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.
Shella surfaced from a pool of fragmented memories. Scorching heat and biting cold. An expanse of parched earth as wide as the sky. Her numb and trembling body always moving onward. A voice she almost recognized. Later, a pair of gentle hands and kind voices, a soft place to rest, the marrow-deep ache of exhaustion and healing.
Her vision wavered when she first opened her eyes, but the shifting images slowly coalesced into a single steady one that emerged from the haze. Dingy curtains around her cot diffused sunlight to a mild glow. Discovering her confines were cloth instead of iron brought a sigh of relief. She felt thirsty, hungry, and hurt. But above all, Shella felt safe.
Scores of questions clamored for answers. She dismissed them all. If someone had seen fit to tend her, if someone had chosen not to hurt her again, she’d risk the charity lasting a little longer. Pyrius would likely call that foolish. She called it pragmatic. Carefully, she shifted to a position that caused her the least amount of pain, and fell back asleep.
When she again woke, the sputtering flame of a small lamp helped the fading sunlight remain bright enough for her to see. A pile of neatly folded clothing rested on the stool beside her cot, and a pair of mismatched short boots lay on the floor. Not exactly Blade garb, but Shella could hardly complain about the hospitality. Apparently, her benefactors expected her to be up in short order, and of her own power. That suited her fine. She’d rather fight her way back than be pampered through recovery.
Every muscle protested when she sat up and made a tentative stretch. Her ribs ached, but no piercing burn followed. Jaw clenched, she struggled to pull the shirt over her head despite her splinted wrist and the bandages enwrapping her from armpits to waist. Once she managed to tie the front lacings into sloppy knots, she closed her eyes to ease her growing headache before attempting the drawstring-waist pants. One knee, black and yellow with old bruises, could scarcely bend enough to slip through the pant leg. The other leg had to be tugged over yet another splint, this one on her ankle.
She looked at that ankle, then glanced askance at the mismatched boots. “Nice,” she said under her breath, realizing one was larger than the other. Her good foot slid into the smaller one easily. The splinted one took a little work. She stood carefully and eased her weight onto it. With small pressure, the dull ache to become warning pain. She sucked in her breath and sat down. Caged or not, she remained someone’s captive.
Her headache worsened at the thought. Wincing, she ran her fingers across the back of her head. A stubble of hair ringed the thick scabbing that remained. Judging by its growth, it had been shaved only a couple days ago. She couldn’t guess how long since Raskah’s own iron rod had done its damage. Long enough for her ribs to nearly heal, not nearly long enough for her ankle. A fortnight? Two months?
Quiet footsteps from outside the curtains set her heart racing. She stood on one foot, braced a hand on the wall beside the cot, and waited. A moment before the curtains parted, her fist clenched at her side, where her sword had hung for decades.
“Thought I heard you.” A man of middling years stepped inside, his expression betraying nothing more than professional concern. He set a bowl of dark brown mash on the table and held out a chipped mug filled with water. “Sit back down. Drink slowly. I have some questions.”
The back of Shella’s neck prickled as she eased onto the edge of the bed. She used both hands to bring the mug to her lips and took a sip. The water tasted stale, but she wanted to guzzle it all in one breath.
“How’s your head?”
“Hurts,” she said. “Not too bad. How long have I been here?”
“A little, when I stood up. Do you know what happened to me?”
“Let me see your wrist.”
She held out her hand, and managed another sip of water while he unwound the bandages. At his request, she flexed her fingers, then rotated her hand in small circles. The muscles felt tight, yet the hand moved with only minor discomfort.
“Be gentle with it for a few days. I don’t want it injured again.”
“Neither do I, Surgeon…?”
He paused a moment, then looked down. “Just ‘Surgeon’ will do for now.”
They—whoever “they” were—still didn’t want her to know anything. Her anger began to heat, then cooled with the next drink of water. It would have been obvious to them that someone wanted her dead. They might even know who she was, and what had happened. At least this man asked his questions without hitting her.
“Those bandages,” he continued, “should stay tight around the ribs for awhile. The ankle will take some time yet, I’m afraid. I’ll give you something for the pain, it you wish.”
She shook her head, then looked down at the mug she’d been drinking from. “Unless you’ve already slipped something in here.”
“No,” he said with a humorless laugh. “The water always tastes that way. You’ll get used to it.”
“Will I be permitted to?”
He ducked his head with an awkward grin. “This would be easier if I asked the questions.”
“Can’t blame me for trying,” she muttered.
“Good sign. I’m afraid the food is worse than the water, but you’re welcome to it. I’ll be back.”
Shella waited until the curtains dropped behind him before testing one of two slivers of onion in the lentil mash. It tasted like poorly spiced dirt, but her stomach didn’t care. By the time the surgeon returned, a well-used crutch in hand, she had wiped the last bits from the bowl with her finger and wanted more.
“Think you can use this to walk a little ways?”
“I can try.”
“Follow me, then. Warn me if you think you’re going to pass out.”
He held the curtain aside and waited for her to hobble out. Her chest tightened as she limped behind him through the dark infirmary and into a darker corridor. He provided a lamp without commenting on her lack of nightsight, slowed his gait to match hers, and paused graciously when she needed to catch her breath. She had to stop far sooner than her pride liked, and wanted little more than to go back to sleep. Worst of all, nothing hung on the walls to give her a clue where she was, and no one else passed them, though she once thought she heard muffled voices in the distance. Shella grew more and more tense, gaze darting from shadow to shadow in search of an ambush.
“How much farther?” she asked.
He stopped at one of many doors lining the corridor and opened it for her. Without explaining, he motioned her inside, hung the lamp beside the doorway, and closed the door behind him. Shella waited for the click of a lock, but heard only his departing footsteps.
For a moment, she stood by the door and debated, balanced on one foot, whether or not to violate the small trust and peek out the door. Her tiresome conscience overrode curiosity and she opted instead to ease herself into the bare room’s only chair. She sank down with an indulgent groan, resting the crutch across her thighs. Her ankle throbbed and her back itched. The latter she cured by rubbing against the chair’s back slats as she waited.
“I’m too old for this,” she muttered to the empty room. She should have accepted the offer of retirement last year, yet she couldn’t bear the thought of handing the hopefuls over to anyone else, nor imaging any other way to spend her years.
The door opened and closed before Shella could get to her feet. She gaped at the young woman who had appeared as if conjured by air—Velshaan Syrina, her features as stern as her grandmother’s, her iron rod braced between her feet. With recognition came the realization that somehow, Shella had crossed the worst of the desert’s wilds and ended up in Exile Stronghold. And that meant Pyrius was close enough for her to hold, were it not for the Velshaan staring at her with chill authority.
Shella stood, forgetting about her ankle, and the crutch clattered to the floor. Pain shot all the way to her hip, and she bent over the chair, gritting her teeth. She jumbled up the words of an apology and proper greeting for the Velshaan.
Syrina frowned. “I was told you were well enough to speak with me.”
“Yes, Velshaan,” she managed to say clearly. Eyes watering, she straightened, balanced against the chair. “My apologies for… for not… I didn’t realize—”
“Sit down, then.”
“I am able to stand if—”
“I know you’re stubborn, I know of your injuries, and I know you shouldn’t be on that ankle any longer. Sit.”
Shella obeyed, her back straight as a sword. She wondered how much Syrina actually knew and remembered of her, how much Pyrius may or may not have disclosed, and hoped it wasn’t much.
Swallowing hard, Shella nodded.
“You’ve been entrusted with turning hopefuls into loyal Blades. Other than scuffles in taverns and a penchant for argument, I recall your disciplinary record is clean.” Arms crossed, the rod dangling from one hand, she leaned against the door. “So what did you do to so offend my bloodkin that you ended up like this?”
“I told the truth, Velshaan.”
Syrina raised her eyebrows and waited.
“My hopefuls,” Shella said. “One of them was killed, and the other beaten so badly… It was the day before their branding. I’d crossed their names off the list. Velshaan Marika asked why, and I told them. I told them I knew who had done it. I told them who it was even though I knew… I told them because I was supposed to protect those hopefuls, and I failed.”
“Who did you name?”
She was going to get herself killed again, and couldn’t help it. She stared at Syrina’s iron rod as she spoke. “Velshaan Raskah.”
“Raskah,” Syrina whispered. “You’re certain?”
“Cindra, the hopeful who survived, told me.”
“And she wouldn’t lie?”
“No, my Velshaan,” she forced herself to say. The little bit of food in her stomach began to sour. Even though the woman before her was less than half her age, even though Shella could likely overpower her with a single strike, Shella feared what the Velshaan would do. “Others saw the comdar from Raskah’s cadre with my hopefuls earlier. A courier saw him take them toward the palace.”
“Raskah’s… ‘cadre.’ Blades of his own.”
“Yes, my Velshaan.”
“You’re not an exile,” Syrina said slowly, quietly. “My bloodkin fed you to the sands. They intended you to die.”
Shella nodded slowly.
“The brandings would have been proposed almost a month ago. Who freed you from the chains? How did you survive so long?”
“I—don’t know.” Shella had little memory of those days, and couldn’t separate fact from what must have been hallucination.
“Comdar,” Syrina said evenly, “the law requires I uphold the decree of my bloodkin and return you to the desert’s judgment. Even if what you say is true.”
“If, my Velshaan?”
“The law is clear.”
A sudden flush heated Shella’s cheeks. Once more, the will of the Velshaan was set to slither beneath the truth, denying justice for Kiht and Cindra in the name of keeping the law. Once more, a Velshaan wanted Shella to die for speaking the truth.
“Yes, it’s clear,” Shella said. She leaned forward to retrieve her crutch and used it to stand while Syrina’s fist clenched and unclenched about the iron rod. “If your bloodkin couldn’t kill me, do you think you can? I was your age when I earned my Blade’s brand, and served the Velshaan faithfully ever since. I never expected my loyalty to be turned against me so a spoiled whelp with pretty eyes could cripple and kill my hopefuls. So if hearing that truth makes you want to kill me, don’t take the coward’s way. Let my blood be on your hands, not the desert sands.”
“That’s enough, Comdar.”
“I begged no mercy from your bloodkin,” she rushed on. “I’ll beg none of you. I’ll stand as long as I can while you take that rod to me, and I’ll fight you until my heart stops. But I won’t be your conscience. A mere comdar shouldn’t come between a mighty Velshaan and her dear brother.”
Syrina advanced, iron rod in her fist. Her eyes burned like amber embers, like the eyes of the Ancient. Shella fancied she could feel their heat as the Velshaan stared up at her.
“You’re not the only one to pay for speaking truth,” Syrina snapped. “Not the first, not the last. This place has plenty like you, so you won’t get special pity on that account. And if I wanted you dead, Comdar, your bones would have been picked clean days ago. As for begging mercy—”
Sudden pounding on the door cut through her words. Syrina whirled so quickly, her robes snapped against Shella’s legs. At her command, a young man in Blade leathers opened the door.
“Riders sighted at the outer perimeter, Velshaan,” he said breathlessly.
Shella sank into the chair. She wished someone would either get on with killing her or leave her alone long enough to find Pyrius.
Syrina stood very still. “How many?”
“Two at the fore, eight following, no wagons.”
“Inspection,” she mumbled. “Have the commander meet me in the hall.” She looked over her shoulder to Shella, raking her from brow to boots. “Lock her up below. I don’t quite trust her to stay quietly out of their way. Perhaps a period of solitary reflection will charm her tongue.”
“Don’t count on it,” Shella muttered, but the Velshaan was already gone.
Pyrius tapped his thumb against his empty sword belt and paced the bare, narrow hall, thinking little of the unannounced arrival of two men and their escort. Such inspections he’d come to accept as reminders of his exile status. His tension instead curled around Syrina’s meeting with Shella. There was no way to predict what Shella might say if she felt cornered, no way to guess what Syrina might decide. If Shella’s mouth turned foul, if Syrina thought her pride attacked…
He schooled his expression to impassive deference as footsteps echoed from the corridor. When Syrina swept into the room, the iron rod keeping rhythm with her steps, it took all his training to maintain his smooth facade. Syrina set her mouth in a grim line, her gaze on the floor before her. A small line of thought deepened between her eyes. She reached his side and looked up as a pair of dusty riders passed through the doorway.
“I’d forgotten she’s as stubborn as you are,” she muttered, “and thrice as mouthy.”
With no more time for explanation, she turned her back on him and coolly greeted the inspecting Blades. Pyrius studied the two long enough to conclude that one man was a veteran Blade Comdar—he gave his name as Lamak—and the other fairly green. He went through the motions expected of him as both Exile’s commander and prisoner, and controlled his surprise when the Blade held up a bronze scroll tube. A missive from the bloodkin.
“Bring it here,” Syrina said evenly, hand outstretched, and waited until the Blade placed it on her palm. Her fingers adjusted the score of glyphs running its length until it clicked open. She removed the single sheet and handed the scroll tube off to Pyrius, then unrolled the thin paper. Ashen-faced, she read the letter, then lifted her gaze to the inspectors. “Are you expecting to carry back my response to this?”
“No, Velshaan,” said the younger Blade after a glance to his elder companion. “There was no mention of allowing correspondence.”
“Of course not.” She let the scroll roll into itself and clutched it behind her back. “I assume you will accept what hospitality we can offer.”
The Blade comdar gave a smirk, quickly stifled. “Blade Riner and I will take a chamber. Our escort will lodge in one of the halls. We’ve brought our own rations, but we’ll need the water.”
She lifted her chin. “There will be none for washing, you understand. Our wells are low enough already.”
“We’ll use what we need, Velshaan.”
Pyrius clenched his jaw. He and Syrina both knew better than to argue the point.
“And we’ll head out early tomorrow,” the comdar continued. “We’ve been told to search for a body on our return.”
Pyrius felt the back of his neck prickle. “The desert consumes those it kills.”
“You knew the condemned,” Lamak said. “Comdar Shella.”
The name hung in the air—a tangible thing, a lance poised to take his heart. Pyrius chewed the inside of his cheek and glared at the comdar. Not knowing Syrina’s will, he could say nothing without condemning either Shella or himself. Or the Velshaan at his side.
“Why was a trusted training comdar given to the sands?” Syrina asked.
“Sedition, plain and simple. Exile is no longer a mercy granted for that crime.”
Syrina shot a narrowed glance at Pyrius before asking, “And who wishes the body found?”
“My brother has always been most attentive to such matters.” She released a long breath and shook her head. “No one could survive the desert long enough to reach Exile. You know that as well as all of us here do. Do you have other business?”
“Then begin your inspection. I’ll be in my chambers, so I suggest you knock lest you embarrass us all.”
Blade Riner was young enough to blush. “Yes, my Velshaan.”
She strode from the hall, speaking over her shoulder. “Commander, you and I have unfinished conversations. Come with me.”
He followed her through the quiet stronghold, ignoring the knot of stranger-Blades the inspectors had brought to ensure their safety and exiles’ compliance. His own Blades were holed up in their individual chambers, their weapons—along with his—laid out on tables in the dining hall to be inventoried. Syrina’s stride lengthened and sped up the closer they came to her chamber, and she all but ran up the stairs. Pyrius rushed behind her. No sooner had he closed the door of her chamber than she dropped her iron rod and slammed her fist on her desk. He reached out to stop her, then remembered himself and flinched away.
“Don’t hurt yourself, Velshaan.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she snapped and struck again, this time crying out and wincing.
Before he could stop himself, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her from the desk. “I cannot let you hurt yourself, Velshaan,” he said, realizing the depth and strength of that truth. There was no strange voice urging him to act, no overwhelming compulsion to drive him. It was merely a fact, a non-decision, an act as natural and constant as his heartbeat.
“You will let me go,” Syrina commanded, and Pyrius opened his hands without thought or hesitation. They stared at each other, her head barely reaching his shoulder, until she opened the fist holding the scroll and let the paper fall to the floor. “My bloodkin have called me home.”
“I’d be safer in Exile.” She slumped into her chair, one hand resting on her ever-present little texts. “I can’t refuse, I can’t run, but I can’t… I can’t go back. Raskah will have his way.”
“He’s only one of the Velshaan.”
“If my bloodkin haven’t curbed him yet, they never will. He has his own cadre now, Blades that might also be sworn to him by blood and iron, who helped him kill at least one hopeful Shella knows of. Commander, I’m not being called home because I’m missed. They have made decisions, and they expect me to comply with them.”
“But what you showed me—”
“Pyrius. Listen.” Her hands shook until she clenched them atop the desk. “My grandmother remembers legends of soulbound Velshaan—brother and sister as consorts—able to control the elements as true Iasone. Either they’ve found ways and reasons to force me into it, or they’ve decided I must be ready to escape Exile by agreeing to it. Or”—she swallowed—”one of them has already learned to do far more than heat a rock, and what I do no longer matters.”
“They’re sending Raskah to fetch me,” she whispered. “That’s what the letter says. I have little more than a month before he arrives. I will release you from your—’
“No.” He knelt at her side before she could speak the words dissolving his blood and iron vow. “Give us time, Velshaan. If Shella—”
“I don’t want her to know. I don’t want anyone to know.” Her voice trembled, and she suddenly looked very, very young. “She’s as safe here as I can make her, Pyrius. We can scrape together enough rations, can’t we? I hid her in those horrid cells underground so no one would see her.”
He bowed his head. “Thank you for your mercy.”
“It isn’t mercy. It’s the only gift I can give you for the risks you’ve taken.” She gave a short, hard sigh, then firmed her voice. “Did we have time to pull water from the well?
Pyrius followed her example and ignored his emotions. “Enough for a pair of barrels.” And those barrels were hidden behind a false wall, where the inspectors couldn’t find it, take it, and leave the exiles to thirst until the well replenished. “It’s muddy enough it’ll need straining, but at least we have it and they don’t.”
“And they don’t,” she repeated, then gave him a sudden smile. “We have an entire month to consider options, Commander. Who knows what might happen between now and then?”
Once Pyrius left her, needing to be in his own chambers when the inspectors arrived there, his gut knotted and rolled. Syrina’s smile troubled him far more than her tears. He couldn’t guess what she truly thought. She may be the most benevolent of her bloodkin, but every Velshaan shared a penchant for scheming.
On to Chapter 7…