by Kate Avery Ellison
Release Date: January 16th, 2014
Excerpt for Of Sea and Stone
The broad stone ground of the Training Rock was warm and smooth beneath my bare feet. A salt-scented wind teased the tendrils of hair escaping from beneath my hood. I straightened my spine and lifted my chin as if I belonged as I approached the group of boys and young men, who stood in a haphazard line before the target of wood.
I took my place at the end of the line.
The smell of salt filled the air. Gulls screamed overhead as the first boy drew back his arm and threw his spear. It glanced off the target and clattered on the rock. His face creased with disgust, and he turned away. The second boy threw, and the tip of his spear embedded itself in the corner of the target.
I was better at throwing than any of these boys. I’d always been good at it, better than anyone else my age when I was small enough to swim in the shallows with the free children and sleep in my mother’s arms at night. My mother had beamed with pride to see me throw, and so I continued to hone my skill even after she was gone. Sometimes I went out to the edge of the rocks that formed a ring around the sea like a circle of stone arms, and I caught fish to put on the fire so Nealla and I could eat more than the meager food we were provided for our meals. I was better than all of them, but being a girl banned me from participating in the competition.
At the front of the line stood Nol, the oldest in the competition and the favorite of the crowd. He cast a glance my way, but didn’t look long. I exhaled as he turned his head away.
One by one, the boys threw their spears. They were still learning, and few were good yet. The aim of a fisherman was impeccable, once he’d mastered the art, but these were just boys.
I swallowed as the boy beside me took his turn, and then it was mine. I stepped forward and hefted my spear. The weight was familiar in my hand. I inhaled, squinted at the target, and threw.
The spear buried itself at the edge of the middle circle. A few of the boys cried out in appreciation. Sweat broke out across my back.
I hadn’t meant to throw quite so well.
Nol turned his head again to look at me. He wasn’t stupid, even if he was infuriating. He’d seen Kit throw before.
I held my breath, and he looked away.
Those who had struck the target gathered their spears and tried again. There were only a few of us, and the number rapidly dwindled. I threw poorly, but my spear seemed to swerve to meet the target against my will, and the rest of the boys threw with the skill of drunken monkeys. Finally, only Nol and I were left.
My heart drummed in my chest. I didn’t dare look at Nol or the crowd.
“You’ve improved, Kit,” Nol said as he passed me to retrieve his spear.
It was clear by the way he strode toward the target that he thought victory was assured for him. He barely spared me a glance as he drew back his arm to throw.
The crowd waited, breathless.
Nol threw first. His spear struck the inner circle of the target, and he straightened, pleased. I could tell by his posture that he thought he’d won. The necklace of shell he always wore tinkled faintly as he turned to me. He yanked off his mask, and his expression was triumphant.
I drew my arm back and took aim. I heard the rush of the sea behind me, the cry of gulls above me, and the hiss of my breath over my teeth as I threw. Sea and gulls and breath combined to make music. I shut my eyes and threw.
My spear hit the mark and quivered.
It had struck closer to the center.
The boys roared in approval and swarmed around me. Nol’s jaw tightened, and he shot a glance toward the crowd. I saw his father, the mayor, frowning.
I stepped forward to receive my prize. As I passed Nol, suspicion crossed his face. He snatched off my mask, dislodging my hood in the process.
My long hair tumbled down around my shoulders. Wind fanned my face.
I was exposed.
The crowd gasped. Nol let go of me as if he’d been burned.
“It’s Tagatha’s thrall!” someone shouted.
“You deceptive little brat,” the spear master snarled. “Where’s Kitran?”
The spear master grabbed for me. His fingers slipped through my hair, giving one painful tug, then the strands ripped from my scalp and I ran faster. I reached the edge of the cliff, dropped Kit’s spear, and jumped.
The rock was hard beneath my feet as I leaped, and then salty air rushed around me, the gulls’ screams filled my ears, and I was falling, falling, falling through air and wind and sunlight. I brought my arms forward right before I entered the water in a perfect dive.
Bubbles exploded across my vision as I hit the water. Blue closed around me, cold and shocking, shutting out the shouts above. My chest skimmed the sandy bottom of the lagoon. Fish shot away, and seaweed snagged my ankles. The rocks of the bay were dark against the orange light of the dying sun.
I swam a ways from the cliff, holding my breath, kicking my legs to propel myself forward.
When my head broke the surface, I heard the spear master shouting after me. I swam away, my arms making sure, even strokes as his threats echoed across the water after me. I had no fear that he would jump in after me. I was one of the strongest swimmers in the village. He couldn’t catch me, and he wouldn’t try.
But I couldn’t swim forever.