Only monsters summon fire by magic. It’s a sin against the sun god and a crime against the king. The punishment is death.
But when sixteen-year-old Mina discovers fire magic runs in her family’s blood, it’s just the beginning of the secrets her father has been keeping from her. When her father is murdered, this half-starved peasant girl finds herself on the run—pursued across the desert by the soldiers and guards of the noble Houses. To survive, she knows she’ll have to abandon her past and learn the way of the sword. But only boys are allowed to carry a blade. There’s only one solution…
Disguised as a young nobleman, Mina must make a new life for herself in the heart of her enemies. But she knows she can’t keep up the masquerade forever. With time running out, which will she choose to find—the truth or revenge?
About the Author
Her less-than-free time is also spent behind a computer keyboard as an IT administrator, and she promises not to bore you with the details. Previously, she worked as a mobile game designer and tester, as well as a professional writer for video game websites.
Trudie grew up on Tamora Pierce and has always wanted to be a swashbuckling knight with her own medieval castle. She has a thing for swords, and so all her characters also have a thing for swords. She loves to read Young Adult fantasy and in recent years has been inspired by desert kingdoms and cultures, which is clearly apparent in her upcoming debut novel Sand Dancer.
In January 2019, Trudie signed with Uproar Books, a new publisher of epic fantasy and science fiction novels. Sand Dancer will reach store shelves in summer 2019.
Read an Excerpt
THE MONSTER OF KHALBAD
Father's rules for becoming a legendary warrior didn't match his tales.
Keep out of trouble, don't play at sword fighting, stay away from Housemen, and never, under any circumstances, approach fire.
Over time, his words changed from mantras of honor to instructions of modesty, as though Mina's father sobered and remembered his son existed as a girl all along. His training stopped the moment she bled. When pressed, he spouted nonsense that only men could wield a blade and Mina should drop all foolish notions of becoming a warrior to focus on her studies as a Green Hand. It was an argument she lost many times. Girls don't become warriors. They become healers.
Why teach her all those tales of their tribe's warriors and heroes? Why show her how to swing a sword if he planned to ignore it all based on her sex? Those heroes wouldn't have followed Father's cowardly advice. Who would have heard their tales if they did?
Girls could become warriors. Mina just needed to prove it.
Whispers stalked the markets of Khalbad and warned of a fat man with a blood-stained apron and a fondness for cooking meat with the touch of his hands. Men with fire in their blood were a danger to all. They stole their power from the gods and used it to set ablaze homes and melt the bones of children.
The fire-breathing monsters who haunted Father's tales were no longer allowed to wander the sands or stalk the streets, thank the gods. Those possessing the curse of flame were locked away inside the temples. Only a few chosen men with absolute control of their abilities were permitted to step outside and serve as priests by performing public rites and lighting the town's lanterns. Whispers spoke of blasphemers who tried to hide their fire and refused to join the temple. For the safety of all, these monsters needed to be found and put to death under the King's law.
In all Father's tales, the monster only met its end when one brave warrior stood against it. And there were no greater monsters than the Fire Walkers.
Mina crouched among the wicker baskets at the far corner of the market, watching and waiting. Her dirty beige tunic and headscarf merged with the sandstone townhouse behind her. No one paid her heed as townsfolk wandered between stalls of rice and pistachios. Sand grains danced across the dusty ground, blown in from the dunes piled against the town wall, the only barrier between them and the greater Dusland desert.
Khalbad's street rats understood what she planned to do. She scanned the crowd for their familiar faces, a mixture of younger orphans and grim-faced boys growing into men. They sat under cloth canopies and stared as though they didn't believe she could be brave enough to do it. Though they all lived under the shadow of Housemen and fought for scraps, the streets rats had never welcomed her into their little tribe. Mina went as hungry as any of them, but even though her skin was the same Duslander brown as theirs, they made her feel different, an outsider, due to her real tribal blood. The tribes of the desert were nomadic and rarely entered towns like Khalbad, so her father said. Perhaps if they did, she and her father wouldn't have spent their lives here dreaming of a world outside.
The heat of Rahn, the god of fire and dawn, burned overhead. Soon the marketplace would start to empty. Stall owners, craftsmen, and fishermen from the docks would retreat into shade until Rahn passed low enough to make the stuffy air breathable. The clearing of the market would create a river of people for Mina to dive into. The perfect time to strike.
Mina stood and stretched, patting dust from her thighs. She wove past townsfolk toward a stone hut until the smell of bloodied lamb curled her nose. A thud, thud, thud echoed within. Khalbad's street rats gave it a wide berth, wise enough to understand what monstrous creature lurked within. Exposing the butcher would earn her father's acceptance and allow her to become the warrior she was born to be, and there was only one way to expose a Fire Walker: anger them until they burned.
Mina counted three heartbeats and stepped inside.
The tall counter obscured the butcher's bulk and the slab of meat receiving the brutal end of his attention. Thud, thud, thud. A line of red dribbled down the counter. Despite the butcher's labored breath and his awful stench, that glistening line caught her attention. She was Sandarian, Duslander, and born from the tribes; a little blood meant nothing. Blood and fire and death were the triune of the warrior. Yet when they appeared before her, they turned her stomach.
Thud. The butcher's square knife slammed against the counter, and her guts jumped with it. Like all Duslanders, his deep brown skin highlighted darker hair and eyes, though her own silver eyes carried the mark of her tribe, a mark neither her nor her father could hide. The butcher wore a baggy shalwar and kameez tunic common to the poorer townsfolk, though the red-brown smudges on them didn't come from Khalbad's streets. His black beard curled into braids and swung beneath his chin. He straightened his spine and smeared bloody fingers down his apron. The color made her mouth dry.
"What business does a tribe rat bring?" the butcher said, his voice coarse like sand.
She placed a hand on her wooden training sword and stood with her legs parted, the stance Father taught. The butcher leaned over the counter and grinned with crooked teeth. A bronze key dropped from a thick chain around his neck and dangled into view.
"My father says you have dried meat. You'll give them to me."
The butcher blinked, and his face twisted. She held her sword tight, expecting an attack, but he laughed. The whole room shook, and she held her breath until he shuddered to a stop. He moved from the counter, each step heavy on the ground. "And what will your father offer in return? I don't hand charity."
Mina shuffled backwards, bumping into pots of spice. He towered over her, twice her size. A strange look shone in his eye, a look which told her to run. Run and don't turn back.
She lifted the sword an inch from her belt and ignored the pulse thrumming though her veins. "You'll offer them as punishment for your crimes."
The butcher's amusement faded. He took a step to the side, blocking her escape. He leered, close enough to touch. "What crimes would those be, girl?"
"You carry no sword." She nodded to his empty waist. "A man with no sword is no honorable man."
The butcher's hand twitched to where his sword should hang. "Your father would know all about that now, wouldn't he?"
His breath blew into her nose, sour and hot. A thick, hairy hand reached forward. "Did your father consider my offer, girl?" Rough knuckles scraped her cheek and she stiffened, her legs jarred into place. The butcher's hand trailed the hem of her headscarf. "I'm being generous. You won't do better in marriage. Not just anyone would dirty themselves with a tribe rat. I offer fair payment."
Her heart skipped a beat. Father mentioned no such thing. They barely had a coin to bite, but Father wouldn't marry her off to this brute, would he? To a Fire Walker?
This was the reason she stood here. Not to be some girl cowed at the sight of a monster, but as the warrior who would expose him and save others from his kind. She didn't fear him, nor the fire.
She ducked under the butcher's arm and grabbed hold of the chain around his neck, yanking it down. The chain held. The butcher yelped with a half-choked cry. His hands aimed for her throat, and she yanked the chain again.
A hiss burned at her fingertips, and the chain pulled free, knocking her to the ground. For a heartbeat, they blinked at each other. Surprise flared into rage. The butcher flung himself with a roar. She scampered to her feet and squeezed past his side.
"Steal from me!" the butcher bellowed and stomped behind. "I'll have your hide. By Rahn, I'll have it!"
Mina slid the key free from its chain and ran into the market. Stall owners were packing away their wares. The dispersing crowds was thick enough to slow the butcher's pursuit and any guards drawn to his howling — just as she'd planned. She reached an alley between the tanner's store and a townhouse and ducked into it, waiting for the butcher to catch up. She waved the key and pulled a face. The butcher charged with a snarl, and the crowd scrambled out of his way. Her sword was no real sword, no matter how much she wished it, but his knife was real, as was his threat.
She didn't need to defeat him; she just needed to lure the monster into its trap.
Her soft sandals slapped against dusty stone as she fled down alley after alley. Quaking stomps and rasping curses proved the butcher still followed. The alleys of Khalbad were a maze, but she'd spent many dawns exploring their secrets. She kept her distance from the upper part of town where Housemen and their guards lived beside lush emerald palms and the public baths.
Bright orange banners hung upon their high walls, colors of House Khalbond. Mina hissed in their direction. Khalbad was their town, owned by Housemen with too much gold and too little honor, Father said. Housemen paid no attention to the comings and goings of the people, and whispers spoke of their corruption. They took bribes from men like the butcher, secret Fire Walkers who refused the Temple of Rahn. But once Mina exposed his fire in public view, bribes wouldn't save him.
Rahn's heat made running unbearable, even in the shade of the townhouses that backed up to both sides of the alley. Sweat matted the braided hair curled underneath her headscarf. Clay pots, racks of linen, and other obstacles slowed her pace.
She skidded to a halt. Pots rattled, and the butcher's hulking figure barreled around the corner behind her. His body shook with deep gasps; his face flushed with sweat.
She waggled the key. "Looking for this?"
The butcher's eyes flared, yet the rest of him didn't. What would it take to make him burn? "Good-for-nothing thief," he wheezed. "Your father teach you his tricks, did he? Hand over what you stole, and I'll toss you a coin."
"Got any coins left after the Housemen you bribe?"
The butcher lunged. She skipped to one side, but the butcher moved with surprising speed. His fist slammed into her shoulder, knocking her into the alley wall. Pain throbbed through her upper arm, and the key slipped from her fingers. The butcher dove toward it and stumbled, tripping over a pot.
She scooped the key and hurtled into the closest alley, running for the tall crimson wall ahead and the lit fire braziers that burned before it. From the outside, the weathered and cracked townhouse at the end of the alley looked unimpressive. But unlike other townhouses, there were no windows, no cloth catching the wind, no scents of spice or life. Only the ever-burning braziers served as sign of the god who watched over it or the monsters who resided within the Temple of Rahn.
A young boy came bounding out of a side alley and rammed into her hip. A burst of flame erupted between them, disappearing as quickly as it appeared. Mina fell backward into a pot, knocking it sideways. The pot fell with a crack, smashing into large pieces and scattering grain. The boy rose beside her.
No, not a boy. A young girl, no more than twelve, stood naked except for beige cloth around her chest and waist for modesty. Blood red swirls decorated her upper body and arms, and a not a single hair touched her head or body.
A Fire Walker.
Mina scurried behind a row of taller pots and shrank between them. The Fire Walker's gaze hadn't followed her but instead stared down the alley toward the crimson temple. Mina slowed her breathing. Her warm fingers uncurled to reveal the butcher's key, now a useless bronze lump. She stared at her hand. How could the Fire Walker have melted it?
The pots shook. A giant of a man rushed past, an orange sash wrapped tight across his shoulder and a silver sword grasped in his hand. A Houseman. Mina's eyes followed the curve of silver as it whooshed through the air.
And sliced into the Fire Walker's flesh.
Mina covered her mouth, swallowing a gasp. The blade had sunk into the girl's neck. Blood spurted from the clean cut as it withdrew, spraying red on the sandstone walls. The girl fell face first into the dust.
Dead. He'd killed her. The Houseman, he —
"You killed her," rasped a voice. Mina flinched as an older naked man approached the Houseman. He, too, was covered in the red swirling patterns of the temple's Fire Walkers. The same swirling red now staining the alley.
The Houseman cleaned his blade without a care. He was a monster made of muscle, as large as her home. He wore a bronze scale chest plate over leather armor untainted by Dusland dirt. "She burned a Houseman."
"Your man grabbed her. She did nothing wrong."
"She burned a Houseman and ran." The Houseman angled his sword at the Fire Walker. "Do you care to argue the point?"
The Fire Walker stiffened but said nothing.
The Houseman sheathed his sword. "Return to your temple. None of your kind may leave it again, not whilst our guests remain in town. See to it, or your temple will find itself emptied." His boot prodded the girl. "Clean this mess."
Mina hugged her knees tight and counted the drumbeats in her chest as the Houseman trampled across broken ceramic shards away from the girl's body and her hiding place. The alley settled into quiet.
The old Fire Walker kneeled beside the body and pressed his palm to the girl's back. His fingers moved in a gentle, soothing caress, the way a mother may comfort a child. The gesture caught in her throat.
"Rahn welcomes you home," the Fire Walker murmured.
For a heartbeat, shadow fluttered across the girl's skin. Flame burst from the Fire Walker's palm, so bright Mina shielded her face. Heat blew over her, but when she opened her eyes, only charred ashes remained, stirring in the breeze. In a single breath the Fire Walker had burned the girl to nothing.
This was the power the King feared. The source of Father's tales.
Left unchecked, Fire Walkers could destroy Khalbad. They needed to be locked away to protect everyone else. Those with such power who didn't willingly enter the Temple of Rahn were put down. The butcher should be among them. So what if monsters mourned their dead like real people?
The air was choked with the taste of blood and fire and death. Mina waited until the Fire Walker disappeared before rising to her feet. She examined the ashes littering the ground. A girl died here, and no one would know, no one would care, because she was a Fire Walker.
Why should that bother her?CHAPTER 2
THE SWORD DANCER
There was no sign of the butcher, though Mina kept a wary eye for trouble. She jogged down stone steps into the busy marketplace. At this time of day, the market should be empty. Instead, covered wagons clattered past, the kind that held people instead of goods. Mina counted six. All horse drawn and bearing many colors of banners different than House Khalbond's orange. Turquoise, purple, deep crimson. These weren't merchants but outsiders. Other Housemen? Mina followed the commotion.
The market was alive with sounds but not the usual hubbub of trade. A crowd gathered in a circle around a parked wagon and exchanged excited voices as the other wagons carried on up the hill where the Housemen lived. Mina joined the crowd but taller bodies blocked her view. She pushed between them. Festivals marking the turning of the seasons often took place in the marketplace, but here in the middle of Rahn's Dawn there was nothing worth celebrating.
Figures dressed in crimson robes emerged from the wagon. One played a setar, another a daf drum, and together they created a steady hum of music. Chatter hushed as a female voice called out over the crowd.
"People of Khalbad! Gather and heed my words! On this day, we celebrate the helbond of our great Prince Ravel, who travels far across these sands to seek Rahn's blessing and the favor of the Houses he will one day command. Our Prince is most thankful for your generous welcome and will remember the hospitality of House Khalbond and its people."
Murmurs rippled through the crowd. Was the Prince in Khalbad? Did he bring favor with him to the Duslands? What did that mean for House Khalbond? Mina rolled her eyes. Why should she care about some plumped-up prince? The King's world existed beyond the desert, further north than she'd ever see. His laws fattened the coin purse of House Khalbond, but at least they also kept Fire Walkers off the streets. Or they should.
The woman continued, raising her voice over the chatter and music. "Join me in wishing Rahn's chosen bloodline a glorious reign to come. We honor him with a dance."
Men in the crowd jostled for a better position, opening a gap where Mina could see the outsiders clearly. Her mouth opened wide. A Duslander woman stood in the center of the market, dressed in a flaming dawn of silk ribbons. Golden swirls were inked into her dark skin, a pattern reminiscent of a Fire Walker, and her hair flowed with a shimmering black. A goddess.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sand Dancer"
Copyright © 2019 Trudie Skies.
Excerpted by permission of Uproar Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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