Excerpted from My Swordhand Is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick Copyright © 2007 by Marcus Sedgwick. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, 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.
Deep in the Woods
When he fell for the fifth time, when his face plunged into the deep snow, when his hands burnt from the cold but he didn’t care, Radu the woodcutter knew he was going to die. Somewhere behind him in the darknesses of the forest he could hear the man who had attacked him. He was scared now, almost too scared to move, almost too cold to run anymore, but still he knew something was wrong. Something that should not be.
He got up and stumbled on desperately, sending snow flying in little spurts. Even here among the thickness of the trees it lay heavily on the ground, whisked and funneled by the east wind into strange hills and troughs, like white beasts lurking at the foot of the birches.
Radu looked behind him, but could see nothing. Nothing but the vast unfathomable forest. It was said you could ride from Poland to Turkey and never leave the trees behind, but he knew that wasn’t true. Nothing could be that big! Not even the Mother Forest.
He stopped for a moment, listening hard, but all he could hear was his own panting as he sucked air into his painful chest. He no longer knew where he was, though the forest had been his home all his life. His hut and his village were far away. He looked around, straining to recognize anything, but all he saw were a hundred thousand silver birch trees.
A branch cracked, and with horror Radu’s eyes snapped back to his pursuer. Now that Radu saw him again, he knew what was wrong.
“In the name of Jesus and the Forest . . .”
The words fell dead in the softness of the snow, but even as they did Radu turned and began to run, lurching wildly from tree to tree. His right hand left a smear of blood on the paper bark of a birch, but that wound was irrelevant now. It was such a short while since he’d been cutting wood with his axe. The axe that lay somewhere in the snow, its blade stained with blood, already frozen. His blood.
He hit another two trees, but barely noticed, and suddenly he realized where he was. Close to Chust, where his fellow woodcutter Tomas lived in a hut outside the village.
For a fleeting moment a flame of hope ignited in his heart. He had run fast, the village was only a short way through the trees, and he could no longer hear his attacker behind him.
But then Radu rounded a tree and ran straight into him.
The man was not tall, but he was fat. Bloated. His skin was as white as the trees around them. There was dried blood at the corners of his shriveled mouth. It had taken Radu all this time to recognize him.
Radu took a step backward, his fur boots brushing through the snow. He tripped over an unseen root, but kept his feet. He lifted a hand and pointed at the man.
“But Willem. You’re dead!”
The man lunged forward and shoved his hand like a knife into Radu’s chest, feeling for his heart.
“Not anymore,” he said.
And now it was Radu who fell dead in the softness of the snow.
From the Hardcover edition.