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Authors: Barbara Campbell

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BOOK: Heartwood (Tricksters Game)
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Foolishly, he had thought time was his ally. Now he knew better.

Control the fear.

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

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

Control yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I must go to the Tree-Father.”

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

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

When the tribe gathered at dawn for the first of the daylong rites, Darak observed the Tree-Father closely. If Tinnean’s report had unsettled Struath, he hid it well. His face was as calm as ever, his voice steady as he led the tribe in the chant to honor the dead. Tinnean’s shook, though; so did his hands, the knuckles white as he clenched the woven reed basket containing the bones of those who had died since the harvest. Their bodies had lain on stone platforms in the Death Hut for three moons, allowing time and scavengers to eat away the flesh. The priests had gathered the bones at the dark of the moon and scoured them clean in preparation for today’s interment.

At least they would receive a proper rite. The bodies of those who had died in the plague—forty-three men, women, and children—had been burned and their bones hastily buried after Struath had discovered dead crows and ravens littering the ground around the Death Hut. Even after death, the plague continued its ravages.

Darak realized he was stroking the pockmarks on his cheek and let his hand fall to his side. Frowning, he watched the Tree-Father and Grain-Mother as they walked sunwise around the circle of worshipers. Yeorna’s unbound hair rippled like ripe barley in the wind, the only bit of brightness on this gray morning. Gortin and Lisula followed, their faces solemn. Gortin’s seemed gloomier than usual; Darak wondered if he was smarting at his failure to be elevated to Tree-Brother. After the plague took Cronig, the entire tribe expected Gortin to take his place, but Struath had announced only Tinnean’s initiation.

Today.

Darak’s voice faltered. Tinnean shot him a quick glance as he passed, his brother’s clear tenor ringing out all the louder to make up for his momentary lapse.

It was all happening too quickly. Tinnean had only begun his apprenticeship at Midsummer and today he would become Struath’s initiate. So many changes in their lives these last six moons—and all of them bad.

Struath thumped his blackthorn staff on the snow-crusted ground and Nionik led the white bullock forward. Darak amended his previous thought; Nionik’s election as Oak-Chief was the only good thing to come from the disasters that had befallen the tribe. Chosen in haste after the plague, he well deserved the three eagle feathers braided in his hair. He had seen the tribe through the hailstorm that had leveled the barley and the foot rot that had carried off half the sheep in their small flock.

Bel’s golden face peeped through the clouds. A relieved sigh eased its way around the circle at the sun god’s appearance and more than one face turned skyward, smiling at the good omen. His kinfolk were still smiling when the bullock stumbled.

Several people gasped. Fingers moved in covert signs of protection. Even Struath frowned slightly as he nodded to the chief. Nionik took a firmer grip on the bullock’s nettle-braid halter. He passed the lead rope to Gortin who yanked it hard, pulling the beast’s head back to expose the muscular throat. Struath lifted his bronze dagger high.

“That its blood may feed our dead. That its flesh may feed the living. That its spirit may strengthen the Oak-Lord in tonight’s battle.” With the expertise of many years, Struath plunged the dagger into the bullock’s throat.

The animal staggered to its knees and collapsed, its lifeblood spurting into the basin held by the Grain-Mother. Lisula knelt to catch the last of the offering in the ceremonial cup of polished black stone. Their ancestors had carried it with them when they fled north to escape a horde of invaders. Ten generations of their bones lay in the tribal cairns; only the cup remained, mute testament to their flight.

Before they left the village for the rite at the heart-oak, Struath would remove the heart, lungs, liver, and genitals from the bullock. Yeorna would sew each into a piece of the animal’s hide. Struath would carry the heart into the First Forest and offer it to the Oak-Lord. On the morrow, after the tribe returned from the forest, the tender liver would be cast into the lake to thank the goddess Lacha for sharing her bounty. The lungs would be burned, carrying the bullock’s breath to the gods of lightning and thunder. The genitals would be buried in the fields to ensure Halam’s blessing of fertility for the crops.

Once, Darak had found comfort in these rites, handed down from one generation to the next since the first Tree-Father had sacrificed to the gods. Now, he stared dully at the cooling carcass of the bullock, wondering if the gods even noticed their piety.

A thread of steam rose into the air as Lisula handed the cup to Struath. The shaman proffered the cup to the four directions before raising it to his lips. Yeorna drank next, then Gortin, and finally Lisula who held the cup for Tinnean. Darak saw his lips move in a quick prayer before he lowered his head to drink. That unruly lock of hair fell across his forehead. As he raised his head, Lisula brushed it back, smiling. The gesture clearly surprised Tinnean, but after a moment, he smiled back, ducking his head shyly.

Darak discovered answering smiles on the faces of his kinfolk and found himself recalling the time a bee had stung Tinnean on the lip. Their mam claimed his smile was so sweet, the poor insect had confused his mouth with its honeycomb.

Darak’s smile faded. He had gifts, too: the ability to walk silently through a forest, to face a charging boar, to drop a deer with a single arrow. His tribe respected him for those gifts. But had any face ever lit up at the mere sight of him? Only Tinnean’s, he realized. And that was long ago.

He marched with the others to the cairn. Watched with the others while Struath ducked into the dark entrance of the barrow, carrying the basket of bones. Sang with the others when he emerged again, proclaiming that those who had gone before had cried out a welcome to their blood-kin. Habit impelled him to pick up a stone and lay it atop the cairn in memory of his dead. A few women wiped their eyes. Tinnean wept openly, apparently unashamed of the tears streaking his cheeks. The only tears in Darak’s eyes came from the gusting wind off the lake. He had no tears left to shed for the dead; he hadn’t even been able to weep for the dying.

Bel fought a losing battle against the thickening clouds as they marched back to the village for the ritual relighting of fire. While Struath struggled to call forth a spark from his ceremonial firestick, Darak struggled with the words he would say to Tinnean. The speech he had prepared would not suffice, not with the power of today’s rite still fresh in his brother’s mind and the anticipation of his initiation beckoning. He needed to find new words, better ones. And he had to find them quickly.

Here and there, children blew on numbed fingers and stamped their feet, subsiding into stillness again at a parent’s sharp look or pinch. When a spark stubbornly refused to catch, even the adults stirred restively, chafing chapped hands against tunics or clasping them under their woolen mantles. Darak curled and uncurled his toes inside his fur-lined shoes in a vain effort to take away the ache of the cold. He could only imagine the pain Struath must feel, crouched in the snow, forcing fingers gnarled with age and the joint-ill to spin the firestick again and again. He felt a reluctant admiration for the old man whose expression remained impassive.

Finally, a spark flickered and grew strong, drawing a victorious whoop from Red Dugan, quickly stifled when Struath turned that single blue eye on him. Struath and Yeorna lit their torches from the sacred fire. One by one, the head of each household lit a torch from theirs. As Darak dipped his torch toward Struath, the Tree-Father’s eye bored into him. Admiration gave way to animosity. He would not let Struath take his brother, no matter what curse the Tree-Father flung at him. Surreptitiously, he flicked his forefinger against his thumb; no sense ill-wishing himself.

The crowd quickly dispersed, each family eager to get out of the wind and relight the household fire. Tinnean lingered beside Struath. Darak waited, his gaze drawn to Krali and Griane. Krali’s long gray hair masked her face, but her shoulders shook in silent sobs. Today, she had watched Struath carry her father’s bones into the barrow, but surely she was remembering all the others she had lost: her mother to the blood-cough, both sons to the plague, and the niece who was a daughter to her in all but the birthing.

Darak took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He would not think of Maili now.

BOOK: Heartwood (Tricksters Game)
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