In advance of the publication of Two Skulls on February 1, here is a short excerpt:
The bones had been bleached dry by the sun and were a gleaming white amidst a sea of green grass that stretched on for miles in any direction. The sun glimmered off them, catching the eye of Harni the Cleaved, one of two riders making their way across the plain. She brought her horse to an abrupt halt, wordlessly pointing at the distant speck of white. The other rider, Mejk the Unharnessed, grunted in response and they both turned their horses toward the bones.
They came across the rest of the body in their search for the skull—a femur here, a rib there—the body obviously having been torn apart by whatever carrion hunters inhabited these parts. Mejk was forced to dismount from his horse to find the skull, which was hidden beneath an especially thick swirl of the lengthy grass. He knelt on the ground, picking it up gingerly to study it, while Harni kept her eyes watchful upon the horizon.
The skull was whole and unbroken, except for a small hole at its base where an arrow had obviously struck and killed the warrior. Mejk turned it over in his hands, counting the teeth and looking at the form of the skull with a skeptical eye. Harni interrupted his study with a grunt.
“Be quick,” she said. “Someone’s approaching.”
“You know this can’t be rushed,” Mejk said, not taking his eyes from the skull.
“It may have to be,” Harni said.
Hearing the urgency in her voice, Mejk looked up from the skull and cast his eyes along the horizon. “Who is it?”
“Who else,” was her whispered reply.
Who else indeed. These were the Untamed Lands, which no one had claim to. But that would not stop some of the Great Tribes from doing so, especially to two warriors from the Fastarl traveling far from their lands. These plains had once been theirs in more glorious times, but that was many lifetimes ago, long before Harni or Mejk had come of age. Now the Fastarl lived upon the winds, forced to survive on their wits and at the sufferance of the Great Tribes, never to have a true home.
All that could change if Mejk was successful here . For the Untamed Lands were littered with the dead, many of them Fastarl, murdered in those dark days when the Great Tribes had driven them from their lands. And Mejk was a spirit walker. He could walk with the dead, could claim them from those places where their spirits were banished.
“Can you identify it?” Harni said, intruding upon his thoughts.
“We shall see,” he said, letting his irritation show. “Have they spotted us?”
Harni nodded. “Yes. They are coming.”
Mejk sighed, not looking up from the skull. Every second would be essential now. “How many?”
A scouting party then, not a full force. A small bit of fortune this day. They would need more before it was over. First, he needed to determine which tribe this skull belonged to. All the incisors were present, but two of the molars, one on either side of the lower jaw were missing. A good sign. The forehead had been elongated by some stone binding, another positive indication. But what decided it for him were the series of thin marks along the forehead.
They could be bite marks from whatever beast had fed upon the fallen warrior, but he thought not. Too regular. He clicked his tongue in recognition. “It is of the tribe.”
Among the dead on these plains were powerful warriors. The Fastarl, in the days when they had ruled all Mejk could see, had been great sorcerers, practitioners of dark arts long since forgotten by all the tribes. But not by the dead. If Mejk could walk among them, claim their spirits, he could gain the knowledge that would restore the Fastarl to their rightful place.
“Good,” Harni said, her voice like a breath of wind. She was nervous, and not only because of the approaching warriors. His most difficult task lay ahead of him. Now that he had found one of their dead he had to claim its spirit.
Harni flicked her eyes from the horizon, where the scouting party continued their steady and resolute approach, and where Mejk crouched beside her in the long grass, the skull of one of their ancestors in his hand. If he was right. But he would be. For all his insufferable arrogance, Harni had to admit he was generally right about such things.
“How long?” he said, not bothering to look up at her.
She swallowed her annoyance and looked back to the approaching riders. “A span. No more.”
“I have time then.”
He set the skull down upon the ground, positioning it so that the barren eye sockets cast their empty gaze upon his face.
“No,” she said, not bothering to hide her irritation now. “They will be here in a span.”
“The Anchored One will guide me. I can bind this one’s spirit to me before they come.”
“And if you don’t?” she hissed. “Am I to face four riders alone?”
“I will,” Mejk said, with a certainty that made her flush with anger.
Even more irritating was the fact that he would likely be able to do so and they would ride from this place without consequence. Mejk was lucky that way, everything coming to him easily. Every confrontation easily resolved, or slipped away from. Harni was not so blessed. For her, it was all a struggle, every battle a near thing.
This one would be no different. For even if Mejk succeeded in binding the spirit to him before the riders arrived, they would still have to face them. And if they had a sorcerer among them, what then? The thought made her anxious, which made her angry, and she stole another glance down at Mejk, a sharp retort on her tongue.
He was retrieving a pouch from his belt, from which he pulled forth some of the crushed sage it held and sprinkled it upon the skull. When he was satisfied there was enough he closed his eyes and began to recite the incantations.
There was no sense interrupting him now that he had begun, he would need every second. Harni looked away, back at the horizon. The riders were still approaching, but now their horses were at a gallop. Mejk would not have his span. And she would be left alone to face them.