Read a sample from HOPE AND RED by Jon Skovron
With intense characters, blisteringly paced action and a heart-stopping plot, Hope and Red is destined to be the next fantasy blockbuster. Perfect for fans of Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson and Peter V. Brett
Captain Sin Toa had been a trader on these seas for many years, and he’d seen something like this before. But that didn’t make it any easier.
The village of Bleak Hope was a small community in the cold southern islands at the edge of the empire. Captain Toa was one of the few traders who came this far south, and even then, only once a year. The ice that formed on the water made it nearly impossible to reach during the winter months.
Still, the dried fish, whalebone, and the crude lamp oil they pressed from whale blubber were all good cargo that fetched a nice price in Stonepeak or New Laven. The villagers had always been polite and accommodating, in their taciturn Southern way. And it was a community that had survived in these harsh conditions for centuries, a quality that Toa respected a great deal.
So it was with a pang of sadness that he gazed out at what remained of the village. As his ship glided into the narrow harbor, he scanned the dirt paths and stone huts, and saw no sign of life.
“What’s the matter, sir?” asked Crayton, his first mate. Good fellow. Loyal in his own way, if a bit dishonest about doing his fair share of work.
“This place is dead,” said Toa quietly. “We’ll not land here.”
“Not a soul in the place.”
“Maybe they’re at some sort of local religious gathering,” said Crayton. “Folks this far south have their own ways and customs.”
“’Fraid that’s not it.”
Toa pointed one thick, scarred finger toward the dock. A tall sign had been driven into the wood. On the sign was painted a black oval with eight black lines trailing down from it.
“God save them,” whispered Crayton, taking off his wool knit cap.
“That’s the trouble,” said Toa. “He didn’t.” The two men stood there staring at the sign. There was no sound except the cold wind that pulled at Toa’s long wool coat and beard.
“What do we do, sir?” asked Crayton.
“Not come ashore, that’s for certain. Tell the wags to lay anchor. It’s getting late. I don’t want to navigate these shallow waters in the dark, so we’ll stay the night. But make no mistake, we’re heading back to sea at first light and never coming near Bleak Hope again.”
* * *
They set sail the next morning. Toa hoped they’d reach the island of Galemoor in three days and that the monks there would have enough good ale to sell that it would cover his losses.
It was on the second night that they found the stowaway.
Toa was woken in his bunk by a fist pounding on his cabin door.
“Captain!” called Crayton. “The night watch. They found . . . a little girl.”
Toa groaned. He’d had a bit too much grog before he went to sleep, and the spike of pain had already set in behind his eyes.
“A girl?” he asked after a moment. “Y-y-yes, sir.”
“Hells’ waters,” he muttered, climbing out of his hammock. He pulled on cold, damp trousers, a coat, and boots. A girl on board, even a little one, was bad luck in these southern seas. Everybody knew that. As he pondered how he was going to get rid of this stowaway, he opened the door and was surprised to find Crayton alone, turning his wool cap over and over again in his hands.
“Well? Where’s the girl?”
“She’s aft, sir,” said Crayton.
“Why didn’t you bring her to me?”
“We, uh . . . That is, the men can’t get her out from behind the stowed rigging.”
“Can’t get her . . .” Toa heaved a sigh, wondering why no one had just reached in and clubbed her unconscious, then dragged her out. It wasn’t like his men to get soft because of a little girl. Maybe it was on account of Bleak Hope. Maybe the terrible fate of that village had made them a bit more conscious than usual of their own prospects for Heaven.
“Fine,” he said. “Lead me to her.”
“Aye, sir,” said Crayton, clearly relieved that he wasn’t going to bear the brunt of the captain’s frustration.
Toa found his men gathered around the cargo hold where the spare rigging was stored. The hatch was open and they stared down into the darkness, muttering to each other and making signs to ward off curses. Toa took a lantern from one of them and shone the light down into the hole, wondering why a little girl had his men so spooked.
“Look, girlie. You better . . .”
She was wedged in tight behind the piles of heavy line. She looked filthy and starved, but otherwise a normal enough girl of about eight years. Pretty, even, in the Southern way, with pale skin, freckles, and hair so blond it looked almost white. But there was something about her eyes when she looked at you. They felt empty, or worse than empty. They were pools of ice that crushed any warmth you had in you. They were ancient eyes. Broken eyes. Eyes that had seen too much.
“We tried to pull her out, Captain,” said one of the men. “But she’s packed in there tight. And well . . . she’s . . .”
“Aye,” said Toa.
He knelt down next to the opening and forced himself to keep looking at her, even though he wanted to turn away.
“What’s your name, girl?” he asked, much quieter now.
She stared at him.
“I’m the captain of this ship, girl,” he said. “Do you know what that means?”
Slowly, she nodded once.
“It means everyone on this ship has to do what I say. That includes you. Understand?”
Again, she nodded once.
He reached one brown, hairy hand down into the hold.
“Now, girl. I want you to come out from behind there and take my hand. I swear no harm will come to you on this ship.”
For a long moment, no one moved. Then, tentatively, the girl reached out her bone-thin hand and let it be engulfed in Toa’s.
* * *
Toa and the girl were back in his quarters. He suspected the girl might start talking if there weren’t a dozen hard-bitten sailors staring at her. He gave her a blanket and a cup of hot grog. He knew grog wasn’t the sort of thing you gave to little girls, but it was the only thing he had on board except fresh water, and that was far too precious to waste.
Now he sat at his desk and she sat on his bunk, the blanket wrapped tightly around her shoulders, the steaming cup of grog in her tiny hands. She took a sip, and Toa expected her to flinch at the pungent flavor, but she only swallowed and continued to stare at him with those empty, broken eyes of hers. They were the coldest blue he had ever seen, deeper than the sea itself.
“I’ll ask you again, girl,” he said, although his tone was still gentle. “What’s yer name?”
She only stared at him.
“Where’d you come from?”
Still she stared.
“Are you . . .” He couldn’t believe he was even thinking it, much less asking it. “Are you from Bleak Hope?”
She blinked then, as if coming out of a trance. “Bleak Hope.” Her voice was hoarse from lack of use. “Yes. That’s me.” There was something about the way she spoke that made Toa suppress a shudder. Her voice was as empty as her eyes.
“How did you come to be on my ship?”
“That happened after,” she said.
“After what?” he asked.
She looked at him then, and her eyes were no longer empty. They were full. So full that Toa’s salty old heart felt like it might twist up like a rag in his chest.
“I will tell you,” she said, her voice as wet and full as her eyes. “I will tell only you. Then I won’t ever say it aloud ever again.”
* * *
She had been off at the rocks. That was how they’d missed her.
She loved the rocks. Great big jagged black boulders she could climb above the crashing waves. It terrified her mother the way she jumped from one to the next. “You’ll hurt yourself!” her mother would say. And she did hurt herself. Often. Her shins and knees were peppered with scabs and scars from the roughedged rock. But she didn’t care. She loved them anyway. And when the tide went out, they always had treasures at their bases, half-buried in the gray sand. Crab shells, fish bones, seashells, and sometimes, if she was very lucky, a bit of sea glass. Those she prized above all else.
“What is it?” she’d asked her mother one night as they sat by the fire after dinner, her belly warm and full of fish stew. She held up a piece of red sea glass to the light so that the color shone on the stone wall of their hut.
“It’s glass, my little gull,” said her mother, fingers working quickly as she mended a fishing net for Father. “Broken bits of glass polished by the sea.”
“But why’s it colored?”
“To make it prettier, I suppose.”
“Why don’t we have any glass that’s colored?”
“Oh, it’s just fancy Northland frippery,” said her mother. “We’ve no use for it down here.”
That made her love the sea glass all the more. She collected them until she had enough to string together with a bit of hemp rope to make a necklace. She presented it to her father, a gruff fisherman who rarely spoke, on his birthday. He held the necklace in his leathery hand, eyeing the bright red, blue, and green chunks of sea glass warily. But then he looked into her eyes and saw how proud she was, how much she loved this thing. His weather-lined face folded up into a smile as he carefully tied it around his neck. The other fishermen teased him for weeks about it, but he would only touch his calloused fingertips to the sea glass and smile again.
When they came on that day, the tide had just gone out, and she was searching the base of her rocks for new treasures. She’d seen the top of their ship masts off in the distance, but she was far too focused on her hunt for sea glass to investigate. It wasn’t until she finally clambered back on top of one of the rocks to sift through her collection of shells and bones that she noticed how strange the ship was. A big boxy thing with a full three sails and cannon ports all along the sides. Very different from the trade ships. She didn’t like the look of it at all. And that was before she noticed the thick cloud of smoke rising from her village.
She ran, her skinny little legs churning in the sand and tall grass as she made her way through the scraggly trees toward her village. If there was a fire, her mother wouldn’t bother to save the treasures stowed away in the wooden chest under her bed. That was all she could think about. She’d spent too much time and effort collecting her treasures to lose them. They were the most precious thing to her. Or so she thought.
As she neared the village, she saw that the fire had spread across the whole village. There were men she didn’t recognize dressed in white-and-gold uniforms with helmets and armored chest plates. She wondered if they were soldiers. But soldiers were supposed to protect the people. These men herded everyone into a big clump in the center of the village, waving swords and guns at them.
She jerked to a stop when she saw the guns. She’d seen only one other gun. It was owned by Shamka, the village elder. Every winter on the eve of the New Year, he fired it up at the moon to wake it from its slumber and bring back the sun. The guns these soldiers had looked different. In addition to the wooden handle, iron tube, and hammer, they had a round cylinder.
She was trying to decide whether to get closer or run and hide, when Shamka emerged from his hut, gave an angry bellow, and fired his gun at the nearest soldier. The soldier’s face caved in as the shot struck him, and he fell back into the mud. One of the other soldiers raised his pistol and fired at Shamka, but missed. Shamka laughed triumphantly. But then the intruder fired a second time without reloading. Shamka’s face was wide with surprise as he clutched at his chest and toppled over.
The girl nearly cried out then. But she bit her lip as hard as she could to stop herself, and dropped into the tall grass.
She lay hidden there in the cold, muddy field for hours. She had to clench her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering. She heard the soldiers shouting to each other, and there were strange hammering and flapping sounds. Occasionally, she would hear one of the villagers beg to know what they had done to displease the emperor. The only reply was a loud smack.
It was dark, and the fires had all flickered out before she moved her numb limbs up into a crouch and took another look.
In the center of the town, a huge brown canvas tent had been erected, easily five times larger than any hut in the village. The soldiers stood in a circle around it, holding torches. She couldn’t see her fellow villagers anywhere. Cautiously, she crept a little closer.
A tall man who wore a long, hooded white cloak instead of a uniform stood at the entrance to the tent. In his hands, he held a large wooden box. One of the soldiers opened the flap of the tent entrance. The cloaked man went into the tent, accompanied by a soldier. Some moments later, they both emerged, but the man no longer had the box. The soldier tied the flap so that the entrance remained open, then covered the opening with a net so fine not even the smallest bird could have slipped through.
The cloaked man took a notebook from his pocket as soldiers brought out a small table and chair and placed them before him. He sat at the table and a soldier handed him a quill and ink. The man immediately began to write, pausing frequently to peer through the netting into the tent.
Screams began to come from inside the tent. She realized then that all the villagers were inside. She didn’t know why they screamed, but it terrified her so much that she dropped back into the mud and held her hands over her ears to block out the sound. The screams lasted only a few minutes, but it was a long time before she could bring herself to look again.
It was completely dark now except for one lantern at the tent entrance. The soldiers had gone and only the cloaked man remained, still scribbling away in his notebook. Occasionally, he would glance into the tent, look at his pocket watch, and frown. She wondered where the soldiers were, but then noticed that the strange boxy ship tied at the dock was lit up, and when she strained her hearing, she could make out the sound of rowdy male voices.
The girl snuck through the tall grass toward the side of the tent that was the farthest from the man. Not that he would have seen her. He seemed so intent on his writing that she probably could have walked right past him, and he wouldn’t have noticed. Even so, her heart raced as she crept across the small stretch of open ground between the tall grass and the tent wall. When she finally reached the tent, she found that the bottom had been staked down so tightly that she had to pull out several of them before she could slip under.
It was even darker inside, the air thick and hot. The villagers all lay on the ground, eyes closed, chained to each other and to the thick tent poles. In the center sat the wooden box, the lid off. Scattered on the ground were dead wasps as big as birds.
Far over in the corner, she saw her mother and father, motionless like all the rest. She moved quickly to them, a sick fear shooting through her stomach.
But then her father moved weakly, and relief flooded through her. Maybe she could still rescue them. She gently shook her mother, but she didn’t respond. She shook her father, but he only groaned, his eyes fluttering a moment but not opening.
She searched around, looking to see if she could unfasten their chains. There was a loud buzzing close to her ear. She turned and saw a giant wasp hovering over her shoulder. Before it could sting her, a hand shot past her face and slapped it aside. The wasp spun wildly around, one wing broken, then dropped to the ground. She turned and saw her father, his face screwed up in pain.
He grabbed her wrist. “Go!” he grunted. “Away.” Then he shoved her so hard, she fell backward onto her rear.
She stared at him, terrified, but wanting to do something that would take the awful look of pain away from his face. Around her, others were stirring, their own faces etched in the same agony as her father.
Then she saw her father’s sea glass necklace give an odd little jump. She looked closer. It happened again. Her father arched his back. His eyes and mouth opened wide, as if screaming, but only a wet gurgle came out. A white worm as thick as a finger burst from his neck. Blood streamed from him as other worms burrowed out of his chest and gut.
Her mother woke with a gasp, her eyes staring around wildly. Her skin was already shifting. She reached out and called her daughter’s name.
All around her, the other villagers thrashed against their chains as the worms ripped free. Before long, the ground was covered in a writhing mass of white.
She wanted to run. Instead, she held her mother’s hand and watched her writhe and jerk as the worms ate her from the inside. She did not move, did not look away until her mother grew still. Only then did she stumble to her feet, slip under the tent wall, and run back into the tall grass.
She watched from afar as the soldiers returned at dawn with large burlap sacks. The cloaked man went inside the tent for a while, then came back out and wrote more in his notebook. He did this two more times, then said something to one of the soldiers. The soldier nodded, gave a signal, and the group with sacks filed into the tent. When they came back out, their sacks were filled with writhing bulges that she guessed were the worms. They carried them to the ship while the remaining soldiers struck the tent, exposing the bodies that had been inside.
The cloaked man watched as the soldiers unfastened the chains from the pile of corpses. As he stood there, the little girl fixed his face in her memory. Brown hair, weak chin, pointed ratlike face marked with a burn scar on his left cheek.
At last they sailed off in their big boxy ship, leaving a strange sign driven into the dock. When they were no longer in sight, she crept back down into the village. It took her many days. Perhaps weeks. But she buried them all.
* * *
Captain Sin Toa stared down at the girl. During her tale, her expression had remained fixed in a look of wide-eyed horror. But now it settled back into the cold emptiness he’d seen when he first coaxed her out of the hold.
“How long ago was that?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” she said.
“How did you get aboard?” he asked. “We never docked.”
“Quite a distance.”
“And what should I do with you now?”
“A ship is no place for a little girl.”
“I have to stay alive,” she said. “So I can find that man.”
“Do you know who that was? What that sign meant?”
She shook her head.
“That was the crest of the emperor’s biomancers. You haven’t got a prayer of ever getting close to that man.”
“I will,” she said quietly. “Someday. If it takes my whole life. I’ll find him. And kill him.”
* * *
Captain Sin Toa knew he couldn’t keep her aboard. It was said maidens, even eight-year-old ones, could draw the attention of the sea serpents in these waters as sure as a bucketful of blood. The crew might very well mutiny at the idea of keeping a girl on board. But he wasn’t about to throw her overboard or dump her on some empty piece of rock either. When they landed the next day at Galemoor, he approached the head of the Vinchen order, a wizened old monk named Hurlo.
“Girl’s seen things nobody should have to see,” he said. The two of them stood in the stone courtyard of the monastery, the tall, black stone temple looming over them. “She’s a broken thing. Could be a monastic life is the only option left to her.”
Hurlo slipped his hands into the sleeves of his black robe. “I sympathize, Captain. Truly, I do. But the Vinchen order is for men only.”
“But surely you could use a servant around,” said Toa. “She’s a peasant, accustomed to hard work.”
Hurlo nodded. “We could. But what happens when she comes of age and begins to blossom? She will become too great a distraction for my brothers, particularly the younger ones.”
“So keep her till then. At least you’ll have sheltered her a few years. Kept her alive long enough for her to make her own way.”
Hurlo closed his eyes. “It will not be an easy life for her here.”
“Don’t think she’d know what to do with an easy life if you gave her one anyway.”
Hurlo looked at Toa. And to Toa’s surprise, he suddenly smiled, his old eyes sparkling. “We will take in this broken child you have found. A bit of chaos in the order brings change. Perhaps for the better.”
Toa shrugged. He’d never fully understood Hurlo or the Vinchen order. “If you say so, Grandteacher.”
“What is the child’s name?” asked Hurlo.
“She won’t say for some reason. I half think she doesn’t remember.”
“What shall we call her, then, this child born of nightmare? As her unlikely guardians, I suppose it is now up to us to name her.”
Captain Sin Toa thought about it a moment, tugging at his beard. “Maybe after the village she survived. Keep something of it in memory, at least. Call her Bleak Hope.”