This is his debut epic fantasy novel. An avid backpacker, he drew inspiration for the story's setting from the Annapurna Sanctuary trek in Nepal, the Marangu route of Kilimanjaro, and the city of Bloudan, Syria in winter. The plot and characters draw direct inspiration from the Sirat Bani Hilal, an ancient migration myth told to his mother by her grandmother during the Six Day War. He may or may not be conspiring with the world music group Izela to perform the songs written for the book.
Part One – Whitehair
“In the beginning, there was the Song.” —The Scroll of Yahali
Four young warriors trudged up a mountainside, one with hair the color of snow. Zaya’s people had words to describe a white-haired matouk, but no one said them to her face anymore. Not twice, anyway.
“Three days,” Sleg grumbled, trudging beside her. “Three days late.”
“Thanks,” Zaya replied, “It’s been almost ten steps since I last thought about it.”
“Has that ever happened in our lifetime?” Sleg continued. “Not that I know of. Three days late. And a late start, too. This trek is supposed to be routine. Why does it feel like a walk to the gallows?”
“We didn’t start that late. And don’t look at me like that.”
“I’m looking at you exactly like that. How many times did you stop to scratch a yow behind the ears before you reached the trailhead?”
“Barely once. Maybe twice,” Zaya said, holding up three fingers. “And they needed the affection. Because of the cold, probably. Anyway, I got here before those two did.” She indicated their followers with a jerk of her head. “Complaining won’t make you any warmer, Sleg.”
“All right. Maybe not.” His breath was pale mist as he blew into the leather glove on his free hand. His other hand grasped the steel haft of a spear, which currently served as a walking staff. “Warms my heart a bit, though. Projection, that sort of thing.” Nervously, he glanced back to the other pair of matouks and mumbled, “Three days late.”
Zaya merely grunted in reply. In truth, his misgivings had merit. A late ritual meant Wardsmith Krag was probably dead, and that weighed heavily on her heart. A crass old matouk Krag had been, certain sure. He had performed the fortification ritual stumbling drunk as often as he had sober. But he’d never once suffered Zaya for her appearance, never called her the names she’d had to endure all her life. That set him apart from most of their tribe and had earned her friendship—a thing she did not give out lightly.
A friend, and a teacher, maybe lost forever. They would find the truth of it soon enough. Zaya wouldn’t allow herself to shed tears for Krag, but that didn’t stop the knot in her belly from tightening with each step they climbed. If he was truly gone, that meant the matouk she and Sleg escorted really was the Basin’s new and very permanent wardsmith.
Her name was Dryke, who for some reason had insisted on bringing her hulking brother, Orin, on this trek to the ward tower. The siblings followed the two guards toward the rocky upper reaches of the Rim, where avalanches lurked, where monsters dwelled. Zaya had walked this trail countless times to bring the previous wardsmith to the barrier’s edge. But recent rumors of weakening protections made the delayed ritual all the more troubling.
“Too much has changed,” Sleg grumbled, continuing to voice her silent worries. “Too many unknowns. I miss Wardsmith Krag’s constant string of curses. His replacement has barely said a word all morning. And her brother makes her seem downright talkative. Not to mention making me feel like I need to exercise more often.” He raised a finger, like monk about to dispense sage wisdom. “It all spells trouble, Zaya, certain sure.”
“You can barely read, Sleg,” Zaya pointed out. “How would you know what anything spells?”
“Some things are written so plain, a yow could read them.”
“If you only you had a yow’s wit.”
Sleg grinned. “One day!”
He fell silent as the matouks came to a precarious ridge, along the right of which plunged a steep, snowy slope into dark oblivion. Sleg stowed his spear while Zaya hooked her steel longaxe into a hoop on her back. She edged forward, steadying herself against the smooth, black stone to her left. Icy gravel dislodged beneath her boots, skittering projectiles marring the smooth white drifts below. She followed their tumbling path with her eyes, then lifted her gaze toward an ochre sunrise. Long shadows fell from towering black spires that pierced through endless blue glacier like giants’ claws yearning to rip holes in the sky.
Sleg returned to complaining as they continued northward from the pass. Zaya let his words wash over her, a familiar buzz that, at least, warded off the monotony. Neither the newly appointed Wardsmith Dryke, nor her brother Orin, said a single word all the while.
Zaya stole her hundredth glance at the merchant’s daughter. She stood tall and thin, only a few years Zaya’s senior. She had the coal-black hair of all matouks save Zaya, of course. Dryke kept hers tightly bound in a practical, rather unfashionable bun. Sharp features hid beneath an ostentatious hood of red silk. Or rather, the features were sometimes beneath the hood, except when the next gust of wind blew it back again, causing her to yank it forward in frustration. This cycle had persisted all morning, and once or twice the wardsmith had pulled with such obstinacy she’d lost her balance and fallen on her rump. Zaya wondered if Dryke thought the thin red robe made her look more mystical or enigmatic. In reality, it made her look cold.
Some summers, Wardsmith Krag had performed the ritual still wearing his bedclothes. All that mattered was the ritual’s song––and, of course, the faerstone.
Dryke was said to possess real power, though Zaya struggled to imagine it. Orin, however, was famed for a fighting prowess matched only by his brutality. Still, one had to wonder if either of them knew the danger this morning’s escort faced. The siblings were heirs to a massive faerstone empire, and thus never before had reason to venture into the treacherous Rim that encircled their city. To them, the mountain likely appeared tame—quiet save for the icy crunch underfoot and a soft breeze stirring in the rising sun’s warmth.
To Zaya, that wind was a harbinger, the mountain’s taunt. It brought carrion birds’ cawing and distant glacial cracks that whispered of avalanches. This winter had brought more quakes than any other in distant memory, and each one both unseated precarious snowdrifts and riled monsters that normally hid sluggish in morning shadows.
But there was no quake, no warning save a particularly harsh gust that carried a shriek to Zaya’s ears, a bestial cry of rage that sent a shiver down her spine.
She froze, raising a clenched fist, and the other three matouks halted. On any other morning, the sound would have caused only minor concern. Today, it made her hackles rise—because it was coming from the wrong direction.
She smelled nothing, but that was normal at this elevation—the cold and thin air froze scents beyond even a matouk’s capabilities. Instead, Zaya spun, steadying herself with the longaxe, and raised a pair of slitted yowhorn goggles to her eyes. They would help her avoid the blinding glare of sunrise upon the slush.
The huge silhouette was visible only for an instant, dark against the white, before it disappeared again behind an outcropping. Zaya cursed, lowering the snow goggles.
Chainmail jingled as Sleg wrung his hands around his spear haft. The look he gave her asked: Did you see something?
She nodded assent.
He scowled over his shoulder toward their charges.
The wardsmith was impatiently tapping a polished black boot. “Why are we stopping?”
Orin squinted, rotating toward the trail behind them. He was both the tallest and broadest-shouldered warrior Zaya had ever encountered, and she’d seen her share. Unlike his sister, Orin wore practical chain to match the guards’, and he carried two massive weapons of black faeron steel across his back, their hilts wrapped in well-worn leather. His breath was only slightly ragged, and he stood sure-footed without using an axe or spear for purchase.
“Bogynn shriek,” he rumbled. “Faint.”
“I caught a glimpse,” Zaya said. “I think. Can’t be sure. Might be headed in our direction.”
“Well, I didn’t hear anything,” Dryke said. “But if my brother did, perhaps we should be careful.”
“Careful, she says,” Sleg muttered to Zaya. Then he added, louder, “Quiet, please, while the escort lead listens.”
Zaya checked again with the goggles, saw nothing, and lowered them again. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, focusing, listening beyond the general sounds of morning. Icicles tinkled as they broke and fell, pica mice foraged, windswept powder hissed down the slopes.
The monster, the bogynn, cried out again. No mistaking it, or the fact that it was drawing closer.
“She’s coming this way,” Zaya said. “From well within the Basin, certain sure. Fast. And hungry.”
“Three days,” Sleg growled. “Three days late. She shouldn’t be within the barrier already. She shouldn’t.”
“Enough of that,” Zaya said. “We need to flee.”
Dryke unfolded her arms, her fists clenched. “I can fight it.”
Zaya shook her head. “You can’t waste the faerstone, Wardsmith.”
“The ritual must be—!”
“She means flee toward the ward tower,” Sleg interrupted. “The bogynn is blocking the path home, so we have to head upward. Try for the Narrows. It can’t follow us through there.” He swallowed. “Probably.”
Orin shook his head. “Too far.”
Zaya frowned. “Wardsmith Krag never used faerstone unless it was absolutely—”
“If my sister says it’s worth it,” Orin said, “it is.”
“Sometimes,” Dryke said, “one must fight, not run. Even drunk old Krag understood that. He didn’t always lug that big longaxe around for show.”
Zaya gritted her fangs. “It’s too wasteful.”
“Better than wasting time,” Orin rumbled.
“The giant boulder with legs has a point,” Sleg said. He ignored the other warrior’s sneer. “Zaya, you’re our lead. Make the call.”
Her thoughts raced. Stay and wait for death, or flee to find it elsewhere?
For her people, it was the eternal question.
“We can’t turn back,” she said finally. “And we don’t stand a chance in a corridor like this, where it can drop on us from above. We make for the Narrows. There’s an open section just before the entrance that would give us an edge in a fight. Maybe if you use a little faerstone, you can knock it off the cliff.” She shrugged, her own mail jingling. “Or something. Might slow it enough for us to reach the safety of the tower.”
“Aye,” Sleg agreed. “A good plan. Wardsmith?”
Dryke exchanged a look with her brother, then gave a begrudging nod.
Four young warriors turned and fled up the mountainside.