Exiles on the run. Divine rulers fighting to control the desert’s elements. Dead people secretly walking the sands in search of redemption…
Sand of Bone is the first of two (maybe three…?) novels set in the desert world of SheyKhala. A new chapter will be posted every Thursday until the novel’s publication in the summer of 2013.
To start with Chapter 1, click here.
Not even the midday sun, nigh hot enough to crisp supper’s bread on stone, burned as hotly as Shella’s anger. She strode from the Blade compound, satchel hitched over her shoulder, and entered the city of Prime without breaking stride. People on the street, shoppers making daily purchases, vendors hawking their wares, workers on errands—all stepped aside when they saw her approach. More than a few murmured, “The comdar is angry.”
Though twenty-seven comdars held permanent residence in Prime Stronghold, everyone knew which comdar was angry. Shella’s temper was as well-known as her expertise in the training arena. The latter had garnered a large degree of indulgence for the former.
Had her temper learned to be as cunning as her sword, she might have been promoted to commander a decade ago. The night she’d figured that out, she drank herself into a fury and hacked the hostel’s main bar to pieces before her companions could drag her out without getting themselves maimed. Come morning, she’d had a magnificent hangover, an impressive bill from the hostelkeeper, a month of barracks confinement to endure, and a cool acceptance of her stunted career. Her armbands of comdar’s copper would never be elevated to commander’s bronze.
But no one refuted her talent for turning callow and cocky youths into exceptional Blades. The Blade-hopefuls had become her purpose and her pride. Many of her earliest hopefuls had earned comdar bands. Three now outranked her.
When Cindra had arrived three years ago, Shella had immediately set the girl in competition against Kiht—a young man who’d spent his first six months as a hopeful discovering he could best most of his peers without great effort. The two had been well matched, the skills of one pushing the other to excel. Both had proper manners atop an iron will, physical strength coupled with agility, an understanding of their place in the world and an eye keen for opportunity. Cindra and Kiht were the best hopefuls Shella would ever see branded as Blades.
Would have branded, she corrected. Cindra, if she lived, would likely never lift a sword again. Kiht was dead.
Shella clenched her jaw as she mounted the palace steps, and hitched her satchel onto her other shoulder just to give her fists something to do. She gave a stiff nod to the outer guard and passed unchallenged through the arch, its gleaming bronze doors standing open, that led to the courtyard. The strike of her iron-edged boots against the tiled walkway elicited frowns from the sandal-shod folk outside the public hall. She deliberately lengthened her stride and skirted close to a knot of merchants who had tried, unsuccessfully, to drive up the cost of Blades leathers last month. The trio stumbled out of her way, muttering under their breath, “The comdar is angry.”
Another nod to another pair of guards gained her access to a wide passage leading to the Velshaan Court. Shella repeated the wordless exchange with guards at the other end of the corridor then, without breaking stride, used one hand to unbuckle her swordbelt and dropped it on the desk of the Court’s clerk. She tossed her dagger atop it.
“You’re late, Comdar,” the clerk snapped
She kept walking. “Other business
“More important than your summons?”
Shella slammed the door behind her before whispering, “Much.”
A muted scrape and snick answered as the door was locked behind her. It had unnerved her the first time, being locked in, knowing the only way out was through the Velshaan Court and at the bloodkin’s leisure. But after a decade of routine appearances, the protocol no longer troubled her. The presence of the bloodkin, however… As long as she didn’t attract more than cursory attention, or make those god-granted amber eyes stare at her a heartbeat more than necessary, her nerves took only a small jolt. Today, she didn’t care. Today, she just wanted the audience to be over.
A single slit window, set near the ceiling, let in the sunlight that spilled over a pair of straight-backed chairs set on either side of a small table, and a tri-legged stand in the corner that held a copper washbasin and plush towel. But it was the room’s other door—locked as well, with a narrow iron box set within it at waist-level—that required her attention.
Shella dropped her canvas satchel on the table and rummaged in it for her summons, sand cascading from the creases to spill onto the pristine floor. After a few muttered curses, her hand closed around the rumpled scroll. She stuffed it in the box, shut the lid, then slid it through to the other side. Almost immediately she heard a click as another clerk retrieved it. With a huge sigh that did nothing to ease the knot in her chest, Shella made an obligatory dip of her hands in the washbasin, and dropped into one of the chairs to wait.
Early, late, or smack on time, the Velshaan always made her wait. Twice a year, every year since she’d become the primary training comdar, the Velshaan summoned her to present the names of hopefuls she deemed ready for the brand. Today, two black lines topped the list.
Cindra had been found long after curfew, sprawled unconscious in the mud along the Great River, blood drying on her face and clothes, her arm twisted at an impossible angle. Through swollen lips, Cindra had rasped out Kiht’s name over and over. A search had been set in motion to find the Blade-hopeful so he could answer for what he’d done to Cindra, but the battered corpse they’d found downriver—already missing chunks of flesh—had made Shella wonder which of the two had been the aggressor. Then, after hearing Kiht was dead, Cindra had tearfully whispered about a forced fight, beatings and slashings and threats. Then she’d refused to speak again before passing out.
Within moments, Shella would face the bloodkin as if nothing had happened. After all, Cindra and Kiht were but hopefuls, outside the protection of the law, with only their comdar and other Blades to shield them. Blades like the leader of Raskah’s cadre, who another hopeful, in great fear, claimed to have seen lurking around the barracks last evening.
Shella slammed her fists on the table and pushed to her feet as anger gripped her chest. The chair overturned, and she kicked it across the room. It collided with the washstand, the basin rocked onto the floor, and clove-scented water splashed over her boots.
Both doors opened at the same instant. Shella turned her back on the mess she’d made and looked first to the clerk who’d let her in, then to the one who held her summons.
“Are they ready for me?” she demanded.
He nodded. “Are you ready?”
To answer, she grabbed her satchel from the table and tossed out a few coins to cover the cost of clean-up, knowing her own commander would berate her for it before sundown regardless. The clerk was already striding down the narrow passage to the Court, and Shella rushed to catch up lest she keep the Velshaan waiting. As her name and rank echoed through the vaulted chamber, she ran her gaze over the three stone-faced Blades who stood at vigilant attention along the Court’s rear wall—a position of great honor and, from Shella’s perspective, utter boredom.
She stepped into the great chamber, back straight but gaze downcast, and dropped to one knee. In the scant moments the Velshaan left her kneeling before them, she saw Cindra’s misshapen face and Kiht’s crocodile-torn body, and her muscles tensed. Then Velshaan Marika acknowledged her with a single word, “Come,” and Shella rose to make her salute. With clipped steps, she mounted the two stairs to the speaker’s box. Hands stiff with the effort to appear calm, she took a folder from her satchel and opened it atop the podium. She kept her eyes on the papers and her scarred knuckled. She didn’t dare look up, afraid of losing control and what would happen if she did. Clearing her throat, she spoke the same words she’d spoken so many times before.
“Honored Velshaan, children of the gods, descendants of the mighty Iasone who created SheyKhala from breath and bone, I come to beg your approval of the hopefuls in my charge who have proven themselves worthy of the Blade’s brand.”
Tearing her gaze from the lines obliterating two names, she handed her list to the waiting clerk. The end of his footsteps and the rustling of paper told her when the Velshaan had received her list. As the silence lengthened, Shella dared to raise her head.
The curved table of polished marble dominated the dais, creating the illusion of cool light that illuminated the faces of four Velshaan, and highlighted the dark iron rod set before each of them. The dark golden strands in their hair matched the deep amber of their eyes. The eldest, Marika, sat at the table’s center, her hair half-gold with age. To her left sat her son Tarik—father to Raskah and Syrina—then Layla, daughter of Marika’s long-dead sister. Raskah occupied the seat to Marika’s right, the position properly belonging to Tarik.
And then there was the empty chair beyond Raskah, where Syrina ought to be. It was supposed to be a mute testament that the Velshaan cared so deeply for their people, they’d discipline one of their own rather than risk another civil war. Shella saw it instead as a silent demonstration of their power, a reminder to anyone important enough to enter the Court that even one of the gods’ own descendants could be sent to Exile Stronghold if the bloodkin so wished.
There were other Exiles, of course—mostly incorrigibles whose failings weren’t quite serious enough to warrant being fed to the sands, but whose crimes had offended deeply enough to garner punishment rather than dismissal. Since the day, five years past, Shella had seen the man she loved chained in a cage destined for Exile Stronghold, she’d been very careful to direct her sharp tongue toward more innocuous matters. She assumed the Velshaan had spies on her, so she ceased to notice or care about anything outside the training grounds. Pyrius had been fortunate, gaining exile rather than death for his single complaint grumbled aloud in a hostel after too much beer. Had Shella not been certain the Velshaan would have her executed, she’d scream treason from the palace steps just for the chance to hold him again.
At last, Shella forced herself to look at Raskah. He met her gaze and stared without flinching, his mouth set in a grim line. She held her breath and clung to what little bit of restraint kept her silent. Her vision blurred, and she dropped her gaze to her hands. She gripped the podium so tightly, her fingers throbbed with every heartbeat.
“Comdar,” Marika said, “you’ve never submitted a corrected list before. Is this an error you simply forgot to correct?”
The best possible answer would be, Yes, Velshaan. Then her remaining hopefuls would be branded without question or delay, Shella would be reprimanded for putting sloppy work before the Velshaan, and the day would continue as if nothing were amiss. And yet..
“The first name I crossed out is Kiht. His body was found in the Great River shallows this morning. He’d been beaten and cut. Repeatedly.” Shella drew a quick breath, ignoring the soft gasps from the Velshaan. “The second is Cindra. Also beaten and cut, but still alive when I left the surgeon’s hall. Her right shoulder is torn beyond mending. Bones in her face are broken. The surgeon isn’t certain she’ll survive the day.” Her peripheral vision caught Raskah’s small flinch, then the settling of his hand atop the iron rod, so she looked to Tarik instead. “They were the best, Velshaan. A generation will pass before you see another pair so well matched.”
Layla clicked her tongue. “Then why is one dead and the other almost so?”
“Cousin,” Tarik whispered sharply to Layla. Of all the Velshaan, he was most concerned with Blade matters. When Layla shrugged, Tarik looked to Shella with something close to kindness. “It must have been a difficult morning, Comdar.”
“I presume this Cindra is under guard for the killing.”
“No, she didn’t—”
“Then she was the one attacked?”
“No, they were—” She bit back the rest, and couldn’t help glancing at Raskah. He stared back, eyes narrowed, color high in his cheeks. “I can’t be— We can’t be certain yet, Velshaan. Neither hopeful is known for brawling. Neither had weapons when they were found. Someone else…” She swallowed hard. “Someone else did this, I’m certain.”
“I see,” Marika said She looked first to Raskah, then gave Tarik and Layla only a swift glance before saying, “Should the woman live, she has leave to remain in the Blade compound until the matter is settled. If she is found blameless, arrangements will be made for some sort of compensation to ease her future. The rest of your hopefuls listed here shall be granted the brand. See the clerk to arrange a date for the branding, and deliver your plan to better secure your hopefuls by this evening.”
The implied dismissal must be obeyed. Nothing more could be done. Cindra meant nothing more to the Velshaan than the few coins she’d receive from their coffers—enough, perhaps, to support a year of lean survival—and the loss of a future asset.
“Comdar, you may go.”
Shella should walk out of Court right now and bring congratulations to the hopefuls who’d soon become Blades. Then she could send a message of her condolences to Kiht’s family, and sit beside Cindra’s broken body until she either died or awoke to a future that might make her wish she had. And if Kiht and Cindra weren’t the last hopefuls Raskah decided to—
“Shella, are you ill?”
She couldn’t pry her fingers from the podium, couldn’t make her feet move. “My Velshaan, if I knew who did this—”
“The matter is settled for today,” Marika said.
“He destroyed them,” she said despite the voice in her head demanding she clamp her mouth shut. “Within days, they would have sworn their lives to you as the brand marked them as your own. He stole them from you. Doesn’t that matter?”
“Careful, Comdar,” Layla murmured. You’re walking a cliff’s edge.”
Tarik raised his hand and leaned forward. “Last night, all the commanders were haggling over one or both of those hopefuls. If the comdar knows who is responsible…”
He opened his hand toward Shella, inviting her to speak. Her mouth parched as all four Velshaan watched her. Tarik, who likely would have undertaken Blade training were he not Velshaan. Layla, who rarely spoke a kind word about Blade matters. Marika, whose few appearances in the Blade compound caused even the most confident commanders to fear they’d somehow misstepped. And Raskah, who had spent more and more time watching her hopefuls. Now she knew why.
Seeing his hands rest atop the iron rod made her legs tremble. She knew what those rods could do to a prisoner under interrogation. Slitting her own throat would be a gentler fate.
But the truth demanded to be spoken and heard regardless of the consequences. Because of the consequences. Shella had failed to protect her hopefuls. The truth wasn’t hers to withhold.
“Tell us, Shella.”
“Velshaan Raskah,” she rasped.
Raskah cleared his throat. “Yes, Comdar?”
Shella stared at him, mute as he raised his eyebrows and tapped a finger on the iron rod. The bloodkin were silent, still waiting, their momentary confusion giving her yet another chance to lie, to walk away and—
“Velshaan Raskah,” she repeated. “He forced them to fight each other, and beat them when they didn’t.”
Silence. Then Raskah leaned back, hands raised, and turned to his grandmother. “I told you this would happen. I’m only surprised it took so long.”
“Shella,” Tarik said firmly. “Surely you misunderstood whatever that hopeful told you.”
“That hopeful,” Raskah snapped at his father before Shella could speak, “likely told her nothing. The comdar’s sedition has been simmering for years, despite how much you wish otherwise. We should have dealt with this at the same time your favorite commander was exiled.”
“It’s not sedition,” Shella said. She’d meant to shout, but fear squeezed her voice.
“I want her gone,” Raskah said. “I want her hopefuls to bear witness, and I want all of SheyKhala to know her fate. I want the sands to judge her.”
Layla narrowed her eyes at Shella. “I warned you of the cliff’s edge, Comdar. I believe you’ve just thrown yourself over.”
She had to warn Cindra. She turned and leapt down the steps of the speaker’s box. Those three Blades who’d stood so quietly along the back wall were already coming for her, their shortstaves ready. Her hand wasted a precious heartbeat reaching for the sword she’d left with clerk, another heartbeat grabbing for her missing boot dagger. She couldn’t retreat—the Velshaan were behind her—and she couldn’t reach the door—it would be locked anyway—and she couldn’t best all three Blades. They were armed, they were almost two decades younger than she, and she had herself trained them on the best ways to overpower a skilled opponent.
But there was one thing she could do. She was a Blade. She fought.
When Shella regained consciousness, sprawled on her side in a cage, she wanting nothing more than to lose it again. The cage sat outside the walls of Prime Stronghold, the Velshaans’ way of placing the condemned completely beyond their protection before being fed to the desert. The bars she lay atop had burned icy lines across her body. Grit filled her mouth and coated her throat, but coughing set hammers pounding against her skull. With every breath, thin blades pierced her side. She couldn’t stop shaking.
Unlike most Blades and all Velshaan, Shella lacked the gift of nightsight. What shadows she could make out wavered and twisted each time she blinked. Stars wandered across the blue-black sky. The bars above her seemed to grow thick and malleable. Her stomach twisted with the thought she might never see straight again, then she realized how little it mattered. She had been condemned to the desert’s judgment—the certain and lingering death, the casting away, the certain means to ensure all cursed her name. No one needed eyes to die alone on the sand.
Footsteps whispered closer, beyond her line of sight, and a warm hand touched her bare arm. Shella forced her head to turn, just a little, and glimpsed a pair of shimmering amber eyes before her vision failed. Afraid to move again, Shella let a shameful whimper escape her swollen lips and waited to be beaten yet again by whichever Velshaan was not yet satisfied with her punishment.
“Easy, sweetling,” murmured an ageless female voice, speaking as though Shella were a beast in need of soothing. The musky scents of leather and oil wafted on the breeze. “Be still now. I’m not here to hurt you.”
The voice sounded like Velshaan Marika, but not… quite. It was less refined, almost gritty, as if this Velshaan had spent her life riding desert patrols rather than administering rule in Court. Shella squinted at the face above her and decided the beating had cracked her mind. Only the Velshaan possessed eyes of that precise shade, but no Velshaan would deign to crop their hair off at chin-length, let alone wear Blade leathers. None since the days of the Woes, when Marika was a mere babe, had any of the bloodkin bothered to learn even the basics of swordplay. So if it was not a Velshaan’s hand pressed to her brow—
Shella’s skin prickled, and her shaking worsened. One of the Ancients—a creator of SheyKhala, originator of all Law, ancestor of those who had decreed her death—had come to seal her fate.
“Sweetling, you’ll pass out again if you don’t breathe.”
Shella took a gulp of air, then bit down on the pain it caused. “Couldn’t walk out.”
“Poor littles… didn’t deserve… death like that.”
“Raskah’s fault,” she blurted, then clenched her teeth against the burn in her lungs. “Deserved justice.”
“And you thought the truth would be stronger than what the Velshaan wish?” The Ancient snorted. “Quit jabbering, be still, and let me have a look at you.”
The stark command stunned Shella into obedience. The Ancient hands were gentle, fingers trailing over torn shirt and leggings and bare skin as she murmured her findings—cracked ribs, swollen ankle, battered knees, bruised arms. When the Ancient moved to the other side and touched her back and head, Shella heard a string of profanity she’d never think to hear from a scared being.
“A fingerspan to the right,” the Ancient said, “and they would’ve broken your back as well. And I’d bet you can’t see worth a fist of sand, can you?”
“Comes, goes,” Shella rasped. “Mostly goes.”
Another curse, a sigh, then with great sorrow. “I can’t stop what will happen, Shella.”
She swallowed her fear, and struggled to prevent anger from taking its place. “Law is clear, right.”
“Not even I may break it without creating consequences.” The Ancient leaned back against the cage. “It will be bad for you, Shella.”
“Seen it plenty.”
“If I could—”
The Ancient turned around. “What did you say?”
“Don’t.” The voice in Shella’s head—the one that had screamed its warning to her in Court—began advising her to stop. But anger was also giving her just enough to strength to ignore the worst hurts in her ribs. “No piss-shit favors. Bloodkin did plenty for me already.”
Those amber eyes narrowed, and a dangerous chuckle rumbled in the night. “It’s been at least a hundred years since someone mouthed off to me.”
“About time,” she muttered.
“Brave little Shella, I want you to live,” said the Ancient with both kindness and command. “You won’t survive the desert without my help. I can’t change it, but I will take the pain, if you’ll let me.”
“Sweetling, you’ve enough iron in your back to insult me.”
“Should’ve protected them,” Shella wheezed, and tears began to slip from her eyes. Her breath hitched, sending white-hot pain lancing through her chest, but she couldn’t stop the next gasp. And she deserved it—every pain, every hurt—for failing to keep her hopefuls safe.
“So you’ll die to make up for it?” the Ancient demanded. “That’s the coward’s way, sweetling. Dying is the easiest justice to give. You think it’ll end your shame. But the shame gets worse than you can imagine when the gods ask you what you did to right your wrongs, and you don’t have an answer. If the gods give you time, Shella, take it as a gift. You decide when to sacrifice it.”
The words were getting farther away, the night darker, as breathing grew more and more difficult. She wanted to argue, to make the Ancient leave her alone. Then she thought about Kiht, about Cindra, about the fear ahead. Unable to speak, she opened her hand to the Ancient—surrender, supplication, agreement.
“Thank you, Shella.” The Ancient reached through the bars to clasp her hand. The pain began sinking away, as if drawn into the very sand and stone beneath the cage, leaving heavy lethargy behind. “It will not be easy, I promise you, but you will survive. Raskah fears you.” Then she ended in a whisper, “He damned well should.”