Nocturnal Lives

Musings from the mind of Amanda S. Green – Mother, writer, and possessed by cats

Tag: snippets (Page 1 of 2)

Dagger of Elanna — snippet 4

As with other snippets posted on this site, this is a rough draft.  Don’t be surprised if you find placeholders for names or places. They are there to help me remember to go back to the story bible and confirm spellings, etc. By the time the book goes to publication, it will be edited and so the final version very well be different from what you see here. Copyright 2016 by Amanda S. Green. All rights reserved. You know the drill.

Snippet 1 can be found here , Snippet 2 here and Snippet 3 here. Also, click on the image or the following link to check out Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1).

***

The glass flew across the room, shattering against the far wall. He was surrounded by fools, nothing but incompetent fools. That thrice-damned Wolf had failed him time and again. His death at the hands of the Order had been the only thing that saved him from being sacrificed upon the altar to Balaar. The skinwalker had lied to him. To him! He had assured him the girl had died in the ambush. Then, when finally forced to reveal the truth, Wolf had promised on penalty of death to hunt her down and kill her. Even then Wolf had failed him. Instead of being the hunter, Wolf had become the hunted.

Wolf’s death may have denied him one victim but the man’s family would replace him. They would serve as a reminder to anyone foolish enough to consider betraying him what the penalty for such foolishness would be. It did not matter who they were or what their personal connection to Wolf. They would die, screaming Balaar’s name and begging for mercy, and all because the head of their family had failed in one simple task.

Their deaths would not enough to make up for the Order now knowing the girl – no, the young woman – was in danger. It had taken steps after Wolf’s death, steps that had driven his contacts within the walls of the Citadel out lest they be discovered. Now security within the Citadel was so tight few could come and go without first being vetted by the Knights Council. That meant the likelihood of getting any of his people in place any time soon was negligible. Something else the skinwalker’s family and friends would pay dearly for.

Damn Wolf!

And damn his successor. The magicker had assured him nothing would go wrong. If he could not be physically near the Citadel, watching and reporting, his constructs would be. At first, everything had gone as Gareth promised. For more than a month, daily reports came in. They might have reassured him the target had not managed to slip her watchers again. But the magicker had been no more successful at arranging her death than had Wolf. Still, the daily reports had at least proven the magicker had not betrayed the mission.

Until that morning. The expected report had not come. Nor had Gareth responded when his pet magicker at the keep tried to contact him. Mykel had stammered, his fear a stink that filled the room. He knew not why Gareth failed to respond. Nothing he tried brought a response from Gareth or the construct. All but pissing himself, Mykel had begged not to be killed for the failure of another.

Gods above and below, what did it take to kill one woman?

He turned to the guard standing near the door to his rooms. “Have the prisoners been secured?”

“Aye, m’lord.” The guard never looked at him, his expression never wavered. But there could be no mistaking the fear in his voice.

“Bring mother and son to me. Now!” Before the guard slipped out of the room, he changed his mind. “No, bring them to the dining hall. Send word to my family and advisors to make their way there at once. Any who tarry very well may join the prisoners.”

“Aye, m’lord.” The guard saluted and hurried off down the corridor.

Ten minutes later, he made his entrance into the dining hall. He nodded once to see all he had sent for gathered at the far end of the room. As one, they turned and bowed. Without breaking stride, he motioned them forward. He wanted them to see what he had planned. The lesson would be clear. Fail him and all they cared for would be destroyed. More importantly, they would see to it that word of what happened was spread. No one would dare fail him again.

Without a word, he approached the two figures in the center of the room. Long tables formed a “U” around them. At other times, this area would be filled with musicians or dancers. But now, it served a different purpose. The entertainment would be his alone.

“Your husband and father failed me. He knew the price and now you and the rest of your family will pay it.”

He stood before a woman in her middle years and a young man who had just seen his twentieth summer. They had been stripped by his guards. Filthy rags gagged them. Their arms were chained over their heads and their ankles secured to bolts in the floor. They were not the first to entertain him here and they would not be the last.

He reached out, one hand running from the young man’s chest to his abdomen and below. As he did, the woman jerked against her bonds, her cries of protest muffled by her gag. She was protective of her cub, that much was sure. But how would the young man react when the tables were turned.

“Such a pretty boy,” he purred as he continued his exploration. “But your mother has her own enchantments. Perhaps I should sample her charms before playing with you. What say you?”

The young man did not disappoint. He flung himself against his bonds, anger and fear at war with one another. Good, so very good. Breaking the mother and son might at least partially make up for Wolf’s failure. Then he would let them live long enough to see the rest of their family executed before he slid his own knife into their hearts.

“I think I will start with the boy. Move him to the table.” An almost feral smile touched his lips. “Uziel.” He turned his attention to his youngest son who stepped forward

“Yes, m’lord?”

“Get the woman ready for me. Use her as you will. Hurt her. But do not kill her. Do not let her lose consciousness. I want her aware of everything I am doing to her son even as she knows all you are doing to her. Fail me in any way on this and you will take her place.”

“As you wish, m’lord.”

Uziel studied the woman, a thoughtful expression on his face. Then he instructed the guards to move her to the same table where her son was being secured. As he did, Gavril Dalasqua nodded in approval. The baron knew his youngest son took after him in ways his eldest son, Laion, never would. This day, Uziel’s actions would be a lesson for Laion. Only those strong enough to do that which was difficult survived and flourished. If Laion failed to learn the lesson, Dalasqua would shed no tears in naming Uziel his heir.

Soon, mother and son were bound to the table, head to head. What happened to one would be felt and heard by the other. The fact they could not actually see what happened would only make it worse for them. Their imaginations would work against them. Good. Their terror would translate to the other and, in turn, to those looking on.

“This is your only warning,” Gavril said as he turned to those gathered to witness his punishment of Wolf’s family members. “Failure will not be tolerated. These two will begin paying the debt owed by the head of their family. The rest of their relations will pay the balance on the executioner’s block. Guards, remove the prisoners’ gags. I want to hear their cries and hear them beg. For the rest of you, the guards will tell me if any turns away. You will watch everything that happens here or you will join these two.” He waited, watching as one after another of those gathered slowly nodded. Their fear, almost as strong as that of the prisoners, filled the air. Good. Let them remember who held the power and who had been chosen by Balaar as his human hand. “Uziel, you may begin.”

“As you command, m’lord.”

The sound of the young man’s fist striking the woman and her cry of pain was soon echoed by that of her son as Gavril went to work. Unlike Uziel, he used a blade, leaving a shallow but painful cut across the prisoner’s chest. Perhaps this was the day to teach his youngest just what could be done with a blade without actually killing the prisoner. It wasn’t as if they did not have enough volunteers to practice on. Wolf had been prolific as a sire if nothing else.

Dagger of Elanna — Snippet 2

This book has been delayed for several reasons, life being the main one. The other is that I realized once I finished the rough draft that the beginning just wasn’t right. So I went back and have been completely rewriting the opening third or so of the novel. It feel right now. That means the work is coming easier and it should be going to the editor in another couple of weeks. As with other snippets posted on this site, this is a rough draft.  Don’t be surprised if you find placeholders for names or places. They are there to help me remember to go back to the story bible and confirm spellings, etc. By the time the book goes to publication, it will be edited and so the final version very well be different from what you see here. Copyright 2016 by Amanda S. Green. All rights reserved. You know the drill.

Snippet 1 can be found here. Also, click on the image or the following link to check out Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1).

***

Fallon neared the Citadel’s main gates and slowed his mount. Eyes narrowed, he watched as two guards stepped forward. As his horse paced forward, the knight glanced at the walls. The sight of several archers taking aim on him both reassured and worried him. His concern deepened as he realized the main gate had yet to be opened for the day’s business. Was that an indication the Order’s leadership knew of the watcher in the trees or was there more going on than he knew?

Important as that was, he had other things on his mind as well. Knowing he would soon be able to have a hot bath, hot food and a bed with clean sheets had pushed him to ride throughout the night. He did not mind roughing it on the trail but he had spent most of the last year and a half doing just that. If he did not have to leave the Citadel for a while, he would not argue. Besides, he had ridden hard the last week, stopping only when his mount needed rest. Something had driven him back to the Citadel, a sense of urgency he still felt.

Almost as important as that sense of urgency was the knowledge he would soon be reunited with Cait. How hard it had been to leave her so soon after rescuing her from that thrice-damned tavern master in Lineaus. He had known she would be safe at the Citadel just as he knew the Adept would look after her. But he had wanted to be there as she began her studies. Now he looked forward to learning how she had fared during his absence.

The thought of the young woman brought with it the memory of her letters and he relaxed slightly. Throughout all those long months away from the Citadel, he had worried Cait would resent him for leaving her. He was supposed to be her mentor and yet he had not been there for her. Yet none of the resentment he feared had been present in her letters. Instead, they had been filled with details about her new life at the Citadel, her excitement about her studies and a sense of wonder as she made friends. Through the letters, Fallon saw how Cait had grown, how she became more settled with her new life. The scared, suspicious girl she had been had grown into a young woman dedicated to the Order and her friends, someone who obviously thirsted for knowledge. He reveled in knowing that all had gone well for her even as he wished he had been there to see it all unfold.

“Welcome home, Sir Fallon,” one of the guards said as Fallon stopped his horse in front of the gate.

For a moment, Fallon studied the young man. There was something familiar about him but he could not quite place it. Then he smiled. The months had added height and muscle to journeyman. Damon no longer looked the almost frail youngster he had been when Fallon left.

“It is good to be back, Damon.” Fallon swung his leg over the saddle and slid to the ground. As he did, he winced slightly. He was getting too old to ride day after day, not to mention a few nights, to get home as quickly as possible. Almost as soon as his boots hit the ground, a yeoman approached and reached for the horse’s reins. “How fares everyone?”

“Just fine, sir. We are trying to adjust to a few changes since you were last home is all.” Damon turned and motioned for the gate to be opened. Before Fallon could ask him to explain, Damon motioned to a tall figure moving in their direction from inside the compound. “I shall leave it to Sir Stefan to explain.”

Sir Stefan?”

Things most definitely had changed. At least this was one change he could heartedly agree with. But how many other surprises awaited him?

“Fallon, it is good to see you!” Stefan pulled him into a friendly embrace and thumped his back in greeting.

“And it is good to see you, lad. But you’re not lad any longer, are you? When were you Confirmed?” He started to follow Stefan inside the gate and paused, looking back to the yeoman holding his horse. The girl quickly assured him she would have his belongings taken to his quarters and that she would personally see to the horse. He nodded and then turned his attention back to Stefan. “And who else was Confirmed with you?”

“At (XXX). Ric and Kala were also Confirmed as were several new clerics.” The young man smiled devilishly and Fallon narrowed his eyes. Stefan was hiding something. But what?

“Your assignment?”

Two could play that game. Fallon had no doubt Stefan wanted him to ask what else had happened at the holy day ceremonies. Not that he would. He would wait and sooner or later Stefan would tell him. If not, he had other ways of finding out, something the young knight would do well to remember.

“I’m assigned as Kiernan’s assistant until I am Called elsewhere.”

Fallon nodded. It was a good assignment for the young man. Stefan had learned to ride almost before he had learned to walk. Pairing him with the riding master made sense. Add to that Stefan’s natural ability to teach youngsters who had never sat astride a mount of any sort before and it made even more sense.

“I’m proud of you, Stefan.” He smiled and then paused as the sounds of a yeomen’s class drilling nearby reached him. Their practice was punctuated with exclamations of relief and frustration as someone put them through their paces. Then, much to his surprise, he heard a familiar voice.

“Hold!” a woman ordered, her frustration clear. “If you lot don’t start paying attention to what you are doing, we will be here all day. I know it’s cold but that is no excuse. Ask any knight or cleric. You will spend many a night in cold camps and the enemy will not attack only when the weather is fair. So quit worrying about the fact there is a little snow falling from the sky and focus on making sure your partner doesn’t score a killing blow.”

Fallon would have bet his life that the woman speaking had been Cait. But that made no sense. She had been at the Citadel less than two years. He had seen first-hand her ability with a blade but that did not explain why she would be teaching a weapons class, even one for yeomen. Good as she might be, there was no way the weaponsmaster would put a journeywoman in as an instructor.

Turning, Fallon looked at Stefan in open question. The young man simply smiled. There could be no doubting he was enjoying himself. His eyes danced with mischief and Fallon ground his teeth in frustration before giving the young man a look that promised they would soon discuss how Stefan had held back this information. then Fallon hurried off in the direction of Cait’s voice. If no one would explain what was going on, he would find out for himself.

His report to the Knight-Commandant and the Adept would just have to wait.

A few moments later, Fallon slid to a halt outside the training arena. He stared in surprise at the sight that greeted him. Cait stood in the center of the packed dirt arena, a look of frustration on her face. In her right hand, she held a training sword. She wore black leather trousers, and a matching leather jerkin that left her arms bare. Intricately woven wide leather bands were in place on each wrist. Her heavy boots moved silently across the ground. Despite the way her breath fogged before her and snow fell, she seemed oblivious to the cold.

That much registered even as Fallon’s eyes were drawn to her forearms. Never before had he seen anything like the markings she bore and the implications rocked him. then, just as he thought he was beyond surprise, he felt the power surrounding her and he blew out a breath in surprise. He had known she was special from the moment he first saw her in that thrice-damned tavern but he had never expected this.

Before he could recover his wits, Cait turned and saw him. The frustration left her expression and she smiled gaily. Then she called for one of the senior journeymen working out in the next ring to take over for a moment. Before they could respond, she sprinted toward Fallon and Stefan. Fallon recovered enough to smile in approval as she agilely vaulted the three bar fence surrounding the training ring before she all but leapt at him in greeting.

“Fallon!” She grinned gaily before throwing her arms around him. “It’s so good to see you. When did you get back?”

“Just now.” He looked her up and down, amazed by the changes in her. She seemed so confident, so settled. Gone was the doubt and fear that had lingered in her eyes the last time they had been together. “And I can see we have a great deal to discuss.” He lightly touched her forearm where the Lady’s dolphin rose from the water. “But I must report to Kirris and Berral, so I can’t tarry any longer. Just answer me one question. When did this happen and what does our Knight-Commandant think about it?”

“That’s two questions, Fallon.” She laughed gaily and he shook his head. “And it will take more time to answer than you have right now. The very short answer is it happened at (XXX) when I stood for Confirmation and it surprised everyone, most of all me.” She smiled a little self-consciously and then shook her head. As she did, he realized she had had a difficult time accepting what happened. “Kirris and Berral will tell you more when you see them but, so you aren’t taken completely by surprise, I am the first Knight-Adept of the Order. I will explain more tonight over dinner if you’ll join me.”

“Of course, I’ll join you.” He smiled and gave her another hug before stepping back. “I’d best find Kirris and Berral before they send someone looking for me.”

“And I had best get back to my students.” With that, she turned and once more vaulted the fence.

Fallon shook his head, feeling more than a little bemused and confused, before making his way toward the administration building. As he did, he heard Cait once more calling for the yeoman to pay attention to what they were doing. This was a class, not a game. They needed to learn the basics or they would never be able to defend themselves in the field. Good advice but not what he expected to hear from here that morning.

Ten minutes later, entered the Knight-Commandant’s office. As he stepped inside, he nodded in greeting to both Kirris and Berral. The Adept smiled briefly in response from where she stood next to Kirris behind his desk, a distracted smile, before turning her attention to the dispatch she and Kirris had been obviously been studying before Fallon’s entrance. As for the Knight-Commandant, he simply motioned for Fallon to have a seat, not once taking his eyes from the dispatch on his desk.

Impatient though he might be, Fallon waited in silence. He knew them both well enough to know only something of grave import would cause them to keep him waiting to give his report. He also had no doubt they knew he would have questions about Cait. After all, every dispatch he had sent them had been filled with questions about the young woman he had taken as his ward. Those questions would be asked and answered but in due time. Business first.

“Welcome home, Fallon, and my pardon for keeping you waiting,” Kirris said a few minutes later. Despite his smile, Fallon saw the strain reflected on his expression and that only served to increase his own sense of foreboding.

“It is good to finally be back.” He stretched his long legs out before him, crossing his ankles. “And I have to admit to having a great number of questions for the two of you.”

“I take it you ran into Cait.” Berral’s expression no longer seemed distracted. In fact, there could be no mistaking her humor and pride as she waited for his answer.

“I did. I also ran into Stefan, who refused to explain what happened.”

“We shall do all we can to answer your questions after you make your report,” Kirris assured him.

Frustration filled Fallon despite the fact he knew the Knight-Commandant was right. His questions would have to wait, for a few minutes at least. However, no matter what the others thought, he would not leave the office until he had at least some sort of explanation for what he had seen.

“As agreed, I returned to the Arteris compound.”

For more than an hour, he discussed all he had done during his absence from the Citadel. While stationed at the compound, he, along with the others stationed there, had gone on the offensive against the raiders that had been plaguing the region. It had taken several months but he had finally identified their local contact. The new of who the traitor had been had rocked the region.

“That contact turned out to be a member of the local militia. His position in the militia make him privy to such information as what merchant trains carried the best goods or the most important passengers, not to mention what routes they would be taking.

“When we finally cornered him, he turned out to be a skinwalker. From what little we learned before he died, it appears someone is trying to unite the bandit leaders out of the Wastelands. Those who have joined the cause have pledged to follow Balaar and report to his human representative.” His distaste at such a notion roughened his voice. “Whoever this representative is, the skinwalker said he was not from the Wastelands. He also said other skinwalkers have been sent into the Imperium with orders to cause as much trouble as possible. They are, apparently, the first wave of a systematic attack against the Imperium and the Order.”

He leaned back and waited. He had seen the look that passed between Kirris and Berral when he mentioned the skinwalker. The fact they did not seem surprised worried him as did the possible explanations for their reactions. With each moment that passed, he became more convinced he had been gone too long from the Citadel.

“Once the skinwalker and those working with him had been dealt with, I left the compound and began the next par tof my mission. I traveled throughout the Imperium as well as the surrounding realms on this side of the Great and Black rivers. Unfortunately, I was unable to learn anything about Cait’s history. However, I did run across several more cases of slavery. Each was much like Cait’s story. They woke in a slaver’s tent, only to find themselves being sold to someone else. That person took them to farms or into villages where they worked.” He almost choked on the word. “Until I discovered them and freed them. Unlike Cait, however, they did remember who they were and I was able to return them to their families.”

“Did you learn nothing that might not help us?” Berral asked, disappointment clear in her voice.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “The one common thread these cases had was that their families were completely stunned to learn their loved one lived. Each had disappeared under circumstances that led the families to believe they had been killed.”

For a moment, no one said anything. Then Berral frowned, her expression hard. “That could be why no outcry was made when Cait went missing. Her family could believe she had been killed. While they mourned her death, she was fighting to survive her enslavement.”

“That could be what happened,” Kirris said. “And those responsible for taking the others as well as those enslaving them?”

“Turned over to the local authorities for punishment. The local compounds have made it clear that the Codes must be upheld and I made sure the locals understood my report would not only reach the Citadel but would be forwarded to the Imperium’s council as well.”

“Your report tends to confirm some of the rumors that have reached us as well as certain happenings near here.” Kirris leaned back and Fallon looked at him in concern. In that moment, the Knight-Commandant looked as if he had aged decades in the months Fallon had been gone. “The council needs to hear your full report. You have until morning to prepare. Once the council has met, I shall send word to the capital. In the meantime, I shall issue orders to have squads readied to leave. I fear we need to tighten our border patrols.”

“No worries, Kirris. I’ll be ready.” Truth be told, he could give the report then. But the need for food and rest might cause him to miss something. “Before we get to anything else, can you explain what you meant when you said tis explains what has been happening near here?” He would not push if the Knight-Commandant did not respond. There were other ways of finding out.

“Let me,” Berral said. Then, instead of continuing, she took time to refill Fallon’s mug as well as her own. “You saw Cait, so you saw her markings.”

Fallon nodded.

“Very simply put, she was one of a dozen to stand for Confirmation at the holy day. As always, some stood for the knightly discipline and some for the priestly. Then there was Cait.

“You know from our letters as well as from hers that we had been cross-training her. We did it because she showed no distinct Calling for either discipline. Because of that, when it came time for her to stand for Confirmation, she was tested in both disciplines. The council chose to do it that way in the hope the Lord and Lady would reveal what They planned for her. We weren’t prepared for what happened.”

For the next half hour, Fallon listened closely as Berral and Kirris took turns describing the Confirmation trials. With each passing moment, his disbelief grew. He could not remember a time when someone had been allowed to stand for Confirmation with less than two years’ study having been undertaken. Nor could he remember anyone ever having stood for Confirmation in both disciplines. He had recognized Cait was special the first time he saw her. Hidden beneath the dirt and grime, cloaked by the filthy hair she let fall over her face like a mask, had been a power unlike any he had ever felt. Even now, almost two years later, he wondered at it. He held close his promise to find out what happened to bring her into the hands of slavers and he swore to do whatever it took to make sure no one else suffered as she had. But to hear how she had stood against all on the Confirmation field was much more than he expected.

“Fallon, if you had seen her, you would understand everything she did that day made it clear she is something special to the Order. She truly is a combination of both disciplines. More than that, she performed at a level that, had she been Confirmed into the knightly discipline, it would have been difficult not to name her a knight-commander. From what I saw and from what Berral has said, it is the same had she been Confirmed into the priestly discipline,” Kirris said.

Feeling as though he had to be dreaming, Fallon stood and, with his mug in hand, walked across the office to stare out the window. Cait had managed to out-fight Alicia, Kirris and others before finally facing off against Kirris. She had managed to turn aside the Knight-Commandant’s magical attacks with her own. Clearly, she had come a very long way in his absence. But that much?

“So,” Berral said when Fallon returned to his chair. “We created the new rank for her. She is now the Knight-Adept and third in command of the Order behind Kirris and myself. She works with both of us on a daily basis so we can discvoer the full extent of her powers as well as give her the experience she needs in case she has to step in for one or the other of us.”

“And the other members of the council?”

Kirris chuckled then and there was a touch of self-deprication in it Fallon recognized. “None dared object. How could they when the Lord and Lady made their favor of Cait so evident? None of the rest of us have been blessed with Their markings in the way she has. Each of those who have examined the markings have said the same thing. They resonate with the power of the Lord and Lady. While it would be nice to know what They have in mind for Cait and for the rest of us, we will do as we always have. We will accept Their challenges and Their blessings and continue to do Their bidding.”

“As is our duty and our honor,” Fallon said and the others nodded in agreement. “But there is more.”

“There is.” Kirris once more looked serious enough to cause Fallon concern. “But that can wait. Know that Cait did much as she did on the trail with you when you were bringing her here. Her actions helped save the squad she was out with and let us know Balaar had his skinwalkers, at least one of them, in this region.”

Fallon blew out a breath and shook his head. It seemed there was much they still had to discuss.

“Go rest for a few hours, my friend. Then join us for the noon meal. We will continue our discussion then,” Berral said as she gently drew him to his feet. “But know you have served the Order and the Lord and Lady well, not only with the information you gathered during this last mission but in bringing Cait to us.”

“I have a feeling I will have many more questions by then.”

“So will we, I’m sure.” Berral smiled and led him to the door. “Rest now. We will see you soon.”

Dagger of Elanna — Snippet One

Each Wednesday for the next month or so, I’ll be snippeting from Dagger of Elanna, the follow-up  Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1). This book has been delayed for several reasons, life being the main one. The other is that I realized once I finished the rough draft that the beginning just wasn’t right. So I went back and have been completely rewriting the opening third or so of the novel. It feel right now. That means the work is coming easier and it should be going to the editor in another couple of weeks. As with other snippets posted on this site, this is a rough draft.  By the time it goes to publication, it will be edited and so the final version very well be different from what you see here. Copyright 2016 by Amanda S. Green. All rights reserved. You know the drill.

Chapter One

Out of the early morning mist, looking like something out of the tales from his childhood, rose the stone walls of the Citadel. Frost and the remnants of the last snow dotted the fields and training areas that lined the road leading to the fortified entrance. From where he sat astride his horse, the lone rider looked nodded once. The location was almost perfect from a strategic standpoint.

Almost being the operative word.

The Citadel, home of the Order of Arelion, rested atop the highest hill, one that ended in a cliff overlooking rapids that prevented a water approach. An approach from the front meant either crossing the fields or coming via the road, both of which were easily visible from the watchtowers inside the double walls of the compound. For more years than any of the current residents had been alive, that had been enough to keep the Citadel safe from attack.

But there were weaknesses to the location. His very presence proved it. There he sat, half an hour outside of the main gates, watching and judging. For all those inside the walls knew, he could be a scout looking for weaknesses and finding them. There were no guards in the trees to watch him, no one to challenge him. At least no one who might take action should he prove to have ill-intent against the Order or any of its members.

The Citadel and all it stood for called to him now just as strongly as it had when he was younger. He remembered his first sight of the compound as clearly as if it had been yesterday. Fear and anticipation had filled him them. He knew his life had been about to change and he had been determined to do everything possible to join the Order. The Lord and Lady had blessed him then as They did now. He was back, despite all odds, and he hoped he would not have to leave for a while.

As he sat there, studying his home and feeling that all too familiar pull, he frowned slightly. The call to bring an end to his journey was tempered by something else. Something that held him in place, senses alert.

Instinct warned of potential danger. Not from the community within the fortified walls. No, this was closer. But what? More importantly, was it aimed at him or with the Order in general? Gods above and below knew he carried information some would prefer the Order not learn. Others had tried to stop him already. Had they determined to end his mission and his life here, so close to the one place he felt safe, or was something else at play? He had to find the answer, or at least try to, before continuing on his way.

He lifted his head and inhaled deeply. The crisp morning air burned his lungs. But it did not hide the smells around him. Animals, some alive and even more dead. Smoke from fires at the Citadel. The distant aroma of something cooking. Under it, so faint he almost missed it in the smell of his horse, was the stench of unwashed flesh. Someone else was there and not far away.

Frowning, Fallon Mevarel, knight of the Order of Arelion, dismounted. Once he had, he turned to his horse and checked saddle and girth, using his body to shield what he was doing from anyone who might be watching. The fingers of his right hand closed over the long knife in its specially designed sheath hanging from his saddle. The blade slid soundlessly from the sheath and disappeared beneath his cloak.

He turned and glanced around. Nothing looked out of place. More telling was the fact the birds and small animals he knew to inhabit the grove took no notice of whoever else might be there. That meant the person had either been there long enough for them to get used to his presence or he had somehow magicked himself so they overlooked him. Neither option reassured him.

His boots moved silently against the snow covered ground. Senses alert, he slowly walked toward the tree line on the east side of the road. As he did, he shook his head and muttered softly to himself. Then he reached up and rubbed his chin and yawned. Anyone looking on would see what he wanted them to: a weary traveler in need of a break before continuing on his way.

He paused next to a tree and made a production out of relieving himself. Sometimes, the need to answer the call of nature served more than one purpose. Now it gave him an excuse to leave the trail and that, in turn, gave him the opportunity to try to locate whoever had been watching the Citadel.

The wind shifted and he caught the scent again. Not as close but still near. Watching and waiting. That was enough, for the moment at least. Fallon returned to his horse and mounted. As tempting as it was to continue searching for the watcher, he needed to move on. He should have returned to the Citadel weeks, if not months, earlier. What none of them had anticipated was that his mission would take him so far from the capital region of the Imperium. Besides, for all he knew, the Order already knew of the intruder and had been keeping an eye on him. Somehow he doubted it but, if that were the case, it would be best not to interfere.

***

The watcher slipped deeper in the shadows, fear warring with frustration. For more than a month he had been camped in the trees, if you could call it a camp. His master demanded it and he had learned long ago to never risk angering the man. Balaar’s earthly arm was every bit as dangerous as the god and he had no desire to meet his death yet.

For all that time, he had been unable to do the one thing his master most wanted. He had been unable to discover a way to end one woman’s life. It should have been so easy, especially with Balaar on their side. But the gods continued to conspire against them. The gods and this thrice-damned weather that seemed to grow colder with each day that passed.

The cold seeped ever deeper into his bones. He did not dare build a fire. Not until he moved his camp again, this time further from the road and out of sight of the Citadel. His master might not agree but he knew he had been lucky the Order had yet to discover his presence. Now, however, his luck might have finally run out.

He watched as the lone rider dismounted. The man did not look like a member of the Order but he knew looks could be deceiving. Something about the way the newcomer held himself reminded the watcher of their knights. As the rider looked around and then walked toward the tree edge, the watcher moved deeper into the shadows. Nothing about the newcomer indicated he was aware of the watcher’s presence but instinct said differently. Had his presence finally been discovered?

Whether his master liked it or not, they needed to reevaluate their tactics. With winter upon them, the chances of their target leaving the Citadel slimmed to almost nothing. Was this not the time to regroup and plan their next line of attack, one that would be more successful?

Not waiting to see what the rider did, the man moved quickly, silently deeper into the trees. A few minutes later, he paused and lifted his left arm. He did not have long to wait. A slight smile touched his lips as a large bird winged down from the early morning sky to land on his wrist. His fingers gently rubbed the construct’s head as he shifted positions so he looked the bird in the eye.

“Keep watch, my pretty. You know the target. Come for me if she leaves the walls.”

With that, he lifted his arm high and the construct took flight. Hopefully that would be enough to satisfy his master, at least long enough for him to explain why he had left his post. If not, he would not be long for this world.

Summer is over, so it is time to snippet

This week, I am getting back to my normal blogging schedule — if my schedule has ever been normal. I’ve worked this summer but took a step back from much of the blogging for a number of reasons. Mainly, I just needed to recharge the batteries some. But, if the kids have to go back to work, I guess I can get back to blogging.

Today’s snippet is from the book that took charge of my muse and my life about a week or so ago. Starting Wednesday, I’ll be snippeting Dagger of Elanna, the follow up to Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1), once a week. I will probably snippet this currently untitled book as well once a week, at least until I figure out what to do about it.

So, with that said, here’s the snippet. I’ll warn you now, it is weird. It has mystery, magic and a house that might be sentient and that might possibly eat people it doesn’t like. And no, it’s not horror. Heaven help me, I have a feeling there might even be a romance in it before all is said and done. As with other snippets posted on this site, this is a rough draft.  By the time it goes to publication, it will be edited and so the final version very well be different from what you see here. Copyright 2016 by Amanda S. Green. All rights reserved. You know the drill.

Anyway, here you go. This is the first scene.

Chapter One

It’s never easy going home, especially when you left under less than ideal circumstances. But that’s the situation I found myself in. It might never have happened if it weren’t for my daughter, the light of my life. Three months earlier, Ali turned five. A month after that I finally admitted she presented challenges I didn’t know how to deal with. Fortunately, at least in some ways, my mother did know how to handle my special little girl. Like it or not, that meant returning home to Mossy Creek, Texas, smack dab in the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt.

And that made life very interesting for the citizens of Mossy Creek where normal was not something you encountered every day.

So I called my mother, scheduled a leave of absence from work and made our plane reservations. With our bags packed, Ali and I were about to walk out the front door when my pocket started vibrating. Well, to be honest, it was the cell phone in my pocket but you know what I mean. For a moment, I considered ignoring the call. I knew from the ringtone it wasn’t my mother or any of the rest of the family. As far as work and most of my friends knew, Ali and I had already left town. Even so, years of conditioning hand my hand digging into my jeans pocket before I realized it.

“Mama, we have to go!” Ali tugged at my free hand, pulling me toward the door.

“Hang on, sweetheart.” I glanced at the display, not recognizing the number. “Go make sure you didn’t leave anything you want to take with you. This won’t take long. I promise.” I waited until she raced toward her bedroom before answering the call. “Hello?”

“Moira Quinn O’Donnell?” a man asked.

“Yes.” A hint of concern fluttered in my stomach. He might have been calling to sell me siding or solar panels or the like but I doubted it. Something about his voice not only sounded serious but official. Besides, he had used my full name, something very few had access to.

“Ms. O’Donnell, my name’s Peter Sanderson. I work with Julianne Grissom.”

My brows knitted into a frown. “What can I do for you, Mr. Sanderson?”

“Ms. O’Donnell, I don’t want to worry you but have you spoken with your mother recently.”

That flutter of concern spiked and I swallowed hard. Whenever someone starts a statement with “I don’t want to worry you,” it usually means there is something to be worried about. If that wasn’t enough, Julianna Grissom and I were friends going back to childhood. If trouble wasn’t brewing, the call would have bene from Annie Caldwell. Julianna Grissom was her very professional, all attorney persona. I swallowed hard and looked toward the hallway, making sure Ali was still safely in her room. Whatever was going on, I most definitely did not want her involved.

“I spoke with her two days ago. Why?”

“Ma’am, Ms. Grissom asked me to check with you. We don’t know any of the particulars, only that the Sheriff’s Department attempted to do a welfare check on your mother after she failed to meet friends yesterday. While there is no evidence of foul play or, to be perfectly honest, of anything being wrong, they haven’t been able to make entry into the house to be sure.”

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I had a pretty good idea why the deputies hadn’t been able to enter the house. Unless I was badly mistaken, they hadn’t even been able to enter the yard. The explanation was just one of the reasons why I had moved to Montana more than ten years ago. In Mossy Creek, when someone said you lived on the wrong side of the tracks, they weren’t talking about your financial status or social standing. Far from it, in fact. Life in Mossy Creek had been different from the day the town was founded. Mundane mixed with supernatural and, well, my mother might not be Serena Beauchamp but she had been known to cast more than a spell or two.

Then there was the house. If it did not want to let someone in, nothing, not even a battering ram, would get the doors open. The only thing keeping me from panicking was the belief the house would not keep help out if my mother needed it. Me, it never hesitated to try to lock me out. But Mama belonged there and it would protect her. At least I hoped it would.

“What can I do?” I asked.

“Ms. Grissom said you were coming to town today. Is that still your plan?” Sanderson asked.

“It is.” I glanced at my watch. Ali and I were going to have to hurry if we wanted to make our flight. “Assuming no problems with our connecting flight, my daughter and I should be in town by five.”

“With your permission, I will let the sheriff know. Ms. Grissom would like you to stop by the office when you get here. Hopefully, we will know more by then.”

“All right.” She thought for a moment. “Have you checked with either my sister or my brother to see if they have heard from our mother?”

“They are my next calls, ma’am.”

“All right. Tell Ms. Grissom I will give her a head’s up when I reach Dallas.” I did not wait for him to respond. Instead, I ended the call and stuffed the cellphone back into my pocket. I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach but there was nothing I could do about it, at least not until I reached Mossy Creek. But it did necessitate a slight change in what I packed and in my plans not to check a suitcase.

“Ali, you about ready?” I called from my bedroom as I knelt just inside my closet. There, bolted to the floor was a safe. Inside were my service weapon, several other handguns and my badge and ID. Blowing out a breath, I retrieved an HK .45, pancake holster, ammo and my badge and ID. “Ali?” I repeated as I secured everything in a small, hard-sided case and then dropped it inside my bag that now would have to be checked.

“Mama, can I take Ruffles?” She stood in the doorway, a battered teddy bear almost as big as her in her arms.

“No, baby. Not this time. Why don’t you take Freckles with you?” I asked, referring to a smaller but equally loved teddy bear.

“Okay.” She grinned and raced back to her room.

Five minutes later, we pulled out of the driveway and I did my best to put Sanderson’s call out of my mind. This was Ali’s first plane ride and I knew she was excited. The last thing I wanted was to worry her. After all, as far as she knew, this was a fun trip to see her grandma. She did not need to know that grandma had apparently gone missing and we might not be able to get into the house because it didn’t like me.

Heaven help me, how was I going to explain the house, not to mention everything else, to a five-year-old?

***

As I have said before, my muse is an evil creature. Trust me. Thinks get strange from this point on.

 

One month to go

In one month, Honor from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 3) will go live. I am almost done with the final edits. This book has been a blast to write. While it doesn’t finish the story arc started in Vengeance from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 1) and continued in Duty from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 2), the end is near. One more book and this particular arc will be done. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be returning to the universe. I already have an idea of a new story arc for a future series.

To kick off the final month before Honor comes out, I thought I would revisit the first two books. Today’s snippet will be from Vengeance.

*     *     *

“Prisoner Four One Niner Baker One-A, prepare for transfer,” a disembodied voice said from the overhead speaker.

Lips pulled back, teeth bared in an animalistic sneer, the prisoner sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bunk. As she stood, she turned away from the cell door. Her hands automatically went behind her head, fingers lacing. Almost without thought, she sank to her knees, legs spread, ankles crossed. Then, realizing what she had done, she cursed silently, hating herself and those responsible for bringing her to this state.

Two years. Two very long years in Hell had taught her how to act. Her body responded automatically to the commands barked at her. Only when she allowed her mind to surface, to let herself fully experience what was going on around her, did she hesitate. But not this time. There was no reason to disobey, no threat yet to meet.

Those years may have taught her all too painfully how to act, but they hadn’t broken her. Not yet at any rate. Still they had come close. Two years cut off from those she cared for, from almost all human contact. Stripped of even the most basic of human rights and dignity, she knew she was little more than an animal to break and tame to those in charge. She knew it just as she knew she could do nothing about it.

Just as she knew she’d been betrayed by the government she’d served and had been ready to die for.

What she didn’t know was why. Why had she been betrayed? Worse, why had those who’d served loyally at her side been targeted?

The soft swoosh of the heavily armored door sliding open broke the silence a few moments later. With her back to the door, she couldn’t see who entered, not that she wanted to. One of the first lessons she’d learned after arriving at the Tarsus military penal colony was not to look. That had been a very painful lesson, one that had landed her in the prison’s infirmary for several days. It was also a mistake she’d never repeated.

That had been one of many lessons she’d been forced to endure since arriving there. With the commandant’s tacit – hell, as far as she knew it was his overt – approval, the guards could be as sadistic as they wanted. Correction for even the most insignificant infraction might take the form of a rifle butt to the ribs or kidney, and that was if she was lucky. If not, the beating that followed would leave her hurting so badly she could barely move. Even then, the guards wouldn’t send her to the infirmary. After all, it was so much more fun to watch her suffer, reminding her that she alone was responsible for what had happened.

Fortunately, she’d heard the horror stories before arriving at the penal colony. Even though she hadn’t been ready to believe them, they had helped prepare her for what she’d face. Even so, it had been a shock the first time one of the guards beat her down for asking what would have been a simple question on the outside. That had been enough to convince her that the best course of action was to remain silent unless it was imperative that she speak. That wasn’t to say there hadn’t been times when circumstances forced her to break that rule and she bore the scars to prove it. All she wanted now was to live through her prison term. Survival was the first goal. Vengeance would come later. Not for her, but for those who’d followed her despite her protests and who had paid the ultimate price as a result.

She swallowed hard, forcing her mind away from past horrors, as boots clomped across the small cell in her direction. A rough hand grabbed her right arm, twisting it painfully behind her back. She flinched as a security cuff was locked tightly around that wrist. Her breath hissed out as the process was repeated with her left arm. Moments later, similar restraints were fastened about her ankles. Then a gloved hand closed around her left arm and jerked her to her feet.

Guard Captain Gavin Haritos spun her to face him, grinning sadistically. His fist caught her with a vicious backhand. With a sharp cry of pain, she staggered back. The short chain connecting her ankles tripped her. Only the man’s quick grab at the front of her jumpsuit kept her from falling. He pulled her forward and, with the ease of much practice, draped a heavy hood over her head before she could react.

Haritos’ cruel grip on her arm kept her on her feet as he hauled her out of her cell and down the long corridor. Blood pounded in her ears, almost deafening her. Fear and hatred raced through her, sparking every fiber of her survival instincts. She knew this was going to be bad, very bad. It always was when the guard captain came for her. But she could do nothing to stop him, at least not yet.

“This is your lucky day, bitch.” Haritos shoved her into one of the three lifts at the end of the corridor and she heard him slam his fist against the control panel. A moment later, the lift gave a slight lurch and she felt the car start downward. “You’re being transferred, Shaw. But don’t get your hopes up that it means the rules no longer apply because they do. If you’re smart, you’ll remember those poor bastards sentenced here with you. Everything you say and do from now on impacts them.”

A soft moan escaped her lips before she could stop it and fear raced like an open current through her. No matter how many times she’d been in this position before, she couldn’t help it. A transfer could mean almost anything, none of it good. Not as long as the survivors of her unit were still on Tarsus.

To her surprise, Haritos said nothing more. That was unusual for him. Whenever he’d come for her before, he’d taken perverse pleasure in detailing what horrors awaited her. The fact he’d gone silent worried her. Could he finally be leading her to her death, despite the fact her sentence was for only five years?

Dear God, what was happening?

Haritos remained silent as he forced her off the lift. Doors opened and then closed behind them. She didn’t know how to react when, for the first time in months, she felt the sun beating down on her. They were outside. Where were they going?

It didn’t take long to find out. Haritos led her up a ramp. The hood obscured her sight, but she could hear the muffled sounds of a crew working to prepare a shuttle, maybe even a courier ship, for launch. Haritos pulled her to a halt and told her to stand still. Then he released his hold on her arm and she sensed that he had moved a short distance away. There were soft voices. Straining to hear, she only caught a few words. Transfer. . . prisoner. . . dangerous. . . .

Dear God, was she actually being transferred out of the Tarsus penal colony?

Hope flared only to die as quickly as it had been born. She had a feeling she was the only prisoner in the staging area. That meant her people, those few who had survived the ambush only to be betrayed by those who should have stood for them, were being left behind. Was that what Haritos meant when he told her to remember them?

No!

Before she could do anything – not that there was much she could do, bound and hooded as she was – Haritos was once more at her side. She stumbled forward as he grabbed her and led her further up the ramp. With one last warning not to do anything foolish, he turned her over to someone else. Flanked on both sides by unseen guards, she was led into another lift. A few minutes later, her restraints were removed and then her hood and she found herself standing in the center of a small cell. She didn’t need to hear the announcement for all hands to prepare for departure to know she was on a ship. But a ship to where?

And what about those who’d been sent to the penal colony with her? Where were they?

Now, almost a week later, she stood in yet another cell, this one planetside, and fear warred with anger. She’d overheard enough from the guards on the transport to know her fears were true – the others had been left behind on the penal colony.

That’s when an anger so great it overrode the fear of the unknown had flowed through her. For the first time in two years, she’d been separated from the survivors of her unit, those poor, brave souls who had fallowed her into hell and back only to find themselves brought up on charges right along with her. It didn’t matter that the commandant of the penal colony hadn’t let her see her people. She’d managed to get word of them from time to time and that had been enough to let her know they were all right – or at least as all right as anyone could be after being sentenced to the Tarsus penal colony.

It really was amazing how the prison grapevine managed to keep tabs on everyone and pass along information. It might be inconsistent, but it was there and it had been all that kept her sane. She’d never thought herself a social animal, but two years of rarely seeing anyone but her jailers had been almost more than she could handle. Thank God for the grapevine and the bits of information it brought her.

During transport from the penal colony, no one had told her anything. She’d been held in the transport ship’s brig. A guard brought her food and drink at regular intervals but he never said anything that wasn’t necessary. He certainly hadn’t volunteered any information. Still, she’d managed to work out that she was alone in the brig by the way his steps never stopped before he appeared at her cell door and she never heard anyone else trying to make contact.

She had just noticed the slightest change in the rhythm of the ship’s engines, indicating it had assumed orbit somewhere, when another guard arrived with a change of clothes for her. She’d looked at the plain black jumpsuit with suspicious eyes. Nothing about it marked her as a prisoner. It could have been something worn by any worker on the docks or in a warehouse. That should have reassured her but for one thing. There was nothing about the guard’s manner to indicate she was about to be freed. In that moment, she’d come the closest to breaking her rule of “never ask a question you don’t know the answer to” than she had been since her first few days on Tarsus.

Half an hour later, she’d been seated on a shuttle. The guards had secured her hands behind her back before locking her safety harness in place but they hadn’t hooded her. They obviously weren’t worried about her recognizing where she was. Of course, the only way she could do that was if she could actually see something of the lay of the land. So she’d craned her neck in an effort to see into the shuttle’s cockpit. One corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly at the sight of the high rises ahead of them. Her heart beat a bit faster as she recognized the skyline of Fuercon’s capital city. New Kilrain. She was home. But why?

Now, after being processed into the same military brig where she’d been held during her trial, she still didn’t know why she’d been brought back home. It couldn’t be good. They may have taken away her prison issued jumpsuit, but she’d still been brought there shackled and had been processed into the brig as quickly as humanly possible. It had almost been as if FleetCom was afraid word of her return might leak out. But why?

Damn it, what was going on?

Of course, there’d been no explanation. Nor had she asked for one. It would be a long time before she forgot that lesson. Too much talking, too much curiosity was a bad thing that almost always resulted in painful punishment. She might not be on Tarsus any longer but that didn’t mean things would be any different here. After all, who policed the jailers? No one, at least not on Tarsus and she wasn’t willing to risk it now that she was home.

Freed of her restraints and alone, she looked around. One cell was pretty much like any other. Across from the door was a narrow bunk. Hygiene facilities were at the foot of the bunk. Almost exactly like her cell back on Tarsus. Nothing she could use to escape and nothing she could use to kill herself, not that she planned on taking that route out. At least not anymore. No, there were others who needed to die before she did.

“Prisoner is secured,” the guard who’d brought her to the cell radioed as he stepped back.

Ashlyn Shaw, former Marine captain, didn’t move. Instead, she stood in the center of the small cell, her brown eyes focused on some point beyond the guard, her hands behind her back even though the restraints had been removed. As the security field across the cell door activated, she gave no sign of realizing it even though the faint, high pitched hum was something she’d learned to listen for over the last two years. That sound, like a distant bunch of angry bees, meant she’d fry her nervous system long before pushing through the field. Freedom might look close, but she’d be dead – or worse – before she actually found it.

At least the guard didn’t close the physical door. For the first time in what had to be months, she could look beyond the confines of her cell. It might not be the same cell she’d occupied since her conviction. Hell, this wasn’t even the same planet. That didn’t matter. All that did was the fact that the open cell door gave her at least some semblance of not being completely cut off from all other life on the planet.

As the guard disappeared from sight, Ashlyn remained where she was, motionless except for the rise and fall of her chest and the slow blinking of her eyes. She listened, counting his footsteps as they slowly faded away. When she’d been escorted to the cell, she had focused on what was directly in front of her. She had not wanted to give the guards on duty the satisfaction of seeing her look around in curiosity. Now, with only silence filling the air, she allowed herself to relax a just a little.

Once convinced the guard was gone, she moved to the door, careful not to get too close to the security field. Looking to her left, she couldn’t tell how far away he might be. All she knew for certain was that her cell was located at the end of the corridor, the door situated so she couldn’t see much beyond the far edge of the cell. So there might be any number of other prisoners close by but, for all intents and purposes, she was alone – again.

That was fine. Alone meant fewer chances for anyone to figure out what she planned. But it also meant she had to keep up appearances. She couldn’t let them guess what she had in mind. So she lay on her bunk, her back to the doorway. She wouldn’t let those she knew were watching over security monitors see her curiosity or her concern.

This was as close to home as she was likely to get in a very long while. If the opportunity to escape presented itself, she’d take it and be damned with waiting on the military courts to finally get it right. Once free, she’d deal those who’d betrayed her and then she’d find a way to free those who had been sent to the penal colony with her. After that, she really didn’t give a damn about what happened.

A snippet and a sale

Later this week, Slay Bells Ring, a romantic suspense novel written under the pen name Ellie Ferguson, will be released. I’ve posted a couple of snippets before but thought I would re-post them, especially since some changes (minor for the snippets) have been made. Now, for the usual reminder. This snippet, as with everything on the site, is mine and is copyright 2015. 

I’d also like to remind everyone of the Indie Author Christmas Sale. For the full post, click here. My newest release, Nocturnal Challenge (Nocturnal Lives Book 4), is listed as part of the promotion.

And now for the snippet from Slay Bells Ring.

***

slay bells ring coverWelcome to beautiful Mossy Creek!

I stared at the green and white sign, my stomach a knot of tension. Once I drove past, I’d be caught. There would be no turning back. But it wasn’t too late, not yet. I could still turn around and drive as far and as fast as possible from the small town where I’d grown up. I’d done it before. I could do it again.

Unfortunately, circumstances changed and I had grown up. That meant running didn’t come as easily as it once had.

My fingers drummed against the Mustang’s steering wheel and shook my head. Twelve years ago, I’d left Mossy Creek to attend college. I’d sworn then that I’d never return, at least not for more than a day or two at a time. There had been more to it than a high school graduate’s desire to strike out on her own. God, there had been so much more. Even then, I knew I needed to get away from the watchful eye of my parent – note the singular.

The truth was I needed to get away or I’d be forever lost in my mother’s shadow, and believe me, my mother casts a very wide shadow, at least metaphorically speaking.

So I’d worked hard all through high school, making sure my grades were the best they could be. I knew I’d have to get a scholarship out of state because Catherine Eugenia Metzger Grissom Anderson Carlisle had her mind set on me attending the University of Texas at Austin, THE university, and joining the Pi Beta Phi sorority is her legacy. After all, I had a duty to keep up the family tradition, didn’t I?

The only problem with that was the tradition began and ended with Mama. Not that it stopped her from trying to force the issue.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, she hadn’t been able to get my scholarship to the University of Maryland revoked. Believe me, she tried. World War III, should it ever happen, will look mild in comparison to the arguments we had those last few months before I left town. It got so bad toward the end that I’d been tempted to accept a scholarship to Texas A&M just to see the look on her face when I told her that her only daughter was going to attend UT’s most hated rival other than the University of Oklahoma. The only reason I hadn’t done just that was the simple fact that College Station was much too close to home for comfort.

Well, that and the fact that Sam Caldwell would be there, but that’s another story, one I’d closed the book on long ago.

So I packed my bags and bade a not so fond farewell to Mossy Creek, bound for College Park, Maryland instead of College Station, Texas, ready for my life to begin.

Only to find myself just shy of my thirtieth birthday staring at the city limit sign marking the edge of Mossy Creek and wondering if I could just turn around and drive off, never looking back. Not that it was really a choice. I couldn’t ignore this latest summons home, not if I wanted to be able to live with myself.

The sooner I slid the transmission into drive, the sooner I find out what was going on. Life would’ve been so much simpler if I hadn’t answered the phone that morning.

 

Chapter One

“Juliana, you have to come home.”

My heart stopped. No one called me Juliana anymore. Heck, no one had called me that since I was little girl. Growing up, I’d been Anne or Annie – usually Annie, at least at school. I’m still surprised that alone hadn’t landed me in therapy for the rest of my life. Try growing up in a small town as a girl with curly red hair who also happens to have a twin brother named Andrew and who, back then, was called Andy. Is it any wonder the two of us have more than a few mother issues?

Now that I’m grown, when someone calls me by my full name, I know there’s trouble. When it’s my grandmother, I know it’s bad trouble. That’s doubly true when the call comes in before six on a Monday morning just a few weeks before Christmas. The last time I’d received such a call, my grandfather had suffered a stroke. He died before I could get home.

God, what had happened now?

“What’s wrong?”

I sat at the kitchen table and looked longingly at the coffeemaker. I had just pressed the brew button when the phone rang. Instinct had me reaching for the receiver almost before my brain registered what I was doing. It didn’t matter that I’d just finished a three week long capital murder trial and had the day off.  If one of Austin’s movers and shakers – or, more likely, one of their kids – had managed to run afoul of the capital’s finest, there was a good chance I’d be called out to get the little darling out of jail. I’d have preferred it to this.

“Gran?” I prompted when she didn’t immediately respond.

“It’s your mother.”

What started as a general sense of dread flared and I fought down the panic that replaced it. “Is she all right?”

“Oh God, Annie, I don’t know.”

I relaxed a little. If she was back to calling me Annie, things couldn’t be too bad. Could they?

“Just tell me what’s happened, Gran.”

“Annie, she’s been arrested.”

I swear I moved to receiver away from my ear and stared at it, halfway expecting to find it had changed into a banana or something. It certainly couldn’t be a telephone and I most definitely couldn’t have heard correctly. There was no way, absolutely no way in the world, that my oh-so-proper mother could have been arrested.

“Say again.”

“Your mother’s been arrested.”

“What?”

I couldn’t fathom it. My mother’s no saint, but she certainly isn’t the sort who goes around getting into trouble with the law. Man trouble? You bet. Butt heads with the family? Absolutely. She’d make that into an Olympic event if she could. But she had never done anything more serious than get a speeding ticket. The only possible explanation I could think of that would explain why she might have been arrested was that she’d had too much to drink and had been picked up for DWI. That wouldn’t surprise me, not with Mama’s love for a good cabernet and the current push across the state to get drunk drivers off the road. But even that didn’t feel right.

“Annie, it’s bad.” Gran choked back a sob and I waited, doing my best not to yell at her to get to the point. “Drew just called to tell me.”

Drew? Why hadn’t my twin called me?

I got to my feet and, taking the receiver with me, hurried to my bedroom. I had to do something. I’m never my best in the morning, but dropping something like this on me before coffee and then not getting to the point . . . .

“Annie, they’re saying your mama killed Spud Buchanan.”

“What?”

I must have heard wrong. For one thing, if my mother ever decided she wanted anyone dead, she’d find someone to do the deed for her. She’d never risk getting her hands, or her designer clothes, dirty. For another, she was smart enough not to get caught, at least not by the local cops. Okay, my brother might be a member of the Mossy Creek Police Department, but they were still small town cops. Unless they caught someone standing over the body with the smoking gun or dripping knife in her hands, they’d be hard-pressed to make a case without help from an outside agency.

“They’ve charged your Mama with Spud Buchanan’s murder,” Gran repeated. “From what Drew told me, they found her dressed in her nightie, standing over his body.”

The world came to a screeching halt. There could be only one explanation for what was happening. I had fallen down the rabbit hole and into some warped alternate reality. It wouldn’t be long before the Cheshire Cat showed up, followed shortly by the Queen of Hearts demanding my head.

“Back up, Gran, and tell me everything. They found Mama in her nightgown, standing over the body? Where?”

“At Spud’s house.”

I hadn’t fallen down the rabbit hole. This wasn’t even an alternate reality. There couldn’t be one warped enough that my mother would be sleeping with her worst enemy. No, some sort of bizarre cosmic ray had bombarded the Earth as I slept and transformed Mama into a black widow in human form. Mate and then kill. At least that would make some sort of sick sense given the history between her and Spud.

“Gran, I’m not trying to be dense here –” Or maybe I was. I hadn’t had my coffee yet, after all – “But are you telling me Mama has been sleeping with Spud Buchanan?”

“I don’t know, Annie. All I know is what Drew told me. The police received a disturbance call from one of Spud’s neighbors. When they got there, they found him dead and your mama standing over him. They arrested her and took her to jail.”

God, it just kept getting worse and worse. If this was a nightmare, I was ready to wake up.

“Please tell me she called an attorney.”

“Honey, this is your mama. She doesn’t think she needs an attorney.”

Crap.

That was just like my mother. She would firmly believe that her social standing and connections would see her through this.

“All right. Get one of the local attorneys over to the jail. I don’t care how you do it or how much it costs. I’ll foot the bill. Just make sure Mama doesn’t say anything to the cops. That includes Drew.” I opened my closet door and tossed a pair of jeans and a T-shirt onto the bed. Then I stopped, thinking hard. I might not be expected at work today but I was tomorrow. No way would this mess be cleared up by then. So I’d need to talk with the office and make arrangements for my cases to be covered for the next few days. Hopefully that would be enough time to take care of this latest mess Mama had gotten herself into. “I’ll get home as soon as I can, Gran, but it won’t be before noon at the earliest. Call my cell if anything else happens.”

“Thank you, Annie. I know I’m asking a lot.”

“Gran, you didn’t ask. Besides, she’s my mom. Of course I’m coming home.”

“Come by the house when you get here.”

“All right.” I ran a hand over my face. Maybe I’d wake up and find this at all been a bad dream. After all, I had had that three day old Chinese take-out just before going to bed. That could be the reason for all this, right? “What else did Drew have to say?”

“Nothing. No, that’s not quite right. He said he had to get off the line before the DA in charge of the case realized he’d called me.”

That sounded ominous but I didn’t give it much thought, not then at any rate. I knew from personal experience that most ADAs wouldn’t appreciate a cop calling the suspect’s family and it wouldn’t help that the cop was part of the family as well. Hell, I’d lay into any cop working one of my cases who did that. “Try not to worry, Gran. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Be careful, Annie.” She paused and I waited. “Thank you.”

“No need, Gran. Now go find Mom an attorney. I’ll call you once I’m on the road.”

*     *     *

That had been almost seven hours ago. I’d spent the intervening time rearranging my court schedule and finding other members of the office to cover for me. Then I’d had my “little talk” with my boss, the elected District Attorney for Travis County. I knew before we spoke what the ultimate result would be. David Carlton-Hughes had one cardinal rule: nothing took precedence over the job. As far as he was concerned, because I was leaving town without advance notice, he could no longer count on me. Funny thing is, hard as I’d worked to move up in the professional ladder, the news about Mama put things into perspective. Family would always take precedence over work. It had to. I’d miss the friends I’d made in the office but I wouldn’t miss the politics or the grind.

With a sense of something very near freedom, I had finally climbed into my car and started the drive from Austin to Mossy Creek, a hole-in-the-wall halfway between Dallas and the Oklahoma border.

And, for once, luck had been with me. Despite speeding – nothing new for me – no flashing red lights had appeared in my rearview mirror. Hopefully that was a good sign. So why did it feel like this was just the calm before the storm?

So here I sat, staring at the sign welcoming everyone to beautiful Mossy Creek as the traffic reporter on the radio talked about how bad the traffic was, especially for a Monday.

Have I said how badly I hate Mondays?

Getting the creative juices flowing again

A couple of quick notes first. I have a blog post up at Twisted Writers today discussing what platforms you can look at when going the indie route. Coincidentally, my friend Cedar Sanderson has one up at Mad Genius Club on “the fading stigmata of self-publishing“. Finally, we got our first look at the new royalty payments for Kindle Unlimited titles and, so far, I am very pleased with what I’m seeing. I’ll be doing a post about that in the next few days. I want to take time to break everything down for July’s sales/reads and then compare them to June’s.

On the writing front, not much has been happening. I have warring stories in my head but the rewrite of the last half of Nocturnal Challenge has been, well, a challenge. I think I know what needs to be done but I am also at the point where I recognize that I need to step away from it for a few days to a week to let it start to gel in my mind. In the meantime, an older story I’d started but I put on the back burner some time ago has come back to haunt me. So, I’ll work on it and see if that doesn’t get the creative juices flowing again.

This story ran me off when I first started writing it because it came at a point when my craft was taking a jump — I’m not sure if it was a jump ahead or to the right or left. All I know is that my writing wasn’t the same comfortable writing I’d been used to. So it scared me and I put it away. Now, a couple of years later, I can see what the problem was and I can also see where my craft has, hopefully, improved since then. So, I’ve read the first couple of chapters and then put away the printout. Everything that comes from it comes from memory and I think it will actually wind up playing into the Hunter’s Moon series. I’m not sure about that yet or if it will start a new “world” for me to play in.

(As if I need yet another world. Sigh.)

Anyway, here’s this morning’s output. It may seem familiar to some of you guys. For others, I hope you like it. As always with snippets, this is the first draft. It is unedited and so there will more than likely be misspellings, comma faults and other grammar and punctuation errors.  Oh yeah, working title is Hunter’s Moon 4.

***

“There she is.”

The voice, slick like oil on water, came from the deepest shadows. A chill ran down my spine. My breath caught in a near-sob of frustration that I couldn’t quite hold back. Every instinct screamed for me to get up and run. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. All I could do was silently curse my bad luck and offer up a prayer. But for what?

For enough time to think. That’s all I needed. If I could think of a way to survive the next few minutes, I might manage to survive another day.

Maybe all was not yet lost.

Not that I believed it. I knew that voice. Gods, did I know that voice. My blood ran cold at the memory of the last time I’d heard it. My pulse beat an almost deafening beat as my heart tried to pound its way out of my chest. Every instinct screamed for me to get up and run. It didn’t matter where I ran just so long as I get away from there. I’d spent a lifetime praying I never heard that voice again because it meant only one thing – death was near.

But it had been so long. I’d actually convinced myself I’d finally managed to give him the slip.

Gods, I’d been beyond foolish. This encounter had been years in the making. I could no more avoid it than I could deny who – or what – I was.

But that didn’t mean I would stand still, patiently waiting for him to strike. I would never do that. Once before I’d fallen prey to him and it had almost cost my life. Never again would I let him lay hands on me. I’d take my own life before that happened.

Still, fear raced through me, forcing me to remember that terrible time. Panic quickened me pulse and clouded my mind.

No! Don’t panic. Not now.

Panic was what he wanted, what he expected. After all, it would weaken me even as it fed him. So I had to focus. My only hope was to stay calm and figure out a way to escape.

But how?

Slow your breathing. Settle your nerves. Still your heart. Feel the Earth and the Moon. Draw from them. You’re safe. Remember that. You’re safe for the moment.

“You’ve led me on a fine chase, so you have,” came that soft, menacing voice from somewhere behind and to my right.

Determination tinged with anger replaced the fear. With it returned the ability to think. I needed a plan before I moved from this spot. The moment I did, my protections would be gone and I would be at his mercy.

Unless I acted first and took him by surprise. That was my only hope. But I needed to know where he was before I did anything.

“Ah, Fiona, don’t tell me you’ve nothing to say.”

It was hard but I resisted the urge to respond. Let him think me too scared – or too foolish – to speak. It would keep him talking because he wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to taunt me some more. That would, I hoped, give me the time I needed to determine where he was in the darkness beyond the small clearing where I had cast my circle. As long as I remained within its protections, he was helpless to attack.

I hoped.

But the circle’s protection was limited and I knew it. I could not remain there forever. Unfortunately, he knew it too and he had proven to be a very patient hunter when the need arose.

So I remained where I was, kneeling in the center of the circle, my sword and ritual blade carefully placed on the grass before me. The warmth of the earth beneath my knees was like a gentle embrace and I drew it close, savoring the energy I felt growing from ritual and need.

SNAP!

It wasn’t much, but the sound seemed almost ear-shattering in the still night. The muscles of my neck twitched and I fought the urge to turn in the direction of the sound. Instead, I lifted my face skyward and spread my arms as if in anticipation of a lover’s embrace.

“I think little Fiona is afraid.” Menace dripped from his voice. “Come, girl. Don’t you want to play?”

Fool!

In all the years since we had last met, he’d learned nothing. His pride, always his greatest weakness, prevented him from even considering that I might have changed, might have grown in ways he hadn’t anticipated. That was good, very good – for me.

And, I hoped, very bad for him.

Eyes closed, I drew a deep, bracing breath. As I did, I felt him probing, pressing against my protections, trying to find a weakness. Let him try. Each moment he delayed in attacking was another moment I had to live and plan.

I lowered my arms and rested my hands on my thighs. Through barely opened eyes, I saw sword and dagger just inches away. My focus split between my weapons and the enemy circling me. All I had to do was wait for the right moment to act, to catch him off-balance.

Slow, even breaths. Calm. Don’t rush it. You are the last of the line and can’t fail.

Slowly, so slowly it was barely discernable, I reached for my weapons. They might not be much but they were all I had.

They have to be enough. Otherwise, all was lost.

“Come now, girl. Let’s put an end to this.”

The uncertainty and frustration tinging his voice were intoxicating. For so long just the thought of him had been enough to plunge me back into the nightmarish memory of our last meeting. I’d lost so much that day. He’d killed my sister and left me with the guilt of knowing Siobhan had sacrificed her life so I could live.

Maybe if I’d fought harder, if I hadn’t fled when Siobhan had told me to, Siobhan would still be alive. There were still nights when I woke, Siobhan’s cry of pain followed by that terrible dull thud of her body falling resounding through me.

Now I was about to fail my sister again. But at least we would be rejoined in death and there’d be no more nightmares, no more fear.

No! That is the fear talking. Look at him. He’s unsure and confused. He didn’t expect you to deny him. So act now, before you lose the advantage.

I would never know if it was my own words or my sister’s, but my resolve firmed. I wouldn’t give up. I would make him pay for what he’d done to Siobhan and to all the others. Then I would figure out how he’d found me. Otherwise more would come. I’d stop them. I always stopped them. And maybe, just maybe, I would find a way to take the battle back to where it began so long ago. Only then would I be able to end it.

“Just admit it, Fiona. You’re only postponing the inevitable.”

I ordered her body not to respond to his taunts. Instead, I remained where I was, kneeling in the center of my circle, my senses reaching out, noting everything around me. I was safe as long as I remained in the circle. All I had to do was choose the right moment to strike.

Wait . . . wait.

The tips of the fingers of my right hand slowly inched toward the smooth hilt of my katana. When they closed around the worn leather grip with the familiarity that belied all the hours I had worked with the blade, the corners of my mouth turned ever so slightly upward. He had no idea what I could do with the katana. He’d never expect me to actually wield it against him. After all, what sort of good Irish lass would use such a blade?

A smart one who knows her strengths and weaknesses.

It didn’t hurt either that I had never really been a good Irish lass. If I had, I certainly wouldn’t be kneeling in the middle of the woods in the dark of night. Nor would I be carefully planning the best moment to banish my circle and confront the man – the monster – who had haunted my dreams for so long. I most definitely wouldn’t be about to do battle, a battle that very likely would end in my death.

But I was damned if I’d die – AGAIN – without taking this beast from Hell with me.

Slowly, seemingly reluctantly, I climbed to my feet. The katana trailed from my right hand as if it weighed too much to hold before me. Somehow, my ritual blade had found its way into my left hand. I didn’t remember reaching for it, but I welcomed the feel of the hilt, the heft of the blade. Through my lashes I watched as he stepped closer, triumph lighting his expression. He obviously believed the battle already won. Hopefully, I’d be able to prove him wrong.

“Come play with me, Fiona. I promise you’ll not forget it.”

His voice rippled over me, soft as a caress. It would be so easy to give in. I was tired of running and hiding. I was tired of losing everyone close to me. Most of all, I was tired of fighting battles for those not deserving mercy, much less life.

Stop it! He’s putting those doubts in your head. Don’t listen to him.

Ruthlessly, I clamped down on those fatalistic thoughts. I knew better. If I listened, it wouldn’t lead to release and peace. It would only lead to torment and, if I was lucky, death. But only long after I had begged for it and then given up all hope.

Remember what he and his kind do to others, to those like you and to those who refuse your help.

Moving almost silently, he took another step forward, pressing against the edge of my circle. The night air crackled with power as he tested first one section of the circle and then another. He was probing for a weak spot, something to exploit in his attempt to get to me. All the while, he continued his soft, seductive promise to be merciful if only I would banish the circle.

So simple.

Se easy.

And so very stupid.

“Don’t be a fool, Fiona. If you come out now, I’ll be merciful.”

“Merciful?” I laughed bitterly, unable to help myself. “You don’t know the meaning of the word, Conal. You’re Morrigan’s wolf in more than just name.”

“Just as you once were,” he growled.

“I was never Morrigan’s.”

With that, I instantly banished her circle. Before Conal could do more than start in surprise, I leapt. The katana flashed against the night sky as it arced through the air. It might not be as heavy as the blade I had carried the last time we met, but it was every bit as deadly. In fact, it was more so because I knew how to wield it, something I’d not known so long ago.

Conal stumbled backwards one step, two and fought to bring his blade up to deflect my blows. The katana sang as it struck his broadsword. My wrist registered the impact even as I reacted on instinct. My right knee bent and, as I let my body bend and move forward, my right elbow leading, taking the katana into a defensive position over my shoulder, I stepped past him. Off-balance, his broadsword sliding down the length of the katana toward the fresh earth, Conal cursed. That curse turned vicious as I once more pivoted, dropping my left shoulder and pulling the katana lengthwise across his side, opening him as easily as a helpless doe.

Ignoring the spray of blood and the hot fury reflected in Conal’s blue eyes, I pressed my advantage. The moment I showed mercy would be the moment I died. I had to keep him off-balance and on the defensive. Otherwise, all was lost.

The silence of the night was shattered as blade met blade and the sounds of battle filled the air. I did my best to take advantage of my speed and agility. Conal was bigger than me, slower and he was injured. But I was tiring. If I didn’t find an opening soon so I could deliver a debilitating strike, all would be lost.

Fear spiked as I danced away from his blade as it swept through the air where I had been just a split-second before. My foot shifted to the left and then slipped. My guard dropped as I struggled to maintain her balance. Everything was happening too quickly, too unexpectedly. Worse, Conal knew it. His heavy broadsword arced toward me. I had to regain my balance…I couldn’t fall.

Damn it, not again!

Sword of Arelion – Snippet 2

Portrai of mystic  elf woman with sword, armor and tattoo on her hand.As I work to recapture Mac Santos’ voice so I can finish Nocturnal Challenge, I am playing around with a fantasy novel I originally wrote more than 10 years ago. So far it has been interesting because I haven’t written anything like this in quite awhile. Please keep in mind that this is a very rough draft. That means there will be spelling and grammar errors, and probably more as well. These will be corrected during edits. As with anything posted here, the copyright is mine so all the standard disclaimers apply. Now, here is the opening section from Sword of Arelion, a fantasy novel that may or may not see the full light of day.

The image I’ve attached to this post is a mock-up of what I think will be the cover. Yes, I know the typesetting sucks. I was more interested in finding an image that “fit” and then in getting something that would keep reminding me that I am serious about trying to complete this novel, even if only as an exercise in what can be done

Click here for Snippet 1.

***

Chapter Two

 Fallon didn’t know whether to nod in approval or sigh in frustration as one of the troopers calmly explained to yet another townsman that the tavern was not open for business. No, he did not know when it would reopen. No, Garris could not come out and explain. He was currently “unavailable”. No, he really could not say more than that.

At least that much was the truth. Garris sat in the far corner of the room, a burly trooper standing on either side of him. Each rested heavy hands on his shoulders, making sure he did not try to get to his feet. Looking at the tavern-master, Fallon had no doubt the only thing keeping him quiet was Commander Darrias’ threat to gag him. The threat had been enough to finally silence Garris’ threats and invectives. It had happened none too soon. Fallon had been ready to silence the man in a much more permanent manner.

Part of him still wanted to.

Frowning, Fallon turned away from the tavern’s entrance and looked to where Darrias stood talking with his sergeant. As he did, Fallon’s fought the urge to move to the captain’s side and demand an explanation for the delay. Almost an hour had passed since word had been sent to the keep requesting the duke’s presence. There had been no response and the duke had yet to appear. That worried Fallon more than he wanted to admit, even to himself. Either the duke did not understand the urgency of the situation or he simply did not care. Either option meant trouble, not only for those involved but also for the duchy and, very possibly, for the entire Ardean Imperium.

If the duke was so naïve that he did not understand how serious the situation happened to be, the duchy could very easily find itself at the mercy of raider – or worse. A ruler who didn’t recognize the presence of Sarussian slave bands in his lands opened the door for an evil so deep and dark it would be next to impossible to displace. It was very likely the followers of Balaar already had a foothold in this land and the duke had, for whatever reason, condemned his subjects to a life of fear and suffering. That was bad enough.

Worse, far worse, was the possibility that the new duke simply did not care about what had happened. Such a monarch opened his lands to suffering willingly, gladly. Often, he was the cause of it, even if not directly. By encouraging raiders and slavers, by not taking steps to protect his people, a ruler violated the trust put in him. If that were the case, the Order would have to consider stepping in.

Fallon prayed that wasn’t the situation here.

Of even greater concern to Fallon just then was the girl. The troopers had done what they could to treat her injuries but it wasn’t enough. There was a sallowness to her skin and a glazed look to her eyes that worried him. He wanted a physician to examine her, to make sure she had suffered no serious or lasting injury at the tavern-master’s hands. Then he needed a detailed report of all her injuries, old and new. That report would be the best proof of the crimes the tavern-master had committed against her.

It might also help answer other questions he had about the girl, questions like where had she come from and how had she come to find herself in Garris’ hands?

But that was only part of what Fallon wanted done. The girl needed to leave the tavern as soon as possible. Every time Garris uttered a sound, she started nervously, hunching her shoulders as if expecting a blow. Her eyes flickered between the man and the troopers guarding him. Clearly, she knew Garris would strike out against her at the first opportunity. Unfortunately, Fallon knew she was right to be afraid. One look was all it took to recognize the madness in the man who had hurt and enslaved her.

No, she needed to get away from the tavern as quickly as possible.

His patience finally coming to an end, Fallon moved almost silently to the girl’s side. They had waited long enough. No matter what Darrias or anyone else said, Fallon was determined to take her some place that would not be a constant reminder of all she had suffered. Once he had, he would secure the services of a physician. Unfortunately, this realm’s fear of gods-given talents meant there would be no Healer around and that was who the girl really needed. A Healer would be able to deal with her emotional and mental wounds as well as the physical. But, since one was not available, a physician would have to do.

Then, as soon as the girl was physically able, they would leave New Grange and the duchy. He would see her safely settled somewhere and then he would report back to the Citadel to let Kirris, as well as the High King, know what he had found here. After all, he knew that if one such case existed, others might as well.

Before he could carry out his plan, however, the outer door swung open. Fallon turned in time to see a young man, not much older than a boy really, step inside. To the Knight’s surprise, the troopers snapped to attention and crisply saluted.

“Commander,” the newcomer began in a surprisingly deep voice. “Why did you summon me?”

“My lord Duke.” Darrias bowed slightly. “I apologize for calling you away from your duties, but the situation is such that you must decide what action should be taken. Left to me or my men, it would mean the tavern-master’s life.”

For a moment, the young duke looked at Darrias, concern written on his expression. At the same time, Fallon studied him. What he saw did little to reassure him.

Duke Tomas Arctaris was not much older than the girl. His straw colored hair was thick and unruly. His light blue eyes reflected displeasure, whether at the interruption of his regular routine or at Commander Darrias’ words, Fallon couldn’t tell. In fact, had it not been for the royal colors of his tunic and trousers, as well as the intricately braided knot at his right shoulder, Fallon would have mistaken him for a messenger from the duke. Now he hoped the duke’s youth did not interfere with what had to be done.

“Very well. Commander. Tell me what has happened.”

As he spoke, the duke looked around the common room. Fallon watched as his mouth grew tight at the sight of the small pool of blood at the base of the hearth where the girl had fallen. Then the young man continued his examination of the room until his gaze fell on Longbow.  There could be no mistaking his concern as he watched one of the troopers finish tending to the old man’s wounds.

“Master Longbow! Are you all right?”

“I am, my lord.” Longbow tried to stand but the trooper stopped him. “Due to the quick action and intervention of Sir Fallon.” Now he nodded in Fallon’s direction.

“My lord, allow me to introduce myself. I am Sir Fallon Mevarel, knight of the Order of Arelion.” He stepped forward. “I stopped at this tavern to partake of some refreshment before continuing on my journey. This lass served me well and I have no complaint about her or about the food. However, something did happen that not only concerns me but alarms me as well.”

“And what, pray tell, might that be, Sir Knight?”

Doing his best not to omit a single detail, Fallon quickly told of his time at the tavern. The young duke listened closely, occasionally interrupting to ask a question. When Fallon told how the girl tried to help Longbow only to find herself on the receiving end of what was clearly the latest in a long line of beatings by Garris, the duke turned to face the tavern-master. Cold fury danced in the young man’s eyes and his hands fisted at his sides. Seeing it, Fallon relaxed slight, hoping it meant the duke was not as inexperienced and callow as he had feared.

“Master Longbow?” the duke prompted.

Frustration filled Fallon at those two simple words. He was not used to having his word questioned. Nowhere else in the Imperium would such a thing happen. The members of the Order were respected and recognized as the enforcers of not only the High King’s laws but, more importantly, the laws of the Lord and Lady.

But then, he reminded himself, Lineaus is like nowhere else in the Imperium.

Fortunately.

“It is as Sir Fallon says, milord. Dante Garris has refused me food and drink, even when I have offered to pay. He begrudges me a seat by the fire, saying I am bad for business. It is no secret he has given the girl a clout whenever she has tried to help me.”

From where he stood by the girl’s side, Fallon nodded slightly. The young duke might not have been overly impressed by what he said but he appeared to accept everything Longbow said as truth. Even so, Fallon still worried. No one seemed to want to discuss the fact the girl had been enslaved and that had to be dealt with and dealt with quickly.

Frowning, Fallon glanced down at the girl. She sat silently, head bent. Her hair covered her face and he wondered if that was a mask of protection she had learned to use. Hide her face, hide her emotions. Then, as Longbow continued to answer the duke’s questions, describing earlier times he had seen Garris lay hands on her, she hunched her shoulders defensively, as if to ward off any further blows. Such a reaction served as further confirmation of Fallon’s suspicions and he hoped the duke saw and understood.

Gods above and below, what terrors had she been forced to endure at the tavern-master’s hands?

“Is there more?” The duke’s voice was tight with anger.

“There is.” Fallon did nothing to hide the condemnation he felt. “It was my understanding that this realm, as a member of the Imperium, had outlawed slavery.”

“Of course it has!”

“Then would you care to explain why she wears not only a Sarussian slave collar but matching slave bands at wrists and ankles? As a member of the Imperium, you are bound by imperial law. I find myself wondering if you willingly flaunt that prohibition or if you simply turn a blind eye to what goes on.”

For several moments the duke stared at Fallon, anger suffusing his face. Fallon knew he had very likely gone too far but he did not care. Slavery was a capital crime in the Imperium. Every realm upon joining the Imperium had to agree to follow all imperial laws. Otherwise, it faced the prospect of imperial forces marching into the capital and deposing the current local leadership. Was that what it would take to bring Lineaus into compliance?

Then, to Fallon’s surprise, the duke moved to kneel in front of the girl. The anger reflected in his face just moments before was gone. Concern replaced it. Good. Maybe he finally understood just how serious the situation happened to be.

“What is your name, child?” he asked gently, much more gently than Fallon expected.crossedswordsI’ll post the next section tomorrow. Current word count, not including what I have done today so far, is over 12k words, almost 13k. My goal is to get at least 6k words done today but I’m not betting on it. There are too many other things I have to do. But we will see.

Finding the right voice

I am behind on my writing. Seriously behind. There is no sense in denying it. The truth of the matter is that life happens and sometimes it hits hard. That’s what happened here. A month of real life hitting knocked me for a loop on the creative front. You see, I know the plot for Nocturnal Challenge. I can see it playing out in my head. But the problem is this: I don’t have the right voice for it. Mackenzie Santos has a certain voice, a certain way of acting and reacting, that has been established over the last three books and the novella. If I suddenly put out a book that ought to be kicking up the tension that’s been building over the previous books but without Mac being Mac, well, I have a few fans who might just hunt me down and beat me with their Kindles.

So, I am going to take a few days to reread the books and novella. Hopefully that will help get me back in the frame of mind I need to find the voice and actually write the book. I have no doubts it won’t take more than a week to ten days of solid work to finish. After all, I already have the opening chapters and the last quarter to third of the book done. It’s that pesky stuff in-between that is bother me.

But I don’t want to sit idle on the writing front either. After not being able to write for so long, the bug has bitten again and I want to encourage it. The problem is I also don’t want to start Honor from Ashes. I’ve learned the hard way that Mac Santos and Ashlyn Shaw do not play well together. Besides, I’m not sure anyone wants Mac in space or a pissed off Ash running out Earth. Neither would be pretty.  😉

So I’m going to try something new. No, not a new project. Not really. This is something I wrote more than ten plus years ago. The so-called final draft — so-called because there is no way it is final. I have learned a heck of a lot in those intervening years — was written ten years ago. I pulled it out the other day after talking with Sarah Hoyt about some of the different things we wrote back in the dark ages.

Anyway, this piece is fantasy. I actually like the characters even if the plot, such as it is, needs mucho work. Then there is the fact there are some folks who will want to hang me from the highest tree because — gasp — I violate the latest politically correct, socially conscious requirements of all things science fiction and fantasy. I have one of the characters being raped, and more than once. The fact it takes place before the book begins and is only referenced a couple of times to set the stage probably won’t help in their eyes. Then there is the fact she is “saved” by a — gasp — man. Of course, he isn’t doing it to rescue the princess and marry her to take over her kingdom. Nor does anything beyond respect and friendship develop between them. None of that will be enough to satisfy the detractors that I fell into the patriarchal trap.

Of course, they might be satisfied and say that it all shows how evil men are because those who abused my character were men. Savages, they’ll say and inherently bad. Well, all I can say to that is they are slavers and the like who use their possessions, male and female, anyway they want. Nor are they all men. But they are bad. Think that will be enough to satisfy the detractors?

Anyway, while I try to get the voice for Challenge back, I’m going to play with this fantasy piece. I am also putting Russian Nights on hold while I do because the research required for it is also keeping my too focused on a side project and not on Challenge. But I will go back to it once I get Challenge and Honor from Ashes done.

I’ll snippet it as I work on it. Fair warning, it will be the roughest thing I have ever posted here. It will most definitely undergo major edits if I decide to publish it — which I probably will. After all, why write something without the intent of publishing it? Fingers crossed I can make it readable and, more important, enjoyable.

Snippet to follow later this morning.

Russian Nights — Snippet 2

(I an taking a page out of Sarah A. Hoyt’s blogging book and using Sunday’s to post snippets of a work in progress. The current project is Russian Nights. This is an historical fantasy/alternate history novel set around the time of the Russian Revolution. I started RN some several years ago, so some of you may have seen the first couple of snippets. I put it aside because other projects were louder and, to be honest, easier to write. But RN has stayed in the back of my mind, percolating and plotting and now it wants some attention. One last thing. This is a rough draft. So be prepared for a few spelling errors, etc. Also, as with everything posted on this blog, it is copyrighted by me and cannot be reproduced, shared, altered, etc., without my permission.

You can find the first snippet here. I hope you enjoy it.)

***

“Katya, please, go upstairs and make sure your brother is getting dressed for dinner. You know your papa will be home soon.”

Irena Baranova stood in the doorway to her husband’s study and shook her head. She’d made this simple request once already. Not that Katya had heard. The girl – no, she had to quit thinking of Katerina as a girl. She was a young woman now – had her nose in a book. As was almost always the case when she read, Katya was oblivious to the world.

Not that Irena minded. They had a few minutes before Feodor returned home. Time enough for Katya to finish the page and then see to her brother.

Eighteen year old Katerina Yelizaveta Baranova sat in a well-worn chair before the far window. The heavy draperies were pulled tightly against the falling darkness outside. The dark of the room was relieved only by the glow from the lamp next to Katya. Not that Katya realized how late it had become. Once lost in a book, nothing else existed for her.

Aggravated as she should be, Irena couldn’t help smiling as she looked at her daughter, her eldest child. Tall and willowy, it was hard to guess it from the way Katya sat curled in the chair, much like Kisa, the family cat. Katya’s thick auburn hair fell in soft waves below her shoulders. She might not be beautiful in the classic sense. But Irena knew she’d grow more beautiful as she matured, something other women would resent with the passing years. Until then, there was a strength to Katya’s features, softened by compassion, that couldn’t be ignored.

“Katya,” she repeated, a hint of impatience creeping into her voice.

“Mama.” Katya looked up from her book, her expression a mix of affection and aggravation. “Sasha’s probably got his nose pressed to his window, watching for Papa. You know how he misses him.”

“Which is why I need you to make sure he’s not so busy watching for your papa, he’s forgotten to get ready for supper.”

“Mama, you worry too much.” Katya carefully marked her place before closing the book and placing it on the table next to her chair. Then, with a cat-like grace Irena envied, she uncurled her legs and climbed to her feet. “But I will go hurry Sasha along. I want to make sure he’s worked on his lessons for morning any way.”

Katya lightly kissed her mother’s cheek before leaving the study. Irena looked after her, no longer trying to hide her smile. Katya was just one example of why no one would mistake them for a “typical” Russian family, noble or not. In fact, being an atypical Russian family was something both she and Feodor, her husband these last twenty years, prided themselves on. Just as they prided themselves on raising an intelligent, independent daughter.

Of course, there were times she might wish Katya was just a bit less independent. . . . But not often.

***

“Papa’s home!”

The door to her brother’s bedroom flew open and the boy hurtled into the hallway. With the ease of much practice, Katya stepped to the side, all but hugging the wall. Her right hand reached out and closed around Sasha’s arm as he rushed past, pulling him to a halt. Twelve year old Aleksander glared up at her, outraged that she’d stopped him. Then, as she reached out to ruffle his dark hair, smiling in affection, he ducked his head and grinned in response.

“Papa may be home, but do you want to greet him by bouncing down the stairs on your head?” she teased.

“But my head is hard, Katya. You keep telling me that,” Sasha said with a cheeky grin.

“So I do, Sashel. But think how sad it would make Mama if you bled all over your new shirt. And what of Anna who would have to clean the mess?”

“Well –” He tilted his head to one side as he looked up at her, a slight smile tugging at the corners of his mouth even as he pretended to consider it all. “I guess it would make for a homecoming Papa might not enjoy.”

“Then, shall we go down now and give him one he will enjoy?”

Together they made their way downstairs a bit more slowly – although, to be honest, not that much more – than Sasha wanted. After all, he wasn’t the only one anxious to see their father after Feodor’s week long absence. But there was one person in the household who had missed Papa more than either of them and that was their mother. Knowing that, Katya hoped she’d managed to stall her brother long enough for their parents to have a short but private greeting because it would be their last time alone until Sasha went to bed and she retired to her room and her own studies.

As they entered the salon, Katya smiled to see how her father still held Mama close, love clearly reflected on both their expressions “Papa!” Sasha rushed across the salon and flung himself into Feodor’s open arms.

“Irena, I do believe our son is glad to see me,” he said, his brown eyes twinkling. “But how about our daughter? Have I been gone so long she’s forgotten me?”

Katya grinned and hurried to join her brother in their father’s embrace. “Never, Papa, but little Aleksander here didn’t look like he’d make room for me.”

Feodor cupped her chin in his big hand and kissed her cheek. “It is good to be home. Now, I know your mother and Anna have supper almost ready. Why don’t the two of you help set the table while I freshen up?”

Katya hid her smile to see how badly her brother wanted to protest. After all, Papa had just gotten home. But neither of them had been raised to either backtalk their parents or take for granted anything they had. That was one thing that made their family different from so many of those of Katya’s friends. Despite the fact her parents came from old, aristocratic families, they had taken great pains to make sure both Katya and Sasha understood that did not entitle them to anything they did not earn for themselves.

Because of that, they did not have a houseful of servants. Instead, they had Anna Petrovskaya, their live-in maid who helped Irena with the cleaning and cooking, and her husband, Viktor, who acted as butler and chauffeur. Both had come with the family when it moved to St. Petersburg in 1906 when Feodor began working for Peter Stolypin, then Minister of the Interior.

If an occasion arose when they needed additional help, Irena hired it. As a result, both Katya and Sasha had learned early on how to pick up after themselves and care for the home. After all, if they were lucky enough to have a home and nice things, they should learn how to care for them themselves.

“Come along, Sasha.” Katya smiled once more at their father and winked at their mother. “You can talk to Papa over supper.”

Later, they retired to the sitting room, as they did most evenings when the entire family was home. Unlike many of the other families of their acquaintance, they did not follow the trend of the children being sent to their rooms or the nursery while the adults went their separate ways. No, Irena and Feodor believed in the importance of spending time with their children, sharing the events of the day with one another.

Katya smiled indulgently as she watched her brother all but run across the room to settle on the floor next to their father’s favorite chair. How many nights had he spent sitting there, looking up at Feodor, raptly listening to their father talk about any variety of topics? Not that she blamed him. Katya had spent her fair share of nights sitting there as well, at least she had until her mother had taken her to one side and explained how important it was for Sasha to have some of their father’s attention now that he was growing up.

“So,” Feodor began as he leaned back and reached for his snifter of brandy. “How have things been while I was gone?”

“You know how it is, dear,” Irena began, her blue eyes twinkling as she glanced first at Sasha and then at Katya where she curled on the far end of the sofa opposite her mother. “The children miss you, but try to act as if they don’t.”

“Mama!” Sasha protested, a blush creeping across his fair cheeks.

“Don’t let your mama tease you, Sashel. I know you do your best to be the man of the family, and I appreciate it. I feel better when I have to leave, knowing you are here looking after your mother and sister.”

But he didn’t, not really, and Katya knew it. Just as she knew he wished she had been born a son. Oh, he loved her. There was no doubting that. He made it clear every day. Still, she knew he’d feel better if she had been a son, just as she knew some sort of trouble was coming and it worried her father. But what could she do? He wouldn’t talk to her about it. Nor, she suspected, had he discussed it with her mother and, until he had, there was very little any of them could do to help.

“Katya.” Concern touched Feodor’s voice and she shook herself.

“I’m sorry, Papa.”

“You were a world away, child. Is everything all right?”

“It is.” She smiled to reassure him. “I was just thinking about today’s classes.”

“Are you sure you weren’t thinking about some boy?” he teased and it was her turn to blush.

“I’m positive,” she answered firmly.

“Feodor, quit teasing the girl,” Irena scolded, her eyes sparkling with good humor. “Katya has been quite busy this week helping with Sasha’s studies as well as attending her classes at university.”

“Good.” The smile he turned to his daughter had Katya all but preening in pride. “And, Katya, I promise we will discuss sending you to either Uncle Stefan in New York or Aunt Katerina in London to attend university there very soon.”

For a moment, Katya just sat there, looking from one of her parents to the other. Then, as the full import of what Feodor said sunk in, she all but flew from the sofa to throw her arms around her father’s neck. She couldn’t believe it. She’d hoped — no, she’d prayed — to be able to go to university in England or America, but she’d never thought she’d be allowed. It cost so much money and her parents had said many times they did not want her so far away. Now, all of a sudden, it looked like her dream might come true.

What had happened to change Papa’s mind?

“Thank you, Papa, Mama.” She returned to her seat, pausing long enough to give her mother a hug equally as enthusiastic as the one she’d given her father.

“No promises, Katya. We will have to see. But I do promise your mother and I will discuss it with you soon.”

She nodded, knowing she shouldn’t get her hopes up, but unable to help it. Even discussing it was more than she’d ever expected. Whenever she’d brought up the possibility before, one or the other of her parents had always changed the subject. She didn’t care why they suddenly seemed to have changed their minds. Not if it meant possibly being able to live out her dream.

“I understand, Papa, and thank you.”

“Tell us, dear, how bad was the trip home?” Irena asked. Her fingers lightly traced the floral pattern of the teacup she held. A hint of concern colored her voice. Katya understood. They’d both worried the weather would delay Feodor’s return.

“Uneventful. Of course, if I’d left Moscow any later, I might not have made it home today. The closer to the capital we came, the worse the weather. I admit, I worried about ice on the rails.” He sipped his brandy and the reached down to ruffle Sasha’s hair. “And how was your day today, Sasha?”

For the next few minutes, the boy described in infinite detail everything that happened at school. Both Feodor and Irena listened, occasionally asking a question. Katya wasn’t surprised when her brother commented on the number of his classmates who had not been in school, taking advantage of the weather to stay home. Nor was she surprised when he named several of them. Too many of his classmates came from families who felt the rules did not apply to them unless the Tsar said they did. That attitude would only lead to more trouble for Russia.

“And your religion class?”

For a moment Sasha didn’t respond and Katya frowned in concern. He generally enjoyed his classes with Father Dmitri and couldn’t wait to tell them what he’d learned that day. Worried, Katya leaned forward, waiting.

“Sasha,” Irena prompted. “Did something happen today?”

“I don’t know, Mama.” A frown creased his forehead. “Father Dmitri taught us more about God’s covenant with man. It was interesting.”

“Sashel, what is it? What troubles you?” Feodor asked.

“We had a visitor today, Papa.”

Katya glanced from her father to her mother and back again. This was the first she’d heard of a visitor and, judging by her mother’s expression, the first Irena had heard of it as well. Still, that didn’t explain Sasha’s reluctance to talk about the class. Could something have happened, something Father Dmitri hadn’t spoken about with Irena when she collected Sasha from the cathedral?

“Who, son?”

“Father Grigori.”

For a moment, no one said anything. Then Feodor cleared his throat and spoke softly, gently. “Grigori Rasputin, son?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Did he say anything?”

“He said he wanted to know how our studies were going and he listened to us recite scripture for a few minutes. Then he left.”

“Sasha, what else?” Irena asked. When he didn’t reply, she moved to kneel before him, taking his hands in hers. “Sashel, you know you can tell us anything, no?”

He nodded once, almost reluctantly.

“Then what troubles you?”

“I know it’s wrong to fear him, Mama, but I do. He scares me.”

“Sasha.” Katya couldn’t help herself. She moved quickly to kneel next to their mother, closing the protective circle around her brother. No one, no matter who they were, was allowed to scare him. “It’s all right. There is nothing wrong with fearing him. To be honest, he scares me too.”

For a moment Sasha said nothing. Then, when he looked up at her, his blue eyes that were so much like their mother’s filled with tears. “Really?”

“Really,” she confirmed. “He is so different from Father Dmitri and the other priests. Maybe because he’s so intense. Maybe because of his role with the Royal Family. But, yes, he scares me.”

She did her best to let him see she spoke the truth. Grigori Rasputin did frighten her. She’d met him once, in Nevsky Prospect when she and their mother had been shopping. That day, she’d realized Irena didn’t like the holy man despite the fact her mother had been nothing but respectful as she introduced him to her daughter. That alone would have been enough to keep the memory sharp. But it was her own reaction to him that surprised her, and that came rushing back.

Never before had she reacted so strongly to anyone. Nor had she ever wanted to avoid being near a person as she did the holy man from Siberia. It had been all she could do not to turn and cross the street, leaving her mother to deal with Rasputin on her own. There was something about him that was wrong. She knew it, even if she didn’t understand it.

And now the man had been near her brother and had scared him. Why?

“Your sister is correct, Sasha. It isn’t wrong to fear Rasputin. But it also isn’t something to discuss outside of the family. Not even to Father Dmitri,” Feodor said, his expression troubled as he looked over his son’s head to Irena. Seeing it, Katya swallowed hard, a knot of fear growing deep inside her. “Did he do or say anything else?”

“No, Papa. Only that we were credits to Father Dmitri’s fine teaching. But it didn’t really sound like he meant it.”

“Don’t worry about it anymore, Sasha. You’ve done nothing wrong.” Feodor pulled him to his feet and gave him a hug. “Now, it is bedtime for you, my young man. Go up with your sister. She’ll help you get ready. Your mother and I will be up shortly to kiss you good night.”

“Papa’s right, Sasha,” Katya said, taking her cue from their father as she climbed to her feet. “I will take a look at your lessons while you change. Then you can read to me for a change.”

He grinned, almost despite himself, and slipped his hand in hers. With one last look over her shoulder at their parents, Katya knew she wasn’t the only one worried by Rasputin’s sudden appearance in Sasha’s class that afternoon. Unfortunately, she had a feeling neither Feodor nor Irena would discuss their concerns with her, at least not yet.

And that worried her more than the rest of it.

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