The forest nodded beneath the subtle insistence of autumn's touch as a rider thundered through. Boughs, brush, ferns and fallen leaves rippled in his wake, seeking quiescence. Another winter, a long one this year, if the geese and caterpillars knew anything.
Cloaked in the fragrance of blood, the Captain of the North Thorn Guard leaned forward in his saddle, breathing heavily beneath a turbid river of pain strewn with the corpses of his slashed and broken company, their fair eyes staring at nothing.
Harald, he heard his mother say. Fear not the earth.
In one moon's cycle, he would bow his head to the keening of women, swaying and clutching root knives at the Feast of Shadows. Women for whose blood his men had died at the hands of outlanders, hired cutthroats ravaging the Realm of Five Hawthorns for nothing but stories.
Fifteen suns past, the same women had stood before their mossy altars in silence after finding his mother in a meadow surrounded by a late summer tapestry of goldenrod, purple aster and bramble, her head crushed by a stone. So it was told. Just into manhood, his black hair hanging in strands dripping cold rain, Harald had not been allowed to see her. Instead, his father gave him a sword.
Trust not the earth, he had advised.
Harald rode deeper into the forest, his horse Wolf unharmed by the tumble he had taken earlier, an eldritch trip as if the ground itself had snatched his footing. Amid the chaos of an ambush, Harald went down with the walnut gelding in a snarl, the beast crashing on top of him, knocking him out but not crushing him, as he had landed in a cupped earthen hollow.
His assailants departed under the assumption the dishonorable mishap had killed him. A fortunate oversight. When the horses of the dead returned with empty saddles, Egill, Lord of North Thorn, would investigate. Were he a trusting man, Egill might believe Harald had been taken by the outlanders. But the North Lord was not a trusting man.
Fools. They had killed Harald's company for women who, they believed, hoarded the earth's power in their blood. Earth, the source of riches; one point on a pentacle, indivisible with the others, isolated by ignorance; tales of treasure buried deep in the North Thorn hills, the location of which could be discovered by knowing the flesh of its women—or, if nothing else, getting them with offspring that had the ability to talk to the earth and learn its secrets. Harald snorted. As if lust and boredom were not reasons enough to harry women, now the blackguards had treasure luring them over the borders of the realm.
At the sound of running water, Harald turned his mount into a glade. Bramble thorns pricked his legs as he rode through. His mother lay on the ground, pale as a dead lily, blood soaking her hair. Her eyes opened; her touch crept up his spine like a spider.
Cold wind drove a cloud from the sun. The empty glade plunged into a shallow ravine with a stream glimmering at the bottom. Harald dismounted, his breath quickening as his boots touched the ground. The forest floor rolled beneath the fallen leaves like an incoming tide. He stumbled down the bank leading his horse, who did not appear to notice anything strange. Harald joined the beast at the stream's edge and began scooping the icy water into his mouth.
He looked up, water dripping from his chin, as a chill crept over his scalp. A pale face vanished in the leafy shadows on the far side of the brook.
Harald rose and reached for his bow. Then he hesitated, swearing under his breath. His nerves were working him. The thought fled beneath his mother's laughter, tinkling in the stream. Your body does not lie, she chided. Never ignore the touch. Darkly, he wondered if she had felt the touch before meeting her death in a flowery meadow. But whatever had touched her took the truth with it.
"Am I mistaken," said a woman, "or do I look upon Sorrel's child?"
Harald stepped back, knowing she was there before she appeared from behind his horse on the water's edge. Her hair, dark and threaded with gray, twined around her face. Distantly familiar, she glanced away, her pale blue gaze settling on Wolf as she lifted a hand to his neck. In the other, she held an apple. It was broken apart as if dashed on a stone.
"I am Asa," she said. "I knew your mother." Wolf whickered as she held the apple to his mouth. "Her blood runs strong in you."
Blood, again. Harald had seen enough blood for one day, on the dead, in a promise, on the edge of a sword. Asa stroked the horse, a gentle smile touching her lips. She smelled of patchouli. Harald swallowed against a dry throat as lust stirred deep in the roots of his loins where he had buried it. No sense tangling with a woman only to lose her. Clenching his jaw in disorientation, he reached for the reins and drew Wolf away from the stream, from this wild spirit who moved without a sound, a ghost from a past he had not been allowed to know. Stiffly, he headed back towards the woods.
"Sorrel did not die by stone," Asa said behind him.
Harald stopped and whirled around, his heart pounding. Shouts echoed in the forest above the ravine.
Asa's gaze touched the trees. "You'll not find peace in the hall of White Thorn. The earth knows you."
Harald looked over his shoulder as hoofbeats, weapons and voices razed the woodland. White Thorn, the ruling seat of the Hawthorn Pentacle. Proud and boorish, Lord Egill had refused their aid. But Harald knew the White Lords would not stand for having the women in one of their realms stolen and bred for treasure. He turned around.
Asa was gone.
Harald skirted the brook, hunting for shelter in the overhung ravine. What had made him think the Lords of White Thorn would give him audience? The touch of death, grief for his fallen men? His wits grew dull under pain and the blades of honor. He should be hailing Egill's men, not fleeing them. For all that, he should have returned to North Thorn with a report. Another pile of bloody swords thrown at Lord Egill's feet as his shallow expression of concern dampened the air.
The earth gave Harald no shelter; the hill rose up into slick, steep crags deepening the rushing water. Wolf spooked and skittered on the rocks. Harald returned the way he had come, his reason taking shape as his father's voice. Trust not the earth. It did seem the better advice, presently.
His foot caught on a dead branch wedged into the rocks. Unable to recover, he lurched forward and sprawled flat on his chest, knocking the wind out of him. With a gasp, he pushed himself up to his knees.
Egill's men rushed down the ravine in a pounding clatter. Seeing him, they approached. One of them laughed. "There he is."
Harald rose to his feet and stood before them. Their mounts were fresh, their cloaks and boots unsoiled and their expressions cold, men he had known before the war but no longer. Worse, the Lord had sent Maol, his eldest son. Every bit as abrasive as his father, the blonde lordling had little respect for the silence.
"Captain of the North Guard," Maol sneered. "What's this then? Praying to the earth for the return of your men?" The warriors moved restlessly on their mounts, their eyes offering no quarter. "Better you had defended them."
Harald glanced at his horse. Not of a mind to hide behind his patchy honor, he mused, "The earth knocked me down." A dry smile. "And then she saved me." For what, he thought sourly, I cannot imagine.
Maol spat. "Bastard child of a root, you are. Not worthy of a blade. You're under arrest for high treason."
In the vortex of a stare, Harald gathered up the small stones of his life: what was said, what was not said, a look, a question, odd orders, the gift of a sword. The earth trembled beneath his feet as he envisioned dropping pebbles into a bucket, putting the facts together until the water rose, spilling over.
Upstream, a standing wave bulged from the swirl and slammed into the course, frightening the horses and soaking the company.
Harald shook water from his face with a laugh. "There is no war, is there? Egill let the outlanders in. Only he knew where my company would be today. He staged that ambush to take me down."
Maol whirled his mount around, flushed with rage. "You dare make such a claim." He gestured to the others. "Take him."
"I am my mother's son," Harald continued coolly as they dismounted and drew their swords. "Her death wasn't an accident, either. Was it."
Maol held up his hand to halt the company's advance. Slyly, he turned to an older man by his side. "Uncle?"
The Lord's brother gazed down, his expression calcified by secrets. "Egill sought her favor," the old warrior said, "beyond your father's sight." He flicked a nervous glance at Maol. "When she refused him, he took her by force. She cursed him with the earth."
"And then he killed her with it," Harald concluded, his blood pumping steadily in his veins. Fear not the earth. The earth knew; the earth had always known. To save his own life, Egill had sown lies into the outlands like invasive weeds, to scatter the bloodlines of the North like piss into wine, dilute the power of the realm and break a priestess's curse.
Prince Maol continued to speak; Harald did not hear him. The stones piled up into a mountain cracked and shifting from below. Unnerved by something only they sensed, the horses pranced about, tossing their heads, their eyes rolling white. Several of them broke from their riders and fled. Birds swept through the forest, taking to the air in great, agitated swaths. Indifferent, the burning orb of the sun beamed low through the trees.
Harald knelt and put his hands on the ground with an open heart.
White light streamed from an invisible star, passed through his spine and struck the earth like a bolt of lightning. Warriors scrambled up and ran, crying oaths. The ground shuddered and groaned between Harald's eyes in patient, visceral observation: the long shadows of North Thorn's towers trembled and fell into broken patches of night; rivers, wells and millponds broke their banks and flooded yards, courts and council halls; beasts and women fled to safer places; and the wise followed them. Others fell to the earth as it darkened the skies and folded inward like a serpent shedding skin, the breath of a curse fulfilled.
Harald awoke as something nudged his shoulder. Stars twinkled through the trees. Water flowed peacefully nearby. Looming over him, Wolf stomped a hoof on the rocks. Harald reached up and touched the creature's velvety muzzle.
A familiar presence lifted the hair on his head. Cool light flared out, illuminating an ivory face with pale blue eyes. Asa approached holding a glowing crystal. With a faint smile, she drew the warrior to his feet. Then she doused the light and without a word melted into the shadows to the north.
"Come, Wolf," Harald murmured. With a deep breath, he adjusted his sword strap, took the reins and followed the scent of patchouli into the night.