Excerpt from Catling’s Bane, The Rose Shield: Book I
I’ve been introducing characters for the past few months. You’ve met:
Raker, the man who hears voices in the fog
Catling, a six-year-old with a rose birthmark around her eye
Whitt, the boy battling crajeks in the swamp
Gannon, captive in the belly of the Wandering Swan
Vianne, an influencer who tortures poor Gannon
Kadan, a boy who contemplates death when faced with his future
Meet the Goddess
(Raker’s voice in the fog is no longer simply a voice)
Raker poled the raft through the narrow channels, wandering his way toward the floating village deeper in the swamp. Morning mists hovered as a forbidding sky scudded eastward, promising sheets of rain. The goddess caressed him, twirled in languid circles, veils of dew flowing from her arms like wings.
She stroked his back with a fingertip. “Your indifference is as disputable as your madness.”
“Am I mad?” he asked.
“No more than you’re indifferent.” She laughed and spiraled behind him, arms encircling his chest.
“I care nothing for Ellegeans, for their tiers or their power.”
“Yet you care for her,” the goddess whispered. “Your destinies are entwined.”
Raker didn’t reply. Catling sat cross-legged at the raft’s lip. Her fishing line trailed in the glowing wake. Scraps of her previous catch baited her hook, luring in yellow-scaled pippets and the blue suckers that trawled the bottom. Jafe mended the holes in the planking and named the fish as she pulled them in, teaching her which to keep and which to toss.
The goddess interrupted his deepening silence, “Gannon’s departure stung, not his reasoning, which she understands, but his failure to bid her farewell. Another rent in a tattered life. Don’t you see? Those private tears blurring her vision are for more than this one man. He’s unearthed old bones, marked another passing, another etching on her burial stone of betrayals. Her allies are strangers, her masters concerned only with employing her skill.”
“What’s her skill?” He put his back into poling them toward the channel’s center. Jafe glanced up at him with a quizzical grin. The rafters believed him mad, and he never felt a need to explain.
“She will tell you her secrets if you ask.” The woman’s lips touched his earlobe, striking a flint to his desire.
Something tugged on the girl’s line, and she tugged back, hooking it. With a yelp, she flew off the raft into the channel. Her head disappeared. Then she broke the surface, sputtering and splashing, the luminescence marbled by stirred up mud.
Raker’s pole dropped to the raft. Three steps and he leapt into the channel beside her. His feet pushed into the ooze, and he stood, water licking his throat.
Still in her hand, the line strained. A snouted head reared from the water, blowing a breath of spray into the humid air. “A crajek!” she cried.
“Waterdragon,” Jafe shouted over the excitement. An opalescent fin sliced through the air. “A yearling.”
“Don’t release it.” Raker caught the back of her underdress as the creature pulled her farther from the raft. He grabbed the line that slid through her fingers.
She clutched Raker’s shoulder, kicking to stay afloat. “A waterdragon?” The creature’s rayed wings fluttered frantically at the surface, its wide fluke slapping the water.
“We need to free it.” Raker gently pulled the yearling in. Catling swam for the raft as Jafe poled it closer.
Something brushed Raker’s leg. A razorgill if he was lucky. Birds cawed overhead, the banks stirred and water rippled. “Crajek!” Jafe yelled.
“Get her out,” Raker barked. His hands wheeled faster. The waterdragon flailed, its scaled neck craning sideways, long tail coiling and churning the mud. Despite its small size, it matched his strength. Spined fins slashed the air, flinging water in his face.
“Raker!” Jafe grabbed Catling by her garment’s shoulders and plucked her from the water.
Raker hauled on the line. He glanced toward the banks, on the lookout for predators. Gods drifted toward the spectacle. The goddess hovered above the waterdragon, delighting in his heroics. “Your blood spills,” she warned.
“Give me time,” he growled.
“Raker!” Jafe pointed down the channel “Crajeks sinking.”
“Do you trust me?” the goddess asked, kneeling on the water’s surface, her gown of mist spreading like spilled milk, hair spiraling above her head. Jafe held the pole ready to strike.
“Do I have a choice?” Raker grabbed the wing and worked the hook. The waterdragon reeled, squealing. Its spiked head bashed him in the jaw, cutting his cheek on his teeth.
Nearer the bank, another pair of knobby eyes blinked and a head the hue of wet bark sank beneath the surface. Jafe shouted, “Crajek, Raker!”
“Goddess?” Raker murmured, ready to let go and scramble for the raft.
“Do you trust me, my love?” she persisted.
His gaze snapped to her face, the daring smile, the eagerness flickering in her eyes. “Yes.”
She flew through him into the luminescence. He gasped at the sensation. The waterdragon ceased its thrashing. Raker exhaled and worked the hook, ignoring the whorls of movement purling around him. The crajeks failed to attack though they surely tasted his blood.
The hook’s barb tore a gash in the fin and slipped free. Raker let the wing go and the waterdragon dove. In one smooth movement, he spun to the raft and leapt. Jafe snagged the back of his trousers and hauled him up.
“The crajeks.” Catling pointed to the water swarming with greedy beasts.
Jafe shook his head and slumped down, the pole across his knees. “I’ll never understand your kind.”