Mulan meets The Last Airbender in this dark fantasy, set in an island nation akin to a wooden Hong Kong, where two Asian women from warring tribes must put aside their pasts in order to move forward.
For Luna, the price of peace in a time of war is a heart of hickory. But to have a hickory heart leaves no room for love. When the lives of her three brothers are tied to refugee siblings from the warring tribe, Luna must test the limits of her wooden heart, trust those she's been taught to hate, and now she's destined to destroy.
In an island nation akin to a wooden Hong Kong, two Asian women from warring tribes: Lye, a powerful slave of the Emperor and Luna, a Char defying tradition, must put aside their pasts in order to move forward.
Release date: August 24, 2021
Publisher: Owl Hollow Press
Print pages: 309
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The Girl with the Hickory Heart
Lauren Nicolle Taylor
1. CHAR LUNA
he soft, strangled squeal of a creature who knows it’s in danger but doesn’t know what
Teck, teck, teck... A finger taps my temple impatiently. But I’m already awake. I
heard the trotting hooves on the boardwalk competing with the slosh of the ocean.
A hiss through fangs, black and slimy as squid ink. Acid leaking from yellow lips. Curled
claws drag, keeping time with lapping waves.
Someone tugs on my plait like it’s a well rope. I sit up, elbows digging into the hard, salt-
crusted planks of my bed.
“Sister!” I know it’s serious when he calls me sister. “He did it again,” Joka whispers
Eldest brother Sun’s broad shoulders cut stern shadows on the floor. The squint of his eyes
matches the pointedness of the dagger at his side. “You hear that?” he asks, ears pricked. A
wicked smile hooks his lips as his hand tightens around the hilt.
Perched on my ladder, I nod and pat Sun’s tense wrist. “Wait.”
With food this scarce, Ben Ni will suffer for this.
Joka eases a thin shoulder against the bedroom door, issuing a muffled bark at our
youngest brother. “Ai ya! Wake up, dreamer! You forgot to lock the gate... again!”
Ben Ni appears, befuddled, hair raked like a backwards wave. Joka looks to me and we
roll our eyes. “The pig...” He slaps his face. “The pig!” Hopping from foot to foot, he moans,
“Papa’s gonna kill me! Kill. Me!” It’s a familiar song and I groan as the melody repeats its
“And the beating he’ll give you with that oak arm’ll make your ears ring for weeks,” Sun
emphasizes with a vindictive chuckle, clutching the sides of his head. Ben Ni blanches.
Scrambling down, I land quietly on the floor. A breeze sneaks over the waves beneath our
house and pushes between the floorboards, creeping up my cotton pant leg. I shudder. Our
pig’s wheezy squeal softens as it runs from our house and the midnight mauler stalking it.
Ben Ni reaches for the net he made hanging from a hook in the hallway. It’s cleverly
weighted on the edges to pin its prey. The stones warble as they clang against each other.
“Sh!” I hiss, one ear focused on the sleeping village about to be woken by my cloud-
bound brother, and the other on my parents, who could stir at any second. Sun runs a hand
through his short black hair, and it springs back into place. His dark eyes dart from side to
side, mind already in the hunt.
“We’re not heading into battle, Sun.” For once I can be sure of those words. The treaty
with our mainland enemy has spread relief over the nine Char islands like a sweet, spiced
cloud. “We can do this quietly and without bloodshed.” I puff out his candle. Tart smoke
stings my nostrils as his flare with irritation. But he gives a small salute, like maybe he’ll
I tiptoe through our simple kitchen. Papa rolls over by the hearth. His long black
moustache moves like a lazy worm as he snores, too tired to lift its head. Papa’s hand is fair
but brutal. Ben Ni watches him sleep with tear-prickling apprehension. I shake my head and
take his net, slipping into the humid, insect-filled night. Hopefully it won’t come to that.
I scan the boardwalk connecting the huts of our village, winding like a crooked spine
along the base of the coal-colored mountains. The one pure white hindquarter of the jet-black
midnight mauler several houses down stands out like a beacon. The tree cat slinks awkwardly
away from us, claws curled under, body rocking from side to side like it has drunk too many
plum wines. My mouth sours at the thought.
Swatting at midges licking salt from my ivory-toned skin, I search for our pig. I can’t see
it, but I hear it. Trotting, snuffling. An apathetic wheeze like the squash of a tattered
Sun bumps into my back, followed by Joka and Ben Ni. Three brothers awaiting
“You should be more careful,” Joka groans. “You’re such an empty-headed...” He pokes
an accusing finger at Ben Ni’s chest.
Ben Ni’s sigh seems to scrape the base of his ribs, golden eyes on the swirling night sky.
His hair is softer, browner like mine, and the wind picks on it, sweeping it over his brow and
blocking his vision. “I’m sorry, brother, I was playing around with the feeder.” He taps the
air, invisible ideas competing in front of his eyes.
“Perhaps empty-headed is the wrong word.” Joka softens his tone, patting Ben Ni’s
shoulder. “There are too many ideas in there, and not enough room for common sense. Let’s
just get the pig back before Papa knocks those ideas from your brain.”
As we creep further along the boardwalk, Sun wraps an arm around Joka’s bamboo neck
and squeezes. The smooth timber tightens, sounding like a finger smudging glass. “Leave
little brother alone. Besides...” He holds up his dagger. “This makes for good sport.” His
shrewd eyes focus, concentrating as he presses his balsawood foot into the decking. His
square jaw sways slowly as he scans the dark. He stops. “There it is!” He rubs his hands
together, then points his dagger at the small pink shape nosing dangerously close to the water.
Joka sighs. “Maybe I don’t enjoy killing things as much as you.”
Sun releases Joka, thumps his back, and Joka stumbles, clutching his shiny green neck.
I pause, waiting for a window to blossom with candlelight. When it doesn’t, I steal
forward, watching the waving white hindquarter of the midnight mauler as it nears the pig,
who seems to forget what scared it from its pen in the first place. “Quiet! We’re not spilling
blood on this deck. We just need to catch the pig before Papa finds out.”
I speed up, passing dark window after dark window, praying we don’t wake a witness to
our crime. The village is sleeping. Peaceful within the haphazard huts.
“Come on.” I take Ben Ni’s hand as we come within ten yards of the witless animal and its
slowly closing hunter.
“Sun,” I direct. “Arms wide on the water’s edge. We don’t want it falling in.” I eye the
knife in his hand, pointing to the moon. Our eyes connect. “Last resort?” He nods, but it
seems disingenuous. Protectively, I usher Ben Ni behind me.
Joka hangs back, a coat on a hook. “What am I supposed to do?”
“When the mauler comes your way, chase it back to the mangroves.” His eyes widen and I
grin. “Or if you’re feeling brave, you could kick it into the water,” I whisper. He’s not likely
to kick it. That would require getting close, and Joka’s hands are for turning pages, not
wrestling jungle cats.
Ben Ni bounces eagerly. “And me?”
I tap my chin, trying to think of a safe task. “Err, make sure Joka actually does what I told
him to. From, uh, over there.” I point to the railing that hugs the mountain. He takes a few
steps, not far enough, and I push him. “Right up there.” Ben Ni huffs but hoists himself out of
Claws scrape. Hooves clatter. The pig shrieks. The mauler is within clawing range of the
pig, and now the pig knows it. Warm mist is disturbed, and midges ride the current.
Moonlight adds sheen to the air as if we’re walking through thinnest silk. Silk that bites.
Sun closes in on the two animals, broad shoulders and thick body moving like a shadow
creeping across a sunny deck. The mauler freezes, hissing softly with a double-pronged
tongue, eyes floating like two yellow wish lanterns as it looks back at us.
I make a wish: For a living pig and no injured brothers.
Spooked, the mauler breaks into a strange canter, heading for our pig.
I sprint, heart beating fast. Feet picking out every solid board and avoiding the rotted ones
as salt spray peppers my pale cheeks. Ribbons of mist flow from its back as it pounces on the
pig, which stands in the middle of the walkway, blinking. Its ribs, ridged like harp strings,
rise and fall rapidly. It has barely enough meat on it to feed one man. But it’s precious.
Foolishly, I throw the net. Capturing both creatures and creating a scrabbling, hissing
I can’t hesitate. Lifting the net, I grab at the mauler’s coarse black fur, sharp as needles,
and pull. It screeches, lashes out to scratch me, but its claws are retracted, and it feels more
like a bristled punch.
The pig is released with a thud and a grunt.
My relief is as short-lived as the last slice of mooncake at our dinner table. I hear the
whistle of a dagger as it sails through the wispy air and then a single plop! as the poor little
pig stumbles backward off the boardwalk and into the sea. I rush to the rail in time to see it
sink like a stale dumpling. Sun kneels, arm outstretched. His knife digs deep into the
mauler’s leg and it screeches. Blood drips down its white hindquarter, acid saliva spitting
from its mouth, flying toward me.
Joka and Ben Ni start toward me, but it’s too late. Saliva burns my face and our food is
sinking to the sandy seabed.
Before they can protest, I take a deep breath, hold it, and jump.
Shivering, I place the wet, spluttering, and quite irritated pig back in its straw bed. I pat its
back. “You’re halfway to cured pork now,” I say with a smirk. It responds with a wheeze and
an offended snuffle. I lock the hutch when I leave.
Squeezing the salt water from my hair, I shoot a disparaging look at Sun, who grins
sheepishly. He kicks the pen door with his wooden foot, wiggling his toes and his eyebrows
at the same time. “No harm done, little Luna.” The way the brass tendons on his foot slide
and contract like tiny spy glasses pulls a minute smile from my chagrinned face.
I reach up and slap his forearm, his hard-as-stone muscles stinging my palm. “I thought
you had better aim than that! You didn’t even kill it. And now there’s mauler blood all over
Sun throws an arm over Ben Ni’s broadening shoulders. His golden head is dipped low,
although I doubt shame pulls it down. He’s concocting something. “Ben Ni’s going to scrub
it off before anyone sees it.” Sun throws him dark eyes, laced with affection. “Right?”
Ben Ni lifts a bucket from the straw-covered ground. “Right.”
Joka wraps a blanket over my shoulders and hugs me as I shudder. “How’s your face?” He
uses the corner to rub my cheek.
I force a smile, because guilt tugs at Ben Ni’s features. “It washed off in time. I’m fine.” I
catch his doubting eyes. “Really, I’m fine.” Joka opens his mouth to chastise our youngest
brother while Sun cleans his knife. I put my hand up to stop him. “The weighted net worked
well, little brother.”
His dreaming, honey eyes lift, hopeful, “You think?”
My jaw itches but I make myself leave it. “I do. I bet it’d be very useful for catching forest
Joka can’t help himself. “Yes, it would be if Sun could keep from throwing knives or
shooting arrows without thought.” He huffs. “You should have listened to Luna.”
Sun grunts and stands taller. “You know, books won’t save you if Shen break down the
door, brother. When they light your insides with fire or freeze your blood.”
Joka opens his mouth to retaliate, to quote the words of the recent treaty, but I place a
hand on his shoulder. Stop. It not easy for Sun to let go of the constant press of danger. It will
take us all a while to get used to the idea of peace.
Joka silences his lashing tongue.
“Yes, Sun should have listened to me. I’m the thankless, unlucky sap who keeps you all
alive and out of trouble.” I gripe, but I don’t really mean it. Everyone has their role in this
family. Hide-saver is mine. “As punishment, you can help Ben Ni wash the blood from the
deck before sunrise.” Sun’s chest expands but the protest deflates. He picks up a bucket.
None of us want to see Ben Ni beaten.
“You are very good at your job, sister,” Ben Ni says, warming my heart with a toothy
Joka rolls his eyes again. “She does get daily practice.”
We leave it there. We don’t belittle him, crush the ideas that spill from his mouth, or add
stones to his guilt. Ben Ni is the hopeful one. He dreams. He’s uncorrupted. And we need
him this way. So that when the pigs shrink to hide on bones, when the charred side of the
village grows blacker and bleaker, we will remember what we were fighting to protect.
I creep back inside, hoping to the pebble-pocked moon that our parents didn't hear any of it.
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