A gritty and epic adventure to appeal to fans of Mark Lawrence, Andrzej Sapkowski and Joe Abercrombie, The Winter Road is a fantasy novel which remembers that battles leave all kinds of scars.
You will fail, Teyr Amondsen.
My eyes open. The truth wakes me.
You will fail.
I had slept against a tree to keep the weight off my arm, off my face. My tongue runs over the abscesses in my mouth, the many holes there. My left eye is swollen shut, my cheek broken again, three days ago, falling from a narrow trail after a deer I’d stuck with my only spear.
I close my eyes and listen, desperate to confirm my solitude. A river, quick and throaty over rocks and stones. A grebe’s whinnying screech.
I take off one of the boots I’d stolen, see again the face of the man who’d worn them as I strangled him. I feel my toes, my soles, assess the damage. Numb, blisters weeping. My toes are swelling like my fingers, burning like my face. I need a fire, cicely root, fireweed. I have to be grateful my nose was broken clean. A smashed-up nose is a death sentence in the hinterlands. If you can’t sniff for plant you’re a bag of fresh walking meat. You need plant to heal, plant to kill.
If I keep on after this river I can maybe steal a knife, some plant and warmer clothes. These are Carlessen clan lands, the coast is beyond them. I’m going to live there, get Aude’s screaming out of my head, the horns of the whiteboys, the whisperings of the Oskoro who would not, despite a thousand fuck offs and thrown stones in the black forests and blue frozen mountains, let be their debt to me.
The grebe screeches again. Eggs!
I pull on the boot with my right arm, my left strapped against me and healing, itself broken again in my fall.
I pick up my spade and the small sack that I’d put Mosa’s shirt in, the spade something of a walking stick to help me along the mossy banks and wretched tracks. Snow was making a last stand among the roots of birch trees, a few weeks yet from thawing out. A few handfuls ease my gums.
The sky is violet and pink ahead of the sun, the woods and banks blue black, snow and earth. I stumble towards the river, a chance to wash my wounds once I’ve found some nests and broken a few branches for a fire.
The grebes screech at me as I crack their eggs and drink the yolks. I find five in all and they ease my hunger. If a grebe gets close enough I’ll eat well. The sun edges over the hills to the east and I am glad to see better, through my one good eye. The river is strong up here, my ears will miss much.
I drop the deerskins I use for a cloak and unbutton my shirt. I didn’t have to kill the man I stole that from. I loosen the threads to the discreet pockets that are sewn shut and take a pinch of snuff from one. It’s good plant, good for sniffing out what I need. Feels like I’ve jammed two shards of ice into my nose and I gasp like I’m drowning, cry a bit and then press another pinch to my tongue, pulling the thread on the pocket tight after. Now the scents and smells of the world are as clear to me as my seeing it. For a short while I can sniff plant like a wolf smells prey.
I forget my pains. Now I’m back in woodland I have to find some cicely. The sharp aniseed smell leads me to it, as I’d hoped. I dig some up, chopping around the roots with the spade to protect them. Around me a leaden, tarry smell of birch trees, moss warming on stones, but also wild onion, birch belets. Food for another day or so.
I wash the cicely roots and I’m packing my mouth with them when I hear bells and the throaty grunts of reindeer. Herders. The river had obscured the sounds, and on the bank I have no cover to hide myself in. I cuss and fight to keep some control of myself. No good comes of people out here.
The reindeer come out through the trees and towards the river. Four men, walking. Nokes – by which I mean their skin is clear and free of the colours that mark out soldiers who use the gifts of plant heavily, the strong and dangerous fightbrews. Three have spears, whips for the deer, one bowman. There’s a dog led by one of them, gets a nose of me and starts barking to be let free. Man holding him’s smoking a pipe, and a golden beard thick and long as a scarf can’t hide a smirk as he measures me up. The herd start fanning out on the bank. Forty feet. Thirty feet.
“Hail!” I shout, spitting out my cicely roots to do it. My broken cheek and swelling make it hard for me to form the greeting. I try to stand a bit more upright, to not look like I need the spade to support my weight.
“Hail. Ir vuttu nask mae?” Carlessen lingo. I don’t know it.
I shake my head, speaking Abra lingo. “Auksen clan. Have you got woollens to spare? I’m frostbitten.” I hold up my good hand, my fingertips silver grey.
He speaks to the others. There’s some laughter. I recognise a word amid their own tongue, they’re talking about my colour, for I was a soldier once, my skin coloured to an iron rust and grey veins from years of fightbrews. One of them isn’t so sure, knowing I must know how to fight, but I reckon the rest of me isn’t exactly putting them off thoughts of some games. Colour alone isn’t going to settle it. Shit. I reach inside my shirt for some of the small white amony flowers I’d picked in the passes above us to the north.
“No no no. Drop.” He gestures for me to drop the spade and the amony. He lets a little of the dog’s lead go as well. The bowman unshoulders his bow.
At least the stakes are clear, and I feel calmer for it. He has to be fucked if he thinks I’m going to do a word he says, let alone think his dog could hurt me.
He has nothing that can hurt me, only kill me.
“No, no, no,” I says, mimicking him before swallowing a mouthful of the amony and lifting the spade up from the ground to get a grip closer to its middle. I edge back to the river, feeling best I can for some solid flat earth among the pebbles and reeds.
He smiles and nods to the bowman, like this is the way he was hoping it would go, but that isn’t true. The bowman looses an arrow. Fool could’ve stepped forward twenty feet and made sure of me but I throw myself forward. Not quick enough, the amony hadn’t got going. Arrow hits my left shoulder. It stops me a moment, the shock of it. He’s readying another arrow, so I scream and run at the reindeer that strayed near me, the one with the bell, the one they all follow. It startles and leaps away, heading downstream, the herd give chase.
Time and again I made ready to die these last nine months. I’m ready now, and glad to take some rapists with me. I run forward while they’re distracted by how much harder their day is now going to be chasing down the herd. The one with the pipe swears and lets his dog go at me while one of the spears fumbles in his pockets for a whistle to call the herd, running off after them.
Dogs are predictable. It runs up, makes ready to leap and I catch it hard with the spade. It falls, howling, and I get the edge of the spade deep into its neck. I look at the three men left before me.
“Reindeer! You’ll lose them, you sad fuckers!” They’ll understand “reindeer” at least.
The pipe smoker draws a sword, just as my amony beats its drum. I don’t know how much I took but it hits me like a horse just then. I shudder, lose control of myself, my piss running down my legs as my teeth start grinding. I gasp for air, the sun peeling open my eyes, rays bleaching my bones. My new strength is giddying, the amony fills me with fire.
He moves in and swings. He’s not very good at this. The flat of my spade sends his thrust past me and I flip it to a reverse grip and drive it hard into his head, opening his mouth both sides back to his ears. I kick him out of my way and run at the bowman behind him. He looses an arrow, and it shears the skin from my skull as it flies past, almost pulling my good eyeball out with it, the blood blinding me instantly. He doesn’t know how to fight close, but I’m blind in both eyes now and I’m relying on the sense the amony gives me, half my training done blind all my life for moments like this. I kick him in the gut, drop the spade and put my fist into his head, my hearing, smell exquisite in detail. He falls and I get down on his chest and my good hand seeks his face, shoving it into the earth to stop its writhing, drive my one good thumb through an eye far as it’ll go. A shout behind me, I twist to jump clear but the spear goes through me. Out my front it comes, clean out of my guts. I hold the shaft at my belly and spin about, ripping the spear out of his hands, his grip no doubt weakened a moment with the flush of his success. I hear him backing away, jabbering in his lingo “Ildesmur! Ildesmur!” I know this name well enough, he speaks of the ghostly mothers of vengeance, the tale of the War Crows. I scream, a high, foul scritching that sends him running into the trees.
My blood rolls down my belly into my leggings. There’s too much of it. Killed by a bunch of fucking nokes. No more than I deserve. I fall to my knees as I realise, fully, that it’s over. The river sounds close, an arm’s length away maybe. I fall forward, put my arm out, but it gives and I push both the spearhead and the end of the arrow that’s in my shoulder back through me a bit. A freezing spike of pain. My senses lighten to wisps, I fall away from the ground, my chest fit to burst, my blood warming my belly and the dirt under me. Why am I angry that it’s all over? The sun keeps climbing, the pebbles rattle and hum as the song of the earth runs through me – beating hooves, distant cries, roots of trees stretching and drinking. I hum to quieten the pain. It’s my part in the song but I was always part of the song, I just haven’t been listening. The birch trees shush me. Snowy peaks crack like thunder in the distance. The sky is blue like his eyes, fathomless.
‘I’m coming,’ I says. He knows I’m coming. I just have to hold out my hand.