks was uncomfortable, but Ajen was barely conscious of that now. He had planned to give Alys a little scare when she arrived for their tryst on Dane’s Knoll by climbing up the massive silver-barked tree that rose from it. When she arrived, he was going to let her mill about the trunk for a time, let her build up a good bit of worry, then leap down and surprise her. He’d anticipated getting a good slap out of it, but she’d be grateful for arms to wrap around her and make her feelings of fright go away.
The small hill and large tree gave an excellent view of the town around it, and Ajen kept his eyes roving over the shadows between the buildings, waiting for his betrothed to slip out from them. He was hoping that scaring her would loosen some of her defenses, so that he might get a sample of the charms that awaited him after their marriage. The hints and insinuations that had always served him well on his trips to Brethford had never gotten him anywhere with his bride-to-be, and his impatience was beginning to win out over the enticing mystery and anticipation.
Tonight was going to be his best chance. Since she’d be sneaking out, Alys would be afraid of making too much noise, which would help hush any protests she might make. Once she was properly frightened and then nestled into his arms, she’d be too relieved to stop him from giving her a proper kiss instead of the little pecks she doled out like a miser with his last few coins. Once engaged, she’d not notice the hand down her bodice until it was too late, and by then his efforts should have her ready and willing to slip off behind the church for their first coupling.
Of course, if she wasn’t ready, then a little more coercion might be necessary, but Ajen was sure that she’d give in to a little carefully applied force if he threatened to shout out and awaken everyone. Poor little Alys would be so afraid to be caught in something so improper as sneaking out of her mother’s house without permission that Ajen was sure she’d let him have whatever he wanted, or was willing to take.
Movement among the buildings broke him away from the thoughts and imaginings that were keeping the chill night air at bay. His excitement died a bit as he watched the slow-moving shape move stiffly among the buildings. It clearly wasn’t Alys, as the shape was too large. Ajen frowned in annoyance, silently cursing the unknown oldster who’d decided to walk in the night instead of lying awake in bed that they ought.
His annoyance grew as he spotted a few other figures moving throughout the town. In all his years of sneaking about at night, he’d never seen anyone but Honner and Mic, slipping off to the slipshod carpenter’s dilapidated workshop to sip varnish. Now, there were at least four wanderers moving through the village, and none of them his soon-to-be-deflowered betrothed.
Ajen’s exasperation vanished when he saw a furtive shape slip between two buildings and skulk poorly towards the knoll. The dark cloak she wore flashed a glimpse of her bright-white bedclothes with every step as she neared the tree. His blood surged with excitement and desire and his hands twitched in anticipation of encircling her small waist.
Ajen smiled, seeing the fright already on the girl’s face. In another minute or two, she’d be near panic, ready to melt into the arms of the first comforting grasp offered to her.
She reached the tree and placed a hand on the trunk as she circled it, looking for him. He waited, a dozen feet up, poised to make his leap. Almost, he thought, almost….
The sudden scream from somewhere in the village nearly knocked Ajen from his perch prematurely. He heard Alys yip quietly below him, and cursed to himself again as the girl sped off back towards her home. He couldn’t believe his ill luck; why had Ban turned on him so quickly? Everything was within his grasp, his desires about to be fulfilled, and yet some stupid village washer-woman had gotten a glimpse of a mouse or something and ruined everything.
He looked around the town with narrowed eyes, trying to see which of the villagers had dashed his hopes. He was surprised to see more people milling about now, all throughout the scattered buildings. There was even an odd blue glow on the other side of the town, like a ground-borne star, and in its dim light Ajen could see even more shapes.
Around the village doors were opening, alerted to the noise, as dogs began to bark and howl. At this point, curiosity overwhelmed even his tremendous disappointment, and Ajen remained in his perch to view the goings-on.
Ajen shivered as the cold wind swept through the bare branches around him. The curiosity and fascination that had fed him for so long and kept him unaware of the cold and discomfort of his seat had worn away over time, leaving him now shivering, shifting, and afraid.
That first scream had just been a prelude. Many more had cut the night in short order, and Ajen had watched as the village’s dark and quiet buildings had come to life as its residents responded to the alarms, only to find themselves adding to the din. There were struggles in the dark all around him, dimly seen but all the more horrible for it. More than once he’d seen a fast moving figure stumble and fall while a slower group encircled it, surrounded it, and huddled over it for a time.
Ajen shifted again, blinking sudden tears away as he looked down below him. The four figures below him wouldn’t get close to touching the tree, but stood an arm’s length from its base, hands stretched towards him, each letting out a moan that set Ajen’s chattering teeth on edge. Even in the darkness, Ajen could sense something terribly wrong about them, these strangers in their torn and stained clothes desperate to reach him with single-minded desire and longing. They watched him unerringly and unblinking with cold blue eyes, so like that fallen star he’d seen earlier.
He so wanted to drop down from the tree and run to his home to find his pa and cling to him like a child frightened by a midnight thunderstorm. The solid, unshakeable presence of his blacksmith father seemed unreachable, as if the group below him represented a gulf Ajen would drown trying to cross.
Sudden hope surged through Ajen as a horn sounded, its triple blast echoing through the night. Its loud call calmed him as it asserted itself over the droning noise of the things below him. He scanned the ground below him, looking for the best place to make his drop and give him an avenue of escape.
As he searched for it, the last echoes of the horn fell away, and the moans below him began to chill his heart once again. The best chance he had was to his left, in a slight gap between the last reaching figure on that side and its three companions. A thick root breached the ground there, and the group seemed reluctant to come near it, like the tree itself. It was a risk, of course, since although the gap was needed, landing badly on a root would erase the advantage quickly.
Ajen hesitated. He could hear shouting, a loud voice rumbling orders. It sounded like old Comrick, his rich voice raised to a level Ajen had never heard despite a lifetime of the old man’s tales. The noise was drawing people out of their doors and giving them a direction to run.
As he watched, the old man came into view, still bellowing and ordering people to the gather. A dozen or more frightened villagers followed in his wake, the numbers increasing as others scurried from the shadows to join them. Behind the running people, more of the stiff, slow-moving figures followed. The group’s passage was too swift for the awkward lurching pursuers, and the outstretched arms of the moaning hunters were pulled into the refugees’ wake.
Ajen could see the group’s rearguard stop suddenly, holding his ground, swinging a long weapon to keep them at bay. Ajen heard Comrick bellow, “To the Temple,” and the group of villagers begin moving in earnest for the large wooden building to Ajen’s right. He searched desperately to see if his mother or father were among the stragglers, but couldn’t see any sign of them.
As the group moved across his field of vision, Ajen saw the large figure of his father appear from among the shadows, his path to Comrick and the others blocked by a pair of the slow strangers. With a burst of savage joy, he watched his father sweep the pair aside with a swing of what could only be one of his forging hammers and continue his trek towards the villagers making their way to the Temple of Ban.
Heedless of the danger, Ajen shouted “Da!” and leapt from his perch, landing in the gap between the moaning apparitions. He heard the snap like a green twig before he felt it, and the first running step he took left him in a heap of screaming agony. Searing heat and pain shot from his left ankle and rode in waves up his leg, paralyzing him momentarily as he lay on the dew-wet grass.
Panic welled in him as he felt the presence of the others behind him. With a surge, he dug his right foot into the soft ground and pushed himself onto his hands, letting the hillside give him momentum for his hopping, limping run.
Every time his left foot brushed the ground, it sent more waves of pulsing pain through him, but Ajen used it as a spur to continue. His drop had put him on the opposite side of the knoll from the Temple, so he limped furiously around the base as fast as he could manage.
He rounded the side of the hill and the Temple came into sight, its wide double doors thrown open and the lanterns inside illuminating his fellow townsfolk. Ahead of him, the shadowy forms of the strange invaders moved towards the light, as awkward and stumbling as he. Ajen knew he’d have to pass through their ranks, but nothing could prevent him from reaching his father.
His redoubled efforts slowed as the doors swung shut, cutting off the light and leaving Ajen in the night, surrounded by the hideous things that stalked it.
He didn’t bother shouting or wiping away the tears that ran down his face. He needed a safe place to wait until daylight, when everything would get back to normal. His thoughts turned blindly back to the tree, and the reluctance the things had to get too close. Climbing would be tricky with his useless foot, but Ajen knew the strength his arms held in spite of his short height.
Desperately, he limped back towards the knoll, some of the pursuers thwarted by the sealed doors of the Temple now following him. He threw himself at the gentle slope of the hill, using his hands to claw his way forward as he pushed with his right leg.
From the corner of his eye, he could see one of the blue-eyed horrors closing in on his right, and Ajen recognized it as one of his original stalkers. It was getting close, but so was the base of the tree. Ajen could see the branch he that would lead him to safety, a short jump above his head that he’d manage even with one bad leg. His scrambling pulled him ahead of the single-minded hunter.
An arm’s reach from the trunk, Ajen’s right foot slid in the wet grass and sent him flopping to the ground. He drew his right leg up again and gathered purchase in the hillside when he felt something clutch his left calf like an icy vise.
His scream shattered the night, overreaching the constant moaning all around him. He could feel the vibrations running up his leg like a cruelly plucked lute string as ragged teeth sawed across the tendon behind his heel. Instinctively, he lashed his right foot back and connected solidly, mercifully tearing the thing loose from his leg. The new pain made his broken ankle seem like a child’s scrape, but Ajen pushed himself up with determination and drove himself up to the tree.
He sobbed in relief as he jumped towards the silvery branch and caught onto it. He could hear and sense the milling behind him as hands reached out to prevent his escape. Ajen’s wiry arms heaved his body up, and he shot his right hand out to grasp the next.
He leaned against the trunk, breathing heavily. The respite of safety after his desperate flight gave him warmth and briefly allowed him to ignore the growing pain in his foot. It took him some time, but he mustered the courage to look down to see the damage.
His ankle was swollen and bruised already, the bones in his ankle looking lumpy and in disarray. Above his leather shoe he could see a dark blotch, glistening wetly in the moonlight and running down to drip off of the tip of his shoe to the waiting faces below. It didn’t seem to be bleeding too badly, thankfully, and he was glad that it was too dark to see the damage better. As it was, what he had seen made him light-headed. He shifted his seat to make himself as comfortable as he could as he awaited the dawn.
He watched as all but a pair of the figures below moved off to the Temple. They joined the mass pushing against the doors as, behind them, the source of the blue-star glow revealed itself to be another lurching thing, this time a huge fat man. The light pulsed from the side of the man’s head, and as he watched he became sure that the once-steady light was now pulsing at him. He felt drawn to it in some way he didn’t understand, and wrapped his arms tighter around the trunk that formed his only comfort.
Ajen felt the energy draining from him as he watched the abominations slowly push their way into the Temple. Tears slid down his cheeks as he thought of his father and all the rest of the villagers trapped in there, caught like rabbits in their den by the burrowing head of a fox. As time passed, the strength sapped from his limbs, and his tight grasp to the trunk became a strengthless lean.
The blooming fire in the Temple reflected from his tired and glazed eyes. Ajen made no reaction as a man ran from the fire, pulling the doors closed behind him. He watched the man and the star-browed fat one fought until both lay in a heap before the raging inferno behind them. Something caught his sight as the fire roared. Off, across the village, he could see a mass of people running, away from the town. Somehow, they’d escaped. Ajen closed his eyes, glad his father was alive and getting away from the horror that their village had become. His mind drifted as he leaned against the tree, not even realizing the last of his watchers had wandered away.
For the last time Ajen opened his eyes. His head felt swimmy as he blinked slowly. Tiny electrical shocks danced along his skin wherever he was in contact with the tree, the sensation bringing him out of his fevered sleep. It was as if the tree had grown resentful of his presence and wanted him out. In the dim, shadowy recesses of Ajen’s mind, something told him to be careful jumping down, but he couldn’t remember why. He tried to stir himself to ready a leap, and fell forward bonelessly, crashing into the dark rocky soil of the knoll. He lay there unmoving for a long time.
Then he got up again.