The Mad Wolf’s Daughter
***A New York Times Editors’ Choice***
A Scottish medieval adventure about the youngest in a war-band who must free her family from a castle prison after knights attack her home--with all the excitement of Ranger's Apprentice and perfect for fans of heroines like Alanna from The Song of the Lioness series.
One dark night, Drest's sheltered life on a remote Scottish headland is shattered when invading knights capture her family, but leave Drest behind. Her father, the Mad Wolf of the North, and her beloved brothers are a fearsome war-band, but now Drest is the only one who can save them. So she starts off on a wild rescue attempt, taking a wounded invader along as a hostage.
Hunted by a bandit with a dark link to her family's past, aided by a witch whom she rescues from the stake, Drest travels through unwelcoming villages, desolate forests, and haunted towns. Every time she faces a challenge, her five brothers speak to her in her mind about courage and her role in the war-band. But on her journey, Drest learns that the war-band is legendary for terrorizing the land. If she frees them, they'll not hesitate to hurt the gentle knight who's become her friend.
Drest thought that all she wanted was her family back; now she has to wonder what their freedom would really mean. Is she her father's daughter or is it time to become her own legend?
Excerpt from The Mad Wolf’s Daughter
the first day
CHAPTER 1: THE SHAPE IN THE WATER
The fog drew back upon the dark sea and revealed a gleaming point like a ship’s bow, which seemed to nod at the girl brooding by the glowing bonfire.
“What’s that?” Drest leaned forward, her hand on her dagger.
Her elbow dug into the shoulder of her brother Gobin, who lay with his arm slung over the fringe of his coal-black hair.
“Gobin?” She poked him. “Are you awake?”
“There’s something in the sea.”
“I’m not awake, lass.”
“It’s something wooden on the waves just past the dragons’ teeth.”
His eyes flicked open, then closed. “Drest, dear, it’s a dream. Lie back. If you want to stay out here with us, you need to sleep.”
Drest crept around the fire to Nutkin, Gobin’s twin, who lay in almost the same position, except it was his hand, not arm, that held back his black hair.
“I’m not awake, either,” Nutkin said, a smile tweaking his lips.
“We come home from war and you’re jumping at every sound,” muttered Uwen, her youngest brother. “Go to sleep, you crab-headed squid gut, or I’ll make you sleep in the cave with the snails.”
Drest crawled back to the water’s edge. The sea was quiet. The night mist had swept in again. She listened, unmoving, the wind’s fingers riffling her short and uneven brown hair.
Grimbol, her father, had always said that no boat or ship could reach their tight, protected cove, that the dragons’ teeth—the stones scattered over the harbor—were hungry for wood and men. And no man or devil would dare draw near the headland while her brothers and father were home.
Yet something was there.
Drest left the circle by the fire where her family slept and scrambled up the boulders behind the camp. She climbed over the crumbling stones, dead tree roots, and clumps of gorse, past the crag that looked over the spot of rocky beach where her brothers kept their boats, then higher, until she came to a point where the sea opened up before the headland. Above her rose the path to the cliffs. Behind her lay the caves where her family kept their supplies and slept when it rained. Over the water, the ash-gray fog stretched like smoke. Drest closed her eyes and listened.
The wind, gently breathing.
Her father and brothers, snoring from below.
Not just a creak, but a scrape as well, the rasp of wood on stone in the cove just past the dragons’ teeth. She knew that sound: a boat. And it was landing.
Drest flew down the uneven cliff side, blind in the darkness but knowing her way. She pounded back into the camp toward the glow of the bonfire, and dropped to her knees beside her eldest brother.
“Wulfric, there’s a boat in the water!”
Wulfric opened his eyes a crack. “What are you saying, lass?”
“A boat. Like one of yours! Lads, get up!”
Heads rose around her. Her father turned over with a growl.
“Our poor wee Drest’s had a nightmare,” murmured Thorkill, fingering the stone pendant he wore below his curly ginger beard. “Was it Gobin’s battle story that kept you awake, lass?”
“Nay, it’s not that! I heard a boat.” Drest stood, wincing at her brothers’ shaking heads. “Lads, I saw it!”
“Keep your grub-spotted nightmares to yourself,” Uwen mumbled from beside the fire.
Her brothers settled down again, grunting and grumbling, until she was standing alone.
“Why won’t you listen? Do I ever tell stories? Lads, there’s a boat out there.”
No one spoke.
Drest opened her mouth, but before she could say anything more, the camp was bright with flames.
CHAPTER 2: INVADERS
They rushed from the shadows, men with massive swords and gleaming shields, their bucket-shaped helms hiding their faces.
Drest’s brothers always slept beside their weapons, and were up and armed in seconds, but the invaders had gained an advantage. Nutkin ducked behind the fire and slid to avoid a blade. Wulfric fought from his knees and battered away the enemy who had fallen upon him. Shields crashed together. Swords shrieked against chain mail.
In the middle of it stood Drest, far from her practice sword on the other side of the fire.
A knight dropped his sword and slumped against her. Drest scrambled out from under him, and slammed into another knight’s shield, emblazoned with a tree, just like Wulfric’s battered one. Drest ducked, twisted, and crawled away. On the loose rocks by the path, she panted. She had never seen a battle, and the sight of it squeezed like an iron band around her chest.
An unfamiliar grasp clamped onto her shoulder.
Drest gave a cry and tried to plunge back into the fight, but an arm gleaming with chain mail grabbed her around the waist and dragged her away, up the path. She lashed out, kicking nothing but rocks and air.
Her captor stumbled. Drest clawed at the stones, then at the hilt of a sword someone had dropped. Her fingers closed on the grip and she swung the blade back. A heavy note rang low and muted against the mail on the man’s legs.
“So even a wee wolf like you has teeth.” The knight swung down his shield, knocking Drest’s sword from her hand.
She kicked, a hopeless gesture. Yet not futile: Her long legs tangled with the invader’s, tripping him—and then she was rolling on the ground.
A different arm—just flesh this time—hooked around her ribs and hoisted her up. Drest struggled, but her new captor held her tightly and sprang over the stones, higher and higher, on a path that only her family would have known.
“Get out of here, Drest.” Her father’s grizzled face looked down into hers. “Make yourself scarce. Don’t come out unless I call or until the headland’s deserted. Understand? No fighting.”
“But Da, what about Uwen?” Her voice came out cowering. Drest cleared her throat. “I’m his battle-mate, am I not? How will he fight without me at his back?”
“I don’t want you down there.” Grimbol’s powerful hand cradled his daughter’s chin. “In a fight like this, your battle-mate is the man next to you. And I must be the man next to any of my lads who needs my help. Hide yourself, Drest. Do as I say. You’re part of the war-band now and that’s my order.”
An enemy’s sword rose behind him. Grimbol ducked and kicked, sending the knight crashing down the path, then plunged after him, back to the fight.
Holding in a sob, Drest scurried up the uneven cliff side, her father’s frantic order forcing her on.
She reached a spot where the sea opened up beyond the cliffs, and stopped. Terror spread over her shoulders like a new skin.
She belonged with Uwen. They weren’t ready to fight together, had not perfected Gobin and Nutkin’s speed and precision or Wulfric and Thorkill’s brute force, but they had achieved a point of trust where they could shuttle courage back and forth. That was the first and most important part of being a true battle-mate, her father always said. It was also the first rule of her father’s code of life and war.
Yet Drest could not move, not for the world.
She bowed her head. Uwen had to be safe. Their brothers were with him. The war-band had always returned after battles, sometimes wounded but never gravely so. They would win this attack. They always won.
They had to.
Drest climbed higher, wind gusts whipping at her tunic, until she reached the path to the sea cliffs, the highest point of the headland. On one side, the ravine and its forest loomed, a wall of darkness; on the other crashed the sea. Drest walked along the sea edge, careful to keep far from the ravine. Four years ago, Uwen had fallen there, and crashed to the bottom. It had been a game of chase and they’d been alone, with the war-band away at battle. It had taken a wee Drest hours to drag her brother up through the spindly trees and loose soil.
At the cluster of rocks that looked like a crouching knight when the sun was low, she curled up, as if she were small again and playing a hiding game with Uwen.
As still as stone, Drest listened for the sound of her father’s voice. All she could hear from that height was the slosh of the sea.
A whole night seemed to pass as Drest waited, and still her father did not call. She was shifting her position, wondering what she would do if he never called, when another sound came: footsteps against the loose rocks close by.
She almost stood, but stopped herself in time.
A tongue of torchlight had appeared on the path.
Drest ducked. None of her family would carry a torch. She slid down until she found a crack in the stones, and set her eye to it.
Like phantoms from a nightmare, two men in chain mail and white surcoats with a blue tree in the center stepped out of the night fog, their swords glittering in their hands. One was thinner, smaller, and clearly younger, but both reeked of power.
They advanced toward the clump of rocks as if they knew where she was hiding. At the dip in the path where Uwen had tripped, the smaller knight walked on, but the larger one, who carried the torch, stepped in it and stopped.
“This is where you must stay.” The larger knight pivoted his back to the cavernous ravine and held his torch to illuminate the cliff before the sea. His face seemed flushed within his chain mail hood. “The ship will wait there.”
“I was so close to their camp,” the younger knight insisted. He was slender, as wiry as Gobin, with a piece of fair hair sticking out from his chain mail hood. “Why did you keep me from it? Why bring me up here?”
“Because you are young and untested. Sir Oswyn said—”
“But I wish to see the battle!”
“And have the Wolf come down on you with all his might?”
“Do you think I can’t defend myself?” The young knight raised his sword and shield. “Will it make you feel better if I brandish these?”
“You’ll trip over the rocks more likely,” muttered the red-faced knight. “Let me scout. I’ll be back faster than you’ll know.”
Grumbling, the young knight set the tip of his long shield against the stone and leaned upon it. Soon the torchlight disappeared as the red-faced knight strode down the path.
The young man sighed and shrugged. All at once, his shield slipped. With a clatter and scrape, he caught his balance.
“God’s bones,” he swore softly.
He could have been Gobin playing a joke, pretending to be clumsy. Or maybe he was clumsy, as Uwen could be in their practice battles.
Or he was frightened, just as Drest was as she crouched behind the stones.
She knew what would happen next. The red-faced knight would return and tell the young knight that the path was safe. They would approach the camp. They would step into someone’s sword—Wulfric’s or Thorkill’s, or even her father’s. The red-faced knight might run, but this one, this clumsy, frightened knight, would join the other knights who lay upon the ground.
And because he made her think of Gobin, Drest sighed.
The young knight flinched. “Who’s there?”
Drest froze. He had heard her.
“Who’s there, I said.”
But he wasn’t speaking to Drest.
In a blur, a dark figure sprang toward him from the path, sword aloft in his hand. The young knight raised his shield. But the dark figure’s shield struck it hard, and then his sword swung around and landed a solid blow upon the smaller man’s chest.
It was as if Uwen were battling Wulfric. And there was no room behind the smaller man to retreat, not on the edge of the ravine.
The dark figure’s sword struck again. The young knight escaped the full force of the blow to his shoulder, ducking and pivoting, but his heel landed in the dip in the path.
His attacker seemed to know that. He threw his shield against his opponent’s. The young knight dropped his sword. His hand flew to his belt, as if for a dagger.
But he had lost his balance and his attacker had already pulled back.
The young knight disappeared into the ravine in a sliding, scraping, crumbling rush of stone. Tree branches snapped, and leaves rattled. Then all was silent.
The attacker rocked back on his heels and waited. He cleared his throat.
“Are you there?” he called.
The voice stopped Drest cold.
It was the red-faced knight.
CHAPTER 3: GRIMBOLíS ORDER
The red-faced knight picked up the young knight’s sword and, with a grunt, threw it toward the sea. There was a clatter, then a muted splash. The knight nodded and descended the path toward the camp.
Trembling, Drest rose. The fight she had witnessed made no sense. In her father’s stories about the knights he had known, they had never battled among themselves.
Drest slipped out from her hiding place and crouched on her hands and knees, leaning into the ravine to listen.
He was just a lad. He’d been scared in the dark, then attacked by one of his war-band. Now he lay dead at the bottom of the ravine.
She heard the red-faced knight stumble and swear.
A thin curl of hate rose in Drest. Silent as a ghost, she hastened after him.
Just below the cliff, he stopped to don his white surcoat, then strode on.
The sky had lightened, though the path was still shadowed. Drest hoped the red-faced knight would trip.
But the red-faced knight didn’t trip. He veered off to the side, shoving his way through scrub and over stones until he was far from the camp and close to a drop at the sea. Drest followed him on this new, narrow trail.
All at once, the red-faced knight disappeared ahead of her.
Metal rasped against stone. Boots scraped. Paddles splashed in the sea.
A small boat rowed away from the shore toward a huge boat emerging from the darkness.
Drest stared. She had never seen a full ship, only the small war-boats her father and brothers sailed when they went to battle.
Waves slapped against its huge wooden hull. A massive white sail hung limp in the breeze. A series of posts stood on its deck.
Not posts, Drest realized, but knights: a dozen knights with swords and shields, chain mail covering their arms and heads. One knight stood beside a coil of rope.
Yet it wasn’t just rope.
In that coil, her father and brothers were bound: Grimbol lashed to Wulfric, their backs aligned; Gobin and Nutkin with their heads touching; Thorkill bound to Uwen, his broad shoulders towering over his younger brother’s. Grimbol’s mouth was moving.
The small boat drew near the ship and the red-faced knight climbed aboard. He spoke to another knight and looked around as if counting. The others were looking too. Drest was so intent on watching that she failed to notice where she stood. Only when the red-faced knight pointed at her did she realize that she was out in the open.
Drest scrambled back over the crumbling stone, then behind a boulder that was just large enough to hide her.
“You missed one!” shouted the red-faced knight in a brutal voice very different from the soft voice he had used with the young knight. “How did you miss one?”
A murmur rose from the bound men. Drest looked out. Her brothers twisted around to see her, their faces tight with concern.
Grimbol raised his chin. “Be like the barnacle and hie thee to the eagle’s roost!” His voice echoed down the water and carried over the cove. “The barnacle and the eagle’s roost! That’s your order now!”
A knight stepped over and gave Grimbol a blow that her father took as if it were a breeze.
Numb, Drest nodded. Be like the barnacle meant to hide, and the eagle’s roost was the highest place she could find. But Drest couldn’t flee. She looked out as the red-faced knight marched to the edge of the deck.
His eyes met hers. He seemed to be thinking.
“Shall we set off a boat, sir?” said a knight who had rushed to his side.
“And stumble over these cliffs after him? No, you won’t easily catch a cub like that; the men are tired. Sir Oswyn will be anxious to have the rest in prison, where they can’t escape. This last one won’t go anywhere. We can return and catch him later, and look for what’s left of our boy then too.”
The red-faced knight stared at Drest as if he knew that she had witnessed his attack upon the young knight. Then he turned away.
A man in a brown tunic drew up the ship’s sail and the enormous vessel began to glide out.
“Nay,” the girl whispered.
Her family’s faces grew smaller, and smaller. Before long, she could no longer distinguish them from the deck.
In moments, the ship was but a stark shape against the wide, open sea.
Drest sank to her knees and leaned down until her forehead pressed against the rough, cold stone. Sea wind wrapped over her, chilling her to her core.
They were gone.
She shouldn’t have wasted her father’s time by the camp. Her brothers had needed him, and she should have escaped that knight on her own. What had all her training been for? To falter in a time of need?
Drest swallowed. Her father had given her an order. She rocked back and wiped her face.
But she didn’t run off to hide.
A month ago when the war-band had taken Uwen for his first battle and left her alone, Grimbol had told her to be strong, for she was not like the frail women and girls that his code had sworn them to protect. She was as tough as any of her brothers and didn’t need the war-band, he’d said. Yet every night during that month, she had slept not by the water but deep in a cave.
On that first night alone, she’d imagined Uwen’s voice, and she’d told him about her sword practice. And the next day and the days after, as she had scampered over the stones and swung her sword and climbed, she’d imagined all her brothers’ voices.
Drest closed her eyes.
Are you there, Gobin?
I’m all alone, Gobin. I’m scared. Are you there?
And then, as if her favorite brother were kneeling on the stones beside her: Of course I’m here, lass.
Drest slowly inhaled.
Da’s order was for you to hide, her brother’s voice murmured. What are you doing here? Get up. You’re not a wee helpless maiden, are you?
Nay, but I don’t want to hide. They’re not coming back, are they? And what about you?
The wind snapped against her, breaking her concentration.
Drest’s eyes flew open and she stared out over the sea.
The ship was gone.
Of course we’re gone, you toad-headed minnow, Uwen’s voice broke out. It’s a ship. It sails.
Drest bit her lip, fighting her tears.
Did they hurt you, Uwen?
Nay, not me. But they’ll hurtyou if you don’t hide.
Drest shook her head. That wasn’t what Uwen would say.
I was just testing you. It’s Da’s order, but you’ve never been in the war-band, so you don’t know how to follow it. Aye, why should you follow it? Why don’t you follow us instead? If it were me where you’re standing, that would have been Da’s order: to rescue us.
Nay, but it’s too far, Uwen.
Would that stop you if we were racing? Come on, Drest. You swim like a seal.
Nay, lad, I can’t.
Uwen’s voice in her mind let out a snort of disgust. Go along and hide, then. Be the sniveling, grub-spotted barnacle you are.
But when Drest rose, she didn’t go to hide; she began to run.
She sprinted up to the path, then down, flying, toward the camp. At the last minute, she swerved, dashing over the wide, flat stones to the caves. Her footsteps pounded: past the cave where her family stored their barrels of ale and smoked fish, past the one in which they slept when it rained, then the one that held their silver coins and other stolen goods.
Back up to the cliffs, then down the path that led to the sea caves on the shore. Drest scrambled over the wet stones, splashing in the waves, and climbed up a short cliff. She crawled to the path, and started to run again.
Running always helped calm her. It helped her think. She always ran after she argued with Uwen, sometimes in a race, sometimes alone. She ran when she failed in training battles with Gobin or throwing games with Thorkill. She had run to keep away loneliness during that awful month when Uwen had gone with the war-band. And so Drest ran until she could no longer run. She collapsed panting on the lookout point.
Do you feel better now? It was Thorkill’s voice. Look at how the sun sparkles on the waves. Do you hear the gulls crying? It’s peaceful.
Tears stung Drest’s eyes. Nay, it’s not peaceful, not with you roped up.
Don’t weep, lass. Thorkill’s voice was tender. Go down to our camp and see what you can find. It may give you an idea of what to do.
Drest stared at the path, and shuddered. But soon she was on her feet and walking down.
The ground was full of broken swords: on their sides, on the rocks, or driven into the pebbles. Scraped-up stones showed where the battle had been fiercest. Drest could not take her eyes from the paths on which the knights had dragged her brothers to the sea.
The crackling bonfire that Grimbol had told them never to let burn out was only embers now.
Drest knelt by the blackened wood. When her brothers were home, this was where they had gathered every night to feast and tell stories. Here she had sat rapt as her brothers had spoken of blows and broken shields in battle, of the swiftness that had saved their lives. She’d grabbed her own share of ale and meat and gone to sit with her father, who’d tuck her under his rough, warm arm as he told his tales of castle sieges in the days when he’d fought among knights of another war-band.
She had only felt alone once before in her life, when Uwen had gone, but this time, she truly was.
You’re never alone with your sword by your side, said Gobin’s voice. Remember Da’s code: Always carry a weapon. So where’s your weapon, Drest?
Drest looked around. Hers was only a practice sword, a worthless piece of scrap, but what Gobin said was true.
She found it soon enough, but only its hilt with a sliver of the broken blade remaining.
Now it’s truly a piece of scrap, came Uwen’s voice. See if you can find mine. I’ll let you borrow it just this once.
Drest searched, but every sword she found was broken.
As she kicked at a shattered weapon that had been thrown into the sea’s foam, something glittered deep, among the dragons’ teeth.
Go look at that sword, murmured Wulfric’s voice.
Drest slipped off her boots and hose and waded into the sea. The water slithered like a frozen breath up her ankles, then up to her knees, and higher. Finally, she reached the sword. It was unbroken, undamaged, its pommel thick with ridges like the headland’s cliffs.
It was Borawyn, Wulfric’s sword, the only named sword among the war-band’s weapons. A sword that had never lost a battle—until now.
Drest drew the blade from the water and held it high, her arm shaking beneath its weight. The sword sparkled in the early sun.
It was waiting for you, said Wulfric’s deep voice.
Did you throw it in the waves for me?
I threw it in so our enemies wouldn’t steal it. It will bring you luck, lass. Use it well.
Aye, use it well, chimed in Uwen, and use it soon; this rope is digging into me.
Drest squinted at the sea. How do you expect me to use it for that, you snail-brained cabbage? I can’t cut your rope from here.
Use it as you come after us, you onion-eyed pig’s bladder.
Drest stared at the water. Could she go after them?
Of course you can, scoffed Uwen. You have a sword, don’t you?
Drest sloshed back to the desolate camp and put on her hose and boots. In one direction, the sea stretched far and empty; in the other, beyond the caves and the paths, lay the ravine, marked by the sea cliffs on one end and a cliff no one could climb on the other.
Drest hesitated. She had never been off the headland. Even if she could scale the ravine’s slick cliff, she didn’t know where the woods at its top went or what path she should take through them. There had to be a way, but she didn’t know what she was looking for.
Drest found an abandoned scabbard and a sword-belt on the ground. She buckled the belt over her hips as tight as she could, fitted the scabbard in its loops, and slipped Borawyn in. A year ago, she would have been too small to carry that sword, but her legs had grown and she could stand easily against its weight upon her hip.
All right, lads, Drest thought. She took a deep breath. One of you needs to tell me the path. How do I get off the headland?
You could go through the waves, said Nutkin’s voice, but the boats are smashed; you know they are because that’s where the knights landed.
You could go through the woods, said Gobin’s voice, except the ravine will be in your way. And I don’t think even you can climb that cliff.
She might; she’s like a spider.
Aye, I know, Nutkin, but even a spider can’t climb sheer rock.
I’ll go by the sea, Drest thought. I’ll find a way. How about your fishing boat, Nutkin? Did they find that?
Nay, I wouldn’t think so. That’s a fine idea, lass. Aye, go by the fishing boat. Only, you’ll need to find out where we’ve been taken.
Can you not tell me?
Nay, lass, being only part of your imagination as I am. Nutkin’s voice laughed. But that’s all right; you’ve another man you can ask for the way. He might not be dead.
And then, all at once, Drest remembered the young knight.