Anthony Mitchell’s new novel, Wolfeater, is due for release on 23rd February 2021. To whet the appetite, here is an exclusive look at Chapter One, The First Rule. If you enjoy this excerpt, don’t forget to pre-order your copy on Amazon (links can be found at the bottom of the page).
In the midst of the worst winter ever seen, Senya finds herself caught in a blizzard somewhere on the road between the city of Haslova and her uncle’s farm. What started as a hopeful quest for supplies has turned into a brutal struggle for survival, as the unforgiving Whitelands take their toll. Senya’s best hope is that the first rule keeps her alive long enough to reach her uncle’s hearth. But what if there’s more than just the cold waiting in the White Waste?
The First Rule
Sleep is death.
That was the first rule of the Whitelands, and Senya clung to it like a drowning woman clinging to a piece of driftwood. Three days had passed since she first clambered into the saddle. Three days of harsh winds and relentless snowfall, of backache and saddle sores. Three days of loneliness.
It was the loneliness that killed, after all. Far too easy to close your eyes and drift away to darkness when there was no one there to tell you otherwise. All it took was a moment, a resting of the eyes, and then it was on you, sweeping you off to oblivion.
Not this time. Whenever Senya felt herself slipping, her father’s words would echo up from the depths of memory, from the days he’d spent schooling her in the arts of surviving the White Waste. There had been so many lessons, but it was always that first one that kept calling back. Sleep is death, his deep voice warned. If there’s no shelter, no fire, then sleep is death.
Senya clenched her teeth against the cold, fixed her gaze on the blackness ahead, and heeled her mount on into the frozen night. The horse stumbled beneath her, almost lost his footing on the icy rock hidden beneath the deep snow. Senya clung on grimly, her knuckles white against the reins, her heels dug in, as she muttered a prayer to the Great Hunt.
The moment dragged on for an eternity, Senya’s heart in her throat as the old horse scrabbled for a hoof-hold. Then, at last, he caught himself, planting his feet and regaining some balance. The mount’s breath exploded from his nostrils in a mist of relief… and then he trudged on through the snow as though nothing had happened.
Senya let out her own breath, one numb hand slapping the gelding on the neck. If anything would get her through this, it was the horse. The last thing she needed was for him to break a leg. ‘I’m awake now, Rhine,’ she told him. ‘No need to do that again, eh?’
Senya pulled her cloak tighter about her, nuzzling into the fur. Some long hours had passed since the sun fell behind the western mountains, dragging its weak warmth down with it. The chill was sharp enough now to cut through the thick layers she wore, sinking its teeth through fur and wool and cotton, until Senya could feel it in her bones. Her hands ached with the numbness of it; the one wrapped in the reins of her mount, and the other holding her hood in place against the bitter cold winds of the North.
Even then, with the wind howling through the distant peaks like some carnivorous beast, lashing at rider and horse with waves of snow, the exhaustion was taking hold. Senya could feel her eyelids growing heavy, easing closed…
Sleep… is death. Her father’s voice, tired now, less convincing.
Senya’s eyes flared open as she jerked awake, almost toppling from the saddle. She peered at the sky, hoping the movement of moon and stars might tell her how long she’d been drifting for. Yet there was nothing to see up there, save for the clouds, as gloomy and forbidding as they had been throughout the past few days.
Or was it weeks now? It was hard to know for sure when each frozen day blurred into the next.
‘Should have listened,’ Senya muttered, admitting to herself what everyone else had known back in Haslova. It was folly, this mission. To cross the Valorian Plains during the worst winter in living memory? It was suicide.
And yet Senya lived for the impossible. Her father was the Ironheart, who had forged his name working the Whitelands, scouting well beyond the safety of Valorian lands. His legend dwarfed most others among the Valor, and Senya had grown tired of living in his shadow. So, with the city starving, what better time to make a name for herself? What better chance to carve her own destiny?
If she could do what no one else could, defy all expectations and deliver much needed supplies to her people, perhaps her own name would come to stand for itself? In time they would forget that she was Senya, daughter of Finn, child of the Ironheart. Instead, she would be only Senya, the Longclaw, or the She-Wolf, or whatever other title her deeds earned her.
But if not, Senya’s doubts whispered, if you die instead… you’ll be lost to your father’s shadow for all eternity.
Senya glanced to the heavens again, watched the grey clouds twist and convulse overhead, her body trembling painfully in an effort to keep her warm. ‘Should have listened,’ she whispered.
Rhine snorted his agreement. At least the horse showed no signs of fatigue. His heavy hooves trudged through the blanket of snow without pause, his dark flanks caked in white powder. He was as strong as they came, old Rhine, unflinching and unrelenting in his desire to fulfil his mistress’s demands.
‘Someone had to do something,’ Senya told him, patting the gelding’s neck and dislodging an avalanche of snow from his shoulder. ‘Without us, the city starves. With us, they have a chance. We’ll be heroes, Rhine. They’ll make kings of us, you’ll see!’
If you survive this, murmured the dark voice of doubt.
Senya rode on for a while longer, violent gusts of wind battering at her, lashing snow at her chilled, red cheeks. She peered into the gloom ahead, searching for shelter, seeing none. No trees. No caves, rocks, or crevices of any kind. Just a barren, frozen wilderness…
She was drifting again. Her eyelids drawing closed with every breath. After all, why not? If she could just rest her eyes for a moment, she would soon feel refreshed.
Sleep… is… dea…
She woke on the ground. Her face half buried in the snow, her left side aching despite the numbness of the cold. She could remember nothing of the fall, only that she had closed her eyes for the briefest moment.
She struggled to lift her head, tried to look around. Rhine was standing a few feet away, pawing at the snow, digging out the treasure of grass buried below. ‘Here,’ Senya croaked, her throat dried raw. The horse looked up for a moment, but Senya’s voice held none of its usual power, and he went back to his work, unmoved. ‘Rhine!’ she barked. ‘Here!’
This time the horse ignored her completely. He thinks you’re a lost cause. Senya’s doubts again, relentless now. Maybe you are?
Not yet! Pushing her arms beneath her, Senya forced herself up. Not like this.
She was halfway to her feet when her strength gave out and she fell again. She lay on her back in the snow, gazing skyward. Still no sign of the stars up there, just the merciless fall of snow blotting them out, daggers of ice biting at her face.
Senya rolled her head to the left… and her eyes widened. There. A light flickering in the distance. Two lights, like a pair of glowing eyes watching her from the gloom.
She shook her head, trying to clear it. Not two eyes; two lanterns in two windows. Uncle Velimir…
Senya tried to stand again, but this time neither her legs nor her arms had the will to listen. Instead, her eyes betrayed her to the darkness, and she fell once more into shadow.
* * *
Crunching snow. Footsteps.
Senya opened her bleary eyes in time to see a massive figure looming over her. A bear, judging by the size of him, black fur all matted with snow. Rhine was standing a few yards behind him, still pawing at the snow.
Why hasn’t he run? Senya thought distantly. Why hasn’t the beast torn him apart?
The monster crouched beside her and Senya gritted her teeth, readying for the mauling to come.
‘Stupid girl,’ the bear muttered, his voice gnarled as an old oak. ‘Sleep is death out here. You should know better.’
Strange, thought Senya. Bears don’t talk.
And then the beast was gone. Melting into darkness with everything else.
She woke to the sound of sizzling meat, her mouth-watering at the scent of fried bacon. That smell took her back to her childhood, when she would sit on her father’s knee and listen to Uncle Velimir’s stories. Senya sighed wistfully, and when she opened her eyes it was like stepping into her memories.
Two lanterns were set in alcoves on the far wall and shadows danced in every corner, but the room was unmistakably Velimir’s. Pelts and animal skulls were mounted on the walls, the trophies of a more bountiful time. Senya remembered those empty eyes from her childhood too, when they had watched her crawl about on the floor, pretending to be as good a hunter as her father was, or playing the hero in one of Velimir’s tales.
‘Uncle,’ Senya groaned, trying to rise.
A firm hand caught her by the shoulder and pushed her back into the leather armchair. ‘Rest girl, you’re safe now.’ It was the same rugged voice as the bear, only now Senya recognised it. Just as she recognised the troubled frown and the thick black beard of the man looming over her. For just a moment she thought it was her father, back from the grave to save her life. Then the moment passed and truth stabbed at her heart. It’s not him, she told herself. It’s…
‘Velimir,’ Senya whispered, settling back into the chair. Not her father then, but at least it was the only other man she’d ever loved. She relaxed then, letting the comfort take her. The cold was a distant memory under all the blankets piled on top of her, and with the fire blazing in the hearth at her feet.
‘That’s right, girl,’ said Velimir, stepping back and moving to the fireplace. ‘You made it… though gods know why you’d take such a risk.’
He took up a fork and started turning the bacon; Senya worked her tongue in her mouth, her stomach cramping at the prospect of tasting it.
‘Can’t remember the last good meal I ate,’ she told him, and she winced at the sound of her own voice. Broken and weak, her throat burned with every word. ‘The city is starving, Vel. That’s why I came.’
Velimir grunted. Lifting the pan from over the flames, he tipped the contents into a bowl and passed it to Senya. She found mushrooms and tomatoes in there too, and bread toasting on the hearth. In food, Velimir always had a talent for the impossible, and it seemed this winter was no different. The worst winter in living memory, and here he was, somehow surviving the frozen wilderness with a pantry full of fresh goods. Senya couldn’t even remember the last time she’d seen a tomato, let alone tasted one.
‘How do you do it?’ she asked, accepting the bowl gratefully.
Velimir shrugged his giant shoulders. ‘I plan,’ he said. ‘Something the city folk have never been good at.’
He pressed a hand to Senya’s forehead as she ate, his calloused fingers rough against her smooth brow. ‘No fever,’ he said. ‘That’s good. I’ll get you some tea. Should help get some warmth back in you.’
Velimir set a pot over the hearth and settled in the armchair beside Senya. For a time they sat in silence, watching the bright flames lick at the blackened pot, only the crackle of the fire disturbing the calm. It was Velimir who spoke first. ‘So, you came for my herd. How many?’
Senya groaned. It was the only question there was, but not one she wished to answer. Velimir’s bison were his life and asking him to give them up was like asking him to cut off his legs. ‘We need them, Vel. I wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. The city is starving.’ Aim high, her father would have said, and he was right about most things when it came to his brother. So, Senya aimed high. ‘We need them all.’
‘All of them?’ Velimir shook his head in disbelief. ‘If they wanted them all, they should have sent killers instead of my brother’s little girl.’
Senya shrugged. ‘I’m as good at killing as any man.’
Despite himself, Velimir chuckled at that. ‘Aye, girl, you can kill. There’s more than one monster on these walls will vouch to that. I don’t think you’ll kill me though. You love me too damned much!’
‘You’ll get a good price, Vel.’
‘Will I? And what price do they put on a man’s life these days in Haslova? Because that’s what I’ll be giving you, if I give you my herd.’
Senya leaned forward, taking one of the old bear’s enormous paws in hers. ‘Not if you come back with me. We can see the winter out together back home, like the old days. I miss you, Uncle. Mother misses you.’
Velimir sighed, the memories of those old days rolling over him. ‘I’d die back there, just as sure as I’d die out here.’ He patted Senya’s hands and freed himself from her grip. ‘Not in the flesh perhaps, but in the soul, where it matters most. I lived behind those walls long enough to know what it means. Blood and death; friends and enemies hacking each other to pieces. I told myself long ago I’d never go back, and that’s one promise I mean to keep.’
The fire hissed and spat as the pot of water boiled over, and Velimir pushed himself to his feet. He hunched over the fireplace and sprinkled dried leaves into the water. ‘I’ll give you half the herd, girl,’ he said without turning back to her. ‘Half the herd because you’re my niece. But if they want the rest, they’ll have to send the killers.’
It was more than Senya had hoped, and far more than she wished to take. But Haslova needed everything she could get, so Senya said the only thing she could. ‘Half the herd, then. Thank you, Uncle.’
* * *
The blizzard that had followed Senya from Haslova had faded through the night, leaving the midday sun riding high in a clear blue sky. Still, it was bitterly cold. Senya and Velimir sat inside, drinking black leaf tea beside the fire and talking about life. Five years was a long time not to see family, and in Velimir’s company Senya found herself regretting every second missed.
‘You were out to make a name for yourself last time we spoke,’ Velimir was saying, as he poured more of the steaming black liquid into Senya’s mug. ‘How’s that working out for you?’
Senya grimaced. If there was one topic she wished to avoid, this was it. ‘Slowly,’ she admitted. She nodded her thanks for the top up and settled back into the embrace of the armchair.
Velimir set the pot back on the hearth and lowered himself into his own chair. Comfortable, he drew a mouthful from his mug and sighed with pleasure as he swallowed. Then he lowered his cup and levelled his gaze at Senya. ‘Hardest task in the world, walking the White. They never tell you that. They never sing songs about it in the taverns of old Haslova. Folk back home think glory starts and ends on the wall, in the blood and sweat of warriors. They forget about the men and women out here in the wilderness, risking their lives in search of food and resources, tracking the enemy, raising the alarm when they draw too close.
‘You think they care where the food on their plates comes from? Or only that there is food?’ Velimir shook his head. ‘Behind their wall they have safety and warmth, and they forget that every breath out here is a battle for survival. You’ll be lucky if those selfish turds ever hear your name, let alone remember it.’
‘They remember my father.’
Velimir raised an eyebrow. ‘Aye, that’s true. He was always an entertainer though, your old man. He knew what the people wanted, and he served it to them with bread and wine.’ Velimir smiled sympathetically. ‘I love you, girl, I truly do. But you’re not your father. And he wouldn’t have chosen this life for you.’
Senya’s jaw tightened, anger flaring, and Velimir’s look of pity only added fuel to the flames. She set aside her mug and stared at the old man, bristling. ‘All my life, people have been telling me what my father wanted. He’d want you at home, they’d say, settled down with a good man, making babies. Do you know what I say to that, Uncle? No one knew my father like I did.’
She grinned then, her memory of the man too good not to share. ‘He never wanted me to settle for the simple life. I was his only child, and it didn’t matter to him whether I had a womb or a cock. He wanted me to stand on my own two feet; to face the world head-on and take everything it throws at me; to fight tooth and nail for my beliefs.’
Senya took a deep breath, emotion threatening to get the better of her. ‘My father taught me to be Valor; to be the wolf, not the sheep. No words will ever change that, Vel. Not even yours.’
Velimir smiled then, a joyous grin the likes of which Senya had not seen since the days her father was there with them. Gone from his dark eyes was the pity, and in its place, she saw pride.
‘I’ve always liked you, Senya,’ the old man said. ‘Even as a little girl you were full of fire. Finn would have been proud of you. He’d be proud to see the Wolf you’ve become.’
For the first time since her father’s death, Senya slept without dreams. There were no snapping jaws lurching at her face from the gloom, no fangs dripping with bloody saliva. There were no monstrous roars to shatter her calm, no blood-curdling screams to wake her. There was nothing at all of her father’s last day, only the darkness of a peaceful night, sweet and blissful.
Then Velimir was there, shaking her by the shoulder. ‘Wake up, girl!’ he hissed, voice tight with concern.
Senya gazed at him for a moment, her eyes struggling to adjust to the grey light of dawn seeping in through the two small windows behind him. She had fallen asleep in the armchair and her back ached with the memory of it. Velimir had kept the fire stoked though, and the room was still warm. She sat up, wiping the sleep from her eyes. ‘What is it?’
‘Riders. Ten of them. Coming in from the southeast.’
Senya lurched to her feet, blankets falling to the floor as she scampered across the room to the windows. She balled her hand into a fist and wiped away the condensation clouding the glass, pressing her nose to the glass and peering out.
The riders were picking a path down the steep hillside to the front of the farmhouse, only two hundred yards away. Big men on big mounts, all wrapped up in fur and bristling with steel. Senya swallowed hard. ‘They only cross the river when they’re heading for Haslova. And they’ve never come this far north.’
Velimir was busy packing food into Senya’s saddle bags. ‘I guess our people aren’t the only ones starving,’ he said, stuffing salted beef into the rear pockets. ‘Desperate men do desperate things.’
Senya could feel herself looking at him as she had done a thousand times before… a little girl lost. ‘What do we do?’
‘We do nothing.’ The old man smiled wryly. ‘I’ll go speak to them, see what they want. Best you slip out the back, get your horse from the stable, and disappear. You can be gone before they ever know you’re here.’
Senya felt another surge of anger. ‘I’m not a child anymore, Vel. I’m a Wolf. You can eat shit if you think I’ll leave you here to face those bastards alone.’
Velimir sighed. ‘Even a Wolf knows when it’s time to run.’ He finished packing the saddlebags and thrust them into Senya’s hands. ‘When the only glory to be found is a quick death, always better to make yourself scarce. Get you gone, girl. Before it’s too late.’
Senya looked at him for a moment, into those grey, steely eyes, and knew there’d be no moving him. ‘If that’s what you want,’ she sighed, bowing her head and taking the saddlebags.
Velimir turned back to the window and squinted out. He swore at something outside, but Senya was already moving, too intent on her own actions to wonder what the old man might have seen. She let the saddlebags fall gently to the ground, her free hand moving silently to sweep up her sword and scabbard from their resting place beside the armchair.
‘You’re right,’ she muttered. ‘No time to be stupid.’ And she swung the sword as hard as she dared. The flat of the hilt caught Velimir on the side of the head with a vicious clunk, dropping the big man to a knee. Too dazed and confused to fight back, he offered no resistance as Senya struck him a second time, this time cushioning the sword hilt with her cloak. That got the job done. Velimir was unconscious by the time he hit the floor.
Senya checked him over quickly, fearful she might have cracked his skull. There was always a risk with head injuries, but there was no faster way to settle an argument. She breathed a sigh of relief. His pulse was strong and his breathing steady. He’d wake with a lump the size of an egg on his temple, but at least he’d be alive. The trick was keeping him that way.
I hope you have a plan…
Her father’s voice, sounding doubtful. Senya glanced around the farmhouse in a desperate search for anything that might help. Cold sweat beaded her forehead, and she swallowed hard.
‘How about a prayer to the Great Hunt?’
© Anthony Mitchell 2021
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19th January 2021