I’ve been quietly working on The Last Knotbinder while also finishing my Master of Social Work degree. Now that I’ve graduated and am back in the world working full time, I have precious extra time to concentrate on writing! The first book in my new series is on its way, so here’s a look at the first chapter:
Asena woke to discover a body in the stream beside her campsite.
Wedged between two boulders, the body bobbed and swayed with the lazy current. Dawn cast a golden haze on the surrounding grasslands, where dragon fingerlings buzzed and chirruped as they flew amongst the fronds and feathery spears of inflorescence.
Asena rolled off her makeshift pallet and stood.
This close, she could see the body was a female, of a similar height to herself and coltish in the way of youth. A tattered cloak lay about the girl’s shoulders, while the tunic beneath it was slashed open as if by a sword. Scoured flesh and bruises from her watery journey showed clearly along the girl’s arms.
Asena cast a wary glance upstream. Mist curled amongst the rocks and reedy banks. A fingerling perched atop a massive boulder jutting out of the water, its mottled green wings fanned wide to capture the sun. All seemed quiet. Whoever had attacked the girl ranged far upstream.
‘The fingerlings want to know if they can eat it,’ a voice rang in Asena’s mind.
Moments later, a dragonling the size of a housecat slinked past Asena, her forked tail swinging back and forth as she reached the sandy bank. The orange and black spines under her chin vibrated with interest when she eyed the body.
“It goes against the treaty between our kingdoms, Fira,” Asena said, repressing a shudder. The last thing she wanted was for a host of dragons to grow up with a hankering for human flesh.
With a regretful shrug, Fira let out a warbling chirrup.
A querulous bleat came from the opposite bank. The reeds rustled as a small fingerling the size of Asena’s palm pushed through. Its mottled grey and brown scales matched the reeds, but its blue eyes were bright with outrage. It petulantly bleated again.
Fira bared impressive fangs and unfurled her orange and black wings. She seemed to expand, the spines on her back bristling. The twin horns rising from her brow gleamed sharp and deadly as she released a single, loud bark of reprimand.
The air exploded with a cloud of fingerlings taking flight from the opposite bank. Shrieks rang out as they buffeted against each other in their flurry to retreat further into the grassland.
Asena resisted a snort. Fingerlings were capricious, feckless creatures most times, though with good reason. It took more than fifty summers for them to grow large and smart enough to take the perilous journey across the mountains to the dragon kingdom of Uhur.
Scowling, Fira muttered, ‘It’s time a dragon flew over in search of a snack!’
Asena quirked an eyebrow. “Careful, my friend. You’d make a fine morsel yourself.”
She gave Asena a side-eyed look and huffed. They both knew Asena would do everything to protect her.
‘What about that one?’ Fira asked after a time, pointing with her bristly chin at the body. ‘They’ll come back for it once we’ve gone.’
Asena sighed as a bronze leaf snagged against the girl’s breeches before the water sent it twirling downstream. The girl’s face lay turned away on a boulder, her pale, braided hair fanning out in the water.
There was little option but to bury the girl.
Removing her sword belt, Asena set it beside Fira before she yanked off her boots and stripped to her linens. The ground felt cool and damp beneath her feet—easy enough to dig deep and discourage fingerlings from the effort of recovering the body.
Asena slid into the cold water, gasping as she took careful steps across the green-covered stones. The water quickly reached chest-height.
The girl’s arm was jammed between the rocks, halting her downstream journey. Asena reached out to prise it free and rolled the body over before the current could pull her away.
The girl couldn’t be more than sixteen summers old, pale-skinned and square-featured in the way of the mountain clans far beyond Linnia’s borders. Beads and coloured strips of cloth decorated the braids in her hair, and Asena noted they were far more intricate and elaborate than her own single braid. A rust-coloured stain marked the side of the girl’s tunic. The current pulled at the homespun to reveal four deep stabs in the girl’s belly and arm.
Asena frowned as fresh blood eddied up from the injuries.
She pressed a finger to the girl’s throat. A pulse, faint and thready, was unmistakably there.
“Gods curse it,” she muttered. “Ask for trouble, and the Dragon Plains always provides.”
Asena sloshed through the water and onto the sandy bank. She hefted the girl’s slack weight through the reeds until she reached relative dryness within the crushed grass.
Fira nosed her way in and gave an excited chirrup. ‘She lives!’
Grunting, Asena crouched to tap the girl’s cheek. “Wake up,” she said.
The girl remained motionless.
Muttering an oath, Asena peeled back the girl’s tunic.
Pale blue eyes snapped open. With a choked gasp, the girl flailed under Asena’s hands, trying unsuccessfully to rise.
“Steady, now,” Asena said, gently pushing her back down. “We’re not about to hurt you.”
The girl stared up at her in panicked confusion. “What’s happening?” she croaked. “Where—?” Her confusion only appeared to deepen when her gaze latched onto Fira.
“I pulled you from the stream.” Asena threw her cloak over the shivering girl. “Do you remember who attacked you?”
The girl collapsed back into the grass. “Bandits. Wore hoods.” She pressed a shaking hand against her side and grimaced.
Asena raised an eyebrow. Finding bandits so deep in the grasslands was unusual, especially this close to the Uhur Mountains and their territorial dragons. “Did they follow you?”
“I don’t know.” The girl clenched her eyes shut, her face tight with pain.
Glancing at Fira, Asena felt gratified when the dragonling took to the air to look over the area. If there were indeed bandits nearby, Fira’s keen gaze would discover them.
She turned to squeeze the girl’s shoulder. “You’re safe for now. Let’s see what we can do about your wound. I’m Asena, by the way. Asena du Kathir.”
“Tully,” the girl managed.
Asena noted the lack of clan name but didn’t push. She carefully lifted the girl’s wet tunic and inspected the wounds. They were as bad as she suspected—worse now that the water no longer washed away the blood. She pressed a hand over the deepest wound, wondering if she could get Tully to the village of Briarfall before the injury became too much.
Hurrying to her pack, Asena pulled out the necessary bandages and small jar of firemoss. The healing unguent would burn out any chance of infection, but it meant an uncomfortable day for them both—Asena had every intention of getting Tully onto a makeshift travois as soon as they finished here.
She returned to find Tully’s eyes closed, her face drawn. Asena gently folded back the cloak to inspect the girl’s belly.
Tully came back to herself with a start. “No. I need—I need leather,” she mumbled. “Or twine. Something strong.” Her hands moved restlessly at her sides.
Frowning, Asena fished through her pack and pulled out a spare bowstring. “Will this do?”
The girl nodded and took the twine with shaking fingers. She looped the bowstring together and began a strange, twisting braid.
Asena stared in fascination, thinking Tully was fever-addled. “Perhaps you should let me tend—”
A warm hum of magic brushed against Asena’s skin. She reared back in surprise.
Tully spun the bowstring around her palm, interweaving it around her fingers before threading it together, creating an intricate, uneven knot at the tail of the leather. She shaped a second and third knot with trembling slowness until the bowstring took on a pale, golden nimbus.
By Tlalam’s pointy teeth, she’s a knotbinder! Asena realised, calling her the name Darshians had once given their unique magicians. But the knotbinders were gone, having been slaughtered during the Rhun invasion of Darsha more than three summers ago. Not even the youngest knotbinders in the Temple of Dar had escaped Rhun’s death sorcerers. Tully should be dead with the rest of her kind.
With a final, intricate loop, the knots suddenly grew blinding.
Asena squinted as spots danced across her vision. Her sight cleared in time to see the braid turn black and charred in Tully’s hand.
Tully appeared drained, but a faint flush of colour filled her cheeks.
Asena peeled back the cloak to find smears of blood atop unblemished skin. Tully observed her carefully. “How did you escape the Rhun, knotbinder?”
Tully opened her mouth to reply, but a great yawn escaped instead. “Don’t let them find me,” she said blearily. She promptly rolled onto her side and pulled the cloak over her head. Within moments, a soft snore emanated from within the folds.
Asena could only sit back and stare in astonishment.