This post, however, is not about that book. This post is about the next book, Fiona Thorn and the Secret of the Ringing Trees. Still in production, the book will be blowing us all away very soon and I am incredibly honoured to be afforded the opportunity to share the Prologue with you.
The Reaver eyed the boy through a small hole in the door. He could see Peppin sitting on the long, wooden table at the front of the room, swinging his legs. The dirty laces on one of his tiny shoes had come undone and clicked against the floor as he moved. His friends had gotten tired of waiting, he supposed, and must’ve gone to the woods for a game of Hoodman’s Blind, leaving Peppin alone in the classroom.
All the better.
The Reaver stood up and arched, stretching the muscles of his back. This one would be the last. He’d been patient through this age and the long one before, too many years to count. But now it was nearly done. One more extraction and the Lamb’s Cradle would be full.
A spasm of pain shot along his neck, making the muscles of his face twitch. Stooping to see through the hole always caused discomfort. It grieved him, this endless assignment. His eyes narrowed, the boy momentarily forgotten, and he whispered under his breath, as if the power to banish his mortal aches was part of his dark gift. He slowly massaged his neck, anxious to be rid of this human form, and opened the door.
“Master Mangals!” Peppin cried as his schoolmaster stepped from the office chamber.
The child waved his hand and smiled. Behind him hung a large piece of parchment, brightly colored and curled at each end. It was decorated with falling leaves in orange and golds and announced in the crooked, waxy script of a child: Lady’s Moon Festival—Cypher Contest Open
The boy hopped from the table and skipped forward.
“Bailey and Topher left already. They tried to get me to go too, but I told them no way.” He looked over his shoulder and nodded at the banner. “I’ve been practicing after chores. Watch how high I can count.”
“Let’s see,” the Reaver said cheerfully.
He crossed the small classroom, his hand gliding over the tops of the little chairs as he weaved through their jumbled mess. The day’s lessons had only just ended and he’d not had time to straighten the room. But it pleased him; warmth from the children still clung to the chairs, and with each touch he casually absorbed the residue of their vitality, feeding as he walked.
The boy counted slowly and had barely gotten to five as the Reaver reached the far side of the room. He braced himself against the large, main door of the school and slid it closed, making the heavy wood groan on its metal track. A quick slip of his hand and the iron lock was securely fastened.
“...seven, eight, nine I think...don’t tell me...”
“Take your time,” the Reaver said, leaning on the old door. He inhaled deeply, testing the boy’s fear level, and got a nose full of stench instead.
The building hadn’t been used as a barn for over fifty years, but the underlying smell of animal was still there, at least to his heightened senses. He found it especially strong with the door closed and the furnace roaring.
And roaring it was. He’d stoked it well in preparation.
The heat always seemed to draw the old smells from the wood beams. He scrunched his nose in disgust. It was quite revolting, he thought, the way these people lived. Despite the abundance of riches in the mines, they’d built a school on the skeleton of an animal shelter. He’d expected a higher value to be placed on their young. But in the end it had made his job easier.
He glanced toward his office, behind the door where the WhisperWorry slept. It was dying, like the two others earlier this moon. Mindless, low level demons. Their inefficiency was irritating. He’d have to bring another forth, and soon, before the villagers began to think clearly.
He wandered toward the boy, remembering when he’d first come to this part of the world. He’d been so naive. It had taken almost an age just to discover the secret of the elixir. But he’d done it. And a good thing, too. His master was no one to disappoint. He laughed, thinking of the body he’d worn when he’d arrived. The old cleric! An aged body, to be sure, with its own limitations, but it had been a bountiful time. The elderly were always so trusted.
Peppin continued to count aloud, unaware that death stood just two small chairs away. This pleased the Reaver all the more. Fear was delicious, but innocence was exquisite. He patiently listened to the child struggle with his numbers and thought of how long he’d been posted in Dragons Mere, in this northern village full of miners and merchants, of the many faces he’d worn, of all those he’d given to The Lord of Bone and Shadow.
He grabbed a chair and sat down by the boy. He was too big for it, but this body was more agile than others he’d had, and despite the minor aches and pains it suited his needs. He tucked his knees under his chin, tipped his head in a way he’d learned put children at ease, and continued to listen, watching as the boy used his chubby little fingers as a guide.
When Peppin halted at ten and six, the Reaver placed an encouraging hand on his shoulder. The simple touch was enough to awaken his hunger. So much innocence, and not a whiff of fear to spoil it.
Of course it would come, he thought, carefully slowing his breath. Once things got messy it was all but inevitable. But for now he would enjoy it, for the boy was so unclouded it was hard to ignore. It was exactly why he’d chosen Peppin—for his purity.
He smiled, knowing the taste of the boy’s soul would be sweet.
“If you get past twenty, with no mistakes,” he said, his steady voice betraying none of his eagerness, “I’ll declare you the winner and call an end to cyphers.”
Peppin’s eyes widened and he stopped, still as any stone. He looked at the schoolmaster, their eyes on a level. “By the Angels, no foolin’? After twenty, no more cyphers? For the whole year?”
There is nothing of the Angels here, thought the Reaver, not for miles. Or nearly nothing, for I am very good at my job. There are many Reavers in the service of The Lord of Bone and Shadow, many who can burn empty bodies and send ashes to his call, many who can strengthen and build his growing army of CinderWraiths. But only I, he thought with pride, can extract innocence from a freed soul. Only I can build the elixir needed to block the Cesura. And only I can stop the incessant racket of the Ringing Trees and release the Shroud of Sorrows.
Which is why, he thought with a sigh, I’ve been forced to linger here, garrisoned in the wretched northern reaches of Amryn, wallowing in the wilderness. But the Lamb’s Cradle is nearly full, he thought comfortingly, its smooth insides luminous with swirling innocence, and by day’s end its bloody bunting will overflow.
He rubbed his aching neck and smiled, his boyish appearance the perfect guise of kindness. Of all the ones he’d worn, this plain, unassuming face of a young man in his third decade was perhaps his favorite. It was charming without being prideful, handsome in an unremarkable way, and it seemed to elicit trust, especially from children. It had been very effective.
He gently squeezed Peppin’s shoulder. “No more cyphers, my boy. For the rest of your whole life. You have my word on it.”
“You could do that?”
“There are many things I can do,” the Reaver said with a quick wink.
He clapped his hands together, and leaned back in the chair, balancing on its two back legs. He was often amazed at what simple tricks children attended to. It sometimes made him wish for more challenging prey.
“For instance, did you know that before I was a schoolmaster I studied natural philosophy? And because of this, sometimes I help Mistress Rose with simple matters.”
“No, sir,” Peppin said, his counting already forgotten.
“Our world is full of surprises.” The Reaver rocked forward, setting the chair on all fours. He leaned toward the boy. “And in truth, it is for a matter of medicine, and not your counting, that I bade you stay this afternoon.”
A look of concern flashed over Peppin’s face. Pink splotches colored his tiny cheeks and the Reaver could almost taste the boy’s growing alarm. His scent was now tinged with something pungent and sharp; a light trace of the stifling fear to come.
Alas, the Reaver thought with disappointment, we’ve come to it so soon.
“There is no need to worry, my boy,” he said, patting Peppin on the back as he got to his feet. “All your troubles will soon be over.”
Trust me, he thought, for I have walked this path before and I am very good at my job.
Wow, talk about dark and intriguing. I can't wait to read this book, and I'm sure you'll be the same. Check out Jen's blog for updates.
So who is this person who has hooked me so thoroughly on her work?
Jen Barton was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1971 and spent much of her life on the East Coast. In 2008, at age 36, she and her family moved to California. With two cars, she and her husband moved two dogs, two guinea pigs, a cornsnake and their 10-year old daughter across the country. She counts the five day road trip, including a near escape by both dogs on Day 3, as one of her best experiences to date.
In 2009, with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy from Millersville University, Barton realized her childhood dream to become a writer. One van full of bored kids, one long day of travel, and Fiona Thorn was born. She's been writing ever since.
When not taxiing her teenage daughter hither and yon, Barton loves reading (especially fantasy by George R. R. Martin, Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, cooking (anything with pasta is a hit), and writing (magical worlds with obstinate teen girls is always a favorite).
In 2012 Barton's first book, the fantasy adventure Fiona Thorn and the Carapacem Spell, was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Southern California Book Festival. Later that year Barton was named 1st Runner Up in America's Next Author for her compelling short story of an old woman trapped in her own body, "Movin' On Up."
In 2013 she released the warm-hearted, whimsical picture book, If Chocolate Were Purple. And when not thinking of silly things to amuse children she enjoys fostering Great Danes. It is her sincere belief that were her heart ever to unfortunately split open like a peach, a soft spot (the size of 6,000 stacked Great Danes) for children and animals would be found.
Jen can be found at