Free writing workshop for aspiring authors of young adult and middle grade fiction. The first five pages may be all that agents, editors, and readers read, so get them right with the help of three authors over the course of three weeks. During the third week, an agent will also critique your pages and your pitch and pick a workshop winner - the prize is a partial request!
Name: Lisa Schunemann
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Poaching in these forests would get me killed.
In the northern territory of Orbis, snow was never far away, dancing and falling in lazy swirls. Flakes landed, only to be consumed by the unforgiving ground. A tendril of frosted air caressed my eyelashes exposed above the wrap, the brown leather blending into my skin.
The deer might smell me, but it shouldn’t see me.
My fingers itched to draw the bow string, but in the empty forest, the creak would echo as startling as a blade striking wood. Silence was a hunter’s best ally yet worst enemy. Breathe, Ash. You’re seventeen. This isn’t your first kill.
The deer stripped sheets of bark from a leaning tree. My stomach turned inwards, grumbling like a vicious badger. I tensed, but the deer didn’t startle, still didn’t seem to notice me. My mouth watered, even in the cold.
Death or an empty stomach. What a hard choice.
I needed one more blighted step for the best shot. I couldn’t afford a long chase if I just wounded it. Crossing the valley had drained too much of my strength already, the trek exhausting even if I wasn’t half-starved.
The deer took two steps. I flexed my frigid fingers and the bow creaked just as the wind suddenly shifted. My breath caught as the deer twisted to stare into the dark behind it, nostrils flaring.
No! It pivoted into the twisting underbrush. That quickly, my only chance at a decent meal for my sister and father disappeared. The string relaxed, my shocked fingers barely keeping it from firing. But my heart pounded like a swelling storm. I hadn’t spooked the deer.
In the distance, wood cracked beneath boots.
I ducked behind the tree trunk, adjusted my grip on the arrow. The deer would live another day. I might not. Brash steps drew closer. My arm shook, from the cold and from terror known to me since birth. A wild animal wouldn’t be so careless. I knew what I’d face when I turned. And I had one chance to take him or her by surprise.
A last twig cracked to my left. I broke my cover and the arrow soared.
The Therian moved just enough. The arrow grazed his arm and tore through his sleeve. In the setting sunlight, greasy hair fell around eyes ringed with silver. Shapeshifter eyes. They meant the end to those like me.
He clucked his tongue, gaze like bristling fire. “Carrion boys in these woods are up to no good.”
Good. My first horrified thought. He didn’t know I was a girl. If he did… all he could see were my green eyes. The claw marks on my cheek burned like they were freshly carved, mirroring the hate stoking in my chest. But I backed away. Those silver rings contracted.
I only knew he was a Silvanus soldier by the leaf and sword stitched on his tunic. “Nothing to defend your crimes, carrion?” he taunted. “None of our slave would dare be out in these woods. I’d bet you belong to Canis.”
He had that right. Canis was another noble family and I lived in their valley.
“Not that it matters,” he continued. His head lowered, predator staring at its prey. “We’ll catch the filth you’re helping.”
Helping? I tensed to run but the soldier shifted forms with a snarl. Fabric ripped. Fur replaced skin. A tan wolf, shoulders as tall as my hips, stood in the mud. His lips peeled back, fangs glistening.
Far away, a crow’s caw filtered through the darkening forest.
The soldier stiffened, distracted from his lunge. I fired my last arrow and ran for everything I was worth. Dense air choked my lungs as I dodged stumps spearing through muddy ground. A howl sounded. Brush gave way as he barreled after me.
Ryland! My crow, watching from above, had given me a small chance. Frigid creek water soaked my knees. Through it. Up the rise. The crashes behind me increased. A heavy weight slammed me into the mud, on my back. The paw pinned my shoulder, fangs snapping in my face. I screamed, brought my bow up at the last second. Jaws clamped around it.
The ring of silver death gleamed at me. I wanted to close my own eyes. See nothing but oblivion before I met it. The last little bit of my courage refused. Caws echoed again but were different. This time they sounded directly above us.
An arrow punched into the wolf’s shoulder.
His piercing yelp penetrated my bones, brought me to my senses. My hands fumbled in the mud. I gripped the first solid thing my palm touched.
A second arrow slammed into the wolf near the same spot. I knew one person who shot like that and she shouldn’t be out here! I screamed again, in terror that wasn’t for me, and swung the heavy stone. The yelps cut off and the wolf collapsed to the side. I clawed at the wrap over my lower face. Sweet air flooded my lungs.
“Ash. Get up! Ashina!”
Small but strong hands dug into my clothes. Gemina hauled me close and shook me until her face swam. Her brown eyes were probably as wide as mine.
“Gem,” I sputtered at my sister. “Gem, stop.”
“Are you all right?” She glanced at the ground near us. Her bow rested half on her knee, half in the mud.
I surged up, pushed her away. The soldier! He didn’t move. My palm still cradled the stone. I’d gotten him good. But not good enough. He’s still breathing. Hot fury roared to life and a stuttering sob escaped my throat. I scrambled forward and raised the stone. One less thing to hurt us if I brought it down. Again and again. Until blood soaked the thin layer of snow.
“Ash,” Gem pleaded. Her arrows quivered with each halting breath the shapeshifter took.
The stone thudded to the ground. I was a coward. I just couldn’t do it, because nothing except pain and death came from killing a Therian. The wolf shuddered and skin flowed to replace fur. Naked, he lay twitching, blood streaming down his face.
Gem helped me rise and we bolted, but my legs were almost too weak for me to keep up with her. She was three turnfalls younger, tinier and quicker. Or maybe it’s because you always give her your share of food. The trees thickened as we ran. Night chased our backs but we didn’t stop until the presence of the Therian had faded. I slowed, lungs burning, and lurched against a bent sapling.
“What are you doing out here?” I demanded, pushing my hood back and gulping air.
Gem’s lips tightened. “You may have fooled Father, but I knew you wouldn’t stop poaching. I followed you.”
“My arrows say otherwise,” she snapped. Her face broke under my stare. “Fine. Your crow led me to you.”
Gem jerked her head to a tree. Ryland sat on a branch and cocked his head. His left eye was a cloudy orb, a thin gash marring the glossy feathers. He cawed again.
“That bird’s not natural,” Gem muttered.
My gaze darted between them. They were always tagging along. Always catching me—the Therian’s words surged back. I snatched Gem’s arm.
“Did you see any other soldiers?”
Panic clawed its way up my throat. That soldier hadn’t been alone. I met Gem’s gaze.