This excerpt comes from Wolf of the West, my newest release. Let me know what you think!
Marcas stared upward at the sound of an imperative caw, and knew he must move faster. Four legs paced under him, swift as the wind, but he could see even from a distance that what had been a battlefield had now become a scavenger’s rout. Above him, black crows crossed the sky, first in twos and threes, then a streaming murder.
It is coming.
The twilight darkened into premature night under the shadow of their wings, and from the gore that littered the field came crawling shadows, stick-figures unbending against the light.
Darkness made flesh.
Once, twice, Marcas howled, but the moon was not yet risen and he could summon no light into his service. From the top of a low rise, he could only look down and watch more carnage in the making. Warriors, bloodstained, wounded—waylaid in victory or defeat, they had survived the battle only to suffer something more terrible.
His gaze focused on their widened eyes, the glaring darkness in each overburdened pupil, teeth visible behind lips thinned with fear in each face—yet in none of them did he see what he had come for. A spark of light—the mark of brightness that told him the one so marked was meant to survive. That one, he would protect. But where was he?
Wraiths absent of flesh unfolded across the carnage, seeking their prey. The survivors who could move stumbled away from them with all the speed their broken limbs could muster. Marcas’ gaze caught on three that moved together, two older, one younger, perhaps a son or nephew of one of the others. The elder two held him back, their hands across his chest at what they must have believed was a final moment of fear—and yet that youth stood forward, his face all confrontation, nothing of terror in the glare of his eyes.
The shadow moved to confront him, the youth painted with blazing light in the dark field of Marcas’ mind, and the truth flamed in him, sudden and precise.
This one! This one—now, now!
In a flash, Marcas leaped down the hillside, crossed the blooded grass and buried his teeth in the shadow nearest the youth. Black blood spurted around his fangs, and he felt dark fingers clutching at the fur of his back. Marcas whipped around and lunged at them. He caught sight of the three men behind him, their eyes wider now, if that was possible—watching him, wondering—but there was no way for him to explain.
Like many men before them, they would have to come to their own conclusions.
Growling, spitting, pacing back and forth, Marcas marked a circle with his steps, with his body, with his flashing fangs. He leaped across to threaten any reaching hand, any open mouth, rattle-breathed, foaming.
Three of them, but I can’t protect just that one. The boy. The boy wouldn’t let me, and it wouldn’t be right.
But three men were two more than he had expected. A battle like this one, wounds like theirs—the older men should probably be dead, but there was no accounting for the strength of a heart, a spirit or a warrior. Marcas’ quick eyes took in the wound on the younger one—the thigh, wrapped tight, blood soaked but older blood now, not fresh flowing… Not so bad, boy. It would be easier to protect him than the other two—closer to death, closer to the enemy.
The crawling multitude of bloodthirsty spirits reached out first for the men, not the boy. For a moment he felt a vain desire to take the boy and leave these fools to their fate. One wounded young man was no match for a wolf of the faoladh, no matter what his desires.
But across his mind’s eye flashed that first glimpse again—blazing light and eyes with no terror in them at all.
Black energies tore at his back again, gripped his tail and pulled him. He whirled, ears laid back, snapping, tasted darkness and congealed death, but it was neither blood nor anything real. Shadow screeched, a sound like the caw of the crows, but deepened, twisted, broken. He sought the matte jet throats, tore open wounds that spilled nothing, but it was nothing with the taste of ash. Marcas pushed them back with the weight of his body, with his claws and fangs that snapped with supernatural swiftness. Tireless, intent, he fought against the circling foes that increased in number even as he engaged them. They flowed back and receded, then returned to wash around him, a new and stronger tide—
Until the moon rose. The moonlight fell on Marcas’ back and his fur shone with a pale light, every hair illuminated. He lifted his head and those of his foes closest to him took a step back. His mouth opened, and out of his throat came an illuminated noise, more than a howl—the true song of the night, safety from all shadow in that one note, even as it was many.
The wolf song shattered the shadow, broke it apart into bits as the moonlight spread and painted the black of the hills and the gore of the field with light. Panting now, feeling the pain of many wounds, Marcas fell silent and stepped back, looked around with wary eyes to see if the night might choose to rebirth its horrors.
There was only silence and stillness. The natural shadows of the night, death in coherent slumber. What the violence had awakened was restful now. Quiet.
Satisfied, Marcas turned to face the trio of men he had protected. They, too, were silent, all but unmoving, until he turned to leave.
It was a young voice, the voice of the one he’d been called to protect, but Marcas didn’t look back. He turned away despite that call, and vanished into the cloak of the night.
* * * *
The dawn came early, yellow and heavy, sunlight spreading like spilled yolk across the horizon. It was welcome light, which scattered shadow and imprisoned the fears of the night behind walls of memory. The shapes of dark and crooked power that had spilled from what had once been the bodies of friends and foe—the tide of dark within the night—those things were faded, but the memory of that which had conquered them was not.
“Still well, Connor?”
Startled from the thoughts that had distracted him, the throbbing of the wound in Connor’s thigh returned full force at the sound of his father’s voice. He almost brought up the image that lingered in his mind’s eye. Moonstruck wolf. But he hesitated, and only answered the question his father had asked.
“Well enough. I’ll make it.”
They lapsed into silence after that. As Connor limped forward beside the single horse they’d found wandering at the edge of the battlefield, he drew himself out of his thoughts and watched his father over the horse’s neck. Silent, craggy, a mountain in motion, he stomped forward as if nothing could—or would—stop him, as if he felt neither the pain of his wounds nor the pain of their journey. How far now? Since the wolf had left them in the blazing moonlight—since they’d found the horse and his father had forced Lord Aran to mount? Too long.
There had been an apology on his father’s face, as he’d shoved Aran up on the beast, but despite the agony of this stumble through the dark, there’d been no other way to keep Aran moving.
Again, Connor looked into his father’s face. His dark eyes were crowded under the clenching of his brow and the poor bandage that was bound there. His father nodded once, approval or encouragement, and Connor set his eyes on the road again, a dusty band that cinched the green hills before them like a poorly tightened belt.
It was good that he hadn’t said anything, hadn’t brought up the questions that burned in him. When he had asked in the dark after the wolf had left them, his father had shushed him right away, warned of bad luck and spurned blessings. Some things we should not speak of, even amongst ourselves. He heard the echo of his father’s voice, the only answer he’d gotten, and knew that now wasn’t a time to add to his worries—but despite his outer silence, the questions remained inside him, loud and urgent.
What had those things been? Shadow had risen from their comrades and from the enemy warriors both. Was it the power of their foe? But then, what of the wolf? Where had he come from? He had never seen anyone fight the way that wolf fought. Focusing on those moments, those memories, he shuddered, stumbled, caught himself and forced himself not to look at his father again. Some things weren’t meant to be faced by mortal men. He had seen training injuries enough and the wounds on returning warriors—he’d thought he’d known what there was to know of battle and death.
He knew better now.
Battle was not wounds and weapons and warriors. Battle was blood-smoke, a mist of red in the air, so fine the taste of it was in every breath. Battle was stepping forward and slipping and not looking down to see if what was under your boots was mud or the blood-slick guts of someone who didn’t know he was dead yet. Connor had learned that the arm could grow so tired it couldn’t stop swinging, that a blade new-sharpened could clot in a glut of flesh, chip on a sternum and still shatter a skull. Battle was heaving breath, every muscle burning and nerves dead ended or on fire—no in-between, no pause, no breathing space… And in the lulls, everything too quiet. Every crow’s cawing, every breath of wind became a thing that stirred alertness out of impossible fatigue.
He’d thought the end was just another one of those lulls. That there would be another charge, another rush—something else, because it couldn’t be over. It would never be over… But it was.
Until night came.
His leg had been long-bound by then and he had done what he could for his father, limping, reaching across the broad shoulders to bind a wound that streamed new flow over the rusty stains of old blood. But it had been Aran who was the worst wounded, by the loss of his sons. Connor had found him, bent over the bodies. Perhaps it had been Aran’s cries that had woken shadows out of the dead. They were loud enough. They went on forever.
Not that he could blame him. There would be no honored burial, no pyre for those boys, not after this battle. Not when no one survived, no one but them—who would carry the bodies? Who would return to this plain and bring away the crow’s feast that remained? They had come to the very edge of his father’s kingdom to fight, two hundred warriors seeking to spill blood in the name of an ancient feud long abated. Fifty years of the High King’s peace had been broken there, and for what?
Nothing had been won, nothing gained, nothing threatened—a field in the middle of pastureland, and no herds in sight, and now his father’s men and the men who had rebelled both were dead.
Connor sighed, licked dry lips and looked up across the endless rolling of the hills and into the sunlight. How much farther? He took another step, and another, and another…
“Connor? Stop, Connor.”
He heard his father’s voice, but it seemed to come from a distance. Why would that be? His father was…right there. He turned his head to the left, and the motion unbalanced some precarious state he hadn’t even been aware of. His head was light, and his leg was numb. Thigh to foot, he couldn’t feel a thing.
“That isn’t right…”
It reached out to envelop him, and for an instant, his heart sped up in fear.
The thought came to him of itself, soothing, silken.
Wolf will protect me.
There was no need to fear the night.