Sneak Peek of Bone Witch

bone witch v2 copyAm I excited? Ho Yeah, as Peggy Hill would say. Bone Witch is so nearly done I’m having heart palpitations. I’m glad I shifted focus from YA to something older because this one gets just a bit darker. The read is still recommended for those over 17, but it’s got a little something more for those of us who are…ahem….a little bit more over 17.

So until it’s release, here’s a quick peek at chapter 1 to whet your appetite. Enjoy and feel free to comment and share.

Bone Witch: Chapter One

They were all starving and Alaysha knew it. Worse, she knew the thirst would kill them before the starvation had a chance.

She wouldn’t mind dying so much; the hunger or thirst could take her if they wanted. She didn’t even mind the hunger pains that had taken residence in her belly. She deserved all of it, truth betold. The lives she’d taken over the years as her father’s personal weapon of war laid heavy on her conscience. The sister who’d died because of her at the fiery hands of a witch who could control her element so perfectly that she could send flame leaping from person to person, that sister deserved her vengeance.

The memory alone of Sarum’s collective screams of agony, of her sister’s eyes as she met Alaysha’s, the knowledge that Saxa, her only friend, was still left in the city at the mercy of Aislin’s temper; all those things made Alaysha welcome the ache of hunger and thirst. She didn’t even want to think about Yenic.

She deserved to die, yes. But did these companions who’d opted to follow her: Aedus? Gael? Theron?

She stole a glance at the shuffling feet of those companions, dragging across the cracked earth of the burnt lands. She’d marched behind them saying it was because as a soldier she could protect their rear when in truth, she couldn’t stop thinking that their faces when they looked at her, were filled with blame, their eyes begging for her to bring the rain and quench their thirst.

She looked past them to the vast, dry desert they’d been walking through for the last seven days. She looked sideways. Behind. The cracked earth extended past all horizons and it had been five days since they’d found anything edible. The stores they’d rammed into sacks upon their escape from Sarum had long since gone. The last of the water skins had been on ration since early yesterday and had been guzzled by their thirsty tissues so quickly that no one needed to relieve their bladders anymore.

Barruch could barely lift his hooves over the earth enough to move forward. It was with a sad sting of pain that she knew he’d seen his last sunset. Alaysha kept her palm on his neck and shuffled along with him, afraid to leave his side.

“Stop,” she said and realized nothing had left her mouth in the way of sound. Even still, the pause of her own bare and cracked feet sent some subliminal message to the others. They paused and turned dumbly toward her, expressions a dead wash of blankness. No energy to even look curious, she realized.

Alaysha licked her lips and felt her tongue stick to the corner. It took three dry swallows before she was able to gather enough suppleness in her throat to try again.

“I can’t.” She let the muscles of her legs falter and felt her backside strike clay earth. A shadow passed in front of her vision. She didn’t need to hear him speak to know it was Gael.

She peered up at him, taking in the massively broad shoulders and by now ragged and filthy hair two shades darker than his sister Saxa’s, and she found enough strength to shrug. How could she find the words to tell him she couldn’t force her beloved mount to take one more step?

“He has been brave, this one,” Gael said, and patted Barruch’s neck before he crouched next to Alaysha.

She could only nod.

“We’ll rest,” he said, and signaled to the others, all three. Aedus, Theron, and Edulph fell to the ground as though he’d cut their legs from beneath them.

“This is ridiculous, Gael. We should never have come this way.” She wrapped her arms around Barruch’s leg.

Gael’s silver gaze ran over her face, landing like a moth on her lips. Self-conscious, she tried to lick them. They felt split and puffy. She gave up when she tasted blood.

His palm found the hollow beneath her ear and his fingers kneaded her neck. “Theron says it’s passable.”

“If it was passable, Aislin’s men would have followed us.” She eased her eyes closed, thinking how good it felt to let them rest then forced them open, afraid she’d fall asleep right there. She was exhausted; the few hours’ rest she’d managed at the height of the sun had long been used up.

“If he says it’s passable, we must believe him. He’s been through this before.”

She squeezed Barruch’s leg and felt it tremble. Her eyes stung but no tears came to relieve the burning. She felt Gael’s palm move to her back and reach beneath her arm. “Come. You’re stronger than this.”

She panicked; he would lift and carry her, all because he wouldn’t leave her to die with her mount. A quick shot of energy helped her push away from him. “No, Gael. Save your strength.”

“For what? A hectare? A leagua? Just to leave you here alone?”

She was right; he had planned to carry her. “I won’t be alone.”

Barruch nuzzled her hair. His hot breath cascaded over her, making her wish she had enough energy to stand and hug his neck. It was smothering hot but no perspiration eked through her skin. She knew her body was breaking down. It was just a matter of time before self-preservation kicked in and the power took over. She’d drink them all dry for the small chance the power would give her enough fluid to see her to the ends of the burnt lands.

She tried to swallow again and found the wherewithal to speak. “You’ll have to kill me soon.”

He leaned closer and held her gaze with his own. She saw resolve in the green of his eyes. Yes. She’d forgotten how his eyes shifted color like that from steely silver to mossy green, almost an impossibility.

“It won’t come to that,” he said. “We still have some water. You can have mine.”

She shook her head; what they had left of water wasn’t near enough to keep dehydration away for very long, but her power wouldn’t care. It would thirst what it could.

“When Barruch goes, you’ll likely take what meat from him that you can manage; I’ll help with that. After that…” She didn’t want to say it couldn’t possibly buy them much time. That they’d likely vomit up the muscle anyway and then expire from exhaustion and further dehydration. But if any of them lived while she still did, they’d be gone long before they had even that chance. She’d simply, without wanting to, drain them of whatever fluid still flushed their tissues.

“If I mean anything to you, Gael, you’ll kill me.” It was a terribly thing to do, manipulate hime, but it was her only hope. Neither of them had spoken of the night in the tunnels when he’d consoled her over her sister’s death and Yenic’s capture and seemingly ultimate demise, the night she’d repaid him with her body. It was a sweet memory but one best left to die its own death. Had she any other recourse, she’d not use it on him.

“You said you’d do anything for me.” She gripped his arm fiercely.

He pressed his lips together and the top one cracked and bled when they met. His tongue dipped into the fissure greedily.

“Gael,” she pressed.

He shook his head. “I’ll give you my own fluid before I let you die.” He stood and looked down at her. She could tell he was working hard not to sway off his feet.

“Please, Gael. This place has no water. Not for leaguas, maybe hundreds of leaguas. I’d know it, I’d smell it if it were here.”

It was true. Almost. She’d sent her thirst out once, trying to scent fluid as their skins began to dry up, and she’d smelled fluid, wanted, needed, desirable fluid so sweet she felt the power begin to uncoil within her. It wanted to gather water, not find it. Not search when it found a quick and ready source right within speedy reach; the last of the skins, the water in the soft tissues of Aedus’ body, in the beating heart of Theron. In their blood. She’d take it all if she let the power so much as sniff it.

A fortnight ago, she’d have reveled in the ability to discern the nuances of power, relished with giddiness the ability to pull it back. Now she was just terrified to let it peek out at all.

She could feel the weak pulse of Barruch’s heart in his leg. She wished she could weep. The tears hoarded themselves, and rage came at the futility of it all, her inability to grieve for a beast that had been more family to her than any blood had ever been.

Her mind was invaded by visions of her past. Her nohma’s smile, her tender touch, the feel of her heartbeat, the soft shushing sounds she made as she pressed a cloth sopping with goat’s milk into a hungry mouth. Every tissue in Alaysha’s body cried out with the memory, so real she could smell the honey in the milk, feel the wetness of tears against her cheeks at the relief of finally eating. The feel of her belly gurgling as the first drops of milk dropped in. The satiation. The drowsy sleepiness that took her limbs at being full for the first time. Such deliriously divine sleepiness.

“Alaysha.”

She worked to open her eyes and was surprised to see Gael’s face so close to hers that her cheek could touch his with a mere movement.

“I’m fine,” she told him.

“Not fine.”

His breath was hot on her skin, too hot.

“Neither are you,” she said. In response, he twisted away so she couldn’t see his eyes. She started to speak again, to implore him to kill her before he lost his strength, but a blue-veined foot stole her attention.

“Theron,” she murmured and looked up to see a peaked face drawn with fatigue and hunger. “We won’t make it,” she told the shaman.

He pursed his lips.

“Look around,” she said. “We’re dying. There’s not a drop of water.”

His mouth worked even as his glance darted to Barruch who snuffed haughtily under his study. Leave it to that arrogant horse to show disdain at such a time. She was so taken by the humor that she missed the shaman’s words.

“What did you say?” she asked him.

He had the grace to look ashamed. “We said not every drop is dried up; no, not at all.” He put a tender hand on Barruch’s neck.

“No,” she said, realizing with shock what he meant.

“The beast is dying too, young temptress.”

Strange, that she could entertain thoughts of Barruch dying, but not of killing him. Somehow that was too barbaric. “He’s family. My family. And I won’t take him that way.”

“He’s a beast who can give us fluid.”

The insult of it lent her the strength to stand face the shaman.

“No, Theron. No.”

She felt Gael’s hand on her shoulder. “Tell him, Gael,” she pleaded. Tell him I won’t bleed this beast so he can, we can, drink the blood.” She thought her voice rose; she’d meant to let it shout the indignity and couldn’t understand why it came so low, so gravelly.

Theron’s voice came so softly she had to work to hear it. “Not us, young temptress, oh deities no no no. Blood is food more than it is fluid to such as a lowly man. We’d gain nothing from it.” He gave the beast a pat. “It is for you.”

She took an involuntary step away from him, and he took one toward her.

“It’s the only way,” he said. “This witch must pull from it as much fluid as she can and then release.”

She felt her head shaking in refusal but couldn’t for the life of her find the words to accompany it. Fortunately, Gael spoke for her.

“She doesn’t have that kind of power.”

“Power,” she heard herself saying at the ridiculousness of his statement. “Power? It has nothing to do with my power.”

“I didn’t mean –“Gael began.

“I know what you meant, Gael,” she said, looking at Theron. “I can’t do that to him.” Her voice was nothing but a dusty groan, and when the shaman placed his palm on her heart, she thought she’d find the liquid for tears after all. “No,” she said again, and put all she had into the word.

The shaman’s narrowed gaze spoke of suspicion. “Yet the witch would sacrifice herself? To what end? So we can carry on another handful of steps?”

“If you hadn’t made us come this way we’d not be making these decisions.”

“And Aislin’s men would have us and you’d be dead at her hands like your sister.” Gael’s voice, the traitor, that he would bring up her sister. It was cruel. Too cruel. She slapped his hand away.

“The truth is always painful when it strikes at the heart,” he said. “But they won’t follow us; they’d be fools to do so.” Gael shuffled his feet. “As we are, I suppose,” he mumbled.

Theron turned to face him. He looked small and frail against the massive height of the warrior. “Does the warrior think Bodicca a fool?”

“If Bodicca brought Yenic through these burnt lands, then yes, she is a fool. I expect we can tell her carcass so very soon.”

Theron shook his head stubbornly. “The large woman would have made it. She knows the secrets of traveling the burnt lands.”

“How, Theron?” Alaysha asked. It didn’t matter the secrets that existed if the woman didn’t have water enough to make it across. And no amount of water was enough. Their own situation proved it.

“Bodicca’s homeland lies on the other end,” the shaman said. “I’ve been this way before.” He paused as he met and held her gaze with his own. “Twice.”

“You’ve seen the other side?” She could barely believe her ears. This frail man, travel the burnt lands.

“Yes.” He took a deep breath. “We know it’s possible to cross. We need the horse’s blood.”

All she had was the best argument. “I don’t have the power.”

“Leech the water from the blood. Let it go. We’ll collect it.”

“I can’t. I’ll drain you all.”

A shout came. Edulph. Impatient even in his weakened state. He was one added burden, had been all along, but what could they do? They’d found Aedus’s prodigal brother in a pit inside the mountains of Sarum, burned and afraid, tortured by Aislin in an attempt to wrest him of any information he had about the wind witch. Edulph had cut the finger from his own sister’s hand to get his way, he threatened to kill the entire city if Alyasha didn’t help him evacuate his people who had been taken as slaves by Yuri. In short, he was the worst of all foes because he would stoop to anything to get his way. He’d even come between Alaysha and Yenic, and was the source of Alaysha’s mistrust of the man she loved because he knew Edulph had been taken by Aislin and yet kept it from her. All along they’d thought Edulph had kidnapped Gael’s brother and all along Yenic it was his mother who had been the culprit. Yenic. Thoughts of Edulph now brought tortured thoughts of her bondman. And thoughts of Yenic made Alaysha even more uncomfortable because even if he survived the death Gael predicted for him, he still couldn’t be relied on.

How she had crossed into territory where enemies could be trusted and loved ones feared, she’d never fully fathom.

She ignored Edulph even as Aedus wrung her hands over him, but dared not get too close. Alaysha knew the girl still felt the missing finger as though it were still part of her hand, and even if she’d adapted, it was a constant reminder of her brother’s treachery. Such a loyal girl, that one. If no one else proved trustworthy, that ragged, ferret-faced beauty would. Alaysha would do nothing to endanger her, certainly not on an uncertain try to psych the living fluid from her horse, not knowing if the power would overtake control and drain them all instead.

“No,” she said. “I can’t risk it.”

Strangely, Theron shrugged. “If the witch doesn’t try, we’ll be dead anyway. A shaman as powerful as this one is still merely an old man. I have no use. Edulph is nothing but a waste of good fleshing.”

Gael stepped toward her, and she held her hand up to stop him from speaking. She knew what he was planning to pledge – the same as Theron was, and neither mattered.

“Aedus,” she said. “I can’t risk her.”

The shrug again. “She’s already at risk.” Gael waited a moment, giving her a knowing glance. “We all are, anyway, aren’t we?”

He knew. Somehow he knew she was on the sharp verge of thirsting them all dry, that it wasn’t just a remote warning. She felt shame so badly she wanted to sink into the ground. Instead she sighed. Swallowed, even though there was no liquid to move down her throat.

“Theron, can’t you break the earth, seek water below?” She knew his witch had made the earth split out in the mud village when Alaysha had brought too much rain at Aislin’s bequest. Yenic could channel his mother’s power; surely Theron could do the same.

He grinned, with an ironic twist to his mouth. “Not without blood,” he said.

Not without blood. Barruch’s blood. Blood she would have to shed and psych of its water. Just the thought made her feel like collapsing. She had to inhale and exhale repeatedly just to keep from panicking at the futility of it.

She felt her legs tremble, heard Gael’s voice as a whisper, coaxing her, telling her it was okay.

“I’ve killed before,” she said, searching out his eye. “You know I have. But this is different.” She heard the pleading in her voice, like a toddler begging her father not to spank her. Father, she thought morosely. It was all her father’s fault she was in this spot in the first place, her father’s fault she was a killer.

Gael’s arms went round her, and she fell against his chest, choking back sobs.

“You don’t have to kill the beast,” he said next to her ear. “You only have to thirst his blood once it flows. I’ll do the deed.”

She discovered her fists were beating against his back, that she was squirming in his arms. “You’d kill him? You’d kill my Barruch?”

Gael’s hands found hers and held them tightly against his sides. His body pressed into hers in command for her to be still and yet with a gentle intimacy that actually stilled her. “I would kill anyone – any beast, any witch, any woman – to save you.”

She peered up at him. He’d not mentioned their night together, as he’d promised, not once since she’d lost Yenic and her sister and her father Yuri all in one day and needed the comfort he’d offered. He’d not once told her again that he loved her. That he would say anything now was proof of how bad off they were, how close to dying – how close he knew she was to unintentionally psyching them dry.

“Just do it,” she croaked and staggered away from Barruch. If it must be done, then on with it, but she couldn’t look into those lovingly haughty eyes and watch the life die from them, see his realization of her betrayal.

“Do it,” she sobbed and stuffed a fist into her mouth. She stared back over the dried earth they’d traveled. She forced herself to think back on the days that had set them on the path in the first place, fleeing her homeland with an old man, a young girl, a criminal, and a warrior, and leaving behind the only true friend she’d made.

The thought of Saxa and her willowy frame, the soft voice and silver light hair brought her to thoughts of Yenic, and thoughts of him brought her to her twin sister.

Then the meandering thoughts stopped. They had to.

Her sister, newly discovered, was no more. Aislin, the witch of flame, had killed her trying to goad Yuri into relinquishing Yenic.

It was all a tangled, nightmarish mess, all set in motion by Yuri’s greed for power, his megalomaniac desire to control each of four witches that a season ago Alaysha hadn’t known existed.

She squeezed her eyes shut, expecting to hear the familiar whinny as Gael’s blade moved across the broad neck. Each limb felt taut with anxiety. She scraped a bare foot across the earth, remembering how it felt on Barruch’s back, how he’d struggled to reach her when she’d caused the flood at the mud village. She hadn’t thought he’d live through that. She smiled nostalgically. She remembered seeing him at the edge of the river when he’d brought Gael out from the city during Aislin’s rampage.

She recalled how handsome that horseflesh looked to her each time, how it made her stomach flop over itself in relief.

Her friend. Her family. Her one connection to the humanity she thought she’d given up each time she had to kill for her father.

Dear deities, how could she let this happen? She couldn’t, that’s what. She wouldn’t.

She spun around, intending to shout for Gael to wait, hoping it wasn’t already too late.

She would have gotten the words out too, if Aedus hadn’t yelled first, pointing to the horizon, jumping up and down when the girl shouldn’t have the energy to stand, let alone hopscotch from one foot to the other.

Theron’s posture revealed his surprise, and as confused as Alaysha was to see a hulking shape coming toward them, her first thought was to make sure Gael hadn’t gone ahead and murdered her Barruch. She felt her heart squeeze in her chest, the fear that it was too late keeping it from pumping.

“Gael?” she croaked.

He met her eyes and she felt her whole body slump with relief.

“He’s safe yet, Alaysha,” he said and she breathed easier at his words.

The horizon could finally take her attention then. “What sort of beast is that?”

Gael shrugged, but it was Theron who spoke, his voice such a strange tone Alaysha didn’t realize at first that it was dread.

“That would be an Enyalian. And an Enyalian means this shaman and these good people are good as dead.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The first draft of Bone Witch is currentlycomplete but for one chapter. EARCs will be available very soon to those who signed up.

If you’ve not read Theron’s Tale or Sons of Alkaia, you might find them helpful to the full story while you wait.

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Thea Atkinson is a writer of character driven fiction.

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