You may have missed it the other day, but I shared the first chapter of Threats of Sky and Sea over on Wattpad last Friday. Figured I’d also toss it up on le blog for those of you that would prefer to read it here.
I am already frozen when the scream reaches me.
The air bites my ears and numbs my hands. Seeking warmth, I burrow into the coat I’m wearing. The forest is still around me, the dead wood asleep. The distant river plays a lullaby.
I thought I was alone.
It’s a gray morning, but Da sent me out for firewood and I’d intended to gather enough for the hearth to burn through dinnertime at the tavern. My axe kept me company, the steady thud of its beat against the tree a part of the forest’s quiet symphony. But the scream broke the rhythm. It threw me off, and the axe missed its mark.
The air is quiet again. I strain my ears. I hear nothing.
Had I imagined it? I pick the axe up and glance at the firewood I’ve already bundled. Not enough to get through the night. There’s still work to be done. I don’t have time to worry about voices hanging in the ether when I still have a chicken to pluck and ale to water down.
The cry comes again and ices my blood. It begs investigation, but my skin prickles with unease. I can’t ignore it, even if instinct urges me to. Abandoning my axe, I trudge forward, toward the source of the sound.
Probably it’s only another villager from Abeline. Just last moon waning, I’d found Jowyck’s boys deep in the belly of the forest, certain they were lost forever. Every so often, that happens. Someone wanders in and finds the woods a labyrinth.
It baffles me. They need only to listen for the river. If they follow its sounds, it’ll lead them to it. Follow its course and they’ll find their way back to civilization quick enough.
I pause, steadying myself on a tree frosted with morning dew. The frost tells me snow will be coming soon, and finally, I am sure that what I heard was the cry of a stranger. No one in Abeline would be so foolhardy as to brave the wood when winter threatens. Not even Jowyck’s boys.
Fallen leaves crunch under my feet, but I hear shouts and they trample the small sound. My breath mists the air. The screamer is silent, but I am close.
There. I creep closer. Behind a dense gathering of naked trees, I see two figures. Their black cloaks would have been more at home against the dark pitch of a night sky. Here, where everything is bleached of color, my attention is drawn straight to them.
The figures are bent as they crouch over something I can’t make out. The shorter one whips his leg forward, startling me backward.
The object cries out.
Gooseflesh eats at the back of my neck. The scream is an echo of the one I heard earlier. The strangers are beating someone, and they’ve reduced him to a lump on the ground.
Indignation is swift within me. Abeline is a peaceful village. We pay our taxes so the Egrian king’s men don’t come calling. We keep to ourselves and Elementals hide their gifts.
Above all, we do not invite trouble. How dare these strangers bring it here?
I grope about the forest floor, searching for something I can use as a weapon. A sharp rock, a thick stick—anything will do. I wish I’d brought my axe with me. A branch meets my palm, and I pull it to me.
A cough disrupts the watchers. The figure on the ground pushes itself to its knees. I move—slowly so as not to draw their notice—and flatten myself to a white-washed trunk. The cloaks don’t obscure as much of their forms as I draw near. The one being beaten is a male.
“Please,” the man—no, he’s about my age—the boy pleads. The timbre of his voice breaks. His long legs are folded in on themselves as he huddles on the ground in a tortured bow. My heart twists for him. “My lady, I can’t—”
“You can and you will.” The answer is maple-sweet. I peer around the tree, and the woman throws back her hood to reveal golden curls bound in a twist. I can’t see her face, but she’s short and her hands are dainty. “Your meager attempts haven’t been enough thus far, Adept Tregle.”
Attempts at what? My brow crinkles. What was the boy meant to do for her? The woman’s voice has an expectant note in it, and the boy sags.
“Come on,” the squat figure taunts. Immediately, I’m filled with distaste. “What’s wrong? Scared? Gonna piss yourself?” He snorts loudly. His demeanor makes me scowl, and he turns. A snout of a nose protrudes from his face and a pot-belly from his gut. He looks more pig than man.
I withdraw behind the shelter of my tree and adjust my grip on my branch. What’s my plan here? To draw trouble back to the inn? I should go back and prepare dinner. Perhaps a few rooms on the off-chance that we wind up with guests tonight.
But I can’t leave the boy here. His cry will haunt me for years if I do. I swallow. If I take Piggy and the lady by surprise, I might be able to fell them both and free the boy. It’s chancy, but I must risk it.
“Don’t goad him so.” The woman holds up a hand to stop the other man. “Adept Tregle certainly knows better than to fail us again.”
The boy—Tregle?—staggers to his feet, and leaves rustle as he stumbles.
Their attention is on him. Now is my moment, but I hesitate, branch raised like a sword. Why isn’t he trying to escape?
His cloak matches theirs, I realize belatedly. They’re together? Then why are they beating him?
His light brown skin is drained of blood, but when he raises his hand, a feeble flame bursts to life.
My breath catches in my throat. He’s a Torcher.
What of the other two though? My body is afire with the urge to flee, but I resist. I have to know how many Elementals are inflicting themselves upon Abeline.
I take a chance and lean out from my tree, hoping they don’t spot me but needing a clearer view. The fire in the boy’s hand has flickered out. His mouth firms, forcing blood into his lips. I feel like I can’t breathe, yet my chest rises and falls unerringly.
Tregle’s hand waves toward his stout companion, and pellets of fire hail down around them. My suspicion that Piggy is another Elemental is confirmed when he dances through the flaming rain to send a stream of fire spiraling toward Tregle.
It scorches through the air in a roar, a lion of flame. The heat doesn’t reach me, but I’m flushed with anxiety. They’re not just Torchers. They’re reckless Torchers. The woman does nothing to stop their careless performance. What do they think they’re playing at, practicing where anyone can see them?
Surely they know the tales. Of Elementals—mothers and fathers, young women and men—spirited away in the night and borne off to Egria’s capital to be trained for conscription in the king’s army. Why would they risk that?
The sound of clapping envelops me, and the woman strides forward. “Much better, Tregle,” she says approvingly. “We’ll flush out the truant without so much as a hiccup if you keep that up. Try it again, with feeling this time.”
My nails dig into the tree bark, fighting back a much stronger urge to sprint away at those words.
A truant Elemental. In my village.
These people aren’t Elementals on the run, hoping for the luxury of both their freedom and their lives. If they’re on the hunt for a truant, it can mean only one thing: they’re the king’s dogs. The ones he sends sniffing out after innocent people who would rather live a quiet life.
And if they’re after someone in Abeline, it’s likely someone I’ve known my entire life.
As Piggy enumerates Tregle’s shortcomings, I inch back the way I came, no longer concerned over Tregle’s fate. I wince with each whisper of the underbrush. The last thing I want is to alert them to my presence. I’m afraid to move, but I need to get back so I can warn the villagers of tracker Elementals. I can spread the word during supper in the tavern tonight. With a little luck, by tomorrow, word will have reached whoever it is that’s hiding their abilities and they’ll be able to flee.
It’s an imperfect solution, but if it was me in their shoes, I’d think it better than the alternative: the choice between conscription…or execution.
I’m nearly free of the clearing when a crack splits the air. My heel. I bite back a curse. I’d let myself get all tangled up in my thoughts and failed to pay attention to where I stepped. I made the mistake of treading on a brittle branch.
I freeze, my heart shriveling in my chest. Makers bless, please don’t let them have heard that. I pray that the trees around me provide enough cover. I don’t dare move.
“Quiet.” The woman’s voice lashes out like a whip.
It’s hard to keep my lungs steady, I discover, when my heart is dancing a jig on top of them.
Obliviously, Piggy continues to berate Tregle until the woman screams at him. “I said, quiet!”
The wind rushes past me in a sudden gust, sending branches straining toward her. It smacks into me and seeps through the fur lining of Da’s coat. My stomach bottoms out. Please. My wish is a desperate plea. Please not a Rider. By the ether, the Torchers are bad enough. I don’t need to bring the wrath of an Air Elemental down on my head, too.
Appropriately chastised, Piggy’s gruff voice drifts to me. “Apologies, my lady.”
There’s silence for a moment. I hold my breath.
“My lady?” Tregle. “What are we listening for?”
“We are not listening for anything. I doubt you’d be able to hear anything over the screech of your innards as they begged you to seek shelter.”
My innards and Tregle’s would get along rather swimmingly right now. I close my eyes, cursing silently. If I’d bothered to think twice about it, I would have brought Da with me to investigate the screams. He’s always berating me about that sort of thing—acting before I think my actions through. My feet grind into the dirt, wishing I could dissolve into it and hide.
It seems that hours pass in that moment. Days. Weeks, even. Summer is surely around the corner. I barely allow myself to breathe, concentrating on the quiet of the forest, the wind thrashing the bare branches, the occasional birdcall. I try not to think about the sound of my blood pounding inside my ears or the huffs of breath from the Elementals who are too near to where I stand, vulnerably out in the open.
Warm air wafts over my cheek, and I cringe, heart sinking. My nose catches the scent of mint leaves. Cool fingers follow, tracing my cheek. There’s no point in keeping my eyes closed. It won’t keep the Elementals at bay.
Icy blue irises blink back at me when I open my eyes. “Oh my dear, dear girl.” The blonde woman is inches from my face. She steps back, stroking her palm thoughtfully. “What a place to find yourself alone. What a time to go prying into other people’s affairs.”
Before I can respond, the woman’s hand switches tacks, slamming me into a tree. My spine grinds against it painfully. “I didn’t mean—” I try for an excuse, and her fingers move to my throat.
My air supply evaporates. I choke.
The Rider is deceptively strong for someone of her small stature, I think wildly. I scramble for her arm, hoping to knock myself free, but no matter how much I contort myself, it’s useless. She holds on, tightening her grip on my neck.
“What did you hear? One has to wonder.”
All I can focus on are her clenched teeth as she grits out the question. I need air. I’ll say whatever she wants if she returns my breath. My mouth opens to answer her, but all that issues from it is a strangled cry. My legs thrash out, aiming haphazardly for a kneecap. The impact as I make contact ricochets through me, though it does me no good. The only reaction I draw from the blonde is a surprised blink.
She presses harder, eliciting a wheezy hiss from me. The edges of my vision grow purple. “Well?”
That’s the last of my air. My flailing grows feeble. My sight dances with spots. The burning in my lungs intensifies as my arms and eyelids drop.
I’m going to die.
“How tiresome.” My would-be murderer sighs. Her hand falls from my throat.
Color rushes back into my world. I gulp down deep breaths of the frigid air. It cuts into my lungs. I barely have time to thank the Makers for sparing me before the woman’s fingers snake into my short locks and yank me up by the hair.
“Please don’t keep me in suspense any longer,” she drawls. “What did you see? What did you hear?”
“When I…can breathe properly…I’ll tell you,” I gasp out.
A shove at my shoulder sends me barreling toward the branch-laden ground, my hands flying out to catch myself and scraping along the forest debris. I lost the branch I’d planned to defend myself with at some point. My hands scrabble at the ground, frantically seeking one to replace it. I’ll have to fight my way out. I’m certain she means to kill me.
I stop when she steps onto my ankle, applying a slight but dangerous pressure. “If you want to continue breathing properly, you’ll tell me now.”
I glare up at her. I have my spirit back with my breath, and if she’s going to kill me anyway, I don’t want to die giving the king’s Elementals what they want. “Who are you to go demanding answers from me on my da’s own lands?”
We’re not, strictly speaking, on Da’s land. The woods belong to the realm. To the king. But our tavern is the closest dwelling and the surrounding wilderness certainly feels like it belongs to us.
Tregle and Piggy stand off to the side, mere shadows of observation to the woman’s blinding rampage. She crouches beside me, her elegant black cloak sending branches clattering into one another. A red stone sparkles on her hood. I eye her warily, not sure what her next move will be.
She bears down on my ankle. The pressure is uncomfortable, but manageable. Determined not to let pain show on my face, I shift, trying to relieve it.
“I am the one who will either take your life or grant you a stay of execution,” the woman whispers. She’s so close I can see the faint scar at the corner of her eye. “It makes no difference to me which it is, but my liege does prefer things not to be messy. If messy is a route you wish to take, we can certainly explore the option.”
Inspiration flashes through me. I could swear I sense an offer to let me leave beneath those words.
Throwing aside my attempts at pride, I sit up, trying for an earnest expression. I’ve already had a taste of what the woman can do. If she doesn’t want me to know what they’re up to, then I’m happy to feign ignorance. “I didn’t hear anything,” I say quickly. “I was standing too far away.”
“Are you quite certain?”
“Absolutely,” I lie.
“Suppose someone was to speak to you on the subject.” She pushes down on my ankle. I wince against the pain. If she bears down any further, I’ll be limping home. “What might you tell them?”
Her meaning is plain. The price for my life is my silence.
“I’d tell them I’ve never seen an Elemental and I couldn’t imagine what one might be doing in Abeline.” My response comes swiftly. There are times for defiance, but now is not one of them.
“Remember what you know of me,” the woman cautions. She rubs her thumb against her fingers, and the wind responds to her summons. “If I wish it, I can bring your words to me.”
Is that true? I wonder. Riders are wrapped in mystery and enshrouded in myth. Their talent is the rarest of the four Elemental gifts and little is known about exactly how they manipulate the world around them. And Da talks about the Elemental myths less than anyone, so my knowledge on the subject could maybe fill a page. More likely, a few paragraphs.
I’ve been silent too long, and she frowns. “I assure you I am not someone you wish to cross.”
“I know,” I lie again. I know nothing about this woman and hope I never learn. But it’s as though I’ve uttered a secret password; she finally steps off of my blessed ankle. I snatch it away and give it a quick rub to put proper feeling back into it.
“Lady,” Tregle speaks up, hesitant. My eyes narrow at him. To think I’d been about to rescue him. He can go rot for all I care. “Hadn’t we better be getting on our way?”
“Right you are, Tregle. How nice to see you showing some initiative.” Her eyes take on a teasing glint for a fraction of a moment, but then lock back onto mine, fierce. “Go. Now.” She dismisses me.
I don’t need any further encouragement. In my haste to get away, I scramble backward on my hands and knees. I’m still afraid to turn my back on them, but I rise to my feet and take off for home at a sprint before she can change her mind about releasing me.
Her voice follows me as I run. “Bear in mind what we’ve spoken of,” she calls. “I don’t do well with disappointment.”
One thing I could have told her that would have been the truth: she’s not someone I’ll soon forget.
To be continued in Threats of Sky and Sea, available May 20, 2014.