Prologue

The sun rose over the Thunderhead Mountain warming the ice covered peaks. A tree long ago burned stood, it’s branches outstretched with long icicles dripping almost brushing the ground. It had stood there for a thousand years or more so legend spoke, and would likely stand for another thousand, or until another battle razed it to the ground as it had done to the forest of which it had been a part of – once.

 

Gently warming as it rose, the sun’s rays lengthened down the side of the mountain, brushing the green of the Leatherleaf and reddish-brown of the Thornbush alike. There were other trees in this New Forest, tall Oaks and Sweetgums that filled the air with a spicy scent. Scattered along the forest floor as if a carpet of colour were small Blue Silks, their heads raised on thick stalks above the glossy green leaves.

 

A single leaf floated by on the gentle breeze down the path through the forest towards the village where already people were moving if not swiftly, then surely through their daily routine. Soft grey whispers of smoke rose from the chimneys as breakfasts were prepared. A man in his middle years stood outside his house, warmly dressed in woollen shirt and leather breeches, one hand idly stroking the thick beard that was more grey than black. Years of work had turned his face to the colour of a hard brown walnut, with furrows to match in his brow.

 

Jak, raised his hand in greeting at a young boy that ran past. “Morning Piedr!” He called.

 

“Morning!” The boy called back cheerily and raised a hand in greeting as he continued down the old weather beaten path between the thatch roofed houses towards the village on the other side of the green. Jumping over the small thornbush, he darted down the side of the inn towards a large building built of warm reddish stone.

 

A chicken darted out of the bush clucking as she ran back towards the hen house. Piedr laughed and reached out a hand, grabbing hold of the heavy wooden corner pillar to draw himself to a stop. “Morning Bitthen.” He said, gasping slightly for breath. A tall sullen faced boy about his own age looked up and straightened his back, leaning heavily on the shovel he was using to clean out the stables. Long dark hair fell across cold black eyes and the boys lips thinned slightly. “Morning Willem.” He said and turned back to his work.

 

Piedr grinned, taking off his warm woollen coat, he grabbed the other shovel that was resting on the wall and set to work. The two boys made a game of it, the first to shovel ten loads, then twenty until the barrow was full. It did not take them long working together to clean out the stalls. The corners on Bithens’ mouth twisted slightly, curling upwards to form a smile as he forked out fresh sweet smelling straw into the stall while Piedr filled the trenches with fresh water, running a hand down the muzzle of a fine black coloured stallion.

 

The stallion lay his ears back warily and whickered softly. “Nice isn’t he?” Bithen murmured appreciatively, his hand lay open towards the stallions mouth and he smiled again as the horse nibbled at the hay he offered. “One of the guests?” Piedr enquired, although he already knew the answer. None of the residents of Mortans Hollow owned such a powerful and beautiful creature. Bithen nodded and stroked the stallions neck. “Him and the white mare over there.”

 

Piedr turned to look at the white mare, she was an older animal, perhaps eight or more years old with large brown eyes. She looked the type of mare for a lady, soft and gentle and easily controlled. The stallion was different, there was a wild look about him that said he was not easily tamed or ridden. A man coughed behind them, Piedr and Bithen both jumped as neither of them had heard anyone enter the stables.

 

“I wouldn’t touch Lightning if I were you boys.” He said. Piedr and Bithen stared at him. The man was tall, well above the height of most men and lean as a sapling. Hard muscles rippled beneath his clothing though and there was an old wound above his right eye that cut his eyebrow in half. His chestnut brown hair was held back from his face by a leather cord, but there was a soft smile on his face that lit up his brown eyes.

 

Piedr stared at him. “Elard!” He cried in astonishment and threw himself at him, hugging him warmly. Elard chuckled softly and held out his hand. “A little big now aren’t you for childish embraces Will?” Soft pink spots appeared on Piedrs face as he shook his brothers hand. “When did you get here? Why did you not come home and see us?”

 

Elard held up his hand for silence and Piedr paused, flushing slightly again. “You must be young Bithen.” He said holding out his hand. “You’ve both grown since we last met.” Bithen shook Elard’s hand almost warily. “Ten years.” He said softly and then shook his long dark hair out of his eyes, studying Elard again. “You left on my eighth birthday.”

 

Elard chuckled again. “You never forget a thing do you Bithern, how’s your pa?” Bithen nodded slightly. “He’s alright today, Mother Kubek is coming over tomorrow to check on him.” Piedr looked at his brother again. “Ma and Pa don’t know you’ve come home yet, do they?” Elard’s brown eyes froze over for an instant, and a wary look crossed his face. “It was late when we arrived last night Will, Larika and I thought it best to stay here for the night and journey over during the day when Ma has had a chance to get the tribe out from under her feet.”

 

“Larika? Who’s Larika?” Piedr asked unable to control himself. “I am.” A soft feminine voice spoke and the prettiest woman Piedr had ever seen walked into the stables. Her long dark hair came well down past her shoulders and shone like liquid. Her clothes were palest blue silk. Silk! Piedr had never seen anyone who could afford a whole dress made out of silk. She smiled fondly at Elard, a hand resting lightly on his arm. “This must be your younger brother Elard.” She leaned forwards and held out a hand, her blue eyes smiling.

 

Piedr shook her hand, enjoying the softness of her skin, he looked up at her again, and saw her eyes meeting his brothers, he knew already the look that past between them and he swallowed the lump that rose in his throat. This beautiful woman was his brothers wife – or as good as. Larika smiled at Bithen and held out her hand. “You must be Bithen, Elard has told me much about you.”

 

Bithen too was staring up at her in awe and she laughed softly, it had a soft musical tone as if she were amused by their reactions and she once more lay a hand on Elard’s arm almost caressingly. “We must leave soon.” She said softly. Elard nodded, raising her fingers to his lips and kissing them softly. “As you command Secari.” She walked on slowly towards the inn and was soon out of site. Elard turned his attention back to the boys and threw each of them a silver coin. “Saddle our horses, and meet me on the green in ten minutes, think you can manage that?”

 

Bithen nodded, his eyes growing wide at the sight of the coin and tucked it into his pocket, he raced off and grabbed the saddle blanket off the wall and began saddling the black stallion. Piedr immediately began stabling the mare, in a few minutes, both boys were leading the horses towards the village green a few feet away.

 

The village green was a large square area of well kept grass, in the centre of which stood a large pole, the boys had set it up the day before and the women of the village had decorated it in preparation for the celebration the next day. Bithen grinned at Piedr and poked him in the ribs. “You think Elard and Larika came for Veris day?” Piedr shrugged and stroked the white mare’s muzzle, she nuzzled up to him, searching for food.

 

Elard and Larika were walking hand in hand towards them across the green, she was now wearing a dark woollen riding cloak over her clothes, the hood pulled up not hiding but framing her face. That lump in his throat rose again seeing her. Larika smiled and stroked his hair with her long fingers. Holding the horses reins for her as she mounted. Elard swung himself easily into the saddle on his own horse and waited patiently while she rearranged the cloak over her gown. He gave Piedr a smile though and walked his horse off down the path towards the creek. He was taking his bride home for the blessing.

 

Bithen watched them ride away and then sighed. “Race you to Merrah’s house.” He said, running off. Piedr followed him, and although Bithen had the advantage of being a few feet in front, Piedr being taller soon overtook him as they raced back through the village. Panting for breath, Bithen pulled up short and grabbed hold of Piedrs arm as he ran past. Piedr gave him a curious look. “Who … who do you think she’ll choose?” Bithen panted. Piedr scratched his nose and looked at him. “For Veris day?” He asked, shrugging his shoulders. “It will probably be you.” Bithen replied pulling his hand away.” Piedr looked at him strangely. “She might choose you.” He said. “After all, you did kiss her on Wintersday.” Bithens face turned bright red. “Would you mind?” He whispered, staring down at his feet. Piedr grinned. “I bet this silver Rota she asks you.” Bithen stared at the coin in his friends hand and shook his head. “No.” He said softly. “She’ll ask you, you’re taller than me, faster and stronger.” His face flushed slightly. “Of course she’ll ask you.” Piedr laughed, pocketing the coin, he threw his arm around his friends shoulder. “She might not ask either of us.” Bithen laughed softly, but it was strange and forced.

 

The two boys knocked on the door of the house and a woman opened it, her grey hair was pulled back in a bun from her face and tied back with a large handkerchief. An apron protected her clothes and was dusted with flour. “Morning Piedr, Bithen, Merrah is upstairs with Madame Devennes, your Pa able to come to the festival tomorrow Bithen?” Madame De Lode asked with a friendly smile.

 

Bithen looked at her, his dark eyes clouding over. “I don’t know Madam De Lode.” For a moment it looked as if he might cry. Madame De Lode patted his shoulder affectionately. “Never you mind dear, I’m sure Mother Kubek will take care of him. Come on in, there’s a batch of honeycakes just about to come out of the oven. I bet you boys haven’t had breakfast yet, go wash up and come sit yourselves down.”

 

The two boys did as she asked, walking out into the yard at the back of the house. Piedr took hold of the pump and pulled down on the lever. Cool water spilled out into the trough and they scooped up handfuls, washing their hands and faces, before drying them on the piece of flannel that had been tied to the pump handle. “Bithen! Piedr!” An excited voice squealed from high above them. Craning their heads to look up to the second storey, they saw Merrah leaning out of a window, her honey-blonde hair cascading to her shoulders in a torrent of liquid gold. The girl waved to them happily and they waved back before walking back inside the house and sat down at the large heavy oak table.

 

Soon they heard footsteps on the stairs and Merrah ran into the room, hugging each of them in turn. “You are coming to the festival tomorrow, both of you?” She gushed, her creamy cheeks flushed slightly with excitement. Piedr and Bithen both nodded and wiped the sticky sugar from the still hot honeycakes onto their clothes. Merrah smiled at them. “I haven’t decided who I am going to ask to partner me at the dance.” She sighed and looked frustrated, her nose screwing up slightly and she rubbed at it roughly. “It’s such a pity I can’t ask both my best friends. Ma, do you think I could dance half the dance with Piedr and the other half with Bithen?

 

Madame De Lode looked at her daughter sharply. “It’s a little unusual dear, most girls choose only one. That is the idea of the festival after all, after tomorrow you will no longer be a girl, you are considered a woman of the village, and your selected partner, your future life.” Merrah sighed and looked at both Piedr and Bithen again. “But how can I decide between them?” She stamped her foot suddenly. “I just won’t go Ma, that’s it. If I don’t go, I don’t have to decide between them, and things can just go on as they are. I don’t want things to change! I want us to be friends always!”

 

The two boys looked at each other sideways. Friends? Why would dancing at the festival change that? Wouldn’t they be friends always? “Now, now Lanny, you’re being childish. You have to go to the festival, and you have to choose a partner. If you can’t choose between Piedr and Bithen …” Madame De Lode voice broke off as she eyed each of the boys. She didn’t fancy her daughters position one bit, her choice had been easy. She had known even then that there was no one for her but her husband Kiendred.

 

Piedr though she had been sure would be her daughters choice, gentle and kind but full of mischief … was he ready to take on the responsibilities of Chosen? Quiet Bithen, dark and brooding he had already shouldered a number of responsibilities and would take on those as Chosen just the same as he had done the others in the same quiet manner. But being Chosen was more than just a partner at a dance, it signified interest. If no challenger had arisen within five years of being Chosen, he was expected to present her to the Village mayor on Veris day, the Blessing would be spoken and they would be married.

 

Madame De Lode looked up at the sound of a carriage drawing closer, peeping out her curtains as the black and red lacquered vehicle drew up outside and a woman descended. “Saints preserve us!” She whispered breathlessly.

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