Hey all! In case anyone's interested, here's a taste of my new book, Justice In Winter, now available on Amazon Kindle Direct! If you enjoy this first chapter, why not head over and check out the whole thing? A Celebration Is Interrupted; An Idiot Makes A Mistake; and Events Are Set Into Motion Even from the main entrance of the Long Hall of the Sunriders, Catrin Marga could smell the roasting meats, the garlic and cloves, the mulled brown beer and hot red wine. Outside, a true and honest White Murderer was blowing: snow and ice whipped by the unceasing winter wind into a sharpened fury that could lacerate the skin and strip the flesh from a corpse. It was weather that even she, a rich, proud daughter of the Margai, could endure with a bitter joke and the nonchalance of long experience. Even so, as the warm air and rich smells of the feast within washed over her she could not help but lick her fangs in anticipation. As it was every winter, the huge oak-and-stone building was filled nearly to capacity with people of every description. At the far end of the massive open room, near the huge dark glass windows, two young men stood on tables opposite each other, dancing the Dance Of Might with a brimming mug of ale in each hand. As drummers beat and bowers sawed, the dancers faced each other with their knees bent and thighs parallel to the floor, their feet as wide as their broad shoulders and their backs unbent, pounding on the tables with their heels in a rhythm that was as complex as anything the musicians on the floor below them could accomplish. Bare-chested and grinning toothily in the lamplight, each strove to outdo the other for the speed of his steps and the power of his blows, the strength of his arms not to spill from the heavy tankards held with arms extended and elbows locked, and his punctuating shouts and whistles. The tables rocked and thrummed, but neither man gave way, even after another pair, a man and woman, stood up from their meals and wine and began the Sword Dance on the floor below them. Catrin watched for a moment, grinning- the newcomers were Prithai, and had danced the Sword Dance together since they were children growing up in each others households. Amad danced with a heavy-bladed saber and a round mirror-shield, Mirra with a lightning-quick single straightsword, and their movements flashed like light and shadow across the firelit room. Every hammerblow of the saber she swatted aside, and every rivening thrust of the straightsword he parried, neither slowing nor slowed. Their dance was the dancing of lovers, the striking of serpents. Catrin loved watching them. She had grown up with Amad and Mirra; she and her own Pritha Mikal: they had danced and hunted and played and loved together for as long as any of the four of them could remember. She knew every movement they made like the sound of her own voice. Catrin herself was a short for her age, her brilliant copper hair a beacon for the attentions of every man. Under her weathercoat and bodysuit, she was lithe and powerful, with shapely hips and small breasts that promised a dozen strong children in her soon-to-come seventy years of Bearing. Her large, slightly upturned eyes were a blue-green which never failed to attract comment among people whose eyes ran mostly to darker tones, and her striking, open face had an eager, feline aspect. Like all Frascini women she boasted but two pairs of fangs to a man's three, one upper and one lower, and while she would end her growing days shorter than the men of her family, she knew from the winter's trading that she towered over the women of the Shikari, the little people of the towns and hard roads whose territory began a few hour's ride away across the river Nerva. Under her fur-trimmed dark gray weathercoat, her saber, back-knife, and revolver clung like extra limbs. The other Pritha, the final friend of whose presence no Frascini was ever entirely unconscious and without which none ever went abroad, nestled against the outside of her left bicep. The short, heavy-bladed knife was whetted until its edge glowed, and Catrin felt more naked without it than without her clothes. She was just beginning to pick her way through to the Larkin table when a welcome voice called out to her. "Ha, Catrin! A good Razza haven ye?" She turned with a smile to see Ricta Larkin, eldest son of the Hearthlady of Longwood, grinning at her over a bowl of fried fish drenched in Thakan'ta sauce. "Hey!" She grinned toothily, holding up her left hand to display two heavy gold rings and a wide silver bracelet inlaid with bronze. "Na wasting of three months, aah?" "Na! What sellen ye?" He quirked an inquisitive eyebrow at her over his his painted clay beaker of purple wine. Catrin chuckled to herself, remembering that Ricta had stayed behind on this winter's trading mission to the Settled People, the Shikari, and unlike herself was not having to shift back to their native way of speaking. Like most of those who traded over the border, she had spent three months speaking as the Shikari spoke, and found it an amusing if lengthy process to make the transition back to her native speech. "Me? Mostly guns, for Willam yan Jiffrei. A few of those new rifles- children-sized for us, but right for a Shikaro, hey? Fifty Hurtzi black beef-cattles, yan a few horses from Longwood. Oh! Yan a saddle, one of Viktar Thierannan's, for a Shihan of theirs." "Haven Shikari Shihani?" Ricta's eyebrow twisted upward cynically. "Thinken I needen they only rulers, na judges yan leaders." He laughed at the image, then popped a bite of fish into his mouth still chuckling. "Ha, Catrin!" She startled slightly, turning in a flash to face the voice behind her. Her eldest brother Shimon glided up behind her like a slightly drunken shadow. "How ai ye, Little Sister? Where is Rob? Still out chasing Old Man Burras's cows for him in this weather?" "As always!" She returned his hug and looking up into her brother's scarred face, tracing the raised keloid of proud scarflesh that creased his forehead across one smashed eye-socket and down across his mouth to the bottom of his chin, interrupted by the three weathered splinters of his left-side fangs. That horse nearly killed him, but let nobody ever say Shimon Hoofbiter ai na a proper strong man...Marta and Mariyam would skin them! "Horses this time, actually- Burras promised him a fat gold ring for bringing back two of his stallions: you know them, the roan with the white boots and that savage black thing he calls Methu." Rob was Catrin's beloved, her Pritha's twin brother. "But in this weather? Little Sister, haven ye a brave man and no mistake! That's a Murderer blowing out there!" Shimon burped, and Catrin wrinkled her nose at the winey smell. No wonder he talks so freely! "Why do you think the ring Burras promised him was so fat? The ring alone will be worth five mares or ten fat cows, maybe even enough to buy one of Tumash Hurtz's black bulls! Saying nothing of the tale!" She laughed, cuffing Shimon gently in the shoulder. "Old Brother, Rob is the best hooftracker in these vallies. Wearen he already a Bride's Wealth- ten gold rings yan two gold wristlets, hey? Nobody earns that much gold so quickly without being brave yan cunning besides. He will be perfectly alright." "Well then, I hope he finds them." Shimon said with mock gravity. "Now, who-all is here? Seems like half the Clan on a night like this..." "I know...let's see, Amad and Mirra of course, yan the Stonemans are all here for once, plus the whole Larkin brood except for Elya and Markush..." "Why stayen they home? Missen they all the fun!" Shimon seized a glass of wine from a passing Figna and drank it down in one long, slow gulp. “Yan who comen over the bridge on a night like this, aah?” "Elya is too close to her time, and it's her first. No good for traveling in a storm like this., but Yemanda should be here soon." "Good for her. Who else?" "I'm not sure, I just got here myself...ha! Yemanda, over here! God's Fire, 'Mandu, what happened?” Catrin clicked her fangs quizzically at her friend's melt-spattered working clothes. “What happened to your good clothes, did Elya throw them into the river? Haven ye ice in your hair, for love!” “Catro, listen- see'en ye Rob tonight?” Yemanda was even shorter than Catrin, her compact body seeming even more tightly-wound than usual. Catrin noticed that she was shivering. “Hey, chasen he two horses for Old Man Burras...” “Sure ai ye, Catro? Because finden I tracks...a pistol-shot below the bridge. Across the Nerva, Catro. Crossen somebody on the ice, yan not long ago.” Catrin's hands flew to her lips. That's onto Shikari land! Oh God...God and His Mother...if they catch him... "Stupid brave fool!" Shimon ground out, his broken fangs snapping against each other. "Since when ai two mean horses worth a man's life?" "Since he gave his word to find them!" Catrin almost shouted. "Those cringing little thieves wouldn't understand that!" "Of course na!" Willam Larkin said, clearly worried as he elbowed into the circle. "That would be near to sunset?” “Hey.” Yemanda said with a sudden nod that disordered her short, touseled hair even further. “Riden I down myself to try and pick up his track, but the snow was already fallen too deep. Crossen I the river, but losen his trail a mile or so the other side." "So what are you doing back here?!" Shimon and Catrin both snapped. "Why aren't you waiting for him, or..." She fought down her rising panic with a deep breath. "Damned near killen I myself yan two dogs both coming here." Yemanda sat down with a hard bump, reaching for a cup of hot wine with shivering hands. "Leaven I the horse yan comen on snow-snakes with Schnier yan Olji to pull. Yan comen I back to let you know yan gather a proper searching party, or at least people to wait for him every little way on our side of the Nerva. Where else finden I enough hands yan eyes on tonight of all nights, aah?" "Well I'm coming then!" Catrin replied in a voice brooking no dispute. "Amad! Mirra!" Her shout rang like a trumpet, the music stopped and dancers stilled. Even the Fignai, the untried youths who stood service for adults, looked up in sudden surprise. Her two friends, by now seated across a roasted fish from each other, looked up and half-stood with glasses in hand. "Needen I every ear!" Willam said. He did not shout, but his voice carried as hers could not. "Comen Yemanda Jessin from Trowbridge with bad tellings. Sometime before sunset, Rob Tavish crossen the south fork of the Nerva, near the Rape Tree Bridge. Needen I people for a..." "You've me and mine!...Damned fool, yan just getten I warm...What's he on about in this weather...Lucky if they don't catch him, you know how a-feared they are...Why are we only hearing about this now?..." The chorus of voices and the scrape of benches was reassuring, but Catrin still forced herself to breathe deeply and fight her gorge. Her voice, when it came, was in the odd, precisely Shikari speech of prayer. “Do you remember Vlado Mirshim, Yemanda?” “Catro, talken ye na of...” “...a poor silly drunkard who never did harm. But when he walked leaveless onto a Shikaro's land, senden that Shikaro Vlado's pieces floating down the river a day at a time. And when they found his head, it was swirling around a pool five day's ride downriver...” She gulped a cup of spirits almost nerveless. “Hey, yan taken the Mirshimi a terrible price for it.” Her friend said, looking up through disheveled bangs. Catrin stared into the bottom of her cup for a long moment, her heartbeat thudding in her ears. “...trin!" Willam's shout burst through her reverie. "Comen ye." She stood for a second longer, lost in her thoughts until Mikal's leopard-paw slap on the back of her head brought her round. "Catrin!" Her Pritha urged, in the gentle-but-irresistable voice of their trysting, "Time to go. We've got a long ride. Saddle and load, hey?" The rest of the night was a blur, a timesmear of howling snow, the horse moving beneath her, the fire she and Mikal built beside the north end of Rape Tree Bridge, beneath the gigantic oak where the bones of rapists who had been strung up with wire in the branches with their limbs all broken and their manhoods cut away still rattled in the wind. It would forever be the longest night of her life. – – – – – – – Beneath a stand of pines, Willam Larkin and Feyna his wife waited with their backs to the wind. They had strung a light, strong tarpaulin between three of the trees to form a rude shelter and keep the fire from guttering out altogether, and their hoods and masks were drawn, but still Willam could feel the bite of the storm where it touched the bare skin around his eyes. "Thinken ye it will blow out soon?" Feyna asked after two silent hours. Her sudden lapse back to the distinctive Frascini cant worried him. It usually takes her even longer than me... "Na." Willam murmured into her ear. "I think Old Hungry Winter wanten a soul tonight. If he cannot have Rob, he may be trying try to claim another." There was another long silence. "Rob ai a brave man." Feyna's voice was plaintive as she broke the silence.. "Yan swift. Maken he an escape." Willam was quiet in his uncertainty. The Settled People were strange: the Shikari were smaller than the Frascini, with no fangs and eyes which were poorly in the darkness. One Frascini man was as strong as any two or three of theirs. But they are so many...they do not know the Laws, yan for all they fight and bicker, they hate us like a plague... The fact that every generation a few Shaqi'i, the Lost Souls, joined the Frascini by adoption or taking a Frascini lover, did nothing whatever to still their animosity. If they catch Rob, many's the Shikaro who will kill him if they can. "Catrin will be broken." His voice was a whispered prayer. “Liven we na to see the ending of her grief." "Talken ye na like that." Feyna sounded exhausted.. Your voice betrays you...knowen ye the truth of what I say. "Liken the Shikari even less than we do, being abroad in weather like this. Coveren this snow the horses tracks, yan turnen he back once losen he their trail for good." "Maybe. Even Rob could get turned round on a night like this, in a strange forest." Willam sat back against the center tree of their windbreak, wrapping his arms around his knees. In his heart, he knew his friend and cousin would be lucky to be found alive. Even if he lived through the night, it would be difficult at best to escape back across the Nerva once the storm died and the sun came back out. Even we can only move so fast in a storm like this, and unless he took snowsnakes or floaters with him the depth alone will slow him, even without the cold yan wind. The Shikari will have an even harder time of it, but once the sun is up...they have dogs too. Yan guns. Smaller yan weaker, hey...but dogs yan guns all the same. He felt Feyna snug herself against him, fitting like the final piece of a puzzle under his arm. He stared into the fire, meditating as the dancing flames and flickering coals lived and died. Man is like a fire. He thought to himself, the words of the Book Of Men dancing unbidden through his mind. We are born in a spark of heat and light, we live our lives throwing off our warmth and our glow to illuminate the world around us, and when at last we are consumed we return from whence we came. And one day perhaps when our essences are consumed by the growing of a tree upon the place where we once burned, and we have become again something ready to be born in a spark, we may live and burn again. God And The Mother, Rob, if you've gotten yourself killed and broken Catrin's heart I am going to chase you through a thousand lifetimes just so I can punch you in the nose for being so inconsiderate... “What if he dead ai?” Feyna's voice was half-shattered already. “What if Uncle Rob dies...? Willam sighed. "He was on their land. Our Laws hold no sway there." "So be'en there na even a Vengeance for his killing." Her voice went flat. “The Shikari Shihani punishen na his killers.” Willam nodded slowly, staring into the flames. Knowen I her since the day our mothers bore us. Lie'en we together from our first breaths, yan nursen we from the same breasts. Yan never have I seen her so wretched. He would never remember how long he stayed in his fire-trance, the passing of those long hours marked only by the throwing on of more wood. He would only remember the sight of Rob emerging from the forest across the frozen river, his slow and halting progress across the ice, the dark patch of frozen blood on his belly. He would remember heaving his cousin onto their spare horse, the day-long ride back to the Long Hall, the slow accumulation of kin and friends as they made their slow way back through the drifted snow. He would never forget Feyna's high, keening cry of sorrow when her uncle slipped from the saddle and thudded into the snow with the boneless finality of death. And his mind's eye would be scarred forever by the sight of Catrin's face as they bore her beloved into the Hall on crossed swords. She shrieked but once, the scream of an agonied soul ripped from light and warmth into frozen darkness; her eyes rolled into her face and she collapsed as if dying herself. Shimon and her other brothers bore her forward and laid her beside him on the High Table, their hands joined a last time. And then, Willam would remember only the first glass of liquor pressed into his hands. He would know no more for days.