Free read: Kelly Barnhill!
The Mark of the Bandit, Part One.

I don't participate in blog tours often, but Kelly Barnhill. And it's even more unusual for me to participate in one without having read the book yet, but Kelly Barnhill.

(I have a copy of the book right here, and it's been looking at me all balefully for two weeks now, but there's a dog on the cover and so I'm having difficulties getting my courage up. Anyway.)

To celebrate the upcoming release of her new book, The Witch's Boy, on September 16, Kelly Barnhill is releasing a short prequel out into the wilds, for free.

This is Part One of The Mark of the Bandit:

Áine had never seen so many fish. They wriggled and flopped in the bow of the boat – a great, seething, silver mass of them. They stared at her with their bright, livid eyes as they gasped for water. Even in their last moments of life, each one was shockingly lovely. Áine slipped her fingers into the nets and ran them along the shining scales, as the wooden hull of her mother’s fishing vessel moaned under her feet.

The name of their craft was The Innkeeper’s Daughter, chosen by Áine’s father before she was born. Áine had been sailing with her mother since the day she could walk. And as far as she was concerned, there was no better place.

Áine’s mother stood at the helm, gripping the sheets of the straining sails in each hand and operating the tiller with the sole of one boot. Even as the their craft lurched and sped, even as the sails swelled so hard Áine thought they might rip in half and the whitecapped sea churned around them, her mother appeared perfectly still, balanced delicately on one foot like a rare bird, as her hair and skirts fluttered prettily in the wind. 

“Mind the lines, my girl,” her mother called over the roar of the sea. “And watch the boom. We’re coming about in a moment.” 

Áine did as she was told. As the seventh person in a six-sailor vessel, her primary task was to stay out of the way. That, and to attend to the practicalities of a busy fishing expedition: make sure the provisions were stowed properly in their air-tight casks, fetch snacks for hungry sailors, snatch the stray fish who takes it in its head to flop over its netted walls, scan for rocks, scan for blowspouts, scan for the tell-tale ribboning on the water where a new school was passing through the currents, and mind the rigging. The other sailors leaned over the side, their broad hands gripping the gunwales, their heavily muscled arms stretching their nets over the waves. 

The crew rarely spoke during their jaunts into open water. It wasn’t that it was forbidden, it was just that no one could ever think of anything to say, aside from orders and the grunts in reply to orders. The other sailors – a pair of sisters who lived near the docks, and an old man, his son and his grandson, each with nearly identical ropy bodies (the only way to tell them apart was to look directly at their faces, and even then it wasn’t easy) — were a serious bunch. Sober. Focused. Stern. As different as could be from Áine’s mother.

“Brace yourselves, friends,” her smiling mother called out as the boom swung to the other side. “There’s a prize in the lee of that reef, and I’ve a mind to snatch it. This wind’s a monster, but it has wings.” And to the dark patch on the sea she called out, “I see you, my lovelies! Pray, stay a moment longer!”

And they flew across the waves.

It was, by day’s end, a record catch.

Once The Innkeeper’s Daughter reached the far lip of the broad harbor, the sails had to be hauled in, and the sailors each took an oar and rowed the rest of the way, snaking through the sharp rocks that hid just below the surface of the water. Áine would sometimes take a turn when any of them grew weary, though that rarely happened. The other boats hailed them as they rowed in. The sailors set their teeth against the growing cold, their woolens soaked through. They shivered as the daylight ebbed away. 

Áine crouched in the stern of the boat, watching the colors from the setting sun leak across the sky. On shore the ice vendors and the salt vendors and the green merchants were all prettying up their stalls for the Night Market, and mothers in town were hastily corralling their children into their beds, in hopes that they might be first in line at the ornate iron gates at the entrance. 

Only the best were allowed to sell at the Night Market. Áine looked at their haul of fish – each one fat and shining and perfect. Their catch would be gone before it was even dark. Savvy shoppers knew to ask for The Innkeeper’s Daughter’s fish first. Her mother wasn’t just the best at what she did. She was better than best. Áine looked at her mother at the oars, her calloused hands gripping the handle, her heavily muscled legs braced against the bench. She smiled as she steered the craft and smiled as she rowed and smiled when she pulled and hauled and scrubbed and baled. Áine’s mother was always smiling. She caught Áine’s eye and winked, her dark lips unfurled into a broad, knowing grin. 

The other sailors didn’t smile at all. Once they were docked and battened, they collected their pay and shouldered their oilsacks and slid into the harbor crowd without even a word.

This wasn’t so with the other boats. Most fishing boats were operated by chattering extended families with their matching voices and shared jokes and similar faces. They communicated through smile and gesture and touch. They loved each other. 

Áine’s mother once worked a boat like that – all family, back when she lived in a fishing village called Kaarna, which was very far away. Áine had never met her mother’s family. She wasn’t allowed. She never knew why.

As the nets were emptied into carts and the prices haggled and negotiated, she noticed how much each crew greeted the members of the other boats as well. Hollers and hellos and waves. No one greeted Áine’s mother’s crew. No one greeted her mother at all. Despite the impressive haul. Despite the fact that Áine had heard with her own ears the respect and awe that other sailors had for her mother. Her genius at the helm. Her innate understanding of the water. Her great love for fish. 

Still, no one would even offer a wave.

This was also unexplained. Áine’s questions – and there were many of them – were never answered. 

“When everyone around you is looking east, look west. When everyone is looking up, look down,” her father always told her. And she tried to follow that advice. She tried to look up, down, sideways and inside out. She tried to be like her father – noticing the things that no one else would. But still, she couldn’t find an answer. People respected Áine’s mother, but they mistrusted her too. And Áine didn’t know why.

Once the ship was buttoned up and securely moored, and once the purse of coins on Àine’s mother’s belt was heavy and full, both mother and daughter slid into the tangled streets of the town, moving against the flow of shoppers, swimming upstream like two bright fish. 

“Are you hungry, my girl?” her mother murmured into Áine’s black hair.

“Only some,” Áine replied, even though she was starving.

“Then let’s eat, shall we?” 

The bake shop was closed, but a woman and her husband stood at their cart next to the road, selling meat-filled pastries wrapped in leaves and cooked straight on the coals. Her mother bought one for herself and one for Áine. The man and wife were chatty enough, most likely because they didn’t know who Áine’s mother was. 

“Have you heard the news, Madam?” the pastry man said. 

“Hardly,” Áine’s mother said. “Nothing travels over the water, save for wind.”

The pastry woman’s eyes grew wide, the need to share so great it looked as though she might burst. 

“There’s been a theft. Right here in town. A real theft.”

“That can’t be shocking news,” Áine’s mother said mildly. “Merchants in the night market have complained of thieving for years.”

The man shook his head. “Nothing like that. Not a lifted purse or a stolen loaf, neither. This is the mayor’s own vault that’s been emptied.”

Áine’s mother’s brown face turned quite pale. “Vault?” she said. Her voice was little more than a whisper. “The mayor’s vault?” She lifted her chin and set her gaze down the length of the road, as though the thief himself was just at the edge of her sight. “Not emptied. It’s not possible.” Áine had seen her mother grow worried before, but this was a different kind of worry. This worry had teeth.

“The very one,” the woman said. “And what’s more, it happened in broad daylight. When there were people about. People in the room where the vault was. No noise, so sound, no rattle in the walls. Nothing broken or scratched. The door was locked one moment and opened with the contents removed the next, as if by magic.”

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS MAGIC,” Áine’s mother pronounced. Was there a note of panic within her booming voice? She checked herself and cleared her throat, her cheeks coloring deeply. “I mean, everyone knows that,” she stammered. “It’s only in silly stories that the ignorant tell their children.”

Áine stared at her mother. Nothing ever rattled her. Nothing.

“Mother,” she began, but her only answer was a tight grip at her shoulder.

No questions,” her mother hissed.

If the man and the woman noticed the exchange, or thought it odd at all, they didn’t mention it. Whether this was due to their embarrassment or their pressing need to gossip, it was difficult to tell. 

“So much gold,” the husband said.

“And vanished without a trace,” trilled the wife.

Áine and her mother waited for their pastries to finish heating through. Her mother had begun to fidget. She never fidgeted. 

“There’s not even a suspect!” the husband said. “It’s a mystery, is what. A real mystery.”

Áine watched as her mother’s face grew progressively darker, like the shadowed sea bracing itself under a wild, storming sky.

And now, after reading that, I have thrown my worries to the wind and picked up the book. I'll keep you posted about my progress!

Look for Part Two at Jessabella Reads on September 2.