Fire was her enemy, a killer, a bully, despoiler and blackmailer, and she would never worship Him.
‘I thought it was getting cold, and it was a shame we couldn’t have a fire,’ she said, and the years of life at the warlord’s fort came to her aid now, when she had to put on a show for the people she was responsible for. It kept her voice light and calm, and let her put a tinge of humour into her tone. ‘I won’t do that again.’
Ash was looking at her strangely.
‘So He came when you called Him,’ he said. ‘And He has given you a gift.’ She was surprised by how harsh his voice sounded. ‘He is wooing you.’
A shudder went through her, uncontrollable, and she turned away from the fire to Ash’s solid strength, feeling sick and cold. He gathered her in and patted her back.
‘He won’t hurt you,’ he said. ‘He wants you to serve Him.’ Never. Never.
There, inside her, was the core of ice, like the ice-earth of the flatlands. She was the warlord’s daughter, and she would not barter her people’s safety for the heat in her blood and the promise of ecstasy. She knew that was what He was offering, and she rejected it. Holdfast came to stand by her side and Ember buried her fingers in the fur of her neck. The living, breathing dog reminded her of where she belonged.
‘Never,’ she said aloud. She half-expected the fire to die away on her words, but it continued to blaze happily.
‘Well,’ Ash said, considering, ‘we might as well make use of this gift.’
CHAPTER ONE – THE DEEP
‘This is the oath we ask of you,’ the Prowman said. ‘Will you give it? To be silent to death of what you see, of what you hear, of what you do?’
Ash blinked slowly. Could he give that oath? What if what-ever he saw was treasonous? Or dangerous to others? But the Prowman was his uncle, in all but blood, and everyone Ash trusted, trusted him. So he nodded, and when the Prowman spat on his hand and held it out, Ash spat on his and clasped it.
‘You must speak,’ the Prowman prodded.
‘I swear,’ Ash said, his deep voice echoing off the high canyon walls.
‘Do you swear upon pain of shunning, never to speak of this place outside of this place?’
‘Do you swear upon pain of death never to guide another to this place who has not the blood right?’
Ash had no idea what the blood right was, but no doubt he’d find out – if he swore. His curiosity was roused.
‘I swear,’ he said.
‘Do you swear upon pain beyond death, the pain of never being reborn, to keep the secrets of this place with your honour, with your strength, with your life?’
What in the cold hells was this about? Ash wondered. But trust was trust.
‘I swear,’ he said, his voice coming a little hoarsely.
The Prowman smiled, his dark eyes lighting up with relief and pleasure. Then he stood back and gestured, inviting Ash to walk through.
Ash took a long breath. Before him was a narrow crack in the blood-red wall of the canyon. It was just after dusk, and the shadows were growing towards him. He and the Prowman had journeyed all day through the network of red sandstone canyons and streams and fissures that made up the wilds of Gabriston. It was a place with a bad reputation – those who went in alone, they said, never came out. Eaten by demons. Wind wailing through the canyons caused those stories, Ash reckoned. Or the many waters, falling and dripping and calling. The streams all drained eventually to the Hidden River, the fast, turbulent watercourse that fell headlong from the lake to their west.
It was a long way from the cold, clean Western Mountains, where his home was. Here the air was damp and heavy. He felt as though he were choking on it. Even the red walls oozed water like blood.
‘What would have happened if I hadn’t sworn?’ he asked, turning his head to look his uncle in the eye.
‘We would have gone home,’ the Prowman said, shrugging. Oddly enough, that was disturbing. He wanted to find out what all this palaver was about. So he walked through the open-ing, and waited. The Prowman went past him and, smiling reassuringly, said, ‘Not far now.’ It was the tone an adult uses to a child, but Ash let it pass. Although the Prowman looked only a few years older than his own twenty-one years, Ash knew he had to be far older than that – at least as old as Ash’s parents. He had seen Ash born, after all – the Prowman’s real name, they said, was also Ash, and he had been named after him. No doubt he still thought of Ash as the baby he’d once known. Ash was used to that. He had aunts.
So he shrugged and followed the Prowman around a turn, with the constant noise of wind wailing through rocks making his ears buzz.
There was another canyon, and beyond that another, and for an hour more they threaded their way through increasingly narrow passageways, while the night grew dark above them. Glow-worms studded the walls, giving a meagre light once their eyes had adjusted.
The further they went, the more Ash wondered why he’d come. The Prowman had just appeared one day, after an absence of years, and said he had something important to take Ash to. His mother, her pale eyes bright, had urged him to go, even though he would miss his cousin Ember’s wedding. His father had shrugged. Whatever the Prowman wanted, he should have. A hero was a hero, and the Prowman was the most famous living hero, although Ash’s grandmother, Martine, ran close. So Ash had agreed to go.
But this winding, closed-in path was as alien to him as the sea. He’d been raised in the mountains, where every vista was long and capped with snow; where the sky seemed so high above you that there was unlimited breathing space. He didn’t like the feeling of being hemmed in. Imprisoned by the blood-red sandstone walls of the Deep.
Then they came to a violent stream, with a rocky waterfall, and the Prowman made him give blood and gave some himself and declared that they had the blood right. Ash, son of Elva, the Prowman called him, because it was by his mother’s blood that he had the right to be here. The old blood.
As the blood touched the stream, the waters calmed. It star-tled him: there was power here, then, of some kind. He was accustomed to power – his mother was a mouthpiece for the local gods, a kind of prophet – but he had never seen power affect a physical substance like water before. It made him more alert. There were spells operating, maybe. He’d heard so many stories of spells that as a child he’d longed to see one cast, but right now he’d do without. They went further into the maze of fissures.
Ash started – that was no wind in the rocks, that was a flesh-and-blood throat making those noises. He glanced at the Prowman and saw the small smile on his face, so he bit back his questions and ignored the sound, although all the hairs on the back of his neck were upright, and his arms were furred with goosebumps.
They emerged into what seemed like bright light – an open space lit by a big fire. The canyon walls rose up all around, enclosing them securely. A good, defensible hiding spot, Ash thought, and wondered if he had been brought here to meet rebels. There were some, they said, who had been dissatisfied with the Resettlement, twenty or so years ago. Those forced from land their fathers had farmed so that Travellers could have land of their own, and live safe. They resented it, even though they were tenants of the warlords and farmed only at their pleasure. Some of them, the stories said, had taken to the wild places and raided warlords’ supplies to stay alive. But surely the Prowman, whose hair was as black as any Traveller’s could be, wouldn’t support dissatisfied blondies?
He had only a moment to think this through. Then, from a cave mouth on the other side of the fire, a stream of shapes came pouring out.
Demons. Demons with the bodies of men and the heads of animals. They leapt, naked, in the firelight, shrieking and howling and ululating. His throat clenched; his bowels tightened with fear. They surrounded him, their hands angling flints, sharp as knives, at his throat. Through the fear he felt a flicker of irri-tation with his uncle. He could have warned me, he thought. Ash planted his feet and stood still, sure that the Prowman wouldn’t have brought him into a nest of demons if it were really dangerous.
‘He is a member of the blood,’ the Prowman called to the demons. He nudged Ash. ‘Tell them who you are,’ he said.
‘I am Ash, son of – son of Elva,’ Ash said.
‘Whose blood has calmed the waters,’ the Prowman prompted.
‘Whose blood has calmed the waters,’ he repeated.
The demons shrieked again and their hands dropped. They stood, panting as animals do, their eyes bright with interest.
‘He is a bowyer,’ the Prowman added. ‘Will you teach him what he needs to know?’ And they howled again, with approval.
Two of them, a wolf and a deer, came forward and tried to strip away his clothes. He stepped back and fended them off.
‘It’s all right,’ the Prowman said reassuringly. ‘In the Deep, we show our true shapes.’ But he made no move to undress.
‘You don’t,’ Ash said.
‘This is my true shape,’ the Prowman said. ‘You are here to learn yours, as all these have done.’ He gestured to the demons waiting, and Ash suddenly understood. They were men. Human men, who had come here to be transformed. Who had deliber-ately come here to be transformed. His stomach turned a little. Why would anyone choose to make himself into a monster?
‘If you hold still and show no fear, you will not be harmed,’ the Prowman said. ‘This is the first test.’
‘What happens if I pass?’ Ash demanded.
‘Then there are others. And eventually, if you pass them all, you will be allowed to discover your true self. To know who you really are. This is the River’s gift to those of Traveller blood.’
The ground felt solid enough beneath his feet, even if the rest of the world had gone awry. The gleaming naked skins, the sharp animal scents around him, the fire leaping high and some-thing else, some sense that he was being watched by whatever power had calmed the stream, made him dizzy. This was an invi-tation to journey into a place he’d never imagined; in ways that he could only dimly make out. To find – what? Himself? He planted his feet more firmly.
‘I know who I really am,’ he said. The demons hissed disapproval. ‘And I’m not a Traveller,’ he added.
The hands with their flint knives came up again and the demons – the men – turned to the Prowman with anger.
‘His blood calmed the waters,’ he said hastily. ‘His mother was a Traveller.’
‘Not for long,’ Ash said. ‘Before that, her people farmed Cliffhaven for thousands of years. And my people have been rooted at High Fields in Hidden Valley since just after Acton came over the mountains. I have the old blood, yes, but I’m not a Traveller.’
Travellers had been despised and mistreated in the Eleven Domains for a thousand years, until the Resettlement. Even now, there were those who distrusted them. They were known by their dark hair, a sign that the old blood, the blood of the people who had first inhabited this country, flowed in their veins. The later incomers, the invaders, his father’s people, were blue-eyed and blond, or red-headed.
They inspected him. His light brown hair, his hazel eyes, his big, muscular build, so unlike the rangy Prowman next to him. Unlike them – all of them were dark-haired and slightly built. Ash looked like one of Acton’s people, all right, but he wasn’t that either, he thought. He wasn’t dark or blond – he was the two combined, and he belonged in Hidden Valley, on the land that his ancestors had claimed from the wilderness. There had been no one of the old blood living in Hidden Valley when his ancestors arrived. They had displaced no one.
‘The River will show you the shape of your soul,’ the Prowman said gently, as though Ash didn’t understand what he was being offered.
Ash didn’t want to give offence, but this primitive ritual stirred nothing in him but a vague distaste. Pity, even, for those who needed it. No doubt a secret society had been important, in the days when every man’s hand had been turned against Travellers. But times had changed. Besides—
‘I know the shape of my soul,’ he answered calmly. ‘It’s an arrow in flight.’
The image in his mind was as clear as a star: fletched with grey goose feathers, his arrow soaring into the bright sky, the clean whistling it made cutting through the air like a benedic-tion on him. That was who he was. What he did. What he wanted.
‘I thank you,’ he said gently. ‘But I think this path is not for me.’
A bough broke and the fire shot upwards, throwing sparks. The wind caught them so that their glow seemed to dance in front of his eyes and he and the Prowman were surrounded by flying shards of light.
The demons turned away, and filed back slowly, disap-pointed, into the cave. The Prowman stood still, as though listening to someone speak a long way off.
‘There is only one chance,’ he said. ‘Turn away, and She won’t have you back.’
‘She?’ Ash asked. The River’s gift, he’d said before. ‘You haven’t earned the right to know more.’
That was fair. But there was something else, an unasked ques-tion in the way the Prowman stood, on the balls of his feet, ready for – what?
‘My oaths stand,’ Ash said mildly. ‘I will keep silence.’
A certain tension went out of the Prowman’s shoulders, although he was disappointed, no doubt about that.
‘Would you have killed me if I’d said otherwise?’ Ash asked. ‘Me? I wouldn’t have had to. You wouldn’t have made it across the stream,’ the Prowman said simply. ‘Come on. No sense staying here.’ He nodded towards the cave. ‘They won’t be happy with you in the morning.’
They retraced their steps, the Prowman saying nothing, lost in thought.
‘I brought you here too late,’ he said. ‘You’re supposed to come when your voice first breaks, but I was – elsewhere – then.’
‘I don’t think it would have made any difference,’ he said. As they threaded their way back through the canyons, the wind swirled around them, lifting the oppressive heat and seem-ing to sing through the rocks. Ash found it soothing now, even joyful, but he was still glad when they came out into the wide spaces of the Gabriston vineyards, near where they had left their horses. It was still dark, but the sky had begun to pale.
He hesitated, but he might as well say it. He hadn’t wanted to come on this trip in the first place. It was only his mother’s insistence that had convinced him. There was somewhere else he would much rather be. His cousin Ember had promised it would be a party to remember.
‘Since we’re leaving so quickly,’ he said, ‘do you think we could still be in time for Ember’s wedding?’
The Prowman began to laugh, as though acknowledging that his own disappointment was unimportant.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘If we ride at daybreak.’