An Extract from Winterbirth

Prologue

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 vigour. 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 onwards.

‘Many people have already died in defence 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 honour 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 towards 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 laboured 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 humourless 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 middescent.

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 on to 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.

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  1. sentyouapostcard’s avatar

    whoops — i should make my comment here… revised comment, that is… first one didn’t make any sense. here goes::: so. mr. ruckley. [this has nothing to do with the stuff you’re writing in this site – apparently it does now since i’m making a comment re: winterbirth] i just finished winterbirth — i had to stop reading after several chapters. i got a copy of The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth and i absolutely love him –> had to stop reading winterbirth and read the cobra instead. sorry. i’m already an FF fan before you started writing. ANYWAY, i think winterbirth is great :) :) :) i am now starting on bloodheir and i can’t believe fall of thanes is nowhere to be found in my country. i hope i can find a copy before the week ends… thanks for writing your trilogy. it has been quite entertaining so far.