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Reluctant Concubine (Hard Storm Saga Series Book 1)

"A terrific epic fantasy ~ magical, compelling, and romantic!" Susan Mallery, NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author

"It's impressively easy to become immersed in Marton's fantasy world. Readers will find it impossible not to care what happens next..." Kirkus Review

"An ambitious, vividly imagined epic fantasy. Marton has created a promising and immersive world that is, at the same time, darkly brutal... the splendor of the author's vision cannot be overlooked." RT Book Reviews

To escape punishment, Tera, a maiden healer sold to barbarians must hide the truth: she has not yet come into her healing powers. Born into a much gentler world, she struggles to survive in a land of savage warlords and their cruel concubines. When ancient prophecies begin to come to pass, can the healer-slave save the realm and awaken the High Lord’s heart?

"I ADORED.. (the hero). From his initial appearance and those gentle words of promise that no harm would come to...(the heroine), to his accepting manner of all that was her, to his tenderness shown when a barrier for which he waited so patiently to fold was finally crossed. He has to be one of my favourite male counterparts I've read in a while. LOVE him." Bookaroo-Ju Review

"The writing is just beautiful. It flows sometimes like water. I don't know how else to describe it other than to say i enjoyed how it felt reading it." 5 out of 5 Modokker Book Pick Stars

For anyone who enjoyed the fantasy worlds of George Martin's Game of Thrones, C.L. Wilson's Lord of the Fading Lands, Elizabeth Vaughan's Warprize, or the memorably crafted healer heroines in Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, THE THIRD SCROLL is the next epic adventure to get lost in.

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Chapter One

(Twelve Blue Crystals)

“One eagle from the north. An omen for change,” Koro said next to me in the tree top.

He hung on to the nearest branch with both hands, his sateen tunic—befitting the only son of a wealthy trader—soiled from the climb. The wind ruffled his golden hair, pushing it into his eyes, the exact mellow brown shade as the tree bark.

The endless canopy of the forest stretched in front of us, the sea—with a narrow strip of rocky beach where my father would be even now fishing—at our back. The knar eagle, rarely seen this far south, circled above.

My people, the Shahala, did not believe in omens, but Koro’s father had brought Koro’s mother from a distant land.

I sized up the eagle. “Change in what?”

I had passed into womanhood from childhood, but my healing powers had not arrived. I was desperate for change in that.

Since my mother had died, people no longer came from far away for healing. Few of the sick made the trek to our rocky beach, even from the nearby village.

We did not have rice to eat with the fish my father, Jarim, might catch. We have not had rice for a long time. We did not always have fish, either. As I sat in the swaying branches on the top of the tallest numaba tree, I prayed that we would have something for that night.

But Koro had a different change in mind. A nervous smile danced on his face. “I talked to my father about visiting yours tonight.”

I looked away. “Jarim is in a bad mood. He had nothing but the most rotten luck with fishing lately. Maybe another day.”

“Tomorrow my father will leave on another trading trip.”

“When he comes back, then.” I turned back to Koro whose smile had disappeared.

Guilt pricked me, but at the same time despair welled inside my chest at the thought of him coming with his father to present an offering. I would never have my healing powers if I married now.

“Tera, you are—” he began in that soft voice of his that had comforted me so many times after my mother’s death.

“When your father returns from his journey,” I cut him off in a rush.

A trip to the farthest Shahala villages could take a full moon crossing or more. Maybe enough time to cajole the spirits into sending my powers to me. Powers like my mother’s, not like my great-grandmother’s, I added silently, to make sure that no spirit who might be listening to my thoughts would misunderstand.

Koro nodded, his disappointment already clearing, his eyes holding nothing but kindness and full understanding. Truly his face was welcome in my sight, his friendship valued from the bottom of my heart, but I could not give him what he longed for, not yet, not for a while.

My stomach growled.

My resolution wavered.

I could refuse Koro, but how long could I say no to the bride price? Even if I could endure the hunger, a good daughter would not starve her father.

Koro glanced up at the lone cloud above us, the eagle gone now. “The caravan will hurry on this trip. The traders will want to be back before the rainy season begins.”

For a second I saw the sky as it would be soon, a damp gray blanket thrown on the sun, keeping it captive. I swallowed the lump in my throat, blinking the image away.

Jarim and I could not survive another rainy season like the last. Toward the end, only the occasional strand of seaweed washed up on the rocks had kept us from starving. I could still feel the dark, gnawing pain in my belly every time I thought back.

Those hunger-filled days taught me one harsh lesson: if I could not heal, I was nothing.

The breeze from the sea strengthened and moved the branches around us. Our perch swayed. Koro held on tightly, his face turning pale.

I felt as safe as a babe rocked in loving arms. “Maybe you should go. Your mother might need help with the twins.”

“Of course. And you would want to perform your ceremonies.” Nothing but kindness sounded in his voice.

Yet I caught a flash of disappointment in his eyes, along with a faint trace of hurt. I had managed to offend him, at once implying he could not handle the height, and that I did not want him with me.

He slipped to a lower branch with care. “I will visit again in a few days, if you do not mind.”

“Of course not.” But even to my own ears, the words sounded insincere. I did care for Koro, my childhood friend, but the great shadow of marriage had come between us lately, threatening the only thing I ever wanted.

I watched him lower himself with awkward movements then disappear in the dense foliage, swallowed by a profusion of round leaves, each as big as his head. Then I turned to the task that had brought me to my perilous perch. As a healer, or almost one, I spent a fair amount of time gathering ingredients for various potions.

I said my prayers to the spirits and bowed before them. I thanked the numaba tree for sheltering the moonflowers that lived in the crook of its branches. As befitting a great gift, I thanked the flowers at length for their dew.

Then I lifted one of the large flowers, the haunting color of the twin moons, and tipped it to the phial that hung on a cord around my neck, collecting the tiny drops that nestled inside the creamy soft petals. Once the dew ran down the inside of the glass, I moved on to the next flower and the next.

The ritual of the harvest filled me with peace, but as soon as I finished, frustration nudged its way back into my heart. I loved preparing potions, but the time had come when I wanted more.

“The spirits know when the healer is ready, Tera,” my mother had told me a hundred times, trying in vain to quell the sea of impatience inside me.

I was so very ready. Why could the spirits not see?

I pushed to my feet on a sudden impulse, balancing on the swaying branch, and stood over the endless forest that covered our hill. Mountain of No Top stretched on the horizon, the dwelling place of the spirits.

Beyond the mountain lay the desert then the Kadar cities. For all I cared, they could all fall into the sea. Of the large Island of Dahru, I cared only about the Shahala lands of my people and my family’s beach.

Careful of my center of balance, I spread my arms and tipped my head to the sky, the wind whipping my hair around my face.

I shouted my heart’s desire into that salty wind. “Great spirits, I am ready!”

A wild gust rushed my words across the undulating emerald carpet of the treetops, ruffling the leaves. Birds startled into flight, a flurry of flapping winds—red, blue, yellow, green—like dazzling jewels tossed into the air.

I waited for the spirits to respond, to touch me, but I felt nothing. I could hear only my mother’s soft voice in my ears, words I had heard a million times. “You cannot rush the spirits.”

I hung my head. My mother would have been dismayed by my willfulness and impatience if she were with me.

Disappointment clenched my teeth as I climbed down, watching where I put my feet at every step, even though I had made the climb a thousand times before. I stepped from branch to branch, then from one thick vine to the next as they wrapped themselves around the tree’s smooth bark.

My clothes stuck to my skin. Up in the treetops, I had the wind, and at our home on the beach, a constant breeze blew from the sea. But in the woods, the hot air stood still.

I wished my mother were with me, showing me wonders like the flowers and birds that lived on top of the tall trees. Maybe she had many more secrets she had not had time to share, things I would never know, could never show my own daughter someday.

I did want a family. But not before my healing powers came to me. I could cure without those powers, help others with potions and poultices, powders and teas. But true healing, my mother had warned me—the knitting of bones and binding of spirits—would be lost to me forever if I rushed the sharing of my body.

I had to make sure Jarim understood this before anyone came to offer for me. I climbed faster. In my hurry, a broken branch snagged the worn linen of my thudi, leaving a slight tear in one of the puffy legs that gathered to narrow cuffs at the ankle. The thudi’s waist was fastened with a twisted length of blue shawl, as tattered as the strip of linen bound tightly around my middle up to my armpits.

I kept moving. I never thought that the snag might be a warning from the good spirits resting on top of the numaba tree. If they had whispered Little Sister, do not rush, watch out, I did not hear.

On the beach side of the thick trunk now, to avoid another sharp branch, I had to turn away from the tree. Jarim stood in front of our home, four men around him. I brushed the hair out of my face and pushed a leafy branch aside for a better glimpse of their strange clothing.

Foreign traders, I thought. If only we had something to trade.

Jarim was gesturing as if trying to convince them of something very important, his arms going up and down in a choppy motion like the wings of the small chowa bird.

I smoothed a hand down my breastbinding. I had left my dress and my veil at home, as always when going for a climb. I could not let strange men see me like this.

What if they came for healing?

I had tried to help the few who had not heard of my mother’s death and made the arduous journey, but despite the healing potions, I rarely succeeded. Jarim said I did not have the power in my hands, but I knew the truth: I did not have the power in my heart.

Something inside me was missing, and the spirits sensed it.

Sometimes, secretly, out of sheer frustration, I blamed him. My mother had been a Tika Shahala, a healer from the highest order. Jarim, a foreigner, weakened her Shahala blood, robbing me of my heritage.

I slipped to the next branch, and it dipped under my weight. As the leafy end shifted, I could see the visitors’ ship at last, bobbing in the water some distance from the beach. My fingers went numb as I recognized the black sails. Despite the heat, I shivered.

A slaver.

I had seen a slave ship once, years before. An illness on board had brought them to seek my mother. The fame of her powers drew all manner of people to us day and night, never giving her a moment of rest. She did not seem to mind. She did everything with a smile. She had the kindest face of any woman, always comforting, making the sick believe they were already well even before she began her cure.

I only saw her sad once in all her life, the day the slave traders came to shore. She helped them, like she would anyone else, taking a boat to the ship and staying on it well into the night.

The Shahala did not own slaves—my people found the practice distasteful. But the Kadar did, attracting unscrupulous traders from the nearby kingdoms that dotted the sea.

The Kadar had to be the most terrible people anywhere, I had thought, but it was not until months later that I truly learned to despise them. Visitors brought news that the Kadar High Lord had fallen gravely ill. My mother, with her caring heart, wished to go and heal him.

She sailed away and never returned. Two whole moon crossings passed before word reached us from a trade ship that she had died on her journey. Whatever healing the Kadar had demanded of her had killed her.

I had sworn many times that somehow I would find out how and for what purpose she had died. I swore to the spirits that someday, when I was a true healer and had enough crystals to afford the long journey, I would find her resting place and recite the Last Blessing over her grave.

After her death, many a night I had lain on my tear-soaked pillow, wishing to be a sorceress of old, so I could curse the Kadar. But as time passed, I let such thoughts drift away with the outgoing tide, for I knew they would have saddened my mother. She could not have borne to see me with hatred in my heart.

Still, forgiveness did not come easy. The Kadar made war, brought injury and misery, while the Shahala healed and lived in peace. I used to think the good spirits that sometimes rested on top of the numaba trees must have been the spirits of the Shahala who had passed on. The bad spirits that lived in the depths of Mirror Sea to grab after anyone who sailed it, I believed to be those of the anguished Kadar who had died in war, not finding peace even in death.

I was not surprised that Mirror Sea churned under the slave ship. I could almost see all those restless Kadar spirits angry because the traders no longer brought them slaves. Maybe those dark spirits were trying to pull the ship under so they would have servants once again.

When I finally slid to the ground from the lowest branch of the tree, I ran through the forest, knowing every rock, every root I had to jump over. Then I reached the edge of the woods, and bending low, I rounded some boulders, ran down the stone stairs and kept to the bushes until I reached the side entrance of our wooden house. Better to sneak in and retrieve my clothes before the men saw me. I did not want to shame Jarim or my mother’s memory.

The men made loud bragging noises as they talked in the front. I frowned at the sound. Polite people talked little and pleasantly, bringing no more attention to themselves than necessary.

To talk so loud was as if one painted a sign on one’s forehead: Here I am, look at me. Then everyone would have looked at him and seen him for a fool.

I hoped they did not come for healing, for I feared what people such as these would do when disappointed. I hoped they had come for medicinal herbs. Dried herbs I had aplenty.

I hurried to my room and pulled on my short tunic, regretting for a moment that not one piece of my worn clothing matched any other. We had better clothes when my mother had been alive. We had fine robes and food and laughter.

I put away the memories that seemed less than real, like legends from a golden age, and wrapped my veil around my head in the proper manner for a healer, then hurried toward the front. I pushed through the wind-torn curtain that covered the entrance.

“Apar,” I greeted Jamir—calling him father for the last time.

The traders fell silent. Their gazes poured over me like icy water.

I could scarce keep from staring back at them. Shells and small disks of metal decorated their clothes in a dizzying array of patterns I had never seen before. The richness of the materials, the sheen of the fabric, the glitter…

Jarim caught my gaze and smoothed down his thin tunic. He wore better clothes than I, but still he could have been mistaken for a servant next to the strangers.

“Everything you say is true?” the tallest man, made taller yet by his wrapped silk headpiece, asked Jarim.

I sucked in my breath at his rudeness. To question the word of a Shahala was unthinkable. Though no Shahala blood flowed in Jarim’s veins, since he’d been married to my mother, people had always extended him the same respect.

“Very good healer. Only daughter of a Tika Shahala,” Jarim boasted just as rudely, as if not at all offended.

He spoke a little of most languages used around our area. I knew them as well as my own, learned from the many visitors who had come to my mother.

I wished Jarim had not said such a thing, even if he said it only because he did not want to shame me.

The leader’s cold eyes narrowed. “Ten blue crystals.”

I stifled a gasp. Ten blue crystals were more than we had seen in a long time, many times more than my help was worth had I been willing to give it. I tugged Jarim’s sleeve.

“She is worth twice that,” Jarim insisted and hushed me when I tried to speak.

I had never seen him like that before. A healer did not bargain over healing or ask payment. The sick gave gifts according to their abilities, despite reassurances that no payment was necessary.

“Twelve.” The trader’s impatient tone signaled the end of bargaining, and he handed Jarim a worn leather bag.

To my horror, Jarim counted the crystals. Then he nodded. Perhaps he did not feel the need to show manners in front of people who had none.

When the traders started toward the ship and motioned to me, I followed obediently, if a little dazed. I stopped after a moment when my mind cleared.

“My herbs.” I turned toward our dwelling, taking mental inventory. I should probably grab a little of everything.

But the man who had bargained for my services said, “You will not need those.”

Of course. They traveled many waters. They probably had their own herbs on the ship. Maybe I would even see something new and exotic. The thought cheered me a little.

I looked at Jarim, but he would not look at me.

“Come,” the lead trader ordered.

And I followed him.

I hoped they wanted me to heal slaves, although I was unsure whether my ministrations would be much help. But trying would have been easy, as my heart went out to the unfortunates. And I had to try now, whether master or slave languished in the sickbed—Jarim had already taken the payment.

Our shore met the sea not with a sandy beach but with boulders and rocks the waves beat against. Because of this, most ships docked in Sheharree, the nearest port, and our visitors completed the journey over land. But this time a grizzled man, wet from the spray, waited for us, holding the rope of a massive boat wedged between two scarred rocks, each as large as the boat itself.

I eased in, fear stealing into my lungs as we shoved off. The next wave could push us back and smash the boat against the rocks. But the men who handled the oars handled them well and mastered the waves.

What would they do to me if my healing failed? Would they bother to bring me back and demand their crystals? I could too easily see them tossing me overboard, into the rolling sea.

I wanted to tell them I was a fake, that I was sorry my father had taken their payment. But none of them talked, so I too remained silent. I did not want to make them angry, these people who stole others’ lives to sell.

My heart beat a hurried rhythm at the unfamiliarity of the boat ride. I squeezed my eyes shut against the fury of the sea. My mother had always forbidden me from taking to the water, a habit I had kept even after her death. The boat tossed, and I grabbed its side, trying to pretend I stood atop a numaba tree, the branches swaying under me in the wind.

A welcome calm spread through my limbs at the fantasy, until the waves sprayed water in my face. I told myself I stood atop the numaba tree, and the rain began to fall. But my mind no longer believed the tale.

After an endless time, the traders shouted, and I opened my eyes. We had reached the dark vessel, the side covered with scars, the wood smelling moldy and sad, as if the sadness of the slaves had poured out into the ship.

I looked at the traders and wondered if anyone sailing on such a ship could ever be anything but unhappy, but their faces were closed and hard as a naga shell, so I could not tell which way they felt.

I climbed the rope ladder second after the leader, the rest coming up behind me. I did not mind the short climb, the ship not nearly as tall as the trees on our hillside. But I did mind when the wind snatched my veil. The length of fabric, like a dead bird falling from the sky, tossed on the waves but for a moment before it disappeared under the churning water.

The man behind me did not give me time to worry about the loss, he growled at me to hurry.

The deck stood deserted, the boards weather-beaten, the black sails frayed. Worn ropes tied down a pile of firewood to my left, two wooden buckets secured to the pile with twine. A handful of barrels were tied to the ship’s railing on my other side.

The men shoved me down into the belly of the ship that swallowed me like a large fish that had not eaten for many days. I shivered even as my forehead beaded with sweat from the hot, stale air. I opened my mouth to ask how many were sick, but a rough hand in the middle of my back shoved me forward into a dark cabin. The door closed with a loud thud behind me.

“I will need a lamp,” I called through the door. “Or a torch.”

Nobody answered.

I turned back to the darkness and lowered my voice. “Is anyone here? Anyone sick?”

No response came, nor could I hear anyone breathing in there with me. I moved forward until I bumped into the wall, then laid my hands on a roughly-hewn wood plank and followed it.

When I reached the door, I pushed against it to no avail. I felt around for some furniture but found none. I was in an empty cabin somewhere in the middle of the ship. With nothing else to do, I sat down and waited for them to bring my patient to me.

Instead, I heard the scrape of the anchor being pulled up. Voices rang out on deck. Sails snapped somewhere above me. My heart shuddered when I finally realized there would be no sick coming.

I, Tera, daughter of Chalee, Tika Shahala, had been sold by my own father to be a slave.