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 Two, The Wolfeater. 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).
Hoping to find food to help his tribe survive the worst winter ever seen, the Wolfeater pays a heavy price for trying to negotiate with the enemy…
Radok waded out into the shallows of the Adalvas, his clothes tossed aside on the river bank, dark skin a stark contrast to the chunks of ice flowing south from the northern mountains. He stopped when the water reached his midriff, spreading his arms wide and taking a deep breath. The air, like the water, was fresh and bracing, and Radok smiled as his body shuddered against the cold.
Nine members of the Grey Crow watched from the safety of the shore, some already mounted, others breaking camp and packing saddle bags. They were dressed in the heavy fur cloaks and fur-lined trappings of the Whitelands, their hoods drawn up and gloves pulled tight, watching silently as their leader went about his morning ritual.
None of them understood the significance of what they were seeing, save perhaps Jorn, who had been with Radok since the beginning. He at least knew how they had found Radok, the day they dragged him from the water and made him Grey Crow. The ritual was a throwback to those days, at the start of it all, when he first learned to walk with the Wind.
The rest of them just saw a man standing naked in the water, his sculptured physique rigid with the cold. They saw him flex the muscles in his arms and legs, roll those powerful shoulders and stretch that muscular back. They saw flesh crisscrossed with a hundred different scars, some turning blue as Radok splashed himself with freezing water. They saw only a madman… just as Radok wanted it.
It was better they see a madman than a sick man. Sickness was a sign of weakness for the Grey Crow, and the weak never lasted long. When the coughing fits took hold, as they had done these past few weeks, it was better Radok’s men remember the cold bath of the morning than turn their thoughts to darker causes. A sick man was an obstacle to be removed; a madman someone to fear.
‘It’s time,’ Jorn called from the riverbank, dragging Radok from his thoughts. ‘Let’s move before we freeze to death.’
‘You should try this sometime,’ Radok called back, turning on his heels and wading ashore. Jorn sat his mount at the edge of the water, hands resting on the reins. His narrow eyes peered out from the shadows of a fur-lined hood, his thick black beard cracking into a smirk. Radok grinned back. ‘Might wash the cobwebs from your stones and put some hair on your chest!’
‘Never heard your mother complain about my stones,’ Jorn countered. ‘And she seemed to enjoy the smoothness of my chest when her head was resting on it afterwards.’
Radok laughed. ‘That is weak, old friend, even for you.’ He took up the spare blanket left on the shore and dried himself off. He was feeling the cold now, deep in his joints, but he forced himself to move calmly and confidently. ‘My mother was dead the day I was born Grey Crow, and you were ten-years-old.’
‘Aye, but I was satisfying women by the time I was eight,’ said Jorn, straightening in the saddle.
‘You’d be lucky if you could satisfy a sheep,’ said Jian, heeling her mount up beside Jorn, ‘let alone the woman who birthed the Wolfeater.’
Radok burst into laughter, joined by the tribesmen gathered closest. ‘Oh, I like her,’ he said after a moment. ‘You can ride with us more often, girl.’
‘As long as it’s the horse I’m riding,’ she said, making a point of looking down at Radok’s manhood. ‘Else I’d be better off as one of Jorn’s sheep.’ And with that, she turned her horse about and set off downriver.
This time it was Jorn’s turn to laugh.
Radok cast him a wounded look and glanced down. ‘It’s not even that cold,’ he said mournfully. Then he laughed too.
They turned north after crossing the Adalvas, away from the distant spires of Haslova, still hidden as they were among the grey mountains of the Spears. They aimed instead for the snow-clad peaks of the deeper Whitelands. It was a path few Grey Crow had ever taken, yet Radok’s nine followed him without question. There were no complaints as they furrowed a track through the thick snow, battered by the elements, the morning sun little more than a ghostly orb watching over them.
Radok grunted in satisfaction at their silent obedience. Yet he couldn’t help but wonder if it was loyalty that drove them, or fear of the madman?
‘I hope there’s good cause behind that grin,’ said Jorn, reigning his mount in alongside Radok’s. ‘We could use a victory.’
‘And we’ll have one,’ said Radok.
‘By the Seven, I hope you’re right.’ Jorn scanned the landscape ahead, all whitewashed hills and frozen woods. ‘They say only Chadra walks this far north. It’s a hell of a risk we take.’
Radok glanced around, through the flurries of snow swirling all around them, to the fur cloaks dancing on the wind, the long hair and full beards snapping in the breeze.
‘Does it feel like there’s only one wind out here?’ he asked. ‘Seems like the full set to me, and they can’t decide a damned thing between them!’
‘You shouldn’t mock the gods, Radok. We all bow to the Will, eventually.’
Radok waved a hand dismissively. ‘You’ve always been a superstitious old bastard, Jorn… especially when times are hard! The Will favours those who favour themselves. Even Talak knows that.’
‘Is that what you told him, to allow this little adventure?’
Radok groaned at the memory. Never one to enjoy his visits with the Ashan Tay, that last one stuck firmly in the craw. The old priest was sending men north, east, and south in search of food, yet none were going west.
‘It’s a mistake,’ Radok had argued after forcing his way into Talak’s tent. ‘We’re more likely to find what we need out west than we are going anywhere else.’
Yet even with Radok towering over him, Talak remained steady as a rock. He spoke calmly, reasonably, as though talking to a child. ‘It’s too dangerous to rile the Wolf right now. The hunger has left us too weak.’
‘We won’t go anywhere near the city,’ Radok had promised. ‘We’ll swing north, towards the mountains. There is bison up there. I’ve seen them with my own eyes, Ashan Tay!‘
Talak had grunted. ‘And I have heard the Will with my own ears. Or do you doubt the words of the Seven?’
Radok had weighed his response carefully. While it was true all men served the Will, the Ashan Tay were something else entirely. They were held in such high esteem by the elders, it seemed they spoke with the voice of the Will themselves. And any man who spoke with the voice of a god had a chance to change the world. ‘I doubt nothing,’ Radok had said, bowing his head submissively. ‘As ever, I shall heed your guidance.’
‘Then ride south,’ said the priest. ‘Ride as far as you dare, and if you find nothing on land, bring back fish.’
Radok had backed from Talak’s tent like an obedient child. From there, he rode his men south for two miles, then turned west and headed for the lands of Old Valor, ignoring everything the priest had said.
What was there to lose? Find bison and Radok would ride Talak’s storm on the wings of victory, as he often had; find nothing and chances were they’d all be dead by winter’s end anyway.
Radok turned back from his memories to the line of horses ploughing their way through the deep snow, and he met Jorn’s gaze. ‘I told him there are bison out here,’ he said smoothly. ‘The starving children told him the rest.’
Jorn held his gaze a moment longer. ‘I hope you’re right, for all our sakes.’
‘Pah! You fret like an old woman.’ Radok reached across the gap between them and slapped his friend on the shoulder. ‘When have I ever let you down?’
‘Never,’ admitted Jorn, ‘but there’s always a first time.’
Radok rolled his eyes. ‘I grow tired of this conversation. It’s always the same with you, Jorn, no matter where the journey takes us. You won’t relax until we’re back home eating steak!’
Jorn shrugged his big shoulders. ‘Can’t argue with that. How else could I have kept you alive all these years?’
Radok smiled. That was true too. If it came to steel, there was no one in the tribe he would rather at his side than his old friend.
Seeking to move the subject away from their mutual admiration of one another, Radok nodded along the road ahead, to where Jian rode. She moved gracefully in the saddle, rising and falling with the mount’s movement. Seemed she could have been born in the saddle. ‘What do you make of our new friend?’
Jorn took a moment to study the girl before replying. ‘It’s a thing of beauty, watching her ride. I know that much. Even under all that fur.’
‘She’s a beauty, true enough,’ said Radok, ‘but what do you think?’
Jorn gave him a sidelong glance, then nodded. He dropped his voice as he spoke, so only Radok would hear him over the blustery wind.
‘She’ll test the men,’ he said. ‘When their blood is up and their loins hard… it could be dangerous for her.’
Radok had considered that himself. They were decent men chosen for his flock, but even decent men could lose themselves when the blood lust was up. ‘She can look after herself,’ he told Jorn, though he meant the words more than a little for himself. ‘She’s one of us now. The men will respect that, or they’ll answer to me.’
‘Why her?’ Jorn asked suddenly. ‘She’s not the first of the Fallow to ask, but she’s the first you’ve let ride with us. What did she say that was so convincing?’
Radok shook his head. ‘That’s not my story to tell. I like her though, Jorn. I like her a lot. She will do well for the Grey Crow.’
Jorn shrugged. ‘If she’s good enough for you, she’ll do for me.’ He straightened in the saddle, brushed snow from his shoulders, and swept his gaze over the frostbitten landscape ahead. ‘I still don’t see any bison though.’
Smoke on the horizon.
Not much, just a thin, white tendril drifting lazily to the sky, merging with the bulge of grey cloud overhead. But enough to tell Radok they had found what they were looking for.
He raised a hand and signalled for his men to draw rein, waiting as they gathered behind him. Eight men and one woman, all garbed in heavy furs and bristling with steel. They sat their mounts in silence, staring off at the distant line of smoke, wondering what it meant for them.
Means I’m right, thought Radok, cocking a wry smile. Not that he would hold their doubts against them for too long. He had known without doubt the farm existed, but even Radok knew the Whitelands had a habit of sweeping away such memories with ice and wind.
Arrogance is a gift of the young, a familiar, scalding voice muttered in his mind. Surely you’re too long in the tooth to think such victories are yours alone, Wolfeater?
Talak’s voice, Radok realised, his good mood evaporating. He glanced about him, watching the flurries of snow dance to the Will of the Seven. As all things must dance, Talak’s voice whispered.
Radok grunted. Jorn was the pious one alright, but Radok was no fool. He knew that while a man had to do things himself to get the best from the world, it was always wise to thank the gods when things turned out well.
Radok closed his eyes and muttered a thank you, before heeling his mount over the crest of the rise and sweeping his gaze over the land below. White fields stretched out before him, as far as the eye could see, climbing and falling with the swell of the land, until they met the distant snow-capped peaks of the Whitelands. Radok smiled.
Dark, hulking forms scattered the landscape below, standing proud against the elements. Amidst it all stood the small farmhouse, thatched roof coated white, the trail of smoke rising from a single chimney.
Jorn pulled rein beside Radok with his own grin lighting his face. ‘Just as you said!’
Radok clapped him on the shoulder. ‘You should know by now not to doubt me, old woman.’
‘What are we waiting for?’
The question came from one of the younger riders, drawing up beside them. Tiyan was a big man, tall and powerfully built, his heavy beard yet to show the first wisps of winter. ‘Let’s just ride down there and storm the place.’
Radok shook his head. ‘We’ll negotiate.’
‘Negotiate?’ Tiyan curled a lip. ‘What is there to negotiate? How many people can they have down there? Two, maybe three? Our people are starving, Radok. We should ride down there and kill them, take the herd and head home.’
‘Their people are starving too,’ Radok pointed out. ‘Not here perhaps, but in the city.’
Tiyan scoffed at that. ‘And who cares about them?’
‘We care,’ Radok told him. ‘A strong Crow needs a strong Wolf, Tiyan. Ten of these beasts will be enough for the tribe. The rest can go to the Wolves.’
Tiyan gazed at him in astonishment. ‘Have you gone soft in your old age, Radok?’
‘Careful, boy.’ Jorn nudged his mount closer to Tiyan’s, hand resting on his sword hilt.
Radok held up a hand to stay him. He could feel the eyes of his riders watching them. ‘Let him speak, Jorn.’
Tiyan needed no second invitation. ‘You’re supposed to be the Wolfeater,’ Tiyan raged. ‘Yet here you stand, desperate to keep them happy. What happened to you?’
This time it was Radok who nudged his horse closer. ‘You think I’m soft because I don’t kill farmers? Because I don’t leave women and children to starve? I’m not soft, Tiyan. I face my Wolves steel to steel, as the Will demands.’ He leaned in closer, face inches from the younger man’s. ‘Now, question me again and you’ll find it’s the Black Wind who answers.’
Radok let that hang in the air between them for a moment, before turning back to the gathered riders. ‘Follow me. Silence is the key, so no one speak unless I tell you to.’
They descended on the farmstead in single file, Radok leading the way. There was no effort to hide their approach, they just ploughed their way through the snow and kept their swords sheathed. Radok drew up a few yards from the farmhouse door and his men formed a line behind him. There was no sign of life from within, save for the wisp of smoke seeping from the chimney.
‘Hello in there!’ Radok called out. ‘No need for fear. We only wish to talk.’
Almost a minute passed without response. ‘Can we storm the place now?’ asked Tiyan, restless.
Radok ignored him. ‘You keep us waiting much longer, we might take insult.’
Thirty more seconds passed. Then the door to the cabin creaked open and a single figure stepped out into the crisp morning air. The door slammed shut behind him, and the farmer staggered out through the snow towards them.
Not a man, Radok realised. A girl. A she-wolf. His men sniggered and whistled as she drew closer, barely containing their delight. Only Jorn and Jian kept their council, while Radok studied the girl in silence. She was small, true, but lithe and bold, moving with grace and confidence despite the snow. It was most impressive.
‘Silence!’ Radok hissed at his men. ‘Show some respect. She’s a true Wolf, this one. And Wolves have teeth.’
On she came, young and pretty, long black hair flowing out behind her, caught high in the blistering wind. She wore a leather jerkin over a blue shirt and black leggings, with fur-lined boots and a heavy cloak draped over her shoulders. No sign of any heavy furs though, which was good. If she’d left them inside, it meant she had no plans to run.
She stopped some ten paces away, her dark gaze levelled at them, her face an unreadable mask. Radok waited. He wanted her to see it: big men with big furs and big beards. Men built for the cold, or forged by it. Men glistening with steel.
He smiled. So much steel. Swords and shields, axes, and knives, all hanging from belts or slung over shoulders, daggers tucked into boots. There were bows too, amongst the armoury, for there were no finer archers in the world than a Grey Crow in the saddle. Not that the Wolf would know it, for it had been an age since the Grey Crow last met the Wolves on open ground. These days the battles unfolded on the walls of Haslova, where men fought toe-to-toe on ground slick with the blood of fallen brothers…
She should have been cowed, the girl, yet it was only when her eyes fell on Radok that the colour drained from her face. That was good, too. It meant she recognised the mark of his skin, and that she knew enough to know fear.
‘You’re a long way from home, Wolfeater.’ She tried to keep her voice calm, but Radok could sense the tremor beneath the surface.
‘We are Grey Crow, girl,’ he replied with a smile. ‘The sky belongs to us, as does everything below it.’
‘Aye, your kind like to fly.’ The girl’s eyes shifted back and forth along the line of riders. ‘I’ve often seen them flying from the walls of Haslova, though more often screaming than not.’
Radok’s smile grew. ‘Baby Crows, perhaps. Not Crows like this,’ and he took in his men with a sweep of the arm. ‘We come and go as we please from your little wall, taking Wolves for snacks.’
Tiyan spoke up then, frustrated by the banter. ‘Enough of this! Let’s kill her and get on with it.’
Radok silenced him with a look, burning with fury. ‘I promised the Black Wind would answer your next outburst, and you’ll not make a liar of me. Keep your fool mouth shut!’
Radok turned back to the girl, shrugging apologetically. ‘My friend here… lacks patience. He thinks we should kill you and take what we want, but I’m a more reasonable man than that.’
Radok swung down from the saddle and moved out to stand a few yards from the girl, Jorn, Jian and Tiyan joining him on foot. ‘It’s been a hard winter for both our peoples, no? I see no reason we can’t share what we’ve found here, so let’s make a trade. Ten bison, and we’ll be on our way.’
‘That’s half the herd,’ said the girl.
‘Is it?’ Radok feigned shock. ‘It seems Wolves can count as well as Crows.’
The girl ignored the mocking tone. ‘And what do I get?’
Radok’s eyes narrowed. ‘Your life, girl. You get your life. And the remaining herd. A more than generous trade, no?’
‘It’s not a trade when I already have everything you offer. What about your lives, Wolfeater? Shall we trade for them?’
Radok took a step forward. ‘You think you can take us all, she-wolf?’
‘I only need to take one to make the trade worthwhile. Only you.’
Radok chuckled at that. ‘I’ve killed many Wolves in my time, but never a girl. Their teeth aren’t sharp enough for my liking.’
The girl grinned back, exposing the elongated canines that marked her as Valor. ‘You’ll find mine sharp enough, I promise you that.’
Tiyan had heard enough. ‘Let’s do this!’ he barked as his patience finally snapped. He lurched forward, readying to attack, but Radok’s icy glare froze him to the spot.
The distraction was all the girl needed. Reaching behind her back, she drew a dagger and let it fly, all in one swift motion. It took an eternity for the blade to cover the ground between them, yet all Radok could do was watch death spin towards him…
Then Jorn stepped between them, taking the blade in his throat. He collapsed to the snow-packed earth, hands grasping at the wound as he gurgled on his own blood. For just a moment there was silence, Radok and his men watching their old friend gasp for life.
Yet before Jorn drew his last breath, Radok lifted his eyes to the girl. Their gaze met briefly, and he focused all his hatred and his fury in her direction. She bore that look for as long as she could, then she turned on her heels and fled.
She saw death in those pale blue eyes. She saw death, and she ran.
The girl turned on her heels and fled, her long black hair flowing after her as she disappeared behind the farmhouse. Four of Radok’s men gave chase, their heavy mounts thundering past Jorn’s fallen body.
Somehow, the old warrior still lived. His booted heels thrashed at the snow, bloody fingers grasping desperately at the dagger in his throat, trying to stem the flow of lifeblood. Radok crouched beside him and laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘Easy, Jorn. Easy now.’
The dying man didn’t have long left, and it struck Radok like a hammer. Jorn had been with him since the beginning. Even as a child, when others had mocked and feared Radok for the darkness of his skin, Jorn had stood beside him, brothers of the Grey Crow.
He tried to speak now, but it came out as a bloody, spluttered gurgle. It was hard to see him go that way. Too hard.
‘She’ll pay for this,’ Radok promised him. ‘She’ll pay.’ Then he pulled the dagger from Jorn’s throat and buried it in his chest. He battled for two more ragged breaths… and then he was gone.
Radok pushed himself to his feet with a heavy sigh. He looked down into Jorn’s lifeless eyes a moment longer, then noticed Jian standing beside him.
‘I’m sorry, Radok,’ she muttered. ‘Should we get after her?’
Radok glanced past the girl to the four men mounted and waiting nearby, Tiyan among them, keeping a safe distance. Radok shook his head. ‘This is her country. No telling where she might lead us.’ He called out to the others and pointed at Jorn’s corpse. ‘Get him ready to travel and start rounding up all the cattle. We won’t be here long.’
‘What about the men who rode after her?’ asked Jian.
Radok shrugged. ‘Either they’ll catch her, or they won’t; return or not. No point waiting for them. They know their way home.’
Jian could not hide her disappointment. ‘I never took the great Wolfeater for a coward.’
Radok’s anger flared then. Even now, after everything he had done, they still questioned him. He leaned in close to Jian’s face. ‘She killed my friend, who meant more to me than the rest of you combined.’ He pulled back a little, took a deep breath and cooled his anger. ‘The she-wolf will pay for taking him, I promise you that. But we’ll do it my way, not hers. She knows she stands a better chance out there than she does back here, so she wants to lead us away. You don’t eat as many Wolves as I have by giving them what they want.’
Radok shoved past the girl and strode on to the farmhouse.
‘Where are you going?’ Jian called after him.
‘To see what she was hiding.’
Radok stepped up to the farmhouse and put his foot through the front door, sending it splintering from its hinges. He swept in after it, eyes taking a moment to adjust to the gloom inside. Behind him, Jian hesitated, but curiosity got the better of her and she followed him in.
It was a small farmhouse, no more than a large living room with a kitchen and dining area, offset by two smaller bedrooms, all spread across a single floor. An assortment of animal pelts garbed the walls, including sabretooths and giant elk, mountain lions and black bears. There was even the giant bear-like head of a kragan mounted proudly over the fireplace, its cold black eyes staring back indifferently.
Beyond the decoration, nothing caught Radok’s eye as he moved through the main living area. It was only as he passed the second bedroom that he glimpsed a boot jutting out beneath the bed at an odd angle. He strode over and lifted the sheets aside, peering below.
‘What is it?’ asked Jian from the doorway.
Radok grabbed the booted foot and dragged the body out with a grunt of effort. He revealed a man well into his fifties, hair and beard thick with grey, who shared the same elongated canines as the girl. Radok met Jian’s gaze and grinned. ‘Nothing but a sleeping Wolf,’ he growled.
Jian strolled over and crouched beside them. ‘Who is he?’
Radok turned the man’s head sideways. There was a lump on the side of his temple the size of a small egg. But it was the smell that gave it away, stale and well ingrained. The smell of animals, both living and dead.
‘Smells like a farmer,’ he told Jian. ‘The bison belong to him, not the girl. She’s a warrior, not a farmer.’
‘She was trying to protect him?’
Radok nodded. ‘She must have taken him by surprise, knocked him out cold so she could stand in his stead and meet with us. She hoped to lure us away, to the Seven knows what end.’
‘What do we do with him now?’
Leave him? Take our spoils and slip away as peacefully as we came? This morning that might have been his answer, but now Jorn lay dead outside, his blood seeped into the snow, and Radok’s anger got the better of him.
‘We make sure she follows.’
He clamped his hand over the Wolf’s mouth and nose, then slashed his dagger across the man’s throat. Blood exploded from the wound in a fountain, spraying Jian’s face. The shock of it brought the old Wolf back to life, eyes bulging, and he tried to rise. Radok pushed down on top of him with all his weight, holding him down, his hand still clamped tight, stifling the Wolf’s cries of agony as his lifeblood pumped away.
Radok took no joy from watching the life fade from those helpless, confused, frightened eyes; no satisfaction; no sense of sweet revenge. He felt only a well of emptiness. For what was one old, toothless Wolf, next to the loss of the Grey Crow’s finest? Not enough, was the simple answer. Not enough by far.
Jian was watching Radok with wide eyes of her own, blood dripping from her face. ‘Why did you do that?’
Radok shrugged. ‘She cared enough to hide him. Maybe she’ll care enough to come find us once she realises he’s dead. And when she does, she’ll pay the price for what she did to Jorn.’ Pushing himself to his feet, Radok took one last look around the farmhouse. ‘Burn it,’ he said. Then he marched outside into the clean air.
© Anthony Mitchell 2021
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9th February 2021