Official Excerpt for A Desperate Plan: Spirit Stories
She and Marcus had been friends since childhood. When she moved to Ferwuth, he was the only one to visit her. When she moved back, running from the plague, his family treated her like a beloved sister. Nialla was heartbroken when Marcus’s wife died. It was not the plague that took her, but a simple flu. Marcus’s son Duncan blamed Nialla for the death. Others in the town blamed her too. They said she brought death with her. Marcus was the only one who stood up for her, though she could tell a part of him blamed her too.
The rest of the group kept their distance from her. Likely for that same reason. Most of them refused to even speak to her. When they did, it was generally unkind. Especially from Tera, the daughter of the local governor. The girl’s face was locked in a permanent expression of disdain. Her marriage to Brock, the son of a top advisor in the Emperor’s council, was arranged before she was a year old. These types of things usually were.
Tera sneered down at Nialla from the rocks above the main trail.
“Why do you continue to follow us? You are obviously plague-slowed, trapper.”
“As I’ve said, I’m as clean as any of you.”
Old Ellenor spat on the trailside.
“Clean? I see the way you look at the miller.”
Nialla yanked her boot out of the mud. They had been walking for three days straight. If not for her loyalty to Marcus, she would have set out on her own by now. Hers was the only gun among them.
“Marcus and I are like siblings. Unlike how your daughter-in-law trades glances with Duncan.”
“I’ll deal with her sins later.”
“My sins? I’ve done nothing!”
Brock growled at the three of them.
“Stop your squawking. You’ll bring the wolves down on us.”
Nialla rolled her eyes, but reached for the strap of her rifle all the same. There hadn’t been reports of wolves in the Perragron mountains in a generation. Bandits were a different story.
The silence Brock had bought them was broken a few minutes later when Duncan cleared his throat.
“I would like to say, sir, that I would never disrespect you or your lovely wife with traded looks or anything else.”
“How then do you say my wife is lovely?”
Duncan was left stammering. Nialla snickered. The boy walked right into that one.
Marcus came to his son’s rescue.
“Leave it, Brock. It’s an expression. You’ve used it many a time.”
The group stopped to make camp late in the afternoon. Nialla skinned the morning’s catch with her hunting knife, then left to set new traps while the others built a fire to cook the rabbits. Each day they ate what she caught. It was how she knew they would never truly turn on her, despite the talk. They relied on her skills.
She returned to camp after setting up five traps in the surrounding forest. She hoped to find something larger than rabbits and squirrels tomorrow morning. The air was filled with the scent of roast rabbit with herbs. She took a seat next to Marcus. Brock was distributing the last of the ale he had brought. It was the only comfort of home that remained. Unsurprisingly, the drinks ran out before reaching her and Duncan.
There was little pleasant chatter during the meal. Whenever her husband’s face was buried in his mug, Tera snuck a wink or fluttered her eyes.
Emboldened by the flirting, Duncan puffed out his chest and addressed the group.
“Some day soon, I’ll be one of the windswept of Caelspyr.”
Marcus tore the leg off his portion and pointed it at his son.
“The floating cities are no place for the likes of us.”
“Those of a lower class. Brock and Tera, they would be welcomed. Not you and not me.”
The firelight highlighted Duncan’s reddening face.
“I’ll apply to the Inventors Guild. I’ve got the mind for mechanics. You can’t stop me.”
“You’ll be tossed to the underside without a second glance. I will not see my son reduced to near-slavery!”
Brock interrupted the argument with a laugh.
“He’s right. Even Tera would be in danger without my connections. The floating cities are for the rich. But, perhaps you should go up there and see for yourself. You would wear ash and grime well.”
Duncan slammed his plate onto the ground. He stormed off.
Tera stood up as well, giving her husband a scathing look.
“Who are you to stomp on a man’s dreams? Does the plague not tear us down enough?”
Brock gripped his meal as if to kill it a second time.
“Where are you going?”
“To bring him back. Do you think we will survive this journey if his father turns us away?”
The group’s leader said nothing, letting the perceived threat of abandonment in the forest stand. Nialla knew the kind-hearted miller would not let them come to harm under his watch. Although, she thought, perhaps the nobles had finally worn her friend’s patience as thin as her own. Even his son had been especially grating of late.
Marcus took his son’s plate with his own and Nialla’s and left to wash them away from camp. She knew he loved his son. His strict views were meant to keep the boy safe. But, after the death of his wife, there had only been animosity between father and son.
Once Tera disappeared into the forest, Ellenor muttered loudly to herself under her breath.
“How my son remains with that whore, I do not know.”
“This arrangement was your doing, mother, but the shame would be mine if we parted.”
“As if anyone would know, here in the mountains.”
Nialla pretended not to hear either of them. Once Marcus was settled in wherever the group ended up, she would make her own way. Staying in the midst of this drama was not worth the stress.
The only thing cooler than the feelings she had for her traveling companions was the weather. The wind blew in from the north. It would rain again soon. The chill brought Duncan and Tera back to the fire before long. Tera pulled up a new log so that she could sit alone.
Duncan wore a grin. The first Nialla had seen since his mother died. He clapped his hands together as he stared into the fire.
“I must apologize. This plague has us all on edge. But, the fire is warm and we are all of us clean.”
“Except the trapper, you mean.”
Duncan raised his voice, preventing Nialla from taking the bait.
“This night reminds me of the ones from better times. Trading stories with newcomers to the village around a communal fire. They were always full of adventure. Now we’re on an adventure of our own. We should share stories of our own.”
Brock mysteriously found more ale to pour into his mug, and took a long drink.
“Those tales were not made for these dark times. I have the perfect one. It’s true, too.”
Nialla raised her collar to protect against the wind, and settled in to listen to Brock’s tale.