Casting in Stone is on sale this week so here’s a little teaser:
The silence was vast, broken only by the sporadic sobbing breaths of the woman crouched over that little, twisted body.
I watched the villagers with interest. As neighbours, they were usually a dull lot, but their reactions to this tragedy needed comprehension. The corpse was not pretty, and they were doing their level best not to look too closely. One of the women was kneeling beside the child’s mother, trying to offer comfort.
Her heart wasn’t in it, though. Even from a distance, her tense shoulders and shadowed eyes shouted soundlessly what every one of them was thinking.
“Thank the Goddess, it wasn’t one of mine!”
I understood that. You couldn’t blame them, it might easily have been one of theirs, after all. It already had been and likely would be again, if someone didn’t do something soon.
They were grateful when Eardith arrived, brisk and business-like, but with that rough sympathy they understood. She was strong, opinionated, stern and forthright, all qualities that would have given her nothing but trouble in a larger, more sophisticated place. People in those places are accustomed to having their priests excuse their little transgressions quietly. Eardith’s advice and solace tended to come with a bracing dose of sarcasm and common sense.
I had shared her cottage peaceably for nearly three years. She didn’t pry, she didn’t gossip, and, luckily for me, she never refused to assist anyone in need.
She looked at me over the mother’s bowed head, and I just nodded. Yes, it was pretty much the same as the other ones. No, I had no idea how to prevent it.
Lord Owain and his forester Joss came around the side of the village’s only inn, looking grim. Owain went straight to the women by the little corpse, resting a hand on the mother’s shoulder in helpless sympathy.
“Something,” said Eardith, “will have to be done.”
Well, that was obvious. It was the third such incident in less than a seven-day. There was a fresh grave already for Briega’s next-to-youngest, and Gair’s daughter was lying ripped and nigh-on bloodless, barely clinging to life. Folk murmured that she was a lucky one, but I wasn’t so sure. If she lived, which seemed unlikely, it would be with a scarred face and a useless leg along with the memory of a savage and horrific attack.
Joss had stopped by Eardith, whispering something swift in her ear. Her reaction was neither helpful nor promising: she merely looked, if it were possible, more shuttered and bleak than ever.
Owain, having nothing he could do for the grieving, began to organize the removal of the body, and issuing orders for caution, patrolling, not letting the youngsters out on their own, all of which had been said from the start. What could you do? A toddler waking in the night and creeping out to use the latrines wasn’t something you could prevent, not really.
Gradually, the crowd dwindled, the women rallying around the bereft parents and bearing them off to the inn, a few of the men coming back with a hurdle to carry the little scrap of dead humanity off to the shrine. In the end, it was only Joss, Owain and Eardith left.
And me. They were all looking at me.
I was, for all intents and purposes, the only armed and mildly dangerous person here, and I filled no identifiable village role. I was easily the most expendable person they knew.
“Wolf scat, up towards the ridge,” Joss said. “Like the others. But there are three, not two, this time.”
Wolves don’t do this, I thought. Wolves don’t walk into a village and wait patiently, night after night, for human prey. But Joss was a woodsman, through and through. He knew as well as I did we were not dealing with ordinary wolves.
Hungry ones might, I supposed, go after a child out alone. But it had been a mild enough winter and an early, pleasant spring. The hills were teeming with game. We had untouched sheep in the pens and unmolested hens in the coops, if it came to that. And the children had not been eaten, merely savaged and left.
A rabid wolf might go after a child. One rabid wolf, maybe, but rabid wolves do not act in groups, and a rabid animal is not usually given to patience or patterns. This was becoming all too predictable.
“Lady Caoimhe?” This was Lord Owain, and I didn’t need for him to spell it out.
I knew what they wanted. There was no good reason I knew of for me not to give it to them.
“Joss, you’ll go with her.” Owain wasn’t very good at giving orders, they always came with the faintest of questioning tones trailing in at the end, but Joss was used to this and just shrugged.
Eardith was already moving off, down towards the path leading to the shrine. I caught Joss’s eye, said “A half-glass, and we can meet at the crossroads,” and trotted after her, catching up as the path led off into the trees.
I didn’t speak. Eardith, if she wanted to tell me anything, would do so in her own time, and I was never one for asking questions, anyway. Instead, I listed in my head the things I needed: hunting spears, my long knives, something to eat in case we were out past midday…
What I liked about Joss mainly was his silence. Occasionally we hunted together, or in high summer, took a little boat out onto the lake and fished. Beyond noting some form of imminent weather change or remarking on tracking potential, we rarely spoke, and that suited me. What happened in the village, the endless litany of who was angry or in love with whom, or who was a lazy sod or a lucky one – I couldn’t see what any of it had to do with me or why I should care. I just lived here, on a probably temporary and barely tolerated scrap of allowance that Eardith’s authority had allotted me.
When I got to the crossroads, where the cart track threading north through Rhwyn met the road west to Davgenny, he was squatting by the evidence the wolves had left behind, but he rose soundlessly and headed to the little trail that veered back into the hills, halting only to wordlessly point out the signs that they had passed here as well.
It looked almost as if the wolves had stopped to have a conference. There were three depressions that spoke of animals sitting for some time, prone and indolent in last year’s dead grass. There were paw-prints that circled, as if at least one of them had paced restlessly, bored by some vulpine debate.
I squinted up into the mountains beyond Rhwyn Vale, where mist still clung to the trees.
There was an overgrown and unused twisty little pass out of Camrhys somewhere above us, theoretically a concern for Lord Owain, but far too small and too treacherous to accommodate more than a really courageous mountain goat or a desperate fugitive with nothing to lose. Owain scarcely heeded it. Certainly there was no organized effort at patrols: he hadn’t the manpower.
If he’d sometimes hinted that my attention there might be welcome if I cared to put the effort in, Eardith had rather discouraged me from venturing into the mountains too much. The pass was of no use to anyone, she said, and a solitary traveller could easily come to grief out there.
The wolves – if wolves they were – disagreed. The signs pointed resolutely eastward and upward out of the valley.
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