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Authors: Mindy Klasky

Season of Sacrifice

BOOK: Season of Sacrifice
8.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Mindy L. Klasky

Copyright © Mindy L. Klasky, 2002

Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7592-8717-4
ISBN-10: 0-7592-8717-1

To Ben,
the only brother I’ll ever have


Season of Sacrifice
would not have been possible without the help of many people: Richard Curtis (who patiently listened to plan after plan for the release of this novel); Bob Dickey and the rest of the Arent Fox Library staff (who provided constant support and understanding for my “other” life); Laura Anne Gilman (the editor who made this book much better by asking hard questions and not settling for halfhearted answers); Jane Johnson (who listened to a hundred and one plots that didn’t grow up to be
Season of Sacrifice
); Bruce Sundrud (who read each chapter first); the Washington Area Writers’ Group (who first started asking the hard questions); and of course, my family (who listened to me babble and told me it would all work out).

If you would like to learn more about me and my books, please visit my website at:


Alana Woodsinger watched from the sloping beach as Reade raced along the cliff top, waving a branch high above his head. The five-year-old boy’s clear soprano rang out over the crashing surf as he cried, “
Hevva! Hevva

The meaning of the word was lost in time. Some of the People said that it came from the ancient word for spring; others said that it came from “herring.” Still others said it was the last remaining sound of the Unspeakable Names of all the Guardians.

Whatever the mystery, whatever the magic, Reade had strong lungs, and his natural energy was boosted by his pride that the fishermen had chosen him to be the huer at this first fish harvest of the season. That pride was even greater because Reade was performing the annual ritual in front of visitors, in front of Duke Coren and his men.

The duke…Alana tore her gaze away from the boy, seeking out the visiting nobleman. She swallowed hard against the by-now familiar pounding of her heart. The duke had lifted one wry eyebrow when Alana told him of the traditions surrounding the first harvest, managing to convey tolerance and amusement without speaking a word.

Before Alana could find Duke Coren on the crowded beach, though, she was caught again by Reade’s shouting. His voice arced like a gull’s cry as he waved his branch and guided his fishermen toward their first spring catch.

Nothing could be more mystical. Nothing could be more simple.

Exotic inland visitors or no, the first harvest began the same way every year, with the excitement of a young huer calling to the boats that tossed on the icy water. Those same boats rose and fell, driving schools of silvery pilchards into newly repaired nets. Reade, like all the lucky, sharp-eyed children chosen before him, directed the frenzy from his vantage point on the cliff, signaling with his branch so that the last of the boats could close in around the fishes’ dark shadows.

The men hauled in their nets, and Reade’s voice was drowned out by the People’s excited chatter as the first boats returned to shore. The little boy dropped his furze branch, his job complete. He scrambled down from the promontory and was quickly lost among the other children who whooped at the water’s edge, helping the fishermen drag their laden nets to shore.

Alana resisted the urge to order the riotous youngsters back to the safety of higher ground. She made herself trust Teresa, Reade’s mother, and all the other young mothers who guarded their children with the caution of a seagoing people.

Of course, little Maida led the mayhem, jealous of her twin brother’s prize place on the cliff. She was always determined to stir up mischief among the children, even those who were older and larger than she. Her shrieks of revenge as she chased Reade into the crashing surf were enough to make Alana’s breath come short, but Reade fought back valiantly, grasping his twin by her ankle and pulling them both under a breaking wave’s icy shower.

As Teresa strove to bring order to her wrestling children, Alana could not help but remember how she herself had frolicked on the same tongue of rocky sand not very long before. Now, though, she was required to wear the woodsinger’s multi-colored cloak, a riotous patchwork of the Guardians’ colors—brown and red, blue and white.

The Guardians had chosen Alana. The Tree had called her.

Even as that thought raised the hairs at the nape of Alana’s neck, she reached out reflexively for the Tree’s consciousness. The giant oak had stood on the cliff above the beach since the Great Mother had created this Age, ever since she had called the Guardians into being, and they had shaped the world with earth and air, fire and water. Even when Alana had been a child, even before she’d been called to serve as woodsinger, she had known that the Tree watched over the People, a tangible symbol of the Guardians’ spirit forces. The Tree watched over the People, and the People cared for the Tree.

Now, though, as woodsinger, Alana knew so much more. She knew that the Tree remembered the life of every single one of the People. It absorbed their stories with the words the woodsingers chanted, soaking up their lives like sunlight and water and earth. Year by year, the Tree added to its enormous girth, girdling itself in another circle of bark. The oak combined all the Guardians’ forces—earth, fire, water, and air—to become the physical embodiment of those spirit forces that had shaped the world. The Tree was like a living emblem of the Great Mother herself.

And year after year, the Tree added to its memories, drinking in more tales of the folk who lived on the Headland of Slaughter. It recorded how the Great Mother was worshiped, how the Guardians were honored. It recorded how the People lived. The holy and the ordinary—no detail was too small for the Tree to remember.

Even now, Alana could feel the giant oak’s awareness tug at the back of her mind. It whispered to her about another huer, generations past, one almost as young as Reade. It reminded her of another spring day, when the pilchard run had been so great that three boats were swamped, pulled over by the weight of the fish in their nets. The Tree reminded Alana that the People had lived this ritual for centuries, and it pulled at the woodsinger, luring her up the steep path to the top of the cliff. The Tree wanted her to share the story of today’s huer, of today’s catch. It wanted to add to its store of knowledge.

Alana drew her patched cloak closer about her. Surely the Tree could be patient. It must be able to wait until she had tasted the first of the ocean’s offering in this new season. She wasn’t going anywhere, after all.

But the Tree insisted, stirring deep inside her thoughts like the memory of a sweet dream after sleep has crept away. Alana sighed and shifted her cloak over her shoulders, pulling her red-gold hair out of the way. There would be time enough to feast after she had told the Tree of the spring harvest. She climbed the steep path up the cliff face.

Reaching the oak, Alana shivered against the stiff breeze that skipped through the Tree’s branches. Freshly unfurled leaves trembled in eager anticipation of news from the fishing expedition. Now that the pilchard season had started, Alana would spend many long days by the oak. She had already begun to prepare the Tree for the fishermen’s labors, breaking the earth above its massive roots, roughing up the ground to receive the new-caught fish that she would offer up in gratitude for past guidance, in hope of future support.

Breathing deeply from her steep climb, Alana lay one long-fingered hand on the trunk’s rough bark, as if she were calming her own pounding heart. Even as she felt the whorls beneath her palm, she remembered the first time she had caressed the Tree, the time that she had come to the oak at the behest of all the People, petitioning to become the woodsinger.

That visit had culminated in her drinking from the Tree’s deepest sap, swallowing the bitter dregs from a cup that had been carved from an ancient oaken branch. Even as she swallowed, she felt doors opening in her mind, and she wondered at the stinging sap, wondered at the power of the tannin that coated her tongue. And she heard the woodsingers who had tended the Tree before her. She listened to those women, awakening deep in her mind. That was when she became the woodsinger. That was when her roots were planted, her path was set.

“Ah, the fair Alana seeks refuge by her tree.”

She started at the unexpected voice, but managed to paste a smile across her lips before turning to the intruder. “Duke Coren.”

No wonder she had not been able to find the nobleman on the beach! He must have been here on the cliff all along, watching Reade hue in the boats. Alana shrugged off a strange feeling of uneasiness at the break with tradition, at the interference the man might have created by being so near the huer. Nevertheless, she remonstrated with herself, the harvest had been accomplished without any problem. All was well on the headland.

The woodsinger remembered to drop a curtsey, as a woman of culture might, a woman from distant Smithcourt. As she bobbed her head, she admonished herself not to notice the sun glinting on the embroidery that spanned the duke’s broad chest. His coat of arms was picked out in splendid thread—a black background with a golden sun, all emblazoned with a bloody knife.

Alana’s formal gesture made the duke laugh, and he threw back his mane of chestnut curls. His teeth were bright against his narrow lips, almost lost in his beard. His eyes half closed with amusement as if she had told a brilliant tale, and she reminded herself that he only meant to compliment her with his excess. His courtly manner made her nervous, though, and her fingers flew to her hair, anxious to do something, anything. She settled for twisting the silky strands into a loose knot against her neck.

The duke studied her for a long minute, as if he were measuring out grains of gold. His silent scrutiny made her even more uncomfortable than his laughter had, but now she was blessed with the familiar flush of angry irritation. None of the People would ever be so bold, so insulting as to gape at the woodsinger. Even a child as young as Reade knew that the woodsinger was special. Different. Apart.

“My lord.” She captured a hint of the chill breeze in her words. “The wind is strong here on the headland. I’m sure you would be more comfortable on the beach. The feast should begin momentarily.”

“Perhaps the feast is not what I had in mind.” She barely made out his words, tangled in his beard and his inland accent. “Tell me, woodsinger, why do your people call this the Headland of Slaughter?”

“That has been its name forever, since the beginning of this Age.”

“But the name is so…harsh.”

“Our lives are harsh, Your Grace. There have been terrible shipwrecks on the rocks below. Men have lost their lives when they sailed too close to shore.” Even as Alana spoke the words, she felt the stories stir inside her mind. Yes, the Tree knew about those lost lives. It knew the People who had been forfeited to the sea, lost to the Guardians of Water. The Tree remembered.

The duke responded, obviously unaware of the swirl of stories that surged beneath Alana’s thoughts. “And yet your people continue to live in the shadow of such tragedy.”

“The People could live no other way, Your Grace. The Headland of Slaughter
our life.” When he quirked an eyebrow skeptically, she fought an indignant blush at what must seem the simple way of fisherfolk. She continued with vehemence, though, as if she needed to convince him, as if she needed to justify her people’s ways.

Even as she wove her arguments, a gnawing voice nibbled at her thoughts.
she justify the People? Could she justify her own father’s death? She shuddered and pushed away
story, the first one that she had ever sung to the Tree. When she spoke again, her voice quavered. “The sea makes us different from you inland people.” She swallowed and set aside the tales that were closest to her heart. “For instance, you surely noticed that there are no dogs among us?”

She made the statement a question, and he nodded tersely before she continued. “And we made your men tie up their own dogs, far from our village. That is because of the Headland, because of a great storm that blew, decades before my own birth. Three ships foundered on the rocks, and bodies washed ashore for a fortnight. There were more corpses than the People could bury promptly—men and women and little children, too. The dogs got to the bodies before the People did.”

Alana’s jaw hardened with revulsion, and she swallowed against the sick taste that rose in the back of her throat. Her disgust was triggered by the Tree’s recollection, by its instant retelling of the horrors, deep in her mind. She could smell the rotten meat on the beach, see the bloated corpses that trailed fine hair and tangled clothing. She could hear the snarling curs fighting for morsels, snapping at each other for a reeking human hand.

The woodsinger raised her chin defiantly, as if the duke had challenged her. “We drove out every last dog from the village, Your Grace. They could not be tolerated with a life like ours.”

“But dogs are useful, woodsinger! They hunt; they herd. I should think you would keep them to ease your lives.”

“Ease is not a luxury for fishermen. We’ll never again see a dog gnaw a child’s corpse. Our children fear dogs more than you fear the sea.”

“I do not fear the sea, woodsinger.” The duke’s denial was automatic, but Alana noted the wary eye he cast toward the rocky beach.

“You should.”

The nobleman ignored the warning. “But you, woodsinger. You are more than a superstitious fisherwoman.” Duke Coren’s eyes glinted again with unruly energy, and Alana pretended that she chose to take a step backward. Letting her fingers trail against the Tree, she met the duke’s penetrating gaze. He smiled as if he knew the trembling in her belly, and when he spoke, his voice was so soft that she had to lean close to hear him. “Tell me, woodsinger. What exactly
your role among your people?”

“I serve the Tree, so that the Tree may serve the People.”

“Serve the People?”

His laugh was a mongrel’s harsh bark, and Alana swallowed the unfamiliar taste of scorn. Last autumn, when she had first donned her woodsinger’s mantle, she would have felt the need to turn to the great oak immediately, to console it by singing of the People’s faith. Now, she was wiser, and she knew that the duke’s ignorance could not harm the massive oak.

“The Tree is not like those that grow in your inland forests.” She sighed as she struggled for words to explain. “Oh, I don’t know how to make you understand! The Tree was the first creation of the Great Mother. It is the embodiment of the Guardians, of the spirits that shaped the world, shaped the People. The Tree
earth and air, fire and water. It is all the world around us. It lives for the People, and we live for it.”

“Fair words, my lady. But what can a tree do for you, beyond offering shade in the summer and acorns in the fall?”

“The Tree holds all the history of the People!” Alana clenched her teeth in exasperation, knowing that she must sound like a superstitious child. She cast a quick thought into the deep pool of the woodsingers who had lived before her, plumbing the memories that the Tree held in trust. No ready words, though, shimmered to the surface of that murky darkness. No other woodsinger had fed the Tree stories about the frustration of describing the giant oak to an inland duke.

BOOK: Season of Sacrifice
8.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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