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 fire. 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.'
'Theonce 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, by 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 fluttered. 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.'