Winter, 369 AD—The Winged Isle
The territory of The Stag
TADHG MAC FORTRENN was lost.
He was still around half a day out from Dun Grianan, when the snow had arrived without warning.
Tad dismounted his pony and raised a hand to his eyes. Stinging needles of ice peppered his skin—the cold had made his cheeks and hands burn as if they were on fire. The blizzard was blinding.
“Come on, lad.” He pulled his pony, a shaggy bay gelding, after him. “We have to keep moving.”
The snow was falling thick and fast, swirling around them in thick flurries. Not only that, but the cold wind knifed through the layers of wool and leather encasing his body, chilling him to the marrow. Home was still some way off; he and his pony could not stay out here or the storm might get the better of them.
Dolt, he thought as he struggled through three feet of snow, dragging his pony, Caorainn— Rowan—with him. Uncle warned you a storm was coming.
Indeed, Bevan had told him he should delay his hunting trip. “The snows are coming before Mid-Winter Fire this year,” he had predicted two days earlier. “Wait till spring if you know what’s good for you.”
Clearly, Tad did not know what was good for him.
Even so, he carried a deer slung over his pony’s saddle he had brought down with his bow and arrow that morning. At least the trip had been successful.
Caorainn snorted and tossed his head, the bit jangling. The beast was nervous.
Tad blinked snow out of his eyes and glanced around as he walked. I don’t know where I’m going. The blizzard had completely disoriented him, yet he had to keep going.
Gritting his teeth, Tad plowed on, weaving his way through a thicket of dark pines that loomed out of the blinding snow storm like shadowy sentries.
He knew he was somewhere in the Black Boar Woods. However, that knowledge did not fill him with confidence. These woods were huge, carpeting a long valley between two mountains. His father’s broch sat east of here, on the coast of The Winged Isle. Tad had been bound in the right direction before the storm howled in from nowhere, blanketing the world in white.
He trudged on, jaw clenched. What he would have done for a horn of mead and a glowing lump of peat to warm his hands over. With Mid-Winter Fire approaching, the women back in the fort would have baked cakes with honey and apples for tonight’s supper. Tad’s belly rumbled at the thought.
The Hag take me, I can’t feel my feet.
At the back of his mind, he felt a tickle of fear: the beginnings of a realization that he was in trouble. If the snow did not cease, he risked freezing to death out here. Dusk was now settling—it would get colder still after dark.
It was then that Tad smelled wood smoke.
He halted, pulling his gelding up short. He could see nothing through the snow. It was falling so heavily now that it encrusted his clothing and Caorainn’s bristly, dark mane, frosting the pony’s long eyelashes.
Tad sniffed. Did I imagine that?
No—there it was again—an unmistakable scent.
There was a dwelling nearby, and someone was tending a fire.
Tad let out a sigh of relief, the tension ebbing from his shoulders. Thank the Gods someone lived out here in this desolate valley. He was not going to freeze to death after all.
Tad resumed his path through the blizzard, bowing his head to ward off the freezing wind. The scent of wood smoke was coming from the south. He followed the smell, hastening his pace as it grew stronger.
He had traveled half a furlong when the dense press of pines around him drew back, and he stepped into a glade.
There—a dark outline against the surrounding white—was a hovel.
Tad pulled up Caorainn and squinted through the swirling snow at the dwelling. Low-slung, with a sod roof that had puffs of smoke rising from it, the hovel caused a memory to stir within him.
Folk said a witch woman lived in the woods—could this be her hovel?
His father had once banished a woman from the fort after she had caused the death of five children. Tad had been barely three winters old at the time, but stories about her had circulated the broch ever since.
Tad inhaled the aroma of roasting venison then, and saliva filled his mouth.
Yet he hesitated.
Tad did not think of himself as overly superstitious, but he did not like the idea of wandering into a witch woman’s lair. Twenty years had passed since that woman had left his people. She was likely to be a hag by now—bent by age and bitterness. Would she want vengeance upon the son of the man who had banished her?
Of course not … don’t be a fool.
Tad pushed aside the thought, focusing instead on his chilled limbs. His fingers were beginning to throb, and his teeth were chattering with cold. He needed warmth and shelter. Pushing aside any lingering misgivings, he urged his pony forward and trudged down the slope toward the hovel.