Authors: Kaelyn Ross
Tags: #Young Adult Dystopian Science Fiction
THE RED HAND
Copyright © 2014 by Kaelyn Ross
First edition: January 2015
Published by: Kaelyn Ross
Cover art by: Streetlight Graphics
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
Produced in the United States of America
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
For my mom, who has always told me to dream big!
To my team of editors and beta readers, you guys are awesome.
Last but not least, to my readers: thank you so much, and I look forward to many adventures together!
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Tribe - Part One: The Red Hand is a 35,000 word young adult dystopian story. It is a serialized work, in which each installment moves Kestrel Stoneheart a little farther along an adventurous road of discovery about herself and her world. I can’t wait for you to join the journey!
Kestrel felt the beast’s glare as a prickling at the nape of her neck. The long knife in her hand ceased its bloody work and she eased back on her heels, prepared to leap away from danger. Scarcely breathing, doing her best to ignore the sudden sweat slicking her skin, Kestrel lifted her head. Her gray eyes explored the dense pockets of brush and rocky gray outcrops littering the mountainside. She saw nothing out of the ordinary, but the hunted feeling remained.
The beast was lurking somewhere, working itself into a killing frenzy. She guessed it was growing weary of her taunting and would attack soon. No more stalking, no more playing. Only death. Hers.
“I cannot fight you here,” she muttered, praying for the time she needed to reach the high mountain meadow she had chosen to make her stand.
Flipping her dark braid over her shoulder, Kestrel went back to gutting and skinning the last of the three rabbits she had snared the night before. She paused every few seconds to scan the rocky slopes around her, but the beast remained hidden.
When she finished with the rabbit, she left the entrails where they lay—a grisly treat to further stoke the beast’s hunger and, she admitted, another taunt. She tied the carcass beside the other two rabbits on her woven leather belt. Blood dribbled over one leg of her doeskin trousers, staining them with crimson scrawls that, by day’s end, would darken to ugly brown. A shame to ruin the trousers, but it was a small sacrifice on the road to achieving her goal.
Tying a final knot, Kestrel remembered what her mother, Tessa, had said the last time they spoke.
Promise me you’ll be safe, Kes.
How can a Potential ever be truly safe?
Kestrel had thought at the time, standing with Tessa on the porch of their cabin, the morning air cool and fragrant with pine sap and huckleberries an hour before the sun rose. With a straight face, she had made the promise her mother wanted to hear.
If Tessa could see how Kestrel had turned herself into a piece of walking bait, she would be horrified. But then, Tessa did not truly understand Kestrel’s commitment to becoming a Red Hand of their tribe.
With a last wary glance around—nothing moved, save a jay swooping along the edge of the forest far below her vantage point—Kestrel stood and rubbed the soft leather soles of her boots through the pool of blood on the rock she had used as a butchering table. She had to delay the battle until she was ready to fight, but at the same time keep the beast interested. For that, only the smell of slaughter would do.
Choosing a path, Kestrel picked her way across a shifting tongue of gray-black rocks and boulders, which had been tumbling down from the jagged peaks soaring above her since long before the Red Fever ravaged the world and ushered in an age known as the Great Sorrow. The clouds massing above the crags had taken on an angry, bruised look. A storm was building. That could help her … or make things much worse. She chose to believe the former.
After a few more miles, Kestrel slipped into the brush growing around the gnarled trunk of a lightning blasted pine. She paused to sip from her waterskin, and almost choked when she heard the rattle of stone nearby. Her gaze flicked over her back trail, upslope, then down. She saw nothing. Hopefully it stayed that way, at least for a little while longer.
She could have fought the beast anywhere besides the meadow, but as a Potential she’d had to disclose the battleground to the village Elders, who in turn might or might not have sent an observer. An observer was forbidden to intervene, even if it meant sparing the Potential from certain death. A Potential never knew for sure if anyone was watching them complete the rite of the Kill, and not knowing kept them honest. But even if Kestrel knew for sure that no one was scrutinizing her, she would still do all she could to reach the meadow, just as she had said she would. She wanted to become a Red Hand more than anything else in life, and that meant keeping her honor. Besides all the rest, the Ancestors were always near. They saw all, and were swift to curse liars.
Kestrel stood motionless, except for her fingers. They tapped restlessly against the handle of the hunting knife her father had presented to her before she departed the village. The weapon, which was longer than her forearm, had previously felt good hanging from her belt. Heavy, powerful, a deadly extension of her arm. As with choosing her place of battle, so too had she chosen her weapon—the same knife her father had once used to take off the head of a Stone Dog with a single, powerful blow.
She had believed the knife was lucky. Now, envisioning her hidden foe’s golden eyes, long yellow teeth and deadly claws, the bit of sharp metal seemed as useless as a rotten stick.
She was about to step away from cover, but froze when a familiar worry assailed her. What if, despite all her best efforts, the beast had sensed her wariness and fled? Each Potential had only one chance to perform the rite of the Kill, and thus earn the right to stand beneath the Bone Tree and become a Red Hand, a warrior of her tribe. If a Potential failed, they were cast out from the village. The harsh rule ensured that only the most dedicated and skillful individuals risked becoming a Red Hand. For sixteen years, she had listened to the stories about those who failed, stories told by saddened villagers who gave failures a different name:
“No,” she murmured, eyes widening with dread. Those deemed unworthy made their way to the Dead Lands. As soon as they stepped foot across the scorched boundary, the air itself caught fire and melted the flesh from their bones. A terrible way to die, but dying, all the villagers agreed, was better than living in disgrace.
I don’t want to die … not like that,
Kestrel thought, and drew the knife from its sheath. The blade was dull gray with dark pits along its length that spoke of its great age, but the edge shone like a thin band of quicksilver.
She touched the knife to her palm, hesitated, and then made a single, quick slash. A gasp of pain squeezed through her lips at the ancient steel’s hungry bite, but the pain faded quickly, replaced by a feeling of power and strength surging through her.
She lifted her hand, fingers squeezed tight. A stream of blood dribbled from her fist to splatter over the foliage clawing at her legs and the rocks at her feet. The beast wanted
blood, not that of a few rabbits, and it was not alone in that desire.
In a low voice, she intoned, “I call upon the Ancestors of the House of the Red Hand to lend me your courage and cunning and strength. I call upon the Ancestors of the House of the Red Hand to deliver the beast into my hands.”
A sharp gust swept down the mountains, hooting through hollows, scouring bare rocks with grit, tugging at her braid. The wind faded almost soon as begun, as if the Ancestors had spoken with the voice of the world. Had it been a real sign from her people’s protectors, or only the approaching storm?
A sign. It must have been!
Kestrel slid the knife back into its sheath with a hand that shook with reverential awe, and then she hurried off along the faint game trail, following its upward, winding path through the fading shadows cast by the ragged line of peaks still laced with bands of last winter’s snow. Higher still, thunderheads jostled together, growing darker.
Far behind her, concealed within the shadows of a dense thicket, a pair of hungry golden eyes marked her ascent.
After a few more hours of hard climbing, the day had grown old, and the sun had vanished behind the gathering clouds. The wind was stronger now, and the rich, damp scent of far off rain perfumed the air.
Kestrel struggled across another scree field, and leaped over an icy stream tumbling down its far edge. As the first rumble of thunder shook the world, she knelt to fill her waterskin. She gulped at the thin mountain air, her senses tingling, alert for any sign that the beast was still after her. When she glanced around, she saw nothing, but imagined she could feel its nearness and its caution.
The Ancestors were fickle at the best of times, but she believed with all her heart that they had accepted her blood sacrifice, and in so doing had filled the beast with an inescapable desire to devour her.
They must have!
she thought, desperate to avoid the shame of failing. If she failed this final test, her father, Matthias, one of the village’s six Elders, would be slow to condemn her. As would her mother, who had an unrestrained and somewhat embarrassing love for her youngest child. Kestrel’s brother, however, would not hesitate to mock her, and worse.
Aiden was only two years older than she was, but he had become a Red Hand when he was fourteen, and by the time he was her age, he had been raised to a warchief. No one in the village had ever earned that honor so young, and to Kestrel’s mind, it had gone to her brother’s head in the worst possible ways. But no matter what her family thought or felt, if she did not succeed, she would be dead to them, and to her people.
Pushing aside thoughts of failure, Kestrel scanned the boulder-strewn terrain falling away back the way she had come. She saw nothing close by, but farther off, down where the feet of the mountains spread out to become foothills covered in yellow grass and blue sage, she saw one of the nameless old cities. Its great towers of glass and steel glinted dully in the failing light, as if they still held the promise of life. If she squinted just so, she could almost imagine the city filled with people and bustling with activity. But that was just an illusion. It was a dead place, and forbidden, emptied of life by the Red Fever. Now, as told around Reaptime bonfires, the old cities were full of spirits that longed to steal away the warmth of the living. She would never go into such a place, and saw no reason to look at it. Besides, she had greater troubles closer to hand. The beast.