Sneak peek — first chapter of Outlander’s Scar

Here is the Prologue and the first chapter of Outlander’s Scar for your reading enjoyment! I’ve been working on this whole trilogy for ages — so it’s good to finally get them out into the world.

Acorn had faced the hounds, and he had spoken with the immortal goddess of death. But neither of them had sought to destroy both his body and his soul. This fallen being taking shape before him wanted just that.

 From a gap in the air, tears of fire fell to earth, illuminating the blackness of the night forest. The eyes of the raccoons, Acorn’s tribe, glowed green in the fire’s sickly light. The Lady of the Spirit lay stunned on the ground behind Acorn, her legs slowly drawing close to her body. Acorn stepped in front of her to shield her – a feeble defense against this danger that legend had spoken of. He, Acorn, the chieftain of the tribe, faced the fell goddess alone. He was beyond fear. He was so afraid that he was certain he would die of it.

Something white pushed from behind the fiery gap in the air. A white muzzle and head pushed through. Shoulders strained behind the gap, then slipped through, the fire at the edges dimming. Then a white beast fell to the ground.

The fire vanished from the air. The beast shook itself out, a white raccoon with long hair, and fire blazed across the snow bank of its fur, a brilliant yellow-gold like the sheen of a holy sun. In its iron-black eyes was the power kindled when two thunderstorms merged. Before that majesty and power Acorn stood, his heart pounding. This is how it ends, he thought. This is where my life is going to end.

With an unutterable grace, the fell goddess turned its head to investigate one side of its body, then the other. “No, this will never do,” it said in a melodic feminine voice. It hunched over. Black washed through the white like color through a metamorphosing butterfly, one, two, three, four pulses. Its muzzle stretched, shifted, eyes going wide with pain. The rest of its body pulsed like a butterfly as it pumped blood from its body to its wings. Darkness rushed over its fur. The creature stayed hunched as its legs lengthened; it arched its back and choked as the change passed over it, as it shifted into its new form. For a moment the being collapsed, gathering strength. Then it rose. Instead of gold on white, a sickly red washed across the black of its fur like sheen on stone. And it had taken on the form of a gigantic black hound.

It opened its eyes directly on Acorn. White eyes, with not even the print of an iris on them.

“You alone block me from my desire,” the spirit-hound whispered in a voice like the grit of stone.

At her words, the stars all went out. The silver light of the moon vanished from the sky. All was dark, except for the ugly sheen of fire on her fur.

Acorn had indeed come to stop this being where it stood, returned against all laws of exile. He was here to protect his tribe as he had been charged. But he had failed. Nothing could stop this hound. Acorn’s voice was dry with horror, and words would not come to him.

If I must die, he thought, then I will die as a warrior.

Acorn sang, with all his force, his death song. Yet even as he sang, his words becoming more thrilling, making his heart strong, his song was like that of a lone cricket’s as the first snow, flake by flake, smothers it in the grass. He sang on.

 

QELVSKA WARRIOR

Chapter 1

The cool spring day was turning to cooler night. Over the forest canopy, the new moon, a mere sliver, sank into the west. A wandering star bloomed in the south: Xolimache’s eye, glimmering as the blue of the sky darkened into a deeper, richer shade.

The winds rippled through the forest’s canopy, now here, now there. Leaves, silhouetted black against the sky, sounded like soft applause. It was evening in May, Blossom Moon.

On a gnarled branch of a wide-armed white oak, Acorn tucked his black paws under him and curled his ringed tail around his body. He bowed toward the wandering star until his whiskers tickled the limb that smelled of moss and lichen, and prayed as he did every twilight when he awoke. “Xolimache, queen of heaven, give me strength so when I become chieftain, the tribe will see me as a true leader. Let me be the most powerful chieftain ….”

From the forest floor Lightpaw hollered, “Acorn! You son of a cross-eyed cat, I’m a-looking for you!”

Acorn shot a crafty look over the side of his branch, digging his foreclaws into the tree’s bark. “Malaqa,” he said to finish his prayer. With his teeth he plucked a tuft of fur from his forearm and blew it into the spring breeze. Stealthy as a bobcat, ringed tail low, Acorn four-footed it along the crookedy branch, then peered out from behind the trunk. “That’s no way to talk to a future chieftain,” Acorn muttered. “We’ll see who’s cross-eyed when I fall on top of your squirrelbrained head.”

In the deep twilight gloom of the forest floor, far below the straight-trunked trees, Lightpaw stalked through the mayapples toward the oak, his ringed tail ticking from side to side. He was the patrol boss and constantly training Acorn. Lightpaw generally won when they fought, but he had a few years on Acorn, who was just a little older than a yearling. But this time, Acorn was going to fight like one of the warriors Qelvska.

Acorn dropped to a wide limb, checked Lightpaw’s position, then eased head-first down the oak’s side to intercept his friend, digging his claws into the deeply-furrowed bark, his muscles trembling from the effort of moving so silently. Just a little closer….

Except several tiny pieces of bark fell and tapped on the dried leaves at the foot of the oak, giving away Acorn’s position.

Lightpaw whirled, looking up at Acorn. “Ha! You devil dog, you can’t hide from me!” He scrabbled up the tree.

“Come on, then.” Instead of facing Lightpaw, Acorn skittered up the trunk into the oak’s wide branches with the patrol boss in hot pursuit.

Though Acorn’s muscles ached from combat practice the previous night, he sprang from branch to branch, pouring all his power into his run. Acorn thrilled as he rose through the towering Oak, imagining that he was Hawk, the best Qelvska warrior ever, leading Death’s sister to where he could fight her and banish her from the earth.

The trunk dwindled into thin branches that bowed under Acorn’s weight. The trunk was now so narrow that he could wrap his forearms around it. Below him, Lightpaw laughed. “You’re beyond any help, you slugbug. You’re cornered.”

Heart pounding, Acorn took a deep breath and gauged the distance to a narrow limb seven tails below him. If he missed that limb, the ground was 50 tails down.

“I’m not cornered. Not anymore.”

He stepped off his branch and dropped like a stone past Lightpaw, who shouted, “Hey, careful!”

Acorn grabbed the narrow limb with all four feet. The limb bounced madly, and his feet slipped off. For one heartstopping moment Acorn found himself holding on with only one arm while his back legs swung into open air. But then he hooked a hindpaw over the limb and pulled himself up. Yes! Ignoring his rubbery knees, Acorn leapt to the trunk and spiraled toward the ground like a squirrel.

Lightpaw leapt down the branches in pursuit. Acorn poured on the speed, but couldn’t get away from Lightpaw, who finally tackled Acorn, pinning him against one of the tree’s lowest limbs. “Ha! I have you now. Surrender or die!”

“Well then, fine, I’ll just die.” Acorn grabbed Lightpaw and rolled sideways off the limb.

“This is so wrong!” Lightpaw screamed as they plummeted. They slammed into the ground in an explosion of dried leaves.

Acorn jumped to his feet, dizzy but triumphant. Raccoons had plenty of fat and fur so the occasional short fall didn’t hurt. “Weren’t expecting that, were you?”

Lightpaw shook himself out. “Ha! Of course I was.” Then he fell over.

Acorn planted one paw on Lightpaw’s side. “Arrgh! I vaunt over the bodies of my defeated enemies!” Lightpaw made a gurgling sound and pretended to die.

A group of raccoons that had gathered to watch the fun cheered their applause. Of all the praise Acorn received as he’d learned the chieftainship, the cheering raccoons were the best.

Then Acorn’s heart leapt, because Shagbark, the chieftain, paced toward him. His teacher had seen the whole thing!

The other raccoons stepped back to let Chieftain Shagbark pass, murmuring respectfully. He was a large, rough-edged raccoon with grizzled fur, like a powerful bear from the time of legend. A bald scar on his shoulder showed where Shagbark had been wounded that night that he saved Acorn’s life.

“Saw you running Lightpaw all over that oak,” he rumbled in a vibrant, authoritative voice. “You’re fast.”

“Thank you.” Acorn bubbled with joy.

“Now, running’s all very good, but you need to keep working on face-to-face combat.”

“Yes, sir.”

Shagbark nodded as if pleased. “Very good. We’ll practice fighting again tonight. But first, I’m going fishing. Can’t fight on an empty stomach, you know.”

When Shagbark had paced away, Acorn murmured, “I have got to fatten up.”

Lightpaw stuck his nose next to Acorn’s ear. “Yes, for a fighter you are pretty lightweight.”

“I’ll throw you off another tree for that.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll get you fattened up so you can sit on all your opponents. The humans’ trash barrel is full of fish guts, fragrant as the sweetest blossoms of spring. Would you like some?”

Acorn’s ears perked. “Are you messing with me? You didn’t eat them all?”

“Not yet. We’d better hurry though, before someone beats us to them.”

Lightpaw trotted south toward the human’s den. Acorn followed – like a cub following its mama. With a few quick steps he walked at Lightpaw’s side.

“Don’t puff up yet. You still have a lot of work to do,” Lightpaw said in a gruff voice, imitating Shagbark.

“Yeah, yeah, Mr. I-Got-Dumped-Out-of-the-Oak-Again.”

Lightpaw snorted a laugh. “I’m wise to your tricks now. That won’t happen again.”

“You sure about that?”

By the brightest stars shone through the dark blue sky. It was another peaceful night, with the murmur of raccoon talk drifting through the forest. A whip-poor-will whip-poor-will whip-poor-will whip-poor-will repeated endlessly from deep within the forest, the bird never stopping to take a breath. From the south drifted the sound of human voices, a train whistle from far away, and the musical trill of tiny chorus frogs from the floodplain marshes.

Acorn was glad that he’d been chosen to be chieftain. His teacher Shagbark could be gruff and downright bull-headed, but as chieftain he always made good decisions, keeping in mind what was best for the tribe. Acorn could imagine Shagbark as Hawk, the first of the Qelvska – and Acorn’s heart quickened as he imagined joining that company as a powerful chieftain, comfortable in the company of the chieftains of the neighboring tribes. He would not be a small yearling all his life, treated like a cub. He would be one of the greats.

At the forest’s edge, the underbrush grew thick. Acorn and Lightpaw pushed through snarls of gooseberries and wild roses, now leafed out and beginning to bloom, and climbed over old fallen limbs from the ice storm, following a low path large enough only for raccoons, rabbits, skunks, and possums.

A short-tailed shrew, not much bigger than a raccoon’s paw, stopped in the middle of the path. When Acorn took another step toward it, it stuck its snout up in the air and challenged him with its tiny teeth, making sputtering and squeaking noises. Its heartbeat was fast as a hummingbird’s wing.

“Better get out of his way.” Acorn took a step back. “Once I saw this shrew try to kill and eat a red garter snake. The shrew had bitten the snake all along the length of its body, took off a big chunk of its tail – so I took the snake away to put the poor thing out of its misery.”

“And then eat it for supper. You’re so kind,” said Lightpaw, eyeing the shrew.

“That shrew ran right up to me and attacked my ankle. Bit it twice. My leg swelled up and just hurt for three nights. I couldn’t believe it.”

“Too bad shrews are bad eating,” Lightpaw replied wistfully.

The shrew left in its relentless pursuit of food, and so did the raccoons.

Lightpaw followed the small path under a great prairie rose bush. Then the underbrush stopped at the edge of a barren area that surrounded a human den. Acorn and Lightpaw stopped there, too. This wide area covered with short grass was lit by a lurid orange lamp. The only other plant near the human den was a scrawny, sad-looking maple tree that the humans had planted after they’d cut down a swath of beautiful oak and hickory trees to build their den.

Two rusted trash barrels stood at the corner of the humans’ yard. Black and gray ashes, cans with scorched labels, and a half-melted white plastic bag littered the ground around them. From inside one of the barrels came the stink of fish, a stink so thick that one could take a chunk out of the air and knock somebody over with it. The air above the barrel vibrated with flies.

Acorn’s stomach growled. Lightpaw sniffed the air rapturously.

Acorn stood on his haunches like a squirrel, cast a glance around. For a moment he sniffed the air, thinking he smelled something odd. When the breeze brought no other news, he trotted to the barrel and gingerly touched it with a slim black paw. The humans often burned their trash in these barrels, but the barrel was cool. “The sacrificial fires have been snuffed,” Acorn thought. He gathered himself and sprang to the barrel’s top, where a delightful wave of fish smell hit him. Ah! Fish heads, skins, and innards lay inside, still fresh since the fish had been cleaned just before sunset and the evening had been cool.

Lightpaw immediately joined Acorn. Both went after the fish without looking where they were going, and they cracked their skulls together so hard you could hear it clear over in Hickory territory.

They squalled at each other for a moment, but then Acorn pulled himself together. “Hold on. We’re not some outlanders, are we? We don’t have to kill each other over some fish.”

Lightpaw backed off. “Sorry. The stomach talks and reason walks.”

A truce established, Acorn sniffed around and found some fish bones with meat stuck to them. He began to lick them clean, holding them down with one paw. “O fish, o fish, o fish,” he sang happily as he chewed, and Lightpaw hummed along as he gnawed on a fish head. He always had great fun catching fish in the creek, but to find a big pile of fish, all for the taking, was heavenly.

Acorn thought about the shrew that had attacked the snake. When he had come across it, the shrew had been trying to drag the snake into a hole in the ground. The wounded snake kept trying to slither away, but the shrew kept hauling it back, biting it with its poisoned teeth. What an implacable creatures! Where did it find such fury and drive?

Hearing a sound, Acorn sat up, looking toward the forest’s edge. But then he recognized the raccoon that galumphed toward them.

Acorn choked down his mouthful of fish, jumped into battle stance, and threw a prayer to Xolimache and her demigods. This lean raccoon had a pale, hairless bite mark across the top of his mask: The outlander’s brand.

It was Catface, the boss of the outlanders, a raccoon who trafficked with imps and dark spirits, and who had nearly killed Acorn when he was just a cub.

Every hard-bitten (and hard-biting) criminal who did terrible deeds was given the outlander’s brand before they were cast out of their tribe for good. No exiled outlander was allowed to return to tribal territory, ever. Especially not Catface. Shagbark himself had bitten that scar into Catface’s forehead after he and a group of his outlanders had ambushed Acorn when he was very small.

And now, even after all this time, Acorn wanted to turn tail and run at the sight of Catface. Instead he planted his feet and watched Catface. He mastered his fear. He waited.

Lightpaw called, “Patrol!” then trilled the code that meant, Outlander. The patrol shouted back from the creek – a good distance away. So we’re on our own, Acorn thought.

Catface vaulted to the top of the trash barrel and curved one paw over its edge, hind feet braced on its outside.

But in the moment when Acorn saw him face to face, he was surprised. Catface was a sardonic raccoon who spoke coolly with biting wit. This time, Catface was shocked, helpless. “You’ve got to help us!” he cried. “It’s the cubs again.”

The cubs. Acorn was instantly on guard. “Outlander, you said that to me before,” he snapped. “Then you ambushed me and tried to kill me.” A wave of disgust washed over him.

“It’s happened again.” Catface’s eyes were wide, pleading. “A cub was branded tonight. One of our outlander cubs. Given the outlander’s mark even though she had done nothing wrong!” Catface could not catch his breath.

“Do you expect me to follow you into outlander territory a second time?” Acorn shouted. “I believed you that time. I followed you, expecting to find a branded cub no older than myself. Your words tore the heart out of me. Lightpaw and I searched for it, right where you told us to look. And did we see an injured cub? Did we see blood? No! We were ambushed by your outlanders.” It was a good thing Shagbark had followed us, or I wouldn’t be alive now.

“It was a mistake. A mistake,” Catface said.

“A mistake,” Acorn said coldly, aware of Lightpaw at his side. Lightpaw had been a young father with cubs of his own at the time, so Acorn had been able to talk him into going to investigate. When the hulking outlanders had attacked, Lightpaw had stood over Acorn, fighting them off and shouting for backup but being overwhelmed. Acorn had never forgotten his courage.

“It was more than a mistake,” Lightpaw said quietly.

Catface sputtered. “Her mother had taken the cub away before you got there. And who can blame my outlanders for being upset? They didn’t know your intentions were good. But I was telling the truth then – and I am telling it now!”

Lightpaw growled and stepped forward. “Catface, I’m warning you. I shouldn’t have even let Acorn go that first time, but your lie tore the heart out of both of us. This time we know better.”

“Basalt did this to the cub,” Catface said, his voice going hard. “Basalt bit that wound into the cub’s forehead. I don’t care if he’s Shagbark’s buddy-buddy. Tell Shagbark to end it.”

And now Acorn paused. “Basalt did this?”

Catface rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, of course he did this! He did it last time too, you idiot!”

Acorn had been listening – but not any more. “You want to talk about idiots? Look at yourself. Lightpaw, arrest this outlander.”

“Oh, good,” Lightpaw said. “Now watch the patrol in action!” He launched himself across the barrel and grabbed Catface in a bear grip as he went over the side. Thump went both Catface and Lightpaw on the ground. They squalled and fought around the bottom of the trash can.

From out of the forest came two whistles, the patrol asking location. Lightpaw, out of habit, pulled himself from the fight to send an answering whistle.

Catface thrust Lightpaw away, shouting up at Acorn, “Your Oaks stole an innocent cub’s life, and all you do is call me names and attack me?”

“I am finished with you,” Acorn said. “You’re trying to lure us back so you can attack us again. Shagbark would tell you the same thing, especially after you attacked him last year.”

Mech to Shagbark! He brought that attack on himself!”

“No. You chose to attack him. It was through your choice you were exiled.”

“Oh, was it?”

Lightpaw rushed Catface. The outlander grabbed him and, with sudden fierceness, flung Lightpaw against the trash barrel. The top of Lightpaw’s skull thudded against its metal side and the patrol boss slumped to the ground.

“Lightpaw!”

“You talk about choice?” Catface raged, back and tail electric. “How dare you tell me I chose this!”

“Come on then!” Acorn shouted. “I’ll give you choice!”

Catface’s speed was breathtaking. He leapt to the top of the barrel and roared through Acorn’s claws and teeth.

Acorn found himself kicking in the ashes among the fish guts, shouting as Catface pushed toward his throat, teeth bared. A confused struggle against Catface, so intense that Acorn could barely see through his eyes or understand what was happening, except that this was just like when Catface’s outlanders tried to kill him when he was a cub. Acorn kicked in panic. Catface’s teeth knocked against his skull. Acorn tore at his belly with clawed feet.

And then a huge pain hit Acorn in his forehead above his mask. A scream filled Acorn’s ears, as if pain had become sound.

The next moment, Catface balanced on the edge of the trash barrel. Acorn had no idea how he’d gotten there. Catface bled from scratches all over his face and one eye was swelling shut. “Every time I speak the truth, your tribe – and you – ignores it.” Catface’s voice shook. “Shagbark doesn’t understand how it feels like to see a cub branded. Maybe now he will.” Catface jumped down and rushed off. Gone.

Acorn’s forehead felt bare, like a cold wind blew on it, and it throbbed with his pulse. Had he hit something sharp, like a jagged piece of metal on the trash barrel?

Acorn pulled himself back to his feet, moving like an old raccoon. He needed to chase Catface, but his head whirled too much. A drop of blood fell into the ashes next to his paw. Acorn just sat there – in shock, apparently. “Lightpaw?” he mumbled. “Are you all right?”

Lightpaw groaned. “Hit my head. You?”

“Catface attacked me. But … something’s wrong,” he added without meaning to.

“What happened?”

Dazed, Acorn got up and looked over the barrel’s side. Lightpaw looked up – and suddenly sat, his horrified eyes locked on Acorn’s forehead.

“Oh no,” Lightpaw whispered. “No!”

“What?”

“He’s branded you as an outlander!”

What?

Acorn touched his forehead with his forepaws. Wetness thicker than water met his touch, and a sharp pain stabbed. He swiped at the blood that threatened to trickle into his eye. It had to have been a mistake … maybe it was only a bad cut. Acorn knew he wasn’t thinking clearly, that it was time to panic, but his body wasn’t following through.

Just then, he heard three patrollers run up, four-legging it through the underbrush. Acorn ducked out of sight. From below, Eclipse, the second-in-command of the patrol, snorted. Eclipse was a wiry male who went around with a startled frown on his face as if he’d just gotten a noseful of some nasty stink. “Lightpaw, why are you swaying like that?”

“I’m not swaying, you are.” Lightpaw fell over with a thump.

“A patrol boss should not act like a clown. Maybe I should take care of this for you.”

“Or I could clonk you on the head and see how well you stand up afterward,” Lightpaw said from the ground. “Flood, Eclipse: Catface just left here, running east. Run him down before he gets away. Ghost: check to be sure that Catface didn’t bring any devil dog outlanders with him. Call the rest of the patrol and put ‘em on alert. Now go!”

As the three patrollers galloped off, Shagbark’s concerned voice rumbled from the forest’s edge. “Catface was here?”

Shagbark’s voice zinged along Acorn’s nerves and shook him back into action. He peeked over the rim of the trash barrel just in time to see Shagbark walk out of the tangle of thorns and roses at the forest’s edge, his wide shoulders brushing the leaves above the path. “That’s it,” he growled. “Those murderin’ thieves have messed with this tribe for the last time. Lightpaw, you all right?”

Acorn ducked out of sight, frantically licking his black-skinned paws and cleaning his forehead as fast as he could, ignoring the painful throb and sting of the wound.

“Catface flung me head-first into the side of this barrel.” Lightpaw scrambled, then fell over again with a thump. “Aw, crap. This is embarrassing.”

“Stay on the ground until Nyssa gets here to check your head. Don’t make your injury worse,” Shagbark rumbled, a comforting sound. “I’ll summon the council in a moment. Where’s Acorn?”

Lightpaw hesitated. “He … he’s in the trash barrel.”

The next moment, Shagbark leaped to the top of the barrel, his huge, grizzle-furred bulk balanced like a songbird on its rim. Acorn cringed, but the old chieftain didn’t notice: His eyes were on the fish. He grabbed one and started eating. “No time to even get a bite of breakfast tonight. Oh, these are good. Thank Xolimache that ….” As he spoke with his mouth full, Shagbark’s eyes fixed on Acorn’s forehead.

Shagbark, the great chieftain, froze in mid-chew. Staring.

Acorn wanted to plunge his forehead into the fish guts to hide the wound – anything, anything to hide it from Shagbark. But it was too late.

Shagbark choked down his unchewed fish. Coughing, gasping, he cried, “What is that? What happened?”

The note in Shagbark’s voice hurt Acorn far more than the wound ever could. “Catface did this.”

Without missing a beat, Shagbark switched to Oldspeak, the ancient form of Procyonese that only the holy ones and the chieftains spoke and understood. “This mark, this murderer’s mark, the exile’s mark … why, why did you not defend yourself?”

“I tried! I did everything you taught me, but he knocked me down … he attacked ….” How easily Catface had torn through his defenses, though Acorn had prided himself on how well he’d been learning to fight. “He was just too fast ….” Acorn’s voice trailed away. I sound like an idiot, making excuses.

Shagbark stepped into the ashes and fish guts and sniffed his scar. “I apologize for my sharp words,” he murmured. “Seeing that mark on your forehead has utterly astounded me. I had trained you in the Qelvska’s way. You fought brilliantly against Lightpaw tonight. And then, not even a quarter-night later, this happens.”

Acorn made himself meet Shagbark’s gaze. Even now, when he was sick with shame, he would not look away like a weakling.

Outlander’s Scar is available on Amazon — and the second book in the series, Wandering Stars, will be coming out soon.

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