Preview: Stone Spirits

Orellana Jungle, from the Thousand Kingdoms seriesMy upcoming story, Stone Spirits, is another action-packed novelette set in my loosely connected Thousand Kingdoms series. It features Doona Walraven, a young woman who has been captured by river pirates during a journey downriver to become a chef in her uncle’s restaurant. In this excerpt, she has escaped from the pirates and is running for her life through the Orellana jungle.

The story will be published in Winter, 2024.

The Pursuit

What Doona hadn’t expected was how dark it was in the jungle. The thick canopy above her probably cut out ninety-five percent of the sunlight, leaving the ground level enveloped in twilight. She’d also expected dense undergrowth like she’d encountered near the river’s shore. Instead, tree trunks rose like massive columns from the dark loam, surrounded by isolated patches of shrubbery. Vines and lianas hung down from the canopy, while tree roots snaked everywhere, a constant hazard as she loped along barefoot. Scattered saplings grew between the trees, fighting their way up toward the canopy where they’d someday achieve their time in the sun.

She knew the river pirates would be after her once they got things sorted back at the galley, but for now she was strangely calm. She was free, she had a knife, and, no matter what happened, she wasn’t going to let them capture her alive.

In her old life, dying would have terrified her. But, now, it was better than some of the alternatives.
Well, most of them, actually.

As she passed through the humid dimness, she noticed that different types of mushrooms abounded. She grabbed a handful when she spotted a batch of darchosa mushrooms that were a staple of many of the sauces she’d prepared at her father’s restaurant. Even unwashed and uncooked, they were delicious, far better than the slop she’d been fed by her captors.

She’d have carried even more of the mushrooms along with her but, sadly, her formerly white smock didn’t feature pockets. For a moment, she cursed the unwritten rules that stipulated that women’s clothing couldn’t have pockets. Damned inconvenient, that. Then again, it was really an undergarment—the dress that she’d worn over it was long gone.

Eventually, her legs grew too weak and rubbery to keep running. She slowed, then stopped next to a fallen log covered in moss. Sitting down, she reflected on her predicament while her breathing gradually slowed.

While the pirates scared her, the dogs terrified her. Her former captors had maulers with them for just this type of eventuality, hunting an escaped captive like herself. There was no doubt in her mind that the dogs could track her down. That’s what they were bred and trained for, after all. Gods, they were almost twice her size.

After a few moments, she noticed that the surface she was sitting on seemed too flat to be a log. Puzzled, she scraped away some moss and woody debris. Much to her surprise, it turned out to be stone. More scraping even revealed carvings in the stone.

She stood up and considered the object, eventually deciding that it was a fallen stone obelisk, with four sides tapering to a point. If it had been upright, it would have been about twice her height.

Donna shook her head. She had no idea who would have built such an artifact in the middle of the jungle. She was about as far from civilization as it was possible to be.

Then again, she was a runaway fleeing for her life, not an archeologist.

With that thought, she took off again. Onward, ever onward, she went. Every so often, she saw what looked like another tumbled obelisk. And once, a moss-covered outcrop that had maybe once been a building. Feeling exhaustion creeping up on her, she started alternating walking with intervals of jogging. She kept going until it got too dark to see her way anymore, as the unseen sun above the canopy set. She curled up next to a buttress that extended out from a tree trunk and slept fitfully, dreaming alternately of snakes crawling down the tree to crush her in their coils and maulers pouncing on her in the darkness.

Doona woke when the morning arrived, lightening the gloom of the jungle. She couldn’t help marveling at the colorful, flower-adorned lianas and shrubs revealed by rays of light fanning down from the canopy, contrasting sharply with the silhouettes of trees and shrubs outside those rays fading into the ever-present twilight. She thought it ironic, to be in such danger and yet to encounter a sight so beautiful as to be almost mesmerizing.

She made a desultory search for edible mushrooms, though with no luck. She did notice, however, that some of the leaves of the shrubbery around her had dew on them, which brought to the forefront of her mind just how parched she was. All that running, and sweating, and she’d had no water since yesterday morning. She solved that problem by licking dew off the leaves around her, which didn’t do much for her sense of taste but did alleviate her thirst.

She started walking, her belly rumbling with hunger. Her legs ached badly from yesterday’s running and felt stiff, but they seemed to limber up after she’d walked a ways. Not long after that, she thought she faintly heard barking in the distance. She started running in response, even though she wasn’t quite sure if she’d just imagined the barking.

A bell or so later, Doona knew two things beyond any doubt. First, that she was being pursued. It wasn’t as if the maulers barked constantly, but they certainly did so often enough to make it obvious that they were quickly catching up to her. Second, that she was encroaching upon the ruins of what had probably once been a large city, now largely swallowed up by the green expanse of the jungle.

She started sprinting as hard as she could, listening with fear as the barking got ever closer. The dogs were bellowing constantly now, sensing how close to their prey they were. She tripped over a root and went tumbling, planting her face in the dirt and scraping her arm.

Crying, she picked herself up, rooted around until she found the knife she’d dropped, and continued running, her breath coming fast and hard, ignoring her rubbery legs, the stitch in her side, and the blood flowing down her forearm.

Up ahead, she saw light coming through patches in a wall of foliage. She plunged through the underbrush, scratching herself badly when some of the plants turned out to have brambles. She windmilled to a stop as she found herself on an outcrop of reddish rock with a twenty-foot drop to the muddy water below.

The river was just a minor tributary of the Orellana, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet across. To her left, upstream, more than twice as far away as the far shore, she saw the broken remains of a stone bridge, draped with moss and vines.

The barking was close, scarily close. The maulers were almost on her.

Doona took a deep breath. Death or slavery behind her. Possibly hidden rocks under the water, rolled downstream from the shattered bridge, that might break her neck if she leaped. And all manner of creatures in the water that might eat her if she tried swimming the river.

Let the gods decide.

She closed her eyes and dove.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.