* * *
Excerpt from Thorn Changer by Christy Reed
As she winged her way inland, Skey watched the bustling harbor beneath her. Fish and salt wafted up on the breeze as a boat of fishermen dragged in the night’s catch. A few ships waited outside for the harbor to empty. More ships were loading on cargos.
“Come on there,” the captain of the ship she was flying over shouted to his crew. They struggled to push a crate up the ramp. “Be putting some muscle into your work. I’ve not got all day to see you lads make fools of yourselves. You—”
Skey shrieked as she soared over him. He shook a fist at her. “You dumb bird. Why don’t you work yourself instead of leaving the better folks to do it? If I had my harpoon with me, you’d be singing a different tune.”
She continued on, trying not to chuckle, trying not to wince at the fire burning through her shoulder. The captain bristled with anger. “Argh, you dumb bird. I’ll see you over a cook fire yet.” A cry sounded below. Her laughter came out a screech as the crate slipped back down the ramp. This time his fist shook at them. “Argh. You seascum. Didn’t I tell you to hurry?” He struck the rail. “You’re slower than sea slugs. We don’t have time for your games.”
She made her way to a rocky alcove farther up the shore. A flash of green. She gasped, clutching her throbbing shoulder. If she hadn’t reached the ship, she’d never have made it.
Tide pools hid among the rocks here. She squatted down, tearing another strip from her cloak. She let it soak in the salt water as she undid the bandage. The wound was swollen, red, but the bleeding had stopped. She wrung out the strip from the pool, and bit back a scream as the salt burned into her flesh. It would kill infection, help it heal better. At least, that’s what Zeino had told her.
She poured more of the herb mixture into her hand. Even less was left now. She made a paste again, and smeared it onto her shoulder before binding it up with a fresh strip from her cloak. Zeino had also told her that the herbs minstrels used to soak their hands in after a long day of playing made a good wound poultice.
Strange, how you knew so much about this…
The throb stilled to a dull ache. She looked back across the sea. Fog rolled over the horizon, blocking out the islands she’d rested on after leaving the ship, blocking out Arilan. The tension in her shoulders relaxed a little. She had made it. Cinote would never find her here. She was finally free. Free of Arilan for good. Her hand reached up, and took out the double hoop earring in her left ear. She threw it as hard as she could.
It glistened in the sun before it plinked into the cove waters. She didn’t look like most Arilians, and she’d heard enough of the Beolkin accent at court, she could probably fake it. Now no one would guess she was Arilian here.
She stopped as she entered the market square. The buzzing of shopkeepers hawking their wares filled her head. Only a few people were milling about the stalls right now, but that would increase soon. What should she do now? Where would she find an inn? Her fingers touched her harp. The strings whispered hope as she ran her hand over them. She spied the tavern on the edge of the square, and started past the carts and wagons loaded with late autumn produce and other wares. There was no reason to limit herself to common folk singing. Maybe she could get a place at one of the nobles’ castles. Hadn’t she sung for the emperor?
She rounded the last of the wagons, and started across the edge of the packed earth. The tavern was only yards away. Bread and beer filled the air, as two men hurried out the doors, each going a different way. A hand grabbed her shoulder just as she passed one of the men. Fire sped through it. She bit her cheek to keep in the scream. Cinote couldn’t have…
She looked back.
The figure wore a cloak with the hood up, but by the grip of the purple-gloved hand and the size it had to be a man. Dark eyes peered out from under the hood, glinting in the morning light…were they red? “I’ve great need to talk with you.”
She shook the hand off her shoulder, and stepped back. A sword hung at his belt, but it was heavier than those she’d seen the Beolkins or Arilians wield. His clothes didn’t speak of Arilan. And Cinote had never done a particularly great job of hiding his men.
Still, there was something in his manner, in the way his right hand, the glove covered in odd old symbols, hung by his side, in the way his eyes never left hers, that choked her breath. “With me? Why?”
“It doesn’t matter why,” his eyes darted to her left temple. “It’s enough for you to know I do.”
Her heart turned to ice. Whether he looked it or not, only Cinote’s men would know of the birthmark.
She turned away. “I’m afraid that’s not good enough for me. You’ll have to find someone else to listen to you.”
He grabbed her wrist. “I’m afraid you don’t have a choice.”
Skey’s boot slammed down into his shin.
She jerked away as his grip slackened, and darted into the growing crowd. Her heart echoed her boots against the earth. How had Cinote figured out she was here so quickly? How did he know where she was going?
He must have found that dratted map.
She knew she shouldn’t have circled Beolki.
She dodged through the carts, running in a zigzag fashion. Hopefully with the growing crowd, he’d lose track of her. She slipped out of the square on the opposite side from where the tavern was, and trotted down the alley, forcing her breath to calm. She rounded the building, and flattened herself against the wall as she peered around the corner. The square still bustled with people, but no one headed this way.
She leaned back against the wall, letting out a long sigh. She pulled the cloth headband over her temple. She should’ve known better than leaving that exposed. “He’s gone.”
“Trying to avoid someone, are we?”
Skey stiffened, and turned. A man stood with his hand on the knob of the door behind him, regarding her with mild curiosity. Like most of the people in the market, and like Skey herself, he wore a cloak pulled close against the chill. Unlike the other man who had spoken to her, though, his hood was thrown back, clearly revealing his angled features. His square jaw was tensed, but a half smile played around his mouth. It was his cerulean blue eyes that told her he was wary of her.
She crossed her arms, wincing as the harp rubbed against the bandage on her shoulder. “Should I be avoiding someone?”
A chuckle escaped, as he stored a scroll in his belt pouch. “You tell me. Why would anyone be after you?”
* * *
Chapter One Part Four will be available tomorrow.