The Warded Man Page 1

Author: Peter V. Brett

Series: The Demon Cycle #1

Genres: Fantasy



318-319 AR

(After Return)



319 AR


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 Broad-shoulders, 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.