For my wonderful readers who’ve been downloading my Whispers series and leaving awesome reviews – THANK YOU!!! Rankings for my Whispers books are climbing the charts thanks to my awesome readership. Because so many of you want to see the series continue, I will be getting book four ready soon. I will also have a special announcement about my upcoming Whispers partnership.
In the meantime, I’m working on a YA fantasy, Curse of the Ice Dragon. I began writing this about five years ago, before I became ill and I’d really like to finish. I’ve found out that world building in fantasies is a lot harder than it looks, LOL. It’s a rough draft. I might scrap the foreward, but what do you think?
A thick mist coated the night sky with an unforgiving chill that stretched the horizon for miles. The soft blanket of snow had turned to ice, leaving the ground barren, cold, unforgiving. All was quiet beneath the frosted pines. Even the glaciers surrounding the cragged peak of Ice Mountain seemed immobile. No soft wind carried the sounds of animals on the breeze. The only sign of life was a small log hut nestled in a deep valley beneath the mountain. A fire kindled within. But inside the cabin life was still. Breaths were hitched. Their faces masks of stone and worry.
A babe’s cry broke the silence.
The mother, having used the last of her strength for the final push, slumped against the sweat drenched furs, falling into a deep slumber.
Cradling the infant in a worn, but thick pelt, the midwife placed the bundle in the gnarled, weathered hands of the old prophet.
A cherubic face, crimson-flushed from crying, was nearly perfect in form and proportions. The only mar to his features was a scar, tracing from the corner of a tiny ear to the tip of his brow. It resembled the shape of a half-moon or of a hunter’s bow waiting to be drawn.
“The boy has the hunter’s mark.” The many lines around Dafuar’s pale stone eyes belied his age. The ancient healer and prophet was older than any of the villagers and maybe even older than the village itself. For his longevity alone, people sought his knowledge. But they feared him, too. Many of his dark prophecies had come true. After he’d predicted the great famine, villagers avoided him, fearing he’d not only prognosticated, but precipitated starvation and death.
To some, Dafuar was a bad omen.
But Rowlen refused to cower to foolish fears. He was a man, strong and brave. He’d brought Dafuar to his hut this night, hoping the prophet would bless the birth and cast a spell to ward off the sickness which had plagued his firstborn son.
A smile cracked the hardened shell that had coated the grim lines around Rowlen’s face. “Then the village shall celebrate, for my son will keep them well fed.”
Dafuar shook his head. “He must be taught humility or he will wield his power with destruction.”
Rowlen laughed, his booming voice shaking the stagnant air. “My son will be a great man, a fierce hunter.”
“A hunter need not be fierce to feed his people. His skills must be tempered with kindness and compassion.” Dafuar’s eyes softened, saddened, before he closed them altogether.
Rowlen knew Dafuar was lost in distant memories. Knew he would soon conjure up the old tale about the cursed hunter who was killed by the breath of the beast. The prophet had served him well this night, but he had no time for the old man’s foolish fairy-tales.
“Compassion is for the weak, old man. I have no use for weak words—or weak sons.” He shot a menacing glare at a small child crouching in the corner of the room.
The child blinked once, and then did not stir. He would have been invisible to the naked eye, so small and quiet was he, except for blinding tufts of pale blond hair that curled around his nightcap and wide watery eyes that shone with longing—and fear.
Scowling, Rowlen turned his back on his eldest son.
Only then did the boy resume the ragged rise and fall of his tiny chest. Struggling for each breath, he silently coughed into his palm, having learned to conceal any signs of his infirmity. The boy whispered thanks to the goddess that this night he’d been given a brother. In his short life-span, he’d not been blessed with strength or skill, but he’d been gifted with a wisdom and compassion beyond his four years. He prayed his brother would be compassionate, too.
He’d give his last dying breath to make certain the babe did not grow to become a monster.
“Wait up, you know I cannot run as fast as you.”
“We must hurry before father whips us for delaying his supper.” Markus threw a glance behind him, only to halt entirely as Alec, once again, had slowed their progression. Tossing his sling and the rabbit carcasses to the ground, he went to his brother. Although the onset of spring had thawed away most of the perilous icy freeze, his brother’s condition only seemed to worsen with each melting snow cap.
Alec clutched a hand to his chest, as he used his other hand to steady his slender frame against a pine tree. “We both know I will be the one whipped, not you.”
“Even more reason to make haste.” Markus grimaced, knowing his brother’s words were true. He could not understand why Alec was always the victim of their father’s heavy hand.
Perhaps father knew if he beat him instead, he’d risk injuring Markus’s drawback arm, and they’d have no more venison stew for supper.
Even so, Markus hated to see his brother abused. The red and purple splotches on Alec’s pale arms and back were daily reminders that Markus was the favorite child. He should have been grateful Alec imbibed all of their father’s wrath. But watching his brother degraded and hurt unleashed strange emotions in him. Anger welled up in his heart each day he witnessed Alec’s torment.
Anger at their father.
Anger at himself.
Wasn’t Markus destined to be a mighty hunter? A fearless leader? Hadn’t he already been providing the village with most of the meat for their tables? Yet when it came to his father, why hadn’t he the courage to stand up to him? To defend his brother.
Although Alec was nine and ten, and by all accounts, old enough to be a man, he had the physique of a juvenile boy, not strong enough to live on his own. So he was forced to endure their father’s wrath in exchange for a warm bed and food.
Hardly a life worth living.
But when Markus came of age, he’d make it up to his brother. They’d live in a hut of their own. He would hunt for Alec and give him all the choice meats. Alec would grow stronger and recover from his sickness.
“Do you wish me to carry you?” Standing over a head taller, he looked down as Alec coughed and wheezed through the rattle in his chest.
Alec looked up, glaring. “Carry me? Don’t be foolish. You cannot carry me and your kill.”
But carrying Alec would be easy work. By Markus’s thirteenth birthday, he’d been blessed with the strength and size of a full grown man. Now, two years later, he could toss his brother’s hollow bones over his shoulder in one sweep.
“I’ve carried stags heavier than you,” Markus laughed.
Pale orbs beneath Alec’s sunken sockets darkened as he sneered. “I just need a moment to catch my breath.”
Sometimes Markus marveled how Alec had lived to reach his nineteenth birthday. Each night he’d sent a silent thanks to the Goddess for his brother’s fortitude. For he truly did not know if he could go on living without him by his side.
Leaning against the tree, his voice softened. “One moment, then we must go. It is nearly time to eat, and I’ve not skinned the rabbits.”
A wolfish grin spread across Alec’s face. “Had you not stopped to spy we would not be delayed now.”
Markus felt the heat burst forth from his chest and flame his face. Dianna was his one weakness, and he silently cursed his brother for alluding to her. “I was not spying.”
Alec burst out laughing before giving into a fit of coughs. After his coughing subsided, he looked at Markus with a hint of mischief in his pale eyes. “What would you call it then?”
Folding his arms across his chest, Markus exhaled a breath of frustration. What was it about that girl that confounded him so? Despite his every effort to help her, she refused, paying him no more heed than the mold growing beneath her boot. Out of all the villagers, she should have needed his hunting skills the most. Her parents had been killed in an avalanche last winter, leaving her and her brother to care for themselves.
“The girl is stubborn. I was just making sure she and her brother do not starve.”
Alec shook his pale head. “I saw the skin of doe hanging from a nearby tree.”
“A small doe.”
Alec shrugged. “Tis all they need.”
“I could have killed her a bear.” Markus felt a surge of anger infuse his skull. Pushing away from the tree, he picked up the rabbits and marched toward home.
Girls were so foolish. Why did men see the use for them?
“They’ve no need for that much meat.” His brother called from behind while coughing through his words.
Storming through the darkened forest, he easily dodged the perilous, winding roots that snuck up from the ground, threatening to trip the hapless wanderer. But he’d traveled this path since he was old enough to draw back a bow. He knew he should slow his pace, but anger fueled his movements, and he was in no mood to be ribbed by his brother. It was not in Alec’s nature to tease him, unless the topic strayed to Dianna.
“She wastes her time on the hunt when all she needs is to ask me,” Markus growled while he trudged along the well-worn path to their hut.
“Mayhap she likes the hunt.”
Whipping around, Markus faced Alec, who’d remarkably been able to keep up with his stride. “She’s a girl,” he spat. “Girls do not like hunting.”
Folding his arms across his chest, Alec leveled him with a smug smile. “Is that so?”
Markus wasn’t sure he liked his brother’s cocky attitude.
Alec was the more intelligent of the two, for sure, and he needn’t be reminded of his wit. “What do you know about girls?”
Markus wished the venomous words back as soon as they’d slipped off his tongue. Despite his every effort, girls refused to pay Alec any heed. Maidens wanted strong husbands who would keep their family well fed. That’s why Markus had no shortage of admiring females. They practically flung themselves at his feet—well, except for Dianna.
“More than you, it would seem.” Alec snickered, evidently heedless of Markus’ attempts to silence him.
“You should have let me kill that stag,” he grumbled as he spied the clearing through the trees. “I would have left it at her door.”
“’Tis a good thing father does let me go on your hunts, otherwise you’d have killed the whole forest by now. Do not waste the lives of our woodland creatures.”
Markus rolled his eyes at the change in his brother’s tone. Sometimes, he acted more parent than sibling. “I do not need another lecture from you on preservation of species.”
“Where are those damn boys!”
The familiar roar sliced through the frigid air, sending shards of ice cold fear to the marrow of Markus’ bones.
Why did his father affect him that way?
Why did he allow his father to affect him that way?
“We are here, Father,” he called back, regretting the crack of fear that broke through his strained voice.
Trudging through a new growth of snake moss, he led the way toward their small hut. A fire kindled through the smoke-hole and freshly washed shirts and trews dangled from a weathered rope. A small patch of newly plowed soil graced one side of the hut. Beneath the majestic backdrop of the snowcapped mountain peak, all would have seemed perfect on their tiny plot of land.
Save for him.
Almost as large as a great snow bear, and twice as mean, he had no patience for anything save brewing his many pots of ale. Mouth draped with a permanent scowl, the acerbic bite of condescension seemed to dangle at the end of every word that dripped off his venomous tongue. Eyes darker than stone mirrored the reflection of his heart—cold and impenetrable. The only thing harder than his heart were his meaty fists when they pounded into Alec.
An almost daily occurrence.
When he was little, Markus recognized the loathing gleam in his father’s eyes just before he was ready to strike. Knew the exact time to run, and when there was no place to hide, Alec would shield Markus’ body with his own. Though it wouldn’t have mattered.
Father was only after Alec’s blood.
As he grew older, Markus became more aware of the rumors that circulated about him. He’d been born with the mark of the great hunter. He would free their people from starvation. Over the past few winters rumor turned to reality. As if by a miracle, the more he honed his skill, the more the animals flocked to the forest.
At first their father was proud, boasting to all the village his son had saved them from famine. And for a short while, Rowlen was happy. With their father’s lighter mood, Alec was spared his cruelty.
But his mild temper was short-lived. The abuse began again. Markus blamed himself—he thought perhaps Father wasn’t pleased with his hunt. Mayhap if he harvested more animals, Father would spare Alec. But now it seemed with each new kill, Markus’ father used his success against Alec, chiding his oldest son for his incompetence.
Dropping an axe on top of a pile of wood, Father strode up to them in long, heavy steps, never tearing his fiery glare from Alec’s feeble frame. “Do you purposely mean to make me wait for my supper?”
“’Tis my fault, Father,” Alec said while coughing into his hand. “I had to stop for breath.”
Markus’ limbs turned to ice. His eyes darted to his father as he braced himself for his reaction. Great Goddess! Why had his foolish brother taken the blame upon himself?
Rubbing one thick hand through a scraggly, graying black beard, Father eyed Alec with a sneer. “I do not know why I allow such a weakling to attend my son on the hunt.”
“Do you forget I am your son, too?”
Markus felt the anger in Alec’s shaky voice, and could only stare back at his brother in awe.
“How dare you speak to me that way!” Their father raised a hand to strike.
“Father, wait.” Marcus jumped between his father and Alec, hardly believing his act of courage. “I need Alec to help me skin the rabbits.”
Growling under his breath, Father lowered his arm. “Put him to work, Son. He is of no use to me.”
Markus turned, and with a shaky hand, grabbed his brother by the elbow and led him to the skinning shack. Still puzzled at how he was able to stand up to Father, his elation was short-lived. This meager defiance meant nothing when so much damage had already been done.
When so much violence was still to come.
What would he have done if Father pushed him aside and struck Alec? Would he have defended his brother?
His quivering innards still reminded him he was a coward.
After they reached the shack and had lit the oil lamp, Markus grumbled at his brother. “Why do you lie for me?”
Had Alec not lied, Markus would not have been forced to defend him. For that he was angry, but most of all, he was angry with himself for his cowardice when it came to standing up to Father.
Alec dropped his shoulders and a wry grin crossed his face. “I don’t know.”
“I wish you’d stop,” Markus growled before turning his back on his brother and tossing the rabbit carcasses on the skinning table. Pulling the boning knife out of his belt, he grabbed a rabbit and pierced the animal just below the belly.
“Why?” Alec hissed at his back. “So he can beat you?”
“Well, then don’t provoke him.” Markus bit his lip before he said too much. Before he’d admitted his fears. He sliced the blade up to the rabbit’s neck, and the blood from the animal’s exposed flesh warmed his shaky hand.
Taking a deep breath, Markus forced himself to relax, putting all of his effort into skinning the rabbits and trying to block out the memory of his father’s face and the sound of his voice. For a brief moment, he savored the stagnant air, smelling of blood from so many animals that had been slaughtered on the weathered, blood-stained skinning table. The pungent odor of the freshly killed rabbit carcasses blended with the old blood. To some, the smell would have been overpowering, but to Markus, the stench brought an unexplained sense of peace.
“If he’d acknowledge me as his son, and treat me as a
human, then mayhap I wouldn’t.”
Markus sighed. His brother’s words refused to allow him to push Father from his mind. And besides, Alec was right. Why did Father hate Alec so? ‘Twas not his fault he was born with an infirmity. Father’s daily beatings did nothing to improve his condition.
But at least Alec had the one elixir neither Markus nor Father could lay claim to—Mother’s gentle touch, her soft, soothing voice and tender smile.
“’Tis no special honor.” His throat tightened with emotion.
“At least you have our mother’s love.”
Markus ripped open the rabbit’s flesh at each extremity with brutal strokes, slicing his way toward the belly before hacking off each foot. After cutting off the tail, he pulled the pelt of the rabbit up over its neck.
Father had repeatedly told him it wasn’t mannish to savor the soft caress of a woman, but how he longed for Mother to brush her fingers across his cheek, to hold him and stroke his hair as she did with Alec. But Markus’ hair was as black as the night sky and coarse like straw, not soft, pale wisps like his brother’s. And he was far too large to fit in the cradle of her arms. Alec could still fold his slender frame into her lap without crushing her.
Of course, Mother only showed affection to Alec when Father was in the barn, drowning himself in brew. Alec would come into the hut with a fresh bruise, eyes pooled with moisture and Mother would open her arms to him. Markus had no choice but to turn away, an aching in his heart, for he never knew that kind of love from his mother.
“She loves you, too, Brother.” Alec placed a steady hand on
Markus’ shoulder. “Father forbids her from showing it, ‘tis all.”
He exhaled a long breath, choking back the welling
anger that rose in his throat. “That, I cannot accept.”
“The Great Hunter cannot be fierce if he is coddled.” Alec mimicked their father’s stentorian tone.
In one swift stroke, Markus chopped off the head of the
rabbit. It rolled down the gentle slope of the table and landed in a bucket beneath. Blood pooled from the empty cavity that was once its head.
“I wish I never had such skill. I wish I was more like you.” Tossing the blade aside, he turned toward Alec.
Eyes narrowing, Alec’s orbs brewed with the thunderous
intensity of an avalanche. “Do you wish for every breath to be a struggle? To be weak and infirm and hardly a man even at ten and nine!”
“You are the strongest man I know, Alec. It takes strength
and courage to stand up to our father. And your kindness to me…” His voice quavered as he dropped his gaze. “I do not understand.”
“You are my brother.” Alec gripped Markus by both shoulders, looking up into his face with a pained expression. “What is there not to understand?”
Markus shrugged, then swallowed a lump in his throat that seemed to originate from a hollow pit in his belly. “He beats you, even for my mistakes. A lesser man would despise me.”
“You have good in you brother, despite our father’s best efforts to make you a monster.”
“I do not stand up to him as you do. I do not defend you as I ought.”
“You might be as strong as an ox, but you are a lad still.
Your time will come, Brother.” Alec’s voice cracked before he coughed into his hand for several interminable seconds. Finally, he righted his posture and looked at Markus with a glazed over expression. “On the night you were born, I made a promise to the Goddess that I would teach you compassion. A promise I will give my last dying breath to uphold. ‘Tis why I scold you when you kill more than you can eat. A kind hunter respects those animals he kills and does not take their lives unnecessarily.”
Markus turned back toward his kill, and picking up the knife, he cut through the meat of the rabbit before ripping open the ribcage with the tip of his blade. “Aye Brother, but when I see an easy target, I cannot stop the blood that pumps through my veins driving me to kill the beast. It is a feeling I cannot explain.”
“You must not surrender to your impulse.” A hand at Markus’ back, Alec breathed at barely a whisper.
Repressing the urge to laugh at Alec’s request, Markus pulled down the animal’s innards before ripping them free of its body. A smile crossed his face as the gutting was finally finished. All that was left were meat and bones for the stew.
“I cannot help it.” He shrugged before tossing the organs in the bucket.
Alec stood speechless behind him, leaving nothing between them but the wheezy sound of his strained breathing and the redolent air of fresh blood. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Killing comes too easily to you, Markus. ‘Twould seem your gift is more of a curse.”