Here’s the prelude again, followed by the first 3 chapters of the book. Yes, the chapters are short, like a thriller. And, honestly, it's still scary releasing them for scrutiny—it's always scary, even this far in. Hope you enjoy them! (Oh, and, P.S., the book's divided into four scrolls, so this is the start of the first scroll.)
I don’t breathe.
It’s ironic, I know.
Unless you count this melody, etched as words into a scroll.
Some would call that breathing. And if it is, then this song is my first breath.
But this isn’t breathing. It isn’t like what you’re doing now. Yes, you. Right now. No, don’t stop, I love it. Breathing is enviable. Magnificent. I am drawn to life, as all sylphes are. And life is drawn to us.
But life takes more than just breath. It also takes flesh. And blood. And light.
I have breath.
I am breath.
But I do not breathe. Not like an elphe does. Not with lungs. We sylphes breathe in a sylphe sort of way. Our own sort of way. A purer way. Not like elphes or hyumans, not like animals or other kynde. And not like you.
You breathe because you are life—all four parts. And because you do, you know the panic that strikes when you can’t breathe. It seizes all mortals at one time or another. This emotion. This sensation. I’ve felt it.
And I felt it that night.
But I was not experiencing it through someone else, as I usually do. I felt it all by myself. And that made it all the worse. The horror gripped me. A feeling that something was wrong. Not nearby. Something inside me was wrong. Something in all the sylphes around me was wrong. Something in the wide world was wrong. Something very wrong.
It felt like I couldn’t breathe.
He didn’t answer.
“Locke, wake up!”
At that moment, the vague and horrible thing—the feeling that something was wrong—it was displaced by a much smaller feeling. A mundane feeling. An acute and close feeling: something I could sense through Locke. Something directly on his skin. A scratching. Like crumpled paper against his ribs.
“Can’t you feel that?” I asked.
He didn’t budge.
My elphe seemed to sleep extra deep—more than most, from what I’d seen. I would have smacked him if I could. But even if this were my moment, my tiny hand wouldn’t have done much good.
“It’s driving me crazy!” I shouted. He still didn’t move. “Wake up! What if it’s a bug?!”
That did it. He rolled onto his side, eyes still closed, and scratched his ribcage. But he found nothing, and the itch seemed to go away. Hmm.
I decided to wait it out. Morning would be here soon. Then I could tell him about the dark feeling, the nightmare feeling, the feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Besides, if I let him sleep longer, he might be more fun when he woke. I hated when he wasn’t fun.
But then it scratched him again—just above his belt now.
“Locke, wake up!”
“I don’t feel anything, Picke,” he mumbled. “Go back to sleep.”
“I don’t sleep,” I said. “And it’s still there: I can feel it.” Like a wadded leaf of paper had crawled down his shirt. It was very uncomfortable. It itched my curiosity too.
“Locke, please, wake up!”
He rolled onto his back. “Picke, you’re a—” He reached his fingers to scratch beneath his belt.
Locke shot out of bed.
I’d felt the spindly legs, just as he had, as they touched the side of his ring finger. Six legs, a set of pincers, and a pair of antennae.
His toes touched the floor a split second before his pants did, and then he was airborne, with his trousers lying below. He landed at the other edge of the room, on his tiptoes, his shoulders scrunched up toward his neck, as if that would somehow defend him from the chill that ran up his spine. I laughed in the empty night. Which was nice—the sound—I adored sound, at least the beautiful kind. My own laughter seemed to push back the evil.
Still, no one but Locke heard me. As a general rule, it takes breathing for someone to hear you. The elphe kind of breathing, not like we sylphes do. Although some elphes could hear other people’s sylphes, if they were keen enough.
I laughed again.
One moment he’d been a corpse, sprawled on the bed, mouth hanging open. The next he was the midnight sentry, standing in his braies, his wheat-colored hair a mess, fists poised to run from any pebble-sized threat that might dare to rear its ugly head. Ha, ha, ha—I couldn’t help it. What a funny boy. If only the world could see him now.
“What demon was that?” he asked.
“A boatsinker, I think, and… oh my...” Locke followed my gaze—and saw the black shapes of bugs clinging to the treehouse walls and ceiling above and all around him.
“Yyyyuuuhhhh…” he began, but whatever he was about to say was swallowed deep in his throat by another shudder that went down his back. I felt that one deeper than the first. “I’m getting out of here.”
“It’s still the middle of the night!”
“I don’t care. I can’t sleep with these bugs all over. Come on.” And he turned to the door.
“What about your pants?”
“I am not—”
“You can’t go out there without your pants. It’ll be light soon enough.”
He scrunched his lips up toward the right side of his face, considering my advice. “Alright.”
Sighing, he stepped forward and squinted as he crouched and looked for the leg of his pants. He pinched it with his thumb and first finger. Then with the speed of a myngoose, he whipped his pants violently into the air like cracking a whip, back and forth. We heard the bug hit one of the walls, but it was too dark to see where. Then Locke stood, holding his pants at arm’s length.
“Well?” I asked.
“I’m not putting these on yet. Let’s go.”
“Grab your moccasins and bag too—in case we find adventure before we have to be at the ferry.”
He grabbed his things, carrying his pants in his left hand, and I followed him out the door, hovering over his head. He dropped his things over the railing and climbed down the rope that led to the main floor of the treehouse.
Most Kyrie houses were built into a Blathae tree—the older, the better. Because the older they got, the more massive they grew, larger than any other species. Their roots spread out before sinking beneath the ground, which often created a wide, hollow cavern around the base. An elphe family could then turn this lower part into a house, enclosing it with wooden walls, and a heavy, swinging front door, all of which would soon be covered in thick vines, moss, and mushrooms—a coating of life. Many trees also had a natural cavity up the trunk for an enclosed stairwell leading to higher floors and additional rooms. And in a circumstance like Locke’s—the eighth of eight sons—more rooms were built in the tree’s higher branches on wide decks made of wood, which were then given their own walls and pitched roofs. However, as Locke’s father was constantly predicting tragedy, he’d built a more classic structure, with no lower levels, making a rope ladder the only access, despite the fact that the Enchanted Wood hadn’t been invaded in nearly a hundred years.
The deck floor was covered in bugs.
“Try not to crush any of them,” I said.
“Because life is precious, I know,” he said, still a bit groggy.
“It’s not trivial. I envy life.”
“Not like you—with skin and a heartbeat.”
“I don’t know why this bothers you so much. You’re just as living as me.”
“No. I’m primeval. Like your soul.”
“Well, that’s better than living. You don’t have to be afraid of death, like I am.”
“I have to be afraid of something worse.”
“Nothing’s worse than death.”
“Exile is. And darkness. Suffocation. And being alone.”
A bug shell cracked beneath his heel.
“That was an accident,” he said, “I promise.”
I scowled at him. I could see from his face that he wasn’t really sorry.
“Maybe he’ll come back and tell us what death is like,” said Locke with a grin.
“Why did the bugs invade our tree anyway?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I feel something evil, and it scares me.”
Thoughts of spindly legs and sticky shells creeped around the back of Locke’s neck, and he didn’t really notice what I’d said. He danced between bugs then descended the ladder from the treehouse to the ground below. The cool grass felt good beneath his bare feet. To him and to me.
“Picke?” he asked, looking up.
But I didn’t reply because the dread suddenly spread over me.
“Why is it so dark?” he asked. “I can’t see a single star.”
We wandered under the dark sky.
In a way, our quest had already begun, though we hadn’t realized yet. It started in the darkness, before twilight hours would awaken the Enchanted Wood. It started while stillness watched.
Locke wore his backpack now, with his moccasins tucked inside. His pants were still draped over his shoulder. He kept a close eye out for other people—because of the pants—and we headed north, past the outskirts.
Most of the trees in the Enchanted Wood were huge, even where we downstreamers lived. Their lowest branches were too high to easily climb. And even if you did get in them, the next branch after that was never worth the effort. Of course, the trees people lived in had stairs, ladders, and ropes. But we were headed for the climbing trees. Not far from where the rivers diverged, it was an area that had been burned to the ground during an infestation of bird demons. Some said the bird demons had breathed the fire, but I thought the salamindes had likely done it. That battle had split the delta again, creating the fifth river—unlucky—and giving us trees with branches low enough to reach, which made it a great place to waste a day.
The climbing trees also happened to be near Twitchelle’s Ferry, where Locke worked. So we went both for fun and practicality—Locke had unfortunately been trying hard to act like an adult lately. Which sometimes worried me. And speaking of worries...
“Did you feel something—I don’t know—evil in your dreams?” I often asked Locke about his dreams. That was one place where I couldn’t follow him. A place of bizarre magic.
“I dreamed about Tryse,” he said.
The first thought of her made him smile. It made me smile too.
“I’m still in love with her—in my dreams. And it makes me want to sleep forever.”
In a brief memory, like a gasp of air, they were together again, and they’d never grown distant, and she’d never gotten married or had a child. He tried to hold that memory’s breath, to keep her smile just a moment longer. But it left as quick as it came.
“Sleeping forever should be easy enough—for you,” I said.
“If you keep ribbing me, I’m likely to try it. And leave you stranded here.”
“Don’t even joke about that.”
“What about your dream?”
“I don’t dream.”
“No, I mean the dark feeling you mentioned.”
“That’s all there was. A dark feeling. Like I couldn’t breathe. Something happened last night. Something very bad. But the feeling is fleeting. I can’t figure it out.”
The sky was exceptionally dark, like a storm was coming, too dark to see what was up there. Most elphes trusted sight over all other sensation, which wasn’t wise—breath was more powerful than light. As we walked, Locke pulled out his pinkalue, tapped it on his thigh, and began to play. The melody flowed, pure and haunting, and it fought the gloom overhead. I was in love with the music.
The twins had given Locke the pinkalue before they left on their mysterious voyage. They’d joined a crew bound for the homeland, the Land of Song, the place the legends said our people once came from. His brothers had sailed off and were never heard from again. Not for seven years. And somehow every song the pinkalue played seemed a tribute to the wanderers. To the lost. And the lost loves. The instrument wasn’t as well crafted as the Bone Flute their father had forbidden them to touch, but it had a warm sound.
“I can’t really put a finger on what I’m feeling either,” said Locke, pausing to look at the pinkalue. “Sometimes I think Tryse causes this. But sometimes I think it’s the stars, or the sea. I don’t even know what it is that I want. But I want it so bad.”
“It’s the Land of Song,” I said. “That’s what calls you. The place where the Kyrose created us.” I said it even though I knew he didn’t believe. I blew on the idea, trying to get it to catch fire.
“Maybe.” That was all he said. And he let this doubtful answer drift for a moment.
I felt most of the same things Locke did, whether physical or emotional. Except I never felt his doubt. I certainly felt his longing. Or wanderlust. Or whatever it was.
He played through the melody once again, and the longing grew.
“It’s the feeling of being at the top of the tallest tree on the edge of the Rim,” I said, “as close to the sky and as far from the ground as possible.”
“Or like my dreams of lifting off the ground in flight like a bird demon,” said Locke.
“Or like touching Shaye’s knee,” I grinned, and when I said it, I sensed him blushing.
“Leave her out of this.”
He began to play again, scales that led us closer to that something, or to the fragments of that something. “We chase the pieces hoping to find the whole,” I said.
He stopped playing, and we moved on quietly beneath giant timbers, basking in our loftiest thoughts. “I’m not as brave as the twins. That why I don’t chase them,” said Locke.
“I settled when I took the job as ferryman. Now I help the wanderers travel through, but I’m not one of them. I’ve stopped searching, even though searching seems to be the only thing that helps.”
“I wonder if the twins found it.”
“The Land of Song?”
“I wonder why they didn’t return.”
He put the pinkalue back to his lips.
“Maybe the thirst can’t be quenched anywhere,” I said, “no matter where you go or what you do.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I’m just saying that, well, maybe it’s bigger than all this around us—maybe it’s something beyond these breaths.”
“I’ll only agree with that if you promise not to get preachy.”
We had just arrived at the climbing trees. Directly north was the river’s head, where the five branches began. Beyond that was Twitchelle’s Ferry over the Great River—the source of all the water in the Enchanted Wood.
“Hey, you hear that?” I asked.
And then I paused, and he paused, and we looked up at the dark sky.
“No,” said Locke.
As I darted ahead to see, Locke—finally stepping into his pants—yelled, “Wait!”
We cut back and forth among the climbing trees and rushed to the dock, which made a hollow clunk as Locke’s bare feet plunked against the wood. He leaned over the railing, and we looked down at the black river—a dark snaking shape, with not a single glimmer on the crest of a wave.
“It looks… too dark,” he said.
He lifted a kohkoo nut into the air and dropped it into the river below.
Not a splash, a thud. These waters roared as we ferried across them many times each day, and now they were silent. No, not silent, they were gone. The nut had impacted with mud.
“What demon did this?” asked Locke.
I had no answer for him. The dark feeling, which had almost been washed away by our conversation, now flooded back over me.
“I can’t breathe,” I said.
“Stop it. You’re scaring me.” And he breathed in deeply, to help me. “It’s nothing. You’re overreacting. Maybe Murke and Turke dammed up the river…”
“The whole river?”
“First, they’re not smart enough to do something like that. And even if they were, how could they pull it off overnight?”
“I’ll bet this is why the bugs came into the treehouse,” he said.
“I can’t breathe,” I repeated.
“Calm down, Picke. We’re still alive.”
“I know but can’t you feel that darkness? It’s so heavy.”
“It only heavy because you keep focusing on it. Let’s talk about something else—work or something.”
“You’re not going to be ferrying a soul today,” I said.
“Okay, fine. Then let’s do something about it. Let’s go upriver and find out what happened. It’s a mystery. An adventure. You’ll love it.”
Just the idea of it made me feel lighter. I nodded. “Thanks.”
Locke hopped into the riverbed, and we headed north, moving at a jog. Sporadic movement like this excited me—when a wind sits still, it dies. I also sensed Locke hoping an adventure might lie ahead, and I was glad he could stop trying to act like an adult for a moment.
“I feel fine,” I announced.
He was used to my frenetic moods.
Still not wearing moccasins, Locke dodged between the debris. The moist sand of the river bottom stuck to his feet. And he leaped, midway over a large piece of driftwood, when—
As this noise startled us, something caught the cuff of his pants, and his chest and hands came crashing into the rocks and sand.
An arrow was sticking through his pants and into the driftwood. We heard a dark laugh and saw a man in a green hood walking down the riverbank behind us, holding a bow. His messy, ragged outfit looked almost like foliage. His face appeared grimy, from what we could see in so little light.
“Have you heard what they say about the Hundred of Saebyrne?” said the cloaked figure, with a meanness to his voice that cut like a knife.
When we heard those words, the hair on Locke’s neck stood up.
The voice continued: “That their archers, at a hundred paces, can decide whether to sink an arrow into their enemy’s left or right eye socket?”
Locke leaned forward, trying to pull the arrow out so he could get his leg free, but he was on the wrong side of the driftwood to get a good grip.
“Well,” asked the man with a spiteful grin, “have you?”
“Yes,” said Locke.
The man jumped down next to us. “It isn’t true,” he said. “I was aiming for your leg.”
The man’s sylphe held incredibly still, suspended in one spot above the shaggy head. As the man moved, the sylphe remained steady, and then would zip to a new position and remain still again—a series of rapid jerks followed by stillness, almost like a bird.
As for the man, hate seemed to flow from him, spite toward everything that wasn’t himself. I wanted to bite his nose just to put him in his place. Of course, I couldn’t. But that didn’t stop me from wishing. A sword in a scabbard hung from the man’s belt. Up close, it became clear that his face wasn’t grimy—it was painted. “He is one of the Hundred,” I whispered into Locke’s ear. The man held another arrow by the nock—ready to be loaded onto the bowstring. He jabbed this at Locke’s chest, and Locke fell onto his back to keep from getting speared.
Once Locke stopped trying to get free, the man seemed content to leave him alone.
“Where are you from?”
“My father owns a farm on the fifth river,” said Locke.
“You’re a downstreamer?”
“Some call us that.”
“How are your Tenarie friends doing?”
Locke didn’t know how to answer the question. The Tenarie hadn’t been in the downstream area for many years.
The man glared with mad-dog eyes, as if Locke’s existence were somehow insulting him. “I’m a little disappointed that I missed. Usually I leave pain in my wake. But it’s never too late.” The man stepped closer, and Locke cringed, bracing himself. The man laughed, enjoying the fear. He grabbed the arrow sticking into the driftwood and jerked it free. “Get out of here, rat. And if you see anyone else, warn them that the Hundred are passing through.”
“Yes, sir,” said Locke, climbing to his feet. As he turned, the man whacked him with the arrow, like whipping a cow. A stinging pain, like it cut skin beneath his shirt.
Locke started upstream again, till the man growled, “That way,” and pointed to the west bank. Locke did exactly as he was told, scrambling up the slope. After a few moments, he looked back over his shoulder, but the man was gone.
“I hate him,” I said.
“He was a vanguard,” said Locke, pushing his anger aside as he jogged. “Scouting ahead for the rest of them.”
“He had no reason to treat us that way. We didn’t do anything.”
“I know. But what can we do?”
“We could disobey him.”
“Let’s circle around. We can get ahead of him again and see who he’s scouting for.”
“We already know it’s the Hundred.”
“Then this will be your chance to see them in action like you’ve always wanted.”
“When I said that, I was thinking they’d be more charming. I believe he would kill us if he saw us again.”
I believed it too, but I didn’t want to say it out loud. My words often became too permanent. “Alright, then let’s just cower and obey him. I wasn’t really curious to see what’s damming the rivers. Adventure isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Stop it, Picke.”
“Let’s wait here for a while, then we’ll head to Twitchelle’s and waste the day not ferrying anyone. If we’re lucky maybe Mr. Lunke’s daughter will come to woo you again.”
Locke gazed through the giant trees toward home. And then he looked back toward the river, where the Hundred of Saebyrne would soon be marching.
“Adventure calls,” I said.
“I know, but…”
“I dare you to answer.”
“We could be killed.”
“Oh, that’s true. Probably best to only take adventures with no risks.”
He rolled his eyes at me before looking both directions again.
Then he grabbed his knee-length moccasins from his bag and pulled them on. “Gah. Picke, why do I listen to you?”
“Because you always regret it when you don’t.”“But sometimes I regret it when I do.”
SONG OF LOCKE should launch in early 2015. If you want me to email you when it launches, send me your email.