Excerpt from Of Ice and Snow:
Otec pushed aside some brush and saw a figure bent over something. Even at fifteen strides away, he could see that the face was fine featured with deeply tanned skin, enormous brown eyes, and thick black hair.
He knew two things at once. First, this wasn’t a man as he’d first suspected—but a woman wearing men’s clothing and sporting hair so short it barely touched her ears. And second, she was a foreigner. What was a foreigner doing on the edge of the Shyle forest?
She was close to Otec’s own age of twenty, and she was almost pretty, in a boyish sort of way. But what intrigued him most was how engrossed she was in what she was doing, the tip of her pink tongue rubbing against her bottom lip, and her brows furrowed in concentration.
That concentration stirred something inside him, an uncanny sense of familiarity. Something about the forward bend of her head, the intensity of her gaze, sparked a deep recognition. He shouldn’t be watching her—should be moving the sick lamb to the village, but he couldn’t seem to take his eyes away. Eager to see what she was doing, Otec moved as close as he dared, coming to the edge of the shadows and peering at her from behind a tree.
A sheet of vellum was tacked to a board on her lap. Her hands were delicate, beautiful even, as her fingers worked a bit of charcoal in what seemed a choreographed variation of long and short strokes. Bit by bit, the drawing began to take shape. It was of Otec’s village, which was spread out below them. Surrounded by the crimson and gold of autumn, Shyleholm was nestled deep in the high mountain valley. This foreign woman had somehow managed to capture the feel of the centuries-old stones, cut from the mountains by glaciers, rounded and polished for decades before they were pulled from the rivers by Otec’s ancestors.
She had depicted the neat, tidy fields of hay set up against the harsh winters, even managing to give a hint of the surrounding steep mountains and hills. But what she hadn’t captured was the chaos of wagons and tents set up on the far side of the village. They were a little late for the autumn clan feast, but Otec couldn’t imagine any other reason for them to be there.
After his five months of solitary life in the mountains, the mere thought of the mass of people set Otec’s teeth on edge. Already he could hear the incessant noise of the crowd, feel the eyes of hundreds of other clanmen who, when they found out he was the clan chief’s son, expected him to be the leader his oldest brother was. The warrior his second brother was. Or the trickster who was his third brother.
They learned soon enough not to expect anything at all. When Otec wasn’t in the mountains, he was carving useless trinkets or playing with the little children who didn’t know he was supposed to be more. To them, he was simply the man who brought them toys and tickled and chased them when no one was looking. And that was enough.
The woman’s darkened hands paused. She set aside her drawing and twisted the charcoal between her fingers. Wondering why she had stopped, Otec looked past her and saw another foreigner with the same strange clothes and dark features climbing the steep hill toward her.
Just as the man crossed under a lone tree, an owl stretched out its great white wings. It was easily as long as Otec’s arm. He’d never seen its like before, white with black striations. And stranger still, it seemed to be watching the girl.
Still in the shadows, the man spoke to the girl drenched in light. “Matka, what are you doing out here?” He had a strong accent, his words flat and blunt instead of the rolling cadence of native Clannish.
Matka didn’t look up at the man, but Otec noticed her shoulders suddenly go stiff. “I can’t—can’t be around them, Jore.” Her accent was milder.
Jore rubbed at his beard, which clung to his face like mold to bread. “You have to. For both our sakes.”
The charcoal shattered under Matka’s grip. She stared at the destruction, surprise plain on her face. “This is wrong, Jore. I can’t be a part of it.”
“It’s too late, and we both know it.” His voice had hardened—he sounded brittle, as if the merest provocation could break him.
She tossed the bits of charcoal and rose to her feet, her gaze defiant. “No. I won’t—”
Jore took a final step from the shadows, his hand flashing out to strike Matka’s cheek so fast Otec almost didn’t believe it had happened. But it had, because she held her hand to her face, glaring fiercely at Jore.
She opened her mouth to say something, but Jore took hold of her arm. “I’m your brother—I’m trying to protect you.”
All at once Otec’s sluggish anger came awake like a bear startled out of a too-long hibernation. He forgot he’d been eavesdropping. Forgot these were foreigners. Forgot everything except that this man had hit her—a woman, his sister.
Otec burst into the brightness. The man saw him first, his eyes widening. Matka was already turning, her hand going to something at her side.