We are so thrilled to introduce the first installment of Kathryn Lee Martin's highly-anticipated Western / Steampunk adventure... THE BONE ROSES, first in her SNOW SPARKS SAGA releasing everywhere TOMORROW!!!
In celebration, we're releasing the first chapter one day early for your reading pleasure...
I watch the widow’s gnarled hands count out each copper kik on the weathered market stall’s countertop and finger the switchblade in my left hand. Knives are cheating when it comes to this sort of thing but playing fair is a surefire way to die. Especially now that they put the flyers up and tripled the bounty on me—dead or alive.
The wolfskin satchel’s leather strap pulls across my water-stained buckskin jacket, the dangling fringes tangling and parting in the bitter winter breeze. My arm brushes the coarse brick wall, and my frigid-blue eyes narrow as I dig my deer-hide boot deeper into the filthy slush, easing closer to the building’s corner. A light tremble goes through my wrist as the wind pulls several strands of long mahogany hair against my wind-burned, pale cheek and toys with my untamed bangs.
Farther up the street, the Kingdom Corps patrols; their forest-green jackets, helmets, and olive-green pants making them stick out in the bustling Hydra crowd struggling to collect its weekly rations.
Twenty yards on foot . . . Too close to outrun their carbines in the open. They’re making this a challenge today.
A silk, forest-green banner with the Kingdom’s golden running hare insignia cracks and showers ice on an unsuspecting market stall as a sudden wind gust whips it high into the air and drops it back against the library’s brick wall. A ginger-haired young man in a sorrel jacket and blue jeans with a dark-walnut recurve crossbow slung across his shoulder jumps back as the entire canopy collapses and decides to move on, much to the angry merchant’s swearing.
Damn. Now I have to get what I need from this stall after all.
My back presses against the wall and I struggle to steel my nerves. Just get the rubbing alcohol and get the hell out. A basic rustling mission and just what Tracker feels I need to calm my nerves before we run a near-suicide raid on the largest military base in the Kingdom’s Northeast Territory in a few days.
Rubbing alcohol. I pan the flimsy shelves tucked under the torn canvas roof and watch the widow’s boney hound twitch an ear in its sleep. Just because he’s half dead and mostly blind doesn’t mean his teeth don’t work when he grabs onto something. Last time I raided this stall he got hold of one leg of my buckskin pants and tore half the fringes off the lower leg before I got away.
The widow continues to sort her earnings as I watch a scraggly, soot-covered pack of pickpocketing little boys hit the crowds. A smirk tugs at my chapped lips. Amateurs. Drawing a short breath, my feet prowl over the slush and gravel, eyes fixed on the clear mason jar on the upper shelf before roving to the widow and then back again to the K. C. mingling with the crowd.
The mud-brown hound shifts in his sleep. I pause, shoulder touching the market stall and keeping to the shadows. The switchblade twitches in my grasp as I place my right hand on the uneven wooden half wall and vault over it. Both feet hit the ground with a soft bounce at the same instant the widow raises her head in surprise, turning to look at me with shifting eyes.
Our gaze meets for a split second; her brown eyes widen. I reach up, snatch the rubbing alcohol from the shelf in one fluid motion and bolt for the half wall separating me from the crowded street.
“Rondonian rustler scum.” The widow stands, rattling the countertop with a shriek that sends the drowsy hound into a flurry of barking. “Guards. Someone. It’s her. The child from the flyers.”
“Just because I look like a child doesn’t mean they think of me as one, lady.” I mutter under my breath and grip the jar tighter. There are grown adults who run from me the moment they see my blue eyes looking at them. Both my legs clear the half wall at the same time the K. C. raises its carbines and turns in this direction.
Sorry lady, but we need this more than you do right now. Clutching the jar in one hand and the switchblade in the other, I dart through the row of market stands. Canvas curtains tear from their brass hooks. Merchants howl in rage.
Hydra’s men shout, hurrying to get anything they can to catch me, or stop me in my tracks. Dead or alive. The words flash through my mind a second time. I brace a knee against the slushy street, and reel back as a crude net cuts me off, offering the enraged butcher a forced grin before doubling back and sprinting across the busy market square and for the nearest alleyway.
Tracker’s going to kill me over this.
“Hey, you.” A tall soldier raises his carbine to block my path, but I’m faster, knocking the barrel aside with my forearm and nailing his knee with a swift kick. He shouts and falls, faceless forest-green helmet watching me flee through the crowd.
Pulse pounding, I twist around a woman and her two children and duck under the startled ginger-haired man’s arm, the distance growing as the K. C. knocks everyone and anyone to the ground in the chaos. Up ahead, the alleyway beckons as an old flatbed ration truck from the days before Yellowstone erupted, bars my path.
I chance a look behind me, just in time to see one soldier raise his carbine and take aim.
This is going to hurt. My elbow strikes the truck’s steel bed as both legs propel me upward, rolling across it and plummeting into a frigid puddle on the other side. Keeping low and to the wall, I flinch as the hail of bullets cuts through the shadows and the shouts of angry and determined Kingdom Corps continue the chase.
God they’re persistent. I look ahead to Hydra’s second square where another crowd gathers and aim for it.
Someone’s hand seizes my left arm, wrenching me off my feet. Before I can get the knife up to fight back, their gloved hand covers my mouth, brute strength dragging me into a dark doorway and holding me there while the Kingdom Corps continues its chase.
The second hand pins my wrist across my chest as I strike out with my deer-hide-clad foot, grazing his knee.
“Enough, Rags. Be still and be quiet,” Tracker’s deep voice warns, his grip tightening and drawing me close until I stop struggling, the scent of his ancient leather flight jacket helping calm me down.
Turning my blue eyes up to look at the man who adopted me and calls me his own daughter, I see his brown eyes narrow at something at the alley’s end. White stubble flecks his dark skin. He relaxes his grip on me, but keeps one gloved hand on my shoulder in silent warning.
His leather flight jacket rustles as he shifts his weight, towering over me and listening. When the footfalls fade, he glances back at me.
“When I said strip a bottle of rubbing alcohol, I did not mean cause a riot.” The words are stern. I offer a sheepish look.
“To be fair, I got what I came here to get.” Holding up the precious jar, I see the aging man’s eyes soften as he takes it from me and examines it.
“Good girl. Now we need to go. They’ll swarm all over this place once they realize we’re not in the square.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice. I hate this place.”
“I am aware of that.” He eyes the alleyway and the gathered crowd at its end.
A raucous, collective cheer rings out. “Go, we’ll skirt the crowd and flee through the broken fence out by the tracks. Don’t look at them, and don’t stop for anything. Do you understand?”
“But what—” What is he talking about? “Who . . .” I try to make out the words of the man in the crowd, but the cheers only muffle the sound further.
“Go.” A gentle shove forces me into the dark alleyway. Keeping quiet, I stalk closer to the crowd. Another cheer resonates through Hydra’s box-like, enclosed square. I stand taller for a better look, catching the faint, metallic odor of blood in the air. Blood? Tracker offers a stern glare not to look and takes point.
Following his brisk walk, we skirt the outer crowd undetected. The stench intensifies, and a sickening queasiness settles in my stomach. I bite back the bile trying to creep up. The crowd thins closest to the street leading to the railway ration station, and I catch Tracker glance over at something. Another shout rings out.
“Let this be a lesson to every rustler who dares steal from and spits in the face of the Kingdom that provides for all under the glorious name of Hyperion, our leader and lord,” a soldier’s words echo over the crowd.
“Hail Hyperion,” the shout magnifies from the people.
Hyperion—the name sickens me. Old farmer Addison back home in our settlement once told me that he rose to power during the early days of the ash fall when the government fell, the food ran out, and the people’s desperation led them to turn away from God and put their faith in a cruel man like Hyperion, who built the settlements and raised a mighty Kingdom from the ashes.
I freeze, looking to where Tracker watches and search for a break in the crowd. Finding it, I struggle to see what has his attention . . . and feel my stomach churn.
Blood stains the slush and gravel, three people, or what might have been people at one time stretch across an open military truck bed. Their flesh has been peeled away only leaving remnants of muscle and bone—an excruciating death. The one on the end still twitches as a soldier hoists him up by a rope for everyone to see.
God help us all . . . A shiver creeps through me, my heel moving back in retreat, feeling nauseous at the macabre display. That could have been us.
Tracker grabs my shoulder and drags me after him, breaking the morbid spell. Guiding me away from the square, he forces me into a run and we flee for a small break in Hydra’s chain-link fence.
Struggling to catch my breath, I wade through the drifts, feeling the snowflakes gather on my pale flesh, trembling too much to wipe them away. Once Hydra is out of view, Tracker pauses and turns to look at me, moving closer and draping a comforting arm over my shoulder.
“Rags, look at me.” His deep voice offers only the slightest comfort as I look up at him. “What happened in Hydra will not happen to us.”
His thumb brushes snowflakes away from the long, bladed scar angling beside my right eye and down across my right cheek. “I know it reminds you of life before Rondo and the slave masters, but I will not let that happen to you. I made you a promise when I decided to take care of you, and I will not break that promise.”
“I know, Tracker, but . . .” I look down at the snow surrounding my knees. “Those people suffered greatly.”
His gaze softens. “Yes, they did—and that is why it is better them instead of us. Rondo needs us, Rags, and you know what’s at stake if we don’t go on these raids.”
A slow nod responds, and I grit my teeth. Yeah, I know the deal. Rondo refused to bow down and worship Hyperion as a god like the other settlements and he kicked us off the weekly ration route so that we’d suffer and be purified for our “sins.” I’ve only called Rondo “home” for three years but I know starvation and death like old friends. It’s why even though I hate stealing from widows, children, and everyone else in a settlement that is still in the Kingdom’s favor, I do it.
“Let’s go home. Call Nigel and Tamblin.”
A shrill whistle slips through my chapped lips. The pines in the distance shake. A sorrel and white storm erupts from the snowdrifts. Tracker’s big white, deer-like mare, Tamblin, gallops through the snow lengths ahead, followed by a shorter, stockier, sorrel and cream-splashed mule.
Tracker reaches out and grabs the mare’s leather reins with a soft “whoa.” The tall horse slides to a halt, dancing on thin legs and flicking her long gray tail.
I hold my hand up, palm outward, watching Nigel’s fuzzy ears twitch in acknowledgment. He sits back on his haunches, planting both forelegs in the snow and slides to a halt alongside me. My fingers reach up and trace the white bull’s-eye marking around his left eye. He gives my shoulder a playful nip.
My boot sinks into the awkward wooden stirrup and I vault onto the leather blanket draped over his back. It shifts, the linen girth doing its best to keep the poor excuse for a saddle from slipping. I swing my right leg over his rump and take up the rope reins.
He gives a little kick as my heels brush his sides, following after Tamblin. A cold chill makes me pause and grip the reins tighter, the hairs on the back of my neck prickling. My thin frame shifts, eyes panning the snowdrifts for the threat.
Nigel pricks his long ears and cranes his neck to look back at Hydra.
“What’s wrong boy?” I scratch his neck and look back in the direction of the settlement.
A dark shadow stands on the snowy hilltop, wind whipping its raven-black mane around its neck. On its back sits a person too far away to make out, but something about them makes me tap my heels against Nigel’s side.
The mule leaps forward and almost slams into Tamblin’s rump, making Tracker utter a soft cuss and pull back on the reins.
“What have I told you about bringing that young animal too close when following?”
I pull Nigel away and point back at the hills. “There’s someone on the hill—a black horse.”
The elder man’s brown eyes narrow as his gaze follows to where I point. The horse and rider are gone.
“Ride faster.” His words make me blink. “And do not look back unless I tell you to. Do you understand?”
My pulse quickens with the nod. Tracker takes the lead, spurring the mare into a strong lope, breaking through the snow drifts for the forest and away from our usual trail back to Rondo. I ease Nigel into the snowy groove Tamblin carves for us, keeping the switchblade at the ready.