If you read Sarah Chorn‘s debut novel, Saraphina’s Lament, you know she has a particular way with words. Chorn blends dark imagery and unusual settings with a lyrically beautiful voice unlike pretty much anything else I’ve seen on the page. All of it comes together to present characters, story, and a feeling which is uniquely Chorn.
If you haven’t read Saraphina’s Lament, and you like grimdark fantasy tales, it’s available on Kindle (free if you have kindle unlimited) but you might want to hold off, because her sophomore, Of Honey and Wildfires hits digital shelves today.
Set in a secondary Western fantasy setting, Of Honey and Wildfires features a magic system based on coal and oil.
From the moment the first settler dug a well and struck a lode of shine, the world changed. Now, everything revolves around that magical oil.
What began as a simple scouting expedition becomes a life-changing ordeal for Arlen Esco. The son of a powerful mogul, Arlen is kidnapped and forced to confront uncomfortable truths his father has kept hidden. In his hands lies a decision that will determine the fate of everyone he loves—and impact the lives of every person in Shine Territory.
The daughter of an infamous saboteur and outlaw, Cassandra has her own dangerous secrets to protect. When the lives of those she loves are threatened, she realizes that she is uniquely placed to change the balance of power in Shine Territory once and for all.
Secrets breed more secrets. Somehow, Arlen and Cassandra must find their own truths in the middle of a garden of lies.
Chorn has spent years working as an editor for indie authors and bestsellers, alike. And the lessons learned in honing those countless stories shows up in her own writing.
But, as Levar Burton likes to say, you don’t have to take my word for it. We’ve got a sample chapter for you. And, if you like it (as I’m certain you will) you can pick up the book digitally from Amazon, right now.
Of Honey and Wildfires – Sample Chapter
What I remember most about my father are his hands. Rough and calloused, scarred from a life spent in the mountains trap- ping and hunting, foraging for his next meal. His next day. I used to run my fingers over them, marveling at the stories that were written into his chapped flesh.
I will tell you this: Home is not a place. Home is an architecture of bones and a steadily thumping heart. Home is where dreams are born, and monsters are put to rest. It is where the soul can unfurl like the petals of a flower and find succor in the golden blush of each new day.
Home was my father’s arms. When I was in them, I knew nothing in the world could touch me.
In this memory, his hands are wrapped around the reins of a horse. He’s got me tucked up against his chest, and I listen to the thud-thud of his heart as the sun sets. Strands of his violet hair tickle my cheek. I wrap a bit of it around my fingers, entranced by the way it shimmers as though made of crystals, catching the light and reflecting rainbows.
He was as luminous as the moon, lighting the night of my life. I worshiped him.
That is what I remember of my home. His hands, the gentle sway of the horse, and his heart singing against my ear.
We were traveling toward the Boundary, though I didn’t know it then. I have a feeling we’d been wandering for a while, over vast, untamed distances, but I remember none of it. I just know that a moment before we crossed, Da wrapped his arms around me and whispered, “Hold tight, Cass. We’re going through now. You hold on. We’ll be okay.”
I was too young to hear the desperation in his words. Too naive to hear the worry. The Boundary loomed before us, keeping the shine in, and everyone else out.
I felt his muscles tensing. Coiling. Waiting. Anticipation hung on him like a shroud.
I remember what the Boundary looks like. A rainbow shimmer in the air that reached up to the sky until my eyes could no longer follow it. When we passed through it, I marveled at the shine on my hands, coating my body. I felt Da shiver behind me, a pained moan ripping through him.
I felt nothing.
The other side of the Boundary was much like the one we’d just left. Sagebrush, waist-high, scrubby trees, brown dirt, hard rocks, a dry riverbed, mountains in the distance and not much else. Not so much as a cabin or campfire in sight.
Da stopped his horse and slid off, before helping me down. He was pale, his body shaking. He had one hand clutched over his heart. “I hate that damn Boundary,” he said. “Never gets easier.” And that was all he spoke of it. He eyed me and then nodded. “You’ll do, Cass. Come help me set up camp.”
That was our first night within the Boundary. I helped gather wood while Da lit a fire. We ate a dinner of hardtack and stared at the moon until sleep claimed us. It was much like any of the other nights I’d endured recently. It was life, boiled down, and mine.
We had to travel for three days before we got to the first sign of civilization. Three days of quiet tension, of Da, grunting and muttering to himself. He did not seem happy, but then, I don’t think I ever remember him being truly happy. He was a quiet man at the best of times, even more prone to it when he was brooding, and I let him keep his peace, and I kept mine, watching the world pass us by. Watching my father’s hands on the reins of his horse, so steady and sure.
I marveled at myself and I marveled at the world around me. Everything seemed so much brighter, so much more alive. We were setting up camp and I was turning this way and that, watching the sun paint the world with all the colors of the rain- bow, simmering just like my Da did. I must have made some small noise, for his voice broke through my reverie. “It’s brighter here,” he said, “because the shine is in your blood. It’s part of you, and so this land calls out to welcome you home.” His eyes were on me, full of sorrow.
We got to a small cabin late at night. Smoke rose from a stone chimney, blotting out the stars. Da got off his horse and let it have its head. It would stay close. The creature was as faithful as the sun. He took hold of my hand. I realized, for the first time, that my father was anxious. I had seen this expression on him once before, long ago. The pinched lips, the way he kept running his hand through his hair, a nervous twitch to all his movements. His voice was hard, but his gaze was soft when he said, “Cassandra, you behave yourself.”
We walked to the cabin and he rapped on the door.
“Who’s there?” A man shouted from inside.
“Chris,” Da replied with a grunt. “Come to see my sister.” Shock tore through me. I had no idea Da had a family. I didn’t know he had a sister who lived in a cabin. I had no idea that he had people who weren’t born on the back of a mountain. People who weren’t wild, like us.
The door was flung open and a woman threw herself out of it, wrapping her arms around my da, sobbing against his shoulder. She had pale violet hair and skin, and bright eyes. It was impossible not to see their relation. Their shared blood was evident in their high cheekbones, slightly slanted eyes, and broad shoulders.
They held each other under the moonlight. Held on to each other and whispered. I felt awkward. Uncertain. Thrust into this strange world, I had no way to know what was expected of me, and so I stood and watched them whisper and cling to each other, silent and still as the night.
My gaze drifted, and I saw small heads peeking out from behind a concerned father in the doorway of the cabin, a boy and a girl, both a few years older than myself. I smiled at them, but they did not smile back. They edged away from me, as though I was sick, and they could catch it by looking too long.
“And who is this?” Annie finally asked, pulling away from Da and eyeing me.
“My daughter,” Da replied, coughing uncertainly. “Cassandra.”
“Daughter,” Annie said, turning the full weight of her regard on me.
I realized then that I was an outsider being thrust inside. I was something that did not fit. I did not wear a dress, rather some buckskin pants and a tunic my father had bartered off some other mountain man. On my feet, I wore soft slippers of animal skin. I was not neatly combed, my clothes were torn and stained by mud and offal both. Likely, I stank.
More than that, was my hair. Before, my father’s violet coloring had always marked him as something else, though it was easy enough to hide with the right hat and kerchief. Now, however, it was I who held that dubious honor. Here, in this place, I saw my father and Annie’s violet locks. Behind Annie, her husband was jade in coloring. I hadn’t seen her children long, but I knew they were likewise colorful. In contrast, my own onyx hair stood out, marking me as other. I didn’t like it. There would be no blending in here. Not the way I could out there, beyond the Boundary. I felt exposed. Suddenly, my lack of shine felt like an accusation, like an admission of a crime I had not known I’d committed. I had my father’s violet eyes. That was all we shared between us.
“And your wife?” She looked around him, peeked into the shadows cast by the moon dancing on the scrub oak. “Where is she?”
“She died in childbirth.”
“I’m sorry,” Annie said, and she did look sorry. Her eyes went wide and filled with tears, her mouth opened and shut silently, and then she took her brother’s hand and led him inside, leaving me to trail after.
I was acutely aware of crossing that threshold that night, the feel of moving from the known, into the unknown. The cabin itself was small and warm, informal but full of the oddities of life, bits of cloth, a comb, a mirror, small boards and chalk for writing, books, a basin of water, and so much more. Things acquired through life and stability. Things I’d never had. Never even dreamed of having.
We were quickly seated at a long oak table that took up most of the space in the cabin and served bowls of hot soup with chunks of bread. I picked at it nervously, wary. Whatever appetite I’d had, fled.
Still, I felt my father’s eyes on me and I ate. Even then, I did not want to disappoint him.
Across the room, the two children stayed well away, but whispering behind their hands, gazes fixed on me. What a curiosity I must have been to them, and truthfully, I was just as curious about them, but shy with my regard. I had not seen other children before. Not that I could remember, at least, and their presence filled me with an odd mix of excitement and trepidation.
My da told Annie his story, about his years in the mountains. Meeting my mother in some far-flung town, his marriage, my birth, and then that fateful second birth, whereupon both my mother and sister died. Then, he said, he was so torn apart with grief, he took me on his saddle and put wherever we had been behind us. He put fire to the trail and ran from his shadows. Spent some time with me, trapping and hunting, until he realized that a girl couldn’t act like a man grown. A girl needed structure and education. A girl needed to be civilized.
“Are you staying?” Annie asked, voice full of hope. “You could hide out somewhere—”
“I can’t,” Da said. He cast his eyes to the far wall, as though he could see through it. “You know me, Annie. My life wasn’t made to be lived in one place.”
I don’t know why I hadn’t realized it before that moment. Perhaps I was so young, or perhaps I was so caught up in what was happening, I didn’t stop to think that my father would be dragging me all the way out here to dump me at the feet of strangers. I didn’t think that this journey was one long goodbye. If I had, perhaps I would have savored it more.
He must have been desperate. I realize that now. Desperate, to dare the Boundary with his own daughter, who might not survive it. Not once, but twice, for I learned during his conversation with my aunt that I had been born in the mountains, well within the Boundary.
I do not harbor anger for him. Not truly. As a child I did, but now I am wiser and I understand the way of it. He loved my mother with every part of him. She was the only creature in the world that could tame the wild of his soul, and she was gone. I was nothing but a reminder, every day, of what he’d lost.
A body can only live so long with a wounded heart and a bleeding soul.
He did not leave me because he wanted to. He left me because he had to.
They spoke in soft tones for some time before I started nodding off and Annie ushered me and her kids to a loft upstairs and bade us rest. I was exhausted, but not used to sleeping under a roof. Uncomfortable, I tossed and turned the night away, listening to their whispered voices down below as they haggled away my future in a pool of yellow shine light.
Her kids, my cousins, did not speak to me. They huddled together on the bed they shared and stared at me with wide, startled eyes. I watched as dreams took them and darkness filled the loft.
It was warm, and the blankets I was given were soft.
I would like to say that I whiled away the hours weeping terribly into my pillows. Perhaps I should wax poetic about the night quaking with the force of my despair, but it was not like that. My sorrow was a dark, secret thing, a stray cat hidden in the coldest corner of my soul. I fed her scraps. I watched her grow.
Sometimes it is the wounds we do not see that leave the deepest scars.
In the morning, I listened to the cabin, quiet, save for my father’s heavy boots tromping around while he gathered supplies. Preparing to leave.
I crept down the stairs, a blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I pulled the door open, wincing as it screamed on hits hinges, slicing into the still morning. My breath hung in the air. My feet crunched over the cold earth as I stepped away from the cabin, toward my father. Diaphanous fog blanketed the scrubland, hanging on trees, making ghosts of the small glade we stood in the center of.
Da was tightening his blankets to his saddle, motions tense and jerky. I knew he knew I was there. I could see it in the stiffening of his shoulders. “Da,” I said. That, and only that.
He let out a long, low breath, head sagging, his body going still. “I was hoping you’d be asleep.”
“You don’t even want to say goodbye?” I wanted him to face me. To see the pain on my face. He was my home, and he was leaving. What did that leave me with?
“Little flower,” he finally turned, and I saw tears wetting his cheeks. I’d never seen him cry before. Not even when he got stuck with the antler of an angry bull elk. “I won’t be gone for long.”
We both saw the lie, and let it rest between us like a dead, shriveled thing.
“Annie is a good woman with a lot of love. You will be better off with her. You’ll go to school. Learn to read.”
Da had never learned to read, and it was always an embarrassment for him. He’d speak of reading frequently, of the magic of books unlocked for the person who knew the way of them. Even at that moment, I could hear the yearning in his voice. He wanted what every parent wanted. He wanted to bequeath me with opportunities he never had. Right then, however, all I could focus on was my abandonment. Somehow, his desire made me feel all the more hollow.
“I don’t want to learn how to read.” I sniffled. Wiped at my nose. “I just want you.”
“Cassandra, I will be back soon, and you will show me all the stories you can read. You will be dressed in fine clothes and eat at fine tables. You will have a future here. One I cannot give you in the mountains. The wild is no place for a little girl.”
“Da!” I sniffled, my voice seemed muffled by the stillness and mist that shrouded us.
“Enough!” He barked. He hardly ever raised his voice, so I jumped and put more distance between us. “You will stay here, and you will mind Annie, you hear me? You will be a good girl. You will attend your studies, and you will listen to your betters. This is not an argument, Cassandra. This is what I require from you. Do you understand?”
Do you understand.
It is, perhaps, one of the cruelest sentences, and so often spoken to children.
I understood nothing, and somehow, I already knew everything. My life, as it had been, was over, and I was brought to this place to be birthed into another. I understood that my insight was not wanted, nor needed. I knew that it was my job to accept my fate with grace.
What else could I do? I nodded and fisted my blanket, watched as the only home I’d ever known prepared to ride off and lose himself. He finished tying up his provisions and I knew it was time. He knelt before me. “Don’t forget me,” he whispered, gripping my chin with his thumb and forefinger.
Perhaps being forgotten is the worst thing an adult can imagine, but as a child what mattered wasn’t the forgetting, but the removal. Being isolated. I was a stranger in a strange world, too small to navigate these waters. Too young to understand what was happening. Everything narrowed. Reality became defined by the shattered-glass sound of my own frozen screams.
I did not know that a person could feel so powerfully. I did not know that sorrow could scald.
I was not sad that he would forget me, or I, him. I was afraid because suddenly I knew what it was to be cold. I was frightened because now I understood the awesome power of the word alone.
When I was a child, I did not know how much life could hurt.
I have gained one truth over the years: The heart is a knife. Each beat of it cuts.
We locked eyes. He nodded once, already pulling on his cold, distant mask. Then, he stood up, got onto his horse, and rode away, the mist swallowing him up as though he never was.
I watched the spot, the small hole in the trees he’d disappeared through. Watched it for what must have been hours, waiting for him to return. Waiting for him to show up again with a big smile, “Just kidding, little flower,” he’d say.
But He never returned. The birds chased each other through the sky. The day slowly melted away the mist.
When I look back on that moment, what I remember most is the sunlight. The way it spilled into that small clearing like a river of molten gold or a waterfall of honey. My entire life had changed in an instant, but the sun remained unmoved.
I smelled wood smoke and sizzling fat. My stomach moaned. The door opened and Annie appeared, wearing a thin shift and a thick shawl, her hair pinned up high and covered by a light bonnet. Her smile was sad, and somehow knowing as well. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders. “He’s gone then?” She asked.
She didn’t wait for an answer before she pulled me into her embrace. I let her hold me close. She was not my mother, but I needed someone to cling to. Everything I’d ever known had just ridden away.
“Oh, you poor, sweet thing,” she whispered against my hair.
I let her wrap her arms around me while I grew more and more brittle. More and more cold.
Touch me, and I might shatter. Hold me, so I can stay whole.
What kind of man leaves his only child in the arms of strangers? What kind of pathetic daughter was I, for being so easy to leave?
I know now that he was desperate. I know how love can twist a person. But as a child, all I saw was the knife, and all I felt was the wound.
“Come inside and eat,” Annie said. She wiped her eyes and smiled at me, and I tried to smile back, but something inside was frozen.
She knelt before me. “Chris, your da, has always been his own person. He’s a good man, but he’s never been one who could deal with the hard realities of life. He’s more prone to running than sorting through his soul. He’ll come back, Cassandra. He’ll come back as soon as he realizes what he’s left here. Don’t blame him for being broken. Sometimes the world is too hard for the people who live in it.” She pressed her lips against my cheek. “He’ll be back. I swear it.”
I nodded and let her take me inside to break our fast. I now know what resignation tastes like. It is savory, like fresh bacon cut from the side of one of Annie’s pigs.
And that’s how I started my new life.