Today is my stop on the blog tour for ‘Steel & Stone’ by Kate Haley organised by Storytellers on Tour, and I’m delighted to share an extract from this YA Epic Fantasy. I hope that you will check out the book and the author, and enjoy the rest of the tour with the schedule in the banner below or (HERE).
Disclaimer: ‘I was given a copy this book in exchange for an honest review.’
Ten years. Thousands dead. No memories.
The amnesia was supposed to be a good thing. Other soldiers bask in its freedom. Except for Elvac it doesn’t feel right. When he returns from his first year at war he can’t shake the niggling sensation that something is missing. His life has been turned upside down, yet he can’t remember being gone. The only proof of his time away are the scars, and the haunting dreams of fire.
With the help of his friends, Elvac begins to regain his lost memories, and with them uncover the truth of his missing year, and what the Church of Sunne is really doing with their War of the North…
Steel & Stone
Chapter One: Daughter of a Priest
Sunndan was a dirty city. The problem was that they had built it predominately from pale or white stone. When it had been new it had looked like paradise, but that city only existed in history now. The pristine blanket had become a patchwork quilt – one bearing more than a thousand years of grime. Even in the light of day Satinka tried to ignore the dirty streets and dark alleys as she walked home. Those dark alleys…
She felt her throat tighten and kept her eyes straight ahead. The other girls around her didn’t notice as she held her breath to keep back the tears. Those dark alleys. Don’t think about it, she ordered herself. We’ll be home soon. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about him. But she couldn’t not. His ghost haunted her. Too many ghosts haunted her now.
The girls with her didn’t know about it. They didn’t know about anything, and she knew they thought she was strange. She was. They had no idea. The group of girls ranged in age from sixteen down to twelve. Satinka was one of the youngest. There were nearly two dozen of them, and they were all dressed completely identically.
This was the uniform of the Daughters of Sunne. The daughters of the priests and priestesses of Sunne’s church. Every one of the girls wore a full-length, high-necked, long-sleeved white dress, complete with matching long gloves and boots. They all painted their faces like perfect little dolls. White base, dark eyes, rose lips. Satinka thought it a bizarre custom, but it was the only thing keeping her alive right now. If anyone knew…
The girls passed through the gates into the compound of the Palace of Sunne. Sunndan was built with three circular walls that made it look like a bullseye from above. The three rings of Sunne: to represent the god’s three eyes. The smallest wall in the centre separated the Palace of Sunne – the home of the capital’s clergy and Sunne’s Avatar – from the common people.
Satinka remembered meeting the god. The strange form he chose to take: three gigantic floating eyeballs. The memory churned her insides horribly.
The other girls began to drift off into smaller groups as they headed home. One of the older girls, Erin, put a hand on Satinka’s shoulder.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Satinka nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Erin was always kind to her and tried to take care of her, but Satinka knew she couldn’t let herself get too close to anyone in the church. The risk wasn’t worth it.
“Okay,” Erin smiled gently. “Let’s get you home.”
Erin lived close to Satinka anyway, and always walked her home. Whenever the girls went out recruiting they moved in large groups, and the older were responsible for taking care of the younger.
Satinka clutched her pamphlets tightly in her gloved hands. They were covered in words like ‘honour’ and ‘glory’. War propaganda. Nothing recruited soldiers like pretty, virtuous girls. Satinka had felt sick for so long now she had started to become numb to everything as a defence mechanism.
Erin dropped her off and waved goodbye. Satinka crept in the front door and closed it quietly behind her. She shoved her pamphlets on the hall table with disgust and felt her face screw up into a ball of misery under all the paint. She was recruiting for Sunne’s army. The army he was sending south over the seas.
“Satinka?” Nauel called as his sharp ears heard the door.
“Papa?” she called back. Satinka wandered through to where the old priest stood in the doorway of his study. He wore the customary white robes and a short grey beard. His face was kindly, but his expression was worried. They were the only two in the compound who knew that he wasn’t really her father. Nauel looked up from the letter he held in his hand to watch the little girl approach.
“Satinka, sweetie,” he sighed. “Your application to travel to Undernal has come back.”
“They won’t let me go?” she already wanted to cry.
“No, they haven’t declined it yet… they… uh, they…” Nauel took a deep breath, and his concern triggered a deep and painful fear in Satinka. “They say that you must meet with Lord Āni before they make a final decision.”
She heard him, she just didn’t know how to process the information. She thought she didn’t, until she realised she was shaking. Nauel could see. He knelt and pulled her tightly into his arms.
“I’ll withdraw the application,” he stated firmly. “They must be used to that response–”
“No,” Satinka cut him off. Her tiny voice quivered.
“Satinka, it’s too dangerous…”
“No. I have to go.”
Nauel sighed. It was a patient and relenting sound. He always caved to her. Her real father never had. Nauel wanted what was best for her, and he wanted to care for her, but he knew he was a stand-in, even if it didn’t always feel like it.
“Do you think you can face him?” he asked.
“I have to,” she replied, and this time her voice didn’t shake.
In her two years in the church Satinka had learned how much everyone feared Āni. He was Sunne’s Avatar, and the Avatar was supposed to be the representative of the god to the people. Satinka found it interesting that the people who so feared and despised Āni still unquestioningly loved and worshipped Sunne. Except, of course, wise Nauel. She supposed that was just the way humans were with gods.
The other girls she recruited with told stories about the Avatar to scare each other. Usually the stories involved children who were tricked into his castle and never seen again because he ate them. They were the kinds of stories that reminded her of witch tales from home.
She had met Āni once. Two years ago. Sunne had been there in all his overpowering glory, so she had barely paid attention to his human Avatar. She still had nightmares about that day. She still woke sobbing and screaming at the memories. So many terrible memories of the past two years.
Now she was meeting Āni in that same hall again. A priest who knew Nauel led her in to meet the Avatar in the grand hall. Anywhere but here, she had begged in her mind, but it was no good. She couldn’t change it. She had been betrayed in this hall. Her people had been slaughtered. Memnyir had been taken. Now, if she wanted her precious Memnyir back, she would have to live through it again. She had to be strong. Nauel’s friend led her to the doors. She couldn’t stop shaking in fear.
The hall was ludicrously vast for a building that would only be occupied by humans. It had high domed ceilings, and everything was polished white. Āni waited at a circular table in the middle of the room with a pot of tea. He had olive skin with short white hair and a neat white goatee. His robes were more pristine than new snow. Yet, he looked surprisingly ordinary as she was led up to him. The hall still terrified her, but Āni was just an old man. Until he looked at her. Āni raised his head and as his cold grey eyes hit hers the force almost brought her to her knees. She stumbled as the priest with her made introductions and excused himself.
What if Āni recognised her? The thought had terrified Satinka at first. It was why Nauel hadn’t wanted her to go. As soon as the Avatar’s eyes hit her she knew she was done for. He would know. As far as Āni and Sunne knew she was dead. She had disguised herself as one of their people and hidden among them for two years, but it wouldn’t be enough. He would know. And yet, somehow, he didn’t yell at the sight of her…
“Aren’t you just a darling thing,” Āni smiled as the priest left. “Cute as a button ‒ I could just eat you up.”
At that moment it was all Satinka could do to keep from screaming. She wanted to scream and run, and possibly never stop doing either. When he spoke his voice was kind, even charming, but his eyes… oh by the moon his eyes! She’d never seen anything so evil and soulless. Those eyes spoke only of pain and death. She stood on the other side of the table trembling uncontrollably in fear. Āni laughed at the look on her face.
“I jest, child,” he purred. “I know what they say about me, don’t worry. You have nothing to fear. Please, sit.”
He said it like an invitation, but her body moved to the seat as though it had been ordered and she couldn’t control it. She didn’t want to sit down. She didn’t want to face Āni, but under his malevolent gaze she had no will of her own. He made her sit without laying a finger on her. He could make her do what he wanted. Against the force of the Avatar the previous memories of the hall seemed feeble. She only had enough terror left to fear what was happening to her now. She was about to be discovered.
“So,” Āni pressed his fingers together and looked at her over the top of them. “I hear you want to go to Undernal. That’s an odd request for a twelve year old girl.”
“I… I want to go and help,” she managed to gasp the words.
“Hmm,” Āni mused. His tone showed no surprise at her struggle to speak. He was making everything hard for her. “They tell me you have been taking part in the recruiting work here. Why the urge to go south? All your family is here. Don’t you want to stay with them?”
“I… I want to… go help soldiers,” she choked.
“Hmmm.” Āni leant back in his chair and flicked his hand at her. “Get up then. Let me have a look at you.”
She stood at his gesture with a force that almost knocked the chair back. On her feet an unwilling step took her further around the table. She stopped. If Āni so much as tried to read her palm the removal of her glove would betray her. If she got close enough for him to see any of her skin at the edge of her robes and make-up everything would be over. She clenched her teeth and focused all her will into resisting the Avatar’s orders.
“Come here,” Āni ordered.
“No,” she grated, shuddering at the forces pulling on her. “No, I want to go and help the soldiers. I want to help people. Let me go or don’t, but don’t try and play with me. I’m not a doll.”
“That’s funny,” Āni purred. “You look like one. Now, come here!”
The force crashed over her like a wave. She was surprised it didn’t just drag her across the floor, but that wasn’t the point of it. The point was for her to give in. Instead she cried out as her knees gave out and hit the hard polished stone floor.
“NO!” she screamed at him.
The doors to the hall crashed open and the priest stared over the room. Satinka looked up and saw a faint white glow around the Avatar dim down to nothing. The priest stared wide-eyed at the glowing man and the girl kneeling in a heap on the ground. Āni began to laugh. The sound was definitely amused. It was also awful. There was no pretence of kindness anymore.
“Take the girl back to her father,” Āni laughed in a cold voice. “Tell Nauel I can’t spare him, but if he wants to send the girl to Undernal I will write a personal letter of recommendation. He has quite a child. She’s really something.”
The priest rushed across the room and bundled Satinka up in his arms. Āni chuckled at the anxiety of the man as he took the little girl away.
When she made it home Nauel hugged her so tightly she wondered if he’d ever let her go. After that incident they both knew that whether or not she went to Undernal she had to go somewhere away from the Avatar of Sunne. Undernal was the most logical place, even if Nauel couldn’t travel with her.
Satinka learned two things: staying in Undernal she would be living with other church girls in accommodation at the university there, and she would not be travelling with church folk to get there. Nauel wasn’t going to let people who knew Āni transport her. He knew the stories of children disappearing into the Avatar’s tower weren’t just tales.
Three days later she was being loaded onto a wagon with all of her belongings. The wagon belonged to a group of Zynaldini merchants led by a man called Bakki. Satinka had never seen people like them before. Where she came from everyone looked the same. She had already seen how many visual varieties of humans there were, but she’d never actually met a Zynaldini.
They were strong tall people, with rich dark skin that glowed with the warmth of the desert. Their northern accent was powerful, and when speaking to each other they mostly used a language Satinka had never heard.
She sat neatly at the front of the wagon as she watched Bakki and Nauel talk. Finally the men shook hands, and Nauel blew her a kiss as Bakki strode towards the wagon and climbed up beside her. Not one for goodbyes the Zynaldini clicked his tongue at the horses and tapped them lightly with the reins to get them moving.
When they rolled out of the city Satinka breathed a sigh of relief. She would miss Nauel terribly, but they had promised to write to each other. It wasn’t like so many others she’d lost. The ones she would never see again. The dark alley flashed across her mind again. For all the good memories she had of that city Satinka felt as though she had twice as many bad ones. She was glad to be leaving it behind. Bakki looked down on her.
“You’re very young to be travelling alone, little one,” he commented.
“I’m not travelling alone,” she pointed out. “You’re with me.”
The Zynaldini laughed and nodded. “Yes, yes I s’pose that’s true. We travel to House of Cards in Undernal, but we drop you off at the Palace of Sunne first, yes?”
Satinka nodded. “What’s the House of Cards?”
“It’s uh,” Bakki glanced at her, “it’s not the kind of place you would ever find yourself.”
The look she gave him was curious, so he avoided the subject by turning in his seat and yelling orders to the other couple of wagons following them. She listened with interest to the musical language of the Zynaldini people as they spoke.
When Bakki turned back around Satinka was watching him. She asked if he would teach her his language.
“Teach you?” he laughed. “What for?”
“It’s pretty,” she answered. “I want to learn how to speak it.”
Bakki looked doubtful.
“I could ask you about the House of Cards again,” she suggested.
“This is how you say ‘good day’,” Bakki began quickly.
The trip down the main road to Undernal with Bakki and his crew was pleasant. With a weak smattering of the Zynaldini language under her belt after a few days, Bakki was dropping her off at the gates of the Palace of Sunne in Undernal.
Undernal, as far as she could see, was a hilly city situated on the coast. The salt tang of the air and the ocean view from the top of the city gave her pangs for a home she hadn’t seen in two years, but it was marred by the sight of the harbour. That was where they launched the war boats from.
The entry to the Palace in Undernal was by means of a church, and Satinka entered it ready to present herself. The walls were all lined with stained glass windows and frescos of the three eyed god, and she had to repress a shudder as all those eyes stared at her. She was supposed to be seen by a Father Malkin, who led the war effort here. Inside the church was a young blonde priest who watched her enter with some awe.
“You must be Satinka,” he said, rushing over.
“Are you Father Malkin?”
“No, no, Malkin is terribly busy, I’m afraid. I’m Father Guhji. I was instructed to meet you here and show you to your quarters.” He was already leading her from the building.
“Um, I’m supposed to present myself to Father Malkin,” she said, pulling the letter she’d been given from her bag.
Guhji nodded to her. “Āni wrote to Malkin. Malkin spoke to me. I can give him the letter if you want, but I doubt he’d read it. He only cares about the war effort now.”
“But I… I’m here to help with that,” she whispered in a dreaded tone.
“Not under Malkin’s watch you’re not,” Guhji told her honestly. “While he’s in charge you’ll go and live with the other girls up at the university, and you’ll probably study with them as well. Truth be told, Satinka, if you want to help, the best thing you can do is study up on the South.”
With that he led her off to the university.
She followed behind in a numb haze. On the bright side, it didn’t sound like she’d have to do any more recruiting. On the down side, she wasn’t sure how hard it would be to infiltrate the Palace here if she wasn’t involved with the war. She would have to play it carefully. At least as the new kid in town again she could feign ignorance.
Guhji dropped her and her bags off in a spare room at the university accommodation that had been prepared for her. As she watched him go she wondered how little the men and women of the church in Undernal had to do with each other. He was polite, but distant. Probably the kind of man who had a promotion on his mind.
Her room was small and bare. It was a hostel room, the kind that had seen many occupants, but no real love. It was always just waiting for the next person. She didn’t like it, so after kicking her bags under her bed and locking up she went in search of her life here.
The university was a large sprawling complex of buildings across the hills near the Palace. It was strange to think about living here, but she liked to be close to so much knowledge. It was knowledge she was after now. After the fruitless search through the Palace at Sunndan for the last two years she didn’t want to make the same mistake again. She was going to learn everything she could about Undernal, and try to work out the most likely place Memnyir would be hidden here.
Satinka followed the signs to the library and entered the old wood-panelled building. She wandered along the shelves dreamily, and ran her gloved hands over the spines of the books. From around the corner she could hear talking and laughter. She turned around the end of the aisle and stopped dead.
The memory of the alley flashed through her mind with a sharp agony. But it was him. That boy. The same boy. He was sitting and talking with a blonde boy in the corner. She moved to run towards him and stopped again.
It wasn’t him. The more she looked, the more she realised it wasn’t him. This boy looked a lot like him – the same mocha skin and bright black eyes, the same wild dark curls. This boy was strong and muscular though, not thin and starving. He had a sturdier jaw and shorter build. She couldn’t stop staring, even once she realised the boy must just be another northerner. Her friend had said his dad had been from the north.
This boy was more confident than the boy she knew. Her first human friend. The boy in the library wore thin trousers and no shirt, almost like he’d gotten lost on his way to the beach. Just as she was about to sneak away back behind the shelves the blonde boy caught sight of her and pointed her out to the boy she’d been looking at. The boy turned and waved her over. She couldn’t turn and run now without making a fool of herself, so she approached them nervously.
“Don’t worry,” the dark boy chuckled in a northern accent. “We don’t bite.”
“You’re… you’re from the north, aren’t you?” she asked shyly as she reached their table.
“From Stonehall, up in the mountains,” he grinned. “You never seen an Ickian before?”
“Once,” she whispered, looking down at the table.
“Most of your people aren’t willing to travel an entire continent just to end up here,” his blonde friend said dryly.
“Can’t blame them,” the Ickian groaned. “Trip was awful.”
“How long have you been here?” Satinka asked.
“A week,” he answered. “Why? You want to show me around?”
“I’m from Sunndan,” she admitted. “I just got here a couple of hours ago.”
“Sunndan, huh?” he eyed her up.
“Ignore him,” the blonde boy advised. “Everyone else does.”
“That is not true,” the Ickian pouted. “How could you say that? And he’s supposed to be my best friend, would you believe.”
“I’m your only friend,” he replied.
“Well if you’re going to take that attitude, she can be my new best friend.”
“Ignore him,” the blonde boy repeated. He signalled to a seat at the table. “Please, sit.”
Satinka sat cautiously down, folding her gloved hands on the table.
“I’m Elvac,” the blonde boy introduced himself. Up close she could see he had the clearest sky-blue eyes she’d ever known. “My friend is Sabeh.”
“That is a very beautiful name,” Sabeh commented slyly.
“Ignore him,” Elvac repeated again.
Satinka smiled at them despite herself. They seemed such a mismatched pair, the dark wild Ickian and the slim pale Undernalian.
“If you’re new around here, I can help show you the ropes,” Elvac offered politely. “I’m showing him around anyway, so you’re more than welcome to come with us.”
“Yes,” Sabeh agreed enthusiastically. “We can be your first two friends of Undernal! You guys can be my first two friends of Undernal.”
“I suppose,” Satinka shrugged.
Elvac smiled earnestly at her, and Sabeh was full of sly over-dramatised excitement. It wasn’t a bad plan. She had to find Memnyir and get out of here as quickly as possible, and who would know Undernal better than someone born and raised here. Sabeh also looked as though he might be appropriately shifty for some situations. She would take advantage of all the help she could get from them. There was just one thing she wouldn’t do.
The longer she stayed with Sabeh the less she saw of the boy from Sunndan, but that slight heart-wrenching pang was still there, and in it she knew she couldn’t tell them who she was. They were innocent bystanders, and she couldn’t get them killed. More than that: they were humans. The more of them she had to deal with the more she felt she didn’t belong. This was not her place. These were not her people. She was in Undernal now, and she couldn’t give any city folk the chance to betray her. She was a church girl. No one but Nauel knew her secret, and it would stay that way.
Besides, it wouldn’t take her long to find Memnyir now that she was in the right place. She would be out of there soon. Or so she believed.
Little did she know where Memnyir truly was, or what she would have to go through to get to her. Satinka didn’t even yet know that it would be eight more years of this life before she heard anyone other than herself utter Memnyir’s name…
About the Author:
Kate Haley is a speculative fiction author who works predominantly in fantasy and horror.
While currently content to fill her days with writing and table-top RPGs, her grander plans involve world domination. Something akin to the tyranny of the greatest city atop the Disc would be an acceptable standard. She believes a super-villainous overlord would be an upgrade, given that our current villains lack style and imagination.
After all, super-villainy requires Presentation.