Domnall Breich knew the hills around Loch Ness well enough to know himself lost. The hunting accident that had killed his horse and separated him from his companions had happened some miles straight south, or at least, in that direction and at that distance as closely as he could reckon. By now he should have reached the frozen dirt road that led back to the village and safety. He stopped, peering through the rising mists at the snow-streaked valley, stippled here and there with pines. The gathering dark of the winter's shortest day shrouded Ben Bulben, the one landmark that might guide him through the mists. When he glanced at the sky, he realized that it was going to snow.
"Mother Mary, forgive my sins. Tonight I'll be seeing your son in his glory."
They always said that freezing was as pleasant a death as any, more like falling asleep to wake to fire and sleet and then the candlelight that would guide you to the gates of Heaven or Hell. Domnall felt no fear, only surprise, that a man like him would die not in battle or bloodfeud but in the snow, lost like a lame sheep, but then the priests always said a man could never tell the end God had in store for him.
Ahead against the grey of clouds, the western sky gleamed dull red at the horizon. When he faced the glow and looked round, he saw off to his right, at the edge of his vision, a tall tree. He turned and sighted upon it. His last hope lay in keeping a straight course toward the north, the general direction of the loch, which ran southwest to northeast. If he reached the edge of that dark gash in the land, he could follow it and head for Old Malcolm's steading, which he just might, if Jesu favored him, live to reach. Worth a try, and if he were doomed, he might as well die on his feet. He wrapped his plaid tight around him, pulled his cloak closed around it, and walked north.
The first thing he noticed about the tree was that it grew straight and remarkably tall. As the sunset faded into darkness, he noticed the second thing, that it was burning. Here was a bit of luck! If he could nourish a fire against the snow, it would keep him through the night. As he drew close, he noticed the third thing, that although half of the tree blazed with fire, the other half grew green with new leaf. For a moment he could neither speak nor breathe while all the blood in his veins seemed to freeze like water spilled into snow. Was he already dead then?
"Jesus and the saints preserve," he whispered. "May God guide my soul."
"It's a waste of your breath to call upon the man from Galilee," the voice said. "He doesn't do us any favors, and so we do none for him."
Domnall spun around to find a young man standing nearby. In the light of the blazing tree he could see that the fellow was blond and pale, with lips as red as sour cherries and eyes the color of the sea in summer. He'd wrapped himself in a huge cloak of solid blue wool with a hood.
"And are you one of the Seelie Host, then?" Domnall said.
"The men of your country would call me so. There's a great grammarie been woven at this spot, and it's not one of my doing, which vexes me. What are you doing here?"
"I got lost. I wish you no harm, nor would I rob you and yours."
"Well spoken, and for that you may live. Which you won't do if you stay out in this weather much longer. I need a messenger for a plan I'm weaving, and it's a long one with many strands. Tell me, do you want to live, or do you want to die in the snow?"
"To live, of course, if God be willing."
"Splendid! Then tell me your name and the one thing you wish most in all the world."
Domnall considered. The Seelie Host were a tricky bunch, and some priests said them no better than devils. Certainly you were never supposed to tell them your name. Something touched his face, something cold and wet. In the light from the blazing tree he could see snow falling in a scatter of first flakes.
"My name is Domnall Breich. I most desire an honorable death in battle, serving my liege lord."
The spirit rolled his eyes.
"Oh come now, surely you can think of a better boon than that! Something that would please you and bring you joy."
"Well, then, I love with all my heart the Lady Jehan, but I'm far beneath her notice."
"That's a better wishing." The fellow smiled in a lazy sort of way. "Very well, Domnall Breich. You shall have the Lady Jehan for your own true wife. In return, I ask only this, that you tell no one of what you see here tonight except for your son, when he's reached thirteen winters of age." The fellow suddenly frowned and drew his hands out from the folds of his cloak. For a moment he made a show of counting on his fingers. "Well, thirteen will do. Numbers and time mean naught to the likes of me. Whenever you think him grown to a man, anyway, tell him what you will see here tonight, but tell no one else."
"Good sir, I can promise you that with all my heart. No one but his own son would believe a man who told of things like this."
"Done, then!" The fellow raised his hands and clapped them three times together. "Turn your back on the tree, Domnall Breich, and tell me what you see."
Domnall turned and peered through the thin fall of snow. Not far away stood a tangle of ordinary trees, dark against the greater dark of night, and beyond them a stretch of water, wrinkled and forbidding in the gleam of magical fire.
"The shore of the loch. Has it been here all this while, and I never saw it?"
"It hasn't. It's the shore of a loch, sure enough, but's not the one you were hoping to find. Do you see the rocks piled up, and one bigger than all the rest?"
"On top of the largest rock you'll find chained a silver horn. Take it and blow, and you'll have shelter against the night."
"My thanks. And since I can't ask God to bless you, I'll wish you luck instead."
"My thanks to you, then. Oh, wait. Face me again."
When he did so, the fellow reached out a ringed hand and laid one finger on Domnall's lips.
"Till sunset tomorrow you'll speak and be understood and hear and understand among the folk of the isle, but after that, their way of speaking will mean naught to you. Now you'd best hurry. The snow's coming down."
The fellow disappeared as suddenly as a blown candle flame. With a brief prayer to all the saints at once, Domnall hurried over to the edge of the loch--not Ness, sure enough, but a narrow finger of water that came right up to his feet rather than lying below at the foot of a steep climb down. By the light of the magical tree he found the scatter of boulders. The silver horn lay waiting, chained with silver as well. When he picked it up and blew, the sound seemed very small and thin to bring safety through the rising storm.
Excerpted from The Red Wyvern by Katharine Kerr. Copyright © 1998 by Katharine Kerr. 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.