Blood in the Snow
"Stay here.” Weyland placed his good hand on Brion’s arm. His hand was pink with cold and still slick with the fat of the mink he had been skinning. The overpowering stench from the mink’s scent glands filled Brion’s nostrils, and he pulled away from Weyland’s hand.
“Not so close to my face,” Brion said with a smirk of disgust. But Weyland wasn’t paying attention to him.
Brion followed his father’s gaze to the south road where a troop of soldiers marched around the bend and swung east toward the city of Mailag. Their weapons and armor glinted in the slanting light of the evening sun. Rank after rank churned the snow to a muddy slush. The royal banner snapped in the breeze over their heads—two crossed swords with a boar underneath. This was a sight rarely seen in the wild country of the Great Oban Plain. Why were they here?
A rider paused and gazed toward the shed where Brion and Weyland had been skinning and stretching the hides from the day’s catch. The rider wore the sky-blue colors of one of the noble families from the south. Even from the shed, Brion could see the bold, white streak of hair that cut across one side of the stranger’s head.
The rider’s horse stomped its feet and danced sideways, blowing white mist out its nostrils. Weyland’s crippled arm dangled at his side as he strode past the cabin. He wiped his good hand on his leather apron as he approached the rider. Brion shook the thick, brown hair from his eyes as the stranger bent low over his horse’s neck to whisper to Weyland.
Weyland glanced sharply back at Brion, and the expression on his face sent a shiver through Brion’s entire body. His father was afraid—really afraid. In all of his seventeen years, Brion had never seen his father afraid of anything. Brion stepped around the table to approach the rider, but Weyland waved him back with an angry gesture. Brion wiped his hands on his leather apron and took another step toward Weyland when a clatter at the fence behind him made him turn.
His younger sister, Brigid, clambered between the rails of the fence into the stall to stroke the neck of her old cow. A calf nosed at the cow’s udder, but the cow kicked it away. The chill breeze curled Brigid’s fiery-red hair about her throat and wrapped her skirt around her legs as she peered over the cow’s neck.
“Who’s that?” she asked. She stepped around the cow to lean on the fence next to Brion.
“Don’t know.” Brion didn’t try to conceal his irritation as he studied the rider and Weyland. He couldn’t decide if he should ignore his father and find out what the man wanted. If Weyland was afraid, then Brion had a right to know why. Didn’t he?
“Did I hear someone else on the road?” Brigid asked.
Brion glanced around at Brigid. The old cow was nudging her shoulder. The calf had followed the cow over, and Brion dropped a hand to rub its head.
“It’s time we butchered this useless cow of yours,” Brion said.
Brigid reached over the fence and slapped Brion on the back of the head.
“You don’t eat pets,” she said.
“She won’t even care for her own calf.”
“We didn’t eat that ugly, old dog you liked so much.”
“A dog’s not a cow. You eat cows.”
Brigid cuffed Brion again, less playfully this time, climbed through the fence, and disappeared around the corner of the cabin.
Brion looked back to the road. The rider kicked his horse into a gallop and disappeared over the rise after the soldiers. Weyland stood motionless. His whole body seemed to droop. Then he pivoted and slogged away from the cabin towards the woods by the south pasture. He never raised his gaze from the muddy road. His crippled arm dangled useless at his side.
Brion glanced back up the road to where the soldiers had disappeared. He considered going after Weyland, but he knew from long experience that it would do no good to ask him what the man had wanted when Weyland was in a sour mood. So Brion returned to the table by the shed, grabbed up a mink and began to peel the hide back while releasing it from the underlying fat with deft strokes of his knife.
As he worked, he kept thinking of the line of soldiers and how their weapons glinted in the afternoon light. He had never followed the south road to its end. He had never even been to Mailag. His world was so small. There had been at least three hundred men in that troop. How many people did he know? Ninety maybe, if you threw in the old midwife that lived in the cave outside of Wexford. And where had he been? Nowhere.
By the time Brion finished skinning, stretching, and scraping that day’s catch, the sun had long since gone to bed. Weyland hadn’t returned to the shed after he disappeared into the woods. So Brion was surprised, and rather irritated, to find him seated beside the fire in the cabin, running a fine stone over his sword. The blade rested on his lap, and he passed the stone over it with his good hand. The steel sang as the stone honed the edge. It was an excellent short sword with a plain, brass pommel. His father seldom took it out of the trunk.
Brion yanked the door closed with a bang and stalked over to the table. The aroma of roasted pork and rye bread from the evening meal lingered in the cabin. Brion threw off his cloak with a quiet snort of annoyance. He stopped at the table long enough to tear a piece of bread from the loaf and skewer a piece of roasted pork with his knife before collapsing onto the rug before the fire. The flickering light of the fire and several candles cast a wavering light around the cabin.
“Finola asked about you,” Brigid called from the corner where she helped their mother, Rosland, stretch the warp on the loom.
Brion refused to take the bait. Brigid was trying to goad him because he had mentioned butchering the ornery, old cow again.
“It’s gonna freeze tonight,” Brion said as he kicked off his boots and wiggled his cold toes toward the fire.
“I want that roof patched tomorrow,” Rosland said.
Brion nudged the old, orange tomcat with his toe. The cat blinked at him lazily.
“I have to check the traps first.”
“Did you feed Lila?” Brigid asked.
“I fed your stupid cow.” Brion scowled at Brigid. She was always going on about her useless cow.
Weyland wiped the sword with an oily cloth and sheathed it. He picked up the poker and sat beside Brion on the rug. He rested his crippled arm in his lap and turned to study Brion. In the dim light of the cabin, Weyland’s pale, silver eyes seemed to glow.
“I need to speak with you,” his father said. But his voice was low as if he didn’t want the women to hear.
Brion watched his father in growing confusion. Weyland was still afraid. The fear seemed to emanate from him. It filled his eyes and wrinkled his brow. It bore down upon him, making him hunch his shoulders. But this was the man who, despite his crippled arm, had faced down a charging bull and fought off a spitting wildcat.
Brion’s gaze fell to the withered hand. He tried to imagine away the long, jagged scar and the awkward angle at which the arm lay across his father’s thigh. He tried to imagine his father drawing back the heavy string of a longbow with that hand and sending an arrow into a Salassani heart. But Brion couldn’t do it. The shriveled hand was all he had ever known. It had always been there, taunting him with its promise of what his father should have been.
Brion raised his gaze back to his father’s weathered face. A shock of muddy-brown hair fell into Weyland’s eyes. But it couldn’t hide the fear. Weyland lifted his withered hand and stared at it as if he had read Brion’s thoughts.
“What did that rider want?” Brion asked.
Weyland shot Brion a surprised glance, but ignored the question.
“It’s coming around again,” he said.
Weyland shook the hair from his eyes. “War,” he said. “And we’re in a bad place.”
While Brion tried to sort out what that was supposed to mean, Weyland’s gaze swept the room as if he expected someone to overhear him. Rosland and Brigid were deep in conversation about the recent rumors of weddings and affairs in Wexford.
“But she’s only sixteen like I am,” Brigid was saying.
Weyland shuffled closer to Brion.
“I haven’t talked much about my time as a warrior,” Weyland began. He paused as if considering. “Look, you can’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you.”
“Sure,” Brion said.
“Not Brigid, not Neahl, no one. Do you understand?”
“I guess so.”
Weyland’s frown deepened. “If they ever found out, they’d. . .” He pinched his lips tight, paused, and spoke in a whisper. “Promise me, no matter what happens.”
Brion nodded again, trying to still the growing alarm that warmed his chest and rolled his stomach into a knot.
“What I’m about to tell you is very dangerous. It’s treason.” Weyland breathed the last word as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. “I wasn’t just a warrior,” he said. “I worked for someone very powerful, and he gave me some things to keep safe.”
Weyland swallowed. “He’ll be coming for them now—soon.”
Weyland glanced around at Rosland and Brigid.
“Things are in motion, Brion. Dangerous things. And we’re mixed up in them.” Weyland glanced down at his arm again. “It’s going to be hard for you to understand, but don’t judge us too harshly. We did what was best.”
Weyland raised his head to peer at Brion. He wasn’t just afraid. He was in pain. His eyes brimmed with tears. “Forgive me,” he said. “I—”
“What are you two whispering about?” Brigid said as she scooped up the old tomcat and dropped to the floor beside Brion. She cradled the cat in her skirt and scratched its ears.
Weyland scowled and turned his back on her to stir the fire with the poker.
“What?” Brigid asked.
“Tomorrow,” Weyland said.
Brion tossed his last crumb of bread at Brigid in frustration. His father had never talked about his days as a warrior even though Brion had asked. Now Brigid had broken the moment.
Brion poised between two worlds with the axe loose in his grasp. The clear, blue sky spread out above him, the icy roof of a frozen world. The open grassland that rolled up and over the hills beyond his home invited him. It tempted him with its promise of something new and exciting just beyond the horizon. The other world of beech trees and oaks crowded into the little valleys. It was dark and mysterious—a world of woods and shadows brooding on the ageless eons of decay. It enticed him with the promise of danger lurking in every hollow, dancing in every vale, and peering from behind every tree.
“War is coming again,” his father had said. But Brigid’s interruption had sealed his lips. That morning Weyland had refused to talk about it. After they had checked the traps and brought in the catch, Weyland had sent Brion to the far end of the south field to chop down the old beech tree. Usually they skinned and cleaned the morning catch together, but not today. As they parted, Brion had seen the haunted expression on Weyland’s face. What secret could be too dangerous to reveal even to his family? Treason? War? What would a crippled fur trapper living far from any place of importance on the edge of the great Oban Plain know of anything that mattered?
Brion returned to the task of felling the old tree that had guarded the edge of the south field since his childhood. His breath rose in clouds of steam to disappear against the icy blue of the winter sky. His father’s cryptic conversation by the fire had filled him with a desire to strike out, to try something new. If a war was coming, maybe he could become a warrior like his father had been.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like trapping and living off the land. He loved it, especially the trapping. He was free—really free—unlike the village dwellers who had to live elbow-to-elbow and cheek-to-jowl. It was worse in cities like Mailag, or so people told him. It’s just that he wanted a vacation now and then. He wanted to test himself to see what he could do. But with his father’s crippled arm, he would probably never get the chance.
Brion swung the axe with such violence that it bit deep into the old, rotten trunk. Huge chunks of wood jumped away to fall heavy on the snow. The tree shivered above him. But the rush of satisfaction was smothered amid the echoing shriek that ripped through the still, morning air and lingered amid the snow-heavy trees.
Brion jerked his head around to listen. Wood chips clung to his sweater. Steam rose from his sweat-darkened hair. The axe paused in mid-stroke. Brion’s gaze scanned the trees, searching for the source of the cry. The clash of steel, the cries of battle, and another scream of terror drove all other thoughts from his mind.
“Brigid,” he breathed in desperation.
Brion sprang over the split-rail fence and sprinted through the snow, still clutching the axe in his hands. The sounds of battle rang through the woods. Fear gripped at his stomach. Fear like he had never known.
The trail bent. The smokehouse came into view. The smell of wood smoke filled the air. Horses’ hooves pounded the frozen ground.
“Brigid!” he yelled.
The blood throbbed in his ears as he rounded the last bend in the trail and slipped in the wet snow, sprawling headfirst. He scrambled to his feet, scraping the slush from his eyes.
The pounding of hooves faded into the distance. Brion raced around the front of the cottage. His father lay prostrate in the trampled snow by the open door, a red pool staining the snow by his head. The jagged shaft of a broken arrow protruded from his shoulder. His sword lay clutched in his good hand. A crimson stain covered the tip. Weyland’s fingers spasmed against the grip as if they struggled to raise it again.
Brion stared for a moment in mute horror. Burning pain began to spread in his chest. He stooped.
“Papa?” He shook Weyland’s shoulder. “Papa.”
Brion rolled him to his back. The sword slipped from Weyland’s hand. Weyland blinked slowly as if his eyelids were sticky with glue. Weyland opened his mouth and struggled to speak.
“I told you,” Weyland whispered. “I told you they would come.” He blinked and tried to swallow. “They didn’t get it.”
Brion struggled to regain his internal balance. He had no idea what his father was talking about. He had heard Brigid scream. Where was she?
“Keep it safe,” Weyland said.
“What?” Brion asked, unable to stifle the rising desperation.
Weyland blinked and tried to wet his lips. “You’re all they have left, Brion. Don’t desert them.”
“Take it.” Weyland raised his withered hand. A large, golden ring encircled his father’s index finger. Brion stared at it. He had never seen it before.
Brion slipped the ring off his father’s hand.
“Promise me,” Weyland said. “Promise me you won’t let them . . .”
A long sigh escaped Weyland’s lips, and he lay still.
“No!” Brion whispered.
He laid a trembling hand on his father’s chest, willing it to rise and fall, but his father never stirred. Brion saw the brutal wound in his father’s head. It leaked blood and something gray into the thick, brown hair. Tears slipped from Brion’s eyes. He wiped savagely at them, terrified for his mother and Brigid. Where were they? Why hadn’t they come?
He lunged to his feet, shoving the ring into his pocket and stepped back from his father’s body.
“Momma?” he called. “Brigid?”
Silence greeted his words.
A cow’s hoof twitched from where it poked out from underneath the fence where the muddy snow was stained red.
“Momma?” he yelled again as he rushed into the cabin.
No one answered. Panic tightened his throat. He darted into the back room and choked on the sob. His mother lay prostrate on the floor staring up at the ceiling—a great purple bruise by her eye, a dribble of blood on her ear, a knife in her hand.
He dropped the axe, frantic with unconstrained horror. He couldn’t breathe. Brion knelt and lifted his mother’s head into his lap. It rolled to one side.
She didn’t blink or smile or breathe. Her face remained peaceful and impassive. The auburn hair spread out like a fan over his trousers. She might have been asleep. Brion’s mind reeled. What had happened? Who could have done this? Why?
The pile of orange fur crumpled against the trunk drew his attention. The body of the old tomcat lay twisted in death. They had even killed the cat.
A boot scraped on the floorboards. Brion swept up the axe as he lunged to his feet with a savage growl.
Neahl, his nearest neighbor and his father’s best friend, stood in the doorway studying him. He had no cloak, his linen shirt was torn, and his boots were caked with mud. Brion searched his wizened face. Neahl’s gaze flicked to where Brion’s mother lay on the floor.
Brion let the axe fall to the floorboards with a thud, trying to blink the tears from his eyes.
“I . . .” he began. “They’re . . .” How could he tell Neahl that he had failed to protect his entire family? “I wasn’t here,” Brion said.
Neahl panted as if he had just sprinted a mile. But he knelt beside Brion’s mother for a moment before he stood and faced Brion again. Brion saw the pained expression slip across Neahl’s face before he could mask it. Neahl placed a hand on Brion’s shoulder. It was his right hand—the one that was missing the tips of the fingers.
“They took Brigid,” Neahl said.
It took Brion a moment to understand what he meant.
“Who?” he demanded, as he wiped at his eyes.
Only then did he notice the blood shining on Neahl’s face and caked in his grizzled hair. He glanced down to see the bloody knife still clutched in Neahl’s left hand.
He searched Neahl’s face for an explanation.
“The Salassani,” Neahl said, as if this truth was too obvious to require mentioning.
Brion’s eyes opened wide. He snatched up the axe, pushed past Neahl and rushed from the cabin, jumping over his father’s body as he cleared the doorway. Now he saw the tracks in the snow. Several horses had milled about. He noted their direction, hefted the axe, and sprang after them.