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Curling Vines and Crimson Trades by Kellie Doherty

 

Overview: Rare goods trader, Orenda Silverstone leads a happy life with her wife and friends. She’s an Elu—a race whose crafting is centered on protection—but her power is broken. Now, her sword is her strength. When her wife gets kidnapped and Orenda has to use her trading skills to complete some nearly impossible tasks to get her back, a good sword arm won’t be enough. Orenda’s time is rapidly coming to a close. She needs help.But she’s been forced into silence. Two sun goddess worshippers, twins Lan and Lyra, decide to join Orenda’s quest in order to guard one of the rarer items to its destination. Orenda’s not sure she can turn her back on either one, but with no other options, she competes against the sunrises to complete her tasks before her wife is killed.Then, the unthinkable happens. Orenda’s best friend, Jax, tries to kill her.Between racing against the coming dawns and battles at every turn, Orenda’s list now seems insurmountable. No longer certain of who is friend or foe, she must come up with a plan to save them all before the sun rises on her wife’s final day.

 

Curling Vines and Crimson Trades by Kellie Doherty Book Chapter One

 

ORENDA SILVERSTONE LOUNGED ON her tattered brown couch reading about her next trading job in the eastern region. She yawned. The midday sun had crested the sky, well past any sane person’s bedtime, and Orenda wanted to go to sleep. A lock of bushy black hair curled in front of her eyes. She tucked the errant strands behind her ear. Concentrate, she ordered herself. Her next trade was going to be important: transporting jewelry custom made in her home city to the royals on the coastline. Nossilia prayed to her god of pathways by the bed. Her wife always took the full devotions time to communicate with her god, and Orenda respectfully waited for Noss to finish. The scent of their last meal, spicy stew, made Orenda’s mouth water.

“Please watch over us this day.” Orenda’s prayer to her moon goddess was quick, but she felt a cool tingle through her body in return. She smiled. Thank you. Aluriah was always with her, guiding her.

And warning her.

The tickling pooled at the back of her neck, and the hairs there rose. Someone is watching me. Orenda looked up from the page, scanning their humble home.

Daygems lit their one-room abode, making the pots on the nearby counter glow. Their bed took over one entire wall, and the open hearth dominated the other. The space was empty, save for them. Her gaze caught on the charcoal drawings of their joining day, of how happy they looked together and how worn the edges of the paper were. Yet Orenda still felt off.

She eyed the windows, wishing she could look outside, but they were shuttered against the daylight. Opening them now, during devotions, would be the highest disrespect for Noss and her god. Her wife was frightened of suncreatures, like the white-skinned wyverns with glowing red eyes that roamed the daylight. Those corrupted creatures grew larger than their natural counterparts, some as big as homes. They kept their house closed to the sun, like most folk. Daylight was for sleeping anyway.

And sleep sounded so good. Rest clawed at her, pulling her to the bed. Orenda set down her trading log and yawned again. Something cracked just outside. Her gut twisted, and she rose. Perhaps it’s only my imagination. She straightened her blue sleeping tunic, worn from travel but not bad enough to toss. It covered her curves well enough, but if there was company… Her gaze went to her tan robe on the bed. A crunching noise came from outside. Footsteps? Who would visit us this time of day? Orenda headed for the door.

“What’s wrong?” Noss’ quiet voice stopped her. Noss’ long purple nightgown clung to her beautiful thick curves, her dark hair tucked back in a braid. Dark circles deepened her eyes. The long night’s work was getting to her. She’s tired.

“I thought I heard something.” Orenda gestured to the door. When fear flashed across Noss’ pale features, she continued, “But it’s probably just the day crowd.”

“Indeed.” Noss folded her green prayer throw and crawled into bed, clutching the multicolored comforter. “Come to bed, then.”

The day crowd. Folk who didn’t mind the sunlight or the dangers of the suncreatures. Their city housed many different people and teemed with activity both night and day. The high walls surrounding their city protected them from harm. Who else would it have been? The love painted so clearly on Noss’ features nudged Orenda’s worry away. She deactivated the daygem with a whispered word and slipped her hand into Noss’, allowing her wife to pull her onto their bed. Noss poked her in the side, drawing a laugh, and Orenda gathered Noss into her arms, kissing her plump cheek. Calmness infused her soul, as it always did when Noss was close.

A deafening crash followed by a cascade of splintering wood and glass disrupted the quiet moment. Orenda shot to her feet. Sunlight spilled inside like liquid fire, backlighting the figures that crawled inside. They carried curved bronze swords and wore long, hooded white robes. Orenda gasped. Ponuriah’s worshippers. Worshippers of the evil sun goddess, rival and sister of the moon goddess Orenda worshipped. Her followers were known to be malevolent, spreading bloody chaos in the name of their deity.

Five of them had just broken into Orenda’s home.

Noss screamed. Her eyes glowed blue, and, as her crafting took its toll on her body, a matching glowing wound inched its way open across her cheek. Dark, blue blood dripped down her skin. She winced. A bubble of cobalt energy burst from her, forming a wall and slamming the intruders away. Orenda’s fear turned to fury. She charged forward, heading for her own weapon. One intruder rose faster than the others, but Noss used her crafting again, and an azure wall pummeled the figure like a wave. Grabbing her sword, Orenda turned to the figures, weapon ready.

They attacked as one, but Orenda ducked, parried, and slashed, holding her ground between them and Noss. Anger boiled inside of her. She grabbed one of the intruders—a man with a black beard that nearly hid his wicked grin—and stabbed him in the stomach. His death groan fueled her.

A female with a scar across her neck got lucky, slicing Orenda’s arm. Sharp pain followed the blade as it bit into her skin. Orenda sidestepped, parrying the second sweeping arch of the woman’s blade to the wooden floor and kicking her in the side. A sickening crack sounded, and the woman screamed. Orenda sliced her neck. The woman’s yell ceased. Orenda leapt back as a third slash nicked her cheek, the attacker misjudging the distance between them. Fire burned under her eye, but she lashed out. How dare they come into my home.

Her sword glinted until all five lay dead. Noss. Panting, she looked back at her wife, who stood beside the bed, trembling, eyes still glowing blue. A sixth intruder snuck up behind Noss. Where did he come from? Orenda threw out her hand. Her Elu blood sung with power, but she hesitated. Her heart pounded. What if I make it worse? Broken long ago and shattered like the glass on the floor, her crafting had become hard to control.

She charged instead, lifting her sword. “Noss, to your left,” she yelled.

Noss turned in time to see the intruder raise his weapon and smash the hilt onto her head. She slumped over. Orenda’s heart clenched, but the intruder grabbed Noss’ arms, drawing her onto his shoulders.

Something hit her from behind. Hard. White-hot pain lanced through her head, shuddering down her neck and shoulders. Her world brightened. Spun. She fell to her knees, catching the side of the bed to keep from falling flat.

A hand grabbed her bushy hair, pulling her head back, and a rough cloth bag slipped over her head, blinding her, suffocating her. Someone pulled her hands behind her back and chained them together. Noss. She had to do something. Her chest tightened, each breath a struggle against the cloth. Still she fought. When someone tried to pull her to her feet, she reared back. A satisfying crunch and pain blossoming in the back of her skull told her she’d met her mark. The intruder groaned. Good.

Once standing, she kicked, but hands grabbed her foot and twisted. Her ankle wrenched to the side and a deep ache shuddered up her leg. She yelped, landing hard on the floor. Her ankle throbbed. Her head pounded. Still, she struggled, thrashed. Flailed. Fear drove her to fight. Noss. I have to get to Noss. Sudden pain cracked the side of her temple, and Orenda knew no more.

 
***

 
Shivering against the cold, Orenda awoke on a hard, stone floor. Pebbles jabbed into her cheek. Roughly hewn, dark rock walls surrounded her. A single candle lit up the area, the weak yellow light flickering with each breath. Amazingly, her hands had been freed, so she pushed herself up to stand, clutching the wall for support. An ache shot down her side when she straightened. She gasped. Her scalp twinged where someone had grabbed her hair. She ran a shaking hand through her bushy curls, palming the area. Where am I?

Where’s Noss?

Her heart tripped over itself, panic sweeping through her chest and threatening to overwhelm her. She breathed in and out until her racing heart slowed. Being scared won’t help. The rock room was empty. Her breath misted in front of her, and she rubbed her bare arms to keep warm.

A tunnel branched away from the room, twisting into darkness. Orenda grabbed the candle, intending on using it to explore. When she glanced at the tunnel again, a bald woman in a robe stood there, almost out of reach of the candle’s glow. Orenda’s palms slickened.

“Anoc-suna,” she offered the greeting in the Nemora tongue. “Who are you?” Another captive like me?

The woman stepped closer without a sound, but Orenda eyed her. The woman’s markings—sharp brown points like thorns on a vine—stood out on her wrinkly, pale yellow skin. A Nemora, and an old one. From the markings, Orenda knew this woman came from Wyrtig Grove, the home of the low bush Nemora who cared for and traded shrubbery, berries, and flowers. She’d traded with them before. A peaceful people. But what is she doing here? Orenda tightened her grip around the candle, fingers digging into the softening wax. The Nemora woman came closer. Her tall form nearly brushed the top of the ceiling.

Orenda held her ground. “Have you seen my wife, Noss?”

“You’ll see her soon enough,” the woman replied, her voice deeper than Orenda expected.

Orenda’s gut clenched like she’d had a bad piece of meat. That’s not the voice of a prisoner. Nerves pulled her body tight, a bowstring ready to fire. The woman finally stepped fully into the candle’s light. Her long white robe—a Ponuriah worshipper’s robe—trimmed in gold, shifted around her scarily thin form. I can take her.

“Where is she?” Orenda asked. “If you hurt her, I’ll—”

The Nemora lifted her hands, long bony fingers reaching out for Orenda. Her eyes and markings flashed a deep brown, and thick green vines cracked through the rock beneath Orenda’s feet. They wrapped tight around her legs and torso, then pulled Orenda to the ground in a kneeling position. Her ankle throbbed under the pressure. Panic rose in her throat, and she grunted as the vines enveloped her arms, too. Gods! The frail image she had of this Nemora vanished. A powerful crafter towered over her. Between one breath and the next, she’d been caught. Her confidence shattered. Vines. I forgot about the gussa vines.

The candle was now nestled in some tendrils by Orenda’s knee with the Nemora holding that upright as well. The flame flickered as the bald woman drew closer. She gave a single laugh, her dull green eyes peering into Orenda’s. “Patience. First, I get to play with you.”

Kneeling, the woman tore Orenda’s tunic off revealing the dark, umber skin of her shoulder. She grabbed Orenda’s hair and yanked her head to the side, running cold fingers across her neck and the top of her shoulder. Orenda trembled. Nausea turned her stomach. The woman gave Orenda a sickening grin.

Her eyes glowed bronze, the thorn-like markings doing the same. “This may hurt.”

Ten green shoots branched off the vine holding Orenda’s legs, crawling their way up her chest, heading for her right shoulder. Orenda strained against the bindings as the tip of each shoot lengthened and thinned into a needle-like point, all of them hovering over her skin. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. What is she—

She didn’t have time to finish her thought. One after another, the tiny vines pierced her shoulder. Agony spiked through her. She shuddering as the shoots pulled under her skin and crystalized as the needle-like points burst back out again. They wove in and out of her skin. The tendrils made a path over her shoulder and below her collarbone. She tried to yank herself away, but the thicker vines held her tight. The tendrils felt like fire, and she nearly blacked out from the pain. It would have been a blessing to pass out. Finally, the shoots stilled. Orenda panted, skin burning.

The Nemora woman grinned, eyes and markings dimming to their usual coloring. She wiped some of the blood oozing down Orenda’s arm, staining her fingers dark blue. “I do believe this is my best one yet.”

Best…one? Steeling herself, Orenda looked at her shoulder. Bile rose in her throat. A circular design of tendrils had been embedded into the top of her shoulder, tracing down under her collarbone. Stitched. Her blood pooled around the greenery. How? Orenda had never known crafting like this before, not even in the tales her parents told her as a child.

While she gaped at the sight, the agony subsided to a dull ache. Fresh scabs formed around the vines. Fingers gripped her other shoulder, and it took Orenda a few moments to realize someone was healing her. She craned to look where a figure stood behind her in a white robe, face hidden by a hood. A moment later, the figure let go and disappeared into the shadows of the rock corridor. They hadn’t healed her completely, but they did take the edge off. The burning sensation had subsided into a sting.

The bald woman tilted Orenda’s face back to her, capturing her gaze in an intense green glare. “Listen to me, Orenda. These vines are part of your contract. Each time you complete a task, I will know, and one of these vines will wither and die. Once you complete all ten, the contract will be complete, and you may return for your wife.”

Contract? Tasks? Orenda’s mind spun before stalling on the woman’s last words. Return for my wife? Noss. A new wave of dread clutched Orenda. She threw her whole body against the vines. The greenery didn’t move. She tried to pull her hands free and failed there, too. What is all of this? “What did you do to Noss?”

“Nothing.” The woman chuckled. “Yet.”

Orenda’s heart thudded as fear tingled through her being. Yet? She had to see Noss. She had to see Noss right now. “How do I know you’re not lying?”

“I will show you.” The woman waved her hand, her eyes and markings glimmering to copper once more. The thicker vines around Orenda’s body fell away.

Orenda stood. Her legs wobbled. Her entire body trembled. On instinct, she touched her wounded shoulder. Her skin was tender, bruised blue, and when she moved, a shooting pain tore through her arm. She tucked her ripped tunic under her arm and straightened. I have to save Noss.

Orenda took a deep breath. “What would you have me do?”

“Follow me.”

After a few twists and turns, the tunnel opened up. Orenda stood before another woman sitting in an ornate, high-backed chair. The dark wooden seat looked especially strange since everything else was rock, but the woman occupying the chair looked like she belonged in it. In here.

Hard as stone, her features were sharp and her dark pants crisp. Even her crimson tunic had hard edges pressed into it. A large, green gemstone rested over her heart, glinting in the low light of the candles surrounding her. Their flickering lights cast long shadows on the cave wall. Ponuriah worshippers often used candles and lanterns as their light sources in honor of their fiery goddess, and Orenda couldn’t help but notice the dozens of them in this one cavern alone. The gemstone stole the light once more, drawing her eyes. The mark cut into it looked familiar, but Orenda couldn’t place it.

The woman’s pale gray eyes followed a crimson coin she had flipped in the air. She flipped it again, ignoring Orenda and the bald Nemora. Two other tunnels curved away from this space, but other than the throne, the chamber looked empty.

“Where’s my wife?” Orenda said through gritted teeth.

The gray-eyed woman snatched the coin, looking at the spare piece of metal in her palm, and languidly turned her attention to notice Orenda and the Nemora standing before her.

“L’roti, Orenda Silverstone,” the gray-eyed woman said, the Elu word for hello tumbling from her tongue.

Gods, even her voice was hard as rock. How does this stranger know my name? She scowled. “Show me Noss.”

The woman crossed her legs at the ankle, one booted foot over the other, eyes roaming over Orenda’s wounded shoulder. “I see Kieve gave you the contract already. She’s told you the rules?”

Kieve. Orenda glanced at the bald crafter next to her. At least I have a name. “I finish the tasks for you. You give me Noss. Now, where is she?”

The woman chuckled and stood. With a small flourish, she produced a rolled piece of paper from her belt and crossed the distance between her and Orenda in three long strides. Orenda could see the scars tracing her body, over her neck and face, down her hands and fingers. An Elu, like me and Noss. A strange sense of familiarity kicked in, seeing another of her own race. The sensation vanished under an impending sense of dread that this woman brought with her. Up close, Orenda could see the makeup coloring her tawny brown skin, the elegant crimson lines around her eyes and lips. That color stain was rare, found only on the islands off the eastern coast. This woman must be rich, or at least, well respected enough to get gifts as expensive as that.

Orenda’s gaze skittered away from the woman in red to the bald Nemora next to her, the one who gave her the vines. “Who are you people?”

“We’re the Ember Elect, dear child,” the Nemora responded.

“The Ember Elect?” Orenda had never heard of such an organization. She probably should’ve stayed quiet, but the next words tumbled past her lips. “I didn’t need some fancy name to tell me you’re Ponuriah worshippers. Your robes give it away.”

The woman in red chuckled. “Oh, we’re more than just a fancy name, Orenda. We are the brightest of her worshippers. Many even say that the Embers are the best. You’ll meet other worshippers along your journey, but you’ll know they’re Embers—my Embers—by this coin.”

The woman tucked the scarlet coin she had been flipping earlier into Orenda’s pocket then held out the roll of paper, tilting her head and grinning. Her gray hair streaked with black fell gracefully over her shoulder, and the fresh scent of citrus wafted toward Orenda. Citrus was rare in these parts as well. Stomach roiling with disgust, Orenda snatched the paper and let it fall open.

She skimmed the list, reading only the basics: vials of poison to a tinkerer, bottles of wyvern blood from an alchemist, weapons to a recluse, gemstone to an academy leader, a letter to a mountain man, heat-resistant seeds from a hard to reach region, sunburnt crystals to a gardener, edible flowers grown in the south, bags of cold-hardened wheat shipped east, and pure metal given to a metalworker.

Orenda scoffed. When the Nemora had talked about tasks to be completed, Orenda had expected grand and dangerous outings—killing a massive creature for their innards or diving into the depths of the oceans for a sunken treasure—something big. Something deadly. The tasks were all trades. Ferrying items from place to place, person to person. The items were quite rare, unique, and hard to obtain, even for her, but they were just…trades.

She glanced at the gray-eyed Elu. “You can do these deliveries yourself. Why do you need me?”

The bald Nemora beside Orenda snapped her fingers, drawing Orenda’s gaze, and a purple leaf appeared in the woman’s hand. She tucked the leaf into the center of the vines embedded into Orenda’s skin. The woman’s eyes glowed copper and the tendrils grabbed the leaf, holding it tight.

She grinned. “Ask another question like that and I will release the leaf’s poison. You will die. Instantaneously.”

Orenda swallowed and nodded, but her thoughts still lingered on the tasks. She still didn’t quite get it. Anyone could trade.

“You will do all of these trades by yourself, and you will speak to no one of this. Or of Noss’ stay here with us.” The gray-eyed Elu smirked. “And don’t think you can simply write notes or letters to get around the lack of communication. We had another try something similar to bring the rest of their family into the fold and…well…” She motioned to a stalagmite behind her. Orenda had to crane her neck to see around the pointed rock.

A dead body—no, a family of bodies were lashed to the wall with thick purple brambles. Decay had started to take hold, rotting their skin. Each person bore a handwritten letter nailed into their forehead, even the young child. Orenda’s breath left her.

Her gaze skittered to the parchment again. These items would be difficult to get. For trades like this, they obviously needed a trader with a good reputation. A trader who wouldn’t seem suspicious asking for uncommon seeds one night and unique crystals the next. All trades were tracked, after all, and an apprentice dealing with such rare goods would seem shifty. Untrustworthy. The merchant guild would be on that apprentice in a heartbeat, but Orenda had been doing this for many seasons. Because of her status as one of the best, she could slip under the merchant guild’s watchful eye. They need me.

She tore her gaze from the paper. “Show me Noss. Then I’ll get started.”

Both women laughed now but the gray-eyed Elu was the one who answered. “Never wavering, I like that. Here’s hoping you stay the course just as firmly for us, too.”

The woman snapped her fingers and another hooded figure appeared, dragging a frightened Noss. Orenda’s heart caught in her throat. Did they do anything to her? Orenda couldn’t see any wounds or blood on Noss. Her nightgown hadn’t been ripped. Her hair was mussed, a few pebbles had snagged in her dark locks, but she seemed unharmed. Her hands were bound behind her.

“Orenda!” Noss yelled.

Orenda wanted to move closer but a glance at the gray-eyed Elu warned her to stay. “Noss, are you okay?” She was proud that her voice didn’t shake, even though her heart raced.

“Yes, I’m okay.” Love shown in Noss’ eyes, shadowed by fear. Her presence focused Orenda’s resolve. Noss’ lip trembled. “Are you—” Her voice caught, and her gaze strayed to the wound on Orenda’s shoulder.

Orenda knew they didn’t have much time together. “Noss, look at me.” She didn’t want the last image Noss would see of her in this terrifying place to be of blood and pain. She waited until Noss tore her gaze from the wound and looked Orenda in the eyes. “I’ll be back for you. Worry not, my love, I will return.”

Noss gave her a small smile. “I am yours, Orenda.”

Orenda grinned back, fighting the trembling in her lips. “And I, forever yours.”

The hooded figure started to drag Noss back into the darkness, but Noss pulled against the man. Her next words came quick. “And don’t do anything reckless for Mora or Kieve. Just come back safe.”

The hooded man won the tug of war and darkness swallowed Noss whole. Still, Orenda shouted after her, “I will return, Noss. I will come back for you.”

But what will they do to her while I’m gone?
 

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