The winter in the northern mountains was the most vicious in more than thirty years. Rivers and lakes lay under a foot of ice, and fierce blizzards raged across the land for days on end. Sheep trapped in snowdrifts died in scores, and only the hardiest of the cattle would live to see the spring. Many roads were impassable throughout Black Mountain, and the townspeople struggled to survive. Highlanders of the Black Rigante came out of the mountains, bringing food and supplies, aiding farmers, seeking out citizens trapped in lonely homes high in the hills.
Even so many died, frozen in their beds.
Few ventured out into the wilderness between Black Mountain and the craggy western peaks of the Rigante homeland.
Kaelin Ring was wishing he was not one of them as he struggled through the bitter cold toward the high cabin of Finbarr Ustal. Laboring under a heavy pack to which was strapped a new long-barreled musket, Kaelin pushed up the last steep hill. Ice shone brightly in his dark beard, and the long, white scar on his right cheek felt as if it were burning. His legs ached from the unaccustomed strides necessitated by the wide snowshoes he wore. Kaelin pushed on, growing ever more weary. At twenty-three he was a powerful young man. In summer he would run, sometimes for ten miles over the hills, reveling in the strength and stamina of his youth. At this moment he felt like an old man, his muscles exhausted, his body crying out for rest. Anger flared. Rest here and you’ll die, he told himself.
His dark eyes scanned the hill ahead. The slope was steep and stretched on and up for another half mile. He paused and clumsily readjusted the straps of his pack. Kaelin was wearing two pairs of gloves, one pair of lamb’s wool and the second of rabbit fur. Even so his fingers felt numb. A fierce wind blew down over the hills, lifting snow in flurries, stinging his face and eyes. The wind billowed his sheepskin hood, flicking it back from his face. With a curse Kaelin grabbed at it, hauling it back into place. The sky above was gray and heavy with snow clouds. Kaelin stared balefully at the slope ahead. He was coming to the end of his strength. To die here would be laughable, he told himself. Never to see Chara again or his little son Jaim. “It will not happen,” he said aloud. “I’ll not be beaten by a touch of snow.”
The wind picked up, roaring into his chest and almost throwing him from his feet. “Is that the best you can do?” shouted Kaelin. Strengthened by his anger, he ducked his head into the wind and began to climb. The pain in his legs was growing, his calves tight and cramping.
As he struggled on, he focused on Finbarr and the welcome he would receive as he entered the warmth and security of the high cabin.
Finbarr had worked at Ironlatch Farm for several years, but the previous year he had come to live in the northwest cabin with his wife and two surviving children. His oldest boy had died two years earlier. Employed by Maev Ring to watch over the stock in those mountain pastures, Finbarr patrolled the high country, carrying bales of hay and digging out sheep trapped in the snow. It was tough, demanding work. His wife, Ural, a strong woman, often worked alongside him, as did the two boys.
Kaelin had not seen the family for more than two months and, caught within one of his wandering moods, had packed some supplies and set off for the cabin. In good weather it was a day’s walk from Ironlatch to the high cabin, but in these conditions it had taken the powerful young highlander more than three times that long. He had been forced to spend one whole day in a cliff cave, sheltering from a fierce blizzard.
Exhausted now, Kaelin began to sweat from the effort of climbing the hill. Fear touched him. In these conditions a man had to move slowly and carefully. At this temperature perspiration would freeze against the skin beneath a man’s clothes, draining all warmth from his flesh.
I am almost there, he thought. The sweat does not matter.
The sun was dropping low over the mountains as he approached the last quarter mile, and he was now regretting that he had chosen to bring his new long-barreled musket and his two Emburley pistols. Kaelin had planned to do a little hunting with Finbarr and the boys, but now all he wanted was a chair by a warm hearth and to be relieved of the weight of his guns and his pack. He shivered with pleasure at the thought of the heat from Finbarr’s fire.
The boys, Feargol and Basson, would be delighted to see him. The youngsters loved his stories—stories he had first heard from the giant Jaim Grymauch when he was their age: tales of Connavar the King and Bane, who had fought in the great arenas of Stone. Basson, the oldest at ten, would sit at Kaelin’s feet, his eyes wide, his attention rapt. Feargol, a six-year-old with an unruly mop of red hair, would interrupt the tales constantly, asking the oddest questions. “Did Bane wear a hat?” he asked one day just as Kaelin was telling the boys the story of a gladiatorial contest between Bane and a Stone warrior.
“Not while he was fighting before the crowd,” Kaelin said, patiently. “So Bane drew his sword and stepped out before the emperor, a powerful man named—”
“What kind of a hat did he wear when he wasn’t fighting?” asked Feargol.
“Will you be quiet?” snapped Basson, a slim young boy who had inherited his mother’s fair skin and blond hair. “Who cares if he had a hat?”
“I like hats,” said Feargol.
“He had a woolen hat,” said Kaelin, “just like yours, with ear protectors. When it was cold, he would let them down and tie them below his chin. In the summer he would lift the earflaps up and tie them at the top of the hat.”
“What color was it?” asked Feargol. “Was it white like mine?”
“Yes, it was white.”
Feargol was delighted. Scrambling up from the floor, he ran back into the bedroom and returned wearing his white hat. Then he sat quietly as Kaelin finished the story.
The memory lifted Kaelin’s mood as he saw the cabin. He pictured the fire and the friendly reception, the boys running out to greet him. Kaelin paused in his climb. There was no smoke coming from the stone chimney. That was odd, for there was enough firewood to last the winter. He and Finbarr had spent weeks hauling and sawing logs, chopping rounds, and stacking the fuel by the north wall.
As he came closer to the cabin, he saw that the timbers of the west wall had been caved in and part of the roof had fallen. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something red flicker in a nearby tree. Squinting against the fierce cold wind and the flurrying snow, Kaelin focused on the tree. Finbarr’s oldest son, Basson, dressed in a thin red nightshirt, was clinging to the upper branches. Kicking off his snowshoes, Kaelin scrambled up the last part of the slope, his weariness forgotten. Even as he came to the tree, he knew that the boy was dead.
The ten-year-old had frozen to death. There was ice in his blond hair, and his skin was blue. Great gouges had been torn from the trunk of the tree below him. Kaelin recognized the marks as the talons of a grizzly. They reached up almost nine feet.
Moving to the shattered wall of the cabin, he saw that the timbers had been smashed open. There were talon grooves in the shattered wood and blood upon the snow around the ruined door. Shrugging off his pack, he pulled off his gloves. There would be no point trying to load the musket. The firing mechanism would be frozen solid. Opening his heavy sheepskin coat, he pulled one of his long-barreled Emburley pistols from its leather sheath and cocked it. He did not go into the cabin but examined the bloodstained ground. There were bear tracks and a deep channel where something had been dragged toward the trees—something leaking gore.
With a sinking heart Kaelin Ring followed the channel. What he found just inside the tree line sickened him. The remains of the family were scattered there. Finbarr’s head—half the face bitten away—was resting by a tree root. Of Ural there was part of a leg and a ripped and bloody section of skirt. Kaelin had neither the heart nor the stomach to search for signs of the child Feargol.
He returned to the cabin. There were deep claw marks on the outer, smashed walls. Inside, the table was broken in half and two of the chairs were shattered. Several shelves had been torn from the walls, and the floor was littered with broken crockery. A discharged musket and a pistol lay close to the door of the back bedroom. A broken saber was resting against the far wall, and a bloody kitchen knife had been hurled into the hearth. From what Kaelin could see—and the fact that Basson had scrambled up the tree in his nightshirt—the bear had come upon the cabin at night. It had smashed at the door and the frame, tearing out the timbers. This had not been done quickly. Finbarr and Ural had had time to load and fire the musket and the pistol. As the bear had come through, they had fought it with sword and knife. Spray patterns of blood on the walls showed that they had died there. Basson must have ducked past the bear and run for the trees.
Kaelin moved to the hearth. Dropping to one knee, he retrieved the bloodstained kitchen knife. Then he pressed his hand to the hearthstones. They were still barely warm.
The attack had occurred the previous night.
Rising, Kaelin walked through to the small back bedroom. There was no sign there of disruption. The boys’ bunk beds stood against the far wall, opposite the large double bed shared by Finbarr and Ural. Kaelin sat down on the bed. This was a harsh land, and he had both killed men and seen others die on the battlefield. Nothing like this, though.
It was unheard of for a bear—even a grizzly—to attack a cabin in this way. Often the beasts would scavenge around for scraps of food, but mostly they would keep away from people. Every highlander knew the two main rules when it came to dealing with such animals. Avoidance came first, especially if it was a mother with cubs or it was feeding or defending a kill. The second rule, if avoidance was not possible, was to remain calm and move slowly away from the beast. Given the choice, bears tended to avoid humans. Most attacks Kaelin had heard of had come when people had blundered upon a feeding bear and surprised it. The rips and tears in the timbers of the cabin showed that this grizzly had launched a frenzied assault in order to reach the people inside.
He glanced across at the bunk beds and thought of little Feargol in his white cap. Finbarr had been overprotective of both of his sons. He had already lost one child, his oldest boy, to a fever that had been raging in Black Mountain. Finbarr had been determined to keep his other children safe. It was one of the reasons he had moved his family to this high cabin.
Kaelin shivered, his exhaustion returning. No time now to mourn the dead, he thought.
The bear would be back to finish his feeding. Kaelin knew he should be long gone when that happened. Cold reality touched his mind. If he left now, he would almost certainly die. He did not have the strength to make it back to the high cave. Kaelin cursed softly. In all likelihood the bear would not come to the cabin. It would eat its fill and return to its lair. Kaelin fetched his pack and carried it back into the main room. Then he prepared a fire. Once the flames caught, he removed his hooded cloak and sheepskin topcoat and squatted down before the blaze. The heat was welcome.
Outside the light was fading. If the bear did come now. . . .
Fear touched the young Rigante, and he tried to quell it. “If it comes, I’ll kill it,” he said aloud. The strength of the words calmed him, though only momentarily. Finbarr and Ural had discharged weapons at the beast. They had not stopped him.
Kaelin added more wood to the fire. His Emburley pistols were more powerful than Finbarr’s weapons, and his musket was new. Picking up the weapon, he rubbed at the mechanism with a fire-warmed cloth. Once it was working, he loaded the musket and left it on the floor within easy reach. Warmer now, he began to relax a little as his strength returned. There was a bitter breeze blowing through the ruined wall. Kaelin found Finbarr’s box of tools and began to make temporary repairs. The bear had torn out the timbers to the right of the door frame. The frame had buckled and snapped, tearing off the door. Timbers had bent inward, and the bear had struck them, snapping two completely. That had allowed it to enter the cabin. There was no way to repair the frame. Where it had buckled, the roof had dropped. But Kaelin managed to force some of the timbers back and nail them, reinforcing the repair with sections of wood from the broken table. By the end of two hours he had created enough of a barrier to prevent the worst of the weather from freezing the cabin.
From the Hardcover edition.