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Authors: Kelley Armstrong

Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Horror, #Paranormal & Fantasy

Sea of Shadows

BOOK: Sea of Shadows
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Dedication

To Julia

Prologue

A
fter three days of tramping across endless lava fields, Ronan quickened his steps at the sight of the forest. He swore he could feel soft earth under his feet, hear birds in the treetops, even smell icy spring water. If one had to pick a place to die, he supposed one could do worse.

He glanced over at his father and uncle, but their gazes were fixed straight ahead. Even the guards weren’t paying attention. Still Ronan didn’t consider escape. There was a reason the exiles weren’t bound or chained. They were in the Wastes. There was no place to hide except the Forest of the Dead, and they’d be there soon enough.

 

Ronan sat around the campfire with the others, eating their final dinner in the livestock enclosure. Once they passed the canyon walls, they’d be expected to fend for themselves. Without weapons. In a forest rumored to be bereft of life.

For their last meal, they got water, dried fish, and overcooked rice. At least the water was clean, which was more than he could say for the murk he’d been drinking.

Beside him, his father sat motionless, staring at the fire. Two of the exiles eyed his untouched food. As soon as Ronan’s uncle turned away, one snatched a chunk of fish . . . and found his wrist pinned to the ground.

“Drop it,” Ronan said.

“You little—”

The convict didn’t get a chance to finish the curse. Ronan’s fist slammed him in the throat. The man gasped, eyes bulging as he struggled for breath. The other exiles laughed. Ronan knew they weren’t cheering his victory; they’d have laughed just as much if he were lying there with a makeshift blade in his gut. On the road, he’d watched three prisoners die, their killers goaded on by the others, who cared only that the deaths lifted the monotony for a moment or two.

He didn’t glance at his uncle. He knew he’d be pleased. He also knew that he wouldn’t have interfered if Ronan
had
faced a blade. If Ronan wasn’t strong enough to survive, then he shouldn’t. It was that simple.

Ronan set the fish back in front of his father, who hadn’t moved during the entire incident. His uncle shook his head, reached over, and took the untouched meal. He divided the fish and rice and pushed half toward Ronan.

“Eat.”

Ronan took it, only to press the fish into his father’s hand. It fell to the rocky ground. His uncle snorted. After another try, Ronan kept the food, and his uncle grunted in satisfaction.

A single-word exchange. That’s what passed for conversation with his uncle. Ronan’s father had been the loquacious one, always talking, always laughing, always charming. And yet, somehow, Ronan had always felt more affection in his uncle’s grunts and glares than in the false and easy charm his father used on marks and family alike.

After eating the rations, Ronan walked to stretch his legs. As he neared the barn, he noticed something perched on the enclosure fence. He slowed to let his eyes adjust to the dark.

The shape looked like a cat, but it was almost half as tall as him. Blacker than the surrounding night, with a swishing, thick tail that kept it balanced on the thin wall. Its massive paws seemed too large for its body. Its tufted ears swiveled and twitched. A wildcat? Ronan recalled seeing one in the imperial zoo, but it hadn’t been much bigger than a house pet.

This cat was looking off to the side. Ronan took a few cautious steps. Then he noticed what the cat was watching—a village boy had climbed the fence and was slinking along the barn to get a look at the exiles.

Ronan’s practiced eye slid over the boy, taking in his size, his demeanor, and most of all, his clothes. He was half a head shorter than Ronan, with his hood pulled up around his face. Perhaps thirteen summers, given his size. An easy mark. A rich one, too, considering his attire—woolen breeches, a fine cloak, and laced leather boots. Both the cloak and the boots were fur trimmed and likely fur lined. So the boy came from a family of power. That made him valuable.

As Ronan watched the youth, a plan formed. It was not a good plan or even a reasonable one, but he was a single night from exile in the Forest of the Dead. A plan no longer needed to be good or reasonable. If he took the boy, perhaps he could barter him for something—food, a weapon, anything that might help Ronan survive the winter.

He needed to survive. He had a sister and brother back in the imperial city. Aidra was six summers old and Jorn was not yet ten. Ronan knew it wouldn’t be long before his aunt decided they needed to work for their keep—filching in the marketplace and scouting marks for their older cousins. Ronan would do whatever it took to get back to them.

He crept after the village boy, his worn boots making no sound. When he heard a noise, he glanced to see the cat’s yellow eyes fixed on him. Ronan supposed that ought to be some cause for alarm, but the beast only stared at him balefully. Then it made an odd chirping sound. The village boy didn’t seem to hear it.

Ronan slid closer, measuring the distance. The boy had crouched to peer around the barn. Defenseless. Oblivious. A perfect mark.

Ronan sprang. The moment he was in flight, the boy twisted and dove at him. As he did, his hood fell back and red-gold hair tumbled out.
Long
red-gold hair. Later Ronan would tell himself that
this
was why he ended up on his back, with a girl on his chest and a blade at his throat. Not because she’d bested him, but because he’d been caught off guard realizing
he
was a
she
.

The dagger didn’t help matters. That threw him as much as her gender. Only the warrior caste was permitted to carry edged weapons, and she wasn’t dressed as a warrior. And he could see enough of the dagger to know it was relatively new, not a warrior’s ancestral blade.

He grabbed the girl by the back of her cloak to wrest her off—and got a knee jab in the stomach, so hard it made him very glad she hadn’t aimed lower. The dagger bit into his neck, and he felt blood well up. Still, that might not have been enough to deter him. But the cat was.

The wildcat had appeared beside them, silent as a wraith. It padded closer, as if witnessing a dull game of capture-my-lord, plunked itself down, and stretched, its front paws coming so close Ronan could see the tips of its giant claws. Then those claws shot out, razor-sharp talons as long as finger joints, barely a hairbreadth from his face.

The girl turned to the cat. She made a noise in her throat, a cross between a grunt and a growl. The cat sighed, then straightened and proceeded to clean a forepaw. Yet it kept its gaze on Ronan.

A hunting cat? He’d heard of such things, in the deserts to the south, where the climate was ill suited to shaggy hounds. But the girl was clearly Northern-born, with her pale skin and blue eyes.

“Are you the youngest of the damned?” the girl asked. To Ronan’s surprise, her voice was low, almost rough. With her red-gold hair and finely cut features, she looked like she ought to speak with a teasing lilt. Of course, she didn’t look like she should be able to send him flying either—or knock out his breath with a well-placed knee.

“What?” he said.

“The damned. The exiles. Are you the youngest?”

He was, but he had no idea what it mattered, so he stared at her.

“They sent me to find the youngest. Are you he?”


Who
sent you?” he asked carefully.

Her free hand fluttered, but she said nothing, only asked the question again, sounding impatient now.

“And if I
was
the youngest?” he said.

She looked around, as if waiting for someone. “Do you know what would truly help?” she said, speaking to the air. “Clearer communication.”

The cat chuffed and seemed to roll its eyes.

“I know, I know,” she muttered under her breath.

She’s mad,
Ronan thought.
I’ve been taken by a madwoman.

That would have been cause to resume struggling if she weren’t already sliding off him. She sprang to her feet, as gracefully as her cat, and pointed the dagger at his chest. “Keep your distance, boy.”

Boy?
She was older than he’d estimated at first, but she still had to be a summer his junior.

She gave one last look around, muttered, “This was a waste of time,” and began backing away. After a few steps she stopped, and her head swung to the side, as if she’d heard something.

“What?” she said.

“I didn’t—” he began.

She silenced him with a wave, then focused on the air to her left.

Spirits. She hears the spirits.

No, that didn’t make sense. True, there were spirits, all around them, all the time. Everyone knew that. But only the spirit talkers could hear them, and those were mystics who’d sacrificed every other sense to earn that one. Blinded, tongues cut out, nostrils seared, forbidden to touch anything except the paper on which they scribbled messages from the second world. This girl was clearly not one of them.

He looked at the cat. The sight of it triggered some memory. Yes, there was an answer to this riddle, and he should know it, but he’d relegated it to the refuse heap of things he didn’t need to remember.

Or the girl was mad. That seemed more likely.

“Are you mad?” she said, as if echoing his thoughts, and he jumped, but she was still addressing the air. “What good will—?”

She paused, then muttered, “Clearer communication. Is it too much to ask?”

She turned to Ronan. “Stay there.”

“What?”

She looked back at the air. “He’s simple. You do realize that, don’t you?”

“Simple? I am not—”

“Stay!”

Still walking backward, she retreated to the fence and climbed on top of it. The wildcat jumped up beside her. She whispered something to it, and the beast dipped its head, as if agreeing.

Then, without another word, she hurled the dagger. It hit the barn, embedding itself in the wood.

“There,” she said. “Now, let’s hope you have the intelligence to keep it hidden.”

He stared at the blade. “You’re giving me . . .”

“Not by choice. It won’t do any good anyway. If the swamp fever doesn’t drive you mad, the spirits of the damned will. You’ll probably end up using that blade on yourself. Not much else in the forest you can use it on. A dagger won’t kill the fever. Won’t kill the spirits.” She turned. “But good luck anyway.”

She jumped down, the wildcat leaping beside her, and they were gone.

 

It was barely past dawn when the exiles were marched to the forest. Beside Ronan, Cecil—a young man a few summers his senior—gaped at the fierce village guards who accompanied them. Had he expected farmers and craftsmen armed with cudgels? Edgewood guarded the only passage from the Forest of the Dead. Of course its guardians would be warriors.

Ronan’s family had been warriors once. Until an ancestor backed the wrong imperial heir, and they’d been stripped of their caste, expected to beg for a living. Yet while the empire could confiscate their blades, it couldn’t rescind generations of martial training. So Ronan’s family had found other ways to keep themselves fed. Which had ultimately led to this.

As they walked, Ronan eyed the youngest village guard. He wasn’t much older than Ronan. Intricate tattoos covered his forearms. In them, Ronan saw a nine-tailed fox. The totem of the Kitsune clan, family of the disgraced former marshal, who’d been exiled to this forest himself. Apparently
his
clan hadn’t been stripped of its caste. They just wound up here, guarding the forest.

The exiles left the village guards behind at the watchtower and continued on with the ones who’d brought them here. As they walked, the convicts stared into the endless verdant sea ahead. Even with the trees shedding their leaves, the forest was still green, thick moss covering everything.

The guards urged them forward. They’d have two days of walking to reach the middle of the forest. Behind them, a guard unspooled a bright red ribbon in their wake. Once they entered the dense woods, that ribbon would be the only chance for the guards to find their way out again.

Ronan glanced over his shoulder at the village.

“Take a good look,” a guard said, smirking. “It’s the last you’ll ever see of it.”

Ronan shifted and felt the cold steel of the hidden dagger against his leg.

Perhaps,
he thought.
But not if I can help it.

BOOK: Sea of Shadows
3.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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