Prologue: Burning the Green
Father Harris drew a crucifix from the folds of his cassock and crossed himself with the tender shoots of a white willow. Against evil, he whispered, his voice just audible over the creak of leather and the flush of uneasy breath. On either side, men stood at arms, muskets at the ready. Ball and powder might fell the men and horses, but there was no killing the skinless ones, and no firing on what you could not see. The dark came on. And with it, the sound of thunder.
All around the village green, torches flared to light. In their smoke and tallow, thirty-seven men took aim at the western wood. Harris could feel his heart striking in time to the rumble, the steady, incessant pounding of hooves against the earth. He clutched at the crucifix, pressing its imprint into the palm, feeling the bite of silver clasp against soft flesh. The velvet maw of the forest lay open, a hole in the night.
“Kill the white one,” Harris swallowed thick, his throat dry and close. “If you can.”
In the circle of torchlight, something moved. A shadow crossed against itself, another pulled free of the lengthening dark of houses.
“There! There!” And the first wasted shot. The report and musket flare startled the horses, but so too the militia; a ripple of panic jostled the careful line.
“Steady!” Harris wheeled round, fixing them with black eyes. But there were shadows, so many shadows.
They were already there.
“Jackwolves! Jackwolves! Jack—” the man nearest Harris recoiled as if struck, reeling, dropping the musket. Nothing enveloped him. Nothing dragged him to earth—nothing, but the wet-sharp sound of snapping teeth. And they hadn’t come alone. From the forest, figures emerged, hard riding and with steel.
“Fire!” Harris shouted, “Fire at the men!” Marksmen scrabbled after dropped lead shot and blown powder. Others had been felled, others still standing. Harris held the crucifix high, wind streaming his coarse white hair. “Fire! Fire! Fire!”
A youth, scarcely a man, shuddered to his knees. Numb fingers fumbled to ram the charge home, and he rose once more to take aim. Breathing against the wooden stock, heart hammering, his fingers trembled at the trigger—and the world burst open in a sizzle of white light. The first strike found the church tower, sending a jolt through the earth and tossing men like dislodged pegs. Gunfire echoes impotent, spent smoke joined by something more substantial. The roof had caught fire; tinder dry, it roared along the leaded gutters and sizzled into the willow tree. Hot ash fell like burning snow, papering the ground and singeing the grass, and all around were voices, shrill and panicked. Houses burst to light and fire ringed them like a curtain. Its smoldering outline shimmered with the cast dark of the skinless ones and of the riders, who herded the living like sheep.
Harris clawed his way forward in the acrid air. The crucifix was lost, the willow burnt to cinder. Hot tears stung his eyes, but he plunged forward, falling upon the cold iron of a fallen musket. His fingers danced upon it, spider soft; this was not his weapon to command—but in the haze of black and burning, he could hear him. That voice, that deep ringing—the same he’d known for ten years and more. Harris clutched the stock and swung the barrel blindly forward, but it was already too late. The steely edge of a boot heel crushed earthward, and Harris looked up into that so-white face.
“To burn, Father. That’s what everything is made for.” And after that, the dark.