Prologue

 

After coming from the land of the Vikings on the dragon boats, only a few years after the debacle in Ireland that had set him adrift across this Earth, the pale alchemist had met several people in tribes with hair shaved in strange patterns, much like the Roman helmets he remembered from his youth. The Vikings’ established trade with these peoples meant that there were several of the Norsemen and women fluent in the thrilling new dialects, and he’d reveled in learning them.

      When he said farewell to the Scandinavian traders and left with the native peoples, he hopped from tribe to clan down the coast and across the plains so full of the horned beasts in their thundering herds. He would live and learn languages, customs. He would hunt, and fight, and make love, and father a few children, and then he would move on, before whichever group he was with would notice that he remained the same age, never a new wrinkle appearing.

      Back in Scandinavia, it had been brought to his attention by the young ovate from Erin that had left with him. Peik, the name he had been given by the norsemen, had noticed the same thing with the ovate. They had spent a decade with the Vikings, and the norsemen had started to grey and wrinkle, while Peik and the ovate looked exactly the same age as when they had arrived. Both of them knew where this was coming from, as the thing spoke to them in their dreams. Dreams both of the sleeping and of the awakened.

      It was housed in a box of Sacred Oak, with gilt leaves of silver along the corners and hasp. When the box was opened, it sang and shone; the oaken and silver Spirit Snare of the Druids.

      Made as a weapon for the ovate’s people, it had worked marvelously, for a time. Soon after, though, the Christ-people who had invaded their land returned with an army. The ovate, the pale alchemist who had arrived with the Christian invaders, and the knife had fled to live with the Vikings.

      The metal, fused with the blood of an aging and very powerful Druid, was called Blood Silver. It had been poured into a mold of an elliptical-bladed dagger, hollow on the inside. Oak branches, leaves, and acorns were depicted all along the blade and hand-guard, with gnarled roots as the handle.

      As often before, Peik wondered what had happened to Eowen, the ovate; a too-trusting soul that Peik had drugged the night he’d escaped on a dragon boat, carrying the oaken snare along the freezing seas until they had reached Turtle Island. Probably killed by the Norse.

      Once he made it to the “New World”, no one found out about his eternal youth, as he never stayed in one place for too long. He hunted and harvested his way across the plains of Turtle Island until the Earth shot up into the sky on the horizon, and the red dust swirled in plumes and clouds. There, among the deep canyons and jagged stones, is where he met the Raven Man.

      Peik had noticed the man twice, long before. Once while crossing the great river, forty years previous, and again a decade later in the forest to the north. Neither of those times had ended with a meeting, however, as the feelings Peik got from the man made him want to get farther away from him, not closer. On this third time, though, he had opted to meet the round, smiling man. Peik waved at him, and he waved back. The man smiled broader, then began to walk toward him. Peik’s eyes were riveted as the large, dark-skinned man approached. With each step, the man seemed to blur and appear much closer than his size and gait would suggest, like he was skipping over large distances.     

      “Hello, traveler,” the man croaked when he was near enough for conversation. His hair was matted with dirt the color of blood, and he wore what appeared to be the skin of an animal with a hole cut in the center, and nothing else. When Peik looked closer at the thing he saw its black incandescence resembled feathers. He gazed deeper, mesmerized, and the feathered poncho ruffled, a misshapen beak appearing. The beak wiggled, and he realized he was looking straight at the old man’s penis.

      “Hahaha,” the man laughed, then, “Gluck.” He made a noise like a stone dropping perfectly in the center of a pond.

      Peik’s head swam.

      “It’s the man who doesn’t get older!” the man said in a dialect Peik could only barely make out. His crackly voice bounced off the strange columns of stone around them.

      “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Peik said in the closest tongue he could, different only by mere degrees than the man’s language.

      “Oh, I think you do.” His voice had altered, and in Peik’s mind was reflected as exactly the dialect he had just used. “I really think that you do, man-from-across-the-waters.” He cocked his head to the side, and his bloodshot eyes seemed to both move independently of one another, searching different places on Peik’s face. It was alarming, confusing. Unnatural.

      “I am simply a traveler, like you say.”

      “A traveler, yes.” He nodded. “But not simple.” His eyes came together on one of Peik’s. It sent a ripple of nausea through his stomach. The larger man searched for a word. “Hm . . . complex,” he said, satisfied. “Like you are many men at once, yes?” This time the dialect was thick, but the meaning clear. He looked closer at Peik, bending his head forward.

      “A very white man with a shiny thing in a box,” said the man. “What is that thing?”

      In that instance, he seemed to have grown in size, almost doubled, his girth hovering over Peik, who pushed his bagged belongings behind him, as far from the man as possible, the snare in its box central among them.

      “Get away from me,” he said, clutching the strap of the bag so tightly his knuckles turned a flaming red on his pale skin. The contrast was startling.

      Peik pulled a small knife from a sheath on his leg, strapped there in case of situations such as this. He held it tightly, blade down, ready. But a feeling overtook Peik; this was the first person he’d met in all his travels whose arcane knowledge matched or surpassed his own. Whatever he had, it was beyond the trappings of alchemy, or what Peik knew of shamanism.

      “Another fun thing!” The big man was not intimidated, far from it. Rather, he made the sound with his tongue again, and Peik’s muscles froze. The knife dropped from his hand, falling harmlessly to the ground. From inside the blanket-skin thing, the man reached out in a flash and grabbed it from the cloud of dust. Peik readied himself for the attack he knew was coming. But it never did.

      When he looked from between his raised arms, the dirty man was holding the knife, handle first, towards Peik, offering it up to him.

      “Heh, heh.” The handle bobbled up and down from his chuckles. “That’s not the one I’m talking about, stupid. Take this back, man-from-across-the-water, I want to show you some things. Things that will make you want to give me the shiny blade in the box of your own accord,” he said, in the language of the Norsemen.

      Slowly, Peik reached out, wrapped his fingers around the handle, and put it back on his leg. He wasn’t going to be offered an opportunity like this again. This man, or whatever he was, had a control of things Peik had been chasing his entire existence. He looked up and saw him walking away, toward one of the large stone spires with holes in them all the way up to the top. Little cities in stone. The pale alchemist dusted himself off and followed the thick man toward the spires, and in the dust thought he could see huge black wings stretching off his back. Before he caught up, he looked after the man’s figure. Beyond him, up in the cliffside crags, shone a golden light. It flickered, hidden in the sun’s setting rays, then disappeared. Or had it been there at all?