Here we go! It’s officially launch week! Have you preordered a copy yet? If you plan to purchase the book (and I hope you do!), it would be a huge help if you went ahead and preordered. Preorders boost the popularity of the book on launch day, and there is power in numbers. The more preorders, the more people will see it as a recommendation for them. You can preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any other major retailer. And as always, you can also purchase directly from me in my online store.
Here’s to launching another book into the world!! Thank you so much for being on this journey with me!
Queen of the Wild Range, Chapter 6
Tovi leaned against the doorframe and watched Silas mix white into his brown paint, swirling it around the palette and creating a lighter hue. He bent close to his work, a painting of a four-legged creature taking shape on his wall. He used the light brown to add a long tail and a stripe of hair that traveled down its neck.
“What is it?” she asked, not bothering to say hello. Outside, the crickets chirped in the darkening night.
He did not look up, but he smiled a bit at the sound of her voice. “I’m calling it a ‘horse.’ It will be bigger than the deer you sometimes see. It can quickly carry heavy loads for great distances. And it will be a loyal companion, mostly sweet-tempered.”
After messing with the mane a little longer, he dropped the brush in a jar of water and wiped his hands on his shirt. “Let’s get out of here.”
They walked along branches, saying hello to others as they passed. The entire valley of Adia was tucking in after a busy day. Windows glowed with candlelight, and fireflies blinked as they flew past families on porches.
There was no doubt now that the waters were rising. The river was already overtaking the shoreline, inch by inch. The people of Adia had much to do to prepare, and most tasks centered on hunting and gathering enough rations to keep the village fed for however long the flood lasted. But the warm evenings were still for gathering over supper and sitting in rocking chairs.
They would be able to reach apples, peaches, pears, and nuts no matter how high the waters came. They could always find eggs, birds, and squirrels. But they had learned from mistakes during past floods that they quickly tired of eating the same foods for weeks at a time. It was wise to bring in berries, vegetables, herbs, wheat, and anything they could find. They hunted deer, hogs, and turkeys before they could scurry to higher altitudes, prepping the animals to provide meat, hides, and bones for all sorts of uses. Nothing went to waste. It was a whole community affair. Even the very young and the very old stayed busy with preparations.
Tovi had lived through several floods, and she had to admit that they were exciting. Maybe nostalgic was a better word for it. The floods came around once every few years, and the people of Adia had traditions that must be observed. Of course, there was the preparation—almost a game to them—as the ground became squishy and the river swelled. Then there were the weeks of entrapment in the trees. New routes had to be made to get from one place to another, and they had to find new vines or a ladder or a rope to help them on their way. The elders gathered the young around them to tell stories of Adwin, floods, and provision. The sound of the water rushing just below their village was soothing, even as the river itself looked angry and frothy. There was always a day of gift-giving (gifts made while they were trapped above the water) on Low Tidings, the day the water began to recede. Many months later, there was the Feast of Promise as soon as the ground recovered and produced its vegetation once more.
The excitement and joy over the coming flood were contagious, but Tovi was shadowed with worry. She couldn’t stop thinking about Tali. The flood would separate them for many more months. He couldn’t come home even if he tried. And what if he was caught up in the flood? She doubted anyone could survive the raging flow.
Silas led them past Main Street and the treehouses on the other side of town. They climbed a bit higher, finding a cedar tree taller than most of the others. They sat on a thick limb, above the rest of the canopy but still fifty feet from the crown. The fragrant needles were silver under the moon, and the light from the village made the whole forest glow.
Tovi’s lip trembled. “Thank you for bringing me home, Silas.”
“Eryx brought you home.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I know what you mean. And I think it’s time for you to tell me more about what happened up there,” he said, nodding toward the mountains in the distance.
Tovi looked away. She had been dreading this.
Silas scooted a little closer. “I know everything that happened, but I want to hear it in your words. It’ll be good for you. It’ll be good for us.”
She nodded, blinking back the feeling that she needed to cry. “How? Where do I start?” If this was part of being ready and would lead to her reunion with Tali, then she must get it over with.
Silas took her hand in his and flipped it so her palm faced up. The brown outline of a heart was there, and so were the scars from Damien’s knife when he had tried to cut it away. “Start from the moment you met Calix, and I want you to end with this. Damien tried to cut your heart away because you wouldn’t let go of me. I know talking about the other stuff will be really tough, but remember that by the end, you were brave and loyal to me. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
She didn’t want to talk about her failures and the ways she had changed on the mountain. She didn’t want to talk about all the lies she fell for and her moments of darkness. But here he was, holding her hand and pointing out that there was a painful but good ending.
The words came slowly at first, and she halted and paused as she tried to find just the right way to say things. But as the moon crept higher in the sky, she relaxed. It was just her friend Silas listening to her tale. She was home. She was safe. And telling the story felt good somehow.
She spoke of breakfast lessons and time with the masters. Fights, ball gowns, wine, and dark intrigue. She looked at her hands whenever Calix came into the story, but her eyes did not fill with tears until she mentioned learning the truth about her father and grandfather. Her voice cracked, and she wiped her cheeks with her sleeve.
“I dreamed of something so different. Parents who loved me and missed me. I had made up so many different stories to explain why I couldn’t be with them. I was wrong. My father let them kill my mother, and that’s what he intended for Tali and me, too. How…how do I move on from that? How can it be so different from what I always imagined?”
Silas’ eyes moved over her face, and his brow creased with his concentration. “There is still much more of your story for you to discover. I want you to be further along in your time with me before you learn everything. I want your heart to be filled with peace before you hear the full truth. Only then will you be able to take it all in without it crushing you. But for now, I will give you this: your mother loves you deeply.”
“Present tense,” she whispered, shaking her head. She squeezed her eyes tightly, and tears dripped from beneath the lids. “You shouldn’t use present tense.”
“I meant what I said.”
“My mother is dead.”
“You were supposed to be executed, too.”
Tovi opened her eyes and stared at Silas as her mind pieced together what Silas was saying. “Is…is she alive?”
Her heart beat wildly in her chest and thumped in her ears. Hope that she didn’t want to feel coursed through every nerve, and goose bumps rose on her arms. “Will I get to see her someday?”
Silas squeezed her hand. “Yes.”
Tovi couldn’t hold it in any longer. She wrapped her arms around Silas and cried into his shoulder as the stars twinkled above.
When she was done, Silas pulled out a white handkerchief. “I need to show you something,” he said.
She flinched as he used the cloth to wipe away her tears. When he held it up for her to see, the once snow-white cloth was blotched with dark gray stains.
“I saw that on the mountain,” she said, reaching out to touch the cloth. “Black in the blood. Black in the sweat and tears. What does it mean?”
“You know all about Damien’s marks. It has to do with them. Anytime you learn those lessons on the mountain and put them into practice, you are filled with a little more of the sludge that plagues the mountain. It’s on the inside where you can’t see it at first, and it works its way into every part of you until you are full of it. It takes over your tears, your heart, your mind. Everything.”
“But you took my marks. You said they were gone.”
“That’s true. They’re gone forever. But the sludge is still there until you learn new ways and unlearn the old.”
“How do I do it? How do I get rid of it, unlearn it?” Tovi asked.
“You spend time with me. And as you spend time with me, we will do this,” he said, pulling a small, folded knife out of his pocket and flipping it open. He took hold of her hand again, and he touched the point of the knife to one of the scars.
Tovi jerked her hand away, memories of Damien’s knife too fresh in her mind.
Silas put the blade down. “Maybe you aren’t ready yet. That’s okay. You have to trust me with the knife before we can open your scars and remove the darkness.”
“And you probably won’t send me to find Tali and defeat Damien until the sludge is gone. Am I right?” she asked.
Silas grinned. “Something like that.”
Tovi gritted her teeth and put out her hand.
Silas put his blade to the scar and carefully sliced it open. It hurt, but not as badly as she had expected. A few drops of red blood rose to the surface.
A small curl of black seeped into the red blood, and her vision went white with blinding pain. As she screamed and tried to push Silas away, he took hold of her hand and wiped away the tainted blood. The pain stopped, leaving her shaken and weak.
Struggling for breath, she asked, “What was that?”
He held out his hand, smudged with her blood, for her to see. There was just the tiniest swirl of black sludge that had oozed out of her scar.
He nodded, and she took a deep, ragged breath.
“How many times do we have to do that?”
“That depends on how much is in there and how willing you are to spend time with me and do what I say. It’s going to be painful, but it gets a little easier as we go. The pain will lessen as you get rid of it. It will even feel good after a while.”
Feel good? Tovi doubted that very much. She leaned her head against Silas’ shoulder. “I don’t think I can do any more today,” she said.
Silas leaned his head on top of hers, resting his cheek on her hair. “You’ll get there eventually. I’m not worried. Do you remember what I told you to do?
“Stay. Learn. Be still.”
She felt his nod against her hair.
They sat in silence for a long time, listening to the rustling leaves and the hooting owls. Tovi’s mind spun with thoughts of the black sludge, the coming flood, and, most of all, Tali.
“Silas, please…please bring him home. We’ve all been through so much. If I have to stay and be still, please bring him home to be with Ganya and me during the flood. It will be months and months longer before we see him if he isn’t home before the water rises.”
Silas sighed deeply. “Last time you asked, I said I would see what I could do.”
“Please, Silas. Please.”