Hot winds blew across the Watchline, twisting rusted wires against rotted fence posts. Grit swirled through the flatlands, coating hardwoods and evergreens alike. Toiling in the shadows of the tree-break to mend panels in the barn wall, Aron Brailing felt the dusty warmth on his cheeks and knew it for a lie. Autumn was coming with its chill and drizzle, with its death and decay, no matter what the hot breeze tried to tell him.
Harvest was upon them.
Everything turned. The years, the seasons, the cycles of the moons—fate itself. It was the way of the land, of the world. That’s what his father taught him, and that’s why he shouldn’t be worrying about tomorrow. Harvest would come in its own time, its own way, and the likes of Aron Brailing could do little to stop it.
Aron tried to center his plank, caught a splinter in his thumb, and bit it out. He ignored the sting and tried centering the plank again, this time with more success. Their small barn faced the Watchline, the sparse stretch of dirt and tumbledown huts and fences that separated inhabited lands from the uninhabitable territory beyond.
It was once tradition to build all barns in such a fashion, so people could shelter inside and keep a lookout for predators slinking across the boundaries of the Outlands, or worse yet, up from the misty southern Deadfall. Aron had never known a time of great activity along the Watchline, though. Neither had his father, or his father’s father, and the old Guard houses on Eyrie’s western and southern borders had long since been abandoned. It had been many years since any large incursion of manes—bloodthirsty spirits from the Deadfall—or the vile part-animals called mockers that congregated in the Outlands. Still, barns were built facing danger, just in case.
Beyond the barn, their meager house stood on its poles, shuttered windows staring stubbornly toward the Watchline and byway as if to remind Aron and his family that travelers could be predators, too, in their own ways.
He shouldn’t think about tomorrow.
He shouldn’t, but he did.
And the thoughts made the air squeeze out of his chest.
The sweet-copper taste of his thumb’s blood permeated Aron’s senses as he lined up the next board. He glanced to his left, where Wolf Brailing hammered a thick peg through a hole to steady one of the last planks. Wolf didn’t even blink in the dusty breeze scraping his scarred cheek and close-cut brown hair. His intense black eyes seemed to order the smoothed wood into place, and well-marked muscles bulged in his upper arms as he swung the mallet.
Not for the first time, Aron turned his gaze to his own puny wrists, then to the thin fingers gripping his smaller mallet. His arms and legs were no bigger than sticks tipped with twigs, dwarfed by the over-large sleeve of his threadbare brown tunic and breeches. His hair was still a light copper-brown, and his skin smooth.
Would he ever gain his father’s coloring and toughness and build, as his older brothers had done? Could he, too, be a hero in the Dynast Guard when it came his time to serve? More than anything, Aron wanted his chance to earn his own rows of tiny rune tattoos like the ones that marked Wolf Brailing’s arms, dav’ha marks from sacred ceremonies of loyalty following great trials.
“We have no time for woolgathering or soft daydreams,” Aron’s father said in his low, steady voice, without ever taking his eyes from the wood he worked. “We still live along the Watchline, even if it’s peaceful for now. Fate can turn fast for men in Dyn Brailing—and rarely for the better, if they’re not paying attention.”
Aron dipped his head and hurried to drive the last few pegs into his board. He struggled to keep time with his father’s strokes, and his heart beat harder with each slam of mallet against wood. Blood from his thumb dotted the white-golden hue of the rough plank. He managed to get the last stubborn bolt into place, but the lay of it didn’t suit him, so he kept at it until he felt the pressure of his father’s heavy hand on his shoulder.
“Enough. That will do.”
Aron looked into his father’s dark eyes, searching for a hint of happiness as his father surveyed the boards Aron had hammered. His father studied each peg, running his fingers over the craftwork as if assessing every decision, every blow struck by Aron’s mallet. As seconds ticked longer and longer, Aron’s breath came shorter and shorter.
Then his father gave him a wink. “You’ve improved. No splitting this time.”
Pride tightened Aron’s muscles and pushed up the corners of his mouth. He drew a deep, satisfying breath of the peppery simmer of podbean stew drifting from the house. His stomach also gave a loud rumble, as if to protest the length of time since mid-day meal.
Wolf Brailing’s appraising eyes moved from Aron to the house, to the meager vegetable patch. His gaze moved on to the hayfields where Aron’s mother, brothers, and sisters still worked, temporarily out of sight. “Come,” he said, “here, to the barn’s corner.”
Aron followed his father and sat when he gestured toward the packed dirt. Wolf sat between Aron and the fields, sending up a tiny puff of dust that smelled faintly of hay and manure. He reached into his battered waist-pack and produced a small lump wrapped in a wide green dantha leaf. After a glance over his shoulder, Wolf presented the lump to Aron.
The soft leaf tickled Aron’s fingers as he peeled back the filmy layers, careful to preserve the green fibers. This dantha leaf wasn’t old yet. It could be used again as a wrap or light cloth, and in Dyn Brailing, nothing, not even aging dantha leaves, was wasted.
Aron’s eyes went wide as he reached the center of the tiny package. A leftover bit of spiced bread from this morning’s breakfast—made in celebration of his youngest sister’s birthday. He touched the sweet, crumbly crust, not quite able to believe his good fortune.
From inside the barn, Tek, Aron’s young talon, let out a whistle as if she could smell the sweetness of the bread. She stomped her big clawed feet and rattled her scales, and Aron knew she was probably pawing at the air with her shriveled forelegs, maybe bobbing her over-large head like a chicken, too. Even though she stood at twice Aron’s height, close to the size she would achieve when she matured, she still behaved more like an excitable baby lizard.
Wolf glanced over his shoulder again. “Eat it before your mother springs from some shadowy hiding place. She’ll shapeshift like a mocker and spit poison at both of us for ruining your dinner.”
Aron laughed at the image of his mother as a crazed, venomous beast—and which would she be? A false bird perhaps? No, no. A rock cat, straight out of the Scry. She’d crawl out of that long set of stone trenches and caves that pocked part of Dyn Brailing, rear up on her big back legs, shift from a fairly normal-looking feline into some twisted, scary human form, and—
“Eat, Aron.” Wolf sounded mildly amused.
Once more coming back to himself, Aron managed, “Thank you, Father,” before he grabbed half the slice and crammed it into his mouth. The tang of cinnamon, which his family rarely had the fortune to possess, made his eyes water. And the bread itself, even hours after baking, still so soft, and warmed from the sun on his father’s waist-pack. The taste and texture flowed over Aron’s tongue. He was sure the bread was sweater than any exotic treat in Dyn Brailing, maybe in all the wide lands of Eyrie.
Aron swallowed and took the next bite, trying to hurry and slow down and enjoy his boon all at the same time. When his father glanced toward the fields again, Aron looked with him, but saw no sign of his mother or siblings.
“You have your brother Seth’s talent for building, I think,” Wolf said, once more turning his attention to Aron. “That will serve you if you take up livestock for a trade. What would you think of that?”
Aron gulped his mouthful and blinked at his father. “Livestock is . . . it’s too. . . .”
“Expensive to begin. Yes.” Wolf nodded toward the barn beside them. “But you have a great advantage, since you already possess one talon. And a female, Aron. If you apprentice at Grommond’s farm, you could save your payment, and in two years, perhaps three, you would have enough to purchase a male for our barn.”
Wolf clasped his big hands, then released them. “Another year and you could add a pair of goats, perhaps a pair of oxen, before you ever complete your time in the Dynast Guard. I would help you until you were ready to establish a parcel of your own, and until you build your own barns.”
The last bite of spiced bread stuck in Aron’s throat. His mind spun slowly around his father’s words, like a spider trying to thread together something with meaning and substance. To be offered such an opportunity, it was almost more than he could comprehend. If he could manage to breed livestock for a living—even just a few hatched talons, to be sold to reasonable buyers—he could change the fortunes of his entire family. His heart flooded at the thought of his mother and sisters in nice dresses, his brothers with fine tools, perhaps even small parcels to farm and carve a living for their families.
And his father.
Aron would buy his father wagons and tools and real leather clothing.
He would buy his father everything, especially after he enjoyed the good pay of a guardsman for two years.
“Grommond rarely takes apprentices,” Aron said, his voice breaking because he couldn’t let himself accept that such an amazement might be possible. He was the youngest son of a farmer, a nothing, a nobody—to apprentice with Grommond?
His father’s smile broke Aron’s disbelief like nothing else could. “Grommond has seen you work with Tek, and he’s already spoken to me. He told me he thought you have a good touch with animals. Next year on your fifteenth birthday, he’ll take you—if that’s what you want. I would never force you to make such a decision.”
Then Wolf Brailing repeated something Aron had heard many times. “My children will have choices. Always.”
Aron choked down the last of the spiced bread, already battling excitement and daydreams of what it would be like to learn from Grommond, to have access to horses and cattle and fowl and poultry, to full-sized talons and oxen and goats—he couldn’t even imagine. He would learn so much, so fast. And all the while, he’d be earning a wage for such delight.
“I would be honored, father. I would be—yes. Of course I’ll accept Grommond’s kindness.”
“The day you saved Tek from death in the trenches of the Scry and earned her as a boon from our Lord Brailing, you did a great service for yourself. Perhaps for all of us.” His father reached out and squeezed Aron’s forearm. “Kindness, honest labor, honor and truth. You know these are the things that matter, what I value, and what I’ve tried to teach you. You set a good example on all counts. I’m very proud of you.”
Aron had to fight not to burst into tears. He was grinning and sniffing at the same moment, awhirl inside, unable to speak.
An apprenticeship with Grommond.
An apprenticeship in livestock.
Not carpentry like his eldest brother Seth, who had already returned from his Guard service without ever seeing a war or battle—not that Seth’s betrothed cared much about that. Seth would marry next year, after his twenty-first birthday, as was custom, but Aron couldn’t imagine being married, or being a carpenter. His seventeen year-old twin brothers, not yet old enough for their Guard service, were planning on an apprenticeship in grain farming after they served, as were his sixteen year-old brothers. Aron’s nearest-age brother was more interested in leather work, which bored Aron mindless. But livestock . . . And Grommond had already assured it. With Aron’s acceptance, the deed was as good as done, except—
Aron felt his smile falter.
Except for Harvest.
The joy blazing through his essence snuffed to darkness in mere seconds.
Harvest is tomorrow.
Harvest could change everything.
Aron began to wish he hadn’t eaten the spiced bread at all. It churned unpleasantly as his father studied his face.
Wolf Brailing seemed to understand Aron’s deepest concerns and fears, as he so often did. He reached to the dirt between them and began to trace a shape Aron knew very well.
The image of a great bird emerged in the dust, wings outstretched, divided into uneven sections that represented the dynasts, large provinces ruled by lords or ladies with strong Fae heritage. History told that after the Great Migration into Eyrie from the original world of the Fae, dynasts formed, each with its own language, customs, talents and traditions. Dyn Mab was the head of the great bird, and Dyn Cobb and Dyn Ross comprised the body of the bird, with most of the land and population.
The lesser dynasts of Altar, Brailing, and Vagrat formed the bird’s wings, two on the left and one on the right. They had fewer citizens, and fewer miles within their borders. Stone and Thorn, the two guilds established long ago to see to justice, mercy, and healing for goodfolk no matter which dynast had struggled its way into power, sat like feet on either side of the bird.
“Rock and leaf, stone and thorn,” his father murmured as he added circles around the main guild location—Stone in Dyn Brailing, and Thorn in Dyn Vagrat. “Both guilds were once essential to the life and growth of Eyrie. Stone and Thorn stood against dynast royalty on behalf of goodfolk. They balanced the power of the dynasts just as feet balance the largest bird on a branch.”
The rest of his meaning—that things were different now—went unsaid, but Aron understood. His father was trying to tell him that no matter how frightening Harvest might seem, Eyrie’s guilds didn’t wield the power they once enjoyed. Even dynast lords and ladies weren’t as powerful as those of legend, because Fae blood and Fae mind-talents had become so rare.
Aron watched his father draw and knew that his family, as Brailings of Brailing, had a touch of Fae blood, but none of the special mind-talents of the ancient kings and queens who once ruled Eyrie’s dynasts. Aron’s family didn’t even have the meager mental abilities common to the provosts who controlled Stone and Thorn, or the children they chose to apprentice at the guilds. Wolf Brailing had taught his family how to go through the Veil—the Fae term for achieving a state of meditation useful for calming emotions and controlling the workings of the body. Wolf had also taught them about skin and vessels and blood, and how to speed the healing of cuts and bruises, which he had learned in his time as a member of the Dynast Guard. Minor healing was the extent of Wolf’s abilities on the other side of the Veil, though, and Aron’s too.
More important than any meditation skills, Wolf Brailing had made sure all of his children knew Eyrie’s geography, as well as the styles of worship, the main trades, and some of the customs and words used by the other dynasts. Those in other dynasts might be different from us, Wolf often said, perhaps more educated, more privileged or even less—but we will meet our fellows heads high, as equals.
“Recite the dynasts,” Aron’s father said as he completed his sketch, and Aron did so. His father went on to make him name and show the general location of each dynast capital, beginning with Can Rune, their own. Then he pointed to the small corner of Dyn Brailing, far from Can Rune, to that spot near the Watchline, where their small farm lay. “Do you see how distant we are from the main cities, the main roads?”
His father let out a soft breath and tapped the map to indicate the small but dense mountains to the east of their farm, the forests and Scry to their north, the Watchline area to the east, then the misty Deadfall rising up from the south. He connected his tap-marks as if he might be drawing a fortress around their tiny farm. “We are closer to the Stone Guild stronghold at Triune than I would like, thirty five to forty days on horseback—about the one cycle of the moons, but why try to reach us when so many villages, towns, and great cities offer easier pickings? My father’s father did not choose this spot by happenstance or chance.”
Aron realized his father’s tone was confident, soothing—but there was also an edge of something else. Something like anger, or maybe worry. When he gazed into his father’s eyes once again, he saw an unfamiliar glint in those dark depths, and he didn’t know what to say.
“Our forebears selected this distant corner of Dyn Brailing because the demands of greater society rarely reach so far into nothing.” Wolf smiled, but Aron noted that his father’s scarred face didn’t brighten like it usually did. “Harvest will come and go. Of that, we can be certain. I doubt it will be much more to us than another passing day.”
The chaos inside Aron began to settle. He studied the dav’ha tattoos along his father’s arms, picking out symbols for friendship, sacrifice, and courage. Then symbols of places and battles. Wolf Brailing had explained many of his obligations to his son, but no one had ever appeared at their farm demanding that Aron’s father honor a dav’ha.
For the first time, it occurred to Aron that this might be unusual. That if they lived in Can Rune or one of the other great cities, people might show up from all quarters, calling on their sworn allegiances like merchants demanding coin for cloth or spices. Kindness, honest labor, honor and truth—of course his father would have answered every call.
“The demands of greater society rarely reach so far into nothing,” Aron murmured, and his father nodded.
“The sun still shines in the sky, yet I have two men lazy from afternoon’s business,” Aron’s mother said from the corner of the barn. “Where is this honest labor you’re always discussing, Wolf Brailing?”
Aron flinched at the sound of her voice and tried to collect the dantha leaf along with all of its incriminating crumbs, but his mother’s eye was far too sharp for sleight of hand. She approached them, her reddish-brown hair escaping from the tie that bound it at the nape of her neck. The blue-green flecks in her brown eyes seemed to flash as she scowled.
“I suppose you’ll need less portion at supper, boy.” Her expression seemed fierce as Aron sheepishly offered the folded dantha leaf to his father, but her tone was light, almost teasing. She seemed to be directing her words more to Aron’s father than Aron himself. “May the Brother of Many Faces keep your belly full until morning. Both of you.”
Wolf got to his feet along with Aron. His expression remained placid, but Aron saw no severity when he said, “There, woman. I chose you for your kindness, didn’t I? You’d never deny a man nourishment on his youngest daughter’s birthday.”
When Wolf reached for his wife, she didn’t smack him or pull away, but leaned into him and kissed his craggy cheek. From behind his mother came the calls of Aron’s eight siblings, returning from the hayfields and vegetable patch.
“Go,” his mother instructed with a point to her left. “Tend to your talon, then fetch the little birthday girl and see that she and her sister scrub themselves clean while I finish preparing our meal.”
Aron’s eldest brother Seth came closer, adjusting his long hair in its looped leather tie, then wiping sweat off his tanned face. Not for the first time, Aron marveled at how Seth had come to resemble their father, so much so they could have passed for brothers.
“I’ll gather the girls,” Seth said. “Meet me by the well when you’ve finished with Tek.”
Aron nodded his thanks to Seth, who went to sweep up the dark-headed girls spatting with each other near the front door. The older boys headed for the house, obviously grateful that they didn’t have to manage their little sisters, who could be as fierce as rock cat cubs fighting over a meat scrap.
As Aron slipped into the barn, he saw his father gazing at the sky with that strange look on his face again. The odd sensations inside Aron’s belly started up anew, and he paused just inside the shadow of the door, curious to know if his mother would reveal what Wolf Brailing was thinking.
After a long moment, his father said, “They’ll pass us by tomorrow. They stay away from dynast lines to avoid hard feelings from the ruling seats.”
“We are far down the line of succession from the dynast seat.” Aron’s mother spoke gently, but from the divide between barn door and barn wall, Aron saw his father frown at her. Behind them, between barn and house, Seth had one little sister over his shoulder and the other pinned against the well, doing his best to wash her face.
“True, we’re nothing but root farmers scratching a living from the dirt,” Wolf said in a strained voice, oblivious to the chaos behind him. “But we’re Brailings of Brailing. That bears some consideration.”
Aron’s mother answered with a shrug. “Can Rune’s rectors said our children were Quiet—they have no Fae legacy of mind-talents. So even if the Stone Guild comes to our farm, our blood might not speak.”
“Stone’s testing methods are more refined,” his father said, the edge in his tone growing. “They prefer children with a touch of legacy even if they don’t use the legacies in their hunts and killing—because legacies go hand in hand with intelligence and learning ability.”
“Well, if the blood does speak,” his mother countered, “at least one of our children would have a chance to get a proper education.”
“From Stone?” Wolf growled the words so angrily Aron faded backward into the barn’s cool depths. “What does the Stone Guild teach beyond murder and death? One of ours, an assassin. Cayn’s teeth!”
“I’ll thank you not to call the name of the horned god in my presence,” Aron’s mother said with a distinct chill in her voice. She was a devoted follower of the Brother, and such women didn’t brook mention of the horned god of death. “Even outside, I’d prefer not to call ill fortune.”
Aron’s father showed no remorse. In fact, his voice grew loud enough to drown out the sounds of arguing at the well. “If it’s guild training you want for our children, slay a dynast heir and steal his purse so we can pay to place our offspring with the Thorn Guild. Better our children turn out to be healers or scholars than trained killers.”
“Thorn . . . doesn’t take as many children as it once did, or so I hear at market, whenever the girls and I take thread to sell to the cloth-makers.” Aron’s mother kept her tone more casual, but he heard the undertone of worry. Maybe even hopelessness. “The Thorn Guild has forgotten Eyrie’s orphans. I know you’ve always admired Thorn and its work, but Thorn’s Lady Provost—she’s a different sort of leader, I think, than Thorn has ever seen.”
“I don’t want to hear gossip about the Lady Provost of Thorn.” Aron’s father seemed to turn a deeper shade of red as each second passed. “The Thorn Guild has always been the keeper of honor and truth in our land, and I don’t see that changing. You don’t hear of Thorn stealing children to thicken their own ranks, do you?”
Aron’s mother remained silent for a moment, then finished the conversation simply and directly. “You can’t save us from Harvest, Wolf Brailing, no matter how much you rage and bluster. Fae or goodfolk, castle or hut, to Stone go the Stones.”
She walked away then, and Aron stepped back again, until he could barely see his father. He put both hands atop his belly and pressed, hoping to silence the loud rumbling, maybe ease the twisting and turning.
To Stone went the Stones. Meaning, those chosen by Stone had no choice but to become Stone Guild members themselves.
That was the way of things, just like the turning of fate.
To the Stone Guild went the poor, the simple—those with nothing to protect them. To the Thorn Guild went the rich and privileged. The two guilds had once balanced the needs of Eyrie’s goodfolk, but one had become filled with darkness, judgment, death, and the children of paupers. The other had filled itself with light, learning, healing, and the children of wealthy families. Families with less coin could send their children to trade lodges like the Carpenter’s Union or the Blacksmith’s League, lower in status, but still a way to learn, and ultimately to earn. Farming families like Aron’s, they occasionally managed to arrange apprentice training for one or two of their children, and they had no choice but to take their chances on Harvest.
To Stone go the Stones.
But I am no Stone. Next year, I’ll be with Grommond, learning the ways of livestock and preparing to change my family’s lot in this land.
Aron told himself this, and he did it more than once, but he didn’t feel it. He didn’t feel anything but a strange misery in his muscles and a growing catch in his breath.
Some seconds later, Wolf glanced into the barn, directly at Aron, as if he knew the exact spot where Aron stood. He gave a wink and a smile. Don’t fear, little one. My children are a wealth I won’t surrender. You will always be my son.
Aron’s shoulders chilled.
He was almost certain he was simply reading the meaning of his father’s expression, or imagining what he might say. The sensation made his insides lurch, but he dismissed it as nerves and folly. If Wolf Brailing had any of the Brailing legacy, any of those old Fae mind-talents, they would all be wealthy and spoiled, living in Can Rune and working in service to their dynast lord.
Behind him in the barn, Tek let out a trumpet. No doubt she was irate over Aron’s failure to bring her a prompt dinner.
Aron moved to a space in the barn wall and watched his father walk toward the house. He saw how Wolf Brailing worked to keep his step light, his manner calm and comforting.
“Tomorrow is nothing,” his father said to Seth as he passed the well and his wailing, wet daughters.
But at almost fifteen years of age, Aron knew tomorrow would bring long hours of wait and worry.
From sunup to sundown, children would be Harvested from all over Eyrie—including Dyn Brailing—for this was their one year in six to pay tribute to the Stone Guild like the other five dynasts.
To Stone go the Stones.
Seth went back to scrubbing his little sisters, and Wolf Brailing kept walking, but all Aron could do was stand and watch and listen to Tek’s bleating, and hope that Eyrie’s blue-white sun forgot to rise and bring the morning.
“A complex and original fantasy…” –Kirkus Reviews
“Excellent piece of high fantasy… None of the characters are cardboard cutouts of fantasy archetypes; they are richly drawn, compelling, and unique…” ―VOYA
“This novel is best suited to voracious fantasy readers eager to devour another story of an unlikely hero caught up in an epic adventure.” –School Library Journal