WINTER HAD fallen like a hammer. The cold tasted like needles, and the wind knotted snow in Jack’s hair. The wind shoved at him like a hand, trying to push him back up the hill. No one could remember a harsher winter—bearing in mind his family had a long memory—and the calendar had only reached September. Strange weather. Wild weather.
His boots slid on the ice that glazed the beaten dirt of the old track, and when he cut over the moors the frost-brittle heather crackled like small bones. By the time Jack got to the old stones, his T-shirt was stiff with frozen sweat, and the cold had crept down to his balls. If anyone from Lochwinnoch saw him they’d think he’d run mad. Gods knew what they’d make of the scene on the loch.
The old man stood bollock-naked in the dark water, six foot from the rocky shore. The tattoos covering him from hips to shoulder blade, ink faded from black to blue with age, stood stark against chill-paled skin. The rest of the family crouched on rocks or sat cross-legged on the ground, waiting.
Jack’s brother stalked out of the crowd, shoving their kin out of his way roughly. “You’re late,” Gregor said, breath misting around his lips. He jabbed a finger against Jack’s chest. “You ignore a summons again, and I’ll break your legs. Can’t walk far then.”
Jack grinned at him, humorless and toothy. “Touch me again, and I’ll—”
“Boys. Enough.” The voice sounded thin, the usual timbre stripped by the wind, but it still scruffed them both. Mouth set in a sneer, Gregor backed off. Jack nodded to the broad, scarred back.
The old man turned around, ice crackling around his knees as he moved. He must have been standing out there for hours, letting the water freeze around him.
“Jack.” The old man dragged his hand down his face, wiping the frost out of his beard, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “D’ya see?”
Not well. The snow was like a blanket, with only glimpses visible through the weave. If Jack squinted, he could just make out a string of lights crawling out of town. They were heading west, to the road.
“Aye.” The old man sounded smug. He’d no real grudge against the humans that lived there, but the settlement had offended him on the day the humans built it. “Evacuatin’. They sent us a letter too.”
Everyone laughed—a low growling roll of amusement.
“What does it mean?” Jack asked.
His da scratched his beard. With the cold snap, they’d all spent more time in fur than not, and the old man’s nails were sharp enough to shred the gray and black bristles. “The great winter is here at last. Our prophets were right. Mad bastards, but right.”
A ripple of excitement ran through the crowd. Eyes glittered black and eager as they whooped and clapped, smacking hands against their thighs. They’d all been waiting for this day for a long, long time—ever since Hadrian had turned on the monsters he’d found in his legions and banished them over the wall. Rome had turned its back on them, but in the old, high places up here they’d found gods who shared their fangs, and their hunger. Gods born of cold lands and bitter winters, who’d promised to one day give them the world to eat.
Now that day had come.
So why did Jack feel in his marrow that something bad was coming?
The old man waded out of the water, absently waving off a wee lad with a blanket, and walked over to the brothers. He was hairy as a boar, gray thick over his chest and shoulders, and so broad with muscle that he looked short until you found yourself looking up at him. Habit made Jack pull himself up straight, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Gregor do the same.
They were the same height, the same way they wore the same face and the same eyes and the same sandy-fair hair. The only thing they didn’t share was the twelve-minute head start one of them had gotten on life, although their ma would never tell them which had come first. Even on her dying day, she’d eaten that secret.
Ignoring their automatic posturing, the big man dropped a hard hand on Jack’s shoulder. “And it means something else, boy. I’m heartsore over it, but it means you ain’t one of us anymore. You have to go.”
For a second Jack didn’t feel anything. Maybe the chill had gotten deeper than he thought. The pronouncement of his exile cramped dully in his gut, a feeling of loss as unavoidable as gravity.
Gregor laughed, a startled blurt of triumph. Their da backhanded him, slapping the sound back into his mouth and laying him out on the ground.
“Losing one of us is nothing to gloat over,” he growled. “Not at the best of time, not now. And you, boy, you didn’t win the toss by some grand margin. There wasn’t even twelve minutes in it.”
Propping himself up on his elbow, Gregor wiped his mouth sullenly on the back of his hand. Blood smeared bright as a crayon over his knuckles. His eyes were dark and bitter under the straight line of his eyebrows.
Both of them wanted to know. Jack asked first.
“So what was it, then?” he asked, the dullness giving way to anger. “If he wasn’t older, or better, why exile me and not him, Da?”
Annoyance crimped the old man’s mouth, lips bleeding white, and he looked away. “You know why. I take no pleasure in this, but if you will not change your ways, then you have to leave. It’s how things are.”
“What things?” Jack asked. He knew—he’d known when he got the summons—but he wanted to make the old man spit the fucking words out. “If there’s not even twelve minutes in it, Da, then why does Gregor get to stay, and I have to go?”
The old man shook his head…. “It’s the end of the world, boy. Too late for any of us to change now.”
“What. Things,” Jack growled, voice rasping in his throat. If it had been fair—if he’d been weak, or ailing, or if he’d lost a challenge—he could have accepted it. Strength was the rule that ordered all their lives. Except he was a good son, a good wolf, and this wasn’t fair. He shouldered into the old man’s space, smelling the dander and musk of him on the air. “If you’re going to exile your own kid, have the balls to say why, Da.”
Hooded, stony eyes met his. They held grief, and pity, but no regret. When the old man still didn’t say anything, Jack’s temper bubbled over into stupidity. He shoved the old man, punching the heels of his hands against heavy shoulders. His da stepped back, and everyone gasped. It had been thirty years since anyone had laid hands on the Numitor, and then it had been Jack’s ma in a temper.
Buoyed on the hot rise of his anger, Jack thought about it for a second. Challenge the Numitor and win, and it wouldn’t matter what the old man said anymore. It wouldn’t matter what anyone thought—
Jack didn’t even see the old man move. One minute they were glaring at each other; then the old man’s hand closed around Jack’s throat. His thumb, callused to leather from work, pressed against the fast throb of Jack’s pulse.
“I don’t answer to you, boy,” his da said. “I’ve told you my ruling. That it’s my fucking whim is all the words you need to know.”
Jack cast his eyes over the crowd, seeing kin and friends he’d known for long enough it didn’t seem like there was much difference. All of them avoided meeting his gaze. He twisted his mouth in a hard smile, because why pretend anymore? “So it’s the length of a dick, is that it, Da?” he said, feeling the word squeeze past his da’s thumb. “If I’d just fucked some girl from town every now and again, you’d have let me stay?”
The old man let go of him. Jack stumbled back, swallowing hard and resisting the urge to rub his throat. He wanted to cower, to beg, but he kept his chin up and met his da’s glare defiantly.
“It ain’t in you to change,” his da said. “And it ain’t in you to serve. All that’s left is leaving, boy. It can be as hard or as easy as you like, but you will go. Or I’ll send you for a priest.”
That threat made Jack flinch, breaking eye contact in a mute admission of defeat. He wasn’t a coward—he had taken beatings before—but the thought of a priest’s fate scared him.
Mutilated. Castrated. Hobbled. No, he’d rather take exile than that.
Jack bent his stiff neck, swallowing pride that scraped like rocks, and submitted. “I’ll go.”
The old man turned his back and walked away, snatching the blanket off the hovering lad and throwing it over his shoulder. Left alone, Jack looked down at his brother and, on a whim, offered him his hand. When she’d been dying, their mam had begged them to stop fighting, damned them for fighting like dogs even when they were inside her. Well, now they had nothing left to fight over. Gregor had won.
Rage twisted Gregor’s face into something ugly, and he slapped Jack’s hand away, knuckles bashing. He scrambled to his feet, spitting a wad of clotty blood into the ground. “I didn’t need him to give me this. I could have taken it. I would have taken it, and my face and my twelve fucking minutes back.”
Jack relaxed back into the familiar enmity, a sneer curling his lip. At least their da had given him one last gift. “Except you didn’t, did you,” he said. Leaning forward, he murmured in his brother’s ear, “And now that’s what everyone will remember. That you didn’t take it, you just… got it.”
He left his brother with that, holding on to the smirk until the dark blocked the pack from view. Then he let it hit him, shoving the air out of his lungs in a desperate gasp. He staggered and dropped to his knees on the hard ground, scrubbing a hand over his face. Exiled. Alone. Just thinking about it made his chest crack with anger and a hot, sticky fear. In his whole life, he’d never been alone. He didn’t even know how you went about it.
The bitter cold masked the smell, but the frozen ground was no friend to stealth. Jack heard the crunching shuffle of someone approaching in time to pull himself together. He staggered to his feet, growling at the wind that shouldered him, and turned to face the intruder.
He hoped to see his da, come to change his mind. He expected it to be Gregor, back for one last fight. Instead a prophet limped into view, scarred and shabby in heavy layers of winter charity.
“What do you want?” Jack demanded. He retreated a step, then made himself hold his ground. “Why did you follow me?”
The prophet grinned, showing the gaps where his incisors had been wrenched out of the gums. “Things change,” he said, spitting Jack’s words back at him. “Your da’s wrong. The end of the world changes everything. If you want it to. Do you want it to, Jack? And are you willing to pay the price for it?”
In the end, no. He wasn’t.