Heading into the Uncertain

Reading sample first chapter

Danger in the Shadow Forest

It smelled like being in the woods, for the first time this year. Winter had announced its farewell two weeks ago, when the first drops detached themselves from the icicles and sank into the snow with a quiet, barely audible splash. With each drop of dew, this sound grew louder. Meanwhile, the ground around the house had been completely cleared of snow and had turned into a field of dark mud, in which anyone who stepped out of the door would sink ankle-deep. Today, for the first time, it smelled of forest floor, old leaves and dew as the bright streaks of dawn appeared above the fog. The forest, frozen into ice, was thawing and slowly, bit by bit, fighting its way back to life. For most of the winter, the Shadow Forest lay under a white, smothering blanket of dense fog. It was only possible to make out the shadowy outlines of the nearest trees. Only the tops of the old pine trees were large enough to rise above the blanket of fog if you climbed high enough on a hill or tree. The fog held you, as if trapped in winter. Although the vast forests, hills and rolling meadows were still there, it felt as if all vastness had disappeared. It was like being packed in wool, unable to move or look around. The incredible size of the Shadow Forest that Linus loved so much in the summer seemed to have shrunk and been confined to a few hundred yards around the house.

The smell that now crept into his nose for the first time in months awakened in him the faint hope of the coming spring. His heart, which yesterday had felt heavy and tightly clutched, now beat freely and lightly in his chest. It was very early in the morning. The first light was bidding farewell to the night with its twilight. It was still bitterly cold—only when the sun had risen above the edge of the forest, its beams started to warm the frozen nature. After a restless cold night, Linus had risen before anyone else. The nervousness, even fear, he had felt in the days before had vanished. A strange, unexpected calm returned to him that made him see everything clearly, almost as if he were looking at his life from outside. It was the morning after the first double full moon of the year. Just before the beginning of spring, the Pale Moon and the Blue Moon 1 appeared in the sky, round and large like the eyes of a predator. This was the morning when traditionally the hunters in the Kemutikon mountains beyond the ice desert began the hunt. This year, shortly after his thirteenth day of life, he was supposed to participate for the first time and prove that he had become a man. He was unfamiliar with this tradition, as well as with their way of hunting. However, his father Andrej insisted on continuing this tradition for him. Andrej was not his real father, he and his brothers had moved in with him and his mother five years ago. His real father Åke2 had died when Linus was still a little boy, roaming the forest all day, building dams by the stream and playing hide and seek with the foxes. He was the only child of Åke and his mother Ulrika, so after his father's death it became his job to gather the wood, dig up the potato field, climb high in the fruit and nut trees to harvest the fruit. Occasionally, he could hunt down rabbits, a few pigeons and maybe a deer with his bow. At that time, only old Anders lived with them. There had been no farmhands or maids in the Shadow Forest for generations; the nearest neighbors lived half a day's walkaway. Only rarely did Linus and his mother make their way to the nearest village to trade wood and some fruit from the forest garden for the few things they desperately needed to live. Anders was old and quiet, but probably very clever. He had joined them many years ago, when Linus was very young, and his kind father Åke had taken him in, even though he could not contribute much to the household work because of his age. His job was to feed and milk the goats, keep the barn clean, gather brushwood to start the fire, and teach Linus in the afternoons. He taught him to read and write. He also showed him all sorts of things about herbalism and ancient healing arts during their walks together through the woods. Since his father had died, Anders had also taught him archery so that they could at least get some meat on the table now and then. Meanwhile, Linus wasn't doing too badly with the bow. He even enjoyed going out alone into the forest early in the morning, watching the animals, sneaking up on them. At just the right moment, drawing his bow to let the arrow fly at breakneck speed.
1The Pale Moon and the Blue Moon are both visible side by side as a full moon.
2Åke, old name from the Shadow Forest, is pronounced like "ɔːke", that is, with O instead of A. 

However, what was expected of him today was something entirely new. The men from the mountains hunted by rushing the prey animal on horseback and dropping from the saddle directly onto it, then bringing it down in a duel with a knife. The younger brother of the father, Fjodor, had killed a half-grown bear in this way during his first hunt last year. Since then, he has worn a cape made of bearskin and a necklace with bears' claw nails. Until now, a deer was the largest animal Linus had killed. Today, he would not get away with such an easy prey. He was expected to show courage by putting up a fight with a worthy animal.

After waking up early, he quietly crept out of his chamber, sat on the bench in front of the house. He looked at the woods and sharpened his knife with a whetstone. His life might depend on how quickly the knife could kill the wild animal when he attacked. He would rather not take any risks, and he wanted to get on his horse as prepared as he could be. Linus disliked his mother's new husband, and neither his brothers. They were rough and coarse, had a terribly crude sense of humor, besides they drank too much of the birch wine 1 his mother made in the spring. Their horses were of greater value to them than a boy, so they usually left him alone, as well as Fjodor. Fjodor was only a year older than him. He was a shy boy who was obviously as uncomfortable in the company of his brothers as Linus was. Without Fjodor, who had trained with him to push off from his horse in a fast ride, he would certainly have no chance in the hunt today. Except for the joint training, however, he also had little in common with Fjodor. He would rather call him a fellow sufferer than a friend. He personally was a child of the forest, Fjodor, on the other hand, loved his horse more than the land.
1Birch wine: In spring, the sap of the birch can be tapped by scratching the bark of the tree. It contains sugar and can be boiled down to syrup or fermented to wine.

Now he heard a rumbling from the barn. It would not be long before his father appeared with his brothers, and they had to leave for the hunt. Andrej himself lived with Ulrika and their common four-year-old son Marius in the large chamber in the house. Linus shared the small chamber there with Anders. The barn served as a stable for the riding horses, which the mountain men would not have parted with for anything in the world. Besides, the brothers had made up the hayloft there; they preferred to sleep near their horses. However, it was Linus' mother who appeared first. She quietly stepped out of the house, settled down next to him, and handed him a cup of warm goat's milk steaming in the cold. With every look she gave him, a plea for forgiveness seemed to resonate. She knew how much Linus despised her new husband Andrej, but feared him at the same time. Linus was quite sure: it had not been a marriage of love.

Once upon a time, not many people lived in the Shadow Forest; only rarely did wanderers pass by. His mother, Anders, and he had been on their own after the death of his father. They lived alone in the house that had belonged to his father and before that to his grandfather. It was a fairly large house for the area, built on a stone base, but the walls and roof were carpentered from logs. There was a tiny shed where they kept their tools, a small goat shed and the barn. It used to house only the old mare that his mother had brought to the Shadow Forest many years ago, and the mule on which Anders rode here.

Much of the work and the great burden of responsibility lay on the shoulders of Linus' mother. He himself fulfilled the tasks that could be assigned to him as a boy, though he was still mostly defiant and disappointed that his forays into the forest had to end abruptly. About five years ago, their hard but thoroughly peaceful life changed when groups of hunters from the Kemutikon Mountains north of the Ice Desert came to the Shadow Forest with increasing frequency. Living conditions there were truly harsh. In the heights above the Ice Desert, there was little vegetation and hardly any fertile soil. The families there moved like nomads from one place to another in the hope of finding better game or harvesting berries and herbs from the barren plants of the mountain soil. The winters of the last few years had been particularly hard, so the people in the mountains beyond the Ice Desert were hardly able to feed their families. Therefore, more and more hunters were moving through the unforgiving Ice Desert to try their luck in the Shadow Forest. Only the toughest and strongest men and women survived the journey through the endless ice. Those who made it to the Shadow Forest were eager to build a new life for themselves. They were as hard and ruthless as the Ice Desert itself. They took what they found, driving families from their farms, claiming the land and game in the region.

Linus' mother had been afraid. Afraid of losing her house, afraid of not being able to survive without the forest and garden, afraid of being separated from her son, and even afraid of losing her life if the nomads came to her. More than once groups of hunters came through the forest, but did not find the house and moved on. Then one day, Ulrika was washing clothes at the stream when she was spotted by a horseman. Immediately, she was surrounded by four burly men on their heavy, long-haired horses. The men were traveling alone, five brothers, the youngest of whom was still a boy. They seemed to have no wives, and it was Ulrika's good fortune that she was a widow but still young enough for more children. Andrej, the oldest brother, who was obviously in charge, liked her from the first moment. Quickly, he revealed his interest in her. In his rough, tough way, he seemed to love her sincerely and honestly. None of the brothers, but also no other man, would dare to touch her, Ulrika knew that from the moment Andrej demanded her to become his wife. He was tall, dark, and pithy like old wood, but several years younger than her. For her and Linus, it was a way to return to a life where they would not have to be nakedly afraid for survival every day. There was probably little alternative for them. She had talked before about going back to the villages of Brugau country. Back to the place of her childhood. Perhaps she could have stayed with her Aunt Odette. But she lacked the courage to move back among people after so many years in solitude. Now that Andrej and his brothers were here, there was only the choice of a life together with them, or no life at all. But the hope that everything would turn out well for them and their son soon proved to be in vain. They suffered no lack and were protected, but life with these men from foreign lands was anything but relaxed. Linus noticed how his mother became more tired and sad from moon to moon 1. Earlier, when his father Åke had been alive, she had been cheerful, laughed a lot and made jokes. That was a long time ago now, a dream from early childhood.
1From moon to moon denotes the period of about one month.

Now, on the morning of his first big hunt, his mother's eyes were even sadder than usual. He could tell from the red lids that she had cried during the night. Now she sat next to him, and he was glad that they could just greet the morning in silence. Any words would have been too much between them today. Even so, he knew what she wanted to say to him. Then the barn door opened, Andrej and his brothers came into the yard with their horses already saddled. Linus' mother hurriedly got up and went into the house to fix milk and chestnut bread for the men as well. Andrej caught sight of the boy in front of the house and shouted across the yard, "Linus, fetch your horse if you don't want to go hunting on foot. We're not waiting for a late riser." Linus put down his cup, then went into the barn to saddle the horse, his mother had given him. A few moments after him, Anders also entered the barn and started to tackle the old mule. Linus looked at him in amazement as the old man led the animal, saddled and loaded with bags, next to his mare. He was still sitting up in the barn, his bow, and quiver strapped to his back. The old man saw the questioning look on Linus' face and replied, "Close your mouth again, boy, you know me badly if you thought I'd let you go hunting alone with those mountain lions." Linus gave him a smile and trotted out through the gate into the courtyard, where simultaneously the mountain men were preparing to mount their horses as well. Five sturdy, shaggy horses were already in the yard. Andrej, at thirty-one, was the oldest of the brothers. He was tall and strong, had thick black hair and a broad mustache. His eyes were dark, so dark that they looked mostly black. When he was angry or bored, his bushy, dark eyebrows drew together, and his eyes looked as if they lay deep in shadowy hollows in his head. His brothers Pjotre and Iwan looked very much like him, but they were shorter and narrower than he was. His brother Dimitri, who was only twenty-one, had blue eyes and looked dreamy. When he talked to the others, he often told them that he would soon find a wife and move to the village. The others laughed at him, ruffled his straight hair as if it could drive the fluff out of his head, and poked him in the side. Dimitri was slimmer and more delicately built than the others. Fjodor had once mentioned to Linus that they had different fathers, but all descended from the same mother, named Dunja. They all shared the name Dragov. Their family history could be traced back over a thousand years to a woman named Donja Dragov, who was also known as the Terrible Queen. Fjodor did not look much like his older brothers. He was just as powerfully built and had no trouble pinning Linus to the ground in their wrestling matches, which they practiced in the grass during the summer. His skin and hair were lighter than his brothers', however, and he didn't seem to share their hardheartedness. He was the only one who occasionally kept an eye on Marius, taking him to see the horses or showing him the little rabbits in the woods. When his brothers were out hunting and didn't come home for several days, he went to Ulrika's aid, taking care of his little nephew and helping with the housework. Today, he was just as much a part of the venture as Linus, even though the test Linus now faced lay behind him. He had to hold back this time until Linus had completed his task.

As usual, the Dragovs were noisy when Linus joined them. They joked; Ivan tried to push Pjotre out of the saddle, but was unsuccessful. He got even when he deftly turned his horse and cut the leather straps holding Ivan's saddlebags with a slice of his hunting knife, letting the bag fall to the ground. "If you finish the kid stuff soon, we may be able to ride off before the sun is high in the sky," Andrej thundered, giving his horse a kick in the flanks and dashing out of the yard first. Fjodor grinned at Linus, then followed him as fast as he could. The others set off as well, leaving Ivan's bags behind, and with them his lunch. Anders and Linus were the last to leave, but Anders encouraged him to catch up with the riders, since he couldn't keep up the pace with his mule anyway. Linus gave him a look over his shoulder, expressing his thanks to the old man. He nodded briefly and then returned to trotting his mount. Linus dashed off and chased after the other horses. His heart was pounding. He didn't feel particularly comfortable on the back of a horse, even though his mare was gentle as a lamb and very skilled. The cold morning air turned his hair, damp with dew, to ice, and the cold of the forest enveloped him. Soon he had caught up with the riders who were riding toward the center of the deep forest. By now they had stopped joking and bawling, instead riding quietly as they stalked through the dense undergrowth. The first hours of the day passed, but so far, they had had no luck, for they had not yet encountered any worthwhile prey. 'Why should they go so deep into the forest? Wouldn't it make more sense to look for game in the clearings and field edges?' wondered Linus. Andrej was used to hunting in the mountains and the edges of the Ice Desert. In the dense forest, different hunting techniques would certainly be advisable than in the mountains.

Linus was still pondering his father's plans and tactics when the man stopped his horse and signaled the others to stop as well. He had spotted something and beckoned Linus to join him. From the posture of the rest of his companions, Linus realized that it must be a powerful prey they were on the trail of. Perhaps they had found a bear or a wild beaver that could grow as large as a full-grown pig and bite through a man's arm with one blow. Neither would be easy prey waiting for him there. However, what he saw when he came to a halt next to Andrej made his blood run cold. Beneath the gentle hill they had just climbed from the east, he saw two Chain Wolves. They were considerably smaller than ordinary wolves, about the size of a full-grown sheepdog, and had long, fluffy gray fur. 'They had to look cute and harmless according to a stranger,' it flashed through Linus' mind. But he had learned a lot from Anders about the animals of the forest, so now he knew why these animals were called Chain Wolves. Under their bushy, soft fur there was a very dense undercoat, as strong and sturdy as a wire mesh, to protect the whole animal like chain mail. No ordinary arrow or knife could hurt them. Under this cozy fur hid a strong wolf, ready to fight at any time, with claws and a strong bite. Against these two wild animals, he had no chance to survive. Not if he was armed only with a knife. The only means to break through the wire armor was fire. But no fire was lit far and wide, and besides, he suspected that the Dragov brothers would not deviate from their traditional fighting technique one bit. Somehow, Linus had to attempt to stop the approaching disaster.

There were two wolves, probably a couple of them because Chain Wolves were loners and did not live in packs. If they were expecting offspring, they would not be content with wrestling down one attacker, but would attack the entire group. Linus gathered all his courage. "Father Andrej," he whispered to the man on the horse to his right. "These are Chain Wolves, you can't defeat them with a knife …" A wave of his father's hand and his icy gaze silenced him. "I didn't expect you to succeed in the hunt, boy. However, I had thought you would have more courage. I thought you would at least try. I guess I was wrong, you seem more like a girl than a man." He gave Linus another scowl, then let his horse trot down the hill. 'He doesn't know,' Linus thought to himself. He didn't know Chain Wolves, blinded by their harmless appearance. Without another thought, he rode down the hill behind Andrej. The latter had soon reached the wolves, which snarled at him with bared teeth, and took up position around his horse. Holding his hunting knife in his right hand, he rode toward the largest of the wolves, then pushed off from the saddle, as was the traditional way of hunting in the mountains beyond the Ice Desert. At first, the Chain Wolf was under him, surprised by the sudden attack, but when the knife thrusts had no effect, it was soon the wolf that gained the upper hand, trapping Andrej under its heavy body. Linus, who was close to the battle on his horse, could see Andrej trying to keep the Chain Wolves' sharp teeth away from him. He clutched the animal's neck, trying to push it away instead. Soon red blood was flowing down his arms. The wolf was fast and agile, it had bitten more than once. Andrej needed all his strength to keep it away from his face. Then he managed to roll over the wolf, pinning it to the ground as best he could. The Chain Wolves didn't put up with it for long and crawled backwards out of the embrace, only to attack again at the same moment it had fought its way free. This time, Andrej was so surprised that his guard gave way. The sharp wolf's teeth smashed into his throat. The female wolf had followed the fight with bared teeth and constant growling, but kept herself at some distance.

Just at the moment Linus reached this wolf and was about to throw himself off his horse, a flash of fire hissed past his right ear. It had to be a flaming arrow that had been shot from behind at the struggling Chain Wolves, striking it in the neck. A second, then a third, followed immediately, wounding the Chain Wolf in the throat as well as between the ribs. Another bolt of fire twitched through the snow, but landed between the feet of the other wolf at Linus' side without injuring it. The smaller Chain Wolve raised his head, looking in the direction from which the fire came, looking at Linus crouched in the snow beside him, ready to fight out a hopeless wrestling match. The female wolf looked him straight into the eyes, making Linus think for a moment that she was trying to tell him that she would not forget him. Then another flash of fire flew through the air. The wolf turned around and disappeared into the forest quickly. Linus looked at the small smoldering fires in the snow. They were arrows that had been set on fire. Linus looked around. The other men had gathered around the dead wolf and Andrej, who was lying on the ground. In the direction from which the arrows had come flying, a man stood on the crest of the hill with his bow cocked. It took Linus a moment to recognize in this man his mentor Anders. He had not expected to see him so soon, with the group that had ridden ahead of him by some distance. Most of all, he was puzzled by his battle-ready posture. He no longer looked like the old man he had been lately.

While Linus still couldn't believe what had just happened, Anders came sprinting down the hill, stowing the bow back on his back as he did so, jumped on Linus's horse. He reached out a hand to pull him into the saddle behind him. With a suspicious look at the Dragov brothers, of whom only Fjodor seemed to notice what was going on around him while everyone else was bent over Andrej and the wolf, he hissed at Linus, “Come on, get on, we have to get out of here fast!” Linus swung up to join him on his mare. He caught another glimpse of Fjodor, presently Anders redirected the horse and spurred it up the hill. The boy looked him straight in his eyes and nodded slowly at him. Still quite dazed by the events and the rapid turn of fortune, he tried to comprehend what had been going on. Anders grabbed the reins of the mule to pull it behind him. He asked Linus over his shoulder if he was hurt, then gave the horse a kick in the flanks when the boy denied the question. Through the icy forest glistening in the midday sun, the mare led them unerringly back home. The mule had no choice but to keep up somehow.

'What just happened?', Linus tried to sort out his thoughts. His father was certainly dead. There had been so much blood, the spot around the man and the wolf had turned red. You didn't survive an attack from a Chain Wolf that was trying to protect his family. He himself probably owed his life also only to the fire arrows. Where had the fire come from? Certainly, Anders had shot the arrows with his bow, but how had he made them burn so quickly? What were they fleeing from now, and what—for the goddesses' sake—had happened to Anders? Who was this agile, strong man, and where was the aged fellow he had known half his life? These thoughts flashed through his mind as they rode through the forest. But the thought that crossed his mind when they saw the house lying in the hollow sent an ice-cold shiver down Linus' spine. What would happen to them now? They had left Andrej and his brothers in the forest. His mother's husband, who had sheltered her for the past few years, was presumably dead. What would the Dragov brothers do? Would they stay here, with his mother and their nephew Marius? Would they return to the Kemutikon Mountains? What was to become of him? Had it been appropriate to just ride away? He thought of the look Anders had given him when he pulled him up on the horse, and of the look in Fjodor's eyes when they left rushing. Somehow he knew that everything would change, that he had indeed become a man, even if the day had gone differently than his father had planned.