Stonefall, Chapter 1: the Call

Chapter 1: The Call

Stonefall cover

The wagon bumped and shuddered as it drove over the uneven ground of the steppe. The horizon seemed to stretch forever in all directions, with only minor undulations—waves on the sea of grass—to break the monotony. The line of twenty wagons inched through this, pulled by patient oxen. Somewhere out there in the grass the scouts ran along, keeping pace, watching for either game or enemies. There was much of the former and few of the latter, but both would incite quick action among the Three Horn people.

Adara shifted her wagon a little to the left to get a better view of their direction of travel. Her mother rode at her right on the finest of her family’s five horses, and glanced over with suspicious eyes. Adara simply smiled and ignored the accusation in that gaze. Her father rode ahead with nine other skirmishers. They were not hidden like the scouts, their role was to incite action in others. Their bows were strung and ready, their flint-tipped arrows close at hand. All ten were ready to act should they identify either danger or opportunity.

The Three Horn people had already travelled for six days and would likely travel for three more before reaching the mound of the Mother Goddess. The air had turned chilly and the sun, stars, and moons all told their seer that the time had come for the gathering. Each family brought their timber and their stone, ready to participate in the year’s construction.

Adara didn’t like that part of the festival. She did enjoy the feasting and celebrations that would come following the building. Her family and their godsworn cousins could build a house in a few days, especially if her sister and brother—out there running with the scouts—did their part. Daragal, her younger sister, would find her partner this festival, so this could be her last year building with her birth family. She might depart with another caravan—depending on the marriage contract. She might even ride off to one of the hill forts where the Dirt Diggers lived. Adara didn’t like that thought. Fewer and fewer of the Dirt Diggers attended the festival. If Daragal married into the Diggers, when would Adara see her again?

As eldest sibling, she and her mother would need to bless the union. What if she did not? She had never heard of an eldest sibling withholding a blessing, but what if she did?

But Daragal seemed excited about finding a partner, maybe even starting a family. She had many skills that would make her a good pairing. She needed to find a partner with fire and vision who could push her. Smart, sharp-eyed, sure-handed, and able to read the bones, father would surely find Daragal a good match.

At Adara’s feet, Sharpness stirred. The dog’s ears flicked and he yawned. He looked around, watched the herds moving under the watchful care of his brethren, and then lowered his head again.

“Useless.” Adara pushed on him with her foot.

Sharpness rolled over, showing her his belly, his tail wagging.

“No. No tummy rubs.” She couldn’t help but smile as she said it. She proved her words false by rubbing the presented belly with her foot.

Sharpness was a great shepherd when he was told to do that. He wasn’t bossy and never nipped at the sheep, cattle or horses, but his voice and his speed got their attention and got them moving where he wanted them to go. But this day, Adara had wanted his company as she drove the wagon. He had worked every other day, and though he wasn’t old, he was probably closer to his death than he was to his birth. He deserved a rest.

When the sun touched the horizon, the skirmishers and the scouts all returned. By that time, the Three Horn people had created a laager with their wagons—a defensive circle inside which they would relax and cook their food. Each wagon was a home, and those homes had study walls. Those whose role was night guard used the extra wheels each wagon carried—almost perfectly round circles of bound and glued wood—as shields three paces out from each wagon, cover from which spearmen could protect the archers who would shoot from the spaces between the wagons.

Adara had her turn that night, on the first watch. As people drifted away from the fires to beds into or under their wagons—or to some other informal sleeping arrangement—Daragal kept Adara company. She had her bow nearby. Adara had her spear. That weapon was famed among the Three Horn people. The spear had a black, sky-metal head—a long, sharp blade that seemed as much a long knife or short sword as a spear point—and a bronze butt spike that Adara had planted in the ground. Their grandfather never spoke of how he had acquired the spear, and many rumours and stories had grown up around it. He had called it Skyfang. She loved the name.

Sharpness lounged at Adara’s feet. He would go and join the other dogs who had rested through the day, keeping watch on the herds. Nights were easier than days, and many of the Three Horn people’s youngest adults—including her brother, Galgrath—took shifts working with the dogs. Though Adara knew Galgrath could not help but seek to excel at this minor duty, many of the others would sleep though most of their shift.

Short but thickly muscled and with legs that never tired, Daragal lounged on the seat from which Adara had steered their wagon. “You never want a partner?”

“Never is a long time.” Adara, her eyes adjusting to the moon and starlight, seeking movement out on the steppe, did not consider her sister. “Dad didn’t find anyone good the last couple of festivals.”

Daragal let out a short bark of laughter. “No one worthy of you? Or no one who could endure you?”

“Either or.” Adara smiled because Daragal could not see her. “I’m a lot to take.”

“There is too much meat on that bone.” Adara heard the seat and floorboard creak and she could imagine Daragal rose as she spoke. “I’m not even going to try.” Then Daragal was beside Adara. “Do you think Estric will be there?”

Adara shrugged. “The Black Bone people have always come, at least as long as I can remember. I’m sure he’ll be there.”

“It would be good to see him again,” Daragal said. “Share a drink. Maybe hear about his life.”

The life that you might soon have, sister? “His partner came from a strong family with many animals. I’m sure he is very happy and very comfortable. His father is wise. He chose well.”

“I hope so.” Daragal tensed. Adara caught it in her peripheral vision, and it made her turn to consider her sister. Daragal was intent, eyes straining. “Something. Something out there. I think.”

Sharpness rose. Did he sense Daragal’s unease, or was it something else? The dogs that were already with the herds started barking.

Adara hefted her spear, Skyfang. “Sharpness, hunt.”

Like an arrow from a bow, Sharpness launched himself. Fast, he never got so far from Adara that she couldn’t keep her eyes on him. They quickly reached the herds who had become agitated with the barking of the dogs.

“Sharpness, find Galgrath.” The available light wasn’t enough for Adara to discern features, merely shapes.

In a few heartbeats, they were with her brother. Tall and lithe, he was like an amalgam of Adara and Daragal—a synthesis of their mother and father as well. He had the bow he had recently finished fashioning ready with an arrow nocked. He visibly relaxed as his sisters and Sharpness arrived. He lowered himself to a knee to pet Sharpness than rose again.

“I don’t know what it is.” Galgrath took a step so he was just behind Adara. Instinct? Adara knew he would never admit to feeling safer around his siblings, but she knew she did. “Probably the smell of a predator.”

Other watchers lit the fires that had been set against the possibility of predators—four-legged or two. Some took their dogs to move the herds closer to the laager. More of the people stood ready in that temporary stronghold, the night being young so few of them actually rising from sleep though being denied it.

“A lot of fuss.” Adara searched the night, her eyes now compromised with the light of the fires. They were there to ward off predators, not to aid in seeing them. If it was raiders, that wouldn’t help much. The watchers moved away from the fires they had set, staying out of their light, making sure they didn’t present themselves as good targets for two-legged hunters.

Then Sharpness became timid. Instead of barking, he whined. He lay down, seeming to try to let the ground absorb him. He panted.

“That’s not good.” Galgrath took another step back.

Adara crouched, set Skyfang at ready. She should have brought her shield. Skyfang was light enough to wield with one hand. If she had thought they faced raiders, she would have taken the time to fetch the shield. It was skin over a bone frame, but was thick enough to slow or even catch arrows, and could deflect most spear thrusts if angled correctly.

It happened so fast, Adara wasn’t sure what she saw. To her right, a massive shape charged through one of the watch fires. It scattered it, burning brands now spread through the grass—dry grass. Someone screamed. The form raced back out into the night.

“What—“ Galgrath had almost screamed the question. He took a deep, shuddering breath. “What was that, Adara?”

“I don’t know.” She pointed to the growing blaze surrounding the broken watch fire. “We need to stop the fire from spreading before we can do anything more.”

Many had the same idea. While there were plenty of people who stood transfixed, perhaps uncertain what they had just seen or frightened by it, most of the people raced with whatever tools they had at hand toward the growing brush fire. Adara and her siblings could stamp and kick earth to cover flames. Others had actual shovels, or even pots, cooking utensils, or shields to overturn the earth on the edges of the fire. Others brought blankets to try to smother it.

The effort quickly brought the fire under control, and for a moment, everyone involved took the time to catch their breath and enjoy their triumph. But that moment disappeared. As everyone began calling to family or friends who had been at the watch, Daragal went to assure their parents they were all well. Adara and Galgrath busied themselves the fire would not rekindle.

Daragal returned, a frown on her face, her brow furrowed. “It was Sarath. They found her spear and shield. The shield was bloody and smashed.” Her eyes searched the night. “What could it be?”

“I don’t know.” Adara shook her head. “It was like darkness moved with it.”

“A wolf.” Galgrath’s voice shook as he spoke. “It was a wolf. Huge. Like a horse.”

“Wolves don’t—“ Daragal stopped at Adara’s glare.

“Galgrath, make sure our herd is safe.” Adara took a steadying breath. “Sharpness will help you. Daragal, get to the laager and take my position.”

“Adara, you’re not . . . you can’t . . .” Galgrath spoke quietly, his eyes wide.

“I’m not going to do anything yet.” Adara patted his shoulder. “I’m going to see if there is a trail.”

Daragal pursed her lips, her eyes narrowing, her gaze moving between Galgrath and Adara. Finally Daragal’s shoulders loosened. She closed her eyes. “I’m coming with you.” Her eyes opened and she turned to Galgrath. “You get the herd. Tell mom and dad. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

Galgrath wanted to argue, Adara could see it. She shook her head. “Please, Galgrath, see to the herd.”

She imagined the desires warring just behind his eyes. Finally, he nodded, touched both Adara and Daragal on the upper arm, then called Sharpness to him and set off into the night.

“We’re actually going to hunt this?” Daragal set off toward the shattered fire, tightening the belt that held her quiver of arrows.

“We’re going to see if we can find Sarath.” Adara considered the grass around the fire. “Even if it is just so her family can provide rites.”

The trail was easy to follow, even in the pale light of the moon and stars. Galgrath had been right about one thing at least—it was the size of a horse and seemed to move like a bull. It had created a path of trampled grass. Adara knelt to touch a print. Feeling its shape as much as seeing it, she realized it was, indeed, a paw. A wolf’s paw.

“I think Galgrath may have been right.” Adara rose and stared at the path away from the camp. “It’s the biggest wolf I’ve ever heard of.”

The light and noise behind them increased as the camp came awake and discovered the attack. Adara had no time to consider that, or wonder about her parents or their herd. She and Daragal were on the hunt.

Even in the weak light, they could not miss the trail. They moved quickly, but still cautiously, worried both that there might be more wolves like the one that attacked their camp—would this monster move in a pack like the wolves Adara knew?—and also that a missed step could leave one of them injured. Twist an ankle or break a leg and what hope would Sarath have?

Be honest, what hope does she have now? Adara thought.

Before she could pursue that thought down a long, dark tunnel, they came to a small vale. They almost ran off the side of a small cliff—and would have if they had moved with less care. To either side, the ground inclined at a more manageable angle, two sides to the hill that the cliff seemed cut from.

There, in a depression about twice the size of the people’s laager, the beast paced. It had left Sarath—alive, Adara could hear her groaning—on what Adara thought was a raised platform of some sort. A rectangular structure that—from Adara’s vantage—looked like a chest or other large box dominated the stone dais on which Sarath lay. Four pillars rose up marking a square in which the round platform sat.

The wolf stopped its pacing and looked up at Adara and Daragal. It bared its teeth and growled.

Easily the size of a pony but likely weighing much more, the wolf had fangs the size of Adara’s fingers. It began to approach, its eyes seeming to reflect the starlight.

Daragal had an arrow nocked. “Fight or run?”

“There’s no way we could outrun that thing,” Adara moved to stand before Daragal, setting her spear and crouching to allow her sister to shoot over her head. “Do you think you can hit its eyes?”

“I can hit one, sure.” Daragal did not boast, and Adara knew it. “But then that monster is going to charge and I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the second.”

The beast stalked slowly, watching them at the top of the bluff. It moved to their right, moving the base of the hill, to a side it could easily charge up.

“Blinded is the only way we stand a chance.” The tight fist around her heart and the undulations in her belly both faded. The darkness seemed to fall away, and she could clearly see the beast that approached. She planned her attack. Through the mouth and into the brain? If it gave her that chance. If it charged, take its momentum on the spear and be ready to draw it out quick or lose it. Lose that spear, and Adara was left with a knife. “Do it.”

Under the light of the stars and the moon, threatened by a wolf the size of a small horse, Daragal once again proved her worth. The flint-topped arrow tore through the night and lodged in the thing’s right eye. Adara heard the tension of the bowstring as Daragal had another arrow ready almost before the first found its mark. The beast howled. It thrashed. It reared up, it shook its head with such force that part of the arrow broke off.

The tip remained buried in its eyes.

Each time it reared up, it came down closer to Adara. She knew it offered no opportunity to Daragal to blind the other eye. Whether out of cunning or sheer luck, it protected its vision. Daragal did not wait for the perfect opportunity. She loosed arrows in a stream. Each one drove home into the wolf, but none in its other eye. Some in its chest as it reared up. Many in its neck and shoulders. None slowing it.

The next time it rears up, it’ll be coming down on me. And the spear. And I’ll be trapped. “Back.” Adara yelled it as she moved, hoping Daragal understood her intent. Hoping her sister would move, praying they didn’t trip over each other.

The beast went up on its hind legs again, shaking it head and howling. Adara didn’t bump into Daragal. She tried to judge the distance—close enough to get the spear in its chest, far enough away that she wasn’t caught beneath it.

Just before it began to descend, it turned its head to glare at her with its one good eye. It opened its jaws. This was not mindless threashing. This wasn’t an undirected expression of rage and pain. It targeted Adara, ready to drive its claws into her, then crush her in its massive jaws.

An arrow took its good eye.

Adara shifted, moving to the side, as the beast roared and dropped, driving at the place Adara had been.

But was there no longer.

She saw the opening and took it. Rather than setting the spear to take the charge, she thrust with it from the side, seeking the heart, praying Skyfang could penetrate the thing’s ribs.  The entire shaft reverberated with the impact. It was like stabbing a tree—there was give, but not enough, and the point felt fixed, trapped.

This howl was unlike the others. This didn’t express rage or hatred or pain. This sounded like surprise.

Suddenly, the beast no longer had substance. Instead of a monster of a wolf, Adara faced shadow and smoke. The howl continued, but faded as the mass of the beast seemed to dissipate. For a moment, Adara could see it still, fully composed of inky darkness but lacking any physical substance. The arrows that had lodged in its body, including the two in its eye sockets fell to the ground. Skyfang was free.

In moments, it had gone. It evaporated in wisps and puffs, leaving nothing.

They stood, stunned, staring at the place where the beast had been. Adara looked down. The ground showed evidence of the battle that had just occurred. Like the trail they had followed, the beast had roiled up the earth with its thrashing. She had felt it when Skyfang struck. It had been there. It had been real and physical as much as she or Daragal.

Adara feared that at any moment, it would appear again. That this had been a trick. Magic. Yes, magic was at work here and she could not doubt it. Would it suddenly appear again? Would there be a cloud of black mist from which it would coalesce just as it had evaporated.

Nothing. Another heartbeat and then another, but still nothing.

“It’s gone.” Daragal’s words came somewhere between a question and a statement.

“I think so.” Adara scanned their surroundings, seeking it. The beast had been quiet enough before it had attacked Sarath. Did it stand in wait, ready to charge them again? But she saw nothing. She heard nothing. She smelled nothing. She felt nothing. “I think so, yes.”

She rose from her crouch. She noticed Daragal did not return the arrow she had ready on her bow to her quiver. While Daragal remained watchful, Adara studied the ground where the beast had been before it disappeared. Yes, she could see and feel the marks. It had happened. The beast had been real. The evidence for that was everywhere. Except a body.

Quickly gathering the arrows she could find, Adara slipped them into Daragal’s quiver. She wanted her sister to be ready with her bow, not bother with fallen arrows. What good the bow would do against a beast that could become shadow, Adara didn’t know, but it made her feel better.

Accepting that the beast had truly gone, Adara turned back to the dais on which it had left Sarath. That was when she noted the carcass that lay on that stone fixture at the centre of the platform. The contours of that item became more apparent, and with the body atop it, Adara began to think of it as an altar. That’s what it looked like, details of it becoming clearer as she approached. Decorated with carvings and strange markings, it seemed to be part of the platform—carved out of the same stone. Adara realized the carcass atop it was that of a wolf. A normal wolf of the kind that roamed the steppe.

As she reached the dais, she saw both its eyes sockets were empty and bloody.

Daragal returned her arrow to her quiver and went to help Sarath. Bloody, weak, and confused, Sarath was nonetheless breathing and conscious. She was alive. She looked up to Daragal. “What happened.”

Daragal looked to her sister and then back to Sarath. “I really don’t know.”

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