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The following text is an excerpt from THE DREAD HAMMER by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 2011 by Linda Nagata. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.
Visualize my brother, Smoke, as he stalks the forest road. He is a shadow, lost amid the mottled shadows of the trees. The woman he hunts does not see him. She is alone, hurrying south toward Nefión. A gauntlet of imagined fears lies before her—roots to bruise her toes, windfalls to block the way, wolves within the shadows—but none of these slow her pace. They are nothing against the fear that follows behind her—and my brother’s presence she suspects not at all.
He is a murderer, my Smoke. Though he’s just eighteen, at least 172 lives have ended against the edge of his sword. Maybe more. It’s likely there are slayings I haven’t discovered yet. Smoke doesn’t keep count of the dead, but I do.
Smoke crept to a vantage along a curve in the road. Peering past a veil of late summer leaves, he watched the woman approach. She carried a sack over one shoulder and held a staff in her hand. She walked south with great haste, until she was stopped at the curve by a puddle of rainwater and ox dung that stretched clear across the road. She hesitated, staring at the mire with a distressed gaze. The gush of her breath was the loudest sound in the forest. “Rot it,” she whispered. “I am not getting my boots wet.”
Using the staff to balance, she edged carefully around the puddle, brushing up against the leafy screen where Smoke was hidden.
By her ugly clothes he knew she was Binthy—a tribe of sheep herders and farmers who lived in the plains north of the Wild Wood. Binthy women were well known for their poor taste. They dressed like boys as often as not, in breeches and tunic with a shapeless wool poncho to keep warm, and so it was with this woman—though she was a pretty thing, despite it.
Smoke admired her youthful face, tanned brown from a summer in the sun, flushed now, and glistening with exertion. Her black hair was bobbed just past her shoulders. She showed little care for it, having tied it crudely with a braided string behind her neck. She had a sweet mouth and a graceful nose, but as he studied her it was her eyes that captivated him. They were a deep-dark black, framed by heavy lashes and full of heat.
As she arrived on the other side of the puddle she stopped and turned, using those exquisite eyes to search the forest shadows on both sides of the road. She stared directly at Smoke’s hiding place, but still she didn’t see him.
Next, she looked back the way she’d come. She held her breath, the better to listen. Smoke held his breath and listened too, but there was only the sound of a breeze rustling the tree tops. Her pursuers were drawing close, but they had not caught her yet.
She set out again, renewing her frantic pace, but she had not gone ten paces when Smoke stepped out onto the path behind her. He allowed the leaves to rustle, and she whirled around as if she’d heard the growling of a wolf.
Smoke grinned. She was a pretty thing. “Here you are alone,” he observed.
Her mouth fell open. Her eyes went wide. But she was a shepherd girl accustomed to guarding the sheep from marauding wolves and in a moment she had her staff raised in a defensive pose.
He cocked an eyebrow. “Are you afraid of me?”
She lied to him from the first. “No!”
Her defiance excited him. “Then you are the only one. All the other women, they feared me at the start. There is no help for it. I have a fearsome aspect.”
She actually had the temerity to look him up and down. What she saw was a tall, lean, youth, with handsome features and laughing eyes that glittered green as if with their own light. His honey-brown hair was tied in a tail on top of his head so that it cascaded in a plume down his back. His only flaw was a three-inch, sunken scar that ran from the left side of his throat down to his shoulder, spoiling the curve of his neck. He was dressed in tailored breeches and a green silk tunic, both badly worn, and over all, a long, brown, leather coat. On his back he carried a sword and a bow, and at his waist, two knives. Brown leather gloves protected his hands. His tall boots were mud stained, and scuffed with wear.
He took a step closer to her. “It’s a wonder that you’re here in the forest, all alone.”
She lied to him a second time. “I am not alone.”
“No longer,” he conceded, “now that I’m here. Tell me your plan. Where is it you’re going?”
She raised her chin in brave defiance. “I am going with my kin to Nefión. It’s only that my brother annoyed me, so I ran ahead to escape his teasing. He’ll be here soon, though, along with my father and—”
Smoke took another step toward her. This time her knuckles whitened around the staff and she stepped back two. “Come no closer!”
He shrugged. “So what have you brought to sell?”
“Nefión is a merchant town. What have you brought to sell there?”
As she pondered an answer, Smoke took his turn to look her up and down. He imagined the pretty figure that was surely hidden beneath her dirty poncho and dowdy clothes, and for the first time he noticed that she had a sweet scent, a feral perfume that stirred his desire. By the time his gaze returned to her face his mouth felt oddly dry and his heart was beating faster than need required. Never before had he felt so drawn to any woman.
When he spoke again his voice had gone soft and husky. “I am taken suddenly with a fancy for you.”
“Oh, no!” Her eyes narrowed and she raised her staff higher, ready to strike.
He scowled in indignant surprise. “But why not? I like the look of you. And besides”—(it had only just occurred to him)—“I am in need of a wife.”
She should have been impressed with his willingness to do right by her, but it wasn’t so.
Her mouth opened, and then closed again in confusion. A glint of desperation lit her eyes. “I-I don’t think so!” she stammered, backing slowly away. “If you had me for a wife, it would be a very sad thing for you. You are a good man, I can see it. So I will tell you in all truth, I would make you a terrible wife. Terrible! I am like a boy in almost all things. Likely I would poison you with my cooking, and rats would run through my house. The chickens would not be put away, and the children would be dirty and ill-mannered and I would forget to keep an eye on them and they would fall in a well or be eaten by wolves. If you want a wife, you should make your way to Nefión. As you say, it is a merchant city and so there must be many young women there better suited than me.”
By this time she had opened a considerable gap between them. Smoke felt her readiness. He knew that in another moment she would turn and flee. “You give too much credit to the women of Nefión. I’ve seen them. They’re not like you. I’ve never seen anyone else like you. You’re a wild thing, silly as a wolf cub, but very pretty, and you smell very nice. It’s you I fancy. Come, say you’ll be my wife.”
“No! Stay away from me! I don’t even know your name. You are some crazed forest spirit, I think.”
He scowled, annoyed at her resistance. “Crazed? Me? What have I done that’s crazed? You, on the other hand, have shown no hint of good judgment, fleeing to Nefión as if you will find sheep to tend there. I warn you there are no sheep, and if you go there you’ll soon discover that all you have to sell is yourself.”
She blinked in doubt, but then resolve came over her again. “No, I am going. I will not go home.”
He rolled his eyes in exasperation.
She seized that moment. While his gaze was turned imploringly skyward toward the Dread Hammer, she fled, racing away south along the road.
Smoke laughed in delight at her daring. Then he slipped again into the trees and he pursued her in utter silence, with a speed she could not hope to match.
A brook crossed the road a quarter mile farther on. Smoke came first to the ford. He waited until the woman drew near, then he stepped out from the mottled shadows to meet her. “Tell me your name.”
A little screech of terror escaped her. She skidded to such a swift stop that she fell back on her rear. But she was up again in a moment. “How can you be here ahead of me? Are there two of you? Who are you?”
“I am one and I am alone, though I would have you alongside me. Please tell me your name.”
“It is Ketty! My name is Ketty, and I cannot be your wife because I am already betrothed.”
Smoke nodded. “I know. You don’t care for him. He’s near your father’s age and has already used up two wives—so you ran away.”
Ketty’s lips parted in a round “O” of astonishment. “How do you know that?”
“Haven’t you told me?”
“I’ve never seen you before! I only ever said such things when I spoke my prayers to the Dread Hammer.”
“Just so. I heard your prayer. It’s why I’m here.” Smoke lifted his gaze to look past her. “He’s coming along with your father, you know. They’re riding horses and they’re very near. You can’t outrun them.” He looked at her again. “But I’ll kill them for you.”
To his surprise, she greeted this proposal with horror. “No! My brothers and sisters will starve if my father is not there to care for them.”
“Ah, I hadn’t considered that.” Smoke frowned, thinking hard. “I’ll spare your father then, if I can, but I’ll slay your betrothed.”
“No,” Ketty insisted, even more firmly. “I do not care for him, but he has small children too and no wife—” The sound of hoof beats interrupted her. They came with a cantering rhythm, faint at first but swiftly growing louder. Ketty made a frightened moan as she spun around to look.
“There’s not much time,” Smoke pointed out. “So what do you want me to—?”
Ketty gave him no answer, but instead turned and fled, east into the trees. She went with no grace at all, crashing through the ferns and sliding in the moss, leaving a trail a child could follow. Smoke looked after her in exasperation. Why did she have to make this so difficult? It would be a simple thing to cut open their throats . . . though of course she was right, there were children to consider.
So with a great sigh he set his soul to glide along the threads that lay beneath the world. In doing so his worldly reflection—that part of him that Ketty saw as a man—was dissolved by the speed of his passage. If Ketty had been watching she would have sworn he transformed into a long plume of scentless gray smoke that streamed away between the trees though there was no wind to carry it.
Ferns grew lush between the trees. Ketty bounded through them, until Smoke caught up with her. In a swirl of gray vapor, he manifested not two steps ahead. She had no chance at all to stop. With a tiny cry she crashed into him, knocking him off balance, even as his arms closed around her.
He made sure they fell together. He went down on his side to avoid breaking his bow, and the ferns closed over them. They would have been nicely hidden if Ketty hadn’t started to struggle. Smoke rolled her onto her back, pinning her against the ground as he hissed in her ear. “Be still or they’ll know you’re here! If they come hunting you, I’ll have to kill them.”
“What are you?” she whimpered. “I saw you. You were smoke—!”
He scowled at her, lying helpless beneath him in the green twilight under the ferns. “That’s what my sisters named me, but you don’t have to name me the same.”
“Smoke?” she whispered, as the vibration of the cantering hooves rumbled up from the ground.
“It will be fixed if you say it again,” he warned.
Her brow wrinkled in abject confusion. “Smoke?”
His lip curled. “It’s done then.”
“Are you a forest spirit? One of the Hauntén?”
“Hush now. They’re here.”
A man’s deep voice boomed over them. “Ketty! You clumsy sow. You left a trail for me to follow as plain as the forest road.” Fern fronds crunched under the horses’ hooves. “I brought my whip, Ketty, and your husband.”
Ketty opened her mouth. Smoke clapped a hand over it before she could protest that the widower was not her husband yet. She stared up at him with wild eyes. Stay still. He mouthed the words. Do not move. Do not show yourself.
She nodded tentatively and he took his hand away. Then he reached out again to the threads that formed the weft of the world and, seeming to become a heavy pall of gray smoke, he sank away into the moist ground.
The living soil was a reflection thrown off by a maze of fine threads in the world-beneath. Smoke let his awareness divide and slide across the threads’ tangled paths as he hunted for a spirit of mist. There were many ancient forces within the weft and warp of the world-beneath. Most of them were too dangerous to disturb, but the mist was one Smoke did not fear. So when he found it, he woke it up.
It stirred, sleepily at first. He called to it again.
Such forces expected to be summoned only by the Hauntén, the forest spirits. Smoke was not such. The mist was overcome with anger when it realized this. It boiled up out of the ground, determined to chill and deceive the insolent creature that had dared to waken it. It came so swiftly that its cold, billowing vapor startled the horses, making them snort and draw back.
Both men were nearly unseated. They cried out in consternation. Then the one who was betrothed shouted to Ketty’s father. “This is a haunted place! It was not my wife we heard crashing away, but some enchanted creature.”
Ketty’s father was a braver man. “The print of her foot was on the road. It is her, and if you would have her for a wife, then stay and find her!”
But his horse danced beneath him, close to panic, snorting, stamping, turning in circles. Smoke heard the outraged pleas of the crushed ferns, Send them away! Send them away!
Since that was the result Smoke desired anyway, he consented to the task.
Following the threads back up from the ground, he manifested behind a tree, and at once he let go a great screech like the cry of a banshee.
The horses reared and whinnied. Ignoring the shouts of their riders, they plunged back to the road and fled, galloping north, returning to the safety of their home.
Smoke wiped the wet of the mist off his forehead. “It would have been easier to kill them,” he groused.
Ketty made no answer, and when he went to look for her he discovered she was no longer among the ferns. “Ah, Ketty, you are a clever, wild wolf.” Closing his eyes to listen, he heard faintly the rustle of her passage. She was fleeing east, away from the trail and deeper into the Wild Wood. If she had doubled back, crossing the trail to run west instead, he might have let her go. Running west would have been a bad sign. The Puzzle Lands lay to the west. He’d been born there, and had run away, and was determined never to go again. But Ketty had run east, straight toward the sanctuary of his secret holding in the Wild Wood as if she knew the way and was eager to reach it.
“Ketty, you can’t deny we are meant for each other.” With a pleased smile he let his reflection dissolve again and he set out after her, an errant shimmer of smoke breaking free of the mist’s cold temper.
Stories of the Puzzle Lands – Book 1
by Linda Nagata
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-937197-08-7