I’m so excited about publishing this YA fantasy, because I’ve been working on it for years! It’s quite a bit different from my Haunted Halls books, though, so I wanted to give people a chance to check it out and decide if it might work for them. So, here’s the first chapter!
My scorpion dragon, Amaya, sways beneath me, her rigid legs squelching across the muddy jungle floor. She waves a pincer in the air, and the leather bindings whip back and forth like the vines that choke the chantal trees.
She senses a hunt, and it excites her.
A dozen of my tribespeople follow behind on their own scorpions as I lead them to the village I’ve been watching for the past sevennight. I could get used to leading them—it feels natural to ride up front. We swish through the ferns and the broad-leaved lilies, breaking vines that block our path, scattering families of tiny monkeys that have come down from the treetops at midday to scavenge amongst the fungi on the jungle floor. They leap out of our path, screeching in indignation.
Lucien, our leader, whistles softly from behind me, and I pull Amaya’s reins to slow her. She hisses in irritation, and I pat her back. Lucien’s gold hoop earrings flash in a rare stream of sunlight that reaches through the canopy. He catches up to us and his scorpion nudges against Amaya. She hisses again, and I allow her a little slack in the reins so she can turn her pincer and knock it into his scorpion’s leg segment. Just a warning, not hard enough to hurt. We all need personal space.
“Joella,” Lucien whispers, “you’re certain this run will be worth it? Claud reported that this is the poorest village he’s seen in ten suns.”
Claud wears a jaguar fang around his neck for luck. Maybe he should find another charm—one for perception. He doesn’t have any sense for detail. The villagers are poor, but not that poor. I snort, and thread my words with derision. “Claud wouldn’t know riches if they floated down the River Beline like pommes. I’m certain. The elder had a jeweled machete. It was dirty, crusted with mud, but I know what I saw. They probably don’t even know its worth.”
“Then I’ll go after the machete,” he says, voice low. “You, Claud, Therese, and the twins will go straight to the far side of the village, and each of you take a hut. Search for anything valuable. If we find enough, we’ll have a good trade downriver and we’ll live like gods and goddesses. Be smart. Be quick. Be ruthless.”
I smile back at him, both of us bobbing and swaying on our scorpions’ backs. “Ruthless is what I’m good at.”
Lucien frowns. Doesn’t he believe me?
I’m going to make him proud today, and he’ll finally ask me to be his. A gentle bubbling feeling warms my gut and moves to my heart.
I hold up a hand, motioning the others behind us to pay attention. “We’re here. It’s just through these trees.”
Lucien signs for everyone to don their masks. I hold mine up, examining the nighthawk feathers that span the bridge of my nose. The black stripes are starting to lose their luster. I should forage for new ones. The brilliant blue lining the eyes, though—that’s my favorite part of my mask. It took me several sevennights to collect enough fallen morpho butterfly wings, and several nights more to painstakingly piece them together on the mask. With a smile, I put it on, and turn to take in my tribe around me.
The jungle is quiet; the only sounds are water dripping onto leaves. A single call from a confused araine bird.
It’s the breath held before a knife is thrown.
“On y va!” Lucien shouts. His dark hair ripples when his scorpion puts on a burst of speed.
The rest of the Scorpion Raiders echo, “On y va!”
We break through the foliage, crashing with the strength of a hundred falling trees. Therese pulls up beside me and we share a look of joy. We were made for this.
The villagers scatter—some into the huts arranged in a circle around their main village fire. Others flee into the jungle beyond. Those who are left tremble at the feet of our scorpions. We’ve surprised them before they have time to fight, if that’s even something they’ll do. Lucien’s scorpion makes a straight line for the village elder, identifiable by her bald head, her neck draped with necklaces of braided vines and leather, and the giant machete gripped in her fist. I don’t hesitate to watch Lucien jump down and pry it from her, but follow my orders and race toward a hut at the back of the village.
I pull Amaya to a halt just outside the door. From her back, I’m nearly as tall as the hut. She won’t fit inside. I release the bindings of one of her pincers so she can defend herself if she needs to, but these villagers are just sitting at the feet of their now-machete-less elder. They’re probably pacifists from Beline’s order of Paix-Rivière. Fools.
Our good luck.
Two crying children clutch each other beside the doorway, frozen in fear, but I ignore them. I wouldn’t dare hurt a child. Even on a day like today, my blood pumping with the joy of a raid, I can remember what it was like to be small and scared.
I step into the hut and immediately start coughing. The sandalwood incense mixes with a sweet medicinal smell. I found the healer’s hut. Already I can imagine my lungs contracting with some evil illness. Several of the beds are occupied, the patients moaning in fear or fever, I can’t tell which. I pull a cloth from my pocket and press it against my nose and mouth.
A tall figure steps forward in the center aisle formed by the beds. He wears the white robes of a healer, but he’s maybe five years older than I am, no more than twenty-two or twenty-three.
“We have nothing of value here,” he says. His voice is as deep as the river Beline. “Please be on your way.”
There’s too much desperation in that voice, and I smile behind my cloth. “I don’t believe you.”
A patient thrashes on the bed nearest me, her dark hair wet with sweat. “What do they have?” I ask sharply.
“It’s not contagious.”
“Is it the mists? They should be killed. Don’t wait for them to go mad and murder everyone in the village.”
The healer’s eyes flash with outrage. “We would never kill a person.”
“If your religion forbids it, they should at least be bound until the sores kill them for you.”
“It’s not the mists. It’s a mosquito fever.”
I inch away from the patient’s bed, not entirely reassured. A person suffering from the mists could go mad slowly, or quickly. Usually quickly. “Where are the medicines?”
When he doesn’t answer, I pull one of my knives from a sheath along my arm. I aim it at his chest, but he stares bravely back. Usually the threat of death, or even pain, is enough. But not for this healer. I don’t like acting on my threats. I’ve never had to kill anyone yet, and I don’t want to start today. So I slide my aim over to the patient nearest us, and allow a calculating smile to play upon my face.
“It’s here,” he says quickly. “Just, don’t hurt them. Please.”
I follow his gesture to a cabinet nestled against the wall, facing a window. Marching over, I fling it open. I stoop to peer inside. Jars and vials are stacked along the shelves within, and I open one after another, sniffing. “Blasted sandalwood,” I mutter. I can barely smell anything over it. There’s got to be something valuable here. My mother was a healer, and although my village never had much, she kept a few precious medicines and herbs. I reach into the cabinet and sweep a handful of vials from the shelf and into the sack draped over my shoulder. When I reach for a jar placed far at the rear of the cabinet, the healer flinches beside me.
“Aha.” I wrestle the lid off and glance inside. Faint purple powder, shot through with white. “Mashed roots from the ben’etre fern?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer.
“This is something.” My mother would have protected this with her life. It will heal all manner of illnesses that don’t respond to other medicines. It’s also worth more than my saddle. Maybe more than the jeweled machete. I jam the lid back on and move to stuff the jar into my sack.
The healer puts out his hand, but pulls back before he touches the scars lining my arms beneath the knife sheaths. I smirk behind my mask. I earned these from training scorpions; they’re nothing to fear, but they do make me look tough.
“Not that one,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper.
“You don’t give orders today, Healer.”
Lucien’s voice echoes over the shouting and sounds of fighting outside. “On y va, Scorpion Raiders!”
I stand, shoving the jar into my sack.
The healer crouches on the floor and touches the edge of my tunic. “Please. It’s the only thing that can save these people. Some of them have children to care for.”
Those children, crying outside the door. I thought it was me they feared, but no, it’s something worse than a tribe of raiders. It’s the dark edges of death. They fear reaching out in the frigid nights and finding ghosts clutched in their empty hands, finding they’re alone.
“On y va!” Lucien shouts again. Time to go.
I hesitate. This is not ruthless, but those children need their parents, as I used to need mine. I thrust the jar down to the healer, feel him lift it from my grasp.
“Thank you, thank you,” he says, and tears leak from the corners of his eyes. “Beline be with you. She’ll bless you, she will.”
“Beline has forgotten me.”
I glance out the window to see how many of my people are ready. Amidst the action and the movement, one figure is still: Claud. His high ponytail is motionless, and his jaguar fang necklace is a dull white that stands out against his neck. And visible through his silver araine-feathered mask, his eyes are on me, staring. Claud, who has never liked how much attention Lucien pays me. He’d love it if Lucien never chose a Madame, and instead chose Claud to be his second. Did he see me give the jar back to the healer?
“On y va!” Lucien shouts. The third call. I whirl around and rush from the hut. The children, their faces streaked with tears, watch in silence as I leap from the ground to one of Amaya’s knees, and from there clamber into my saddle.
As we race away from the village, I can’t escape the feeling of Claud’s gaze on my back.
The Scorpion’s Lullaby will be out on April 16th! Pre-order it at your favorite retailer: