Speaker of the Crainnh
Drwyn set a torch to his father’s tent at dusk, in accordance with tradition. The flames licked at the painted leather tentatively, as if savouring a strange new food, then found their appetite and leapt up to devour it. In minutes the pyre was well alight, fire swaying and snapping in the perpetual east wind. He cast the stump of the torch into the blaze and stepped back from the searing heat. By morning, it would all be over.
A sigh rippled through the assembled clansmen. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the shadowy figures fall back, melting into the gloom amongst the huddle of tents as others came forward. Twenty warriors would stand vigil with him, one for each year of his father’s rule. They formed up in a rough circle around the pyre, faces stripped of identity in the sooty orange light, honed by sharp shadows. Spears upright before them, they would stand with him until the fire died or the sun rose.
The tent collapsed in a gout of flame, the old man’s body and the grave goods heaped around it now an unrecognisable huddle in the heart of the fire. When morning came, nothing would be left but ashes and a few bits of charred metal, shattered pottery. Little to show for a man who had led his people for two decades and seen them grow and prosper under him.
The last few years had been good to the Crainnh. The elk had flourished, bearing more calves than anyone could remember, and the rivers had run silver with fish. Even the winters had felt less cold, coming later and lingering less, though the plains were still snowbound for half the year.
Prosperity had made the waiting especially difficult for Drwyn. His father had remained in stubbornly good health, appearing to grow more vigorous not less as each winter passed. But Ytha had counselled him to patience, to bide his time and wait. Though it had taken another three years of Drwyn bowing his head and biting his tongue, he’d got his wish: the old buzzard had finally breathed his last between the thighs of a fifteen-year-old girl. Maegern had carried away his soul to the Hall of Heroes to sit at Her right hand and drink uisca from a silver cup, and now, at last, Drwyn would be chief.
In time, youngling, said a voice in the back of his head. All in good time.
Ytha watched him through the fire. Her gaze swept over his face like an icy wind, dissipating the heat-haze between them until her face was as clear as if she had transported herself to stand before him.
Drwyn blinked, startled, then ground his teeth at being caught out by one of her tricks. Sun-browned skin creased as one brow lifted and her lips quirked mockingly – as if she knew his secrets and the knowing amused her. He ground his teeth all the harder. He would not look away.
Ytha’s lips quirked again. She was laughing at him, blast her! By the Eldest, he would not stand for it!
Green eyes dulled to grey in the darkness fixed his, no longer showing any trace of amusement. They were hard as agates, sharp as frost. Remember who is the kingmaker here, Drwyn. The torc of the Crainnh is not yours yet.
He swallowed. Sweat prickled on his palms but he couldn’t move his hands to wipe them on his trews. Ytha’s presence in his mind was a weight pressing on his brain; he could no more disobey her than fly.
Better, she said. You must be patient, my youngling. All things come in their season. Tomorrow you will be chief, and in time Chief of Chiefs. But not yet. You must wait for the fruit to ripen before you bite, else the taste is bitter and the fruit is lost.
Wavy hair, more white than ruddy, blew across her face. She lifted a hand to push it back and the starseed stone in her ring flared in the firelight, bright as a winter star. Then it winked out and her presence in his thoughts along with it.
Drwyn exhaled slowly. There he was, man and warrior, due to be named chieftain of the Wolf Clan in a few short hours. He shouldn’t be afraid of a woman. But everyone in the clan, his late father included, walked light and spoke soft around the Speaker. He could do no different. The powers she commanded froze the marrow in his bones.
And he needed those powers, as well as her counsel. No mistaking that; without her he would never be Chief of Chiefs. With her, anything was possible, and in the morning, it would begin.
The Crainnh celebrated Drwyn’s succession with a feast. Twenty elk were butchered and dressed for roasting and baskets of fish and fowl were caught by the hunters. Every woman in the clan baked or brewed or gathered her own contribution to the festivities. A huge fire was built on the ashes of the pyre,a round which the new chief, his war band and the clan elders raised their cups to Drw’s departed spirit before toasting the coming glories of his son.
Ytha, however, was frowning. Choice cuts of meat lay untouched in her bowl as she sat cross-legged on a cushion and watched the clanswomen serving bread and beer to their menfolk. She was watching one young woman in particular. Occasionally she sipped from her cup, but mostly she just watched.
With Drw and his dearth of ambition gone to ashes at last she should have been in a mood to celebrate, but she was not. This was only one obstacle removed; it did not guarantee that there would be no others, no further pits or deadfalls that could trip the most well-prepared plan and break its legs. Always, always she had to be wary of what might be hiding in the long grass.
Drwyn tossed a bone into the fire and scrubbed his greasy fingers on his trews. ‘What troubles you, Ytha?’
‘That girl, there.’ She nodded towards the indistinct figure passing around the far side of the fire, a basket balanced on her hip. ‘Do you see her?’
There was little to see, apart from a mane of brown hair and a light-coloured dress. ‘I see her,’ Drwyn grunted, reaching for his cup. ‘She was in my father’s bed the night he died.’
‘It was the bedding of her that killed him.’
‘So? My father took a dozen wenches like her after my mother passed. One of them had to be the last.’
There’d been plenty of women before his mother passed, too: casual tumbles, warm beds on cold nights, but none like this, offered for and won, and none he’d kept for so long.
‘She may be a threat to us, in the future,’ Ytha said. ‘She has an aura I cannot read.’
‘And that is dangerous?’ He laughed. ‘You’re starting at shadows.’
‘Maybe.’ Ytha tapped her cup against her chin and asked the question that had pricked at her all day like a thorn in her shoe. ‘What if your father had another son?’
‘Drw’s dead. All his sons are dead, save me.’
‘And he was dipping his daigh in her for two full seasons! What if she conceived?’ Ytha gestured towards the girl, who was handing out hunks of bread. ‘What if the girl is carrying?’
‘My father was too old for getting bastards,’ Drwyn scoffed. ‘Besides, what threat is a brat? I’d throttle it with one hand.’
‘I don’t doubt you could, assuming she let you anywhere near it. She’s only young, Drwyn, not stupid.’ Oh, the man was a trial, always acting, never thinking. He scowled at her rebuke and Ytha moderated her tone.
‘Age only weakens the stalk, not the spark in the seed,’ she said. ‘Ever since that girl became your father’s bed-mate, she’s shied away from me. If she bears a child, and enough of the captains think it’s Drw’s get, it could split the clan.’
The war captains had to be united in their acclamation of a new chief, just as the clan chiefs had to be united behind the Chief of Chiefs. Without that, all Ytha’s planning would be for naught.
‘Clan law, yes, I remember,’ he said with an impatient gesture, clearly irked at being reminded. ‘Can you tell if she’s going to crop?’
It was possible, but she’d need to delve the girl to be sure – and that one would not allow anyone to lay a finger on her if she thought she might be carrying the dead chief’s son. If only her aura could be read!
‘Yes, I can tell, but I have a better idea. If she is a threat, I would rather have her where I can watch her. I shall send her to you tonight. If you bed her a few times, we can pass off any child she might bear as yours instead of your father’s. You look enough like him to make it believable.’
Drwyn showed his teeth. ‘As I recall, she’s pretty.’
Not that a girl needed to be much more than passable to stiffen his daigh. In that, at least, he was his father’s son. ‘Oh, she is very pretty, Drwyn. Eyes the colour of bell-flowers and lips like ripe berries, just waiting to be plucked. You’ll enjoy her, I think.’ Ytha took a deep draught of beer. ‘It is time for you to speak to them. Remember what I told you.’
‘I remember well enough,’ he grunted and stood up. Sourness twisted his mouth as he gulped down the last of his beer.
She frowned. Drwyn did not like to be led; she had learned that much. But he even seemed unable to bear it well when it was for his own good. ‘Be careful, my chief.’ She spoke softly, deliberately.
He stared at her, sullen as any youth. His eyes were black in the firelight but hot, like embers. Tossing his cup onto the crushed turf, he made her a mocking little bow. ‘Yes, Speaker.’
Ytha lashed out, snatching hold of him with her mind. Bands of solid air tightened around his chest. He opened his mouth to speak and she squeezed the breath out of him.
‘Do not mock me, Drwyn. You know I can make you into whatever you want, but never forget that I can unmake you just as easily. Do you hear me?’
His dark eyes remained belligerent. Ytha tightened her grip. He struggled for air, his hands pinned to his sides by the grinding pressure of her weaving. His face had turned the mottled red of spoiled liver when finally panic overtook stubbornness and he dipped his head.
She released him and had the satisfaction of seeing him stagger a little. ‘Do you hear me?’
‘I hear you, Speaker,’ he gasped, sucking in great heaving breaths. Ytha selected a slice of meat from her plate and bit into it, leaning back on her arm whilst Drwyn’s colour returned to normal.
‘I am glad we understand each other now,’ she said. His expression was hard and flat, not in the least repentant. His eyes burned. She took another bite of meat. ‘I would hate to see anything go awry because of a misunderstanding.’
‘Nothing will go awry, Speaker. You can trust me.’
Drwyn bristled like a startled prickleback. ‘You can,’ he said harshly.
‘There will be no further misunderstandings between us?’
She finished the meat, watching him all the while. Despite the restless flexing of his hands his gaze was steady, holding hers without flinching. Not many in the Crainnh could do that – fewer still who would choose to, especially after tasting her displeasure.
Drwyn had all the fire of his father at that age. Quick-blooded, eager to prove himself, too impatient to be taught, but where the passing of time had sharpened her ambition, it had made Drw fat and old and content to leave things be, as long as they suited him. Now all her plans rested on the son to achieve what the father would not – if he ever learned to control his temper.
Ytha wiped her mouth and put her plate aside. Irritation flickered across Drwyn’s face when she picked up her cup and took her time drinking, her eyes never leaving his. One of the first steps to wisdom was patience, and by the Eldest she would teach him that, if nothing else.
When the cup was empty, she set it carefully on her plate and stood up, arranging her robes around her.
‘The war band is waiting, Speaker,’ he said at last, with gruff diffidence. ‘May I go?’
Ytha nodded. ‘You may. You know what to say to them.’
She extended her hand, her ring glittering in the firelight. Drwyn hesitated for no more than half a heartbeat before he dropped to one knee to press it to his forehead. She suppressed a smile. So the boy was capable of some restraint after all; such a shame he hadn’t demonstrated more of it over the last three years.
Ytha watched him walk back into the circle of firelight. His warriors were on their feet the instant they saw him, although some were less than steady and had to cling to their companions for support. Soon the Crainnh’s chief-to-be was lost in a shouting, back-slapping mob, roaring their praises to the night sky.
She did not stay to listen to the speech; she had heard it often enough in the last week as she made Drwyn recite it over and over again to be sure he knew it by heart. Besides, it would not take much to sway the Crainnh. Drw’s face was still fresh in their memories; a few fine words and familiarity would do the rest.
No, the real test would be at the Gathering, when the silver moon next rose new. Then he would have to speak before the other clan chiefs and it would take more than a family resemblance to bring them into line.
Still, that was a way off yet. The silver moon, the one they called the wanderer, had barely begun to wane; they had plenty of time. For now she had to fetch him a woman. Drawing her fur mantle around her, Ytha stepped out into the darkness.