Hello hello, my friends!
It’s almost Autumn!!! This morning we had a drizzly rain storm, my Mom bought me chysanthmums to welcome me home from a trip, and I am fully in the mood for warm colors and pumpkin spice coffee (is it “basic” of me? Perhaps…but it tastes so good!) On said trip, I also happened to find some beautiful plaid fabric for a skirt, which I’m hoping to incorporate into this year’s First Day of Fall outfit. Truthfully, on THE first day of Fall I’ll be attending a wedding, and my dress isn’t very Fall-like (though it makes me feel like I’m wearing starlight, so I’m not complaining). But! I can’t go without my fun tradition, so I’ll be celebrating the beginning of fall a day late. And if any of you dear readers have ways of celebrating the beginning of the seasons, I would love to know about it!
Onto book business: I’m neck deep in editing! I have the proof for Viggo in Orlin, and I only have copyedits to go before I submit the final files! It’s almost here, my friends! The papberback book is so tiny…it’s by far the smallest work I’ve published. I love it!
Memories of Blood and Bone is pretty much the opposite. I just finished a major round of plot edits, which involved adding several new scenes. Aaaaand, Blood and Bone is now over 170k words long. The second part of the book alone is about the length of all of Memories of Salt and Stone. But oh I am in love with this book. Every piece of it reaches out and takes hold of my soul. I hope when I’m done buffing it up that it captures you all similarly!
So…I decided to delay Blood and Bone’s cover reveal until after Viggo in Orlin is released (except for my newsletter folks…they got it early as a thanks for letting me invade their email inbox). But! I wanted to give you some special treat, so below you can find an excerpt from the beginning of Memories of Blood and Bone. Enjoy! And happy almost Autumn!
Memories of Blood and Bone, Chapter 1
*The material below is somewhat unedited, so please forgive typos. And you know…don’t steal it and all that.*
A wet breeze runs its chilled fingers up the back of my neck, whispering haunting secrets that I know better than to listen for. Instead, I hunch my shoulders and throw my hood over my head, wishing spring came a little more quickly in the forests of Byrask. It might be warm enough for us to be out and hunting rather than cooped up in some rough boarding house, but that doesn’t mean it’s warm enough for reasonable people to be out and traveling. So far, it seems even the Emyr we hunt haven’t braved the early spring to cause their mischief. Bounties are scarce.
But no matter how I feel about the cold, wet taste of Byrask’s thawing days, I didn’t argue with my brother when he said it was time to move on. I know as well as he that we couldn’t have stayed longer. Not unless we intended to indenture ourselves to our host.
“Head up, Dani,” Damir mutters, just as a wagon sloshes past. I jump to the side after my brother, grimacing at the specks of mud that splash up on my cloak.
“What’re you dreaming up now?” Damir asks, as we press on down the muddy streets of this ragged town. It’s called Dodesi, I think.
“A warm fire,” I reply, stiffening as the next breeze tries ripping my hood from my head.
“Better to dream up a way to get one,” Damir says quietly, nodding to a man who passes with a hand cart. He notices the insignia hanging from Damir’s neck and goes pale. “I might be able to barter for a spot in the stables tonight, but that’s it.”
I groan, resisting the urge to throw my head back toward the cloudy sky. I know the perilous state of our finances, but still my cold and aching limbs rebel against the idea of another night spent with the animals.
“If I wanted to muck out stables for the rest of my life, I could’ve stayed in Ryst.”
“You’re welcome to go back, if you’re missing it that badly.”
I draw back at the growl in his voice, blinking rapidly. And I bite my lip as I turn my eyes down to my muddy boots. I won’t be hurt. He’s as tired as I am.
Winter felt far longer than usual, this year: spent in an overcrowded boarding house full of people who viewed us as barely a step above servants. To them, we’re no different than the rat-catcher cats kept on large estates. They don’t seem to care that the “pests” we catch are often capable and willing to kill whoever stands in their way.
The fact that I took up sewing and mending for the mistress of the house, as a way to supplement our limited resources, didn’t help. And though I didn’t mind the work—in fact, I secretly enjoyed the relaxing regularity of it—I didn’t like the way the other boarders treated us either. Sometimes I think dragons and rusalki are easier to deal with than high-class humans wanting to prove their superiority. At least with Emyr, I’m allowed to brandish a dagger in their face.
“Old Gurij would be glad of your help,” Damir says, with a forced laugh. He slows, falling back to my side to elbow me. I know what he’s doing. Damir seldom apologies with words, but he has a dozen other subtle ways to say he’s sorry. I give in to the effort with a forced smile.
“Are you sure about that?” I ask. “Last I remember, he said he didn’t want me anywhere near his horses.”
“But you’re grown up now.”
I chuckle. “Such a comfort that is. Now if I tried stealing, I’d know how to choose a horse that wouldn’t carry me right to his feet.”
Soon enough, our laughter is natural, and it brings a little warmth back into my chest. No, I don’t want to sleep in one more stable loft with only the warmth of the horses below us to guard against the cold. But I will, as long as I’m with Damir.
We fall back into silence as another wagon rattles toward us. It isn’t so much the gloomy driver that makes my steps slow, but the reaction the wagon gathers as it passes. Wide stares, gasps of horror… One woman begins to cry as she hides her children’s eyes. A man stumbles to an alley to vomit on the ground. I don’t have to guess what’s being carried through Dodesi’s center.
Turning to Damir, I meet his grim look with one of my own, and when he steps forward, I fall into his shadow to follow. When we’re close enough to see what, or who, the wagon carries, I bite my lip and steal myself for the sight. And I understand the townspeople’s reactions.
The body of a man is laid over an old tarp, one that’ll never be free of the blood now staining it. His torso is ripped open, his heart clasped in hands crossed over his chest. This by itself is gruesome, and it’s likely what overcame the man still hunched over in the alley. But to me his face is the worst part: his mouth is open in a silent scream, twisted forever into a look of mindless terror.
Memories stir, reminding me of sights I’ve witnessed worse even than this. I have enough experience with bodies and blood to keep myself steady, rather than give in to the horror and nausea the citizens around us suffer from. I press my lips in a thin line and force my eyes to catalog details other than the obvious and grisly cause of his death. Nothing can erase that sickened twist of pity deep in my chest, but I won’t let it take me.
His clothes are thick and sturdy, dyed subdued shades of brown and green. Weapons are piled in the wagon alongside the body, though I can’t tell if the blood on the blades is his own or that of his enemy. I don’t need to study the medallion hanging around his neck to know that this man was an Emyr hunter…and it doesn’t take much to guess that he met his end by the hand of whatever quarry he’d been hunting.
Beside me, Damir curses. I lift my eyes to his face with a silent question.
“Troian,” he says.
I look back to that distorted facsimile of a face, now searching for something familiar. And another memory surfaces, of dim light and bland food, of rowdy crowds all pressing in a bit too close. If that mouth were twisted in disgust, if those eyes were alive and lit with base desire…yes, I know that face. I only met Troian once, but the way he watched me made me want nothing else but to hide behind Damir. I spit on his shoes, instead.
And yet, even knowing his name, that pity deep within me continues to well up in my chest. I still feel sorrow at his death, even recognizing the man I would’ve cut to pieces if he tried to touch me. Even knowing that Troian was hardly above the monsters he spent his life killing. Watching his corpse disappear as the wagon rounds a bend, I wonder why that is. But then, aren’t monsters the ones to be most pitied?
I know better than to voice that thought to Damir, not that it matters. He’s already left my side in search of a villager not spilling their supper into the mud. I let him do the talking and turn my eyes to the people still frozen in the streets.
Their horror is already fading. Oh, there are plenty of disturbed glances cast toward that retreating wagon, but already their reaction wanes. Troian wasn’t from Dodesi. He wasn’t their neighbor or their friend, or even an old family rival. He was a hunter: belonging nowhere but venturing wherever he pleased in search of his bounty. Few hunters are beloved outside of family bonds, even among the guild. Given what I know of how he spent his time outside of hunting, I’m a little surprised I don’t find any relief in the faces surrounding me.
But some of the people don’t move on with their day so quickly. Some glance furtively around them, slow to continue on their path. I’m careful not to catch their eyes, wary of spooking them. But I recognize what makes thoughts of that corpse linger in their minds. Guilt. Which means, at the very least, that they know what Troian was hunting.
I store their faces away, despite the fact that I won’t have occasion to seek them out. I’d only need whatever information they have if we were to take whatever bounty led Troian to his end. And I have no desire to face whatever Emyr dealt such a bloody, cruel death.
Damir’s coming back. I turn to find him looking at me with a grin that’s unsettling so soon after what we’ve witnessed, and that makes my heart sink down into my soggy boots.
“I found our next job.”
“No,” I say, shaking my head.
Now Damir’s smile fades into a scowl. “You haven’t even heard what it is, yet.”
It doesn’t matter. I don’t whatever bounty killed Troian. But as Damir stars at me, one eyebrow raised, I find it harder to hold his gaze.
“At least let me tell you what I learned before you decide against it,” he says.
My eyes are trained on my hands now, chapped from the cold air.
“Fine,” I whisper.
Damir doesn’t explain right away. First, we go to the weathered inn, where Damir convinces the man in charge to allow us to spend the night in his stable loft. It isn’t until the sunlight is abandoning the world back to cold wind and frost that Damir tells me what he learned about the bounty that Troian died pursuing. It sounds as dangerous as I feared.
A member of the lower nobility has set a bounty on a creature’s head that was large enough to have housewives consider the risk. Rumors must’ve exaggerated it. No one offers that much for a single Emyr, not even a rusalka. But then, Troian wasn’t one to take on small bounties.
However, the man also said that Troian wasn’t the first to die in the hunt. In fact, if rumor could be at all trusted, Troian is only the most recent in a long string of hunters to be carted out with their bloody heart in their hands.
“I don’t like it,” I say, shaking my head.
“So you’ve said.”
“You know as well as I do that whatever his flaws, Troian was more experienced than either of us. If this Emyr killed him, what’ll it do to us?”
“I just want to talk to him,” Damir says. “He’s in town. We can’t afford to overlook this opportunity.”
“I don’t know about you, but I prefer my heart inside my ribcage.” I stab the pitchfork deeper into the straw to emphasize my point, throwing a glare at my brother’s back.
Damir sighs, and I know he’s rolling his eyes at me. Me, the cautious little sister. If he says one thing about my cowardice, I’ll remind him of the times where my caution has saved our lives. But when he speaks, he takes a different angle.
“It’s either take this job, or resign ourselves to a career cleaning after rich men’s horses.”
The fact that we’re standing in the stables, cleaning out stalls that smell of far more than just straw, only accentuates his point. I turn my attention back to my work with a scowl. And I glare at the black gelding I’m sharing the stall with, daring him to kick me. I’ll kick back.
Even after cleaning the two dozen stalls surrounding us, we’ll be lucky to get the scrapings from the stew pot and yesterday’s crusts in return. If this inn’s usual stable boy wasn’t at home with a broken arm, we wouldn’t even get that much.
I spread clean straw on the stall floor and retreat when the gelding huffs at me, stamping a hoof. I’m glad when the stall door is locked, and when I find the next in line empty. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s clean.
With a sigh, I pull open the door and set to work. No, Emyr hunters aren’t beloved. Nor, unless they’ve made a proper name for themselves, are they particularly respected. At least, not until an upyr or giant comes wandering through. Not until they need us.
The clacking of hooves on stone makes me straighten, ducking into the central aisle in time to see a man dressed in firs and silks drop his reins in front of Damir.
“Unsaddle him and give him a good rub down,” the man orders with a negligent wave of his hand. “All this mud has made a mess of both of us. Polish the tack and I might pay you an extra denga.”
My throat tightens, and words rise that I long to spill into this musty stable. We aren’t servants. We don’t belong to this man, whoever he is. But a wary look at Damir makes me step forward to pick up those reins, despite how my shoulders already ache. I know my brother well enough to recognize that rising anger, and to know what it leads to if left unchecked. Our dignity isn’t worth getting tossed out into the frost.
“Good girl,” the man says, flipping a denga coin in my direction.
I grit my teeth, fingering the knives in my belt as the man turns away in a cloud of furs. It’s not worth it. Picking fights with arrogant men who tip me like a barmaid isn’t the way to build a good reputation, hunter or not. The stable is better than the ground.
But even with those reminders, it takes me a moment to release my belt and turn away. I search for the coin and find it beside a pile of manure we haven’t disposed of yet. It’s not worth much, not even enough to buy a meal most places, but I stoop to retrieve it and try not to consider if I would still take it if it had fallen in the pile. I know I would’ve.
As I lead the man’s horse closer to the tack room to unsaddle him, I feel my resistance to Damir withering. I still don’t believe taking this bounty is a good idea, but…I don’t want to keep going like this. I have no desire to follow Troian to the grave, but I also don’t want to starve. Any hunt that would keep us out of stables for the next few months might be a risk well earned. If I can convince Damir to be cautious.
“Change your mind, yet?” Damir calls.
I don’t deign to answer him. Yes, I’ve changed my mind. But that doesn’t mean I intend to let Damir rub it in. This hunt sounds like it’s for the haughty and the desperate. And though I don’t belong among hunters like Troian, who take risks for the sake of renown…apparently, I am among the desperate.