The Warded Man: Book One of The Demon Cycle
the great horn sounded.
Arlen paused in his work, looking up at the lavender wash of the dawn sky. Mist still clung to the air, bringing with it a damp, acrid taste that was all too familiar. A quiet dread built in his gut as he waited in the morning stillness, hoping that it had been his imagination. He was eleven years old.
There was a pause, and then the horn blew twice in rapid succession. One long and two short meant south and east. The Cluster by the Woods. His father had friends among the cutters. Behind Arlen, the door to the house opened, and he knew his mother would be there, covering her mouth with both hands.
Arlen returned to his work, not needing to be told to hurry. Some chores could wait a day, but the stock still needed to be fed and the cows milked. He left the animals in the barns and opened the hay stores, slopped the pigs, and ran to fetch a wooden milk bucket. His mother was already squatting beneath the first of the cows. He snatched the spare stool and they found cadence in their work, the sound of milk striking wood drumming a funeral march.
As they moved to the next pair down the line, Arlen saw his father begin hitching their strongest horse, a five-year-old chestnut-colored mare named Missy, to the cart. His face was grim as he worked.
What would they find this time?
Before long, they were in the cart, trundling toward the small cluster of houses by the woods. It was dangerous there, over an hour's run to the nearest warded structure, but the lumber was needed. Arlen's mother, wrapped in her worn shawl, held him tightly as they rode.
"I'm a big boy, Mam," Arlen complained. "I don't need you to hold me like a baby. I'm not scared." It wasn't entirely true, but it would not do for the other children to see him clinging to his mother as they rode in. They made mock of him enough as it was.
"I'm scared," his mother said. "What if it's me who needs to be held?"
Feeling suddenly proud, Arlen pulled close to his mother again as they traveled down the road. She could never fool him, but she always knew what to say just the same.
A pillar of greasy smoke told them more than they wanted to know long before they reached their destination. They were burning the dead. And starting the fires this early, without waiting for others to arrive and pray, meant there were a great many. Too many to pray over each one, if the work was to be complete before dusk.
It was more than five miles from Arlen's father's farm to the Cluster by the Woods. By the time they arrived, the few remaining cabin fires had been put out, though in truth there was little left to burn. Fifteen houses, all reduced to rubble and ash.
"The woodpiles, too," Arlen's father said, spitting over the side of the cart. He gestured with his chin toward the blackened ruin that remained of a season's cutting. Arlen grimaced at the thought of how the rickety fence that penned the animals would have to last another year, and immediately felt guilty. It was only wood, after all.
The town Speaker approached their cart as it pulled up. Selia, whom Arlen's mother sometimes called Selia the Barren, was a hard woman, tall and thin, with skin like tough leather. Her long gray hair was pulled into a tight bun, and she wore her shawl like a badge of office. She brooked no nonsense, as Arlen had learned more than once at the end of her stick, but today he was comforted by her presence. Like Arlen's father, something about Selia made him feel safe. Though she had never had children of her own, Selia acted as a parent to everyone in Tibbet's Brook. Few could match her wisdom, and fewer still her stubbornness. When you were on Selia's good side, it felt like the safest place in the world.
"It's good that you've come, Jeph," Selia told Arlen's father. "Silvy and young Arlen, too," she said, nodding to them. "We need every hand we can get. Even the boy can help."
Arlen's father grunted, stepping down from the cart. "I brought my tools," he said. "Just tell me where we can throw in."
Arlen collected the precious tools from the back of their cart. Metal was scarce in the Brook, and his father was proud of his two shovels, his pick, and his saw. They would all see heavy use this day.
"How many lost?" Jeph asked, though he didn't really seem to want to know.
"?Twenty-seven," Selia said. Silvy choked and covered her mouth, tears welling in her eyes. Jeph spat again.
"Any survivors?" he asked.
"A few," Selia said. "Manie"-she pointed with her stick at a boy who stood staring at the funeral pyre-"ran all the way to my house in the dark."
Silvy gasped. No one had ever run so far and lived. "The wards on Brine Cutter's house held for most of the night," Selia went on. "He and his family watched everything. A few others fled the corelings and succored there, until the fires spread and their roof caught. They waited in the burning house until the beams started to crack, and then took their chances outside in the minutes before dawn. The corelings killed Brine's wife Meena and their son Poul, but the others made it. The burns will heal and the children will be all right in time, but the others . . ."
She didn't need to finish the sentence. Survivors of a demon attack had a way of dying soon after. Not all, or even most, but enough. Some of them took their own lives, and others simply stared blankly, refusing to eat or drink until they wasted away. It was said you did not truly survive an attack until a year and a day had passed.
"There are still a dozen unaccounted for," Selia said, but with little hope in her voice.
"We'll dig them out," Jeph agreed grimly, looking at the collapsed houses, many still smoldering. The cutters built their homes mostly out of stone to protect against fire, but even stone would burn if the wards failed and enough flame demons gathered in one place.
Jeph joined the other men and a few of the stronger women in clearing the rubble and carting the dead to the pyre. The bodies had to be burned, of course. No one would want to be buried in the same ground the demons rose out of each night. Tender Harral, the sleeves of his robe rolled up to bare his thick arms, lifted each into the fire himself, muttering prayers and drawing wards in the air as the flames took them.
Silvy joined the other women in gathering the younger children and tending to the wounded under the watchful eye of the Brook's Herb Gatherer, Coline Trigg. But no herbs could ease the pain of the survivors. Brine Cutter, also called Brine Broadshoulders, was a great bear of a man with a booming laugh who used to throw Arlen into the air when they came to trade for wood. Now Brine sat in the ashes beside his ruined house, slowly knocking his head against the blackened wall. He muttered to himself and clutched his arms tightly, as if cold.
Arlen and the other children were put to work carrying water and sorting through the woodpiles for salvageable lumber. There were still a few warm months left to the year, but there would not be time to cut enough wood to last the winter. They would be burning dung again this year, and the house would reek.
Again Arlen weathered a wave of guilt. He was not in the pyre, nor banging his head in shock, having lost everything. There were worse fates than a house smelling of dung.
More and more villagers arrived as the morning wore on. Bringing their families and whatever provisions they could spare, they came from Fishing Hole and Town Square; they came from the Boggin's Hill, and Soggy Marsh. Some even came all the way from Southwatch. And one by one, Selia greeted them with the grim news and put them to work.
With more than a hundred hands, the men doubled their efforts, half of them continuing to dig as the others descended upon the only salvageable structure left in the Cluster: Brine Cutter's house. Selia led Brine away, somehow supporting the giant man as he stumbled, while the men cleared the rubble and began hauling new stones. A few took out warding kits and began to paint fresh wards while children made thatch. The house would be restored by nightfall.
Arlen was partnered with Cobie Fisher in hauling wood. The children had amassed a sizable pile, though it was only a fraction of what had been lost. Cobie was a tall, thickly built boy with dark curls and hairy arms. He was popular among the other children, but it was popularity built at others' expense. Few children cared to weather his insults, and fewer still his beatings.
Cobie had tortured Arlen for years, and the other children had gone along. Jeph's farm was the northernmost in the Brook, far from where the children tended to gather in Town Square, and Arlen spent most of his free time wandering the Brook by himself. Sacrificing him to Cobie's wrath seemed a fair trade to most children.
Whenever Arlen went fishing, or passed by Fishing Hole on the way to Town Square, Cobie and his friends seemed to hear about it, and were waiting in the same spot on his way home. Sometimes they just called him names, or pushed him, but other times he came home bloody and bruised, and his mother shouted at him for fighting.
Finally, Arlen had enough. He left a stout stick hidden in that spot, and the next time Cobie and his friends pounced, Arlen pretended to run, only to produce the weapon as if from thin air and come back swinging.
Cobie was the first one struck, a hard blow that left him crying in the dirt with blood running from his ear. Willum received a broken finger, and Gart walked with a limp for over a week. It had done nothing to improve Arlen's popularity among the other children, and Arlen's father had caned him, but the other boys never bothered him again. Even now, Cobie gave him a wide berth and flinched if Arlen made a sudden move, even though he was bigger by far.
"Survivors!" Bil Baker called suddenly, standing by a collapsed house at the edge of the Cluster. "I can hear them trapped in the root cellar!"
Immediately, everyone dropped what they were doing and rushed over. Clearing the rubble would take too long, so the men began to dig, bending their backs with silent fervor. Soon after, they broke through the side of the cellar, and began hauling out the survivors. They were filthy and terrified, but all were very much alive. Three women, six children, and one man.
"Uncle Cholie!" Arlen cried, and his mother was there in an instant, cradling her brother, who stumbled drunkenly. Arlen ran to them, ducking under his other arm to steady him.
"Cholie, what are you doing here?" Silvy asked. Cholie seldom left his workshop in Town Square. Arlen's mother had told the tale a thousand times of how she and her brother had run the farrier's shop together before Jeph began breaking his horses' shoes on purpose for a reason to come court.
"Came to court Ana Cutter," Cholie mumbled. He pulled at his hair, having already torn whole clumps free. "We'd just opened the bolt-hole when they came through the wards . . ." His knees buckled, pulling Arlen and Silvy down with his weight. Kneeling in the dirt, he wept.
Arlen looked at the other survivors. Ana Cutter wasn't among them. His throat tightened as the children passed. He knew every one of them; their families, what their houses were like inside and out, their animals' names. They met his eyes for a second as they went by, and in that moment, he lived the attack through their eyes. He saw himself shoved into a cramped hole in the ground while those unable to fit turned to face the corelings and the fire. Suddenly he started gasping, unable to stop until Jeph slapped him on the back and brought him to his senses.
They were finishing a cold midday meal when a horn sounded on the far side of the Brook.
"Not two in one day?" Silvy gasped, covering her mouth.
"Bah," Selia grunted. "At midday? Use your head, girl!"
"Then what . . . ?"
Selia ignored her, rising to fetch a horn blower to signal back. Keven Marsh had his horn ready, as the folks from Soggy Marsh always did. It was easy to get separated in the marshes, and no one wanted to be wandering lost when the swamp demons rose. Keven's cheeks inflated like a frog's chin as he blew a series of notes.
"Messenger horn," Coran Marsh advised Silvy. A graybeard, he was Speaker for Soggy Marsh and Keven's father. "They prob'ly saw the smoke. Keven's telling 'em what's happened and where everyone is."
"A Messenger in spring?" Arlen asked. "I thought they come in the fall after harvest. We only finished planting this past moon!"
"Messenger never came last fall," Coran said, spitting foamy brown juice from the root he was chewing through the gap of his missing teeth. "We been worried sumpin' happened. Thought we might not have a Messenger bring salt till next fall. Or maybe that the corelings got the Free Cities and we's cut off."
"The corelings could never get the Free Cities," Arlen said.
"Arlen, shush your mouth!" Silvy hissed. "He's your elder!"
"Let the boy speak," Coran said. "Ever bin to a free city, boy?" he asked Arlen.
"No," Arlen admitted.
"Ever know anyone who had?"
"No," Arlen said again.
"So what makes you such an expert?" Coran asked. "Ent no one been to one 'cept the Messengers. They're the only ones what brave the night to go so far. Who's to say the Free Cities ent just places like the Brook? If the corelings can get us, they can get them, too."
"Old Hog is from the Free Cities," Arlen said. Rusco Hog was the richest man in the Brook. He ran the general store, which was the crux of all commerce in Tibbet's Brook.
"Ay," Coran said, "an' old Hog told me years ago that one trip was enough for him. He meant to go back after a few years, but said it wasn't worth the risk. So you ask him if the Free Cities are any safer than anywhere else."
Arlen didn't want to believe it. There had to be safe places in the world. But again the image of himself being thrown into the cellar flashed across his mind, and he knew that nowhere was truly safe at night.