Exclusive Preview of The Joy Thief
Chapters 1 and 2
Funny how a day could turn on you.
This thought came to her without any humor at all as Theo watched the wild dog, black as a shadow, slip through the sea grass in front of her. The grass blades parted silently for it, their whispers covered by the roaring surf behind her. If she had not stopped in that moment to crouch down and examine the angry welts on her leg, she might never have seen the dog, until the moment its jaws closed around her neck.
The creature advanced, holding her with its watery, bloodshot eyes. Once free of the sea grass, it bared its teeth at her. The pounding in her chest and ears drowned out its snarl and everything else around her. Suddenly, dying from the infected cuts on her leg seemed a much better way to end her barely ten years of life than what faced her now.
She slid her gaze left, to where she had dropped her boots. Her dagger was inside the right one, but it was too far out of reach. The dog would close the distance between them before she even got halfway. Aeryn was farther down the beach from her, her attention focused on some spot far out to sea.
Theo was on her own.
The breeze tossed strands of her dark blond hair into her eyes. She pushed it back, slowly standing up. The dog barked, low and vicious, and then charged at her. Rowan neighed loudly from their camp behind her, too far to help.
Whether or not the sell-sword might hear her, she shouted Aeryn’s name and backpedaled away from the dog. It leapt at her, its jaws aimed for her throat. Theo cried out and fell backward, an arm raised to shield herself. The dog just missed her, but broken shells in the sand sliced open her hand when she tried to break her fall. Theo ignored the pain and flipped onto her stomach to keep her eyes on the dog.
It skidded to a stop and turned again to face her, sending up a small cloud of brown sand in its wake. Behind it, she saw Aeryn coming up fast, her dark hair streaming behind her as her long legs closed the distance between them. The sell-sword shouted as she ran, trying to draw the dog’s attention, but it ignored her. Aeryn grabbed a rock off the beach and whipped it at the dog, striking it in the back. Finally, it spun in her direction.
Aeryn stopped and stared the dog down. Her storm-gray eyes dared the dog to make the first move. She pulled Aric from the sheath on her back and held the sword at the ready. Finally, the dog sprang at her. She swung to meet it with her blade. Theo squeezed her eyes shut.
The wild dog let loose a high-pitched yelp, signaling the end.
When she opened her eyes again, the mongrel lay on the beach, a deep gash in its throat. Blood poured from the wound, onto the pale sand under it. Its paws twitched and then stopped.
Aeryn ran to her side. “Are you alright?”
Aeryn knelt by her and took Theo’s bleeding hand. She frowned at the cuts on her palm. “These need cleaned out.”
“There’s something else.”
“Did it bite you?”
She shook her head, pointing to the red welts on her left leg, just below the rolled-up cuffs of her dark wool pants. “The scrapes I got when I slipped off that boulder the other day. I think they’re infected.”
Aeryn’s frown deepened. “How long have they looked like this?”
She paused and looked down at her bare feet. “At least a day. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. I hoped it would just go away on its own.”
The reproachful look Aeryn aimed at Theo was as loud as any shout. She almost wished Aeryn would shout at her. She deserved it. But that was not Aeryn’s way.
“Let’s care for your hand first.”
She sunk Aric’s blood-covered blade point first in the sand, then nodded her head at the surf coming in. Theo followed Aeryn down to the water’s edge. The sell-sword rolled up the sleeves of her blue tunic and waded into the sea water without removing her shin-high boots. They went far enough that Theo could put her hand into the water without getting the sand floating in it in the cuts on her hand.
Aeryn crouched beside her and rubbed vigorously at them, unheeding of the sea water soaking her leather legging. The salt water burned Theo like fire. She let out a sharp curse, but did not pull back.
When the wound seemed clean enough for Aeryn’s satisfaction, she led Theo back up the beach to their camp. She told Theo to sit and went to her saddlebags, laying not far from Rowan. The red-brown stallion looked in Aeryn’s direction, then returned to his grazing. Now that the dog had been dispatched, the sea grass was clearly more interesting to him.
Theo sat on one of the low rocks that dotted their camp and much of the beach. She pushed up her shirtsleeves, suddenly too warm, even with the cool breeze cutting inland from the sea. The warmer weather in the south meant she did not need a cloak as often as she did in the Northlands. This was the first time, however, that sweat had actually broken out on her forehead. She swiped it away with her arm.
The wet leather of Aeryn’s boots creaked when she knelt in front of Theo, putting them at eye level. She held a bundle of cloth and a vial of salve. This had become a familiar ritual for them, the last time being when she slipped off the rocks she had been climbing over, barefoot.
She knew the rocks were still wet from the receding tide, but they were between her and the cove on the other side. The tide pools there had looked too interesting to pass up then, but part of her now wished she had let that cove go unexplored. The scrapes she got from her fall ran from ankle to shin on both legs. Only one set seemed infected though. A gods-sent miracle, she supposed.
Aeryn poured drops of the salve onto Theo’s injured palm. Her calloused fingers gently rubbed it into the wound. It mixed with Theo's blood to make a red-tinged paste. The salve at least did not burn like the seawater.
The breeze again tossed Theo's hair into her eyes. She smoothed the hair, lighter now from weeks in the sun, back behind an ear with her uninjured hand and watched Aeryn wrap her wounds, slow and deliberate. She considered, really for the first time, how much things had changed between them since they met months before.
At one time, Aeryn was nothing more than an obstacle, standing between her and the sword she needed to trade for her brother Brien, who was being held by the head of Valis’s Thieves’ Guild. Their forced partnership after Aeryn discovered Theo shadowing her did little to change her view. The resurrection of the god who called himself The Harbinger did.
Pythun may have been the one to kill her brother, leaving him to die in a cell below the guild, but The Harbinger made it a point to destroy everything else she had ever cared about. Then, Aeryn destroyed him.
Aeryn had saved her life too many times to be considered just a friend. The sell-sword had instead fallen into the role of guardian and protector, a role she was sure that Aeryn had never wanted. She did not want Aeryn to be more than that, which seemed just fine by her.
She had already had two mothers in her life, the one her father killed when she was barely six summers old and her mother’s friend, Willa, whom Brien left her with the night their mother died. Willa let her stay in her room at The Thirsty Noble when she needed a place to sleep, fussed over her, and lectured her. She was as much a mother to her as her birth mother had been. And then The Harbinger murdered her.
Aeryn finished bandaging her wounds. “Better?”
Theo flexed her hand a few times. The wounds complained, but at a tolerable level. She nodded. “Better.”
Then, Aeryn turned her attention to Theo’s leg. She ran her fingers over the angry welts. Theo flinched at the stabs of pain caused by her touch. Aeryn caught her flinch and frowned again.
“I need to clean these out right away. The hard way. It’s going to hurt. A lot.”
Theo appreciated the warning, but did not know what “the hard way” was. She decided not to ask and nodded her acceptance.
Aeryn pulled out one of her daggers and took a firm hold of Theo’s leg. Aeryn had not exaggerated when she said the hard way would hurt. She used the point of her dagger to pick off the scabs and then squeezed the white pus out of each angry welt. Theo bit her lip to keep from crying out. Soon, she could taste blood.
When she was done, Aeryn retrieved a flask of strong liquor from her saddlebags, the one that Theo knew she kept for emergencies. She told Theo to squeeze her hand and then dumped the liquor on the open wounds. This time, Theo could not keep silent. She cried out, squeezing her eyes shut against the fire in her leg. The fact that this was her own fault made the pain that much worse.
Aeryn held her hand until the burning stopped, then wrapped Theo’s leg. When she left Theo to put the salve, flask, and bandages away, Theo wiped the tears from her face with the sleeves of her pale woven shirt. She wrapped her arms around herself and tried to stop her tears, not wanting Aeryn to think she was being a baby about the pain.
When Aeryn came back, she held another bundle in her hand. Theo could not help but smile, knowing what it was. She unwrapped it and broke off a piece of the chocolate, the only thing they had left from Pius, besides the memories and nightmares. She handed it to Theo, then took a small piece for herself before she wrapped it up again. Theo popped the chocolate into her mouth and let its sweetness melt and fill her. It did not end her pain, but seemed to ease it.
Aeryn settled down next to her with a waterskin, and the thick cloth she kept for cleaning her blades. She poured water on Aric’s blade to loosen the dog’s dried blood. She grimly ran the cloth along the sword’s length and started again.
She glanced at Theo and said, “We need to find you a healer. What I did is only temporary. The infection will only get worse.”
It was just as bad as Theo had feared. “Where?”
“I was thinking Eben would be the best place to go. It’s on our way north and just two days’ ride from here. We are close to needing more supplies anyhow.”
Hearing that they would have to leave the coast and all the wonderful things she had found there disappointed her, but she also did not want to die just because she slipped on a rock. She did not voice this disappointment. Aeryn had accommodated her need to explore every bit of beach and rock without complaint, even joining in when she was not in one of her brooding moods. It was only right that she be as accommodating for Aeryn.
“Is Eben very far inland?”
“No. It’s a port city.”
Aeryn finished cleaning her sword and resheathed it, then took out one of the many maps she carried, her obsessive defense against getting lost. The one she spread on the ground showed a broad view of Cathell. She pointed to the large dot labeled “Eben” next to the squiggly line indicating the coastline.
“My father’s regiment used to travel down to Eben once a year for a regional competition.” She paused and frowned at something, but whatever it was that bothered her seemed to pass quickly. “If you’re up to it, I suggest we be on our way so that we can reach Eben's gates before evenfall on the day after tomorrow.”
Theo knew she meant her adoptive father, Derrick Ravane, the Fang soldier, and not her birth father, a farmer. Aeryn rarely talked of the family she had before war took them all from her.
She nodded finally, still wishing they did not need to break camp so soon. The sand and sea had eased her mind after the horrors they had experienced while chasing The Harbinger. The crashing waves serenaded her each night before she fell asleep. Their thunder, at times, had chased away her nightmares.
Aeryn laid a hand on her shoulder. “I know you wanted to stay here longer, but I don’t have the medicines you need.”
Theo knew she was right and said so.
“I think you’ll like Eben.” Aeryn stood up and helped Theo up as well, and then turned away to gather up their camp. “It has a wide harbor where all the shipping vessels dock for unloading. We could find an empty pier to walk out on. It’s amazing how far out you can see from the end of one.”
Theo thought about this. Valis was in the foothills of the Black Mountains, nowhere near the coast. She had never seen a boat, much less a shipping vessel.
She nodded more enthusiastically. “I’d like that.”
When she retrieved her boots, she tugged them on, careful of her bandages, and looked back toward the beach, wanting to take it all in one last time before they left. She caught sight of the dog’s corpse lying on the sand. A dark cloud buzzed above it. Flies.
She shuddered. Going to Eben suddenly felt like an even better idea. At least in a city, there were fewer places where something could creep up and try to kill you.
Evenfall was too close for comfort by the time Aeryn spotted the ship masts rising above the slope ahead of them, marking Eben just on the other side. Frigid rains had plagued them from dawn until just before midday and forced her to keep Rowan at a slower pace than she would have liked for most of the day. She could not risk him slipping on the sodden roads.
The cold and damp seeped through her riding gloves and the toes of her boots. Both her fingers and feet were nearly numb. Even her thick cloak did little to combat it. Theo shivered against her back.
An unusual quiet had fallen over the girl since the night before. Theo claimed she felt fine, but the flush in Theo’s cheeks when they set off in the morning came from more than just the cold air. Theo needed to get to a healer soon.
She had known Theo was hiding something from her for days, but could not bring herself to push Theo to tell her what it was. The girl left her to sort out what troubled own her mind. She tried to do the same for Theo. Gods knew, she had more than enough things to trouble her. She did not need Aeryn prodding her. Still, Aeryn wished now that she had. She may have caught the infection earlier and been able to do something to stop it.
She closed her eyes and took a long breath of the cold salt-filled air, holding it in before she let it out. Dwelling on the mistake would do her no good. It would do Theo no good either. She needed to focus on what could be fixed.
She reached back and touched the girl’s leg.
“Look.” She pointed to the ship masts ahead.
Theo shifted to look around Aeryn and then made a quiet gasp of delight. She bounced a little on the packs atop which she sat. Aeryn could not help but smile at the girl’s enthusiasm, barely tempered by her illness. All the same, she nudged Rowan into a faster trot, deciding that the roads had dried well enough for him to go at a quicker pace. His head drooped from slogging across roads the consistency of over-soaked porridge, but he obliged.
She and Theo were like night and day in many ways, and yet, the same in so many others. She was born into a farming family, and Theo was born into the squalor of Valis’s Outer City. But, they were both orphans. Her at age eight, and Theo even younger. One could say that Theo was an orphan twice over, something for which Aeryn could not help but feel responsible.
Her breaking the curse on the Black Caverns allowed the fallen god known as The Harbinger to be resurrected. She had known nothing of his imprisonment in the caverns beforehand. Neither had she known that Tynan Selvantyr’s sword Aric had kept The Harbinger’s essence at bay when she took it. But she would not let her ignorance of these things excuse her from her guilt.
When she entered the caverns, she only cared about one thing: honoring her father by breaking the curse and finding the sword. She thought, if she survived, perhaps having done those things might help her find some meaning to her life, a meaning that had seemed lost since he died. He had been such a large part of her life, she did not know what to do with it when he was gone. After The Harbinger’s resurrection, however, when Theo was left with no one—without her brother, without Willa—Aeryn finally could see how blind and self-centered she had allowed herself to become.
Theo needed her protection. Becoming her guardian had not been an easy choice, but she would make it again. Just as she would fight The Harbinger for Theo again, though it nearly killed her. She would do whatever she needed to keep Theo safe.
When they reached Eben’s gates, the daylight had already shifted to the golden hue that came just before sunset. Aeryn told the guardsman who stopped them at the gate that they planned to be in the city just a few days while they refilled their supplies. She hastily paid their entrance toll and asked him where she could find a healer.
He paused and looked from her to Theo. “Is one of you sick?”
It was not an unusual question in and of itself, but his eyes lingered on Theo when he asked it. She wondered if he worried about her bringing a sick child into the city.
She assured him, “No. My friend was hurt a few days ago. Her injury needs the attention of a healer.”
This seemed to satisfy him and he nodded. “Ezra Callaban. Try him.” He gave her directions for where to go.
She thanked him and nudged Rowan forward when the guardsman waved her on. They crossed under the portcullis into the city. Pungent smells of burning wood, sea, and fish stew filled the air, bringing back so many memories from her days of traveling with her father that it hurt. Rowan’s iron shoes tapped across the cobblestones that covered Eben’s streets, the stones essential to keeping the city roads from becoming impassable when one of the frequent storms that plagued Eben came inland.
Eben’s relationship with the sea could be described as combative as much as cooperative. Shipping and fishing were a way of life for its people, but the harsh saltwater ate ship timber and the stones on the sea wall. Each night, a thick mist drifted in from the sea to eat the timber off the buildings. For this reason, nearly every building they passed on their way to the market sections of Eben was constructed of stone. The odd bits of timber that adorned the buildings served an aesthetic function alone.
Street traffic thickened considerably as they neared the harbor area. Sailors, merchants, and dockhands all heading home or to their boarding houses for a drink and a meal clogged the streets. Aeryn chafed at having to slow Rowan again, but she also did not want to run anyone down. Finally, she decided they were close enough to walk the rest of the way and pulled the stallion off the street, stopping him in front of a butcher’s shop. He whickered at her and she patted his thick neck.
“I know it’s not a stable. We will get you to one soon, my friend.” She asked Theo, “Are you alright to walk?”
“I told you, I’m fine.” An impatient tone crept into her voice.
Aeryn rolled her eyes, though Theo could not see her, and gave the girl a hand down from Rowan’s back. When she had dismounted as well, she tied Rowan to one of the posts in front of the shop. She turned in the direction in which she thought they could find the healer. Theo followed along, but paused to eye the contents of every shop window they passed.
Ezra’s shop was hard to miss. Several different shades of purple paint, along with some gold, covered the stone and timber.
Theo muttered under her breath, “I think I just went blind.”
A smile crossed Aeryn’s lips and then the smells of sage and something suspiciously like opium wafted toward her from the shop’s entrance. Her smile faded. She checked the sign again, thinking the guardsman might have directed them to the wrong person. The sign read “Ezra Callaban, Conductor of the Healing Arts, Purveyor of Wellness Charms and Miscellany.” She wondered what exactly the “Miscellany” entailed, but had a guess, based on the smell coming from the shop.
Opium traders were nor rare in Eben. The constant shipping traffic made such trade easy, but the regulations that Eben placed on the traders kept some underground, to avoid the city’s tariffs.
She wondered if Ezra fit into the less savory underground category and if she should look elsewhere for help. When she looked down at Theo, however, the flush to the girl’s cheeks had noticeably deepened. That decided it for her.
“Come on.” She opened the shop door, holding it for Theo.
Inside the healer’s shop, the smells of sage and opium hit her full on. In fact, a cloud had formed near the back of the shop. It wafted out toward the shelves filled with liquid and dried goods directly in front of her. Ignoring the cloud at the back of the shop as best she could, she turned her head to look for someone at the stone-topped counter tucked off to one side, more shelves behind it.
No one was there.
Aeryn coughed loudly. A moment later, a door opened and closed somewhere at the back of the shop. A stocky man in a loose woven shirt and pants, both a faded red, came out from behind the shelves. His wiry gray hair fell over his shoulders, kept back from his face by a plain leather band around his forehead. He reeked of opium as he approached them. Aeryn started to rethink letting him near Theo.
He smiled as he went behind the counter. “I didn’t hear you come in. It’s nearly closing time.”
Theo giggled behind her. She turned back to see the girl holding what looked to be rodent’s head, but shriveled and shrunken to half its usual size.
“Put it back.”
Theo rolled her eyes, but did.
The man she assumed was Ezra had an amused expression on his face as he watched Theo. Aeryn cleared her throat. He turned his attention to her.
“What can I do for you, lady? Excuse my assumption, but you don’t seem like the type who dabbles in healing arts and charms.”
“Correct. One of Eben’s guardsmen directed us to you for your healing services.”
Theo came to stand next to her, then peered down into the tray set inside one half of the counter. Equally strange things were piled one on top of the other inside it. Aeryn grabbed Theo’s hand as she reached for a leather-cinched bundle of feathers and gently pushed her hand back. The girl sighed.
Aeryn continued, “Theo got injured while climbing on some rocks a few days ago. The scratches are infected now. She needs something stronger than what I usually carry.”
“By the coast?”
Ezra nodded. “A common injury among children.” He winked at Theo and then picked up the tall wooden stool standing behind the counter and carried it around to the front.
“Can you hop up here, little one?”
When Theo had settled atop the stool, he peered into her eyes and asked her to stick out her tongue. He nodded and made a few contemplative noises. Then, he asked her to show him the injury site. Theo slipped off her left boot and pulled up her pant leg. The welts had returned, just as red as before.
Ezra grunted when he looked at the welts and then laid his hand on Theo’s forehead. He nodded again. “This is good. Your fever is not so bad yet. The infection isn’t as advanced as it looks, but better to treat it before it gets any worse.”
He glanced back at Aeryn and smiled at her. His green eyes had wide black holes at their centers from the opium.
“I will be right back.” He headed to the back of the shop again.
Aeryn crossed her arms over her chest. Theo shrugged.
The healer returned only a moment later, carrying a bottle filled with a liquid that looked suspiciously like the one in her saddlebags, the one she had already used on Theo’s injuries. Humming quietly, he uncorked the bottle, poured some of its contents into one hand, and set it aside on the counter.
He spread the liquid between his hands. Still humming, he took hold of Theo’s leg and smoothed the liquid over the welts. Theo winced as he did so. Then, he closed his eyes and bowed his head, keeping his hand on Theo’s leg. His humming grew louder.
Suddenly, the welts glowed a bright gold color. Theo let out an exclamation. Her face pinched with an expression of sharp pain.
“Hot! It’s hot,” she hissed.
Aeryn stepped forward to pull the healer away.
“Don’t move,” he said firmly, without looking at her. “It will pass.”
He returned to his humming. Aeryn and Theo looked at each other. Pain still pinched the girl’s face. Aeryn considered stopping Ezra despite his warning, but held off, not wanting to make Theo’s pain worse.
Theo’s face relaxed. The golden glow flared brighter for a moment and then began fading. The glow seemed to take the red welts with it as it died. When the glow was gone, so were the welts. Only the barest of scratches were left behind.
Ezra stopped humming and smiled at Theo. “How is does it feel?”
Theo flexed her leg and nodded as a smile spread over her face. “A lot better. The pain is gone. I can still feel some itching, but it’s much better.”
Aeryn allowed herself to relax finally.
Theo slid off the stool when the healer stepped back. She asked him, “What did you do? Why was my leg glowing?”
He went behind the counter again and slipped on a pair of tiny spectacles, smiling at her. “That was a little bit of the potion, a little bit of the song magik.” He knelt behind the counter and started rooting around for something.
Theo looked back at her, her face inquisitive. Aeryn had to shrug. Whatever he did was unknown to her.
Ezra reappeared with several small pouches in his hands, which he set on the counter. He turned back to the shelves behind it, taking down a bottle of a dark, oily liquid and a white mortar and pestle.
Theo asked him, “What is song magik?”
Ezra grunted, removing his spectacles. “Song magik is said to have come from the mermen of the Sunset Seas, though I’ve never met a merman myself. Both of my parents had it in them, and I have it in me. My brothers and sisters did not, so my parents passed it down to me alone. It resonates within the notes that are sung, but you have to have the right notes in you first.”
He took out a pair of variegated purple leaves from one pouch, red granules from another.
Theo surprised her when she asked, “Could I do it?”
Ezra did not look surprised at all. “Maybe. But when you’re a little older.” The old healer winked at her.
He looked at Aeryn and then suggested to Theo, “Why don’t you look around the shop? I need to mix up a little something to keep that infection from coming back. I’m sure there are interesting things to be found back there.”
Theo looked as though this was the best suggestion she had ever heard. She spun on her heel and ducked between two rows of shelves. It was Aeryn’s turn to sigh.
She called after her, “Don’t touch anything, please.”
A muffled acknowledgment came back.
She watched the old healer toss more ingredients into the stone mortar. “The mermen of the Sunset Seas?” She had heard a few tales of such creatures, in Eben and other places bordering the coast, but never knew what was true and what was just myth.
He nodded and started mashing the mortar’s contents. “The story goes that a beautiful young woman was traveling with her betrothed on ship to Iro. A sudden and terrible storm struck their ship halfway there. She was knocked overboard when a huge wave overcame the ship and snapped it in half. What was left of the ship sank, and the angry seas took her man and the rest of the crew.
“That would have been the end to the maiden’s story, too, but a merman saw her sinking under the choppy waves and was struck by her beauty. He took her to a tiny island, since she couldn’t live under the sea as he could. He made a home for her, and they fell in love. He taught her his song magik.”
“How did it get to Eben?”
Ezra shrugged. “I don’t know that part of the story.”
She could not tell if he was serious or just having fun with her. Before she could say as much, he glanced off in the direction Theo had gone and said, “She’s smart, inquisitive.”
“I’ll guess she’s not yours.”
“No. We met . . . through unfortunate circumstances.”
The healer nodded. “She is lucky you got her here when you did. If you had gotten here later, I may not have been able to help her so easily.”
He paused. “You don’t seem like you’re from around here. Are you in Eben for long?”
“No, we’re just refilling our supplies and then moving on.”
He scrapped the paste he had created onto a square of cloth, which he then rolled up, tying the ends with twine. He passed the bundle to her. The smell emanating from it bore vague undertones of mint, beneath other smells that were unfamiliar to her.
“Apply the paste to her leg tonight and wrap this cloth around it. She should be fine.” He paused and then said, “I recommend you do not linger here. She belongs elsewhere.”
Aeryn opened her mouth to ask what he meant by this, but he looked away from her and called out, “Alright, little one. I’m all done.”
He gathered up his ingredients and started putting them away, avoiding her gaze. Theo came out from the rows of shelves. Fortunately, her hands were empty this time. Hopefully, the same held true for her boots and pockets, but she would not embarrass the girl by asking.
Aeryn said to the old healer, “I thank you for helping Theo. How much for your services and the poultice?”
He quoted her a smaller sum than she expected. She paid the strange healer and then told Theo, “Let’s go. We need to find lodging for the night. That is, if Rowan hasn’t already freed himself and walked off to find a warm stable somewhere.”
Theo smiled and waved at Ezra and went out the shop door. Aeryn glanced back at the healer. He smiled in return and raised a hand in farewell. It may have been her imagination, but his smile seemed forced this time.