Tempest Bound: Chapter II

In addition to a PDF version of my Tempest Bound preview, I’ll be publishing the early chapters of my upcoming novel right here in plain text. You can start with the prologue here or the first chapter here.

 

C H A P T E R

I I

Frost bled from the shadows of the forest as if each tree were a dying warrior. A winter wind brushed past stiff, empty branches, nipping at the last few leaves too stubborn to fall. Snow was everywhere on the ground but nowhere in the sky. It had become much too cold for snowfall.

Theoran’s teeth clattered as he marched through the forest. He could see little more than blackness in front, a forest laid to rest by the cruelness of winter. He looked up, as though there was something to see. But there was only a dim moon hiding behind clouds, its illumination dampened by fog.

He placed one boot in front of the other, over and over and over. It was all he could do. Darkness had swallowed the trail he followed in daylight. At any given time, he heard only silence or the distant howl of hungry wolves. He preferred silence; it had become his only companion. Silence was safe, he thought. If there was sound, it was probably danger. Silence was the only safety he had. It was all he could trust now.

He hadn’t spoken a word in days. He opened his mouth only to eat, which was seldom. He feared he would wake up one morning and his lips would be sealed shut. Although, he figured, that would be better than not waking up at all.

Theoran opened his mouth now, at the thought of it, just to know he could. His lips were blue. They moved, but he couldn’t feel them. He inhaled coldness. It stung. He itched at his beard, a light brown coated white with frost, with his left glove. A small icicle fell from it. He was certain it would reform while he slept. He patted his stomach. It used to rumble when he was hungry. But he had been hungry for so long, his stomach had given up, joining the silence.

Another gust of wind rushed through the forest and scraped across Theoran’s face like claws of ice. He shut his eyes and tore the cloak off his back, wrapping it around his shoulders, neck, and face. He looked like a bandit, black cloth up to his eyes. Bandits, those thieving bastards, were killed on sight, and he knew that. But that was not a concern, given he hadn’t seen another human in days. That was a concern.

He looked up again. Somehow, he managed to convince himself it would be different, that the sky would suddenly hold some sign for him, offer him a glimmer of hope. But it was still just the moon, dull and inanimate as ever. He brought his eyes back down to the blackness in front of him. He was just sane enough to know that slowly, agonizingly slowly, he was going insane. He put one boot in front of the other and trudged on.

Theoran remembered Breakport. He remembered a city pressed against the Broken Sea and the angry waves that crashed against its rocky shores. The violent storms that flooded basements in the fall and tore roofs off houses in the spring. The pickpockets weaving through crowds from morning to night. The giant rats skittering through cobblestone alleys. The cats with foaming mouths and green scabs on their flesh, hissing and clawing and shrieking as he passed. The drunkards littering the streets, their voices poisoning the evening air with boorish obscenities. His home, his birthplace. He had hated every moment growing up there. He had thought it was a terrible place to live.

How wrong he had been.

Once Theoran’s legs grew so tired they refused to carry his torso any further, he stopped. It was impossible to find an ideal place to sleep in the darkness, so he leaned against the first tree he could feel, slumped down, and closed his eyes. He tucked his hands into the folds of his cloak and prayed that, after he fell asleep, he would at some point wake up.

He woke up. It was not dawn. The moon was still hiding behind clouds and the world was still black. He couldn’t tell if it had been five hours or five minutes since he fell asleep. He was still exhausted; it had certainly felt like minutes.

Theoran brushed hair from his eyes. He gripped the tree for support and stood up slowly, rubbing his aching calves. He wasn’t sure what woke him, but he decided to keep walking until his legs gave out again. He only made it a few steps, however, before he heard it.

A howl.

The howl pierced the night like a spear through glass. Loud, long, and hungry. Near. Theoran recalled summer hunting trips north of Breakport, small gray wolves roaming the woods that framed Ash Road. Large dogs, really. In the North, he knew, wolves were bred silver, their thicker coats draping much bigger beasts.

This beast—his howl—was not some dog.

He guessed that the wolf was alone because no other howls followed. A wolf alone was often worse than one in a pack, he had been warned. Incompatible with a pack, lone wolves. Rabid, perhaps, or aggressive, or worse. Hungrier, too, most often, their resources stretched, a thinly veiled desperation to endure in Aslund without aid.

The wolf, Theoran thought, or me?

A wolf would smell him first, hear him first, see him first. That much was certain. He wouldn’t spot it until its teeth were already hugging his neck. So Theoran started feeling at trees, studying their branches. He looked for one he could climb that a wolf couldn’t. Most didn’t have branches within his reach, however, and the frost on the trunks made the bark too slippery to climb. He could feel the pace of his heartbeat accelerate as tree after tree failed him. The ground was posion to him now, a deathtrap. He had to get off of it, but how?

When he found one—a thin tree with a few low branches—his mouth was dry and he was sweating despite the cold. He tried to calm his heart but couldn’t. He jumped up and grabbed for a branch. It snapped and he fell on his back. He reached for another; it snapped off even quicker. Ice had turned the branches fragile as glass.

Another howl came, this one closer still, so close it seemed to surround him. His heart nearly leapt from his throat. He clutched at his chest and spun around, his eyes darting in every direction. He saw only stillness. The howl’s echo faded quickly as it had come, and silence again took over.

Theoran pulled a small dagger from inside his tunic and thrust it into a tree trunk, as high as he could reach. Then he pulled himself up with it, grabbing the pommel with both hands, so that he could reach a higher, thicker branch.

Only he couldn’t reach. He fell back down and yanked the dagger from the tree. Tried another. Same problem. Theoran thrust his dagger into six trees before he found a branch within reach willing to support his weight.

His arms had grown sore. He wasn’t sure how many more times he’d be able to lift himself. He used the last of his strength to pull himself up one more branch. It was thicker and higher. He felt safe on it.

Theoran realized he had left his dagger jammed into the bark. It was past arm’s length. He tried to reach it from the branch he was on but it was several inches beyond his stretching fingers. He was just about to dip down to the lower branch to grab it when he heard a sound. And for the first time since he woke up, that sound was not a howl.

The crunching of snow was almost too soft to hear. But after his own boots had crunched through it for days, his ears were attuned to the sound. The crunching he heard came not from boots, however. It came from paws.

As the wolf neared, he could hear its nostrils. The beast was sniffing the ground. Theoran’s scent was everywhere, he had no doubt. He looked down, trying to size up the wolf. But its fur blended into the fog. Through the thick mist, he could only see the faintest bulk of silver against the shadowed snow. It was not the biggest wolf he had ever seen, but it was no pup either.

The wolf stopped sniffing at the base of the tree in which Theoran sat. It looked up. The beast’s vision was most certainly greater than Theoran’s. He was sure it could see him clear as day. He only hoped it couldn’t climb trees. He clutched at his tunic for a weapon, and then remembered where his dagger stood. No closer to him than it was to the wolf.

Theoran glanced up at the sky. The moon had fallen, which meant dawn was closer. Still at least an hour away. Probably two. Most wolves in Aslund didn’t hunt during the day. Maybe this one would wander off once the sun rose. Perhaps he could wait it out.

The wolf circled the base of the trunk, sniffing more. Then it looked up again. It seemed to be acting rather casual about everything—not what Theoran had expected when he heard the howls. It didn’t appear to be rabid, but he’d been wrong before. All he could do was keep watching it, hoping it would leave. He looked around, trying to spot a rabbit or even a rat. Anything that might occupy the wolf. But it was too dark and too cold. The small animals were hiding someplace safe. He envied them.

He looked back at the wolf, sized it up, and realized it was a female. That explained her size. But that howl from before—so thick, so deep, so powerful. It had to have come from a male—

—Theoran heard something new. Before he had a chance to determine what it was, a giant mass of black leapt at the wolf. The wolf whimpered in pain, then growled, snapping at the great black figure. It looked like a large bear, but it moved far too quickly for that. Its fur—if it had fur—was jet black, making its massive body invisible in the night. Sharp white teeth shone beneath the pale moonlight for a fleeting moment before vanishing into the silver fur of the wolf. The black beast clamped its jaw around the small of the wolf’s back, and the wolf’s growl dispersed into a howl of agony. She fought back, snapping at the beast, thrashing out with paws in desperation. She landed a claw somewhere sensitive on the beast—perhaps an eye; Theoran couldn’t tell—and the beast recoiled, releasing the wolf from its bite.

The silver wolf used that opportunity to flee. She bolted off into the shadows, whimpering. The black beast made a step forward as if to chase after her, then stopped. It turned around. It looked up and stared right at Theoran.

He saw now that this monster was a wolf, too, only much bigger and black as ink. Bigger than he ever thought a wolf could be. Its mouth was massive, and as it bared its teeth back, they looked as long as his fingers. The wolf sniffed the air and then circled the tree, sniffing at the base of the trunk. It looked up again, backed up a couple of steps, and leapt.

Theoran clenched his body as the wolf grabbed a lower branch in its mouth, snapping it off as the beast fell back into the snow. It had come within a foot of Theoran’s branch. And it didn’t look like it had tried very hard. He reached into his sheath again out of habit, but the dagger was still thrust into the tree.

The wolf leapt again and snapped off another branch. It came within inches of Theoran’s feet. He attempted to heave himself up onto another branch. His arms were shaking, struggling to lift his body. He grunted and pulled with all his might. Then his left arm slipped on the frosty surface of the branch and he dipped back down slightly. He was forced to ease himself back onto the first branch. His body trembled with exhaustion.

He looked for a lower branch to bridge the gap, but none were thick enough to support him. He was trapped. The wolf leapt again, digging its claws into the frosty bark, stretching its jaw outward, rows of enormous teeth snapping the air a sliver from Theoran’s leather boots.

He considered his options. I could jump down, try to grab the dagger in one motion, and attempt to strike the wolf in a weak spot. But the dagger might not pull out—if it took even half a second too long, the wolf would be ripping his legs from his torso. He could avoid the risk of pulling out the dagger, but then I’d have to fight the wolf off with my hands. Not likely. He could jump and run, perhaps. In the black of night, with snow on the ground, a wolf would see better and run faster.

Three options. All are suicide, he thought.

Theoran glanced at the moon. Dawn couldn’t be more than two hours off. Could he wait it out? Maybe, if he—and then he heard a faint crack. His branch bent. He could feel it shift beneath his feet. No, no, no.

He weighed his options again. He inhaled slowly. Then exhaled. Then jumped.

He dropped down, his feet landing smack in the wolf’s face as it stood against the tree. The kick knocked it back to the ground. Theoran grabbed his dagger with both hands and yanked. It practically flew out of the tree. He whirled around. The wolf was already back up, growling and baring its teeth. The dagger looked hardly bigger than a tooth. The wolf’s fur looked like armor.

He raised his arms to his side, trying to make himself look big. The wolf inched forward. Theoran clutched the dagger in his right hand. He gritted his teeth. He’d killed a wolf once. But not at night, not this big, and not with a dagger.

If the wolf jumped at him—he didn’t want to think about it. I might get one thrust in before being torn open. The only advantage he had was range. He changed the end of his dagger so he held the blade. He slowly backed away from the wolf. It followed him, inch for inch. His back hit the tree.

He flung the knife at the wolf with all the force he could muster. He wanted it to land in an eye—but he never was a good thrower. It struck near the top of the wolf’s front leg. It stuck in the flesh. The wolf recoiled and looked at its leg, as if it couldn’t understand what just happened. Theoran rushed forward and kicked the wolf in the jaw. It fell back for a moment, collapsing on its wounded leg. Then it bounced back up. It didn’t look hurt. It just looked angry.

He ran. Theoran’s boots pounded the ground, kicking up a flurry of snow in his wake. He could hear the wolf bounding after him. Why wasn’t it catching up to him? He wasn’t fast. He glanced back. The wolf was limping. The dagger was still in its leg, blood matting its black fur. I might just escape after all, he thought. But the wolf didn’t stop. It kept running, not gaining ground, not losing any. Theoran could feel the soreness in his legs. They felt heavy as stones. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could run for.

He saw a clearing in the forest up ahead. The fog started to thin out. He glanced up at the moon. It was low. Dawn was close. Not close enough. He reached the clearing. The fog did not seem to cling to the ground here. There seemed to be less snow. And there wasn’t a single tree. Not even the roots of a tree. It was a strange, curious thing, but he had no time to ponder it. He ran faster.

He tripped.

Theoran’s foot caught a bump in the ground and he went flying. His shoulder smashed into earth with a thud and dirt came up like a wave and splattered his face and back. He rolled over. The wolf towered over him, a hulking mass of  black fur and sinewy muscle and white teeth. He looked at the dagger still stuck in its leg. He couldn’t reach it without his head getting bitten off. He pulled himself backward with his elbows. The wolf closed in, growling. It wanted to attack him. It was ready to kill. Something kept it at bay. Perhaps it didn’t want another knife in the leg, he thought.

Theoran backed up more. One of his elbows hit something hard as it dragged through dirt. Felt like metal. He kept his eyes on the wolf. As he backed up another few inches, he brought his hand to where his elbow had been. It was metal. Like a latch to a door. He used his other hand to feel around beneath him. It was dirt, but beneath the dirt was wood. It was a door. He was lying on some sort of door in the ground.

The wolf lowered itself, readying an attack.

The door gave beneath Theoran and he fell through the earth.

Excerpted from Tempest Bound © Knowlton Thomas 2016

 

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Tempest Bound: Chapter II