I hate buying a book when I can’t preview the sample. It’s nerve-wracking even when I know and love the author. I mean, what if it’s not what I expect? I’m totally cool with it being better, but what if it’s just different, and I didn’t have time to prepare myself, and now I’m already reading the whole thing, and… well, I don’t have panic attacks around reading unknown books, but I have been known to get grumpy and snap at innocent bystanders. It’s a stress reaction. Really.
Also, I LOVE getting a taste of a story before it hits my Kindle. It just makes the anticipation that much sweeter. I’m hoping y’all fall into this camp, but if you’re a stress-reaction-snapper, I feel your pain there too. By next week, Amazon and the other pre-order platforms should have the first two or three chapters available for preview for Memories of Ash. Till then, here’s something to whet your appetite…
Chapter 1: The Ties That Bind
I glance up, holding tight to the thread of my spell as the mountains throw a thunderous echo back to us. My skin tingles with the brush of magic, as if unseen creatures skitter up my arms, over my back. Across the valley, forest birds take to the air, calling out as they wheel over the lake. I catch the pale white flutter of snow pigeons, the midnight silhouette of ravens, and high up the snow-dusted peaks, the great dark wingspans of a pair of griffon vultures.
Seated cross-legged beside me on the banks of the lake, Brigit Stormwind murmurs, “That was the first ward.”
I nod. It has been some time since a traveler came our way, but the sound of our farthest ward triggering is not easily forgotten. Without knowing who approaches our valley, finishing my casting would be reckless. I could easily leave a trace behind that a mage might notice … But I promised myself that this time I would finish.
Before me the water lies smooth, no ripple disturbing its crystalline surface. Upon that polished expanse gleams the spell-cast image of my mother. Dressed in a pale pink kimono embroidered in shades of rose, she kneels before a tea tray, hands on her lap and face raised toward me. I have her eyes, though my skin has the desert tint of my father’s people. Her lips, neither too full nor too thin, grace her face in harmony with the gentle roundness of her cheeks, while my own features remain hollowed by the fire that once consumed me from the inside out. By her very stillness I know she has detected some trace of my spell, the ties of blood and kinship that I have used to seek her out through the shields that surround her.
“Let it go, Hitomi,” Stormwind says gently.
I release the tenuous thread of my casting with unexpected relief. I have attempted this spell half a dozen times now, but not once have I taken it to completion. I could have done it today had I not paused to observe her. The bitterness on my tongue has the singular taste of cowardice to it.
My mother’s image breaks apart, replaced by the faint reflection of trees overhead. I watch the water’s movement over the multi-hued stones covering the lake bottom. In the early morning light, they’re every color of the earth: the burnished yellow of evening sunlight, a dreamlike lavender, grays dark as storm clouds and light as hope, reds both as bright as blood and as dark as death. The colors of life lie beneath the water, calling to me as if I might reach out and recover the memories I lost in ash nearly a year ago.
“These things take time,” Stormwind says into the quiet.
“I started the spell with enough time to speak with her. I should have gone through with it.”
“You did not know anyone was coming.” She glances down to the water, her eyes more gray than blue in the tree-thrown shadows. “And when you seek truth, you must be ready for it.”
“You don’t think I am.”
“You must be ready to understand, and accept, whatever you find.”
I make no answer. I don’t know what to say, how I would accept it if my mother truly intended to abandon me all those years ago.
Stormwind rises, readjusting her cloak against an autumn chill I don’t feel. On the far, shore the deep green of the pines and cedars are interrupted here and there by the fiery orange and red mantles still worn by the other trees. When I first came here, Stormwind admitted she had studied together with my father, which should mean many more years of health and strength for her. But she lost a part of her youth to a breather. Her silver-white hair, the deep creases around her eyes and mouth, the way the cold touches her, all these bespeak an age she should not yet feel.
“Let’s see what we can of our visitor,” she says. With a sweep of her hand, the surface of the lake stills. The water before us now reflects the forested path near the great deodar cedar that stands as our farthest ward.
“Closer,” she murmurs, beckoning the image. The path reels out as if we were looking over our shoulders while riding at speed toward the valley. The cedar recedes, then disappears behind a curve.
“There,” she says as a dark shadow obstructs the image. She raises her fingers and the image slows. But the shadow at its center persists, murky and unclear. For a long moment, Stormwind remains still. The shadow moves along the trail, growing larger in our view, but no clearer. Then she releases the image, her hand falling to her side. The waters of the lake ripple, lapping at the banks once more.
“They’ve used a shield,” Stormwind says. “Without breaking the shield, we can’t know who comes, or how large their party.”
“We know there’s a mage involved.”
“That we do,” she agrees. “Which means we know we need to hide you. Come.” She starts along the path toward the cottage.
I follow after her. “Are you sure it’s safe to meet them? I mean, why would they shield themselves?”
“Two reasons,” she says, her voice sliding into the detached tone she uses when teaching. “To protect against attack and to keep from being traced.”
“We found them easily enough.”
“Because we looked at the path, not them. Had we known who they were and attempted to trace them, we would have had a hard time finding them unless without a focus for our trace.”
Like a hair, or a well-worn bit of cloth.
But I don’t like the idea of an unknown mage coming to Stormwind’s valley. She rarely has visitors. When she does, they are locals seeking cures. Never mages. “Are you sure you want to wait here for them?”
Stormwind smiles, shaking her head as if my question is sweet, endearing, and very naive. “I’m not running. First, a mage would easily trace us using any one of a number of items from the cottage. Second, if they are coming for me, I would not lead them to you. And third, I am a high mage in my own right. I have done no wrong and can easily defend myself. The only thing I need to hide is you.”
“You’re sending me away.” It isn’t a question, but a flat-voiced statement.
“No. There isn’t enough time for that.”
I glance up at the high ridge that divides our valley from the next. The only passable path to our cottage cuts through it. On horseback, moving at a brisk walk, a traveler might easily cover the distance from the deodar cedar to the ridge in an hour and a half. It would take us half that time to get to the path ourselves on foot. But our tracks would be fresh, and anyhow, Stormwind isn’t running … and I’m not leaving without her.
“Take the books up to the loft and pack them back into the trunk,” Stormwind says as we reach the cottage. The single open room serves as kitchen and workroom and sitting room and bedroom, while the small loft above provides a cozy space for my own pallet.
I make a round of the room, gathering the books I’ve been studying under Stormwind’s tutelage along with the charms I’m working on. Stormwind checks the charms we keep about the house, her fingers passing over them, gauging if they are hers or mine: the stone beside the hearth, used to keep the bread from burning; the glowstones in a pile over the mantle, for when we need light without the heat or flicker of flames; the seeker charm by the door, to help find wandering goats.
I climb the ladder to stow what I’ve collected in one of the trunks against the back wall of the loft. Stormwind joins me as I finish tucking the books in, adding the bag of charms I made to the trunk.
She shuts the lid, places her hand on top. “We’ll ward it and bind it.”
She really is worried. I kneel beside her worldlessly. She presses my palm against the trunk’s lid and quickly traces a series of sigils on the wood with her other hand. They glimmer and send out tendrils of magic that trace the shape of my palm, flare around her fingertips, and then fade. With the trunk bound so, only Stormwind or I will be able to open it.
She rises and takes a quick inventory of the little room. There’s a small collection of bags and boxes lining the wall beside the trunks. To my right lies my pallet with its nest of blankets. A small wooden statuette of a crow stands on a brick-sized stone beside my bed, its head bent, beak pressing a key to its breast. She focuses on it for a moment, then looks away.
“That’s all, right?” I say, keeping my tone casual. I have no cause to hide the crow. Only she knows that it was carved by a breather, not a human. Right now the sight of Val’s parting gift is oddly comforting.
She nods, moving back toward the ladder. “Everything else should be fine.” She pauses with her feet on the first rung. “Hitomi? You remember that you’re to act as my servant?”
“I remember.” We’ve discussed this a few times, and I’ve played the part of serving girl during the few visits from locals we’ve had. It provides a simple explanation for all the rest of my belongings. “I am Hikaru, girl of all work, loyal unto death.”
Stormwind chuckles. “Don’t overdo it. Since we don’t know what this is about, I want you to stay outside as much as possible today.”
I hesitate. I could offer to collect deadwood from the forest — we need to stockpile more for the winter — but I want to stay close to the cottage just in case.
“I’ll keep working on the roof,” I say. It’s perfect, really. We’ve spent the last two afternoons on the roof together, Stormwind teaching me what I need to know. I can easily work on my own. Best of all, I can keep an eye on our visitors. And I’ll be near enough to help Stormwind if she should need me.
“It will keep me close but out of sight,” I press when she doesn’t answer.
Her easy agreement worries me further. As a mage, she could easily call for a far-off servant to return. Without charms to anchor it, magic may not reliably deliver messages across mountain ranges, but a summons sent across a valley would hardly go astray. Only if she fears she won’t have the time or the leeway to do so would she need me nearby.
I really hope you enjoyed this little taste. Tell me in the comments what you think! *tries not to bite nails*
And… If you’re excited about reading Memories of Ash, I would love your help spreading the word about it. I have a Thunderclap campaign set up for Release Day on May 30th, and am ten people shy of it going live. Can you help me? Thunderclap is a way you can schedule a post / tweet among a group of people so that everyone posts together. You can see the message beforehand, and it won’t post without your approval. If you’re game, you can sign on here.
Thank you all so much, for reading, for sharing your thoughts, and for all your support through this long road of writing and publishing. You all are the best!