The axe was four feet long, with a ten-pound head, the blade flared and sharp as any sword. The haft was of elm, beautifully curved, and more than forty years old. For most men it was a heavy tool, unwieldy and imprecise. But in the hands of the dark-haired young man who stood before the towering beech it sang through the air, seemingly as light as a sabre. Every long swing saw the head bite exactly where the woodsman intended, deeper and deeper into the meat of the trunk.
Druss stepped back, then glanced up. There were several heavy branches jutting towards the north. He moved around the tree, gauging the line where it would fall, then returned to his work. This was the third tree he had tackled today and his muscles ached, sweat gleaming on his naked back. His short-cropped black hair was soaked with perspiration that trickled over his brow, stinging his ice-blue eyes. His mouth was dry, but he was determined to finish the task before allowing himself the reward of a cooling drink.
Some way to his left the brothers Pilan and Yorath were sitting on a fallen tree, laughing and talking, their hatchets beside them. Theirs was the task of stripping the trunks, hacking away smaller branches and limbs that could be used for winter firewood. But they stopped often and Druss could hear them discussing the merits and alleged vices of the village girls. They were handsome youths, blond and tall, sons of the blacksmith, Tetrin. Both were witty and intelligent, and popular among the girls.
Druss disliked them. To his right several of the older boys were sawing through the larger branches of the first tree Druss had felled, while elsewhere young girls were gathering deadwood, kindling for winter fires, and loading them to wheelbarrows to be pushed downhill to the village.
At the edge of the new clearing stood the four workhorses, hobbled now and grazing, waiting for the trees to be cleaned so that chain traces could be attached to the trunks for the long haul into the valley. Autumn was fading fast, and the village elders were determined that the new perimeter wall would be finished before winter. The frontier mountains of Skoda boasted only one troop of Drenai cavalry, patrolling an area of a thousand square miles. Raiders, cattle thieves, slavers, robbers and outlaws roamed the mountains, and the ruling council in Drenai made it clear they would accept no responsibility for the new settlements on the Vagrian borders.
But thoughts of the perils of frontier life did not discourage the men and women who journeyed to Skoda. They sought a new life, far removed from the more civilised south and east, and built their homes where land was still free and wild, and where strong men did not need to tug the forelock nor bow when the nobles rode by.
Freedom was the key word, and no talk of raiders could deter them.
Druss hefted his axe, then thundered the blade into the widening notch. Ten times more he struck, deep into the base of the trunk. Then another ten smooth, powerful strokes. Three more axe-blows and the tree would groan and give, wrenching and tearing as she fell.
Stepping back he scanned the ground along the line of the fall. A movement caught his eye, and he saw a small child with golden hair sitting beneath a bush, a rag doll in her hand. ‘Kiris!’ bellowed Druss. ‘If you are not out of there by the time I count to three I’ll tear off your leg and beat you to death with the wet end! One! Two!’
The child’s mouth dropped open, her eyes widening. Dropping her rag doll she scrambled clear of the bush and ran crying from the forest. Druss shook his head and walked forward to retrieve the doll, tucking it into his wide belt. He felt the eyes of the others on him, and guessed what they were thinking: Druss the Brute, Druss the Cruel – that’s how they saw him. And maybe they were right.
Ignoring them, he walked back to the tree and hefted his axe.
Only two weeks before he had been felling a tall beech, and had been called away with the work almost completed. When he returned it was to F nd Kiris sitting in the topmost branches with her doll, as always, beside her.
‘Come down,’ he had coaxed. ‘The tree is about to fall.’
‘Won’t,’ said Kiris. ‘We like it here. We can see for ever.’
Druss had looked around, for once hoping that some of the village girls were close by. But there was no one. He examined the huge cleft in the trunk; a sudden wind could cause the trunk to topple. ‘Come down, there’s a good girl. You’ll be hurt if the tree falls.’
‘Why should it fall?’
‘Because I’ve been hitting it with my axe. Now come down.’
‘All right,’ she said, then started to climb down. The tree suddenly tilted and Kiris screamed and clung to a branch. Druss’s mouth was dry.
‘Quickly now,’ he said. Kiris said nothing, nor did she move. Druss swore and, setting his foot to a low knot, levered himself up to the first branch. Slowly and with great care he climbed the half-felled tree, higher and higher towards the child.
At last he reached her. ‘Put your arms around my neck,’ he commanded. She did so, and he began the climb down.
Half-way to the ground Druss felt the tree shudder – and snap. Leaping clear he hugged the child to him, then hit the ground, landing awkwardly with his left shoulder slamming into the soft earth. Shielded by his bulk, Kiris was unhurt, but Druss groaned as he rose.
‘Are you hurt?’ asked Kiris.
Druss’s pale eyes swung on the child. ‘If I catch you near my trees again, I shall feed you to the wolves!’ he roared. ‘Now begone!’ She had sprinted away as if her dress was on F re. Chuckling at the memory now, he hefted his axe and thundered the blade into the beech. A great groan came from the tree, a wrenching, tearing sound that drowned out the nearby thudding of hatchets and the sawing of boughs.
The beech toppled, twisting as it fell. Druss turned towards the water-sack hanging from a branch nearby; the felling of the tree signalled the break for the midday meal, and the village youngsters gathered in groups in the sunshine, laughing and joking. But no one approached Druss. His recent fight with the former soldier Alarin had unsettled them, and they viewed him even more warily than before. He sat alone, eating bread and cheese and taking long, cool swallows of water.
Pilan and Yorath were now sitting with Berys and Tailia, the daughters of the miller. The girls were smiling prettily, tilting their heads and enjoying the attention. Yorath leaned in close to Tailia, kissing her ear. Tailia feigned outrage.
Their games ceased when a black-bearded man entered the clearing. He was tall, with massive shoulders and eyes the colour of winter clouds. Druss saw his father approach, and stood.
‘Clothe yourself and walk with me,’ said Bress, striding away into the woods. Druss donned his shirt and followed his father. Out of earshot of the others, the tall man sat down beside a fast-moving stream and Druss joined him.
‘You must learn to control that temper, my son,’ said Bress. ‘You almost killed the man.’
‘I just hit him . . . once.’
‘The once broke his jaw and dislodged three teeth.’
‘Have the Elders decided on a penalty?’
‘Aye. I must support Alarin and his family through the winter. Now I can ill afford that, boy.’
‘He spoke slightingly of Rowena and I’ll not tolerate that. Ever.’
Bress took a deep breath, but before speaking he lifted a pebble and hurled it into the stream. Then he sighed. ‘We are not known here, Druss – save as good workers and fellow villagers. We came a long way to be rid of the stigma my father bequeathed our family. But remember the lessons of his life. He could not control his temper – and he became an outcast and a renegade, a bloodthirsty butcher. Now they say blood runs true. In our case I hope they are wrong.’
‘I’m not a killer,’ argued Druss. ‘Had I wanted him dead, I could have broken his neck with a single blow.’
‘I know. You are strong – you take after me in that regard. And proud; that I think came from your mother, may her soul know peace. The gods alone know how often I have been forced to swallow my pride.’ Bress tugged at his beard and turned to face his son. ‘We are a small settlement now, and we cannot have violence among ourselves – we would not survive as a community. Can you understand that?’
‘What did they ask you to tell me?’
Bress sighed. ‘You must make your peace with Alarin. And know this – if you attack any other man of the village you will be cast out.’
Druss’s face darkened. ‘I work harder than any man. I trouble no one. I do not get drunk like Pilan and Yorath, nor try to make whores of the village maids like their father. I do not steal. I do not lie. Yet they will cast me out?’
‘You frighten them, Druss. You frighten me too.’
‘I am not my grandfather. I am not a murderer.’
Bress sighed. ‘I had hoped that Rowena, with all her gentleness, would have helped to calm that temper of yours. But on the morning after your wedding you half-kill a fellow settler. And for what? Don’t tell me he spoke slightingly. All he said was that you were a lucky man and he’d like to have bedded her himself. By all the gods, son! If you feel you have to break a man’s jaw for every compliment he pays your wife, there won’t be any men left in this village to work at all.’
‘It wasn’t said as a compliment. And I can control my temper, but Alarin is a loud-mouthed braggart – and he received exactly what he deserved.’
‘I hope you’ll take note of what I’ve said, son.’ Bress stood and stretched his back. ‘I know you have little respect for me. But I hope you’ll think of how Rowena would fare if you were both declared outcast.’
Druss gazed up at him and swallowed back his disappointment. Bress was a physical giant, stronger than any man Druss had ever known, but he wore defeat like a cloak. The younger man rose alongside his father.
‘I’ll take heed,’ he said.
Bress smiled wearily. ‘I have to get back to the wall. It should be finished in another three days; we’ll all sleep sounder then.’
‘You’ll have the timber,’ Druss promised.
‘You’re a good man with an axe, I’ll say that.’ Bress walked away for several paces, then turned. ‘If they did cast you out, son, you wouldn’t be alone. I’d walk with you.’
Druss nodded. ‘It won’t come to that. I’ve already promised Rowena I’ll mend my ways.’
‘I’ll wager she was angry,’ said Bress, with a grin.
‘Worse. She was disappointed in me.’ Druss chuckled. ‘Sharper than a serpent’s tooth is the disappointment of a new wife.’
‘You should laugh more often, my boy. It suits you.’
But as Bress walked away the smile faded from the young man’s face as he gazed down at his bruised knuckles and remembered the emotions that had surged within him as he struck Alarin. There had been anger, and a savage need for combat. But when his fist landed and Alarin toppled there had been only one sensation, brief and indescribably powerful.
Joy. Pure pleasure, of a kind and a power he had not experienced before. He closed his eyes, forcing the scene from his mind.
‘I am not my grandfather,’ he told himself. ‘I am not insane.’ That night he repeated the words to Rowena as they lay in the broad bed Bress had fashioned for a wedding gift.
Rolling to her stomach she leaned on his chest, her long hair feeling like silk upon his massive shoulder. ‘Of course you are not insane, my love,’ she assured him. ‘You are one of the gentlest men I’ve known.’
‘That’s not how they see me,’ he told her, reaching up and stroking her hair.
‘I know. It was wrong of you to break Alarin’s jaw. They were just words – and it matters not a whit if he meant them unpleasantly. They were just noises, blowing into the air.’
Easing her from him, Druss sat up. ‘It is not that easy, Rowena. The man had been goading me for weeks. He wanted that fight – because he wanted to humble me. But he did not. No man ever will.’ She shivered beside him. ‘Are you cold?’ he asked, drawing her into his embrace.
‘Deathwalker,’ she whispered.
‘What? What did you say?’
Her eyelids R uttered. She smiled and kissed his cheek. ‘It doesn’t matter. Let us forget Alarin, and enjoy each other’s company.’
‘I’ll always enjoy your company,’ he said. ‘I love you.’
Rowena’s dreams were dark and brooding and the following day, at the riverside, she could not force the images from her mind. Druss, dressed in black and silver and bearing a mighty axe, stood upon a hillside. From the axe-blades came a great host of souls, flowing like smoke around their grim killer. Deathwalker! The vision had been powerful. Squeezing the last of the water from the shirt she was washing, she laid it over a flat rock alongside the drying blankets and the scrubbed woollen dress. Stretching her back, she rose from the water’s edge and walked to the tree line where she sat, her right hand closing on the brooch Druss had fashioned for her in his father’s workshop – soft copper strands entwined around a moonstone, misty and translucent. As her fingers touched the stone her eyes closed and her mind cleared. She saw Druss sitting alone by the high stream.
‘I am with you,’ she whispered. But he could not hear her and she sighed. No one in the village knew of her Talent, for her father, Voren, had impressed upon her the need for secrecy. Only last year four women in Drenan had been convicted of sorcery and burnt alive by the priests of Missael. Voren was a careful man. He had brought Rowena to this remote village, far from Drenan, because, as he told her, ‘Secrets cannot live quietly among a multitude. Cities are full of prying eyes and attentive ears, vengeful minds and malevolent thoughts. You will be safer in the mountains.’
And he had made her promise to tell no one of her skills. Not even Druss. Rowena regretted that promise as she gazed with the eyes of Spirit upon her husband. She could see no harshness in his blunt, flat features, no swirling storm-clouds in those grey-blue eyes, no hint of sullenness in the flat lines of his mouth. He was Druss – and she loved him. With a certainty born of her Talent she knew she would love no other man as she loved Druss. And she knew why . . . he needed her. She had gazed through the window of his soul and had found there a warmth and a purity, an island of tranquillity set in a sea of roaring violent emotions. While she was with him Druss was tender, his turbulent spirit at peace. In her company he smiled. Perhaps, she thought, with my help I can keep him at peace. Perhaps the grim killer will never know life.
‘Dreaming again, Ro,’ said Mari, moving to sit alongside Rowena. The young woman opened her eyes and smiled at her friend. Mari was short and plump, with honey-coloured hair and a bright, open smile.
‘I was thinking of Druss,’ said Rowena.
Mari nodded and looked away and Rowena could feel her concern. For weeks her friend had tried to dissuade her from marrying Druss, adding her arguments to those of Voren and others.
‘Will Pilan be your partner at the Solstice Dance?’ asked Rowena, changing the subject.
Mari’s mood changed abruptly, and she giggled. ‘Yes. But he doesn’t know yet.’
‘When will he find out?’
‘Tonight.’ Mari lowered her voice, though there was no one else
within earshot. ‘We’re meeting in the lower meadow.’
‘Be careful,’ warned Rowena.
‘Is that the advice of the old married woman? Didn’t you and Druss make love before you were wed?’
‘Yes, we did,’ Rowena admitted, ‘but Druss had already made his pledge before the Oak. Pilan hasn’t.’
‘Just words, Ro. I don’t need them. Oh, I know Pilan’s been flirting with Tailia, but she’s not for him. No passion, you see. All she thinks about is wealth. She doesn’t want to stay in the wilderness, she yearns for Drenan. She’ll not want to keep a mountain man warm at night, nor make the beast with two backs in a wet meadow, with the grass tickling her . . .’
‘Mari! You really are too frank,’ admonished Rowena.
Mari giggled and leaned in close. ‘Is Druss a good lover?’
Rowena sighed, all tension and sadness disappearing. ‘Oh, Mari! Why is it that you can talk about forbidden subjects and make them seem so . . . so wonderfully ordinary? You are like the sunshine that follows rain.’
‘They’re not forbidden here, Ro. That’s the trouble with girls born in cities and surrounded by stone walls and marble, and granite. You don’t feel the earth any more. Why did you come here?’
‘You know why,’ said Rowena uneasily. ‘Father wanted a life in the mountains.’
‘I know that’s what you’ve always said – but I never believed it. You’re a terrible liar – your face goes red and you always look away!’
‘I . . . can’t tell you. I made a promise.’
‘Wonderful!’ exclaimed Mari. ‘I love mysteries. Is he a criminal?
He was a book-keeper, wasn’t he? Did he steal some rich man’s money?’
‘No! It was nothing to do with him. It was me! Don’t ask me any more. Please?’
‘I thought we were friends,’ said Mari. ‘I thought we could trust one another.’
‘We can. Honestly!’
‘I wouldn’t tell anyone.’
‘I know,’ said Rowena sadly. ‘But it would spoil our friendship.’
‘Nothing could do that. How long have you been here – two seasons? Have we ever fought? Oh, come on, Ro. Where’s the harm? You tell me your secret and I’ll tell you mine.’
‘I know yours already,’ whispered Rowena. ‘You gave yourself to the Drenai captain when he and his men passed through here on patrol in the summer. You took him to the lower meadow.’
‘How did you find out?’
‘I didn’t. It was in your mind when you told me you would share a secret with me.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘I can see what people are thinking. And I can sometimes tell what is going to happen. That’s my secret.’
‘You have the Gift? I don’t believe it! What am I thinking now?’
‘A white horse with a garland of red R owers.’
‘Oh, Ro! That’s wonderful. Tell my fortune,’ she pleaded, holding out her hand.
‘You won’t tell anyone else?’
‘I promised, didn’t I?’
‘Sometimes it doesn’t work.’
‘Try anyway,’ urged Mari, thrusting out her plump hand. Rowena reached out, her slender fingers closing on Mari’s palm, but suddenly she shuddered and the colour faded from her face.
‘What is it?’
Rowena began to tremble. ‘I . . . I must find Druss. Can’t . . . talk . . .’ Rising, she stumbled away, the washed clothes forgotten.
‘Ro! Rowena, come back!’
On the hillside above, a rider stared down at the women by the river. Then he turned his horse and rode swiftly towards the north.