It is raining and I am soaked wet. Water has seeped beneath my leathers; they itch most keen and the weight of the young hind slung across my shoulders doubles my discomfort. The clouds are dark, racing low, reaching nigh to the tops of the trees among which I stand, hid from the men below who burn my village. I watch as my mother runs in screams from our hut towards the body of my father, her cries nigh drowned by the sound of the rain, the roar of the flames and the raucous laughter of the mounted soldiers as they slaughter my family and kinfolk.
Mother’s voice is stilled as a quarrel pierces her breast, then another slices through her neck. She falls like a sack into the mud, silent now in death.
Though untrained in warfare, I am no simpleton. Tears fall from my eyes, but I know not to move so much as a muscle. A rush down the hill to join the fight would be a fool’s bravado; I would not survive above three heartbeats. They number at the least seven men, all asaddle, full armoured and battle ready. I afoot, in my tunic, with naught but bow and few arrows would afford mere sport … and if her men did not soon slay me, then she would, I am sure of it …
Pale she is, robed all in black and slim as a water-reed, dark of waist-long hair and narrowed eye, with blackened lips and fingertips. She writhes, sat astride some strange animal, her cackled laughter that of an old crone, belying the youthfulness of her features. Ne’er to this day have I seen a witch, but for sure the bolts of blue fire she looses from her wide-flung hands say that lack has now been filled. My heart, though it aches with grief for my people, now hardens with resolve. I know not why she has done this terrible thing … and nor do I care. I do but know that she will pay, and that most dear.
I stay behind my trees, limbs aching with the cramp of stillness as the sun sets, the flames already become crackling embers. The marauders have spent some little time searching and looting, but are leaving at last and I must retrieve my books from where I trust they are yet safe hid in the hole beneath the remains of my burnt cot, then I will go from this sad place and ne’er return. I have work to do.
‘Dav, you layabed, get your nose out of that useless tome and that lank body clad,’ the back of mother’s hand slapped into my shoulder, ‘I have naught for the pot and the day is well along.’
‘Ah, mother … you know I like to learn. Cannot father for once furnish our needs?’
‘Ha! Your sire is a warrior, boy, not a soft bookworm such as yourself. There is talk of strangers nearby; e’en now he readies the menfolk to test the truth of it. Up, my lad! Take your bow and bag and find us fare for the day.’
Another backhand to the shoulder hastened my rise from the cot, though in truth, the kiss to the temple and the pinch to the cheek which soon enough followed mother’s urgings did much to temper her gruff words and treatment. I returned her fond smile with a kiss to the forehead.
‘Ay, then. Leave me disrobe in peace and I’ll be away.’
I heard her chuckle from behind the arras as it fell back to screen my now naked body from her view while I dressed. ‘You imagine I have not ere seen such sights, boy?’ I bore you and raised you from a suckling, remember …’ She laughed aloud and twitched the curtain aside, drawing a protesting cry from me as I hastened to cover my manhood.
‘Mmmmm … tasty!’
Again she chuckled at the redness in my face, but at last left me alone to don my tunic and leggings, my final act ere leaving my bedside being to conceal the book with my other scant belongings in the recess beneath my bedboard.
‘Keep safe, my son.’
‘I will, mother,’ I tarried to allow her parting kiss, then ducked below the lintel into the dullness of a day which did not bode well for a hunter …
Short for my age of but sixteen summers, I am slight of build, my frame and musculature more suited to a hunter than a man of war. My skill with a game bow is acknowledged by my village, while my oft demonstrated lack of prowess with the simplest of weapons is the source of much amusement. That is as it may be, but to my mind, it is my self-taught ability to read and write that sets me apart from my kin, for none of them have such talents … and to a man, they mock and tease me for it.
Ah … I crouch among the woodfern better to observe the scat I have spotted among the leaves of a butterwort; it is yet warm, a female cervid, from the scent of it. All my guile, my stealth, the forest-sense with which I had been born now come to the fore as I follow the spoor … and there she is, cropping at the short grass among the boletes and earthstars in a mist-shrouded clearing. I nock and draw … and she is mine, one arrow close enough by the heart to fell her in an instant. I gut and clean her where she lies, then hoist her limp body to my shoulder; with the fine array of herbs, fruits and fungi I have already gathered, mother will have more than enough to sate the three of us for nigh on a half sennight.
As I turn to retrace my path homeward, it begins to rain …
For three days had I been following them, by now well able to discern any of the eight from another, e’en to their names and habits. They kept her e’er central among them, her wellbeing their manifest main duty; as much as I ached to sink my knife deep into her belly, as yet I had no inkling as to how this might be accomplished. For the nonce, I had little choice but to remain concealed, though lying flat on my stomach among soaked ferns as I now found myself, made such necessity all the more discomforting. The rain had not once relented since I’d quit my all but unrecognizable village; they’d not left one hut standing, nor any structure, be it barn, fence or communal privy; all had been razed flat to the ground. I’d despaired for my precious books, for though the metal-bound one would for sure survive the flames, I feared they might have been uncovered, at length much relieved to find both warm but unharmed. They, my few trinkets and scant coinage now lay safe in my bag, the weight of it with my knife, bow and arrows on my back rendering my present condition all the more miserable.
Despite the rain, the marauders had contrived to light a fire in the clearing, protecting it with a simple, leaf-covered canopy. I watched as they moved about the encampment, tending to their mounts, refurbishing their weapons, eating and talking. The single shelter, a large, rounded hut of oil-soaked cloth was her domain alone, for none of the men had entered or so much as approached it, save Lyto with her food, since it had been erected. I could see a light within the hut, casting an occasional eerie shadow upon the walls as she stirred within, though what she might have been about, I could not tell.
As evening became night, I did as some of the soldiers and slept, the unremitting weather seeming of as little concern to them as it was to me, though they had hide covers beneath which they sheltered, whereas I was forced to remain prone and unprotected.
I had no inkling of how long I dozed, for it was full dark when I awoke, both the fire and light now extinguished. I watched for some minutes, but all was now still and silent … mayhap this was my chance …
‘Thee’d not gain the glade, thy fair skills withal.’
‘I … what …?’ I cast about for the source of the whisper; it had come from close by my right, but there was naught to be seen. A chill made the cold of a sudden, deeper.
‘I be here …’
I saw it! Not an armslength from my hand, some thing moved … and then it was gone …
‘Use thine eyes, hunter; seek among the shadows …’
I fought to control the nervous beating of my heart while conceding the good advice, ceasing my search for what was and looking instead for what was not … and I saw him; small, crouched, black as the very night, his head tilted in query.
‘What are you? Do you mean me harm?’
He chuckled, his voice a merry singsong. ‘Were it so, thee would be already dead, dost thee not think?’
He had the right of it; I granted that his gauge of my skills as ‘fair’ was generous, for his own plain far outstripped mine. How he’d managed to creep so close without waking me, I could but wonder.
‘Ay … so tell me then, what you are and your intent.’
‘My name be Ciluno, though most dub me Cil. Thee might know of my kind as thrate.’
Again the hissed words brought a pimpling to my skin; I had but twice heard of such beings, both times in the fearful whispers of men twice my size and well hardened in fray. Thrates killed in silence, unseen; one moment you were alive, then came a weight to your back and you died, your throat severed from ear to ear or your eyes skewered deep into your brain. Your body might be found, but your head was oft missing, which did little to decrease the fear.
‘I … your baneful nature is of wide renown. What want you with me?’
‘Apprise me first of thy name and mayhap I’ll tell thee.’
‘It is Dav … David …’
‘Then Dav, I would warrant my purpose the very same as thine … thievery.’
‘Nay! It is not so …’
‘Hush thy cries, lest the guards hear thee!’
The both of us froze, wary of any sign that my unthinking loud dissent had been detected, but all remained quiet in the camp.
‘How many are they, the guards?’
Again, I saw him as he shifted a little, one knee aground, the other raised nigh to his chest in his squat. ‘Four guard, four sleep; it be e’er their way.’
‘Ay; so I too believe. You follow them also, then?’
‘Thy study be the hind, the hart, the mirral. I too learn my quarry, the better to relieve them of that which I need … but I gather from thy protestations that mere pilferage be not thine aim.’
‘I was away hunting when they came to my village. They killed everyone, Cil; my mother, my father, all my kinfolk …’ I stopped, the trembling of my voice evidence enough of the tears mingling with the rain upon my face, for I felt a fleeting touch as his hand brushed against my shoulder.
‘Thee be certain these men be the same as deprived thee of thy parents?’
‘Ay … for I was witness to much of it and did see my mother die before my eyes. The woman has great powers, Cil; I saw blue fire loosed from her hands which both burned and killed.’
I heard the hiss as he sucked breath between his teeth. ‘A beldame! This be no good thing, Dav … no good thing in the least!’
‘They were searching for something, or so it seemed to me, for e’en after they burnt my village to the ground, they did spend some hours raking through the ashes ere they left.’
‘Think thee that they found what they sought?’
‘I believe not, for I saw no celebration of it.’
He did not speak again for some minutes, by the end of which I began to imagine he had faded away into the night. When at last his voice came again, I was shaken, for he was now to my left side, yet I had not sensed the slightest movement.
‘So … tell me then thy purpose in this pursuit.’
‘I’m going to kill them, Cil … all of them, including her.’
‘Ah … I had deduced as much. How be this end accomplished, think thee?’
‘I know not as yet, but I will do it, though it take me a lifetime.’
‘Thee hast but one … and I cannot but see it soon done with, durst thee chance thy mission equipt as thee be!’
I well heard the gentle scorn in his voice, yet took no offence, for again he had the right of it.
‘Then … will you teach me? I have scant resource with which to pay, save mayhap fare and companionship …’
‘I have no need of coin and thee might mayhap consider me well able to fill my own stomach.’
Again I detected the subtle chide in his words, which raised another query in my head.
‘Yet you profess yourself bent on theft; why so, if coin is of no import?’
‘I will have their teeth.’
‘Not all … the four largest to the back of the jaws be all I require.’
‘I … curses! …’ I wiped away the water which had spilled from a large leaf into my right eye, bringing with it some small grit, but could not prevent a chuckle of my own as I replied. ‘… I do not think such men are like to remain asleep while you remove their teeth!’
‘Nay, of a certain not … which be why I must first remove their heads.’
‘Ah! So then, we are about the same purpose, you and I!’
‘Thus it would seem … thee may wish to reflect upon the life-preserving imputes of thine own tender years …’
‘You mean … was I of an age …’ I swallowed, realising that had I been but ten years older, I might now be dead.
‘Fear no longer, Dav … among my people, it be considered ungracious to kill a friend.’
‘Are we such, then? I … I would fain have it so.’
‘It be required, think thee not, am I to instruct thee in my ways?’
‘You will …? Cil, I have not the words to thank you …’
‘There be one cost to thee.’
‘Name it, then.’
‘When thee kill, thee take the head and gain the age-teeth, ’til thee hast twelve.’
‘Thy bond on it, then?’
‘Ay, and that most willing.’
I sensed more than saw his hand as it moved nigh to my own, pleased that I was able to grip it full and firm at first essay despite the dark, though once I had it within my grasp, I was much taken with the small size of it. Was I not aware that I held the hand of an accomplished killer, I would have deemed it more that of a child, e’en female. That is not to say it was limp; far from it, for the latent strength was clear as his fingers encircled my own. Another difference was also apparent, for his skin was thick, tough and rough to the touch.
‘Come then; let us leave these brutes to their slumbers and find haven from this unending rain; their traces will be plain enough to see come the morrow.’
What is it the witch seeks? And what will happen if she finds it? Nothing good, for sure! Why does Cil need a lot of wisdom teeth and what does it mean for poor Dav? Follow Dav and Cil through their adventures as thrates, dreaded, near-invisible assassins, as they strive to avenge Dav’s kinfolk and save the world from the evil Barleesha.