Damian Connolly

Shepherds: Origins excerpt

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This is an excerpt of the first chapter of Shepherds: Origins, a prequel to Shepherds: Awakening. It's still a work in progress and the content may change as it goes through the editorial process.

Origins takes place long before Awakening and follows the story of Aden and Lugh, and how Shades came to be.

Aden

“It’s time.”

Aden looked up from the knife he was sharpening. His mother stood in the doorway. She looked haggard, like she’d not slept properly in weeks. He was about to offer a bewildered, Who?, when his mind offered up a name.

It was so hard to think of him these days. How long has it been?

“Already?” He tried to keep his voice steady. He glanced over at his son, playing quietly in the corner. “I was told I had years yet.”

His mother shrugged, a tiny movement. It was out of her control. “I know, Aden, I thought I did too.” She trailed off. “It’s the black rot,” she said with a shake of her head, coming back to herself. “Nobody has much to eat these days, especially in winter. News is there’s fighting in the north as well. The Green Man says it’s taken its toll on him.”

“How sure is he?”

“Sure enough. He wants to you come in the morning.”

Aden bit his tongue and took a slow breath. He didn’t want to worry his son. “That’s no time at all.”

“Aye lad,” she said. She seemed about to say something, then stopped. “I need to be getting back,” she said finally.

Aden looked at her, at the pain in her eyes, pain she was trying to hide. He rose quickly, crossed the room, and, bending a little, gave her a soft kiss on the forehead. “Try and sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She gave him a tired smile, then left as quietly as she’d came.

“Nana?” piped a voice behind him.

“She just came over to say goodnight,” he told his son, watching his mother hurry away. She had a permanent hunch now, as if ashamed, though everyone she met bowed their head and cleared out of her path.

“I don’t wanna say goodnight. I don’t want to go to sleep,” his son said, definitively.

Aden walked back to the table and picked up the blade he’d been working on. There wasn’t much point continuing, for the light was fading fast. It trembled in his grip. Probably cut myself anyway.

He drove it into the table.

His son jumped. “Papa?”

“It’s fine lad, go back to your toys.” He forced his hand to relax.

When Deidra came in, she found him sitting with his back to the hearth. She took a quick scan of the room, sampling the mood. She’d always been very quick; it was one of the things he loved about her.

“What is it?” she said, picking up their son who’d jumped up with a delighted cry. She planted a distracted kiss on his cheek and let him down again.

Aden took a moment before answering. “It’s time. I have to go.”

She smoothed the front of her dress though it was as clean as when she’d put it on this morning. “When?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

Emotions flitted across her face as she looked from him to their son. She dropped to her knees and took his hands in hers, her face serious. “Is there no-one else?”

He said nothing, for they both knew the answer. Her grip was hard on his. He held it.

She rose then, her manner brusque. “Cian,” she said, addressing their son, “Come on over here and play with your father. Bring your toys.”

“Yes!” Cian he said, his face lighting up. He gathered up each one of the toys that Aden had made for him over the years. The cattle, the dogs, all the different puppets. Each was stacked one on top of the other, placed with the delicate seriousness that only a three year old can have, until they went up under his chin. He tottered over, trying to stop any from falling, and dropped them in front of Aden.

“Here Papa,” Cian said, holding out a doll with a sword for him. Aden took it with a smile.

“Here Mama.”

While she took the proferred toy, her eyes never left his face, glaring at him. Well, she has every right to be angry.

He let their son make the story, indulging Cian in whatever absurdity developed. His wife sat apart, her eyes fixed on him, daring him to acknowledge what he was giving up.

What he was making them do.

He played on, memorising his son’s face. The delight in the boy’s eyes, the lock of hair that he kept brushing away, the smile he tried to hide when he knew he was being cheeky.

He drank it all in.

Tomorrow, Cian would be losing the both of them.

He sat on the hard-packed dirt floor beside his son’s bed, watching him sleep in the red glow of what was left of the fire. He should be in bed himself, but he could indulge. He shifted a bit. Well, as much as he could anyway.

His son gave a tiny frown and whimpered. Maybe he knows what’s coming.

“Hush, lad,” he whispered, soothing his son’s hair. “Papa’s here.”

A pair of arms crossed around his neck. Deidra crushed him in a tight embrace. “Come to bed,” she said, kissing his neck.

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to sleep.”

“Then let’s not.”

He sat rooted. Moving would mean leaving. He would not get this moment again. Finally, he nodded.

He rose and went to lay with his wife one last time.

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