Outrunning a winter storm in the north, Captain Faran of the King’s Guard, his men, and a young mage named Meric find shelter at the ancestral home of the Daenes, Bitterwood Manor. Faran and his troops have been searching for six weeks for both a powerful unknown mage, and for a mysterious, lion-like beast that reportedly haunts the uncharted northern woods.
Faran finds the first clue in their quest: the Daene family heraldry—a gold cat on a red field. Meric finds something much more interesting—the son of the house, Eissa. For his part, Faran is fascinated by the powerful figure of Joss, a widower who manages Bitterwood and its environs with a strong, steady hand.
Together they will need to brave the oldest, darkest part of the Bitterwood in the coldest, deepest snows of winter, to find the legendary gold cat and the prophesied mage, for time is running out—for Meric, and for the kingdom.
…Faran unlaced the sides of the chainmail shirt he wore and took it off, followed by the heavy canvas gambeson. Beneath, his shirt was grimy with days’ worth of sweat.
Apparently the manor’s lord noticed his grimace, and opened the chest again, taking out a linen shirt like the one he wore and handing it to him. “Leave that one,” he said, “and we’ll have it washed. No sense in being uncomfortable.”
Was it his imagination, or did Joss watch him strip with the same interest as Faran had watched him? He flicked his eyes upward, but the lord of the manor had turned back to the hearth, lifting the pitcher and pouring the contents into a cup. He moved past Faran to sit on the bed beside Meric.
Faran pulled the borrowed shirt over his head. The linen smelled like lemongrass and some spice, clean and fresh; the quilted coat, too, smelled crisply clean, and warmed from the brickwork of the wall behind the chest. It was clever, the construction of the wall the hearth was built into: brick was just as fireproof as stone, but transferred heat much more efficiently. The hearth itself shared a back wall and chimney with the one in the room outside, so even if the fire in here died, the room would still be warmed by the fireplace on the other side. A sensible arrangement for a cold climate.
“I’m grateful for your generosity in giving us shelter.” Faran knelt by the hearth to warm his hands while his host fed the contents of the cup to Meric. Eissa sat beside Meric on the bed, his arm behind his shoulders to support him.
“The day Bitterwood can’t shelter a paltry ten men…”
“Eleven,” Faran corrected.
“…ten, and a boy,” Daene said sharply. He eased Meric back onto the pillows and poured another cup from the clay jug on the table. “The day that happens I’ll give it over to my son and be damned to it. Two or three days, no more, and the weather will clear so you can go about your business. Whatever it is.”
“No secret,” Faran said, only marginally untruthful. The mission was no secret, just the purpose behind it. He took the cup Daene handed him and sipped at it. It was merely cider, but spiced with a warm, tangy scent. “What taste is this?”
“Cinnamon. It’s a spice from the western islands. I discovered it when I was in the capital years ago, and still have friends who’ll keep me well stocked. So what is your mission then?”
“We’re hunting,” Meric said weakly.
“Shh,” both men said to him, then exchanged a wry glance. Meric chuckled.
“Hunting what?” Daene asked.
“Rumors, mostly,” Faran sighed. “Of a great golden beast that ravages the countryside, and a ferocious mage that either controls him or holds the key to capturing him.”
The fire popped in the sudden silence. Eidar and Daene shared glances. Eissa stared at Faran with his mouth open. “I take it you’ve heard of them, then?” Faran said wryly.
“Aye, you might say that. The beast, at least,” Joss said. “The golden cat is the family device; there have been tales of it in the Bitterwood since White Andurel’s time.”
“A myth then?” Faran demanded, disappointed. He’d hoped this place would hold more answers than they had already.
“No,” Meric said. He struggled to sit up. Eissa put his arm around him again and held him. “It’s not a myth. It’s real.”
“Many have tried to hunt it,” Daene said neutrally, “and failed to find it. I doubt you’ll be any more successful in capturing its pelt…”