He was the son of a witch. This was a fact attested to by his strange hair and stranger eyes; the one cropped and ghostly white, the other sapphire blue, flecked with raw turquoise that flared in direct light. His parentage was not unusual. There were thousands like him, with a witch for a dam and an unknown man for a father, unable to use magic or remain in one place for long. Instead, they often became wandering fighters, legions of young men with some trait that marked them out as witchlings.
Jacob- his name meant Trickster- stood at the crest of a snow-covered hill just beyond the tree line of the bare-branched forest, looking down at the town of Gideon. It was early evening and the eastern sky was streaked with pale gold and grey and amethyst as a skein of geese honked their way mournfully up from the flat silver shape of the lake. There were cobalt blue witchlights flaring up in the town, distinctive against the dark buildings. Jacob’s cloak billowed out around him in a gust of cold wind that set the tall silver birches shivering as he followed the narrow track down the scrubby hillside.
A low, rickety bridge spanned the winding, silty river that fed the lake. It shook under his boots as he made the crossing. Below the planks, the freezing water slipped past. The toll was a couple of copper coins; the main street beyond the toll house was nothing more than a wide strip of mud between the buildings on one side and the buildings on the other.
Gideon was a miserable place in late winter, relying on fur-hunters and passing trade in the form of witchlings. The only thing beautiful here was the sky; everything else was mud and stone and wood. If dreariness had a name, it was Gideon.
A herd of cows with long, curving horns, pushed past, splattering him with mud. He headed for the low stone-and-wood building that had the words “The Wolf & Crown” painted onto the wall. When he entered, the landlord looked up and gave him the long stare of assessment, but did not stop cleaning out the tankard in his hand.
The traveller was clearly partly magical, and though he looked young he had the indefinable air of age that all the witches and their children carried. There were lines of hardship around his mouth too, although it was probably self-inflicted, because all the sons of witches chose the hard paths through life. The landlord saw the well-worn clothes, the tough jacket under the cloak and the heavy boots on his feet, and noted also the hilt of a broadsword strapped across the newcomer’s back.
“Witchling,” he said, with a nod.
Jacob nodded in return. “Got a bed for the night?” He palmed a handful of various currencies onto the top of the bar. The landlord leaned over, flicked aside a couple of golden girasol from Sarrasas and extracted one silver token.
“Food, and a bed in there,” he said, indicating a wide doorway in the other wall. The coin vanished somewhere about his person. “You’ll pay for your own drink.”
Jacob headed towards the sleeping room. It was just another big room packed full of bunk beds. There was no privacy. If he didn’t want his bed, someone else probably would. Witchlings were fairly plentiful near the mountains. He dumped his haversack onto a mattress and sat down to loosen his boots. He could see his toes through the socks; it was amazing how fast they wore out. Jacob unstrapped his sword. Using the haversack as a pillow and his cloak as a blanket, he laid down. The mattress was lumpy, but he didn’t care. Within seconds, Jacob was asleep.
Jacob jerked awake out of a dream that had inexplicably involved enormous lizards. Someone close by was complaining about the state of their horse. Apparently, it hadn’t been fed. With some effort, Jacob rolled out of bed and caught himself before he hit the floor. Grey daylight filtered in between the slats that covered the windows and was a powerful suggestion that it was at east midday. Jacob checked that no one had pick- pocketed him before he gathered his pack up and went back into the bar. No one left their belongings on their bed, unless they wanted to come back and find themselves considerably poorer.
An old woman in the bar was scraping something congealed off one of the long tables with the back of a knife, as Jacob helped himself to a bowlful of the gruel that was permanently warming over the fire. He sat near one of the grimy windows- one of the few that was glazed, probably in the whole town.
The room was almost empty, apart from a few people huddled at the ends of the tables. Clearly the serious drinking didn’t start until the evening. He paid the landlord for the bowl of salt porridge, and for the use of the bed for one more night, and then wandered out to see what he could see.
Gideon did not look much better in daylight. The streets were still made of thick, sticky mud; the buildings were still rickety and wooden. There was, however, a market of sorts- miserable next to the cacophony of Sarrasas, with its sacks of herbs and spices, its stalls festooned with silver jewellery- that nevertheless looked like it might sell some good thick socks for a traveller with witch-charms to barter.
Jacob managed to re- provision with little hard goat’s cheeses, dried fish and fruit- lots of it- some of the coarse bread that seemed ubiquitous and, thankfully, several pairs of socks knitted from wool so wiry that they were more likely to damage the inside of his boots than be worn out. The somewhat meagre charms of Gideon having been exhausted, Jacob turned back to the inn. There would, at least, be amusingly atrocious entertainers to heckle, perhaps a girl if he was lucky.
As it turned out, there was no girl, unless he was prepared to count the fifty year old woman who sat in the corner, ferociously winding balls of rough wool. Two men near the fire were performing the Lay of Solveig the Changeling- one singing, the other playing the accompaniment on a lyre. Jacob listened with half an ear and nursed his pint of the thin beer that Gideon produced. Shouts of laughter came from further up the table, where several men were listening to one who was obviously the proverbial town wit, complete with alcohol reddened nose. Jacob suspected that he was the topic of conversation. He looked unusual, even for a witchling; there was no disguising his hair.
The musicians had just reached the part of Solveig’s story where she faced the Queen of the Elves when a rowdy clutch of witchlings came bursting in through the door, loud enough to make Jacob scowl. They were brothers, with red hair and flashing grey eyes. They clattered loudly up to the bar, demanded drinks and food and beds, and fell onto the broad benches. They were too loud to avoid listening to. The red-nosed wit on the other table looked the witchlings up and down rather dubiously and then decided to address them in the semi- genteel tones of a self-confirmed comedian.
“And what brings you this far North, gentlemen?” His friends, loyal to a fault, sniggered on cue.
One of the witchlings laughed. “What all witchlings seek. Adventures to be had, treasure to steal, fights to win.”
“Really?” The wit gave his friends a sly sideways glance. “What kind of treasure? Anything worth signing up for?”
“Something powerful, up in the North,” one of the red-haired men said, “Some kind of weapon.”
Jacob’s own sword was a long, lethal bastard sword, designed to be swung with one or both hands. The blade was notched and there was little ornamentation on the hilt, but the grip was worn to his hands and he had used it since he was eleven. But it was also magic-less. Jacob disdained magic weapons; they were too common, and made winning a fight too easy. But on the other hand- he had been purposeless for years. He felt a faint prickle of intrigue, and shifted closer.
“The Roof of the World,” he heard one of them say, in a conspiratorial whisper, “Through the wastelands.”
One of their listeners tutted. “There be monsters.”
“There be treasure,” one of the brothers said, with a wink. “The kind we want for ourselves.”
The red-headed witchlings had noticed Jacob eavesdropping, and promptly shut up, with identical grey glares. Jacob glared back, just to wind them up. They were hot-blooded, he could see that. All it would take was an insolent grin. He grinned.
As one, the witchlings shoved their chairs back with wooden screeches of protest. Jacob mirrored them. They moved towards Jacob, drawing matching short daggers. Jacob drove his fist into his pocket and found his knuckle-dusters, a gift from his witch-cousins. The boldest one opened with a swing aimed at Jacob’s jaw.
People moved so slowly. Jacob ducked, punched and followed up with a kick that sent the already reeling witchling to the floor, clutching himself and howling. The old woman cackled, with that particular malignancy peculiar to old women. The other two backed off, watching Jacob warily in case he tried to kill them. He dared them to attack him with a quick “come and get me” curl of his fingers. They couldn’t resist the challenge. Their mistake was in each waiting for the other to attack. Taking advantage of their desire for self- preservation, Jacob knocked their heads together. The skull-on-skull contact made a satisfyingly loud thump, and sent them crashing to the floor.
“How’s that for winning a fight?” Jacob demanded breathlessly. Unsurprisingly, he got no reply. Either they were truly unconscious, or very wisely, they were pretending to be.
He sat back down, ignoring the sudden, frightened silence and picked up his beer again. Jacob smiled, into his mug, as the joker and his friends carefully slid further away from him.
The next morning, Jacob slid out of the door of the inn so early that the birds hadn’t begun to sing. He padded almost silently down the empty, muddy streets in the half- light of dawn until the ramshackle buildings fell away and he could see looming ahead the black and distant peaks of the Shattered Mountains. On the outskirts of the town, a mainly disused riding station still had a horse for which Jacob paid a copper token to take him to the other end of the relay post. It was that, or walk for two days. He heaved himself into the saddle and kicked the horse into a trot. It set off with considerable reluctance.
It was evening again by the time Jacob reached the relay post, which was a glorified shed. Jacob dismounted, handed the reins of the horse to the old woman manning the station, and stretched. Now the mountains were so close that he had to tilt his head backwards to see their peaks. Their flanks were covered with pines. The ruddy light of the setting sun gilded the peaks rose gold. A flock
Jacob spent a night on a pile of straw in the stables, with half an ear open for anyone else approaching the post. He had slept in worse places, and it was positively pleasant compared to sleeping outside. He woke up to the old woman haranguing him out of the stables and back onto the road, which wound dauntingly up through the hills until it gave out just below the tree line and turned into a trail instead. Jacob sat down on a convenient fallen tree and changed his socks, wincing as the cold air hit his toes. When his boots were laced up to his own satisfaction, he crunched away up the path, over the frosted layer of last-year’s pine needles.
Several hours later, Jacob was lost. The pine trees looked the same no matter which way he turned. He was no longer sure if he was even on the same mountain. It was coming on to midday, which meant that he had been walking fruitlessly for at least four hours. He gave vent to his feelings with several choice swear words. If not for the overcast sky, he could have got his bearings by the sun. He trudged onwards uphill in the vague hope that he was heading in the right direction, gnawing disconsolately on a hunk of the bread from Gideon. He finally found what he was looking for when he came to a natural gap in the trees and bent down to inspect the soil. A thin track, no more than an animal run, disappeared deeper into the mountains. Any path was better than none. Jacob took it.
After a while, the path began to climb, steeper and steeper. The trees thinned out, until Jacob was walking through a narrow uphill gully with steep scree slopes on either side. High above, the dark pines looked down at him, shaking their heads and murmuring in the rising wind. A few spots of rain plopped onto Jacob’s shoulders and head, threatening a further rainstorm. Jacob reached back and pulled his hood over his head. He would have to find shelter soon, and that meant getting out of the gully.
Jacob came to the crest of the hill, where it began to slope down towards the valley beyond. He stopped, and stared for a moment. Then he turned on the spot and looked back along the path, catching, as he did so, a gust of cold wind. When he turned round again, warm sunlight fell on his face. Spread out below him was a summer between six hills.