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The Stone Knife by Anna Stephens – Exclusive Excerpt!

Today on Fantasy-Faction we are thrilled to bring you an excerpt from Anna Stephens’ new series, Songs of the Drowned!

The Stone Knife (cover)For those of you who don’t know, Anna Stephens’ is the author of the highly acclaimed (including by us) Godblind series. The first book in that series, also called Godblind, came out in 2017, with its sequels, Darksoul and Bloodchild, released in 2019 and 2019 respectively. Songs of the Drowned begins with The Stone Knife, which is due out in one month! But what is The Stone Knife? Let’s find out together.

Summary

For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs—and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.

The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with a deadly music of their own.

As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love—a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and an ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.

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If that piques your interest, then wait till you read this exclusive excerpt from the book! Enjoy!

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The Stone Knife

by Anna Stephens

Lilla

Southeastern slope of Malel, Tokoban

120th day of the Great Star at morning

When they were a few days away from the border into Tokoban, Lilla had told the refugees they would be safe, that no Empire warriors would have penetrated so far into their land.

He’d been wrong.

Now, ten days and what felt like a thousand regrets and recriminations later, he led the shattered remnant of his warriors uphill through lush, cultivated jungle towards the Sky City. Behind them, trudging in silence broken only by the intermittent complaints of exhausted youngsters, more than three hundred Yaloh came with them. They’d set out with twice that. They’d come with rations and blankets and ceramics, with medicines and seeds for planting. They’d come with hope as well as desperation, responding to the Tokob promise of shelter and protection. Tokob and Yaloh, the last two free tribes, standing together, living together, against the Empire of Songs. A dream that faded a little more with each morning until it left only bitterness on the tongue.

They’d passed a dozen small Tokob villages scattered through the jungle during their flight, each struggling to accommodate the hundreds of Yaloh who had crossed into Tokoban as the war penetrated ever closer to their homes. The Sky City was the only place that still had capacity, and every Tokob Paw that ventured into Yalotlan to aid its warriors returned with more refugees. Most came with tales of ambush or loss. Voices quiet, their mouths turned down, they spoke of kidnapped kin as if they were already dead. As captives of the Empire of Songs, they would be either slave or sacrifice, traded or slaughtered in Pechacan, the Empire’s heartland and home of its song-magic.

Lilla shivered. He had never yet heard the song and had vowed he never would. He would rather die than live as a slave, his life and will held in the hands of another and the song his constant, unavoidable companion. Lilla would fight to free Yalotlan and keep it and Tokoban independent. If it was Malel’s decree that he should die, he would go to the mother goddess without regret to await his rebirth. But he would not surrender his body and mind into the power of another. Not for anything or anyone.

It was a vow thousands of Tokob had taken in the preceding months, some even going so far as to tattoo their promise into their flesh. Lilla’s promise was carved into his heart, and that was enough.

His surviving warriors led the way, for they knew the game trails and the safest route up the slopes to avoid the Swift Water that twisted and tumbled across the hill. The Yaloh warriors came last, turning often to stare down the trails for the tell-tale twitch of leaf or sudden silence in the usual clamour of the jungle.

Lilla’s thoughts circled memories of the ambush like a cat returning to its kill, worrying at the meat of events, clawing at his decisions and picking them apart. Lilla was Fang, the leader of his Paw: the fault was his, and so were the deaths, but now, at last, they were in familiar terrain. The humidity had risen steadily until the air was thick as resin and just breathing was a labour. The Wet would come soon, months of rain and storm, deluge and flood, that would wash the Empire of Songs back into its own lands and swell the crops for harvest.

It would bring much-needed respite from the war, but not from death and watchfulness. The Wet carried dangers of its own, ones that ordinary warriors couldn’t fight. But both the Wet and the war slipped from Lilla’s mind, just for a moment, when they finally climbed out of the jungle and onto Malel’s bare skin. Malel, who was at once the mother goddess, the world, and the hill itself upon which the Tokob, her first children, had built their greatest city. Up and to their right, still a few sticks away, the Sky City itself gleamed pale and majestic against the darker rock and splashes of green of the hill. The sun was high, picking out the glyphs and paintings adorning the city’s perimeter wall. Within, a maze of houses and markets, great plazas and temples to Malel and her first creations, the Snake and the Jaguar, kin to the Tokob.

Outside the walls grew widely spaced orchards of fig, mango, palm and nut, and small stands of rubber and pom for practical and ritual purposes, and then rows of terraced fields below, seedlings just showing green against rich, black soil. Most of the Yaloh gathered here now had never seen the Sky City. Their voices were low with awe and wonder, and not a little relief. The Sky City’s walls protected against more than predators; they were sturdy enough to protect its inhabitants from the Empire, too. Perhaps. Lilla heard their relief and felt it loosen something dark and hard in his chest. He was home. Safe. For a little while.

To their right the great bend of the Swift Water glittered and rushed, twisting towards them and then looping back on itself, following the contours of the land and its own channel, carved out of Malel’s belly since the world began.

‘What’s that?’ a child asked, pointing at a series of small, squat stone buildings running across the hill below the lowest fields.

Lilla followed her gaze. ‘Those are the water temples,’ he said. ‘See those long pipes coming out of them? Every morning, they’re put into the river so that up in the temples, we can turn the handles that draw the water up the pipes. That way, the people get the water they need and only the ejab have to face the Drowned.’

Her little face was round and her eyes were even rounder. Her finger wobbled as it pointed again, this time at the river. ‘They . . . go down there?’

Lilla nodded. ‘Every day. But you must never, ever, ever go to the river,’ he added when the girl’s mother scowled at him. ‘And you see these markers,’ he added, raising his voice for the Yaloh nearest. ‘These mark safe distance from the river. Never cross them.’

They nodded and he waved them on, waiting for the last Yaloh warriors to make their way out of the jungle, led by Kux.

‘We came the slow and safe way,’ Lilla said as soon as the woman reached him. He gestured right, to where the jungle grew to within a hundred strides of the river and the two solitary trees that stood opposite each other, one on each bank. There was a rope bridge stretched between them. ‘If we’re running, we take the bridge and pray the Drowned don’t spot us. Through the Wet, we’ll build pits and traps and fortifications across here and cut down the bridge to slow the Empire’s advance. It’ll buy us time.’

‘Why waste time digging ditches?’ Kux demanded. ‘We should be in Yalotlan. We will make the enemy pay for every stick of land in blood, and that price will be too much.’

Her voice had risen as she spoke, and her Paw were responding, fire in their eyes and murmurs of agreement on their lips as they crowded close, knuckles yellow through brown skin.

‘Too much?’ Lilla demanded, his own anger matching hers, quick to flare these days. His warriors fought and died by the side of the Yaloh, and for what? For this slow, creeping retreat as they gave and the Empire took, stick after stick, inexorable as encroaching night. ‘There is no such thing as too much blood to them. How many eagle warriors of the Pechaqueh have you fought? Barely any, because they’re sending slave warriors and dog warriors from a dozen conquered tribes against us, making us spend our strength against fighters who are owned and have been corrupted by the Empire and its song. Only after they have broken us will the Pechaqueh themselves come, sweeping through Yalotlan like–’

‘Let them fucking come,’ Kux snarled. ‘I will taste their deaths on my tongue and I will pull their Empire down around their ears. I will shatter their song so its foul magic can no longer hold the other tribes in thrall.’ Her Paw whooped and shouted, silencing the jungle cacophony below them.

‘Then you are free to go,’ Lilla said, sharper than he meant to. He took a breath and lowered his voice, clinging to his temper by his fingernails. ‘The decision is not mine, Kux, and nor is it yours. Our councils will discuss the matter; if they find merit in sending warriors into occupied Yalotlan through the Wet, then that is what we will do. And the Tokob will go with you, I swear by my ancestors. Until that decision is made, at least rest. Eat. Dance the death rites for those we lost, and for yourself as much as them.’

Kux stared at him, her dark eyes unreadable. ‘You seek to delay me?’

‘I did not drag you all the way up Malel’s flank against your will, did I? No, I’m not delaying you; I just want to know you have grieved and rested, so that if we are to fight, I can rely on you.’

Kux snarled. ‘I am the one fighting for my land; you need not concern yourself with me.’ She paused then, and some of the fire went out of her. ‘But I will dance for my dead, Fang Lilla. I will do that. And I will see you at the council meeting at dusk.’

She pushed past him before he could say any more, and the rest of her Paw followed her in silence. In an effort to calm his temper, Lilla stared into the depths of the jungle, lush and green and vibrant, living and dying in the eternal dance, the eternal balance. Was it Malel’s will that her children fall to the Empire’s magic and the Empire’s warriors? Was it time for the first children to pass from the world and be reborn anew?

‘No,’ he whispered fiercely to the sun and the trees and the bright splash of parrots that broke from the canopy above his head, red against the aching blue of the sky. The breeze kissed the sweat on his brow as if in agreement and lifted the heavy curtain of his hair, tugging playfully and stealing cool fingers across the back of his neck. His heart twisted with an almost violent love for his home and his land, this place where his feet rested upon Malel’s skin, where she breathed within him and he within her. ‘No. She cannot want an end to all this. She cannot.’

If the Yaloh and Tokob fell, then all the peoples of Ixachipan would belong to the Pechaqueh of the Empire. And their song would infect them all.

Thanks again to Anna Stephens for sharing part of her story with us! The Stone Knife is due out November 26, 2020 and is available for preorder now! You can learn more about the Songs of the Drowned series and Anna’s other works on her website or you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!

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