(Also by Zoe Alice Latimer)
Tristan held very still even though the long grass brushed his face. His hand tensed around the knife. "Now," his father whispered, and he darted after the rabbit. The chase was short.
First kill of the day, he thought. Little did he knew how many would follow.
He smiled up at his father, who was also grinning. "Can we hunt a stag now?"
"A stag?" Father laughed.
"You promised," Tristan reminded.
"Someday, Tristan," his father promised again. He did not say, "You're too slight to take on a stag quite yet," which was true but not unknown to Tristan.
They walked back to the city, Tristan with one hand around the limp coney's hind legs, the other in the fold of his tunic. "Never go home without an offering for your lady," his father always said.
He ran his fingers over the ridges of the twisted branch and red buds. I hope Mother likes it.
"Stay close to me," Father murmured as they connected to the flow inside the city gates. Of course, Tristan didn't- he ran off to a stall, then to his mother. "I made this for you," he told her, and brought out the bracelet.
She gave him a lovely smile, working her soft fingers through his tangled curls. "Thank you, my son."
Nightfall found Tristan and his family in a small room with men seated around a table. Tristan sat close to the fire to roast the rabbit. He wasn't paying complete attention to what his father was saying to the other man; he kept glancing over at his mother. Finally he caught her gaze, and she smiled and lifted her hand so he could see that she was wearing his gift. He smiled in something much like relief, and began to focus on what his father was so passionately saying.
He, Lord Marke, and the other tribe leaders were shouting about uniting under Lord Marke to overthrow the oppression of the marauding Irish. "Now is the time to strike," Marke urged. Tristan leaned forward as Marke continued, "My wife's delivery is near, and I feel in my heart that she will bear a son. He will inspire us."
A man burst through the door with a yelp. "The Irish are attacking!"
The room exploded into chaos. Tristan heard screaming from outside the room. "Women and children to the back!" Lord Marke roared.
Tristan tried to rip away from his mother's grip. "Let me fight!"
"No, Tristan!" she cried. They were already separated by a stormy sea of panicking people.
Tristan fought through to his father. "I need to fight!"
His father was wild-eyed. "Hide, my son!"
The first wave of Irishman broke in. Tristan's father shoved him toward Lord Marke, who was hastily lowering his wife under a trap door. Tristan protested, but soon he and Lord Marke's pregnant wife, who was starting to have contractions, were confined under the floor.
The screams above mingled with battle cries. Someone thudded heavily on top of the trapdoor. A crackling noise and heat beat down. Someone had set a fire, Tristan guessed. Lord Marke's hyperventilating wife was clutching Tristan's shoulders to keep from screaming in pain while they waited out the screeches and sobs to hush. Footsteps tramped away and faded.
Tristan laid his hand on the trapdoor, but quickly recoiled. In the dim, smoky light, he stared at the blood dripping between his fingers, then fearfully at the pregnant woman. She choked back another cry.
He put both hands on the trapdoor and heaved. The door opened slowly. Tristan wiggled out under it and the body weighting it down. When he turned to help Lord Marke's wife crawl out, he nearly vomited. The corpse, severed at the waist, still gushed blood; but what made him sick was that the mangled corpse was his father.
He staggered back into the devastation. Bloody bodies- almost all tribesman- littered the floor. With broken possessions. Fire flared in one of the corners.
Tristan gasped. One of the motionless forms seemed to be stretching out her hand, and the around the wrist wound a bracelet of twisted buds and branches.
No. Not Mother too. If I had stayed with her, I could have protected her.
He moved to go to her when Lord Marke's wife shrieked, scrambling toward Tristan with one hand on her swollen belly.
An Irishman appeared from the smoke and lunged for the two with his sword. Someone else stepped in front of him, skewering the Irishman before he could reach Tristan and Marke's wife. The Irishman's sword slice through his wrist from the momentum, chopping his hand off. The Irishman went down, dead.
Their rescuer turned to face them, trying to bind his blood-spurting hand.
"Lord Marke!" Tristan cried.
Lord Marke's wife surged forward and clung to his waist, sinking to the floor.
Tristan felt, rather than anything else, someone stir behind him. He whirled just as the outstretched fingers of his mother flexed and curled up. He ran to her side and helped her to her feet.
"I thought you were dead," he whispered.
She shook her head, putting her arms around him. "I think... I think I hit my head. Oh, Tristan, you're alive. But not your father."
Lord Marke's wife screamed.
Tristan's mother's eyes cleared through her tears. She flew to Marke, Tristan on her heels. "Is she injured?"
"She's in labor," he said. "It's too early! What can I do?"
"Move over," Tristan's mother commanded. "I've delivered children before." She knelt. "Try to stay calm..."
Tristan stood stiffly, trying not to think of his father. Trying to process anything else. Wishing he could be helpful. Wishing his life and the entire village weren't burning down around him.
"It's a girl, my lord," Tristan's mother called out.
Lord Marke looked startled. His wife wept, "Let me hold her. My pearl." But her life faded before their eyes.
Lord Marke took the screaming, bloody, wet baby in his good hand and nearly dropped her. Tristan watched as he began to cry like a little girl.
Tristan understood. None of this should have happened. And yet... something about this moment was beautiful.
"You," Lord Marke rasped to the baby, "you will live. You will live. I promise you."
"I promise you," Tristan echoed.
From the time they fled the burning village and healed, Tristan trained under Lord Marke of the One Hand to fight against the Irish, and to fight for Mairead, the pearl born that tragic night.