He rested against the bole of a massive oak until the squirrel chattering a warning above lost interest and went away. Then he waited some more, listening to the birds that moved amongst the branches and the ferns, before he moved — cautiously — from the oak's shelter. His bow was half drawn, an arrow set firm on the string, and he knew that the deer he hunted was not far ahead. He crouched, a motley figure, dressed in a home-spun shirt and old leather breeches, all melding with the natural shades of the forest, as if he were part of the great woodland that stretched from the Alagordar to the farmlands beyond, where men had taken command and shaped the land to their desires. There were fields there now, tilled and hedged and marked off in orders of pos-session; cottages that connected with one another along roads of hard-packed dirt, some packed at the sides with dry stone walls. Some even had walls about them in memory of the Durrym raids, before order was imposed on Kandar and the firstcome folk driven out.
The nearest village was Lyth, and that was walled round, as if ancient memories could not be forgotten. There was a wide road leading there, and then on to the keep that dominated the hill above, with stone at its base and great wooden ramparts above, patrolled by Lord Bartram's soldiery, who wore mail and even plate armor, and looked down on the few who chose to continue their lives in the forest as if they were traitors, allied to the Durrym.
Cullyn could not understand that. He had encountered Lord Bartram's folk from time to time, and knew that most of the soldiers were from other provinces, or recruited from the fishing villages along the coast; few — if any — had ever seen one of the fey folk. He was not certain he had himself, although there were times he wondered, as he wandered the forest, if he were not watched.
It was a curious feeling, a prickling down the nape of his neck, the sensation that something
was watching him. Not an animal — that he'd have recognized, for he had lived in the forest all his life — but something else, that he could never quite spot or find. He'd turn around, bow drawn or knife ready, only to find himself staring at shadows, listening to the rustle of leaves and the birdsong, wondering what was there when there was nothing.
He was forest-birthed, and knew the place as few other men did. His father, Mattias, had carved out a clearing and built the cabin where Cullyn now lived.
Because, he had told his son when Cullyn grew old enough to understand, he was sick of deceptions. He had fought in the Great War, when men came together and resolved their differences so as to drive the Durrym out of the land. And he had taken up shield and spear to fight the fey folk and claim the country for men. But had grown weary of the slaughter and chosen to have no more part of it. Not least because he had met Cullyn's mother, who came from Tyris, the fishing village on the coast, and wanted to take her away from the threat of Durrym raids. So they had gone into the forest and cleared enough land to build a cabin and grow vegetables, and raise such pigs and chickens and cows as could keep them alive. It was enough for them, and they lived happy.
Cullyn remembered it. There were eggs for breakfast, and rich pork; milk to drink. At times an exciting journey to Lyth. The cabin was well built, warm against the winter winds and cool in the summer's heat. There was an order to the seasons: the planting of seeds, and later their harvesting; the raising of animals that were later slaughtered, that his family might eat bacon and beef through the hard time of winter. The chickens tasted good, even when they were familiar friends that had pecked him as a child.
He had no problem with that: it was part of the cycle. But he never could understand why men warred against the Durrym, and when he was old enough to question his father, he had asked why.
"Because they are different," Mattias had said. "I can give you no better answer, save that perhaps men are foolish and listen to those who'd be kings and lords and look to vaunt themselves over all others. We came to this land from the west, and found the Durrym here. And our forefathers wanted the land, so they drove the Durrym out."
"But you fought in that war," Cullyn said.
"I did," his father answered, "and now I regret it. The Durrym have as much right to this country as do we, but they've gone away across the Alagordar now and they've magic to deny us entry. But remember, they are not evil, only different, and they've as much right to these lands as we."
His parents died as he came into his manhood. He and his father had taken several deer, and two boars, that they intended to trade in Lyth. His mother came with them, intent on purchasing new cloth and threads in the village. It was early spring, and the melt water from the hills set the rivers swirling, running with ice pack and torrents.
It was over in moments: the horse started as a dredge of ice struck. It plunged and fell. Mattias was dragged from his seat by the reins, and carried into the water.
Cullyn sprung after him as his mother screamed, but he could not catch his father, who was borne away by the river, tumbling over and over as he shouted and thrust up helpless arms, then drowned. Cullyn struggled back and did his best to comfort his mother. He found the horse, near drowned itself, and they went on to Lyth, drenched and wretched, and traded their forest meat for what the village had to offer. Then he took his mother home, and not long after she died of a fever.
Since then, Cullyn had lived alone in the cabin, taking what he needed from the forest, where — perhaps — the Durrym still lived, venturing into Lyth only to procure such things as he could not manufacture himself, like milled flour and salt, well-baked bread; even though he preferred his life in the forest to that of the village.
He had lived alone in the cabin since his mother's demise, rejecting all offers of hospitality, for he could not imagine living anywhere else. Surely not in a place where buildings faced one another, with streets between and constant voices. He loved the sounds of the forest: the rustling of the leaves as the wind blew through, and the cries of its creatures, birds and deer and boar, fox song and the grunting of badgers, the messages of owls and the hymning of doves. He could not imagine another life, and when the priest had come, intent on persuading the young man to find a home in Lyth, Cullyn had driven him off with harsh words that he later regretted, for he recognized the priest to be a decent man who sought only to do good. But he did not understand the appeal of the forest. None could, Cullyn thought, who did not live there; and those who did not perceived the forest as magical, the domain of the Durrym, and therefore dangerous. To them it was an enchanted place, where men became lost and were taken by the fey folk into the unknown country across the Alagordar where the gods alone knew what happened to them.
Cullyn believed some of this might be true. Certainly, he had never attempted to cross the river — why should he? He found all he needed on the Kandar side, and the Durrym had not, in all his eighteen years, offered him any threat. Did they sometimes watch him, as he suspected, he did not consider them dangerous. Curious, perhaps, but no more than that, and so he ran the forest freely, and enjoyed its bounty and his life within its confines. He had no real idea of its size. He knew that it stretched to the high cliffs that loomed above the Southern Sea, and for long miles eastward, and for at least a week's march north — the farthest he'd ever ventured — but how much farther north, or how far east, he had no conception.
He was content with his own small piece, and wanted no more. So far as he was concerned, the Durrym were welcome to the farther side of the river.
He shook himself from his musings as he heard the deer stir. It was within bowshot, and comforted by his silence. There was a clearing ahead where he'd guessed it would stop to browse, and he was right. He went soft-footed and crouched through the bracken until he saw the animal — a fine, high-antlered stag — that raised its head at his approach, so that he crouched anew and held his breath until the lofting antlers dropped and the beast set to cropping the clearing's rich grass again. Cullyn took a soft breath as he drew his bow string and sighted down the shaft. He wet his lips, testing the breeze, and adjusted his aim. He drew the string back to his cheek and rose, loosing the arrow. It flew straight, taking the stag behind the left shoulder, so that the great beast snorted and staggered and went down on its forelegs.
Cullyn dropped his bow and charged forward as he drew his knife. Before the stag could rise, even before it had time to wonder, he was on it. He drove his blade deep into its throat, severing the great arteries, so that the stag snorted blood from its nostrils and mouth even as a great gout spurted from its neck. It was slain in moments, falling as Cullyn clutched it and begged its forgiveness.
"I must eat," he murmured, "just like you. And I could die here like you."
He was aware of that. For all he loved the forest, he knew its dangers. There were savage boars in the woodlands, and bears, and forest cats — all of which would slay a man for presuming to enter their domain. It was no easy life, but it was what Cullyn loved, and it was all he knew.
He cleaned his knife and worked his arrow loose and then took up the deer and began the trek back to his cabin. The corpse was heavy, but he was strong, broader of shoulder than most men of his age, and taller, worked hard by all his years in the forest. His arms were muscled from hewing wood, and his legs from chasing down prey. His hair was brown as oakwood, and long, drawn back in a tail for want of trimming, and a thick beard grew around his mouth and cheeks. There had been young women in Lyth who'd called him handsome, but he was too shy to heed their calling, and was not at all sure what he looked like, save himself. He knew only that he enjoyed his life, and were he sometimes lonely, there was always the forest, with all its wondrous sights and sounds.
And the mystery of the Durrym.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Yesterday's Kings by Angus Wells. Copyright © 2001 by Angus Wells. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.