An uneasy truce exists between the thanes of the True Bloods. Now, as another winter approaches, the armies of the Black Road march south, from their exile beyond the Vale of Stones.
For some, war will bring a swift and violent death. Others will not hear the clash of swords or see the corpses strewn over the fields. Instead, they will see an opportunity to advance their own ambitions.
But soon, all will fall under the shadow that is descending. For while the storm of battle rages, one man is following a path that will awaken a terrible power in him and his legacy will be written in blood.
About the Author
Brian Ruckley was born and brought up in Scotland. After studying at Edinburgh and Stirling Universities, he worked for a series of organizations dealing with environmental, nature conservation and youth development issues. He lives in Edinburgh. Find out more about Brian Ruckley at www.brianruckley.com.
Read an Excerpt
By Brian Ruckley
ORBITCopyright © 2006 Brian Ruckley
All right reserved.
The Third Age: Year 1102
There are rites and rituals sunk so deeply into the fabric of a race that their roots are long forgotten. In the northern lands, where the fierce cycle of the seasons rules life with a snow-bound fist, the Huanin have marked the arrival of winter since before there was a written medium to record the means of that marking. Across countless centuries the ceremonies have changed, remaking themselves according to the temper of the peoples who performed them, and the thread linking each to its predecessors has been forgotten. But the ancient theme lives on.
Before there were kingships, the cruel tribes of the Tan Dihrin practiced bloody rites to win the protection of the Gods against ice and storm. When the Kings rose in Dun Aygll, their subjects in the north kept to the old ways though they forgot what they meant, and though there were no Gods left to witness their rituals. The kingdom fell, as the works of mortals do, but through all the chaos that came after, through the turbulent birthing of the Bloods, the seasons turned as they always had and the people of the north remembered that the turning must be marked.
Thus, to the Kilkry and Lannis Bloods, and tothe Bloods of the Black Road in the farther north, there is a night late in the year that stands, more than any other, for the passage of time. On that night the world passes into cold and darkness to await its reawakening in the following spring. It is a night of mourning, but it is a celebration also, for in the slumbering of the world that is winter lies the promise of light and life's return.
from Hallantyr's Sojourn
A horn sounded clear and sharp across the blue autumnal sky. The baying of hounds wound itself around the note like ivy on a tree. Orisian nan Lannis-Haig turned his head this way and that, trying to fix the source of the summons. His cousin Naradin was ahead of him.
"That way," Naradin said, twisting in his saddle and pointing east. "They have something."
"Some distance away," Orisian said.
Naradin's horse was stirring beneath him, stepping sideways and stretching its neck. It knew what the sound meant. It was bred to the hunt, and the horn pulled at it. Naradin jabbed the butt of his boar spear at the ground in frustration.
"Where are the cursed dogs we were following?" he demanded. "Those useless beasts have led us nowhere."
"They must have had some scent to bring us this way," said Rothe placidly. The elder of Orisian's two shieldmen was the only one to have kept pace with him and his cousin over the last mile or so. The forest of Anlane was open in these parts - good hunting country - but still it was forest enough to scatter a party once the chase was on.
If the hounds had stayed on a single course it would have been different, Orisian reflected. Instead, the pack had divided. It was only bad luck that he and Naradin had followed the wrong dogs. Orisian could not summon up much regret. He knew his cousin would feel otherwise, though. As of four days ago Naradin was a father, and tradition said he must put meat killed with his own hand on the table on the occasion of the baby's first Winterbirth. For a farmer or herder that might mean killing one of his stock. For Naradin, heir to the Thane of the Lannis-Haig Blood, something more was called for.
"Well, let's answer the call," Naradin said, tightening his horse's reins. "They might keep the quarry for me, if we can get there quickly."
Orisian started to turn his mount, struggling to couch the huge spear he had been given for the hunt. The Lannis boar spear was a weapon for a grown man, and though he was sixteen he did not yet quite have the strength to handle it as deftly as did Rothe or his cousin.
"A moment," said Rothe. Naradin glanced at the aging warrior with something approaching irritation. "We must be off," he insisted.
"I thought I heard something, sire," the shieldman said.
The Bloodheir did not look inclined to pay any heed, but before he could reply there came the distinct cry of a hound from the south. It was a cry of sighting, not scenting.
"It's closer than the others," Orisian observed.
Naradin looked at him for a moment or two, wrestling to control his horse. Then he gave a quick nod and dug his heels into the beast's flank. Orisian and Rothe went after him.
The turf flowed beneath them. The fallen leaves clothing the ground shivered and shook. Birds burst from the treetops: crows, a raucous clamber into the sky. Orisian trusted his horse to find its own way through the maze of trees. It was a hunter, trained in the stables of his uncle, the Thane, and it knew more than he did of this kind of business. Over the crashing of their progress he could hear the hounds up ahead, not just one now but several.
They found the dogs at a thicket of hazel and holly. The animals were gathered where the undergrowth was thickest, jostling and snapping in feverish excitement. They bounded this way and that, lunging sometimes toward the bushes without ever venturing too close. Naradin gave a cry of delight.
"They have something, for certain," he shouted.
"Sound your horn," Rothe called to him. "We need more spears."
"They'll have answered the other call. We can't wait or we might lose it."
Rothe scratched at his dark beard and shot a glare at Orisian, who in his turn felt a twist of unease. Naradin's enthusiasm could get the better of his judgment at times. Boars did not come small or meek in Anlane.
"You hold here," Naradin said. "Give me a couple of minutes to work around and then set the dogs in. And if something comes out this side, don't kill it. It's mine today!"
He urged his horse onward without waiting for an answer.
The boar came through the dogs like a hawk flashing through a flock of pigeons. It scattered them, some leaping high and twisting from its path, others darting aside. The beast was huge, its forequarters great grinding slabs of muscle, its tusks yellow-white blades the length of a man's hand. It plowed after one of the hounds as the others snatched at its haunches.
Naradin spun his horse. "Mine!" he cried.
The point of his spear swung toward the boar as it shook itself free of dogs and came toward him. It was an old, forest-wise creature and turned at the last minute, going for the horse's belly. The spear blade skidded off its shoulder, slicing through hide to bone. Naradin's mount sprang over the boar's head. It almost made the leap. A tusk brushed its leg and it reeled on the soft ground. It kept its feet, but Naradin was snapped forward. He lost his left stirrup and was thrown around the horse's neck. He hauled on the reins, the strength of his arms the only thing keeping him from falling. His weight twisted the horse's head around and it began to stagger sideways. It would go to ground in a moment. The boar closed again. The dogs were coming, furious and bloodthirsty, but too late.
Orisian and Rothe were side by side as they charged in. It was impossible to say which of their spears struck home first, Orisian's on the beast's hip, Rothe's parting its ribs. The impact jarred the spear out of Orisian's inexpert grasp. Rothe was better prepared. His lance knocked the boar onto its side and he put his own and his horse's weight behind it. For a few breaths he held it there, grimacing with exertion as the haft of the spear bucked in his hands.
Naradin had slipped out of his saddle. He drew a long knife from his belt.
"Quickly," Rothe said through gritted teeth.
The Bloodheir did not hesitate. The boar reached for him. Its great, desperate jaws almost had his arm as he drove the knife into its barrel chest. He sought, and found, its heart.
Afterward, as they sat on the ground beside the huge corpse with the hounds dancing around them, Naradin laughed. Orisian could see the joy in his cousin's eyes, and it made him laugh as well.
"That's one to remember," Naradin said. "See its tusks. That's an old master, that one. A lord of the forest."
"I thought we were in trouble for a moment," said Orisian.
"I would have been, if you two had not been here." Naradin drank from his waterskin, then spilled a little on his hands to wash the boar's blood from them. He offered the skin to Orisian. The water was cold and sharp, drawn from a forest stream only an hour or two ago. It had all the chilled clarity of the autumn day in it.
"Luck rode with us all today," said Rothe. Orisian knew his shieldman well enough - they had been together for six years - to hear the words Rothe did not speak. The warrior would not presume to tell the Bloodheir what he thought of taking on an old boar with too few dogs and only three spears.
"We should call the others," Orisian said. "They'll want to see this."
"In a moment, in a moment," Naradin said as he got to his feet. The dogs milled about him. He went over to the boar and knelt. He laid a hand, in near-reverence, upon its flank. Something took his eye then.
"Look here. There's another wound. None of us put this mark on it, did we?"
Rothe and Orisian knelt beside him. There was a puncture wound in the boar's side, behind its shoulder. Blood was caked on the rigid hairs around it. Rothe crumbled some away between his fingers.
"That's a day or two old, I'd say."
"I thought it strange it should stand and fight like that," Naradin mused.
Orisian leaned closer. He could see something nestled there in the flesh. He slipped a knife into the wound and twisted, feeling the resistance of something harder than muscle. Another turn of the knife brought it close to the surface, where he could draw it out and drop it into his palm: an arrowhead, flat and sleek.
"It was in deep," he said.
"Can I see that?" Rothe asked, and when Orisian nodded he took the little piece of metal and held it up, frowning as he turned it. The lines crossing the backs of the shieldman's fingers were a first premonition of old age, but he held the arrowhead precisely, delicately.
Naradin looked a touch disappointed. "It's not quite the same, to know he was carrying that in him already," he said.
Rothe returned it to Orisian.
"That," he said, "is Kyrinin-made. It's a woodwight's arrow."
"Woodwights?" exclaimed Naradin. "Hunting here?"
Rothe only nodded. He looked around, surveying the silent trees, the still undergrowth. His mood had changed. He stood up. "The White Owls have been causing trouble this last year, haven't they?" Orisian said to his cousin.
"Yes, but we're not a day's ride from Anduran. They would not dare to come so close." He examined the arrowhead himself. "He's right, though. That's White Owl."
Orisian had not doubted it. Rothe had fought the Kyrinin of Anlane often enough to know their weapons. He looked up at his shieldman. There was a rare tension in the big man's stance.
"Time for the horn, I think," Rothe said without breaking the roving passage of his eyes across the forest. "We should not stay here any longer than we must."
Naradin did not demur. He put the horn to his lips and sent out a long, low call, summoning the hunters to the kill.
* * * The next morning Orisian gazed out from the battlements of Castle Anduran, watching the grey clouds gather around the Car Criagar to the northwest. The great mountain ridge loomed over the valley of the Glas River, though it was but foothills to the vast uplands that lay invisibly beyond. There were the remnants of ancient towns up there, long abandoned by their forgotten inhabitants. Now no one lived amongst the rocks and the clouds.
He had been here in his uncle's castle for a fortnight, and the weather had changed even in that short time. The sky had grown heavier. The land, the fields and forests, had darkened beneath it. The earth and the sky knew what was coming and eased themselves into it, shedding the gentle sentiments of autumn. There would be snow, even here on the valley floor, in a few weeks. Winterbirth was close.
It was not the most auspicious time for a birth, but that had not dimmed the celebrations attendant upon the arrival of the Thane's first grandson. They had lasted for days, capped by the hunt to find Naradin his boar. Now that all was done, an air of contented exhaustion had settled over the castle and the town that lay beside it. It was a lull between storms, for the imminent revels of Winterbirth would match those just gone in intensity, if not in duration.
With the approach of that festival the time had come for Orisian to go home to Kolglas, to the castle in the waves. A flight of geese passed over, honking to one another as they tracked the valley seaward, preceding Orisian on his way. His gaze followed them for a while. He had come to this high place for a last look at the broad vista, with the valley his uncle ruled stretching out beyond his eye's reach. Kolglas had more limited horizons, in more ways than one.
The sound of footsteps drew his attention back. Rothe emerged from the narrow stairwell beside him.
"The horses are ready," said the shieldman in his ever-gruff voice. It always made Orisian imagine that stones were grinding together somewhere in his throat. "Your uncle is in the courtyard to bid you farewell."
"Time to go, then," said Orisian. "It will be a cold ride back to Kolglas."
Rothe smiled. "Just as well that fire and food await us on the way."
They descended the spiraling stairway and emerged onto a wide, cobbled courtyard. By the gatehouse on the far side, grooms held three horses that blew out clouds of steaming breath into the morning air. Kylane, Orisian's second shieldman, was meticulously checking the horses' hoofs, oblivious of any offense the implied lack of faith might cause to the grooms. Orisian's uncle, the Thane Croesan oc Lannis-Haig, stood close by.
Croesan took Orisian's hand in his. He was more than a head taller than the youth and grinned down at him.
"Two weeks is too short a visit, Orisian."
"I'd gladly stay, but I must be back at Kolglas for Winterbirth. My father should be out of his sickbed soon."
Croesan's smile faltered for a moment and he nodded.
"Doom and gloom are deep-rooted in my brother's guts. Still, Winterbirth may lift his mood. In any case, do not let Kennet's ills cloud the festival for you, Orisian."
"I won't," Orisian said, knowing that it was a promise he might not be able to keep.
Croesan clapped him on the back. "Good. And tell him to visit us soon. It might light a fire under him to see how things are changing here."
"I will tell him. Where's Naradin?"
The question brought a broad grin back to Croesan's face in an instant, and the grand and grave Thane of the Blood was nothing but a proud father and grandfather.
"He will be here in a moment. He told me to keep you here until they come, to make sure my grandson has the chance to say farewell."
"Well, I am glad we found him his boar," Orisian smiled. "I hope the baby appreciates it."
"Indeed. Naradin will bore the boy with tales of its killing when he's old enough to understand, I'm sure. He'll grow up thinking you and Naradin great heroes, and the finest hunters the Glas valley has ever seen."
The thought made Orisian laugh. "He'll be disappointed, then, if he ever sees me at the hunt."
Croesan shrugged. "Don't be so sure. By the time he's old enough to know the difference, you'll be a match for most of my huntsmen. Anyway, you'll return for the child's Naming, since you were here for the birth?"
"If I can," said Orisian, and meant it sincerely. The Naming of an infant destined one day to be Thane was an event that would embody all the history, all the bonds that made the Lannis Blood what it was. Nothing could more strongly signify a long history and a hopeful future, and after the depredations of the Heart Fever and the sufferings of his father, Orisian was learning to value both of those.
Naradin and his wife Eilan emerged from the keep. The Bloodheir was carrying his baby son in his arms, and walked with almost comical care and precision. He had not yet learned how to relax around a life that seemed so fragile.
Croesan leaned close to Orisian and murmured conspiratorially, "Can you believe they have made me a grandfather, Orisian? A grandfather!"
Excerpted from Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley Copyright © 2006 by Brian Ruckley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Winterbirth started slowly and with great confusion. I found that the plot wasn't interesting enough for me to try to sort out the various characters. Character names seemed far more cumbersome than necessasry. The author tried to create a story on a grand scale without a strong enough platform from which to launch the plot. I completed the book but did not find reason to continue on to the second book in the series.
I have read Winterbirth and am in the process of reading Bloodheir, and will buy the Fall of Thanes. Both books are slow moving, but interesting enough to pique the readers interest to keep reading. I would have liked to see more action, but I am not a writer and unable to spin a good yarn like Brian Ruckley has done. Overall, the book is definitely worth reading and enjoyable to fans of the George RR Martin genre.
Read the book. If you like Martin and that type of fantasy you will like this book. Sure it is not exactly up to George but close enough.
I'm always happy to pick up a new series but that didn't happen here. Can't imagine I will pick up the sequel unless I've got nothing else to read. The world Ruckley has created is somewhat interesting but the story that is taking place is not. He does a horrible job of managing the various stories which make up the plot. The characters are completely flat and one dimensional, I didn't care about any of them and deaths had zero impact on me. The book seemed like a poorly done knock off of Martin's epic fantasy. All in all a thoroughly underwhelming read that I would definitely not suggest to anyone.
Long and drawn out... but not boring! Lots of death, destruction, misfortune, deception, betrayal, fighting, manhunting, and war. You'll come to respect certain characters and love others. I can't even (honestly) disrespect the bad guys in this book, because their cause seems so righteous! I'm glad I stumbled into this series, can't wait to read "Fall of Thanes" which is book number three.
The story is incredibly detailed, difficult to predict what will happen next at some points. Although the story is generally dark, once you read this one, you'll have to read the other two.
One of the best written books that I have read in a long time! Great character background and world history. Can not wait to read Bloodheir! Highly recommend this to other fantasy lovers!
A very good debut book in the series. The characters were dynamic and the story was very original. Loved the dark mood throughout. Highly recommended!
I truly do not know what book the reader was reading when he gave this a negative review. I love george martin, My favorite author. Ruckley makes his own world and characters. An awesome read. Any true fantasy reader would love this book, especially those NOT interested in childish fantasy. I would call this book a must read..
Quite enjoyed it in a passed the time sort of way. I did get more and more engrossed as the story progressed. But George R.R. Martin does it much better.
Good start for the new series. Looking forward to the next book.
Undoubtedly the best fantasy epic I have ever read; Winterbirth is a tale of power, religion, politics and war, set against the backdrop of a misty Scottish highland. More breathtaking than Robert Jordan¿s books, and with descriptive language second to no other novel I have encountered, this is an adventure of epic proportions that leaves no possibility unexplored. The effects of the Black Road¿s return spread like ripples in a pond, until the plot becomes amazingly complex. Ruckley has left not a single corner of his world in the dark ¿ he illuminates every aspect of the story to create a tale so deep and involving that it makes the reader gape in wonder.The story of Winterbirth is especially relevant to today¿s society, as it provides an insight into religiously motivated war. Most of the main antagonists of the novel are of the Black Road clans, who believe that the stories of their lives are written before their births, and that they must convert every human to their way of thinking to bring about the Kall: the rebirth of the world. This is comparable to extremist Muslims who believe that it is their duty to convert or kill the rest of the world. The most interesting part of this link, however, is Ruckley¿s remarkable habit of telling the story from all points of view, so that readers often forget whose side they are on, and realise that the antagonists are real people, and not necessarily just heartless, evil monsters, as most books portray them to be.All the breathtaking brilliance of Ruckley¿s world, however, is sometimes jeopardised by the sheer size of the novel, and the nature of the genre. This is very heavy reading, filled with rich, unhurried descriptions that can easily deter uncommitted readers. The rewards are great for those who put in the work ¿ but there is hard work involved in reading a book like this one. The huge number of places and characters to remember make for especially slow going, but once the reader becomes an expert on the world of the book, reading becomes much easier.A fantastic achievement, especially for a first novel, Winterbirth is an epic waiting to be experienced, and an absolute must-read for fantasy-lovers old enough to cope with occasional scenes of strong violence and gore.