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Excerpt from The Shadowed Path

Raider’s Curse | Scene One

“Do you think it’s true? About the raiders? Conrad said the fishermen spotted a strange ship, out beyond the bay.” Jonmarc Vahanian set down the bucket of water he had drawn from the well. The small house was warm from the fire in the hearth, and the smells of mutton stew and freshly baked bread filled the air.

His mother, Dalia, sat at the table slicing vegetables. Along one wall sat a large loom, a spinning wheel, and skeins of the dyed yarn Dalia used in her craft. A half-carded heap of wool lay in a pile to be combed. The house was unusually quiet, since all three of Jonmarc’s younger brothers had been sent to feed the chickens and tend the sheep.

Dalia repressed a shiver at his question. “Mother and Childe! Don’t say such things. I hope not,” she replied, and made the sign of the Lady in warding. “We haven’t had raiders in these parts for years, not since King Bricen sent his ships after them.”

“The king’s ships moved on a long time ago,” Jonmarc said. “If we know it, perhaps the raiders know it, too.”

Dalia slipped a strand of her dark hair behind one ear, and her chopping sped up. “I don’t want to speak of it. The fishermen watch the waters. The rest of the men watch the forest. And the women pray to the Lady. We’ll be all right.” She looked up and managed a smile at her eldest son.

“Go call your brothers and then go down to the forge and tell your father that dinner’s almost ready so he has time to wash up.” Her face was flushed from the heat of the fire, although the night outside was cool.

“I’m on my way.” Jonmarc said and ducked out of the doorway.

Hens pecked at the bare ground near the house, and behind him, in the fenced yard, he could hear the sheep and goats. The night was cool and clear, but smoke from the forge’s coal fire hung in the air.

His brothers, Neil, Piers, and Marty, were out in the small yard that separated the house from the barn and the forge. Neil, two years younger than Jonmarc and half a head shorter, was splitting wood. Piers, three years younger than Neil, was feeding the sheep, while four year-old Marty traipsed behind him.

“Finish up and get inside,” Jonmarc called. “Dinner’s nearly ready.”

Neil stood up and stuck the blade of his axe on the chopping block. He wiped his brow with his sleeve. “Good thing. I’m hungry.”

Piers and Marty were being mobbed by sheep eager for their own meal. “Did you hear me?” Jonmarc shouted.

Piers dumped the last of the feed into the trough and then lifted Marty onto his shoulder to get him away from the jostling herd. He glanced in Jonmarc’s direction. “We heard you. We’ll be there.”

“Did mother know anything about raiders?” Neil asked in a voice pitched so the younger boys did not hear.

Jonmarc shook his head. “No—or at least nothing she’d say aloud. I think it spooked her when I mentioned it. Best not to bring it up at dinner.”

Neil nodded. “What if it’s true?”

Jonmarc let out a long breath. “Then we’re in for a lot of trouble. Keep your axe sharpened, and hope we don’t need it for anything except wood.” He paused. “I’m going to get father. If I can, I’ll see if he’s heard anything from the fishermen.”

Jonmarc took off running. At fifteen, he was tall, just a bit over six feet. Years of working alongside his father in the forge had given him a strong back and muscular arms. A mop of chestnut-brown hair hung in his brown eyes, and he pushed it out of the way as he ran.

A worn path led to the open shed that was his father’s forge. Jonmarc could hear the steady pounding of his father’s hammer on the anvil. The sound echoed from the hills, steady as a heartbeat. He skidded to a stop just outside the doors.

Anselm Vahanian swung a heavy hammer in his right hand while his gloved left hand turned the piece of metal on the anvil. Sparks flew around him, landing on the long sleeves of his rough-woven shirt, his gloves, and his leather apron. The forge smelled of coal, iron, and sweat. To one side lay two swords Anselm had completed for a client in the village. On a table lay a variety of farm tools—iron pots and pans, and hoops for the cooper’s barrels. Jonmarc had helped to forge several of the pieces, though he longed to work on swords, like his father.

“Mother said to tell you to wash up for dinner,” Jonmarc shouted above the clanging.

Anselm stopped and looked at him. “I’ll eat supper later. You know I can’t stop in the middle of something when the iron is hot.”

Jonmarc nodded. “I know. I’ll tell her to put a plate aside for you.” He paused, and Anselm looked at him quizzically, waiting for the unspoken question.

“Have you talked to any of the fishermen lately?” Jonmarc tried to make the question sound off-handed, but Anselm frowned as if he caught the undercurrent of concern.

“You mean the talk about raiders,” Anselm replied, and struck the iron he was working.

“Do you think it’s more than just talk?”

Anselm didn’t answer until he put the iron bar back into the furnace to heat up. He was Jonmarc’s height, with a head of wiry dark hair and brown eyes that glinted with intelligence. A lifetime in the forge had given him broad shoulders and a powerful physique. His profession also showed in the small white burns that marked his hands and arms, scars too numerous to count. Jonmarc had gained a few of those burn scars too, but not nearly as many as his father. Not yet.

“Maybe,” Anselm replied. “The real people to talk to are the traders. Their ships go up and down the Northern Sea coast, stopping at all the villages. I always get news when I trade iron with them.”

“Have you heard anything?”

Anselm turned the iron rod in the furnace. “Some. One of the villages on the other side of the bay burned. Everyone was gone when the traders came. No way to know why or how. Eiderford, down the coast, did have a run-in with raiders a few months ago.” He eyed the iron, and turned it one more time.

“So there are raiders,” Jonmarc replied.

Anselm shrugged. “There are always raiders. But there’s less to attract them here in Lunsbetter than in Eiderford. We’re not a proper city, and we’re as like to barter as deal in coin, so there’s less to steal.”

Unless they want food, livestock, or women, Jonmarc thought. And there are enough people who trade with the ships that there’s probably more coin here than anyone wants to admit.

“There’s a garrison of the king’s soldiers beyond Ebbetshire,” Jonmarc replied. “Can’t they stop the raiders?”

Anselm shrugged. “They can’t guard every village along the coast,” he said. “And they’d have to know for certain when a raid was planned.” He shook his head. “No, we’re on our own.” He paused.

“Don’t worry yourself about it,” Anselm said, drawing the rod out of the furnace and placing it on the anvil. “We’ve doubled the patrols, and the fishermen are on alert.” He grinned. “And tomorrow, those swords are going down to the constable and the sheriff. We’ll be fine. Pump the bellows for me. The fire’s grown cold.”

Anselm stood in front of a large open furnace filled with glowing coals. Jonmarc pumped the bellows that were attached to the back of the furnace, and the coals flared brighter, flames licking across their surface. Anselm lifted his hammer to strike the iron. “Now get back up to the house. Your mother’s waiting. Just save some for me.”

“I’ll make sure of it,” Jonmarc replied. The clatter of the hammer drowned out anything else he might have asked. He stepped out into the cool night, and started back up the path to the house. His stomach rumbled and he fancied that he could smell the stew. But the worry he felt when he went to the forge had not lifted; if anything, his father’s comments increased Jonmarc’s concern than the warnings about raiders were not mere tales.

If father says the men are keeping their eye out for trouble, then that’s the end of it, he thought. Naught I can do. But he remembered his comment to Neil about keeping the axe sharpened, and on the way back to the house, he detoured into the barn. Thanks to his father’s craft, they were well-stocked with farm implements.

He walked over to the space his father used to butcher meat. Butchering wasn’t a pleasant job, but it was necessary, and a task with which Jonmarc was well acquainted. He had learned the craft from his father, practiced enough that it no longer made him lose his dinner to be awash in blood and entrails. His father had taught him to strike swiftly and cleanly, to block out the death cries of the terrified livestock, to go to a cold place inside himself until the job was done. He had even learned a few tricks of the trade, like how to hamstring a panicked animal that was likely to kick or buck. But nothing about how to fight men.

On the wall hung an impressive variety of knives. He selected a large butcher knife with a wicked blade as well as a smaller boning knife, and made his way around to the back door, hiding the knives among his mother’s herbs before going in for supper. Tonight, when everyone was in bed, he would come back for them—one for him, and one for Neil. Just in case the men were wrong.

“Father said to save him a bowl of stew and some bread,” Jonmarc answered his mother’s unspoken question as he let the door close behind him. The others were already seated at the table, and his mother was ladling hot stew into bowls.

“I can’t promise it’ll be warm,” his mother replied, but a smile tempered the crispness of her words. “I guess it can stay in the pot until he comes in.”

“Did you see the people from the caravan?” Neil asked excitedly. “I heard they stopped in town to buy provisions.”

“Were they dressed fancy? Did any of them sing?” Piers questioned.

Dalia laughed. “Yes, yes and no. Yes, there were caravan people in town, and yes, they were dressed fancier than anyone in these parts. But no, no one sang. Or danced, or juggled or paraded strange wild animals down the street.” She smiled. “At least, not today.”

“Tomorrow?” Piers asked, eyes wide. “Or the day after?”

Dalia chuckled and towseled his hair. “Perhaps. Today they came to trade for dried herbs, brined vegetables and some of my nice warm woolen cloaks,” she said with a grin.

“Did they pay gold for the cloaks?” Neil asked.

“Not gold,” their mother replied, “but silver. Look!” She put her hand into the pouch that hung at her waist and withdrew four silver pieces, each stamped with the likeness of King Bricen. “And I think I overheard one of the strangers saying that the caravan would set up out in the clearing beyond Dewson’s farm. That’s halfway between here and Ebbetshire, on the main road, so they probably figure on a good audience. No doubt they’ll send a crier to let both towns and every tavern in the area know.”

“Can we go?” Neil, Piers, and Marty begged in unison. “Please?”

“Sounds like smart business,” Jonmarc said over a mouthful of stew. “Spend their coin in town, then get all the townspeople to give them the money back to come see the show.”

Dalia shook her head and muttered, “Tsk, tsk. You have a head for business, just like your father and me. And you’re right, of course, but where’s the fun in that? The last time a caravan came by, it was quite an adventure, as I recall.”

Jonmarc snorted. “Piers almost blundered into the knife-thrower’s act, a stray goat ate Neil’s lunch while he was watching the jugglers, and Marty wandered off and tried to tell people he was a prince.”

“I was named for a prince!” Marty piped up. “Mama said so.” Excitement over the birth of King Bricen’s youngest son five years ago had reached even the far-off Borderlands, and the young prince’s name, Martris, had instantly become so popular that it seemed to Jonmarc that it was impossible to meet a group of small boys without half of them being named for the prince.

“You and every other boy your age,” Neil muttered. Dalia cuffed him gently.

“Hush,” She commanded, and turned to Marty. “Yes, you were, sweetie.” Marty stuck out his tongue at his older brother.

Dalia sighed and ate a few bites of her dinner before responding. “It depends on what your father gets for those swords he forged for the constable. If they fetch what they should, there might be a few coppers to go see the caravan.” Piers and Marty cheered, but Jonmarc dug into his food, still thinking about the rumors of raiders. As the others talked about the curiosities that might be seen if they went out to the caravan, he finished his stew and then pushed away from the table.

“I’d better go help father,” Jonmarc said.

Dalia gave him a questioning look. “It’s not like you to skip seconds,” she observed with an appraising glance Jonmarc knew was usually the precursor to her putting a hand to his forehead to check for fever or dosing him with one of her many medicinal teas to ward off ill humours.

“I’m fine,” Jonmarc replied, ducking out of reach. “Father just looked like he could use a hand, and maybe if I go help out, he can eat before the pot boils dry.”

Dalia nodded, though he saw skepticism in her eyes. “That’s good of you,” she replied. She turned to the others. “Neil, go fetch some firewood from what you cut, we’re running low. Piers and Marty, I need you to card the rest of that wool. Be quick about it, all of you, and I could be persuaded to give you some of the sugared nuts I made,” she added with a crafty smile. The three boys sprang to their chores as Jonmarc let himself out the kitchen door.

Outside, the air was crisp as late summer gave way to autumn. There was no moon to light his way, but he knew the path well enough. The night was filled with the chirps of crickets and the moans of frogs singing their final choruses. Soon the cold would silence them as the year wound toward winter. Jonmarc tried to bump himself out of his melancholy by thinking about the festivals to come in the fall, of bonfires and harvest feasts and the merrymaking that accompanied the solstice at Winterstide. Yet as he reached the warm, firelit haven of the forge, he was only partly successful.

Anselm looked up. “Done with dinner already?”

Jonmarc shrugged. “I ate. Figured you could use some help.”

If Anselm could guess the cause of Jonmarc’s moodiness, he said nothing about it. “That I can,” he said. He plunged the hot bar of metal he had been working into a bucket of water, and a cloud of steam rose in a hiss. “I’m almost ready to put this by for the night. Give me a hand bringing in some coal for the morning and putting the tools on the table, and we can go up.”

Jonmarc hurried to do as he was bid as Anselm banked the fire. The two swords caught Jonmarc’s eye as he was setting tools back in their proper place, and he ran a finger down the smooth, cold flat of one of the blades.

“They’re both beauties, if I say so myself,” Anselm murmured, standing behind him. “Some of my best work, I think.”

“I want to learn to forge swords like these,” Jonmarc said.

“Keep at it, and you will,” Anselm replied. “Go on, pick one up, but mind you don’t swing it around. It’s been sharpened.”

Jonmarc grasped one of the broadswords and let his hand close around the grip. He lifted it, marveling at how well-balanced it felt. He turned it so that the firelight glinted off the blade, and he caught a glimpse of his own distorted reflection in the polished steel. He extended his arm, pointing the blade.

“No, no. Not like that.” Anselm stepped closer. “Put your feet so,” he said, kicking at Jonmarc’s heels until he adjusted his stance, “and hold your arm thus,” he added, reaching around Jonmarc’s shoulder to position his arm. “There. That’s how to hold a sword.”

Jonmarc stared at the glittering steel. “You learned in the army, didn’t you?”

Anselm gave a heavy sigh. “Aye. And I like forging swords more than fighting with them, to be damn sure. War’s a business for fools and madmen.”

Jonmarc let his arm fall and returned the sword to the table. “All I get to make are barrel hoops, shovels and bridles.”

“They’re good, honest pieces,” Anselm said, and his large, heavy bear-paw of a hand clapped Jonmarc on the shoulder. “No shame in that. If we didn’t need the money, I’d just as soon turn down orders for swords.”

“Why?”

Anselm did not answer right away. His left hand rested on the grip of the nearest sword and his expression grew distant. There was a haunted look in his father’s eyes that Jonmarc had rarely glimpsed before. “I wonder, sometimes, how the Lady sees it,” he murmured. “All the blood that sword will spill, and mine the hand that forged it. Will it count against me, I wonder, when the Crone reckons my fate?” He shook himself, as if to change his mood.

“No more of that,” he huffed, turning away. “We’re done here for tonight. Let’s go eat.” He headed for the path, but Jonmarc cast a last glance at the swords, still thinking about his father’s words.