SOLDIERS HAD been marching past the vineyard for a week and a half, some bearing livery from a nearby valenny or bairny, others in mismatched armor that marked them as swords for hire. Their passing had left the frozen ground muddy and rutted, the high, brittle grass on its edges trampled to pale gold scraps. Everything pristine and pure about winter had been fouled with horse dung and the heavy boots of men unconcerned with the beauty and health of the land—men who felt their endeavors took precedence. Alain Lamont paid them little attention aside from offering water from the deep wells on the property to those who requested it. Boyce, Alain’s brother-in-law, kept Alain’s niece and nephew far from the armed men, and the ancient stone wall protected their lands from being ravaged. Alain didn’t know who fought against whom, or for what reason, and he didn’t care. He just hoped whatever folly the wealthy and powerful struggled over would end quickly, so the rest of the people could return to the routine of their simple lives. He hoped the movement of so many men wouldn’t harm the countryside irreparably, but he had no way to prevent it.
Alain stood near the iron gate, facing the road, as the sun diluted the darkness of the night, washing the blackness to mottled gray. He leaned against the shovel he’d been using to clear the snow and rime from the footpath as he watched another group of warriors plodding through the muddied snow on the road as they passed. Noting their armor and weapons, he knew them for mercenaries. Mercenaries could be dangerous to a prosperous landhold like theirs; they owed the king no explanation for helping themselves to the food stores and whatever else they felt entitled to take. They weren’t subject to the monarchy’s laws—or rather, they ignored them. Fortunately this group barely glanced sideways at Mountain Shadow Winery and all its fruitful fields and pastures as they trudged past. Alain leaned the handle of the shovel against his shoulder as he turned to make his way up the long gravel path to the main house. Before he went inside, he shielded his eyes from the increasing sun and looked out over his miles of land. The gnarled old vines stood dark against the snow, and curls of smoke rose from the cottages of the many families who lived among and farmed the rolling hills.
Inside, Alain hung his heavy wool cloak on a hook near the door. He made his way through the warm and quiet house, the old floorboards creaking beneath his steps as he passed through the sitting room and dining room the family rarely used. A savory smell wafted up from the kitchen, and Alain’s stomach rumbled in response. He hurried down ironstone steps, the edges rounded by generations of his family’s feet, and into the large kitchen. The underground room, along with the pillars supporting it and the many ovens, had been built from the rock cleared to make way for the vines. Alain’s grandfather had often told him the house had bones as strong as the L’Estrella family’s castle to the north. Alain had believed him… and still did.
Every few years, they put a fresh coat of whitewash over the stone walls. They’d done it that spring, and the cavernous space looked crisp and clean, while the fires at either end burned brightly and made it warm and inviting. Boyce sat on a wooden stool by the inglenook, stirring something that smelled like bacon in an iron pan. He looked over his shoulder, met Alain’s gaze, and smiled before returning to his cooking. The children, Courtenay and Fenn, sat on a long wooden bench. A loaf of fresh bread, a crock of butter, fresh cream, and dried apples waited on the rough-hewn table.
Alain sat down across from them. “Good morning, my loves.”
“Good morning, Uncle Alain,” Courtenay said. At ten, she had a reserved dignity and soft-spoken cheerfulness that reminded Alain of his sister even more than the girl’s golden hair, cornflower blue eyes, and round, rosy cheeks. “Do you think you can find me another book after breakfast? I finished the Tale of Lady Thetis and the Seven Songbirds.”
“Well, that was fast,” Alain remarked. “If you aren’t careful, you’ll have read every book in our library by this time next year. We’ll find you something after you see to the chickens.”
His niece smiled and turned a little pinker while her little brother bounced on the bench beside her. Fenn never seemed able to keep still. With his coppery hair and greener eyes, he looked more like his father than Alain’s deceased twin. The boy reached across the table and almost knocked the milk pitcher over in his haste to tug Alain’s sleeve. “I want a story too, Uncle Alain!”
“And what kind of story would you like, my fine young man?”
“One about knights fighting wyrms and harrow-wolves and marlcats and mages!” The dishes wiggled on the table as the boy fidgeted and squirmed.
“Why would knights fight mages?” Courtenay asked with a superior look that reminded Alain so much of his sister Sabine when they’d been young his eyes burned. “Mages aren’t monsters like wyrms and marlcats.”
Fenn picked up the wooden spoon and brandished it like a sword. He leaped from his seat and swung the utensil wildly, rattling the garlands of dried herbs hanging from the low ceiling above him. “They are if they’re bad mages! I’ll show them like this and this! Ha!”
“That’ll be enough, lad,” Boyce said as he came to the table and placed the hot pan of bacon strips and scrambled eggs well away from the children. After he filled their plates, he sat down next to Alain and gave Alain’s knee a squeeze beneath the table. They shared another shy, private smile as Alain poured wine and the children attacked their breakfasts. “Your cheeks are nipped bright red. Been at work already?”
Alain dipped a slab of bread in his wine, lifted it, and watched the rich red liquid drip from the crust into his clay cup. He’d been anxious since the soldiers had started moving past the vineyard, and he’d had trouble sleeping, but he didn’t want to worry Boyce or, worse yet, frighten the children. “It was windy last night. I thought I’d clear the snow that drifted onto the paths.”
“It could have waited,” Boyce said.
“And now it’s done,” Alain replied. “No sense in putting off work.”
“I suppose. Did you see anything out there? More soldiers?”
Alain looked at the children and found them watching intently, Fenn practically lying across the table as if he could learn more about the warriors by getting closer. He considered his words. “A small company. Sell-swords.”
Fenn’s eyes widened. “Did they say where they’re going? Off to kill the traitors up at L’Estrella Castle? Did they have crossbows and spears and swords and daggers? Did they say if they’re fighting for the king or the turncoats?”
“No,” Alain answered. “I didn’t speak with them. They’re nothing to do with us, Fenn. We’re better off minding our business and looking after our grapes and our land.”
“But I want to hear about them fighting the traitors!” the boy said, sticking out his lower lip.
“That’s enough, lad,” Boyce told his son. “Finish your breakfast.”
Grumbling, Fenn turned his attention back to his eggs, slurping and chewing noisily until his face was smeared with grease.
“Queen Denna Corinna’s at L’Estrella Castle,” Courtenay said. “I would like to see her someday. She’s a mage and a queen!”
“She is,” Boyce said. “But I’d wager she isn’t as beautiful as you.”
Though she colored, Courtenay shrugged. “I’ll never be a queen or a mage.”
“No, you’ll be part of this wonderful winery,” Alain said. “A fine and beautiful lady with a wonderful, strong husband and many healthy children. And when you marry and start a family, we’ll all work together to build you a lovely house. How does that sound?”
The girl shrugged. “Can I have a balcony and a rose garden?”
“I think you’ve read too many stories about princesses, my girl. And Lockhaven’s too cold for roses,” Boyce said.
Alain nudged his ribs with his elbow. “Nonsense. When our ancestors founded this vineyard, everyone said they couldn’t grow grapes on ironstone, that it was too cold. They said the land was too unforgiving to bring anything forth and it would never yield anything. We proved that wrong. So if you want roses, you’ll have roses.”
Courtenay’s eyes sparkled as she looked up at him through her lashes. “Thank you, Uncle Alain. You’ll make them grow, won’t you?”
“I’ll make them bloom until the ladies up at the castle envy their perfume,” he promised. “Now eat your eggs.”
“If anyone can do it, it will be you,” Boyce said, his eyes telling Alain all the things he didn’t dare say aloud.
The children finished their food, and Fenn filled his pockets with dried apple slices before Boyce ordered them to see to their chores. Courtenay kissed Alain and her father on their cheeks, gathered up her skirts, and hurried off to feed the chickens and collect the eggs. Fenn promised to make his bed and gather his holey socks so Alain could darn them. Boyce barely managed to catch and restrain the boy long enough to wipe his face. Moments later, his footsteps thundered above them as he ran through the house. Finally, only the popping and crackling of the fires accompanied the scrape of silverware against ceramic as Alain and Boyce finished their meals. Alain drained his wine and poured a little more as he leaned his shoulder against Boyce’s.
Boyce reached for Alain’s hand and braided their fingers together. “You’re troubled. What is it?”
“I’ll be glad when all this nonsense with the soldiers is over, that’s all.” Alain lifted Boyce’s hand and kissed the back.
Boyce raked Alain’s unruly waves of blond hair back to press his lips to Alain’s temple. His lips and whiskers tickled Alain’s skin as he spoke. “You worry too much about this place. It isn’t all on your shoulders, Alain. I’m here. Plenty of people are here, and asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak.”
Alain closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I know. But none of us are warriors. If those men decide they want what we have, what will we do? Goddesses, the women. Courtenay—”
“Shh. We’re no knights, but we won’t let that happen. Besides, if it hasn’t yet, it isn’t likely to. Don’t upset yourself. As you said, it’s nothing to do with us. It will pass, and we’ll go on as we always have. Come now, it’s winter, and we have no work today. Let’s sit by the fire, read to the children, and just enjoy our peace. The goddesses have been good to us. We have a wonderful family, Alain.”
“We do. Do you plan to marry again? Sabine’s been with the goddesses six years now. Will you look for a wife?”
Boyce wrapped both arms around Alain and pulled Alain’s back against his slightly broader chest. When he spoke, his breath warmed Alain’s cheek and fluttered his eyelashes. “I wish you would not say such things. I have everything I need or want. I wish you knew that.”
Letting his eyes close, Alain leaned back against his brother-in-law, guilty over how content he felt. How blessed. “Your children deserve a mother, and you deserve a wife. Maybe more children. A family.”
“You’re my family. Our children have everything they need. They’re cared for, provided for, and loved. You are loved.”
Alain smiled and ran his fingertips over Boyce’s forearm. He could think of nothing to say but “Thank you.”
Boyce pressed a kiss to the top of Alain’s head. “I don’t want anyone else. You, you’re the end of it for me, all I need and then some. Come on. Let’s enjoy the quiet. I love the winter in a way. Before we know it, we’ll be tending the vines from dawn till dusk. And then making the wine! Come sit by the fire with me while we have a chance.”
“Go on without me, and I’ll clean up the dishes. Then we’ll enjoy today. I promise. Boyce, I… I’m happy. Thank you.”
ALAIN, BOYCE, Courtenay, and Fenn were in the sitting room, with Boyce reading from a book of prayers to the goddess Berris, when they heard the screaming outside.
“Is that crows in the field again?” Courtenay asked, looking up from her embroidery. “Filthy blighters.”
“Courtenay!” Boyce scolded.
Alain listened to the screeching in the distance. “Awfully loud for crows,” he muttered. “I’ll just go have a look.”
“Not on your own,” Boyce said, setting his book aside and standing.
“Can I come?” Fenn got to his feet and bounced in place as he looked at them with pleading eyes.
Alain crouched down and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. He affected a serious expression. “That would leave no one here to look after your sister. Your father and I are counting on you to protect her. I trust you know how to use the club we keep by the front door.” Courtenay rolled her eyes as her brother puffed out his chest, but she didn’t contradict him, thank the goddesses.
After throwing their cloaks over their shoulders, Alain and Boyce hurried outside and jogged down the path as the cacophonous roar to the west grew louder. Despite the horrid sound, the air stood so still not even a snowflake skittered across the recently cleared paths. Something was wrong—Alain felt in the way his teeth hummed, his hair stood on end, and cold ripples shimmied from his stomach up his spine—but he couldn’t give it a name. Something moving through the air felt tangible, like sharp and frozen quills brushing his flesh, and it made his skin feel too tight on his body.
A cloud of dust rose, and Alain could no longer mistake the sounds for anything other than the screams of men and horses. Moments later, the first group of a few dozen riders cantered past the winery’s gate, followed shortly by men on foot—probably a hundred men running for their lives.
“They’re retreating,” Alain observed, jogging closer to the gate to have a better view. “From the battle? What are they running from?”
Boyce, his skin waxen and white beneath his dark red whiskers, pointed to the northwest.
The sounds of regiments of soldiers barreling past their property slipped from Alain’s attention as he stared at… at something he’d never imagined, let alone could identify. Maybe two miles away, at the very edge of their land, near the ridges where they could see the castle and even the lake on a clear day, a circle of black clouds had formed. Alain had heard clouds called black before, but he’d never really seen anything but the gray of a stormy summer sky. The perfectly round patch in the distance was soot dark, blacker than sin, sparkling like a fresh frost, and moving with an increasing speed in a funnel pattern.
Then the sky broke open, as if someone had pierced the firmament so the molten fire of the sun spilled to the ground, pooling, spreading, the brightness of it scorching Alain’s eyes. He barely noticed Boyce pushing him to shelter behind him, grasping roughly at Alain’s cloak to pull him back toward the house. He couldn’t tear his eyes away as the fire spread across the land, washing over it like a flood, branching off and reaching out like the offshoots of a stream. The bare trees and brush marking the northern boundary of their territory caught, forming a wall of flame at the limits of Alain’s vision.
“Alain!” Boyce called desperately, his voice rough but sounding far away. “Goddesses, Alain! Come on! We have to get back to the house!”
“The whole forest to the north is burning,” Alain said. “What about the vines on those hills? Goddesses, the people who live there? What do we do?”
Acrid smoke, dark as the Shades’ Abode, grew thicker and thicker as it roiled down from the woods. In moments, Alain lost his bearings. He couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of him, and he clung to Boyce’s scratchy cloak as Boyce tried to shield Alain’s head in the crook of his arm. People ran and screamed, just dark shapes flitting like phantoms through the noxious vapor, and the fire spread not only through the trees but across the sky. Clutching each other, coughing, Alain and Boyce stumbled to escape the chest-hurting smoke while the heavens blazed above them.
Metal screeched and stone shattered. A group of people—large men, maybe soldiers—ran past them, knocking Alain off balance, making him slice his knee on a sharp rock. Boyce grabbed him beneath his arms and yanked him back to his feet, trying to guide him—somewhere. Alain coughed until he tasted blood as more men rushed by them, trampling everything in their path. Bits of burning sky and balls of fire the size of apples arced through the blackness. Alain pulled his hood over his hair and tried to shield his face with his cloak. They had to get back to the house. Everything was burning, and soldiers had torn down the gate to escape the nightmare raining down on them. But Alain couldn’t breathe. Every attempt felt like a knife to his chest, and he didn’t even know what direction the house lay in. The world grew darker, smudged and incorporeal, though he didn’t know if it was the smoke or his increasing dizziness.
Trying to keep each other standing, Alain and Boyce stumbled through the blackness and hail of fire, because it was all they could do. Shrieking people shouldered past them, and the burning thatch of cottage roofs poked holes in the gloom. The whole world was darkness pierced by flame and people crying out. Dying. Alain had to hold on to Boyce, get him to the house, get to the children…. He dragged feet that felt encased in stone toward the wall of fire in the distance, because the house faced south with the northern hills behind it, and the northern hills were burning. When he fell, he didn’t think he could rise again. He felt numb, his mind leaking out his watering eyes, shutting off….
Boyce hauled him up. Children sobbed somewhere behind them. Men shouted and women wailed. The high nickers of horses and their hooves on the ground surrounded them, but it seemed like the smoke was clearing. Dozens of houses blazed, and the fields to the northwest were surely lost, but the air didn’t feel so much like broken glass in Alain’s throat.
He could see the house, a dark smear against the blazing fields. Not only farmers ran for the shelter of the strong, old building, but men in armor as well. People lay on the ground, some groaning and squirming, some still. Alain summoned his will and forced his body to obey him. A large group of nasty-looking warriors approached his home from the left, and they worried him more than the fire. The group knocked into their backs, but Boyce kept Alain on his feet. It was still hard to see, hard for Alain to perceive much beyond the clang of metal and armor jabbing and bruising him. He tried to grab at the men’s arms, stop them or at least slow them down, but he only succeeded in letting himself be jostled away from Boyce, and in the chaos and smoke, he couldn’t find him again.
Alain called out and Boyce answered, sounding farther away than he could possibly be. Looking side to side and stretching out his arms, Alain struggled to free himself from the mob. Something struck his leg, and he staggered. Booted feet hit the ground around where he fell, and he tried to shield his head. Someone stepped on his left hand and his wrist snapped. He cried out in pain and curled on his side to protect his wounded arm and his ribs and belly. He might survive the fire, but if he couldn’t get back on his feet, he’d be trampled.
Boyce. Alain lifted his head to answer him, but something struck his chin and he tasted blood. He wanted to tell Boyce to get to the children, get their people to safety, and he tried to push himself up on his elbow as people ran past him, oblivious to or uncaring of him huddled on the ground. When he attempted to push himself up on his hands and knees, his shattered wrist gave out and he fell facedown in the mud and ash. A sharp pain burst across his cheek and the back of his head, and churned-up soil filled his mouth.
“Alain!” Boyce sounded frantic, his voice frayed and tearing as he screamed.
Boyce. Alain tried to answer, but he was so tired, so weak, and he couldn’t dam the glittering darkness oozing in at the edges of his vision.