by RR Gavris (@RachelGavris)
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Priya Baltien is a healer in training. So when she concusses a thief, obviously she has to care for him until he’s better . . . even if he’s an escaped faery slave. Her brothers believe that a faery—a wood demon—is far too dangerous to keep around. Priya insists her duty as a healer transcends that danger, and that the faery’s compliance and helpfulness with chores prove his gratitude. After an attack on allied soldiers in town, however, she’s forced to reconsider her duty—she may be protecting a murderer, and keeping him safe may mean he brings harm to others.
Cahan Windlow needs to get out of this valley and find his brother before the Litorians decide an escaped prisoner of war like him should be returned to the Sarkinian soldiers he escaped. He can’t leave until he’s fully healed, not without risking an icy death in the brutal winter. These humans are far kinder than the Sarkinians, removed from the war between his homeland and Sarkine . . . perhaps far enough removed to be sympathetic to a faery.
Danger threatens human and faery alike when Cahan’s former master, Lotaan Tiras, moves into the area with a brigade of soldiers. Tiras claims he’s in Litoria to fight off bandits and defend trade routes. Cahan knows, from his time as Tiras’s slave, that the Sarkinians have a more sinister goal: the annexation of Priya’s fertile country of Litoria to feed their own desert land, which would give them the means to crush Cahan’s country as well. Cahan must alert the Litorians to Tiras’s scheme, but there’s a problem—Cahan’s mute and the Baltiens are illiterate. Even if he can figure out a way to communicate, will Priya believe him over the stories the Sarkinians spread of the faeries’ bloody deeds?
MUTE is a 176,000-word fantasy with themes reminiscent of THE GOBLIN EMPEROR by Katherine Addison.
I am a stay-at-home mother who enjoys frustrating hobbies such as web development, keeping my tiny human alive, and cross-stitching Christmas stockings. This is my first novel.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Five Pages
CHAPTER ONE: THE VALLEY THIEF
Priya crouched by the side of the barn, clutching the handle of a shovel, and shivered. Ordinarily, she loved the first snow, especially when it fell thickly. But tonight, when they were trying to catch the Valley Thief?
The thief had been terrorizing local farms for two months, stealing everything from food to clothes. He had raided their farm, too, and stolen a side of deer that Luka had only just caught. More brazenly, he’d stolen one of Priya’s blackberry pies from the kitchen windowsill. Luka was certain the thief would try their farm again, and Egan predicted it would be tonight. And now the snow fell soft and white and blinding.
She shifted, wrapping her cloak tighter around herself. She could’ve been inside with her sister-in-law Anise, warming her toes by the fire and choosing baby names, instead of freezing. But she couldn’t retreat—not after spending two days pestering Luka to let her help with the vigil. Hard enough being the baby of the family without admitting she couldn’t handle a little cold. And boredom. They must’ve been out here for hours.
Was it worth it? After all, the thief took necessities. He couldn’t be from the valley if he was stealing. Everyone around here knew their neighbors would care for them if they were in need. So the thief must be a traveler, maybe stranded. But then, why wouldn’t a stranded traveler go to Hamar’s inn for help? Maybe he had been robbed himself and didn’t have any money. Or maybe he was a brigand, trying to rejoin his band of robbers.
The snow fell more thickly now, obscuring anything more than ten feet away. Priya rose and stretched the stiffness out of her legs. If the thief was going to raid their farm, they certainly couldn’t catch him tonight. She wouldn’t admit to Luka she was a little relieved.
That was when she heard Egan bellowing, “Grab him!”
Priya stood frozen, staring into the shifting white curtain. Dart out to help or lie in wait in case the thief ran past her? She couldn’t remember what Egan’s instructions had been. The decision was taken out of her hands a moment later when a dark figure came tearing around the corner of the barn. Priya screamed and swung the shovel as hard as she could. It connected with a sickening thunk and the figure dropped. Somewhere in the darkness, her brothers swore at each other for letting the thief slip past.
“Hey!” Priya yelled shakily. “Hey, you two, over here!”
Luka reached her first, holding a lantern high, Egan at his heels. Luka stared at her victim before lifting his gaze to her face. “You’ve murdered him!”
Priya gulped and snatched the lantern from him. Its flickering light was just enough to show blood pulsing from the thief’s head. She shoved the lantern back into Luka’s hands and unwound her scarf. Thief or no, she wouldn’t have his death on her hands.
Egan knelt by her and lifted the thief’s head enough for her to wrap the scarf around it. “Quite the blow, Pri.” He smirked at her. “Remind me not to get on your bad side.”
“Oh, shut up. Chaos, my fingers are cold! I need to sew up this wound!”
“Pri,” Luka said quietly. “Get away from him.”
“No, I have to stop the bleeding!”
Luka touched her shoulder. “Pri, he’s a wood demon. Back up.”
Priya pushed the scarf away from the tip of the thief’s ear. Pointed. She snatched her hands away with a gasp. A real, live wood demon. Well, currently alive. “He still needs help,” she said.
Luka touched her shoulder. “Tomorrow. In the light. They’re supposed to be less dangerous in sunlight. Besides, I don’t want you catching your death of cold over some Sarkinian lord’s runaway slave. Go inside. Egan and I will deal with him.”
Reluctantly, Priya stood and left the thief to her brothers. It was cold, colder without her scarf. She clutched her cloak about her and returned to the house.
Anise looked up eagerly as she came in. “Well?”
“We caught him,” Priya said. “A faery.” She began unlacing her boots and found the toes were spattered with blood. With a surge of horror, she kicked them off and away.
“Did you kill him?” Anise gasped.
“No! No, no, the boys have him. They’re . . . taking care of him.”
That sounded almost as terrifying as the blood on her boots looked, and Priya recognized it when Anise paled. “They’re locking him up. I think. Anise, it’s all right, Luka said we’ll fix him up tomorrow!”
But Anise fretted until the men came in, and she immediately demanded, “What have you done with the faery?”
“Put him in the cellar,” Luka said.
“Dropped him in the cellar,” Egan muttered.
Luka eyed him, then explained to Anise, “He woke up a little and tried to break free. Ended up falling down the stairs. But he’ll be all right. It’s warm enough down there, and we’ve stopped his head from bleeding. Come to bed, love. We’ll deal with the demon in the daylight.”
Cahan lay in the darkness and focused on breathing. It was the only way to get through the pain. His head throbbed, tiny light patterns exploding behind his lids every time he closed his eyes. And his left shoulder stabbed whenever he shifted. He’d moved when he first came to, and his shoulder had hurt so agonizingly that he’d passed out again. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been unconscious. Or in the dark.
Cahan hadn’t expected any kind of fight from peasant farmers. He’d stolen with impunity for two months without any reprisals. Well. When the Litorians fought back, they fought with a vengeance. The way his shoulder hurt, he suspected something was broken.
Trying not to think about what might come next meant, of course, that he could think of nothing else. The farmers would most likely turn him over to the Sarkinians, since Litorians didn’t seem to own faery slaves. The thought made his stomach knot up. Lotaan Tiras would be pleased to have him back. And before they turned him over, they would punish him. That was what humans did. He wasn’t sure he could escape in time.
The sound of a door eventually roused him from semi-consciousness. He flinched at the pale sunlight streaming down the stairs and winced again at the pain lancing through his body.
Cahan set his teeth as the farmers tromped down the stairs. In the darkness of the night before, he hadn’t gotten a good look at his attackers. As they dragged him to his feet and supported him between them, he discovered they were both enormous, half a head taller than even Commander Tiras. His head barely cleared their shoulders. Whatever punishment they doled out was going to be brutal.
Just getting up the staircase was an ordeal. The ground pitched beneath his feet, and every step seared through his injured shoulder. If the farmers knew something was broken, they were choosing to ignore it. Cahan expected nothing better from humans, but it still hurt.
The one on his left released his arm when they got out of what turned out to be a cellar. Cahan promptly fell to his knees—partly out of dizziness, partly to delay whatever was coming.
The other man sighed. “We’ll have to drag him.”
He couldn’t protest, not after what Tiras had done to him, but he did manage a whine. The first man grabbed his arm again, ignoring his whine. Cahan could feel the broken bones grating. His stomach roiled, but there was nothing to throw up.
They hustled him through the slush of last night’s snow, across a farmyard that reeled before his eyes. Cahan had a confused impression of goats and chickens and a building that loomed before him. His head felt as if it were exploding. A thin, high ringing started in his ears. No running, then. Different plan. If he could think straight.
Warmth hit him next as they hauled him into the building. More humans. Were they going to take turns beating him?
They shoved him into a hard wooden chair, and he clung grimly to the seat with his good hand, fighting not to tip over. The world would not quit spinning.
A feminine voice spoke, dim through the ringing. “Oh dear. He doesn’t look very good, does he?”