Season of Sacrifice
“Season of Sacrifice is typical of Mindy Klasky. It starts off as one story, in this case an almost traditional quest story, and soon metamorphoses into a complex, multilayered tapestry of culture clash and political intrigue. The slow alienation and seduction of the kidnapped children is fascinating to witness, as they start out defiantly and slowly come around to a new way of thinking. The culture clash experienced by Duke Coren with the People, and the People as they journey into strange lands, is just as interesting. . . . Season of Sacrifice is a good, entertaining stand-alone novel that takes a fresh look at the way two distinctly different cultures clash, yet rely upon one another, and how they relate where it counts.” — Green Man Review
In Season of Sacrifice [Buy now!], Alana Woodsinger was not ready to accept the responsibility of being the religious leader of her people, but the Great Tree chose her. Now Alana’s people count on her to guide them, to give them hope for the future. During a spring celebration, two village children are kidnapped by wily visitors from the inland. Alana must find a way to use her unwished-for powers to guide a trio of villagers in rescuing the children. But darker forces are soon at work and great sacrifices must be made when the children decide they do not want to be saved…
<<< Chapter 1 >>>
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. He had managed 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, every year the first harvest began the same way, with the excitement of a young huer calling out 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 the other young mothers who guarded their children with the caution of a sea-going 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, 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 by 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 was insistent, 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 fisherman’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 laid 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 that she had caressed the bark, the time that she had come to the oak at the behest of all the People, petitioning to become the Tree’s 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 the 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 continued, 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 is our life.” When he quirked an eyebrow skeptically, she fought an indignant blush at what must seem the simple way of fisher-folk. 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. Could she justify the People? Could she justify her own father’s death? She shuddered and pushed away that story, the first story 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. In fact, 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.
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 is 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 mantel, 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 is 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.
Maybe Alana could find a real answer in the unread tomes that filled her little cabin, in the leather-bound journals that earlier woodsingers had kept. Perhaps her sister woodsingers had chosen not to sing directly to the Tree about inlanders’ ignorance; they might have chosen to protect the giant oak from such shameful stories. Alana would read the records her sisters had left, by firelight, after the harvest festival was complete. On her own for now, though, Alana tightened her voice and tried again.
“When a child is born, Your Grace, I bring it to the Tree. I sing to the Tree of the newest member of our village, and the oak learns. It remembers. When I rest my hand against the Tree’s bark, it … it speaks to me. I hear voices inside my head, voices of all the woodsingers before me. They tell me things, tell me stories of the People who have lived before.”
The duke stared at her as if she were speaking gibberish, as if she were a child telling hobgoblin tales by the fireside. She raised her chin defiantly. “When I am with the Tree, I can see the storms that have beaten the Headland. I can see the years of good harvests and bad.” She gestured toward the roots, toward the neat troughs that she had dug as the ground began to thaw. “I bring the Tree some of our first harvest. I lay the fish on the earth, and I cover it. The fish seeps into the roots, binding the Tree to us. The Tree remembers, and it reaches into our lives, into my mind.”
She could read the skepticism on his inland face, his patent disbelief. She knew that he was going to say something, was going to try to humor her as if she were telling stories about talking conies or flying horses. She cut him off before she could see scorn twist his lips. “The Tree is the core of our lives, Your Grace! Every fisherman takes a piece of it onto his boat, so that the Tree will know him and remember him if he does not come home.”
Her throat closed around those last words. She had not yet found the strength to reach into the Tree’s memories of her father, into the stories her predecessors had sung about her da. Her father’s story ended with Alana becoming woodsinger herself, for old Sarira Woodsinger had perished trying to sing Alana’s father home, trying to guide four fishermen through a brutal autumn storm. His story, their story, ended with Alana donning the Guardians’ patchwork cloak, taking up the title and responsibility of woodsinger.
Duke Coren’s skepticism creased his forehead into a frown. “A tree, remember? What sort of witchery is that?”
Alana forced herself to step away from the oak’s quiet comfort, to stride to the outer reach of its branches. Her voice was cold as she answered, “Perhaps, Your Grace, you will understand better if I show you.”
Forcing down the chill behind her words, she began to chant deep in her throat, a soft sound like a mother’s lullaby. Another breeze skirled through the new-green leaves, but she ignored it, opening her mouth to voice the hymn that rose within her. The tune was wordless, a whisper about the People’s lives, about the festival that spread across the beach.
Alana sang of the long line of huers who had cried out from the Headland, of the fish that had just been caught. She sang of the strange men who had come with Coren, of the anger barely hidden behind their inland beards. She sang of the dogs that were chained well away from the People, and the power of the man who stood before her, and his skepticism about the woodsinger.
As she sang, a stillness fell over the hill. The breeze calmed in a pocket around the two humans and the Tree. The children’s laughing cries on the beach below melted away, swirled into the sudden silence. Alana felt the Tree listen to her, felt it add her words to its great store of knowledge. Inside her mind and her heart, she sensed the massive oak measuring the request that she had not quite dared to make.
A single branch began to lower.
Her song turned into a laugh when she glimpsed Duke Coren’s amazed face. She reached up toward the branch, and the Tree moved like a supple cat, curving to greet her and caress her cheek with a whisper of fragile leaves. She strode closer to the living wood, tracing the branch back toward its heart in the tree’s trunk. She followed a path that was as thick as her wrist, her neck, her waist.
When she reached the limits of the great Tree’s flexibility, she settled her hands on the rough wood. Her sung notes wrapped around the Tree’s essence, melded with the living bark. For just a moment, her heart beat with the fresh sweetness of oaken sap, and her soul settled into an otherworldly calm, layer on circular layer of peace. She was no longer Alana Woodsinger, hoping to impress a worldly duke. For a single, timeless instant, she was the Tree; she was the oaken daughter of the Great Mother, the living essence of the Guardians in all the world.
And then her heart beat again, and she was a woman once more, an ordinary woman standing beside a branch that quivered in a sudden gust of wind. She lifted her hand from the oak, not surprised to see its valleys and peaks etched into her skin, carved over the lines of her own palm.
She sighed and shook her head, not noticing when her hair fell free of its improvised knot. Coren appeared not to notice either, for he gazed intently at what the Tree had revealed.
“What in the name of the Seven Gods is that?” His gruff surprise grounded Alana rapidly, and she bit back a smile at the skeptical finger he pointed toward the bark.
She barely had to touch the patch of wood to lift it from its nest. Perfectly symmetrical, the wooden globe was carved into an intricate star, tiny points striking out against the air like a night-black snowflake. As Alana turned the star before the duke’s eyes, she saw his interest sharpen until it was as penetrating as one of the carved points.
She smiled. “The children call it a woodstar, but the real name is a bavin.”
“A bavin?” He stumbled over the unfamiliar term.
“It’s an old word. The first woodsingers learned to ask the Tree for them. When a bavin is lit, it burns without consuming the wood. Each boat we make receives a bavin. The woodstars are set in the prow, so that the Tree can track us out at sea. As woodsinger, I always know where my people are, by watching through the bavins.”
“How many does the tree hold?”
“Hold?” The question puzzled her, startled her almost as much as the avaricious gleam in his eyes. She felt the Tree’s sudden concern, its disquiet at the inlander’s question. Unconsciously, she settled her hand against the fresh bavin scar, as if she were gentling a newborn colt. “We’ve never tried to find out.”
“If you cut down this branch, do they just come rolling out?”
“Oh, no.” Alana laughed uneasily. “The Tree does not contain bavins until we ask it to. Even then, it does not always give us woodstars. It must believe that we need a bavin before it makes the sacrifice.” She realized that he could not understand until he had examined the Tree’s gift, and she tossed the carved sphere to the man. She saw his surprise as his fist closed around it, as he registered how light it was. “The Tree has chosen to give this one to you. Take it as a keepsake of your time with the People.”
He stared at the bavin for a long minute before secreting it in a leather pouch that hung at his waist. When he bowed, she felt as if she were a noblewoman in Smithcourt’s royal castle. She shoved away the uneasiness that the Tree swirled into her thoughts. After all, what could an oak tree know of nobility? What could it know of the king’s distant court? How could any woodsinger have told the Tree about the strange ways of Smithcourt?
Duke Coren bowed fluidly. “And may I see you to the beach, my lady?”
She paused only long enough to caress the Tree, to thank it once again for its gift and to feel the balm of its comforting acknowledgment at the back of her mind. “I would be honored, Your Grace.”
Such courtly words were foreign to the People, but Alana had practiced for nearly a fortnight, since Duke Coren had arrived, leading a train of packhorses laden with trade goods. After the visitors’ troublesome dogs had been banished to the village’s perimeter, the People had been pleased with the duke’s riches. They longed for the smooth linen that Coren brought to trade; it was crisper and softer than their own rough wool. There were other items as well – trinkets of colored glass that pleased parents and children alike, hardened leather for shoe soles, and iron knives worked by near-magical smiths.
The people had no iron anywhere near the Headland. They needed to trade for all the metal they required, for cookpots and hardware for their boats and for precious knives. The People’s need was one of the many incongruities of life on the Headland. Devoted as the People were to the Tree, to the living essence that combined all the Guardians’ forces, they still needed to bargain for iron, for the other major gift that the Guardians had crafted when they created this Age. The People remembered the Guardians’ ancient power over earth and air, fire and water; they knew the forged power of the dark metal that was not theirs. They consoled themselves with the force of the Tree, and they traded when they could.
During Duke Coren’s visit, the People marveled that the nobleman wanted so little in exchange for the precious goods he brought. All he asked for were barrels of salt fish and oil, left over after the easy winter. Those, and a handful of purple and white clamshell beads. The entire visit had carried the excitement of Midsummer Day, although it was barely spring.
That excitement was heightened by Duke Coren’s proclamation that he traded in the name of the king. Of course, the westlands were ruled by the distant king in Smithcourt, but no lord from so far inland had ever deigned to travel all the way to the Headland. The People had lived for generations as complacent subjects, raising their cups to their absent, distant liege. They enjoyed the fact that they were not ground under some noble heel on a regular basis, even if that meant that the price of iron remained high, that trade in linen and beads remained rare.
Nevertheless, the presence of a nobleman spurred a giddy excitement among all the People.
There were even rumors that Duke Coren hoped to ascend to the Iron Throne when he returned to Smithcourt after this journey. After all, even the People had heard of the king’s untimely death the previous year, of his passing without an heir. That gossip was strong enough to make the journey to the edge of the kingdom. Duke Coren supposedly claimed the crown because of the wealth that he had poured into the dead king’s treasury, wealth from trading in lands so distant that the People could not imagine their names.
On the duke’s first night in the village, when all the People were gathered about a warm hearth sipping ale, the nobleman had handed out presents. Excitement had fluttered beneath Alana’s breastbone. She had told herself that she had no use for a silver brooch, and it was completely inappropriate for a strange man to proffer the sturdy linen sash that gathered the colors of the rainbow and nestled them about her narrow hips. Nevertheless, it would have been rude to decline his gifts. Besides, there was the village to think of – if she, the woodsinger, refused her presents, then the People could not accept theirs.
Therefore, she kept Coren’s offerings, and she found herself drawn into conversation with the generous lord. He went out of his way to make her feel at ease, and she realized that he honestly wanted to learn about the People. He was an ambassador of good will, and it was her duty to pave his way among the fishermen. It was not his fault that she was drawn to him in ways that were not entirely proper for the People’s woodsinger, especially not a woodsinger who had been called to her post before settling on a husband.
Alas, that was one seaside tradition that Alana was not going to divulge to Duke Coren. There was no reason for him to learn that she was sworn to a life dedicated to the Tree, that she would never be permitted to settle in a cottage with a man, to raise children, to divide her attention between a family and the Tree. Of course, if she had found her mate before being called to serve the oak, things would have been different…. The Tree would have made its choice, knowing her commitment to her family. But Alana had had no family when the Tree chose. She had had no distractions. The Tree would not tolerate her divided loyalty now. She would remain alone.
Through no fault of her own, she would remain alone.
Repeating that rule to herself even now, Alana stumbled as her hard-soled winter shoe turned on a stone. Before she could catch herself, Coren’s hand was under her elbow, steadying her with a quiet strength. “Careful, my lady,” he murmured, and she was startled by the sudden breathlessness that closed her throat. She forced herself to look down at the stony path, to focus on the earth underfoot. She thought she heard the duke chuckle beside her, but she refused to meet his piercing eyes.
His hand was still on her arm when they emerged from the scrubby ocean grass onto the beach. The People looked up in expectation, and a sudden hush fell over the crowd. Laughter and a reed flute’s dancing notes slipped away in the crash of breakers. Alana saw the gossiping glint in Goodwife Glenna’s eyes, and she jerked her arm away from the duke as if she’d been burned.
Goody Glenna was the oldest of the People. The crone’s hearing might be going, but her eyes were sharp, and Alana knew that the old gossip was recording this latest tidbit to share by the communal ovens on the next baking day. Alana sighed. She was already tired of the Women’s Council watching her every move. She knew that she was not permitted a husband. She had accepted that she was sworn to the Tree.
“Alana!” The woodsinger whirled to face Sartain, the current leader of all the People. The fisherman was short and muscular; like most of his folk, his body had been shaped by hauling nets heavy with fish. His back was stooped from years of repetitive labor, and his hands were horny pads, calloused by decades of service on the People’s coracles. Sartain’s eyes were carved deep in his face, protected by a web of lines etched by sun and wind.
“While you’ve kept our guest up on the bluff, the feast has been laid. We can’t have the duke saying that the People lack hospitality, can we?” Alana heard a good-natured smile behind the fisherman’s sea-salt words. “Come, woodsinger, let us begin the feast.”
Sartain turned and led the way to the strip of firm sand, still dark from the ocean’s tidal soaking. When a restless silence had once more fallen over the beach, he spoke. “My People,” he began, and then, with only a gull’s cry for competition, he stumbled through a few formulaic greetings, awkwardly daring to clap his hand on Duke Coren’s shoulder. “Your Grace,” Sartain continued with gruff modesty as he realized the presumption he had taken, “I would not bore you with an old fisherman’s words.” He looked about in embarrassment and gestured toward one of the People. “Maddock, stand forward and speak to the duke.”
Alana watched Maddock flow beside the Fisherman with a stoat’s grace, his teeth white against his dark skin and darker hair. Maddock was one of the few men among the People who had ever ventured beyond the Headland of Slaughter. Last year, he had journeyed inland to trade salt fish for precious iron and tin and to meet with the royal census takers, declaring how many men, women, and children lived beside the sea. Now, Maddock spoke for all those People, using flowery language to admit pride and gratitude.
Alana’s breath caught in her throat as she watched the young man proclaim the People’s hospitality. As if unconsciously, Maddock let the wind tug the edge of his cloak, flaring the fabric to accentuate his broad shoulders. The casual fist that he set against his hip was a subtle reminder of his strength, and Alana caught herself wondering for the hundredth time how his strong hands would feel against her flesh, against the naked skin of her back….
She shook her head in annoyance. Of course she thought of the young fisherman that way – he did everything he could to make every girl in the village pine for him. It was certainly no coincidence last summer that he had not finished his bath when the girls came to draw cooking water for the Midsummer Feast. He purposely used the village common to practice his fighting forms, wearing nothing more than his breeches as he swung about his smith-precious iron sword. He had his own reasons for tending the spitted lambs at the summer festivals, sweltering by the heat of the fire so that the flames drew out a glow on his bared chest.
Old Goody Glenna reveled in the attention all the girls paid to Maddock. Each day she found a new tale to tell, a story of the woe that had befallen some smitten slip of a girl when she accepted the sort of invitation that Maddock kept open. Alana, searching her knowledge from the Tree, knew that only a fraction of Goody Glenna’s stories were true. Nevertheless, the young woodsinger also knew that it was her duty to help keep the village girls in line.
She had intended to do just that, late last fall, when she had confronted Maddock for the first time since donning her woodsinger’s cloak. With a grin, the man had admitted every one of his faults, casting his dark blue eyes toward his feet with a child’s heart-stealing shame. Alana had caught herself wishing he would brush against her as he left the clearing, or better yet that he would not leave at all….
When Maddock finished his speech, Sartain invoked the traditional blessings of earth, fire, water, and air. With the Guardians’ names still hovering over the People and their guests, laughter broke out. The young twins, Maida and Reade, recommenced their game of tag, and a drum joined the flute’s rollicking voice, dancing amid the crash of waves.
After filing by the great iron cooking pots, Alana settled on a convenient outcrop of rock, a little removed from the crowds of boisterous people. She pulled her iron dagger from her waist, smiling at the rich present that her father had given her, long before he met the Guardians of Water.
Now, Alana used the treasured blade to salute her father with the sea’s first harvest, carefully picking the flesh from a steaming pilchard. She was grateful that Sartain had led his early morning fishermen to such bounty – all of the People were tired of the salt fish that had sustained them for the winter.
Sartain was clearly in a celebratory mood as well, for he ordered the young men to break out a barrel of apple wine. As Alana looked over the rim of her earthenware cup, she noted that Coren and his followers did not partake of the sweet, cool stuff. Perhaps their inland palate was accustomed to finer drink. It was a failing in the man, she mused, but not a deadly one.
“Hmphhh! He does not deign to drink our apple wine! Perhaps m’lord would prefer mead from the king’s court!”
Alana did not need to turn about to chastise the complainer; she did not even need to listen to the woodsingers’ quiet murmurs at the back of her mind to identify the speaker. “Hush, Landon. I think, instead, that he is loathe to take something that we clearly hold so dear.” She set down her dagger and forced herself to face the lanky young man. While she knew that Landon’s long face could be pleasant, an ugly frown distorted his features now. A sea breeze chose that unfortunate moment to skip across his brow, stressing the fact that he had already lost the better part of his hair.
She frequently had to remind herself that Landon was only four years her senior. His cautious ways and his receding hairline lent him an aura of conservative seniority almost as great as Goody Glenna’s. There was a time when Alana had found his maturity compelling. Things had not gone well, though, since the winter solstice, and the woodsinger delicately forced her thoughts away from a memory as prickly as the bavin she had just sung for Duke Coren.
Landon made that retreat easier as he grumbled, “I’m certain you would know about his thoughts, Alana. What secrets did he whisper to you by the Tree? Did you actually give him that woodstar you sang?”
“Were you spying on me, Landon? What I do with the Tree is no interest of yours!”
“The Tree belongs to all the People, Alana. Not to you, and certainly not to some cursed inlander. Look at him, the way the women wait on him! It’s not like he’s even eating the tidbits they offer.”
“You sound like a child! What has Coren ever done to you?”
“Ah, so now he is ‘Coren.’ Not ‘my lord’ and not ‘the duke,’ but simply Coren.”
“You know the People have never put much stock in titles! If I didn’t know better, I’d think that you were jealous.”
“Jealous? Not I, Woodsinger. I am nothing but a humble tracker, interested only in the welfare of our People. I live only to serve, following game to feed our folk when the Guardians of Water are not kind.” His words were stewed in bitterness.
“You know that’s not what I meant, Landon.” If only she could take back the words she had spoken on the longest night of the year…. As she’d stared at his offering of mistletoe berries, she had been so certain that he would understand her. He knew that she was pledged to the Tree now, that as woodsinger she could have no husband.
Of course, Landon also knew the exceptions to the ancient rules. He knew that a married woman could keep her husband, keep her children, and still serve the Tree. He had argued that Alana should fight to change the rules, should broaden them to include a maiden who had found her true love but had not quite married before she was called to the Tree.
Alana had swallowed hard at the thoughts his arguments implied. She had averted her eyes from his mistletoe berries, from the confession that she had managed to ignore for months. Instead, she had chosen her words carefully, telling Landon that serving as woodsinger was a sacrifice. She must give up her freedom for the good of all the People. She must forfeit her decisions, so that she could offer up gratitude to the Tree that had watched over her since birth. She tried to explain that the Tree that had chosen her, had plucked her from the black-rimmed pit of despair after her father was lost to the Guardians of Water.
When Landon had refused to accept Alana’s explanation of her duty to the Tree, she had been forced to point out that he was a hunter, a tracker, a man who lived his life looking inland, away from the Tree. Even if she had been inclined to overthrow generations of tradition, Alana had tried to say gently, she could not break the rules for him. She only just managed to avoid the true admission, the one that would have stung him beyond reason: Alana was not a smitten maid. She did not love Landon.
Now, the woodsinger took a deep breath to explain again. Before she could find the hackneyed words, though, she was interrupted by a flurry of activity on the far end of the beach.
For an instant she could not discern individual shapes in the confusion. Then she saw that the People were running, screaming, flinging about trenchers of food. As Alana glanced reflexively at the cliff, at the Tree, she saw clouds of dust billowing from the steep path to the beach. Swirled into the dust, screaming as if in battle, were the inlanders’ great horses. The massive beasts were ridden by Coren’s men, by dark-liveried soldiers who bellowed at their mounts, even as they hurtled toward the beach.
The shouting would have been disturbing. The sight of war-horses caparisoned for battle would have been frightening. The thick-throated cries of Coren’s men would have been terrifying. But there was a greater horror coursing down the path to the beach.
There were dogs.
Dogs charged among the People, forcing grown men to step back in ingrained fear and revulsion. One mastiff ripped at Sartain’s sleeve, and Alana saw the fisherman pull back from the slavering jaws with his own snarl of disgust. The dogs were the People’s greatest nightmare, sprung to full life on the sandy beach.
Before the woodsinger could move, a high-pitched scream ripped through the melee. “The inlanders are taking my babies! They’re stealing the children!”
The anguish in the voice froze the People, and even as Alana recognized that Teresa was the source of the heart-rending cries, she began to search the crowd for the twins, for the mischievous Maida and Reade. She found them before the others could react, but what she saw chilled her blood.
Maida was in the arms of Coren’s lieutenant, struggling like a fish caught in a net. Her little body twisted and pulled, and she thrashed her head about as if she were determined to break her own neck if she could not be free. One well-placed kick landed against the inlander’s armored solar plexus, but the man’s strong right arm merely tightened across the girl’s vulnerable throat. He transferred his fury to the soft flesh and tiny bones. Maida kicked one last time and then slumped in the soldier’s grasp.
Reade was tangled in Duke Coren’s own arms, struggling with the terror of a trapped coney. Coren’s beard jutted out like a broken tree limb, and his thin lips twisted in a snarl.
Before Alana could cry out, the duke raised a silver-chased dagger. The pommel was set with a heavy ruby that glinted across the beach, mirroring the bloody knife embroidered on Coren’s chest. With the smooth gesture of a man dispatching a stubborn fish, the duke brought the hilt down, smashing into the tender flesh behind the boy’s ear. Reade continued to struggle feebly, but the inlander had no trouble hoisting the child onto his huge destrier.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the terror was over. The People stared in ragged ranks as the soldiers swung up on their horses, leading their slavering dogs up the steep cliff-side path. Teresa’s harsh sobs meshed with the waves, and a lone gull cried out as the inlanders rode off with the twins.