Stone and Claw
The stone pulsed with life. Cam jerked his hand away and stared at Dara, the village wise woman.
“What was that?” he asked.
They stood in the shadow of one of many enormous boulders that littered the village. A puddle of water nestled in a cleft in the rock, reflecting the slanting light of the morning sun. Its glassy surface rippled as a cool breeze sighed down from the Haradd Mountains, carrying with it the sweet fragrance of spring.
Dara had called him over from where he was dumping the slag from Hebron’s smithy. The wheelbarrow lay on its side where he dropped it. She had been gathering the shoots of some spring herb on the hillside northeast of the village. Dara was a round woman with straight brown hair. She was normally thoughtful and pleasant but seldom grinned—and when she did, it meant he and his friend, Spider, were in trouble. She grinned now, and a shiver swept through Cam.
“It’s stirring, reaching out once again,” she said.
No rock should feel alive the way that stone did. It had been like touching someone’s arm or leg. The only thing missing was the rock standing up and bidding him good morning. That rock was alive all right, but how? Cam rubbed his hand on his trousers in a feeble effort to wipe away the feeling that the stone had known it was being touched.
He wondered if this was some trick of the herbs and potions Dara brewed for the village people. They had no true healers this deep in the northern mountains, but Spider’s mother was the next best thing.
Cam touched the boulder again with the tips of his fingers to make sure he hadn’t imagined it. Warm despite the morning shadows, the stone flexed and trembled under his hand. It was aware of him. Cam yanked his hand away. His heart pounded.
“It’s alive,” he whispered.
Dara shook her head. “Not alive, exactly.” She dipped her finger in the water and stirred it casually. “The stone channels the power of the Anarwyn. The way a tree knows where to sink its roots for water and nourishment, the Anarwyn knows how to find the heirs of Ilsie.”
“Who?” Cam asked.
“I told you about her,” Dara said, “when you were young.”
Cam searched for the memory and shook his head. The name did sound familiar, but…. “She was the first to—”
“Hey, you ready?” Spider called as he came striding up with a coil of rope over his shoulder and a pack on his back. He wore a woolen tunic and plain trousers, like all the Anar people, and he carried his climbing boots—the ones with the soft leather soles soaked with pine tar—to give them better grip on the rock.
“Just about,” Cam said and turned back to Dara. “What were you going to say?”
Spider traipsed up to stand beside his mother, who smiled up at him. They had the same round body, small head, and long arms and legs. The young people of the village called Dara “the Black Widow”—and not simply because her husband had died when Spider was young. She could give a piercing look and pounce unexpectedly when they put a toe out of line.
Spider was the best tracker in the village and had a reputation for being a deliberate and crafty hunter. He was dubbed “Spider” because of the way he sprang on his prey when it became entangled in one of his snares. Only Dara, Hebron, and Cam remembered his real name was Ludo, but Spider wouldn’t answer to that name.
“What did I miss?” Spider asked when he noticed Cam’s scowl.
Dara patted Cam’s hand. “Tomorrow. I’ll explain it to both of you tomorrow. Now, go have fun, and try not to break your necks. No tomfoolery like the last time.”
Spider grinned and raised his eyebrows at Cam. “This time, we’ll tie the rope to your ankles.”
Dara chuckled and swatted his arm playfully. “Give your mother a kiss, you rascal, and see that both of you come back in one piece. I don’t want to have to set any broken bones.” She winked at Cam. “Bring me back a beautiful hawk.”
Spider kissed his mother as Cam retrieved the wheelbarrow. The sharp smell of the slag from the forge lingered in the air. Hebron had insisted that he clean the cooled forge before setting off for the day’s adventure, and he liked the slag dumped far from the village and its inhabitants. He kept his workplace clean and tidy.
Cam pushed the wheelbarrow back toward the smithy with Spider at his side. His excited anticipation for the hunt had lost its keenness. He would rather have stayed and let Dara explain what had happened at the rock—and why.
Spider’s home sat on the southern edge of the village back amid the boulders. The smithy occupied a hill on the east side, so the prevailing winds would carry the black smoke away from the homes and shops of their neighbors. Cam and Spider cut around the village on the narrow trail that wound its way over the rocky terrain.
Some boulders slouched alone, some piled in ragged clusters, while still others perched precariously one atop another. Short, gnarled oaks and thick, bushy chokecherries grew in what soil they could find among the boulders. Stone houses blended seamlessly with the rugged landscape. A few of the homes and shops were built into the very boulders themselves.
The Haradd Mountains loomed high above the rolling, broken hill country, which fell away into deep valleys filled with crystalline lakes and dense pine forests. It was a forbidding land, but Cam called it home.
“Has Mama been telling you strange stories again?” Spider said.
Cam glanced at him. “What do you remember about the Anarwyn?”
Spider grimaced. “Sounds like a nasty tasting soup or something.” He paused, screwing up his face in thought. “Wait. Isn’t that the old magic from the legends?”
“Your mother said it was stirring.”
“Look,” Spider said, “Some of Mama’s potions could choke a bull, but I doubt there’s any magic in them. Anyway, we should try the east face this time. I saw a big nest near the top. Shouldn’t be too hard to reach.”
Cam shrugged. “Sure.”
Maybe Spider didn’t take anything his mother said too seriously, but Cam couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that the stone had been aware of him. He shivered. It was unnatural. It was wrong.
Hebron, Cam’s uncle who had raised him since he was a small child, waved to them from the open door of the smithy as Cam propped the wheelbarrow against the coal shed. A black column of smoke curled up from the chimney. Hebron was already heating the forge for another day’s work. He grinned from behind his thick red beard. The muscles in his forearms rippled as he wiped his hands on a cloth.
“Get two or three if you can,” Hebron called. “I can sell at least two of them.”
“Mama wants one,” Spider called back.
“All right. I’ll expect you back a few hours after sundown.” Hebron waved them away with a big forging hammer.
Cam grabbed his own rope and pack before he and Spider trudged up the hill into the broken terrain. It was a wild, beautiful country, best suited for grazing sheep and goats. It would take them all morning and part of the afternoon to reach the cliffs, secure their ropes, and make their way down to the nest. But there was no need to hurry. Hebron had given them the entire day, and Cam intended to enjoy it. Yet, his mind kept returning to the supple, vibrant feel of that boulder. What had at first repelled him now drew him with a nagging curiosity. If the stones themselves knew him, then everything Cam thought he understood about the world had been turned on its head.
“We have to go home.” Spider’s voice cracked, and the panic in it surprised Cam.
He looked over to where Spider clung to the jagged rock, thinking he’d lost his nerve. Spider had the rope wrapped around his body in the figure eight they used to rappel down. This cliff leaned at an easy angle though it was more than one hundred feet to the bottom, and Cam could see nothing that would make Spider sound so frightened. He’d never been afraid of heights before.
“We’re halfway down the cliff, and you want to go home?”
The sun was well past midday already and they needed to get this done. Cam paused with the rope over his shoulder and his feet braced against the cliff.
“I’m serious. It’s Mama.” Spider grabbed a handhold on the rock, unwound the rope, and used it to drag himself back up the cliff. His movements had a frantic sense of urgency, and Cam was afraid he might slip and fall. His friend really did resemble a spider. It was amazing the way he could cling to the rope like it was a thick strand of a spider’s web.
“It would be faster to rappel,” Cam shouted. But Spider ignored his calls.
He glanced down at the hawk’s nest perched on a wide outcrop. The fuzzy, snowy heads of the hatchlings were barely visible from under the overhang where the nest rested on the rock shelf. Cam and Spider came every year to collect hawks to sell to the falconers. The hawks that nested around Stony Vale were known for being easily trained and very effective at hunting. Selling hawks was one of the few ways Cam and Spider could earn real money in the form of the blue gemstones, called rones.
Cam’s fingers were growing stiff with cold, but late April was the best time to collect the newly hatched chicks. Still, cold fingers were no reason to quit.
Spider had neared the top when Cam gave up trying to get him to stop and followed. By the time he dragged himself up to firm ground, Spider was loping down the steep hillside like a demon was chasing him, speeding as fast as he could toward the trail leading to the village. His gear lay abandoned by the rocks where they had secured their ropes.
What was going on? Spider could be reckless—even crazy at times—but this was just odd.
“Spider, wait!” Cam called, but Spider was beyond hearing him. Cam grabbed their backpacks. He left the ropes because they would be too heavy to carry alone and sprinted after him.
They raced through the rugged landscape down well-worn trails they had traveled most of their lives. Spider and Cam sped on mile after mile without rest, descending through the high pine forest into the mountain pasture above the village. Spider bounded down the trail like a deer hunted by a mountain lion. Cam was normally fleeter of foot than Spider, but not today.
“Hold on,” Cam yelled at Spider as he finally caught up with him near the northern edge of the village. He grabbed Spider’s arm and hauled him to a stop in the shadow of a huge boulder.
“What,” Cam panted, “is the matter with you?” He had never seen such wild-eyed panic on Spider’s face. It unnerved him.
“It’s Mama,” Spider breathed. “She’s in trouble.”
He started into the village, but Cam held onto his arm. He scowled at Spider. “How do you know?”
Spider jerked his arm from Cam’s grasp and shook his head. Sweat slipped down his face. “I just do. Come on.”
Cam glanced around. Nothing appeared to be amiss. A few of the villagers lingered about in quiet conversations with their neighbors, undisturbed by any danger. Spider dashed into the village as the fading light of day struggled against the coming darkness, and Cam followed. The two of them dodged around the massive boulders littering the landscape. They slipped in patches of snow that clung to the shadows. The crisp air was clean and still—so still that the little puffs of smoke from the chimneys drifted leisurely into the air, and the pungent aroma of burning wood and cooking food settled over the village.
Spider ignored Cam’s calls to calm down and sped all the faster as they neared his home on the southern edge. Cam slid to a stop behind Spider, where he slouched dejectedly in the open doorway of his cabin, his arms dangling loose and his sides heaving.
“What’s happened?” Cam demanded. He peered over Spider’s shoulder, wrinkling his nose at the sour stink of Spider’s sweat.
“Where is she?” Spider gasped.
Cam’s eyes widened in surprise. Dara wasn’t just gone—their home had been destroyed, as if a wind had rushed in, chewed up the place, and then spewed out its contents.
“Where is she?” Spider repeated as he dashed into the house, throwing furniture and bedding around in a desperate search for his mother. Cam joined him, but it didn’t take them long to realize she wasn’t there.
Spider spun to face Cam, his eyes wide with terror, tears slipping down his face. His whole body trembled. He rushed past Cam and knelt to study the ground in front of the house.
Cam bent over, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Spider shuffled around the massive stone that formed one side of his house, taking care not to tread on any tracks, and Cam followed. Twilight had descended as the sun slipped behind the mountains, but it was still light enough to see the scuff marks in the damp soil.
His gaze focused on the print of a beast he didn’t recognize. Spider had glanced at it and continued, but Cam stopped cold. He had never seen anything like it. He pressed his finger into the smooth floor and wall of the track. It was fresh—no more than a few hours old—and odd. Very odd. The print was a cross between a bear and a wolf with huge, clawed toes and an elongated heel. The front feet had five long toes with thick claws.
“What is this?” Cam breathed as a new sense of dread burned in his throat. He glanced up and saw that Spider was no longer moving. He had fallen to his knees beside a figure sprawled amid the short hawthorn bushes and broken furniture not twenty paces from the cabin. His yew longbow lay splintered and trampled in the snow. The broken nock of an arrow still clung to the string.
“Spider?” Cam said. He stepped up to gaze over his friend’s shoulder and froze. The bile rose in his throat, and he suppressed the desire to vomit. Spider’s mother lay on her back. Blood spattered her face. Her throat had been torn open. Her gentle, once playful, eyes stared at nothing. A peculiar odor of hot metal mixed with rotten eggs filled the air.
Spider’s shoulders trembled. A harsh sob escaped his throat. Cam fell to his knees to drape an arm over his friend’s back. Heaviness filled Cam’s chest, and tears burned his eyes. He tried to blink them away. What could have done this? And why?
Cam let Spider have a moment before he tugged on his shoulder. “We need to find Hebron,” he said. Spider pulled away from him.
“We need to find out what did this,” Cam insisted.
Spider raised a tearstained face. His expression of utter horror and loss forced the tears from Cam’s eyes as a knot formed in his throat.
“I knew she was in danger,” Spider said.
Cam scowled at Spider in confusion. How could he know? If she had screamed, where were the other villagers? Why hadn’t they come running? Though Spider’s house was on the edge of the village, surely someone would have heard the ruckus.
“I felt terror,” Spider said, “and somehow, I knew it was her.”
Cam didn’t know what to say. Such things weren’t possible. He had experienced that sixth sense that told a person they were being watched, though never anything this specific. Still, what kind of beast could have done this? Animals preyed upon each other for survival, but he had never seen anything so vicious. No creature he knew ripped out its victim’s throat and then left them. This creature wasn’t killing to feed. It was killing to kill, maybe killing for pleasure. The thought disturbed him.
He hauled Spider to his feet. “Let’s get Hebron. He’ll know what to do.”
“I won’t leave her like this,” Spider said. He twisted away from Cam’s grasp and retrieved a blanket from the cabin. He and Cam wrapped Dara’s body in it and carried her inside their hut, out of the now falling snow.
“Come on,” Cam said after they finished. “That thing might come back.”
Hunter and Hunted
A sudden cry of anguish pierced Lorna’s brain. She stumbled and fell heavily against the wall of the palace at Abilene. Clutching at her head, she struggled to reach through the pain to find its source. As the last living fully-trained disciple of the Anarwyn, Lorna had almost forgotten how challenging magical contact could be. It had been so many years since anyone had the power or skill to communicate through the Anarwyn.
A ray of early afternoon light cut through a windowpane high above, casting a golden glow over the white tiled floor. Cool spring air fluttered down the corridor, fresh and clean. She brushed away a strand of brown hair that blew before her eyes. That voice had been filled with such terror and pain.
Save my child, the agonized voice of a woman whispered to her mind.
Lorna straightened, leaning on the wall for support, and closed her eyes so she could concentrate. “Where are you?” She sent the words over the tenuous connection. Could another heir of Ilsie be living out there with the training to use the power of the Anarwyn in this way? She had thought the ability lost to all but herself. Perhaps it was only an echo of something terrible happening to some innocent woman.
The beast, the voice whispered. It was growing weaker, quivering with the effort. I’ve sent it away, but it is hungry.
A chill swept through Lorna. This was not the first time in recent weeks she had heard of some terrible beast roaming the land.
“Where are you?” she sent again.
My child, the voice sobbed. Save him. Oh, Anarwyn. Save them both.
Lorna called up the power of the little red opal set in the golden pendant she wore around her neck and used it to expand her conscious perception. Willing her heart to slow and her breathing to become deep and regular, she allowed the opal to connect her more securely to the power of the Anarwyn that suffused the earth and the air. She reached across the expanse, searching.
“Where are you?” Lorna sent again, experiencing the pang of the woman’s desperation.
Save them both, the woman repeated.
“What are their names?”
Lorna waited, but the voice was gone. She slowed her breathing, allowing herself to center more securely, letting her consciousness flow with the Anarwyn in every direction. All she found was silence, save for a fleeting touch of someone far to the northeast. If there had been an heir of Ilsie pleading for help, the voice had gone silent.
She swallowed the lump of terror that gripped her throat and released the power of the little red opal. She took a few moments to compose herself before striding toward King Chullain’s apartments, her boots clicking against the tiled floor. He must be warned.
Rumors of Bardon’s assassins being on the offensive again after a twenty-year pause had spread like wildfire, and a messenger arrived a few days before describing a new terror that stalked the land. She hadn’t put the two together before, but there could be no other conclusion.
Bardon had long ago betrayed the Anarwyn and embraced the evil power of the Bragamahr. It seemed clear that the legendary beasts of the Bragamahr were haunting the land again, hunting the heirs of Ilsie, descendants of the young woman who first harnessed the power of the Anarwyn. Perhaps it was one of these beasts that silenced the woman who had called out to the Anarwyn in so much pain.
“Bardon, what have you done?” she whispered as she strode through the palace halls in search of the King.
Of everyone now living, she was the most learned in the lore of the Anarwyn, and these beasts had neither been seen nor heard of for over twelve hundred years. Only vague rumors and snatches of lines in ancient poems and songs remained. What were they? What could they do? And how could she stop them?
She had long sensed the growing anger in the Anarwyn. It had begun that day so long ago when Bardon drank the Dûr Crishal, the Crystal Water of the Anarwyn. Now, the same rage rumbled again through the Anarwyn, and Lorna was afraid—really afraid—for the first time in twenty years. The Anarwyn was becoming unstable, and Bardon was on the move. Her time was running out.