Those who see the dead soon join them.
From the author of the critically-acclaimed Blackwing trilogy comes Ed McDonald’s Daughter of Redwinter, the first of a brilliant fantasy series about how one choice can change a universe.
Raine can see—and speak—to the dead, a gift that comes with a death sentence. All her life she has hidden, lied, and run to save her skin, and she’s made some spectacularly bad choices along the way.
But it is a rare act of kindness—rescuing an injured woman in the snow—that becomes the most dangerous decision Raine has ever made.
Because the woman is fleeing from Redwinter, the fortress-monastery of the Draoihn, warrior magicians who answer to no king, and who will stop at nothing to reclaim what she’s stolen. A battle, a betrayal, and a horrific revelation force Raine to enter the citadel and live among the Draoihn. She soon finds that her secret ability could be the key to saving an entire nation.
Though she might have to die to make it happen . . .
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Daughter of Redwinter by Ed McDonald, on sale 6/28/22.
The stories of this age begin and end with blood, and mine is no exception.
I went still when I saw it. Stark, bright spots of poppy-red trailed across the snow, leading upwards between the pines. Dark voids fell away through the pure white glare, where blood’s heat had cut into the banks.
I saw her curled beneath a tree, the snow around her stained bright as summer flowers. A woman. She was young and ragged. Bloody. Unmoving.
I knelt and scanned between the trees. Checked the ground for churned snow. Bear tracks or bootprints. It all seemed quiet. Just a body, and the bloody trail.
Dead? It was hard to say. Maybe.
No sign of a lingering soul between the trees, no bitter ghost of the unhappy dead. They were often around us, silent, unknown. Silent to everyone else, at least. They passed by the living, their presence felt as little more than the rise of hairs on a neck, or the momentary, unplaceable feeling of something lost, or forgotten. Nothing but echoes of the past. If the woman in the snow had breathed her last, her ghost had already moved on.
She wasn’t my concern, and time was not on my side. We’d fled to Dalnesse, once a proud fortification that had sheltered monks from the hardships of the world, now barely more than an echo of its former grandeur. We’d fled here because it had walls, and walls count for a lot when a lord takes it upon himself to slaughter you. But once our safe haven was surrounded, it had become a cage. Opening the doors would invite in malice, and blades, and the end. So when I found the river tunnel beneath the crypts, saw the light of day beyond the tunnel mouth, I had allowed myself a flicker of hope.
I had not expected to find friends out here in the snow.
Whoever this was, or had been, she was neither friend nor salvation to me. And yet seeing her fallen body set that little flame fluttering. She had climbed up here, which meant that, spirits willing, we could climb down. There was a way off this cursed rock, which meant we might yet get out of this alive.
Someone— or something— had got her pretty good, judging by all that blood. Another good reason to get us out of here. I should leave her and follow her trail. Track it down off the mountain.
That’s what I ought to do.
Ah, damn it.
I crept towards her, snow crunching softly beneath my frozen, leaking boots. The cobbler had sworn they were winter-proof. You can never trust a cobbler. Anyone who spends that long thinking about feet has something wrong with them. I kept an arrow nocked on the string. If this was some kind of trap, then it was an elaborate one. No one should be up here, not even if they were just crawling up the mountain to die.
The slope was steep, the trees ahead sparse. Mountain pine, a scattering of stark-branched shrubs. I looked for plumes of steam, the breath of men hiding in the still morning. Nothing. Not a sound, save for the call of mountain bluebirds, the occasional rustle of snow dropping from a branch. I put no tension on the bowstring, moving fast, tree to tree. No point exposing myself here.
I crossed the last distance and knelt beside her. Not much older than me. Dark haired, her complexion too dark for the highlands. Her threadbare, tattered clothes were better suited to city living than a hike in the wild, and better than I’d ever worn, that’s for sure. A few embossed buttons clung to the edge of her coat, the silver slicked red. No ghost lingered over her, or wandered the trees, but that didn’t mean much. Only the unhappiest dead appeared to me. I’d seen ghosts bound by bitterness, chained with ropes of remorse, caught in nets of grief. But most of the time, dead was just dead.
‘I’m sorry you’re dead,’ I spoke into the cold. Just a whisper of frosted breath in the stillness of the mountain’s mantle.
She was probably dead. She looked dead. I felt a pang of guilt as I eyed her buttons. The coat was ruined, but the silver would sell. It was a sour thought, but Light Above, Braithe and I needed the money. We all would, if I could find a mountain trail to carry us from Dalnesse. Money to feed us, to hide us from a cold heart’s fury. But before I went cutting off a dead woman’s buttons, I had to make sure she was actually dead. I took my arrow from the string, jabbed it down into a foot of snow and reached to check for a pulse.
Her eyes flared open and her hands shot out, wrapping my throat. She stared without recognition, confused and angry as her lips curled back in a snarl. I jerked back but she was strong, cold fingers choking me. I thrashed backwards, once, twice, couldn’t break her grip. There was no air. No air! I fumbled at my belt, and then my dirk was in my hand and I drew it across her forearm. The not-dead woman gasped and I snapped free. I kicked back, the light snow flying as I fell, rolled clumsily, head over heel.
She struggled to rise, the pain across her face mirroring the snow across mine.
‘Hold it,’ I panted, brandishing the blade in front of me. ‘Just hold it there.’ Blood pounded through me, but relief fed my bones. I hadn’t wanted her to be dead. I didn’t have to cut off her buttons now.
The woman’s eyes were unfocused as she pushed herself back against the tree trunk. Not much older than me, and just as frightened. I’d told myself that if I came across one of Clan LacCulloch’s clan riders, I’d be able to do it. Able to put an arrow into an enemy. But this girl wasn’t one of his men. She’d no clan colours on her at all, and her coat was made for summer days in summer towns. A southern girl lost in the northern fall. She blinked, tried to focus, appraising me as I had her.
I have to keep going,’ she said. Her voice was hoarse, weak, and she pressed her hand against the shallow slice in her arm. Red drips in the snow. But there was already a lot of blood on her coat, and none of it my doing.
‘You don’t look like you’re going anywhere fast,’ I said, still holding my knife. ‘You aren’t with LacCulloch.’
‘No,’ she said. Too much weight in that one word. ‘I have to get to the monastery.’
The burst of panic had faded. In the moment, she’d seemed wild and terrible, but as my heart slowed and my breathing calmed, I saw how ragged she was, how thinly worn. Red-tinged eyes over gaunt cheeks. She was twenty, twenty-two at a push and she didn’t belong here, up in the mountains where we were fighting to stay alive while others were fighting to kill us. None of us did. I gathered up my bow and arrow. I didn’t trust her.
‘Dalnesse is under siege,’ I said. ‘Niven LacCulloch’s men have blocked the mountain road. Guess you know that already, seeing as you’re trying to get in the back way.’
‘I have to keep moving or he’ll catch me,’ the woman said. She shivered. Her fingers were bolts of white marble against the blood oozing from her forearm. ‘Please. Which way is Dalnesse?’
Nobody in their right mind wanted to go to Dalnesse. Monastic absolution houses were literally the most miserable places in the world, and I never saw the appeal of a religion that tells you that you’re inadequate all the time. But Dalnesse was even worse, since the monks had all buggered off years ago, and the people inside—my people—were beginning to starve.
‘It’s that way,’ I said, jabbing a thumb over my shoulder at my footprints. ‘Who hurt you?’
‘Men who want to stop me,’ she said. She was sweating despite the cold.
‘Where are they now?’
‘Think I lost them.’ She spoke in a desperate, pleading whisper. ‘I have to get to Dalnesse.’
Thrice-damned Dalnesse. We’d been stuck for over a week now. It wasn’t Braithe’s fault. He only had forty grown men and women, and fewer than half were capable fighters, while Niven LacCulloch had brought nearly one hundred mail-clad warriors. We were caught now, behind Dalnesse’s walls, our backs to the mountain. If Braithe’s cousins didn’t show up soon with a whole lot of swords, then we were in trouble. All the walls in the world weren’t going to feed us.
I’d reasoned that not even monks would pen themselves up against a mountain without a back way in, but I’d only found the underground stream, and the tunnel that had let me out onto the mountainside, by following the ghost of an old monk. He’d probably been dead for a few hundred years or more, but that’s what the dead do: repeat, repeat, and endlessly repeat. Echoes of their lost lives.
‘You need to get that arm wrapped up,’ I said. ‘You’re not going to make it much further.’
‘I don’t have a choice,’ she said. She forced herself up from the snow and began to stagger in the direction I’d pointed, boots even less suitable than mine sinking into the snow.
‘Wait,’ I said.
My plan had been a simple one. The iron grille that had blocked the stream tunnel had been rusted, easily kicked free. If I could find a safe path down the mountainside, maybe we could all slip away through the tunnel, onto the mountainside. We’d have a chance to get out of Dalnesse, avoid LacCulloch and his men in the night. Some of the sooth-sisters and their followers were probably a bit too old for a daring nighttime escape, but desperation was leading me now. I wasn’t supposed to be out here, and Braithe would be angry when he couldn’t find me. Strange that sometimes I feared his reaction as much as I feared LacCulloch’s swords.
The woman stumbled in the snow, leaving a stark red handprint sunk below her as she pushed herself back up. If I followed my plan, I’d be leaving her here to die. My mother may have been a bitter old soul, but for all her spite, she’d not raised her girl to leave people to freeze to death in the snow. Shit. I couldn’t take her with me down the mountain, and I couldn’t abandon her to die here either.
I pulled her good arm up over my shoulders. She was made of sticks, like she hadn’t eaten in weeks, weighed about as much as a rabbit.
‘I’m Raine,’ I said as I dragged her along. It was less than an hour back to Dalnesse. I could get her into the sooth-sisters’ care and be back on my way before midday. Probably best to avoid any questions about where I’d been. If Braithe knew what I was planning, he’d stop me. He loved me too much to let me go.
The bloody young woman grimaced. Her strength was a shallow pool, drained by exhaustion and blood loss, and after an hour’s struggle through the snow we’d managed less than half the distance I could have traversed alone. The cut on her arm had stopped bleeding, but there was fresh blood on her coat. Every step drew an animal grunt of pain from her cold-hardened lips.
‘I’m Hazia,’ she said. It seemed to cost her a lot. Somehow, she didn’t sound certain.
Why are you trying to get into Dalnesse, Hazia?’ I asked. She didn’t reply. ‘It’s one of the worst places I’ve ever been to, and I’ve seen some shitty places.’ I didn’t expect an answer.
‘Have to take it back there,’ she muttered.
‘This is an awful lot of effort to make a delivery,’ I said. ‘Watch out for the log. Right in front of you. Big step over. That’s it.’
‘Nothing else matters,’ she said. Pain cobwebbed through her voice.
‘Maybe focus on staying alive first, and delivering things second,’ I said, since she visibly had nothing of value on her. No bag, no purse, not even a knife on her belt. Not even a belt. Nothing to deliver. ‘Not too far to the bridge now. We’re going to have to take that slow and careful.’
‘Need to hurry,’ Hazia said. ‘I can hear him. Like drums, through the hills. He’s coming.’
‘Yes. Drums. He’s coming.’
Delirium must have been setting in. Wounds and cold twined together into ropes of uncertainty in her mind . . . but someone other than me had put that blood on her coat. Only then, as I dragged her onwards, I heard them. Distant, to the east.
Dhum, dhum, dhum.
Dhum, dhum, dhum.
A soft, gentle sound, the rhythm perfect and steady. I felt it as much as I heard it, like a painless headache, a pulsing that rose gently at the edges of my mind. I shook my head to clear it, but the three beats replayed themselves, one-two-three, one-two-three, over and over. Hazia whimpered as I forced a harder pace, following my own trail of footprints
A sound on the slope below us made me stop, pulling Hazia down behind the wide trunk of a pine before a man on a huge black horse rode slowly through the trees. He was the biggest man I’d ever seen. Not tall, but wide, filling his oxblood-red coat as though it were inflated with hot air. His hair was tawny, his face didn’t need to see a razor very often, and he wore eyeglasses. Expensive ones, with brass rims. He wore mail beneath his coat, and there was a five-foot longsword on his saddle, but I knew a lot of tough men, and he didn’t have their cast. That size spoke more of bread than brawn.
‘He’s the one that’s after you?’ I said.
Hazia nodded, her voice a whisper of wind. ‘One of them. But not the one to be afraid of.’
I settled an arrow on the bowstring and kept sight of the young rider. He wasn’t exactly scanning the trees, only half-focused on what he was doing, and he looked soft beneath his armour. Though I kept some rough company, I’d never killed a man, and I didn’t think I would be able to start with this one. At seventeen, I was a woman grown, and men treated me like one when it suited them. But though he had to be around my age, the man on the black horse seemed more boy than man to me. I lessened the tension in the string.
‘Wait here,’ I whispered. ‘Maybe he’ll ride by. If he had your trail, he’s clearly lost it. We can cut along the high ridge there. He shouldn’t see us unless he turns north.’
Hazia winced, shifting against the tree as she put a hand beneath her coat. Her fingers came away licked with red.
‘He’s no threat,’ she said. ‘Listen for the drums.’
They were still there, off to the east. Faint, but steady. Dhum, dhum, dhum. Dhum, dhum, dhum. Repeating, over and over. I felt my eyes close and opened them again with a jerk, suddenly aware that time had passed. How long, I didn’t know. Like I’d just woken from sleep. This, all of this, felt wrong to me. Hazia’s eyes were closed, exhaustion taking her. I tapped her cheek twice and her eyes opened blearily. At least she didn’t try to strangle me this time.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Come on. Stay awake. Can’t let you pass out and die out here, can I?’
I could have. My mother would have said that the weak deserve what they get, and then hated herself for saying it. She’d hated a lot of things, including me, which hardly seemed fair, but she’d seldom demanded fairness except for herself. What would Braithe have done? I supposed he would have helped Hazia too. I hoped he would. He was a hard man, but he did his best. That’s why I loved him. If not for him, those poor soothsaying sisters would have been severed heads on LacCulloch’s castle walls by now.
Hazia winced as she struggled to rise. I hadn’t looked at the wound beneath her coat. I was no surgeon and couldn’t have helped her out here even if I was. Sometimes it’s better not to know how bad it is.
A sound made us both freeze. The fat young man was back, a good hundred yards away, retracing his steps, but that wasn’t what had taken my attention. Another sound was emanating from him, like the distant drums, but instead of a steady, constant rhythm, it was more akin to a drunk child beating a spoon against a saucepan. Hazia grabbed my jaw and turned my face to hers as she pressed her finger to her lips. Her eyes were near rolling with fear and she held me until the young man and his clattering racket had gone on their way.
‘What was that?’ I asked.
‘You heard it too?’ Hazia said.
‘That’s not normal.’
‘None of this is normal,’ I said. ‘But if I don’t get you somewhere warm in the next hour, you probably aren’t ever getting warm again.’
Hazia grunted with pain as I dragged her up.
‘What do they want with you?’ I asked.
‘Trying to stop me,’ she whispered. ‘No talk. Just walk.’
Dragging a person is hard work, and dragging them through snow is worse. My feet were numb and heavy and I started dreaming up painful deaths for the cobbler who’d sold me my now entirely sodden, freezing boots. I hated snow. The monks who’d decided to live up here may have enjoyed plenty of clear mountain air and a big open sky, but snow is like springtime dancing: idiots think that it’s fun, and everyone with any sense avoids it.
‘Not far to the bridge now. Dalnesse is less than half a mile beyond it,’ I said. Hazia walked with her eyes closed, trusting me to guide her feet. My teeth were gritted against the cold. Not so much further. There wasn’t much to eat in Dalnesse, but there were warm fires and kettles of tea. And company. I should never have set out on my own. I’d thought I was being clever, thought I was going to impress everyone, maybe even save us.
A deep, male voice bellowed on the wind.
Another rider, his horse black and monstrous beneath him, emerged on our trail. He was thick and broad as the pines, his oxblood-red leather coat hanging over green-and-black breacan trousers. Iron rings protruded from the ends of his sleeves. An iron-grey beard framed a wide face, the morning sun shining from his scalp.
The vast black charger stalked through the trees, its rider’s eyes filled with deadly intent. His sword was alive and gleaming in his hand, the steel silverblue in the dappled light.
‘Hazia!’ he bellowed again. Snow dust shivered from the pines.
‘Run,’ she whispered. But it was too late for running. The warrior drove his heels into his mount’s sides, and the glossy beast kicked into a run, snow erupting around its hooves.
You can’t outrun a horse. Panic cycloned in my gut as Hazia staggered ahead of me. Our options flitted through my mind, instinct pulling my thoughts one way, reason another, fear a third until they solidified into something that resembled a plan.
I put an arrow to the string.
When you learn to shoot, you become one with the bow. You reach out to make it an extension of you, drive your essence through the grain of the wood so that arm, stave and spirit are one. Woman and weapon together, a mystic dance of precision and poise.
Not really. You just pull the string back, point it and let go. The less you think, the more likely you are to send it where you want.
I loosed. The string slapped against my bracer as the arrow took flight. The horse screamed in pain as the shaft hammered into its chest, its pounding advance ending as its forelegs collapsed beneath it and the rider pitched headfirst into the snow. Poor horse. With luck, the rider had broken his neck in the fall. That would have been something.
No luck. He surged from the snow in a cloud of white, the drum-beat thundering louder in my mind.
‘Kill him!’ Hazia yelled back at me. ‘Kill him before he takes your mind!’
There was a savage determination on the fallen rider’s wide, round face. One cheek was grazed and bloody, but he still had a grip on his sword and he still came on, ignoring the dying horse behind him. His murderous intent was clear, his shoulders working up and down. The drums grew louder, louder, dhum-dhum-dhum, dhum-dhum-dhum. I was taller, but I couldn’t outrun him and help Hazia. She’d fallen down a short way on, staring back with terrified eyes.
‘Drop the bow, girl,’ the old man bellowed. He favoured one leg, the barest twitch of an eye and the clench of his teeth telling me he hadn’t fallen well. ‘You don’t know what you’re dealing with. I will kill you if I have to.’
‘I’ll only warn you once,’ I shouted. ‘I will shoot you.’
It was true. It had to be true. I could do it. I had to be able to do it.
‘No,’ he growled. ‘You won’t.’
He was stocky, built like an ox, and he made an easy target, floundering through the snow. I’d given a warning. Couldn’t ask much more than that. My second arrow was for him.
Braithe would be proud of me. He always said I was too soft. That the world was hard and I needed to harden myself to match. Not all lives were precious. That’s what he said.
Draw, settle, breathe out, release. Snap of string against bracer. The arrow flew
The warrior struck out and caught it.
He caught it. My damn arrow.
And then he was limping towards me, tossing the cracked shaft aside, staggering as he blundered into a snow drift. I’d thought fast, I’d acted fast. Now I just stared at him.
He’d caught my damn arrow.
I turned and fled onwards, dragging Hazia’s arm across my shoulder. Whoever or whatever he was, Hazia’s enemy was now mine and I was damned if I was going to let him catch me. I got to see enough ghosts without becoming one myself. He sure as damnation shouldn’t have been catching my arrows. The bow had an eighty-pound draw. It wasn’t possible.
I dragged her, dodging beneath the pines where the snow was lightest, glancing back to see him struggling behind us, limping and getting bogged down like he’d never seen snow before in his life. Didn’t know how to find the easy footing. Even dragging Hazia, half-blind and mumbling to herself, we began to pull ahead. I tried to look everywhere at once, vision roaming between the trees. Where was the second rider, the young one with the child-and-pan clatter about him? He couldn’t be ahead of us. He couldn’t. I pushed the girl to move faster. Hazia gasped in pain, but pain is fleeting and dying is forever. No resting now.
This way, a whisper seemed to ride on the breeze. Calling me on. Louder than the tapping of the drums. Desperate hope giving rise to imagination.
I dragged us up a bank, turned and looked back. He was a good way behind us now, foundering in deep snow. Maybe he’d got lucky with that catch? Maybe the part of me that was telling me to run and run and never stop running was wrong. I drew a shaft, knocked it. Another chance. This time it would—
He locked eyes with me and made an angry swipe of his hand. The snow around him evaporated in a cloud of steam, a boiling cloud obscuring him from view. I lost my target, I lost control of my jaw, and then the snow between us melted away, mud, stones and sheltering plants revealed as the air grew hot and wet, winter blossoming into summer. The warrior surged through the new-formed mist, splashing through wet mud as he closed the distance.
Run, that whisper ghosted into my mind. You cannot fight him yet.
Whoever or whatever he was, all thought of shooting him died at that moment. His sword gleamed with morning fire, reflected across his broad, mastiff face. He was a charging bull, and no arrow was going to stop him. I fled, felt him closing the gap behind us as snow hissed and boiled away to nothing, clearing his path.
The trees ended and we staggered to a halt, lungs heaving, drawing up on the edge of the canyon. The mountain river flowed below, a twenty-foot drop to fast-flowing water which frothed across blade-edged rocks. The bridge ahead was old, and rotten in parts, but the monks had made it to last.
A woman from another time stood on the far side of the river. Her form rippled like a mirage, trailing vapours in a wind I didn’t feel. A heavy fur-lined cloak sat over a royal-blue dress, raven-dark hair falling to the small of her back. Feathers formed a wreath above her ears, and streaks of battle paint crossed her cheeks and eyes. A queen from a bygone age, a ghost. A useless ghost. She couldn’t help us.
‘Please,’ Hazia breathed. ‘Have to get to Dalnesse.’
‘You will,’ I said and pushed her forwards. ‘You go first.’ The bridge creaked beneath her, rotten planks groaning. It was only forty feet to the far bank, and her strength seemed to flow out of her as she got halfway. Planks creaked, and one cracked beneath me, but I slowly made it to Hazia and pulled her across.
The ghostly queen’s eyes seemed to track me, though the dead did not see the living, the living did not see the dead. That was how it always was. Her face was narrow, her eyes deep-set and hard as the ice beneath feet that drifted off into mist. But she smiled, a feral curl of her lip.
The warrior was panting as he drew towards the far end of the bridge. Blood ran down his right leg.
‘Keep back!’ I yelled, but I didn’t even have an arrow ready. My heart hammered in my chest.
‘It’s over,’ he called in a deep voice that spoke of a life far from here. ‘Hazia. Stay there. Let me end this.’ He held out an open hand. Almost a gesture of friendship. ‘Hazia. Please.’
‘No,’ she said from the far bank. ‘Let me go. I have to finish it.’
‘Run, Raine. They shall not catch you. Not today,’ the feather-crowned queen said, and the last of my reserves blew away like dandelion breath with my sudden rush of fear. She was calm as snowfall; vapours rose from her shoulders, twisting on unmoving air. She had spoken my name. It was impossible. I sank to my knees. People didn’t see the dead. The dead did not see people. They were only ever echoes of the past, blind and broken shadows of what had been.
Only she had called me by name . . .
The big warrior stepped onto the bridge, the wood groaning beneath his armoured weight, but he advanced anyway, one steady pace after another.
‘Do not fear. This is not the end,’ the ghost queen said. ‘I will not let him hurt you, Raine. This is only our beginning.’ She smiled. A warm, ghostly smile. And then she uttered a word. A word that was a tangle of three different equations, all identical and all giving different answers, an impossible word that was the things that only the glaciers know, a word that was never spoken but always heard, that was ancient and new and powerful. And for a moment, I thought I saw the shadow of raven-feathered wings spreading behind her.
Wood splintered. The bridge in front of the warrior groaned, and then the long beams shattered, as though a giant had grasped them in his hands and twisted. Supporting beams that had been laid long years ago buckled, and with a vast crash the whole bridge gave way. The mail-clad warrior and his oxblood coat disappeared into seething, vicious water below in a swirl of sharp debris, the current sweeping it all away to dash against the rocks.
Copyright © 2022 from Ed McDonald
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