Excerpt: The Horn, Book One: Oathbreaker

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The tent was empty. Amal knelt to peer farther inside. It was big enough for one person, but any more would be a tight squeeze. A pack lay against the tent wall next to a pile of clothing, neatly stacked. Atop that lay a leather book. Holding the flap open with one foot, she pushed into the small space, and grabbed the book.

Whoever set the tent up out here was trespassing. She was within her rights to seize the lot. The book had a clever little flap that locked. In the dim light inside the tent, she couldn’t see a key.

She backed out of tent into the chill wind. The storm had passed, leaving the sky brilliant and the snow blinding. If not for the wind, it would be beautiful. And without clouds, it was even colder now, turning the occasional fits of wind into knives of cold.

Amal crammed the book into the pocket of her overcoat and adjusted her scarf to better cover her mouth. Jan and Nora were still inspecting the campsite. Using his booted feet, Jan uncovered the trespasser’s fire to determine what that could tell them about him. His black wool overcoat flapped in the wind, and all Amal could see of his face was his dark eyes, the only part of his face not covered by hood and scarves. They were all dressed the same, but Nora didn’t have Jan’s bulk or height–easy to tell them apart. Nora waded through the snow, gazing downward to find any sign of the tent’s owner. Her eyes met Amal’s across the distance, and she shook her head. Amal waved her on.

Nora turned to resume her search and pitched over headlong into the snow, a quick sense of panic flaring across Amal’s senses as she fell.

Jan reached Nora first as she struggled to regain her feet, likely blinded by all the snow caught in her hood. He hauled her up, pushed back her snow-filled hood, and brushed the snow out of it. His relief was palpable to Amal, so she knew Nora must be unhurt.

Nora yanked off one mitten, unwrapped her scarf from her mouth. She wiped her face clear with it before wrapping herself back up again. “I tripped over a body,” she yelled toward Amal.

Amal slogged that direction. Apparently their trespasser had never left his camp. By the time she’d reached Jan and Nora, they had dug down far enough to reveal naked flesh–a very bad sign.

“Snow madness?” Amal asked. People did that sometimes when they were freezing. They stripped off their clothing in the misplaced belief that they were overheating. She’d never seen it herself, but everyone who lived close to the glaciers knew of it.

Jan just grunted at her as he worked to dig the man out. It was clearly a man, Amal could see now, curled up on his side, fair-skinned like Jan and Nora. Amal carefully shifted the snow from his legs. Don’t want to break off any toes.

Nora had set her outer mittens aside and uncovered the man’s face with gloved fingertips. “I think he’s alive,” she shouted over a sudden blast of wind.

Amal had her doubts. “Then he’s under arrest,” she shouted back.

“He tried to kill himself,” Jan yelled in turn.

Amal had one foot uncovered now, all the toes intact, if pale. She paused. From what she’d heard, joining the snow was one of the easier choices. Depending on how long he’d been buried, he was likely to lose his feet, at the least. “You think we should just leave him?”

“I want to know why he’s out here,” Jan said, unexpectedly loud as the wind eased. “So we’re keeping him alive,” he finished in a more reasonable voice.

Even if he doesn’t want it. Amal moved more snow, locating the other bare foot under the first. This man had lain down in the snow naked. Jan was likely right about his motive. The incoming storm had covered him with snow, providing a blanket against the cold and defeating him.

Jan had uncovered most of the man’s legs by the time Amal reached his ankles. “Think we’re ready to lift him?” Jan asked. When Amal nodded, he added, “You take the feet.”

Amal kept her hands around the man’s feet. Nora worked a hand under the man’s neck and grasped his hands with the other as Jan squatted down and lifted the man from the snow. The trespasser might be nearly as tall as Jan, but not as heavy. Jan carried him easily, moving straight toward the abandoned tent.

Amal went in first and took off her gloves at they dragged the man into his tent. His skin was pale, but when she touched his cheek, it wasn’t stiff. Just cold. That was a good sign.

With an icy blast of wind, Jan pushed his way into the tent. After securing the buttons of the tent flap, he helped Nora get a blanket around the man’s body. Once they had the man covered–fortunately, he had enough blankets that they wouldn’t freeze–Nora shifted places with Jan. She crouched near the flap, took off her gloves, and reached under the blanket to feel the stranger’s feet. She’d trained to assist in the infirmary in case of emergency, so of the three of them, she had the most familiarity with frostbite. She frowned.

Amal turned her attention their temporary shelter. This man was an inconvenience. They hadn’t planned on staying here, certainly not overnight, but if they didn’t start back now, they wouldn’t reach the camp, so it was either abandon the man now or stay overnight and take him back in the morning.

The man’s supplies took up one corner, a pack with clothing, some dried fruit and meat, matches and kindling. Amal located a small lantern and fumbled through her pockets until she found her matches. She lit the lamp and hung it from the top of the tent as Jan and Nora continued to assess the man’s condition. Amal rummaged through the rest of his possessions in the hope of learning why he was here, in their territory. There wasn’t much, so she turned back to study the man’s face.

It was hard to tell his race. He was fair skinned but brown haired, near to Jan in coloration actually. He didn’t have the curved nose associated with the Anvarrid. His scant beard–unlike Jan’s full one–could come from any number of peoples. “What color are his eyes?”

“Brown,” Nora answered, pressing the man’s left hand between her own.

“How bad?” Amal asked through chattering teeth. Now that they were out of the wind, she started to shiver.

“I don’t think he was out there too long,” Nora said. “He’s not as cold as I feared at first. No sign of frostbite. Chilblains on his feet, but nothing terrible.”

“He had to have been out there before the snowfall,” Jan insisted. “He was buried. So early last night at the latest.”

“Can’t be,” Nora said. “He’d be dead then.”

With stinging fingers, Amal picked up a tunic and peered at the stitching. “What sort of fabric is this?”

The wind howled outside the tent, making the sides flap noisily. “I don’t care,” Jan said once it had subsided. “We have to get him warm.”

Amal watched doubtfully as her brother began stripping off his jacket. Ever practical, Jan was. “What do we know about this man?”

“He’s been in the cold long enough that if Nora’s wrong, he may not have any toes left,” Jan said curtly. “If he stripped off his clothes, it’s bad.”

Amal sighed. “We should have let him die.”

“No,” Jan insisted. “I’m not letting him go before he answers my questions.”

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Dalyan awoke in a strange afterlife where he was surrounded by flesh and encased in warmth. His eyes hurt and his head still ached, but he wasn’t cold. That, at least, had changed.

He coughed. No, not an afterlife.

The warmth behind him shifted–definitely a man–and a long arm reached over his body to shake the shoulder of the person lying against his chest, bare legs tangled with his. That was a woman. She drew back and blinked blearily.

The man said something to her. She reached up one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. Her eyes met Dalyan’s. They were dark in a pale face with high, rounded cheekbones. Her hair was nearly white blond, roughly braided back.

The lantern hanging over them was familiar. That was his. They were in his tent. They’d dug him up. Why?

Another woman–this one outside the cocoon of blankets and bodies–leaned closer to peer at him. She was dark haired with medium skin, her eyes brown. Her hair was braided back as well. She, at least, was clothed.

The woman in his arms shifted away from him. She grasped one of his hands and pressed his fingers against her lips, then said something to the others. His brain lagged, not processing her words.

The dark woman removed a canteen from coat and passed it to the woman lying with him. She held it to his lips. “Drink.”

He caught those words this time. Dalyan drank as commanded, water spilling onto his blankets from inept lips.

“I think he’s going to be fine,” the woman said to the others.

“I’m getting dressed.” The man behind him spoke for the first time. He moved away, disturbing the blankets and sending cold air along Dalyan’s spine. Dalyan shivered.

“What is your name?” the clothed woman asked.

He had to answer that. “Dalyan,” he croaked.

There was only the one light in the tent, above his head. It hurt his eyes to look at it. The woman lying next to him shifted again, her bare feet brushing his. “Can you feel your toes?”

“Yes.” He drank again when she held the flask to his lips. Who are they?

“Why are you here?” the dark woman asked.

The man behind him stilled, clearly waiting for his answer.

“I’m hunting for the abandoned city,” Dalyan confessed, his mind sliding toward sleep again.