This sneak peek into the world of Trial by Song depicts an encounter that takes place twenty years before the novel starts. 

***

By the time her headlights lit up the gray stag it was already too late to swerve. Gwen screamed and jerked the wheel. A huge tree blacked out the windshield before rubber and steel slammed against oak. The bang of buckling metal was the last sound she heard before her face and chest smashed into the wheel.

She woke on the ground. A breeze touched the congealed blood that coated her chest, neck, and chin. With her eyes half-swollen shut even blinking hurt. Her breath stung with each whistle through her broken nose. Squinting, she saw her Escort’s mangled frame. There was no damage to the tree. Vaguely she wondered how she’d gotten from the car onto the ground. She distinctly recalled fastening her seatbelt.

Hoarfrost outlined the branches overhead. She tried to sit up, but a sucking terror held her down. Her legs wouldn’t move.

Something shifted just outside her field of vision. Inside her, hope ignited like a flare. She tried to call out, but couldn’t make a sound.

“My apologies.” If the forest had a voice it would have spoken like him. His voice was so deep, so ancient—so grim. “I still forget there are some of your kind that can see me. I’m afraid those taxed with reminding me do so the hard way.” The words made no sense, and his steady voice set her teeth on edge.

Why wasn’t he doing something? Maybe he thought she was already dead. He had to have been the one who pulled her from the car. Gwen willed her fingertips to stretch, to reach for help. She couldn’t see him, but the combination of sweat, musk, and fur told her something was near.

“I will wait with you.” And she knew he didn’t mean until help arrived.

He came closer, and Gwen felt the ground shudder beneath his steps. His boots crunched on shattered glass and shards of metal. When he moved into her line of sight a gurgle was all she could make of her scream.

He was tall, broad-shouldered and bare-chested with an emerald green cloak pinned to one side. His thickly furred face was a blend of animal and man with a wide, flat, velvet nose that tapered to sculpted black lips. Broad pointed ears stuck out on either side of his head. But it was the antlers that got her—great forking branches so vast it seemed impossible he could maneuver through the trees.

She closed her eyes and sent a silent scream up to the sky. Was this the universe’s idea of a joke? Only minutes ago she had been wishing herself dead rather than face the humiliation of Ian Doyle reading her love letter out loud at the bonfire after the Homecoming Dance. He’d even had his friends turn down the stereo so the whole party could hear—and he’d laughed!

Well of course he’d laughed. Gwen glared at the insides of her eyelids. The letter wasn’t meant for him. It was for the fantasy version she’d made up in her mind. In a small town that thought she was discarded trash, she made it through her days pretending someone kind hid behind Ian’s handsome, arrogant mask. When the other boys made her heart ache sneaking off with her and leaving her behind the dumpsters, she clung to the idea that Ian was above that. He never offered, and she didn’t dare ask. Sometimes he looked up in time to catch her staring, and she could slay dragons with the glint of steel in his eyes. He was untouchable. She wanted to be touched.

“There is no shame in that. Even the Solitary long for what they cannot have.” His great shoulders sagged as though he understood exactly how she felt.

And just that easily her wayward imagination was ready to spin a story of unrequited love for the dark creature. The impossibility of him practically begged for it. What sort of goddess would a forest god love? She would be beautiful, as beautiful as his appearance was strange….

“We cannot control the direction our hearts take. We can only choose whether to follow to our own destruction or not.” He didn’t have to tell her what choice he had made.

The crush was her guilty pleasure. Neither of them were ever supposed to acknowledge it was there. In the real world, Ian didn’t want her, and he wasn’t her type. But sitting alone in the back of her class while everyone else arranged groups and dates for Homecoming stung. With her pen in her hand, she let her imagination get carried away and made the fateful mistake of writing a daydream into life.

“It will not be long now.”

When she stole another glance at the creature’s strange face, his features shifted. Dark fur receded into chestnut dark skin. He looked more like a man, but the antlers remained. They were smaller than before. Gwen realized he was trying to put her at ease. Around his head he wore a crown of holly studded with ruby-colored berries. An arctic chill radiated from him, feeding the crust of frost creeping over the ground. She struggled to roll over. She had to get up! If that cold seeped inside her she knew she would die.

Are you Death? He looked nothing like the Grim Reaper, but something in his stoic demeanor told her he’d watched countless others die. His nostrils flared, and one ear flicked. He went to the oak and slid down with his back against the bark. He drew up his knees to rest his forearms on them as he stared off into the distance. A soft silver glow emanated from his dark skin, giving off enough light to see by.

“Death is not a person. It is a transition. It is my burden to guide others through that transition, though usually I deal with the evil and corrupt. Rarely do I cross paths with the young and innocent anymore.” He turned his head, and Gwen swore she saw red eyes peer out from the trees behind him. They were surrounded. If he saw them, he gave no sign. “So long as I wear this crown I go by the name Winterthorn. Do not be afraid. You would have come to me soon enough. I rarely see so young a soul as chipped and torn as yours.”

Tears leaked from her eyes that she couldn’t wipe away.

“As this is my fault I offer to grant you one request should it be within my power, and I assure you my powers are considerable. Just know that to spare you would cause you more pain in the end.”

She closed her eyes. What could she ask for? If he wouldn’t save her, then what good was wishing for anything?

Anger welled up inside her, burning back the chill sinking into her bones. She hadn’t even had the chance to live yet! She spent her whole life in this narrow-minded town that looked down their noses because her father skipped out in spite of her mother insisting he’d died. She’d pinned her hopes on her life starting in two years. Eighteen was the golden gateway that opened onto a flourishing garden on the other side.

The life she’d envisioned for herself flashed before her eyes. A future. That was all she wanted, couldn’t he see that? A future filled with love, family, and a place where she belonged. Since he couldn’t give her that, what good was he anyway?

In the distance a lone siren whined. The image of a wolf appeared in her mind. She closed her eyes against the approaching flash of blue and red lights. It was too late. The cold had seeped into her spirit now, drowning her in its darkness. A shadow moved over her, and Winterthorn murmured, “It is done.”

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4 thoughts on “Two Paths Collide: A Tale Before The Trial

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