I'm really excited about the release of this book. It was a labour of love to write, starting out long hand in the evenings when my kids were still little and just gone to bed. Years later, they helped me brainstorm certain elements (how the ore affects the healers, for instance) and, most recently, I put my daughter to work drawing a map of Kerfdom.
Once the book releases, I'll add some files to its page here on my site so you can print at home the map, a character guide, and a reading guide for book clubs. (They contain spoilers, so you have to wait.)
Meanwhile, enjoy Chapter One below and if you'd like to be notified when this book becomes available (March 4th, 2013) please sign up for my newsletter at the bottom of the page. You could win a Kindle or download copies of some of my other books.
You can also join me for a reading at the Seed Studio in Nelson, March 2nd, 2013.
Following the scent of wood smoke, Vaun crept forward on his belly and peered down the rocky slope into the basin below.
More Shotes. Pox. He was starving his men, leading them into unknown territory to avoid detection by enemy patrols, and still he continued to stumble upon so-called law keepers. They were treaty-breaking liars, and the southern Kerfs were beyond careless to overlook these transgressions. How the Shotes even survived the badlands this time of year, Vaun couldn’t fathom. They should have withdrawn to their settlements on Meor’s Arm months ago.
Vaun studied the small camp. The Shotes had likely chosen the craggy bowl because it offered shelter against the late winter wind but it was incredibly vulnerable to attack, even for a party of more than a dozen. Fuel was scarce so their fire was small. The broad-faced men, with short swords tucked in the belts of their rust-stained robes, stamped their feet and clapped hands to shoulders.
They survived, but no more comfortably than Vaun’s own men. None displayed the alert caution of a trained soldier either and they had a woman with them, crouched near the fire feeding dried meat into a bubbling pot.
He studied fine-boned hands golden as a fading sun on a ripened field. Definitely not a boy. There was nothing robust about her. Her hood obscured her face, but tendrils of hair curled against the framing edge. The rest of the robe overwhelmed her, leaving an impression of fragility in the way she huddled near the fire.
Protectiveness stirred in him. Heartless curs. Women belonged out here even less than men.
At least her presence told him they were only traders—not that traders were known to be any more civilized than law keepers. They killed each other over insults and would murder Kerf soldiers for an engraved armband and a story to tell.
Chador nudged Vaun with his elbow.
Vaun motioned for patience, knowing what his second-in-command wanted. Their men needed that hot stew. Warig’s bitter east wind, shrieking up from the plains and through these valleys, had drawn moans for days, but Vaun had information to protect along with three men who weren’t his. A raid would risk both.
He scanned the barren crags of the landscape, searching for game or edible vegetation. He saw only what they’d seen for a week: tufts of winter-dried shrubs clinging to red, jagged hills and streaks of black where loose slivers of ore had been uncovered by the Shotes.
They had little chance of navigating this harsh land and surviving to make it home, but Elden, Vaun’s brother and king of the Northern Kingdom, needed to know how deeply the Shotes had infiltrated the lands surrounding the Southern Kingdom. Soon greed would turn Shote attention to Kerfdom and all four kingdoms would be under attack. To reach his home and prepare for that, Vaun and his men needed those provisions.
But a raid would break the treaty. He couldn’t start a war when they were so grossly unprepared for one. He’d leave his men in position and approach himself, claim they were a hunting party wandered off course. The treaty gave these lands to Kerfs for winter hunting and Vaun’s men had been primed for days, but had seen nothing. The traders had played out the game along with the ore.
Scorn for the traders curdled his empty stomach, but he’d let them eat before he approached. A full belly might put them in a better mind to share.
He glanced back at his men. They tried vainly to tug their hardened vests tighter across their loose, plainweave shirts. He didn’t feel remorse for prolonging their discomfort. Too much was on the line and they were northerners, used to the cold.
Gunar, the southern colonel, was suffering too, but he didn’t try to sway Vaun. He didn’t even meet Vaun’s gaze, perhaps knowing he’d see only the flames of fury eating Vaun’s insides. Gunar’s provisions for their party had been grossly inadequate and he’d led them off course. Either he was unfit for duty or had deliberately hoped to keep Vaun from seeing the extent of Shote occupation. That too needed reporting to Elden.
Vaun suppressed his anger and resigned himself to a cold, bitter wait for food and answers. After twenty years of scouting and skirmishing in the king’s army, he’d learned to ignore physical discomfort and avoid politics when he could, but both were slapping him in the face this march.
The gusts remained brutal and a conflict delayed mealtime. Voices lifted. Vaun might have understood the dialect, an off-shoot of the formal Shote that had spawned his own language, if more than the tone had carried on the wind rushing in his ears.
He watched a Shote grab a stick out of the woman’s hand so he could poke add it to the fire. He offered her a large, metal spoon. She wouldn’t accept it and reached to retrieve the stick. The Shote grabbed her arm and wrapped her hand around the spoon.
She cried out and wilted, dropping the spoon and waiting beside the fire with the wary stillness of one who has been abused often. A slave.
As the trader drew back his arm in threat, Vaun’s vitals tightened with outrage.
The woman lifted a protective hand, the sleeve of her robe falling back to reveal a dark scrolling mark up her arm. Stunned, he could barely comprehend it. Shotes regarded tattooing as pagan. Their single god forbade it.
She’s one of us.
Beside Vaun, Chador stiffened, obviously making the same connection and equally infuriated at one more example of a treaty promise broken by the Shotes.
Vaun fingered his sword hilt but didn’t want to engage twelve, thirteen, no fifteen Shotes. Scanning the area, he picked out two sentries he hadn’t seen earlier. They guarded the slope further along, obscured by a boulder. The Shote lookouts were indifferent, useless men who failed to notice they were being observed, but it still added up to too many against nine Kerf.
Frustrated, Vaun brought his attention back to the woman, trying to decipher whether her deep coloring was tan or grime. Which Kerf kingdom did she belong to? Not that her origin mattered. If she was tattooed, she was Kerf. If she was Kerf, she would be retrieved.
Vaun glanced back. His men must have read the shock and tension in their leader. They were tense and ready, flushing with battle heat.
He restrained them with a signal while he considered how best to avoid a bloodbath. It was one thing to risk his own men, quite another to risk the lives of Gunar’s under-trained diplomats. For a Kerf, however, all men would fight. And if she happened to belong to one of the families wavering between Shote and Kerf loyalty, her return would draw her people closer to Vaun’s. Yes, they needed to free her, but after nightfall. He and Chador would do it. A raid it would be, but a stealthy one.
Below, the Shotes shuffled over the loose red stones, creating flat beds, coming to the woman for their meal and making remarks in lewd tones.
She didn’t react. Beneath the smudges of dirt she appeared young in years yet old in experience. Expressionless, but alert. Handing out food to the last of them, she sidled toward a lightning-shaped fissure in the red wall.
Two Shotes abandoned their meal and followed, their predatory swagger making their intention obvious. The woman tried to evade but one caught her around the waist.
Terc’s blood. Vaun counted again the men they faced, unhappy with the odds but knowing they were no longer waiting for nightfall. He had never in his life stood by and watched a rape.
While one Shote pressed the wriggling woman to the ground, Vaun stood. He spared a heartbeat to ensure all the Shotes were absorbed in watching their own then lifted his arm in the signal. Fight! No prisoners! Fight!
~ * ~
A scream from a sentry pulled the Shote’s attention from his assault on her.
Finally. Elation burst in Athadia. Her people had come for her. She’d been searching the horizon, waiting and waiting, but now they were here and she’d be free.
She struggled to squirm away from the man climbing off her, digging her fingernails into loose rocks and scrambling for the escape she’d been plotting since her capture, but the Shote yanked her back and onto her feet against him. She wailed in furious protest while his energy bombarded her senses with his physical messages: slamming heartbeats and fight-ready muscle tension. The Shote was as scared as he ought to be. Alvians were terrifying warriors when roused to fight.
Her wild gaze swung to the attackers, anxious to see familiar faces. Alarm struck. These were not Alvians. Not even rival traders.
Shock stilled her from trying to free herself. She was like a grass doll, her entire body shaking loosely as the Shote wielded her like a shield.
She had only ever heard of Kerfs, never seen one, but she was certain that was what plummeted down the rocky slope above her, his long hair bound in thick plaits, his garments fitted, his weapon a wide, flat sword.
Her heart thumped in a terrified beat, then her view of the Kerf disappeared as robed backs clustered around her. The thick scent of unwashed Shotes enclosed her while the high pitch of war cries tightened the hair on the nape of her neck. Panic stung her veins and she tried to struggle free but too many hands reached to clasp onto her.
As the men clawed to grasp her wrists, her arms, her hair, the internal storm became paralyzing. Racing heartbeats and unbalanced exchange of air, tense muscles and blooms of stark pain battered at her, making demands she was compelled by her vows to fulfill but found she couldn’t. Not adequately. There were too many men.
She tried anyway, anxious that her gift might be failing her. She drew her taxed mental energy inward as she was jostled and stretched, tried to focus on each point of contact, but the signals changed too rapidly. She couldn’t isolate the flashes of pain. Sweating grips loosened and slid away amid bellows and grunts. The scent of hot, fresh blood told her she was failing and despite loathing all Shotes, despair rose up to choke her.
She shouldn’t care that she couldn’t heal them. This could be her chance to escape. If she broke her vow against fighting, she might ensure it, but her commitment to heal was too deeply ingrained and breaking her vow would weaken her power when she needed it to buffer her against the empathic pain crashing into her.
Another Shote fell away, mortally wounded. She cried out, feeling it as if her skin peeled from her body.
Through the hooded heads, she saw the monstrous Kerf closing in. Sweat beaded his brow while spatters of blood ran into the creases of his strained expression.
This was why her people dared not venture into Kerf lands. He attacked with crazed strength against impossible odds, slashing through Shotes with vicious ease. But the traders made it easy for him. Proper soldiers would have fanned out to surround their attacker rather than bunching together in a large, easy target.
Athadia shrank from another screaming death then another. Each burned and sucked at her gift. Discipline was futile. She stayed sane by holding her ability tight against her core, ensuring her own survival while the Shotes threatened to tear her limbs from her body, pulling her hands to their injuries.
Fools. She didn’t need to touch the cuts. Their will pulled her power through their hold on her arms, uncontrolled and basic, but doing the job.
Another jerk damaged ligaments in her neck. She blindly gathered energy there, relieving the pain, repairing the damage. Holding herself apart. She hated battles but endured this one in hopes the Shotes would triumph yet be reduced. Shotes enslaved and exploited her kind. Kerfs killed them. With only a few injured Shotes watching her, she would have her chance to escape.
Or they might bind her and retreat to the settlements, in which case she would lose all the ground she had gained. No, she had suffered too much to come this far. She wouldn’t let those sacrifices be in vain.
Making herself limp, she tried to slide from the dwindling Shotes’ grips. They only screamed and jerked her to her feet, near separating her shoulder from its socket. The jolt of pain took her breath before she controlled it. Finding her center with far more effort than it should require, she held off the urgent signals storming her consciousness.
Her move had turned the fight in the big Kerf’s favor. He took advantage, pressing forward with a resolve that gleamed through the dust caking his face. For one gasping breath she met his green gaze and saw his intent. He meant to take her.
Overwhelmed by terror, Athadia threw her power into the remaining Shotes just as the Kerf struck. She knew the mistake immediately and tried to catch back the impulse but she was unbalanced, too anxious to save the Shote so he could defeat the Kerf. Instinct and the power of her vows took over, stealing the necessary discipline. Her skill became a cruelty as she healed the man wrongly.
The Shote clutched at his belly, trying to gather back that which had escaped and finding no opening.
A new kind of horror overcame her. It wasn’t easy to undo such a thing. She needed help, others of her kind. Dropping to her knees, she tried to reach out to the man, to ease his pain at least, but one Shote still held her. He dragged her across the sharp rocks, retreating from the powerful Kerf.
She was barely aware of the continued battle over her head, too caught by the injured Shote’s writhing. He suffered from her mistake. She had a duty to help him.
The biting grip of the last Shote released. She started to crawl forward as the Shote who’d held her landed on the ground beside her, the wound at his neck beyond any Alvian’s ability to repair.
The massive Kerf took two long strides and ended the hysterical bawling of the Shote she had left suffering, leaving a silence that buffeted her like a strong wind.
The Kerf lowered his sword, his chest heaving while bright stains blossomed on the sleeves of his shirt and the legs of his dun colored breeches.
Still on her knees, Athadia swayed in exhaustion. She had been in many battles, but had never grown used to them. Butchery always scarred her psyche and she could still hear the vibration of life forces, abruptly released, dissipating in the air. Perhaps if this Kerf wished to free hers, she would let him. Perhaps he wouldn’t give her a choice.
Them. There were several she realized as she heard voices speak an unfamiliar language and sensed movement behind her. That’s how he’d prevailed.
The big Kerf asked her something.
She frowned, attempting to translate. Was that his word for tribe? Kerfs had been Shotes many generations ago and she’d been living with Shotes long enough to understand their language as effortlessly as her own. Not that she would ever reveal her knowledge by speaking to a Shote. She would break her Healing Vow first.
Another man sent a question her way. A different dialect, perhaps. He showed her his tattooed arm and motioned.
She lifted her arm, letting the sleeve of the too-big Shote robe drop, showing him her bare arm, decorated with a streak of charcoal. Earlier, a Shote had prodded her with the glowing end of a stick from the fire. She’d healed the burn but the tip had left a black mark from her wrist halfway to her elbow. She absently wiped at it, smudging it.
A sharp voiced discussion ensued.
The big one spoke to her once more, this time in High Shote and with an aggression in his tone that made her muscles tense in defensive readiness.
“You’re not Kerf?” he demanded. “What then? Shote?”
She feigned ignorance. It was her experience that if captors knew she spoke their language, they tortured her into doing so, demanding maps to ore she couldn’t provide.
The men all looked to the big one for direction. He issued a terse order and the men dispersed, but he continued to stare at her until a call from one of his soldiers made him stalk away.
Jagged stones turned under her as Athadia found her feet and surveyed the camp. One or two Shotes might have escaped but the rest were dead, along with two men in Kerf clothing. The remaining Kerfs nursed bloody cuts but either didn’t understand her ability or didn’t wish for her assistance because they didn’t make an appeal to her. Perhaps they were too absorbed in seizing Shote robes and weaponry, too anxious to gobble Shote rations, to care how much blood they lost.
Kerfs were as crude as she’d always been taught. Ruthless. Brutal. Base.
Her opportunity for freedom had arrived. She bolted.