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Iron Axe

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Iron Axe

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Author: Steven Harper
Publisher: Roc, 2015
Series: The Books of Blood and Iron: Book 1

1. Iron Axe
2. Blood Storm
3. Bone War

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Although Danr's mother was human, his father was one of the hated Stane, a troll from the mountains. Now Danr has nothing to look forward to but a life of disapproval and mistrust, answering to "Trollboy" and condemned to hard labor on a farm.

Until, without warning, strange creatures come down from the mountains to attack the village. Spirits walk the land, terrifying the living. Trolls creep out from under the mountain, provoking war with the elves. And Death herself calls upon Danr to set things right.

At Death's insistence, Danr heads out to find the Iron Axe, the weapon that sundered the continent a thousand years ago. Together with unlikely companions, Danr will brave fantastic and dangerous creatures to find a weapon that could save the world--or destroy it.


Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

The stable door creaked open and threw a painful square of sunshine on the dirt floor. Danr automatically flung up his free hand to shield his eyes. His other hand wielded a manure fork. A lone cow, kept in from pasture because of an injured leg, lowed nervously and shifted in her stall.

"Trollboy." Norbert Alfgeirson crossed heavy arms in the doorway. His patchy brown beard stuck out short and prickly, like last year's wheat stubble. "Get out here. Calf fell down the new well."

He left without waiting for a reply, leaving the stable door standing open, showing a large tree inexpertly carved on the outside of it. The square of morning sunlight hung there like a sharp-edged shield. Danr set the manure fork down with a grimace. He was tall enough that his head rapped the ceiling beams if he didn't take care, and his large hands bore the calluses of heavy work. His bare feet shuffled across the dirt floor, avoiding the bright square, though he was only putting off the inevitable. At the door, he lifted a battered straw hat from a peg and clapped it over wiry black hair, then screwed up his face, touched the tree, and stepped outside.

Sunlight slapped him hard. A dull ache settled into the back of his wide brown eyes despite the shading brim of the straw hat, and he squinted down at the ground, unable to give the clear spring sky even a glance. His wide-set toes clenched at the bare earth of the barnyard. The stories said sunlight turned the Stane to stone. Danr didn't quite believe that, but if the sun caused this much discomfort to someone whose mother was Kin and whose father was Stane, he could understand why the Stane supposedly hid under the mountain during the day.

"Over here, Trollboy!" Norbert called. He was the eldest son of Alfgeir Oxbreeder, the enormously successful herder of cattle and sheep who owned the farm where Danr was currently a thrall. "Move! I don't want this calf to break something because you dawdle."

Danr straightened his back and strode across the barnyard, away from the cool, inviting depths of the stable. Outside, the crisp, fresh air of spring rolled down the western mountains, bringing with it smells of flowers and new leaves and just a hint of snow from the heights. Alfgeir's generous herds lowed in stone-bound pastures in the distance, side by side with recently planted fields. The farm was in the lull of late spring, when calving, plowing, and planting were over and the season's first haying had not yet begun, so there was time for other work, such as repairing thatch, reinforcing fences, and digging a new well for the cattle. Norbert was standing at the latter, hands on hips. So far the well was nothing but a hole in the ground. A formidable pile of earth and rocks stood nearby, and Danr knew it would be his eventual job to move it. From below came a faint bawl.

Danr sidled up to the well, slumping his shoulders and hunching over out of long habit, though it did little to disguise the fact that he had a full head of height on Norbert. His shoulders were broader, his legs sturdier, and his skin swarthier than anyone else's on the farm. Danr's long jaw jutted forward, giving him a pugnacious look, and his lower canines were just a little too long. He had no beard, but wiry hair was making progress over his chest and back. Although he had just turned sixteen, he already had a barrel chest and heavy hands with thick fingernails. He quickly outgrew the castoffs Alfgeir's wife deigned to hand him, and his clothing was always patched and bursting at the seams. Compared to the fine wool tunics and well-cut trousers Norbert and his brothers wore, Danr was a shambling ragbag. His eyes, however, were wide and brown and liquid, and Danr's mother always said they were his best feature, but they were always hidden under his battered hat. In any case, no one seemed to notice his eyes. They only noticed he was that troll boy.

"Well?" Norbert said.

Danr peered down into the well and was just able to make out the form of the calf at the bottom, some fifteen feet down. It was up to its knees in muck. Danr glanced at the calf pen, where the young cattle were kept apart from the rest of the herd during the day so they wouldn't be injured by the larger animals, and knew what had happened. It had come to Norbert that morning to separate the calves from their mothers. He'd been careless and let one run after its mother, whereupon it had fallen into the well.

"It got away from the pen, then?" Danr asked, his voice low and quiet. Mother always said, "Be gentle, be soft-spoken, and people won't think you a monster."

"None of your business, Trollboy," Norbert snapped, confirming Danr's suspicions. "I should shove you down that well to join the calf and bury you with the rest of your filthy kind."

The insults stabbed his gut. He'd been hearing them for sixteen years, and it seemed he should be used to them, but like the sunlight that pounded at his eyes, he never adjusted. Each one was a pinprick, or a knife cut, or a spear thrust, and some days it felt as if he were bleeding to death. Other days, the wounds turned his blood to lava, and he felt he might burst out of his clothes from the anger. Anger he could never show, not even once. Thralls didn't get angry, no, they didn't. It wasn't fair or right, but when had the world ever been either, especially to his kind? His clothes felt tight and he worked his jaw.

"I'm sorry, Norbert," Danr said, eyes down.

Norbert punched him in the gut. The air burst from Danr's lungs, and white-hot pain slammed his stomach. He staggered, gasping. Anger flashed.

"I'm sorry, what?" Norbert snapped.

Danr had forgotten--Norbert had recently reached his majority. Danr forced himself to straighten, but not too much. Not so he was taller than Norbert. His gut ached. The monster inside him growled. He would have loved to punch back, but of course he did not. "Yes, Carl Alfgeirson."

"What is it? What is happening now?" Alfgeir Oxbreeder hurried over. He was an older version of his son, with thinning brown hair, a bushier beard, and a heavy nose. His fine leather overtunic and thick wool breeches bespoke his success as a farmer, as did the silver buckles on his boots and at his waist.

"This fool let one of the new calves fall down the well," Norbert said.

"What's this, what's this?" Alfgeir peered down the well. "Trollboy, if that calf is injured or killed, I'll add more time to your bonding."

"I--" Danr began, but Norbert made another fist behind Alfgeir's back, and the words died. Norbert smirked. Anger beat a war drum inside Danr, and he ached to smash that smirk. He clutched with shaking hand at the small pouch with two splinters in it that he wore on a thong around his neck. Both pouch and splinters had belonged to Danr's mother, the only legacy she had left him.

"They expect you to be a monster," Mother said. "Don't give them satisfaction."

Danr closed his eyes, trying unsuccessfully to make the anger and resentment disappear. His father was a troll, his mother a human, and for that terrible crime, both he and his mother had been banished to the edges of village society. Carl Alfgeir Oxbreeder had reluctantly agreed to accept Mother as a servant in his hall, but caring for Danr had brought expenses that had quickly put her in Alfgeir's debt. Before Danr's fifth birthday, he and Mother had both become thralls to the Oxbreeder farm, one step above slaves. No amount of hard work kept them fed and clothed without more debt, thanks to Danr's enormous appetite. Danr continued his grip on pouch and thong. It was unfair, but that was how the Nine ran the world. It didn't matter what a thrall thought. He told himself that over and over, trying to make himself believe it.

"I'm sorry, Carl Oxbreeder," he said at last.

"You'll have to pull it out," Alfgeir said. "As the saying goes, 'The price of foolishness is hard work.'"

"I can't do it alone, sir," Danr pointed out. "Norbert will have to help."

Norbert's face grew red and he drew back his fist again, but Alfgeir stepped between them. "Let's just get that calf out." Alfgeir turned to Norbert. "So, howdid it fall in, then?"

He had already asked that, and it was clear he was giving Norbert another chance to come clean. Danr looked sideways at the young man. At eighteen, Norbert was only two years older than Danr, and when they were kinderlings, Danr had followed Norbert around like an oversize puppy. They had played Troll-in-the-Wood (Danr was always the troll) and fished in the brook and built a castle out of logs and stones. People called Danr Norbert's pet, and they chuckled indulgently. But as they grew, Norbert became less interested in games and more aware of Danr's status as a thrall--and a troll. These days it was as if they had never been friends and were instead a breath away from a blood feud.

Norbert ran his tongue around the inside of his cheek, and Danr held his breath. It would be such a fine thing if Norbert, just this once, would be his friend again, like when they were boys.

"I told you," Norbert growled. "It's Trollboy's fault."

Alfgeir sighed. Danr could see that he knew the truth, but he wasn't going to side with a troll. "All right. On your head be it, Trollboy, if the creature's injured."

The calf bawled again, its voice barely audible above ground. Alfgeir took up a coil of heavy rope. "Climb on down."

"Me, sir?" Danr said in surprise. "I thought you wanted me to pull it up."

"I'm not climbing down there," Norbert scoffed. "It's muck to the knees, and these boots are almost new."

Danr didn't bother to protest. There was no point. Instead he squatted at the edge of the well and lowered himself into darkness, where he hung by one hand for a moment with easy strength before he let go.

The floor of the well and the bawling calf rushed up at him. Danr managed to twist and land beside the calf with a great splat in the mud at the bottom, though his jaw came down across the calf's back. His teeth crashed together and he saw stars.

"You didn't hurt the calf, did you?" Alfgeir demanded from above.

"No, Carl Oxbreeder." Danr spat out a mouthful of blood, then pushed himself upright in the cool darkness. The wild-eyed calf bawled, and the sound boomed against the earthen sides of the well. It was actually nicer down here, despite the mud. Danr felt more at ease when he was surrounded by earth or in an enclosed space. He supposed it was his troll half speaking. The pain in his jaw faded somewhat. He scratched the calf's neck and ears.

"You're a pretty one," he murmured. "Everything's fine now. We'll get you out, no need to worry."

The calf calmed. It was covered in mud. Danr sniffed the air. The only way to clear cow manure out of a well was to let the water sit untouched for several months, and that would be disastrous, especially if Alfgeir took it into his head to add the time to dig yet another well to Danr's bonding. But he smelled nothing. That was a small blessing, thanks be to the Nine. He looked up. Even when it was full day above, the sky always looked velvet dark from the bottom of a well. Danr had no idea why. He could even see stars. The fleck of brightness that was one half of Urko shone directly above him. The star that was Urko's other half had moved just into the well's horizon, ready to join with its opposite. Urko, the traitor Stane who joined the Nine Gods in Lumenhame, and had then been sliced in two by his brother Stane for his trouble. Now his right half lived in Lumenhame with the Nine and the left half lived in Gloomenhame with the Stane, and each side thought the other half spied for it. Only once every hundred years did they rejoin, and the two stars showed it in the sky.

"Where does Urko really live?" Danr asked when Mother had first told him that story. "With the Stane or with the Nine?"

"The story doesn't say," she had replied. "I suppose you have to decide for yourself."

The knotted end of a rope hit him in the face. "Let us know when you're ready, Trollboy," Alfgeir called.

With a sigh, Danr set to work tying the rope in a harness around the calf. It wasn't easy in the narrow, wet space. Mud squished up to Danr's shins, slowing him further. The calf struggled, and more than once Danr had to stop work to calm it.

"What's taking so long?" Norbert shouted down at him. "You're dawdling on purpose to get out of real work."

Danr ground his teeth and kept at it. The knots had to be done just right. If they came undone, the calf might fall on Danr and injure itself. His hands, soaked in muddy water, grew cold, and the rope became stubborn beneath his fingers. The calf continued its restlessness. At last, however, Danr had it in a rough harness.

"Ready!" he called, and tugged on the rope. It tightened, and the calf came free of the mud with a sucking sound. A surprised expression crossed its face as it rose toward the stars like a strange sacrifice. It reached the top, where Alfgeir and Norbert hauled it to safety.

Danr waited a moment, and when nothing was forthcoming, he called up, "Could I have the rope?"

Norbert poked his head over the edge. "We're undoing these stupid knots you tied. Anyway, you're too heavy. Climb up yourself."

The monster snarled inside him again. Danr clutched the pouch at his neck. His mother's soft voice always came back to him better when he did. "Don't give in. Don't give them an excuse to hurt you. Don't let the monster out."

"Yes, Mother," he whispered.

He dug hands and feet into the sides of the well, his stony fingers biting into the stiff earth, and climbed toward the upper world. It was hard work. All his strength was in his arms and legs, but this used his wrists, and fiery aches burned in his hands by the time he reached the top. Gasping, he grabbed the rim of the well to haul himself over the top.

"I'll teach the troll some respect, Father." Norbert stamped on Danr's fingers. More pain lanced through Danr's hand. He let go with a yelp and landed heavily in the cold mud.

"Norbert," Alfgeir said mildly at the top, "I don't want you abusing the thralls this way. If you injure him, he won't be able to do his work."

"Sorry, Father." Norbert didn't sound sorry in the least. "I did make him get the calf out."

"Good work, that," Alfgeir said.

Danr levered himself out of the mud, worked his jaw back and forth, and set himself to climb again. There was nothing else to do.

When he finally pulled himself dripping out of darkness, the sunlight slashed his eyes and drilled through his skull. His hat was gone, lost below. He grunted and tried to shield himself with one arm, but the sun's rays thrust sharp pain straight through him.

"Where's your hat?" Alfgeir tutted. "Honestly, Trollboy, you can't keep track of even the smallest thing. Here."

He laid his own broad-brimmed hat on Danr's head, and the pain abated somewhat. "Thank you, Carl."

"I'll add it to your bonding," Alfgeir said. "As the saying goes, 'A worker is worth his wages, and the wages must be worth his work.'"

Danr touched the brim of the hat. It was old and battered and too small for him, and he had the feeling Alfgeir would add the price of a brand-new hat to his bonding. But he only said, "Yes, Carl Oxbreeder."

"Go wash up," Alfgeir said. "And then I want you to run an errand."

Danr blinked. An errand? That was unusual. Errands were choice, easy jobs that granted a chance to leave the farm for a bit. Danr was never chosen to run errands. He always did heavy or smelly work, like cutting stone or dragging trees or spreading manure on the fields.

"Yes, Carl," he said, letting himself feel a little excited. Maybe today wouldn't turn out so bad after all. He trotted across the farm toward the main well.

Alfgeir's farm sprawled at the foothill bottoms of the Iron Mountains, meaning no one lived above them and there was plenty of free pasture in the hills for cows and sheep while Alfgeir's family and thralls farmed the flatter land below. Because Alfgeir was wealthy, his long, L-shaped thatched hall stood apart from the stables, unlike poorer farmers who attached animal housing to their homes for the added warmth. There was even a separate hall for the servants and thralls across a courtyard paved with mountain stones. Danr, however, lived in the stable, which was an enormous longhouse shaped like a giant log sunk into the ground. The building was less than three years old--the original had burned down two summers ago. Fortunately Danr had managed to get most of the cattle out, and only six had died. This hadn't stopped Alfgeir from blaming Danr for the entire incident and adding the cost of the lost cows and a new stable to Danr's debts. It didn't matter to Alfgeir that the new stable was almost twice as large as the old or that Danr had done the work of five men during the construction--Alfgeir said Danr's debt was for the full cost of a new stable. It seemed to Danr that his debt should have been for the cost of rebuilding the original and Alfgeir should have shouldered the difference for a bigger one. But Danr kept quiet. He could have taken his case to the earl--even a thrall had rights--but then he thought of facing all those staring eyes in the public arena. And how likely was it that the earl would rule in favor of a troll? So Danr had silently accepted the additional debt and with it, the burden of anger whenever he thought about the new stable walls.

The farm's well was equipped with a windlass and an enormous bucket that only Danr could lift when it was full. He hauled it dripping from the depths and simply poured it over himself, repeating until the water ran clear. His ragged clothes were the only ones he owned, and he went barefoot even in winter, so he had nothing to change into. At least he would dry soon enough in the hurtful spring sunshine.

Hunger rumbled in Danr's belly. He sighed. He was almost always hungry, and whenever he ate more than a grown man, Alfgeir added the difference to his bonding, which meant Danr had to do extra work to have it removed, which in turn made him hungrier. It was a spiral he didn't know how to break. Perhaps today he could slip away during the errand and go fishing. A salmon or even a trout, spit and roasted over a little fire, would go a long way in quelling the eternal emptiness inside him.

A shrill whistle caught his attention. Alfgeir was waving to him from one of the paddocks near the stable. Danr clapped the ill-fit hat back on his head and lumbered over. A young bull, barely into adolescence, was tied in the paddock.

"Take this animal to Orvandel the fletcher," Alfgeir said. "He lives on the outskirts of Skyford, and I owe him a debt. If you hurry, you can make it to his house and back before dark."

Danr eyed Alfgeir uneasily. A chance to go into the city was definitely a choice errand, something Alfgeir's sons would fight over. Why was Alfgeir sending Danr? The offer rang false.

"Are you sure you don't want to send Norbert, Carl Oxbreeder?" he temporized. "Or Tager? They might--"

"I didn't ask your opinion, Trollboy," Alfgeir said in a deceptively even voice. "I gave you an order."

He turned on his heel and stalked away.

Danr looked after him for a moment, then shrugged and lifted the handle on the gate. The bull lowed at him. On closer inspection Danr realized it was not a bull but a steer, newly castrated. The animal was brown and just came up to Danr's waist. Bones showed through skin, and Danr recognized it--the animal had recently recovered from a winter illness. This was repayment for a debt? The steer bawled again, and Danr reached out with a big hand to scratch the places where its horns would one day grow. It closed its eyes contentedly. Oh well. This wasn't his decision, and Alfgeir had handed him a chance to escape the farm for a few hours on a fine spring day. Why question it? Danr took up the steer's rope, and a few minutes later, they were both on the rutted road that led toward the city of Skyford.

The farm receded behind him, and the steer seemed content to follow without being coaxed or hauled. Trees lined the roads, forming boundaries between farms. Men and boys followed herds of cows around the fields, and their voices mingled with birdsong. Green grass had already filled the space between the ruts in the old road, and it was soft under Danr's feet. A good mood crept quietly over him, like a dog that had been kicked away but still wanted to please. Maybe one day Norbert would trip over his own feet and fall into a pile of manure, and Danr would be there to see it. Norbert would push himself upright, brown cow shit staining his beard, and everyone around him, including Danr, would enjoy a good, long laugh. Then Danr could dump cold water from the well over him, again and again and again. How would Norbert like that?

Danr had fallen so deep into fantasy that he was completely unprepared for the hooded figure that rose out of the undergrowth beside the road. The steer bellowed in alarm and tried to flee, but Danr tightened his grip on the rope and the steer jerked to a halt, almost twisting its head to the ground. Danr didn't budge. The figure's clothes were little more than rags and were bundled in awkward layers. It stepped out onto the road, a basket in one hand. A bit more gladness grew in Danr's heart, and he grinned a greeting.

"Aisa," he said. "I haven't seen you in days. You scared my steer."

"Apologies." Although the sun was quite warm, the low voice that drifted from the hood was muffled by multiple layers of scarf. "I was gathering greens and saw you coming down the road."

"I'm taking this steer to Orvandel the fletcher in Skyford," Danr told her proudly. "Alfgeir owes him a debt. Walk with me?"

"For a bit." Aisa's words carried an accent, exotic and exciting, though she had never said where she came from. All Danr really knew about her was that she was a couple of years older than he was, she had been a slave to the elves in Alfhame for something like two years, and now she was a slave to a man named Farek. Well, he knew that, and that seeing her always brought a little flutter to his heart, even though she never went anywhere without all her clothes wrapped around her. The most Danr had ever seen was a pair of brown eyes above a heavy scarf. It was enough.

"How does Mistress Frida treat you?" Danr asked as they walked.

"As she always has," Aisa replied, and changed the subject. "I came down to warn you."

Danr halted so quickly the steer bumped into him from behind. A little ball of tension turned cold in his stomach. "Warn me? Of what?"

"News just reached the village that the farm of the Noss brothers was attacked last night. House and stable were destroyed, and both Oscar and Olaf are dead."

Danr swallowed. The village lay between Alfgeir's farm and Skyford. Like Alfgeir, Oscar and Olaf Noss ran a farm that butted up against mountain wilderness. Every year they talked about expanding, but they never did, and their talk had become a running joke in the village.

"Why do you need to warn me?" he asked, though he had a feeling he knew the answer.

"It is rumored," Aisa said slowly, "that someone found enormous tracks among the ruined buildings. Troll tracks."

CHAPTER TWO

Acold finger ran down Danr's spine, bump by bump. "By the Nine," he whispered.

"You know who they will blame," Aisa said.

His hand tightened around the halter rope. Oh, he knew. He knew down in the place where his guts coiled inside his belly. He also knew the only good way to Skyford took him through the village and past a hundred hard and angry eyes. True, he could leave the road, but that would send him tramping through freshly planted fields and earn him more anger.

Maybe he should just go back to Alfgeir's farm. But no--Alfgeir had made it clear that he was to take the steer to Orvandel in Skyford, and Alfgeir would be Vik-all furious if Danr returned, errand uncompleted. No matter what he did, someone was going to be angry at him. The Nine were laughing while they pegged his tenders to a wall. It seemed to be his lot in life.

With a heavy sigh, he wrapped the rope around his knuckles, straightened his back, and tromped resolutely forward. It was what you did, even when it hurt.

"What are you doing?" Aisa hurried to catch up. "Trolls have not come down to the village in living memory. They all believe that you have somehow brought them down upon us."

"Yes, and?" he growled. "I should at least get my work done in the bargain."

"They may come after you. They will come after you."

"And they'll throw things, I suppose, but I have a thick skin."

"The skin around your body is thick," Aisa said, falling in beside him, "but what about the skin around your heart?"

There was nothing to say to that, so Danr trudged on in silence, every step taking him closer to the village. His earlier fine mood was a wreck. After a moment, Aisa reached over and gave his forearm a little squeeze. Her fingers left a warm print on his skin. He didn't slow down, but he felt a little better. A lot better. Aisa could do that for him, and she seemed completely unaware of how incredible this small power was for him. She made his life bearable, even happy, though he couldn't find it in himself to tell her. A troll simply didn't have the words.

Farek had bought Aisa from a slave dealer who trucked with the elves from Alfhame in the southeast. Something about the elves forced humans to adore their masters. Human slaves needed their elven masters the way a drunk needed ale, and the worst punishment a slave could endure was to be sold away from the keg.

Aisa had never said what awful thing she had done that made her owner decide to punish her with exile, and Danr, sensing the pain involved, had never asked. He could never cause Aisa pain.

Everyone in the village, however, knew exactly why Farek had bought Aisa, and everyone knew what he did with her in his stable at night, and everyone knew that Farek's wife, Frida, hated him for it. Frida couldn't do much to Farek, so her red and cruel anger found the next best target--Aisa herself. Danr knew without being told that Aisa wrapped herself up to hide the bruises, and the thought of those bruises made Danr angrier than anything Norbert might do, and he had to work hard indeed to keep his temper to himself whenever he saw Farek in the village. It was one of many reasons he kept to himself as much as possible.

They crested a slight rise, and the outer ring of village houses came into view. They were similar to Alfgeir's--long, rounded structures half-buried in the ground as if huddling for warmth, their wattle-and-daub walls covered in a blanket of whitewash. Every door had a tree carved or painted on it, some expertly, some crudely. The village was too small to have a name. Ordinary gossip got around quick, while bad gossip rushed fast enough to break its own neck. If Aisa knew about the troll tracks in the Nosses' flattened house, everyone knew. More tension tightened Danr's stomach and his breathing came faster. Aisa gave his arm another soft squeeze and left the road. He knew why. Being seen with him would give Frida another excuse to reach for her birch rod, and there was no reason for both of them to suffer. The road felt empty with her gone.

He held his head high as he took the steer through the outer ring of houses. The road widened and dropped into ankle-deep mud that sucked cold at his feet. The usual chickens and pigs rooted in the byways between the houses, and dogs barked at each other over fences about whatever it was dogs barked about. All the doors stood open to the fresh air and sunshine. A hammer clanked steadily against metal in Hagbart's smithy, creating a little echo against the throb of the sunshine ache in Danr's head, and the heavy smell of wood smoke hung beneath the painfully bright sky. Kinderlings, too young to work yet, chased each other up and down the main street, laughing as they ran. Adults walked, scurried, or bustled about their daily chores--until they saw Danr, anyway. Wherever he and the steer went, everything stopped. Bearded men in tunics and careworn women in dresses gathered in clumps, openly staring and whispering behind their hands. Danr knew all of them by name, but they acted as if he were a stranger. His face grew hot, but he walked on as if he hadn't noticed all those staring eyes. Elsa Haug, a thin woman wrapped in a blue shawl, snatched up her baby daughter and slammed her door.

Dozens of eyes followed him, and dozens of voices whispered about him. He caught words and phrases here and there.

"...monster..."

"...Noss brothers..."

"...filthy slut of a mother couldn't keep her legs together, even for a..."

"...his fault the trolls attacked..."

"...half-blood..."

"...the earl should just run him out of..."

He felt exposed and naked, and his skin shriveled against his body. The steer squelched through the muddy street behind him with unhappy hooves. Like Danr, it sensed tension in the air, and its eyes rolled. More than once it balked. If Danr had been human, with a human's strength, he wouldn't have been able to move it, but he forged ahead with a half troll's strength, and the steer had no choice but to follow.

Something cold and soft splattered the back of his head beneath his hat. Reflexively he spun. Several knots of people stood at a safe distance behind him with grim faces. Danr smelled cow manure, felt it ooze around his ears. Anger boiled away his fear, and his fingernails plowed furrows into his palms.

"Who threw that?" he shouted without thinking.

The people stared back. Then a young man--Egil Carlsson--spat in his direction.

"A piece of shit for a piece of shit," he growled.

Danr's muscles bunched and rolled like boulders beneath his patchwork tunic. Manure dripped a slimy trail down his back. The monster inside pushed him to make a step toward Egil Carlsson. Egil stiffened, and the villagers around him came quietly alert. That was when Danr noticed several of them carried axes, pitchforks, and carving knives. He wondered how many of them he could crush with a single blow.

"Don't give them the satisfaction or an excuse."

He stared at the people for a long moment, hands trembling. They stared back. It would be so easy to teach them a few manners, show them that he didn't deserve this. The monster made fists.

And after you beat them black and bloody, what then? he thought. Will you change their minds? And how long before the earl comes with his archers and his swordsmen? Mother was right. Never show the monster.

The villagers stood there, half-expectant, half-fearful. Egil stood resolute, and skinny Elsa Haug opened her door a crack. Then Danr deliberately turned and trudged away. His heart pounded and his back prickled, waiting for the next blow. Would it be more cow shit? Maybe it would be a rock, or even a knife. Ahead of him, the road leading out to the other side of the village lay empty. Everyone in the village was behind him. Vik's balls, he wanted to run, bolt for the open spaces, and leave the stupid steer behind. But he kept steady steps.

Danr passed another rounded white house, then another, and then he was at the village edge. No blows, no more turds. When the road faded into a pair of ruts with grass growing between them, he breathed a heavy sigh and glanced over his shoulder. The village lay behind him in a haze of smoke that clung to the thatching. Chickens squawked a long way off, and a flock of geese honked in someone's garden. No sign of an angry mob.

Danr left the road to find a stream, tied the steer to a tree, and plunged his head into crisp, cold water. He scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed until his ears were raw and he felt clean again. Then he rinsed out his tunic. A brown smear ran downstream. He sat back on his haunches, feeling abruptly tired. Errand or no errand, right then Danr wanted nothing more than a hot meal and his bed in the stable. Alone. But he pulled on his damp tunic, untied the steer, and continued up the road.

The hard sun dried his clothes, and eventually he felt warm again. The tension faded, and he felt a little relief, as if he had passed some kind of test, though the sun headache was returning. Well, considering what had happened at the Noss Farm, maybe it was best that he disappeared for a few hours. In the meantime, no reason he couldn't enjoy a little solitude.

The farms around the village faded into hilly woodland. Trees loomed over the road, cutting off the sunshine and easing Danr's headache. He remembered walking through the woods like this with his mother, Halldora, when he was little. They gathered berries and set traps for rabbits. And Mother told stories, fantastic stories of the Stane--trolls, dwarves, and giants--and of the Fae--elves, sprites, and fairies--and the Kin--humans, orcs, and merfolk. She spun stories of the Nine, the gods who watched over Ashkame, the Great Tree whose roots and branches twisted through every part of the world. She told him about Fell and Belinna, the twin god and goddess, and their eternal battles with the Stane, of the way Fell's iron axe, Thresher, flew from his hand like a steel whirlwind to slice off a giant's head. Danr always pretended he wielded Thresher, swinging branches at trees or boulders for the satisfying thwack.

Sometimes Mother sat on the ground and let Danr crawl into her lap, even though he was almost as tall as she was. She smelled of sweetgrass and sweat, and now those smells made him think of her. He remembered reaching up to touch the small ragged pouch that always hung around her neck. It fascinated him because Mother never took it off, not even to sleep or bathe.

"Is it magic?" he had asked.

"Of course not. The Kin lost their magic a thousand years ago when the Stane destroyed the Iron Axe and sundered the world. The Stane lost most of their power. Only the Fae kept theirs. Humans and orcs and merfolk haven't had magic in a long, long time."

Danr reached out to touch the pouch. "If this isn't magic, what is it?"

"Truth." She pushed his hand away. "That's the most potent kind of magic. Never forget that, my son."

And that was all she would say.

Other times, the village women came to the stable to have their fortunes read. Mother was awful at reading fortunes. The problem wasn't that her predictions never came true--the problem was that they always came true. Danr knew because he scrunched up in a cow stall whenever she did it so he could listen. When Lorta, wife to Hagbart the smith, came during her third month of pregnancy to ask if her child would be a boy or girl, Mother touched the pouch at her throat and said Lorta would miscarry within two weeks. Lorta ran away in horrified tears, and who could blame her? But in ten days, Hagbart the smith was digging a tiny grave. When Henreth Ravsdottr came to ask if her intended fiancé, Jens, was cheating on her with another woman, Mother touched the pouch and told her Jens was not--he was cheating on her with Henreth's older brother, Kell. That had been a day.

Mother always told the truth. Always. It frightened people as much as it fascinated them. Danr himself learned early on not to ask questions he didn't want the answers to. No one likes the truth was one of Mother's favorite sayings.

But now Mother was gone, dead of coughing sickness the winter after Danr turned eleven. True, she worked in the house, but she lived in the stables, and they were rotten cold in winter. Danr begged Alfgeir and his wife, Gisla, to let his mother sleep by their big, warm fire instead of near the stable's tiny, damp one, but although Alfgeir and Gisla would eat Halldora's cooking and let her clean their house, they wouldn't let her share their pristine hearth, no, they wouldn't.

"A woman who beds an animal and whelps an animal must sleep with animals," Gisla snapped.

Mother's fever rose higher and higher while her cough grew weaker and weaker. Danr didn't know what to do. He finally coaxed one of the cows to lie beside her for warmth and pressed her shivering body against its fur while icy drafts stole in through the stable door and circled her pallet like hungry wolves. He couldn't keep them away, no matter how strong he was. The other cows calmly chewed their cud, unaware of the dying woman and the terrified boy in the stall next to theirs. Danr prayed to Fell and Belinna, to Grick, queen of gods and lady of the hearth, and even to Olar, the king of gods himself, pleading with them to spare his mother's life. He begged with all the fervor a boy could bring up. But just before dawn, Halldora shuddered once and went still.

Danr didn't cry when he wrapped her body in old rags and amulets to Halza that he carved himself. He didn't cry when he built her funeral pyre in the northern pasture. He didn't cry when no one, not even Alfgeir, came to help him hold the torch to the wood or watch the flames blaze to the sky. But when Danr came back to the stable and lay down in his stall, alone with the cows, then he cried.

Chains clanked, startling Danr out of the memories. Ahead of him on the road, a fierce-looking man in a black cloak rode a black horse. He led a line of humans cuffed to a long beam with bronze shackles on their feet. Another man in black rode behind them. Above the second man hovered a glowing figure whose shape seemed to twist. A sprite--one of the Fae come to oversee the slavers.

Fear settled over Danr. Even the monster inside him cowered. Swallowing, he pulled the steer several paces off the road to let the procession pass. A thousand years ago, just before the Sundering had cracked the continent, a number of the Kin had gone to war against the Fae--and lost. Now, more than ten centuries later, the Fae were still extracting tribute. Except they didn't dare take it from the warlike orcs, who would leap at the chance to make more war on the Fae, and they couldn't take it from the merfolk, who merely dove under the sea to avoid paying. And so the Fae took payment from the humans. With no magic of their own, and with the kingdom of Balsia scattered and broken and unable to stand up to a united Alfhame, there was no way for the humans to stop them.

And it was worse. The Fae had an appetite for slaves that ran beyond the numbers negotiated for tribute. They bought yet more, every human slave they could get their hands on, and many a human became rich selling his own kind to the slavers of Alfhame.

No one knew how the Fae chose their tributes, but if the slavers descended on your house in their raven-black cloaks and knocked bony fingers on your door, there was nothing you could do, no, there wasn't. Whispers persisted that it was the worst luck to be on the streets when the slavers arrived. At least Danr was a troll, and immune to slavers. Probably. Possibly. Danr's hands were cold and he could feel the chains around his own wrists.

The sad procession clanked by. Exposed and frightened, Danr kept his eyes down. He desperately wanted to abandon the calf and run, but that would only call attention to himself. Besides, if the Fae chose him, he would have to go, and that would be that. No human could resist the Fae glamour, and the law forbade resistance in any case. Danr's heart beat fast and he tried to tell himself that the Fae didn't take Stane back to Alfhame, but how did anyone know that for sure?

Bronze clanked. Someone choked back a sob. Danr told himself not to look, not to see, but the more he tried, the harder it became, and finally he couldn't help peering up under the brim of his hat.

He stared at his own self. A second Danr was standing at the edge of the road, jaw jutting pugnaciously forward. Danr yelped and scrambled backward. The second Danr gave a high-pitched giggle that raised the hair on the back of Danr's arms.

"Stane!" it laughed. "The bane of Lumenhame!"

The second Danr leaped into the air and twisted back into the glowing form of the sprite who had been following the second slaver. Terror swept Danr. The second slaver snapped the reins on his horse but made no other acknowledgment. Danr wanted to run, but his feet wouldn't go. He looked at the slave train while the sprite giggled at him again.

The train was nearly past, and the people wore expressions of fright or resignation or simple sadness. A boy no more than thirteen or fourteen years old met Danr's eyes with his own, and he felt the boy's pain and fear until the chains yanked him forward. He wanted to help, but what could he do? He saw slaves every day. Aisa was a slave. They were part of the world. That didn't make it right or fair, but he of all people knew the world didn't run fair. Still, why had the Nine given him so much strength if he wasn't supposed to use it?

Still panting, Danr forced his gaze down again, but the image of the boy's blue eyes stayed with him.

The slaver bringing up the rear halted his horse. "You there!"

Danr's heart stopped in his chest, and his bowels loosened. The Fae wouldn't be kind to a Stane in their midst, of that he had no doubt. But he forced himself to bring his head up. "My lord?"

Now the slaver caught sight of his face. "Vik's balls! Did your mother get beaten with an ugly club before she whelped you?"

Danr didn't answer. He had long ago learned that the only answer to taunts was simply to remain silent. The slaver laughed at his own joke, and it suddenly occurred to Danr that he could probably yank the man from his horse and break his traitorous neck before he even understood Danr was moving. The other slaver was only one human, far weaker than Danr, and the sprite was tiny. How hard would it be? The slaves would go free and Danr would be a hero.

Until the Fae missed the slave shipment. Until the Fae sent more slavers to this district and took more slaves as punishment. Until they used their magics to uncover who had broken the tithe law. And anyway, Danr wasn't any kind of hero. He was a troll and a thrall. He looked down again.

"Is this the road to Rolk's Fork?" the slaver continued.

Danr blinked. "Yes, my lord."

"How long to get there?"

"Two days."

"You're not as dumb as you look." He flipped a copper coin at Danr, who caught it without thinking. "Go whelp some children, boy. The elves always need strong backs."

He wheeled his horse and rode away. The last thing Danr saw was the boy trudging away under the shimmering sprite. Danr watched the train go, feeling relieved and also feeling guilty that he felt relieved. Someone always had it worse, didn't they? And he had done nothing to help. The Nine were cruel even when they were being kind. Danr turned and trudged in the opposite direction, hauling the steer.

The woods ended, and Danr now followed the road through another mile or two of carefully cultivated fields until he came to Skyford. The city was large, considerably larger than Danr's home village, and surrounded on three sides by a stone wall with a blocky keep that glared down from the center. That was where the earl lived. Skyford had spilled over the original walls generations ago, and a palisade of heavy logs scored a second wall some distance outside the stone one. The fourth side bordered a river that wound down from the mountains. Danr caught a ripe whiff of fish on the breeze as he approached town. Two other roads converged here to enter Skyford proper through a gap in the palisade. Oxcarts and wagons lumbered in and out, as did a number of people. Many of the latter turned to stare when Danr got close enough. Danr felt self-conscious again, but he made himself walk forward, the steer trailing behind. In the distance, he heard a woman weeping. No doubt she had lost someone to a slaver.

Danr had been to Skyford several times--it was the closest place to sell cattle and crops, and the Oxbreeder family drove a nice herd to the town every year for sale and slaughter. The Oxbreeders, wealthy and respected, usually visited the earl on these trips, but Danr wasn't allowed inside the keep. He stayed with the cattle, and where else?

When Danr arrived at the city gate, he noticed over a dozen people staring at him from oxcarts, the street, and doorways of nearby houses. All his life, people had stared and whispered, but he never really got used to it. He wanted to pull the stupid, too-small hat over his face and melt into the ground under all those eyes.

A young man barely sixteen stood guard at the gate. He watched the traffic in and out with a bored expression until he caught sight of Danr. The boredom fled his face and he gripped his spear more tightly. Danr sighed. Did the guard think Danr was going to attack him here under Rolk's own sun? The young man's expression hardened when Danr stopped, and his fingers grew white around the shaft of the spear. People stopped and stared, unabashed.

"Can you tell me," Danr said quietly, "where I can find Orvandel the fletcher? I'm supposed to deliver this steer to him."

"You can speak?" the guard blurted in surprise.

A tiny sting pierced Danr's heart at the guard's thoughtless insult. "Do you know where Orvandel lives?" he asked.

The young guard grabbed a child in a page's uniform by the arm and whispered something in his ear. The boy scuttled away.

"Sir?" Danr said. "If you don't know where the fletcher lives, I can--"

"F-follow the main road until you come to a crossing," the guard said. "His house is on the corner, the one closest to the river."

Danr nodded his thanks and led the steer into town. It must be nice to be a cow. Cows didn't care if anyone stared at them or whispered behind their backs. It didn't matter who led them or where they were going.

Skyford was prosperous, and the streets were paved with logs sawed in half lengthwise and laid bark-side down. It made for a bumpy road, but it also cut down on the mud. The houses were similarly built of logs, and many sat on heavy, shoulder-high stilts in case the river flooded. The areas beneath were used as pigpens or chicken coops. People crowded the byways, but everyone stared at Danr and made way for him. Usually when Danr came into Skyford, he was surrounded by a herd of cattle, and people took less notice of him, but today was different. Danr sped his steps, concentrating on his goal and trying to close his ears to the whispers that rose behind him like a flock of bats.

An arrow skewered the log at his feet so suddenly it seemed to have sprouted there. Danr jumped backward with a yelp and bumbled into the steer, who bawled. Laughter burst all around them. Danr scrambled to unsnarl himself as best he could and regain his balance beside the half-panicked steer.

"Playing with your lunch, Trollboy?" White Halli, the earl's son, sat on a roan horse a dozen yards away, a bow in his hands and a quiver on his back. He was twenty-two--six years older than Danr--and his white-blond hair gleamed like a sword in the spring sunlight. Halli was tall, though not as tall as Danr, with ice-blue eyes and a whipcord build of flat muscle. His rich blue tunic was dyed to match his leggings, and a blade hung from his belt. The two men who rode beside him bore swords as well, and axes hung from their saddles. Danr eyed them with wordless apprehension. White Halli was the last person he wanted to see right now. Automatically his eyes darted left and right, looking for a distraction or a place to run to. But he wasn't on home ground, and he saw no sanctuary. Even the laughing crowd was sidling away. Whatever entertainment Halli might create with the troll's boy wasn't worth the chance of being caught up in it.

"Take your hat off when you're in the presence of the earl's son," Halli snapped.

Danr removed his hat with one hand, the other still tightly clutching the steer's rope. The sun smacked his eyes and drove a spike of pain through his head.

"I heard you'd come to town," Halli continued. "You saved me the trouble of hunting you down."

"What for?" Danr asked, then added, "My lord."

"You know what for," Halli replied easily.

"No. I don't." Danr did, of course, but he wasn't going to allow Halli to get away with a silent accusation. A steady loathing for the man grew black and harsh behind his eyes and he let it show in his face, even if his words remained civil.

A year ago, to give Halli something to do, Earl Hunin had put Halli in charge of keeping order in Skyford. Now Halli patrolled, and the damp cells under the keep grew crowded. So far, crimes seemed to include walking the streets too late at night, public disturbance (which included singing in front of taverns), and owning a poorly shod horse. Rumors slid about like shadows, whispering that Halli was deliberating building up a source of conscripts for the army, even though Earl Hunin had no desire to make war against anyone.

In his patrols, Halli often came across Danr. Danr, who had accidentally stumbled across Halli going after his cousin Sigrid during the cattle fair five years ago and who had been called, shaking and stammering, into a private conference with the earl. Danr was a mere thrall, so his word meant little, and Halli had simply called Sigrid a liar. It had ended with Halli's marriage to a pliable merchant's daughter while Sigrid had been sent south, far away from her family. The sickness of Halli's presence made Danr feel cold and slimy at the same time.

"You'll have to tell me, my lord, what I'm accused of," Danr said.

Halli pretended not to notice. "How like the Stane. Not half a brain among your entire race."

As before, Danr didn't respond. He merely stood there in his patchwork clothes, holding the steer's rope. Halli wanted an audience, but Danr wasn't going to play to one. Fortunately for Danr, the people on the street kept their heads down and went about their business, refusing to be drawn into Halli's street theatrics.

"The Noss brothers, you idiot!" Halli finally shouted. "You killed them and smashed their house last night."

"Are you sure this is true?" The monster inside Danr snapped, but Danr kept his voice even and quiet, though the mix of dislike and anger pushed more words out of him. "Or does the earl merely want to ask me questions about it? I'm sure the son of Earl Hunin wouldn't want to be wrong and look foolish in public. Especially after he failed to persuade the slavers from taking his people."

Halli's face went hard. The slavers had hit Skyford badly. Not only that, but if Halli made a charge too quickly and turned out to be wrong, he would look the goose in front of his father. Danr had twisted Halli's investigation around and put him on the defensive.

Good, Danr thought.

"What do you know about the attack on the Noss brothers?" Halli asked quickly.

Danr spread his hands. "Nothing, my lord. I was at home asleep. I'm sure my master, the wealthy farmer Alfgeir Oxbreeder, who I believe dined with your father just a month ago, will tell you that I was at work until after sunset, and then I was asleep in the stable."

"With the other animals," Halli spat.

It would be so easy to leap at the horse, break its neck with a single blow, bring Halli down with a crunch of bone and spurt of blood. Danr started to make a fist. Halli smiled.

"Keep the monster inside," Mother said, "where it's safe."

He forced his fingers to the pouch at his throat and remained silent.

"Who can swear that you were in the stable all night?" Halli demanded.

"No one," Danr said. "But you can be sure, my lord, that if I had killed someone and smashed their house while everyone was asleep, I would also have taken care to find someone who would swear that I was a thousand miles away when it happened."

One of the other men on horseback snorted at that. Halli glared at him, and the man turned the snort into a cough. The steer at the other end of Danr's rope lowed in counterpoint.

"Of course you were alone," Halli said. "No one would spend the night with a troll. Except your mother."

"We'll have to ask your cousin Sigrid what that's like," the monster snapped before Danr could stop it.

Halli's expression went stiff as a corpse. A ripple went through the few people who were watching the exchange. The men who rode with Halli edged their hands toward their sword hilts.

Danr bit the inside of his cheek. The loathing drained out of him, replaced by the more familiar chill of fear. He had gone too far.

And then White Halli burst into laughter. The harsh sound of it bounced against the houses and was eaten up by the silence on the street. Halli swung a fist and thumped one of his men on the shoulder. The man also laughed, too loudly. The second hurried to join in.

"Empty words from the half-blood," Halli said. "You may go, Trollboy. But don't go far." With that, he cantered off, his two companions rushing to follow.

Danr's legs shook like sickened tree trunks beneath him. He wanted desperately to sit down, but there was nowhere to sit. The other people moved about as if nothing had happened, but news of the exchange would fly about Skyford faster than black ravens, and these events would come back to punch Danr later. Why hadn't he just kept his mouth shut?

Feeling more than a little nauseated, he put his hat back on and continued on his way. At the first crossroad he came to, he caught a glimmer of river water through the forest of houses. The house on the corner closest to it--Orvandel's house--was a tidy structure made of stacked logs and surrounded by a neat vegetable garden. Thick thatch covered the roof, and the Great Tree on the front door was an elaborate painting in bright colors. Pigs and chickens poked about beneath the house's platform, and a goat was tethered to one side. The home of a prosperous craftsman.

The front door stood open, and a gray-haired man sat in the threshold. A bundle of long, pale sticks lay on either side of him. The man ran a long, curved knife over a stick, carefully smoothing away imperfections. Orvandel the fletcher, making arrows. At Danr's approach, he blinked, then set aside his tools and trotted down the short flight of steps that led to ground level.

"I know who you are," he said. "You're a thrall of Alfgeir Oxbreeder."

Danr nodded, a little startled that Orvandel didn't seem to notice or care that Danr wasn't human. He stood aside so Orvandel could see the steer. "He told me to deliver this to you because he owes a debt."

Orvandel looked at the steer, and his face darkened. The change in his expression was abrupt, and Danr stepped back in alarm. Orvandel spat angrily at the ground, and the spittle landed on one of the animal's hooves. The steer chewed a mouthful of cud, uncaring.

"Bastard!" Orvandel growled. "That son of a bitch owes me two bulls or one cow. This scrawny bag of bones doesn't nearly pay off what he owes me."

Danr remained silent. There was nothing to say. Orvandel's revelation didn't surprise him. In Danr's experience, Alfgeir spent more time counting his herds than caring for them.

"Tether that... that thing next to the goat," Orvandel finally said. "And I guess you'd better come inside."

This did surprise Danr, with all the power of a boulder dropping from the sky. He had never been invited into anyone's house before. He stayed in the cattle paddock on the annual trips to Skyford, and in the village no one ever allowed him to cross a threshold. Danr slowly tied the steer to the goat's tether stake and climbed the wooden steps with great hesitation. Orvandel had already gone inside. Danr paused nervously at the doorway. Everything beyond was dark, though he could hear voices in the gloom, and he realized he had no idea how people behaved inside houses. What should he do? Bow? Offer to shake hands? Stand by the door with his hat off? Maybe he should just tell Orvandel he'd stay outside. But no--that would be rejecting Orvandel's offer of hospitality, an unthinkably rude act. Moving carefully to avoid the pile of half-made arrows, Danr took a deep breath and stepped inside.

CHAPTER THREE

His eyes took a few moments to adjust, but once they did, Danr stared in awe. Orvandel's house reflected his wealth. A long table ran the length of the main room, and freshly woven straw mats covered the floor. Beyond the table lay a stone-lined fire pit, where coals glowed red in the dim light. Freestanding screens partitioned off pieces of the room for private tasks. Tapestries hung from the walls, and the remaining exposed wood was elaborately carved in stylized leaves and animals, with an enormous tree looming over all. The interior smelled heavily of wood smoke and baking bread. What would it be like to call this place home?

A plump woman with silvering hair was adding wood to the fire. Three young men sat at the table behind piles of feathers. They were sorting them by size and type, a job that couldn't be done outdoors, where a random breeze could undo an hour's work in an instant.

"These are my sons," Orvandel said, gesturing at the young men. "Karsten and Almer. The one on the end there is my apprentice, Talfi. A foster son. Are you hungry from your trip?"

Danr's mouth went dry. It was hard to form words. No one had ever formally introduced him to anyone, let alone offered him food. He started to refuse the latter offer, then decided it might be rude.

"A bit hungry," he stammered, and remembered to snatch off his hat. "Yes."

"Ruta!" Orvandel boomed. "Food for our guest!"

"You needn't bellow," Ruta clucked. "I'm standing here, oh mighty fletcher."

"My wife, Ruta," Orvandel said unnecessarily. "She's the real one in charge."

"And right you are to remember it."

Orvandel gave her a fond smile. "Have a seat, young man. What did you say your name was?"

Danr glanced uneasily around the house, feeling like a cow in a palace. Orvandel and Ruta seemed to accept who... or maybe what... he was without a qualm, but Karsten and Almer kept uneasy eyes on him as they sorted through their feathers. Talfi, seated by himself at the end of the table, stared unabashedly. Danr finally perched on the edge of the bench that ran the length of the table.

Orvandel was looking at him expectantly, waiting for an answer to his question. Danr swallowed. Back at the village, everyone knew who he was and Danr had never had to introduce himself. For the first time in his life, he had a choice about which name he could use. Except the only person who had ever said Danr's name aloud had been his mother, and he kept that name to himself, hoarding it like a wyrm's treasure. If no one knew what it was, no one would be able to steal it or twist it into something cruel. Unfortunately keeping silent about his true name left him with a single alternative.

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Harper


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