Posts Tagged With: Fantasy

Chapter Reveal: Kings or Pawns (Steps of Power, The Kings: Book I), by J.J. Sherwood

KingsorPawnscoverSMmTitle: Kings or Pawns (Steps of Power, The Kings: Book I)

Genre: Fantasy

Author: J.J. Sherwood

Website: www.StepsofPower.com

Publisher: Silver Helm

Purchase at Amazon

Kings or Pawns is the first novel in the Steps of Power series. It takes place after two very significant events in the world—the continental division between the human and elven races after the betrayal and death of Aersadore’s hero, Eraydon, and the recent Royal Schism that has left the elven nation’s politics even more corrupted than was prior. The new elven king, Hairem, is determined to overcome the council’s corruption and restore the elven lands, but he has far more to contend with than just the politics within the capital: an assassin has begun killing those loyal to him, a rebelling warlord threatens the city from without, and an unknown beast devastates the king’s forces at every turn. There are multiple points of view—the youthful and naïve king Hairem; the mute and spunky servant girl, Alvena; the mysterious and arrogant foreigner, Sellemar; and the cynical, dry-humored General Jikun.

Chapter One

Seven hundred forty-five hard fought days and seven hundred forty-four miserable nights they had borne to return to this place. Now the sun that arose from the horizon was more vivid and welcoming than any sunrise Jikun had seen on any day before. The sky was golden, radiating a warmth of color that cut through the cold spring morning fog like a blade. The ancient trees that lined the wide dirt road and covered the surrounding landscape shook off little drops of water as a fragrant breeze gently wove toward the elves’ greatest city on Sevrigel: Elvorium, the seat of the Council of Elves.

“Forgive my cliché, but isn’t that a sight for sore eyes?” grinned his captain. “The gods certainly know how to remind you of what you are fighting for, do they not, General?”

“That they do, Navon,” Jikun inhaled deeply. Even the stench of blood and rotting leather from one hundred fifty thousand soldiers could not conceal the pleasant aromas twisting their way toward him from across the canyon: at long last, through the final trees skirting the edge of the forest behind him, Jikun’s eyes could see the breadth of the Sel’varian city, plainly visible in the center of the cliff side that jutted out into a “V” shape over the canyon. At the end of the precipice, settled between two rivers that cascaded over the edge of the cliff, was the palace of the king.

A roar of relief and excitement arose from behind the general and his captain. Several helmets dared sail past the two, ringing as they bounced off the stone bridge before them to drop like stones into the canyon below.

“Hold onto your possessions!” General Jikun roared, turning in his saddle. “The next elf who acts like a god damn human will be stripped naked and paraded through the streets with the horses!”

The clamor quieted and Jikun turned back to Navon with a thin smile etched across his lips.

Although it was a far cry from home, he had to admit that he too was glad to return to the capital.

“Don’t make indecent threats lightly; the troops take you quite seriously,” his captain rebuked him with all the airs of a typical Sel’ven. Jikun considered it ill-suiting, as the captain had not a drop of Sel’varian blood in his body. Which was a relief for him amongst his troops.

“I was entirely serious, Navon.”

Jikun nudged his horse forward across the stone bridge that stretched over the vast ravine. The structure was a marvel of Sel’varian engineering, architecture, and magic, hardly comparable to the other elven races’ ability to design. Extending at a great expanse, the bridge was held in place by curved stone pillars mounted to the cliff side and supported by magic. The columned archway and railing across the bridge were intricately detailed, but more than being merely an adornment, they helped to shield travelers from the sudden canyon gusts that could catch a passerby off-guard.

Jikun had, on more than one occasion, imagined himself lurching over the side to an inescapable death and now found himself wondering if the archway and railing had been part of the original concept, or if they had been added later after some visiting merchant had met his doom. But of course, the Sel’vi would never admit to such a design mistake. Perhaps this was why a score of houses still spotted the canyon face below the palace where they would one day, inevitably, fall away beneath the erosion of the stone and send their poor, but foolish, inhabitants several leagues downward. During which they would hopefully have sufficient time to contemplate their poor life choices.

Jikun stiffened and edged his horse to the center of the bridge. This bridge, like the one on the opposite end of the canyon, led into the south and north ends of the city respectively. With the east end of the city banked by an enormous lake, the bridges were the primary entry points into the city. And all the elven magic in Aersadore could not comfort him when marching several hundred thousand bodies across its lengthy structure.

The horses whinnied faintly as though sharing mutually in Jikun’s dislike for this final stretch of their journey. He reached forward, patting his mare softly on the neck. Perhaps even she recognized the sight up ahead. At the bend in the bridge just before them, he could see the city’s gateway swung open wide and hear a roar of triumph and praise erupt from the guards at their posts. The salutary trumpet blasts seemed to have already been announced and Jikun imagined the waiting elves had let them loose when the watch had first seen his army rising across the west bank’s hillsides. Jikun pulled to the center of the bridge as Navon respectfully withdrew behind him.

‘What I wouldn’t give to skip this drivel of politics and charades and take a damn hot bath,’ Jikun muttered to himself as the bridge seemed to lengthen around the bend. He glanced once over the marble side—it had been over two years since he had last seen its depths; it still made his stomach drop like a stone. Far below them was a large forest, heavily shrouded in the center by the thick rolls of mist running off from the waterfalls pouring toward a lake below. From this lake, a thin river, banked on either side by a narrow field, wound its way into the distance, away to the Noc’olari or Ruljen ethnicities in the northeast.

Jikun’s head snapped back up in unease and he directed his attention instead to the first male at the gate.

“Congratulations, General, on yet another victory!” the captain of the city guard greeted as Jikun passed underneath the archway and onto the safety of the cobbled streets of the city. “His Majesty awaits you at the palace.”

Jikun nodded his head once toward the guard and pressed onward, eyes sweeping the streets of Elvorium. The gold-slated rooftops glimmered in the light of dawn and the long shadows across Mehuim Way crept up the cream faces of the buildings tinted with an orange glow. All along the street sides and hanging from windows were countless elves tossing flowers, shouting praise, and glowing with smiles. Despite having been awoken before the dawn by the welcoming trumpet calls that had saluted his troops’ approach, the Sel’vi were beaming with neatly braided hair and broadening smiles, as though they had long been awaiting this day.

But Jikun imagined they didn’t even remember what he was fighting for. It was simply the “victory” itself that had driven them to patriotism.

The street curved gently toward the entrance of the palace. Even as Jikun was lavished with shouts of praise and welcome, it seemed but a short march down its way before he and his soldiers passed beneath a flower-laden archway and stepped into the presence of several scores of elves.

Here, the mood shifted palpably. The elves waiting before the palace were taciturn and silent, bestowing no salute or praise onto the defenders of Sevrigel. Their lack of response was contagious, spreading like the Cadorian Plague through the troops and into the city beyond. Jikun’s face grew stoic, the joyous welcome forgotten. Even the naivety of praise and victory was preferred over the stiff bastards that delayed his hot bath now.

These males before him were guards, council members, and a large portion of the nobility. However, despite the conspicuous splendor of the surrounding elves, the most prominent figure stood at the forefront: Hairem, Prince of Elvorium and the Sel’vi, second of non-royal blood since the Royal Schism.

As the army fanned out behind Jikun, the crowd before him, with the exception of the prince, went down to one knee.

This gesture was a long-established practice, and Jikun doubted that he and his army would have been shown the same respect were not the Sel’vi pedants for tradition. Pedant was, without a doubt, the most accurate and all-encompassing word he could ascribe to that breed of elves. The council members were pridefully stiff in their bows, eyes never fully lowering to the earth. Their guards, though more sincere in their respect, were nonetheless all too quick to their feet.

‘I’d like to see you leave your homes to lead a war. Then we’d see how your respect rises,’ Jikun reflected sourly in response, though his expression remained carefully detached.

He was not a Sel’ven and it was perhaps this fact that led him to regard their actions with an extra tinge of cynicism. He was from the far north—the frozen lands of Darival, land of the Lithri and Darivalians. Though his army was diverse in the race of elves it had deployed, now in Elvorium he felt out of place, as his appearance clearly spoke that he was a foreigner. His hair was a blue tinted silver, like the mountains that framed Darival. His skin was a grey-white, like shadows banking the snow. And although he was tall and slender like his Sel’varian brethren, his facial features were stronger and sharper—like a sculpture chiseled from ice.

Jikun knew there was one other of his kind amongst the group before him, but he could not spot the council member’s presence amongst the crowd. He wove his hand once into the air and heard his fellow riders obediently dismount to the smooth cobbled stones. He swung himself lightly from the saddle and dropped the reins at his side.

There was a sudden eruption of murmuring from the council members. When he twisted from his horse to look, surprise rooted him in place. Hairem, prince of the Sel’vi, knelt on one knee before the army, his symbolic sword scraping carelessly across the ground beside him as though he was blind to all but the triumphant troops.

Non-royal blood or not, the gesture caught Jikun by surprise as well. Though he had not lived amongst the Sel’vi for long, he imagined that in the history of their proud nation, no ruler had gone on bended knee before any male or female of lower rank. And for all purposes of tradition, as far as the elves were concerned, Hairem was as royal as the True Bloods of The Royal Schism three centuries before. Attesting to this were the wide-eyed council members, mouths agape between murmurs as they stared in shock toward the scandalous behavior.

‘Now what am I supposed to do?’ Jikun regarded Hairem with a knit brow and slightly parted lips, then glanced in the direction of his Helvarian captain, hoping Navon would have a notion of the most appropriate response.

His captain responded with an equally bewildered look and glanced about himself, seeming to hope the answer would materialize from the crowd.

‘He has no idea…’

      Yet Navon’s eyes flicked back to the prince and he seemed to gather himself enough to move; he slowly went down to a knee before the male. In a wave, the army followed.

Jikun placed a hand to his breast and bowed low, eyes never leaving Hairem. He had been on his knees for the prince’s father for two and a half years: a bow was more than sufficient.

It was only when the army had returned the gesture of respect did the prince stand, raising his head sharply and drawing himself up before the army. He was young, but his blue eyes were cold and hard. His long, golden hair was loosely braided back and thin strands buffeted his face in the sharp gusts of wind coming in from the east. Raising his hands in welcome, Prince Hairem spoke formally, “Sevrigel owes you her gratitude for yet another successful war against Saebellus. Without doubt, you and your army are road weary, but I must detain you for a moment longer. Come, General, we have matters to discuss.” And with that, he turned in a sweeping motion, his golden cape billowing out and catching the wind, and stepped away to the palace beyond the crowd.

Jikun heaved an inward sigh, though a report to the king was expected. ‘Gods I just want a damn bath.’ He handed the reins of his horse to Navon and his captain passed him as subtle a rebuke as he could manage.

Was his impatience that apparent?

No, Navon just knew him too well.

Jikun left his army behind as he followed Hairem through the parting cluster of council members and guards. He could see their lips move slightly as they leaned in to one another, losing no time to gossip about what had taken place. Jikun focused back ahead in time to catch the end of the prince’s cape vanishing around the corner. He quickened his pace and strode free of the crowd, mindfully aware of the seething mass of hypocritical politicians he had just stepped through. At least it was to King Liadeltris that he reported.

“Keep up, General Taemrin,” the prince beckoned as he swept around another bend and stepped in through a side door of the palace.

Jikun glanced once behind him and his brow knit. Was this the usual way toward the king? It had been a few years since he had set foot inside the palace. They moved down a steeply sloped, mildly ornate hallway to a large, arched doorway.

Here the prince stopped, propping the door open with his foot, and leaned in toward a nearby shelf.

It took Jikun a moment to gather his surroundings: soft blue light from the orb bobbing near the ceiling, gleaming rows of mildly dusty glass, wooden racks that tucked their contents snuggly in carefully carved bowels. He looked about the cellar in bewilderment. Surely the prince was not above calling upon servants to do these tasks.

“Your Highness, would you like—” Jikun began.

“No, almost have it,” the prince grunted. “Ah, there we go. Is Eastern Glades a satisfactory vintage? Well, I certainly hope so as it appears to be the best bottle in here.” He patted the dust from the side with a cough.

Jikun held the door open as the prince tucked the bottle beneath his arm in order to pick up and examine two glasses. Appearing satisfied, he passed the Darivalian without so much as a glance and staunchly strode back up the way they had come. And further still, up a staircase divided by many levels of open rooms, all of which were empty and lit only for the sake of appearance. Here, the palace’s grandeur reached the obscene—it was as though all the gold and jewels of the kingdom had been inlaid into every facet of every surface. The highest room, and one of two private council chambers of the king, was their final destination.

This room, unlike many of the others, was designed to give the appearance of a vast and heavily used study, but the dust about the room was almost tangible—as though the place had not been touched since the Royal Schism.

Prince Hairem set the glasses and bottle casually in the center of the desk, striding toward the king’s chair.

“Will His Majesty be joining us this morning?” Jikun inquired as he gave the lavish room a quick, distasteful glance. He heard the guards outside close the door softly behind them. Jikun’s brow knit as he eyed the wine that the prince uncorked.

“Your failure to receive our dove makes me wonder who did.” Hairem paused a moment, staring briefly—blankly—at the glass bottle. “My father passed away thirteen days ago of an illness.”

Jikun’s eyes met those of the prince in shock. His lips parted, but he knew not what words he sought. ‘Liadeltris is dead…?’

As though reading his mind, the prince waved a slight hand as he pulled his heavy chair back with his free hand. “I need no words of your deepest sorrows to remind me of mine. I have seen one elf die in the last century and you have undoubtedly seen the passing of thousands in the last few weeks alone. To which of us goes the greater sorrow, I have no doubt. I have had the consolation of my city. I instead offer you my deepest condolences on your recent battles.” As he waited for Jikun to sit, the general could feel the king’s eyes searching his face for emotion.

He gave him none: neither for the late king nor his soldiers. He had indeed seen thousands die in the last weeks alone. And thousands before that. There was a certain numbness that was necessary to survive in times of war—Jikun had long since acquired it. “Thank you for your condolences. I shall pass your words along to my army.”

“And how are your soldiers?” the king inquired, taking a glass and filling it. He leaned forward and offered it to the general.

“…Thank you.” Jikun accepted it, swirling it with a gentle twist of his wrist. “My army is gratified to be serving its king,” he replied, trying to infuse some semblance of emotion into his voice. But that too had gotten lost beneath his mask.

The corners of Hairem’s lips twitched. “Jikun, I am not—may the gods grant him safe passage—my father. I intend to run this kingdom differently. First and foremost, I would request that, in matters of conversation, you treat me as your equal. It benefits neither of us to bear your polite cynicism.”

Jikun leaned back, taking a long sip of wine. He had to admit—he was intrigued by Hairem’s approach. That was twice today that the king had suggested that he was not like other nobility. “As you wish, Your Majesty,” he spoke after a moment’s hesitation, noting that Hairem shifted slightly at the retained title. “We are fatigued, but their spirits are high. Saebellus is a fierce opponent; his army fights with conviction and skill. Our victories have been hard fought and we have paid steeply. I return home with fifty thousand fewer soldiers than I set out with. Saebellus’ forces are wounded, but hardly defeated. And while we spill our blood for the sake of the kingdom, we hear rumors of unrest amongst the politicians… Some say that a peace treaty draws near.”

Hairem tilted his fair head back and laughed once, loudly and almost mockingly at the content of Jikun’s words. “A peace treaty? Let those that suggest it be branded as traitors. I assure you that the kingdom will never settle terms with Saebellus, General. You do not bleed in vain.” He stroked the corner of the desk, eyes hardening as though reflecting on his resolve.

Jikun wondered how strong it was. “Every battle we’ve engaged in has been in Saebellus’ favor. He knows we have the upper hand in numbers and so territory has been his strategy. He never allows us to engage him unless he has a way to flee after a defeat—and when he flees, he and his army simply vanish. And it’s not teleportation magic—no portals at all. Such magic leaves behind a distinct residue and none of my mages have ever found such a trace. Neither, would it seem, is Saebellus capable of using the magic to appear—I would imagine such an ability would have been used countless times for surprise attacks or motions to surround us in. We’re simply grabbing the lizard’s tail for now. But let me assure you, Your Majesty, that Saebellus will be defeated. Even the advantage of territory has won him no battles.”

Hairem nodded his admiration and gave a faint smile. With a slight raise of his glass, he spoke as though still attempting to reassure Jikun of the city’s tenacity. “You are an excellent general, Jikun. No doubt you and your army shall put an end to this war soon enough. Many in the city other than myself believe this as well.”

Jikun nodded his head, knowing it was with overconfidence that the elves placed their trust in Elvorium’s army. Yes, Saebellus had won no battles, but he was by no means defeated.  “Saebellus still retains control of the Beast…” he trailed off, grimacing at the shadow that loomed just outside his mind. These were the hardest words yet. Simply in speaking them, he felt he trod on the darker matters, taunting them to reveal themselves. Even after so many battles, its shape felt faint and distant—surreal in the midst of war. But how real it was. “We have had several battles with the creature and no magic or weapon seems capable of taking its life.”

Jikun saw Hairem’s lips purse into a hard, thin line as his fingers interlocked, but his eyes wavered. Perhaps it was fear that moved them.

As it should.

“Is there anything I can offer you that my father had not already given?” Hairem spoke after a moment’s deliberation.

Jikun exhaled. “Nothing that myself, my captain, or my lieutenants cannot conjure up on our own. I will let you know if matters change. We intend to stay in the city until we hear of Saebellus’ movement again. Those that have homes within the city shall go to them. The rest shall make an encampment outside the city to the north. The soldiers need to refresh their bodies as well as their minds. As for myself,” Jikun continued, leaning back into his chair, “I intend to return to Darival.”

Jikun could see Hairem’s lips part in hesitation, and then his eyes softened. He nodded his head once toward him. “I imagine it is about time you see your home again.”

“It’s been three years,” Jikun replied with a faint smile. “I would imagine so.”

Hairem set his glass down and absentmindedly straightened a stack of unruly papers beside his elbow. Jikun could judge, by the dates smudged along the upper corners, that they were far past their creators’ expected response time. “I was not privy to the extensive military campaign you have led against the rebel warlord. Your last battle was…?”

“Fifteen leagues north of Widows’ Peak. Saebellus fled into the mountains. He has several sorcerers in his ranks—one of which sent an avalanche behind him. We spent two weeks digging out our dead. I do not know where he plans to go from there. …I’m afraid there is little to tell. No cities have been conquered or besieged. Just dead elves and dead horses.” He raised his glass and again swirled the wine inside, ignoring the piece of dust floating at the top. He took a sip. “I assume under your reign my campaign against Saebellus may continue unchanged?”

Hairem nodded. “Yes, General. With, I hope, more fortune in the future.” He paused briefly. “What is your goal, General?”

Jikun blinked, his rigid composure thrown by the question. “My goal…? To fight the war. To win the war, of course.”

Hairem shook his head. “No, I meant after the war, when Saebellus is defeated—what is your ambition?”

Jikun felt the barriers inside himself rise; his face returned to its frigid countenance as memories of disconnected battles scattered the edges of his vision. He scowled inwardly, finding Hairem’s presumption offensively naïve. “You are assuming I live through it.”

Hairem opened his mouth and closed it, clearly discomforted by Jikun’s straightforward, if pessimistic, approach. “I am certain Sel’ari shall protect you for your loyalty and devotion to her people.”

Jikun raised his glass. “Indeed,” was the only monotonous response he could trust himself to offer. He took another sip before transitioning to the next “necessary” words in their political game. “What has taken place in the city while we were gone?” The words rolled off his tongue rather forcefully. It was difficult to put whatever bickering or vices the city suffered at any level of concern in his mind when placed in the perspective of his wars. But he nevertheless lowered his glass and met the eyes of the king with respectful attention.

“At home the council is scattering. When my father assumed kingship after the Royal Schism, it was due to his previous position as El’adorium that granted him the power and hold over the council. I, of course, have had no such experience. My father’s death has left them grasping for new loyalties and I’m afraid I will not be keeping all of them. I may need your help in the coming months.”

Jikun’s expression blanked for a moment even as his gut unsettled. “Help with what…?”

“I need to know that I have the support and protection of our military. It is not easy to pick up where my father left off and not expect things to change. I will have to upset the balance.”

Jikun felt uneasy at the suggestion, but he replied with no semblance of hesitation. “Of course, Your Majesty. The military’s first duty is to the king.”

“Thank you, General.” Hairem paused for a moment, face growing grim. “One of my most loyal council… Just three days before your arrival, the assassin struck within the city again…”

“Who was taken?” Jikun asked, leaning forward with unfiltered intrigue, his leather armor creaking softly in the heavy silence that had suddenly settled over the room.

“Lord Leisum Na’Hemel of Nostoran. Stabbed repeatedly in his bed while he slept. Only the maggots knew for the first two days.”

Jikun’s stomach lurched. Both hands tightened on the arms of his chair. Not at the thought of the mangled body or the feast of insects upon it, but at the thought of the Beast that reawakened at the back of his mind. Hairem had seen nothing of death. Of true slaughter. “How is this assassin being dealt with?” Jikun forced his mind back to the topic at hand. “City Guard? Night’s Watch? Mercenaries?”

“All of the above,” Hairem heaved a sigh. “It is the same killer—he leaves his victims’ arms crossed across their chests, like the worshipers of Asmodius do. Perhaps they are cultist killings…” He trailed off and Jikun scoffed to himself.

Cultist killings that only targeted council members? No. And he had no doubt the king knew better.

“But let us put this matter aside,” Hairem’s voice rose forcefully, snapping his attention to Jikun. “A great victory has been won against the rebel. You are a hero yet again, Jikun Taemrin. May Sel’ari and all the gods bless you in all of your future battles. For now, drink and rest.”

Jikun raised his glass in a due gesture of formality. “All glory and honor to your greatness.”

*

“Navon, my reins,” Jikun demanded as he neared his captain, the last figure that lingered by the palace’s side gates. He grabbed the saddle of his mare and hoisted himself up, jerking his horse around stiffly. “The king is dead, Navon.”

He knew the words would unsettle Navon as much as they unsettled himself and he could see the flicker of concern cross his captain’s face. “How?”

Jikun hesitated. Hairem had said it had been an illness, but in light of the recent string of assassinations he was not as ready to sentence the king to such a swift and sudden conclusion. And yet he buried his suspicions and replied, “Illness. It must have come rather suddenly.” His voice was stoic, but he knew Navon could read beneath his apathy.

Liadeltris had been a fierce king and opponent to Saebellus. It was common knowledge that Saebellus had been dishonorably discharged while serving as captain in the last war with the sirens, but no one knew why. Jikun had long since let the prodding curiosity subside when even Liadeltris had refused to shed light on the matter. But whatever the reason, it hardly mattered now. Saebellus had taken those loyal to him and turned on the elves’ empire.

Navon seemed to share his concern, but his tone revealed little else. “And the prince… king… what are your thoughts on him?”

“What?” Jikun looked up, still managing to catch the skepticism across the male’s face through his distraction. “I believe what he said. There will be no peace terms with Saebellus. In fact, I believe his eyes are open to the corruption of the council. And I think he has the stupidity to oppose it.”

“…but you are still concerned.”

Jikun’s brow knit. “Hairem is young. For all Liadeltris’—”

“May the gods grant him peace—”

“—experience, he still bent to the council’s pressure. Three hundred years as king, a dozen centuries as the El’adorium before that, and Liadeltris could not resist them. Once Hairem learns how the damn politics in this country go, I wonder just how strong he will remain.”

Navon gave a nod of reluctant agreement, eyes staring stoically ahead.

“Here is more news from home whilst we were away—”

“Something in your tone brings me to believe that I am not going to like what you are about to say…” Navon frowned, eyes flicking toward the general attentively.

“You remember the murders before we left? Another council member was assassinated.”

Navon’s eyes flashed in recognition, but the rest of his face remained apathetic. “He struck again?” He gave a heavy sigh, as though the capital should have done better to prevent such an atrocity. “No doubt the Night’s Watch will be far more numerous for some time now. It is unprecedented that an assassin has committed so many murders on high officials—within an elven capital, especially.” He paused to give a slight smile, churning out optimism from the news as he usually did. “I suppose there are some benefits to being out of the comfort of this city.” His eyes shifted across the nearest alley as he spoke, almost with a certain daring curiosity.

Jikun watched Navon for a moment and then cleared his throat loudly. “Gods, I could use a drink!” he barked. “How about a good drink and a fine woman to share it with?”

The darkness in Navon’s eyes faded and he surveyed his general in a reprimanding fashion. “General.” He pulled his horse to a stop, interrupting Jikun before he could continue. “Let us pause this conversation. Sel’ari’s temple. We should stop and thank the gods before we retire for the evening.”

In Jikun’s absorption with his news, he had somehow missed the building’s slithering approach. His eyes lifted to the golden dome rising up toward the heavens, the white doves nestled at her base, and the pillars that made the elves below seem small and insignificant—as they undoubtedly were. He could hear the echoes of soft singing in the distant marble halls and the pure chime of bells, calling the elves to worship. He turned his head and laughed. “I’ll thank the gods when I see the gods at work. When we are in the right and Saebellus in the wrong, I can only spit on their names every time they let one of my soldiers die for Saebellus’ damn cause. We sleep in shit and spill our blood so some damn elf can rise in the morning to sing praise to their righteous asses. We are just their pawns. No. No, gods for me today, Navon. Give me a good drink and a fine woman—those are all the gods I need.”

Navon gave Jikun another distasteful and reprimanding glare before he stiffly dismounted, the offense apparently affecting his gait. “Then can you keep a hold of these for me, General?” he asked tartly, tossing Jikun the reins to his bay horse. “Someone has to give Sel’ari thanks that you are still breathing.”

Jikun leaned to the side sharply in order to the catch the reins. His horse whinnied in protest and the general quickly righted himself. “When I was a boy in Darival, a priest of Sel’ari came through. A group of youths beat him dead for the single coin in his pocket. I don’t think Sel’ari cares about any of us, Navon, more than she’d care about one of her priests. And if she did not see fit to save him, then we’re all going to the grave, god or no god.”

Navon leaned forward, squinting in a reflective manner. “They are not absent from us, Jikun. And I have a story to counter your own. Years ago on my way to Sevrigel, I saw a stowaway cry out in Sel’ari’s name for protection. Everyone who tried to lay a hand on him perished in an instant. Sel’ari always has her reasons, Jikun,” Navon replied with a simple smile. “Sometimes they just do not fit into our expectations. Religion is a virtue …and one of the only reasons Sel’ari hasn’t sent this country to Ramul.” He turned toward the temple, as though his words were a monument of inspiration and the general should immediately reflect upon their wisdom.

Jikun shook his head distastefully. “While you are in there, put in a good word for me for lovely company tonight,” he called after with a smirk. “The more ‘virtuous,’ the better. I’d take a cleric!”

Navon gave only a dismissive wave of resigned acknowledgement.

Jikun’s smirk broadened in amusement and he leaned back idly in the saddle. He watched the lean, dark male vanish through one of the double golden doors. For just a moment he glimpsed the white marble interior, gleaming from the countless candles within. And the face of Sel’ari. He felt himself recoil slightly, perhaps more out of shame than disgust. Even in the form of a statue, the goddess’ eyes were coldly perceptive, piercing through his veil of disbelief like a dagger. He nudged his horse lightly in the flank, urging it away from the doors and further along the street until he came to the shade of a low balcony.

Away from the temple, he found himself once more at ease. He leaned an arm against his horse’s neck, watching the bustle of elves moving about through the sunny street. They acknowledged him with polite nods of their heads or wide smiles, but Jikun found little reason to smile in return. Why should he? What had they done today to equal his last two years of warring for their sake? Ate and danced and pleasured themselves. He knew not all males could serve in the army. And yet, that did not stop his resentment at every able bodied male he saw enjoying himself in the comfort of the city’s walls while Saebellus waged war outside.

Perhaps his inner thoughts had revealed themselves on his expression as he noted several responding elves regard him with unease and confusion. He wiped his face of expression and instead let his eyes trail up along the towering buildings with their many windows, pillars, and gleaming rooftops, still further up the hill of the street and into the distance. Elvorium was not his home, but even so, it was better than any place he had been since he had left Darival.

Except, perhaps, for the whore houses of Roshenhyde.

“That was pleasant to see her again,” Navon’s voice came from behind him.

Jikun straightened and turned, eyeing the peaceful smile stamped across his captain’s lips. He tossed him the reins, watching Navon leap with some faint form of grace onto his horse.

“So, where to, General?” Navon queried. His voice had livened from his perceived notion of Sel’ari’s mewling praise, afforded to him by his recent prayers. “To the camp?”

Jikun laughed, pulling his horse away from the egress of the city. “No, let the soldiers relax without your reprimanding eyes. They deserve a little freedom and rashness. To my estate, Navon. And we will stop along the way to pick up some gods of my own.”

Categories: Fantasy | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Butterfly Waltz, by Jane Tesh

Butterfly_C1_2Title:  BUTTERFLY WALTZ

Genre:  Fantasy

Author:  Jane Tesh

Websitehttp://www.janetesh.com

Publisher:  Silver Leaf Books

Purchase at Amazon

When he helps his friend Jake Brenner, a tabloid writer on the hunt for a big supernatural story, Des Fairweather is swept up in a world of mystery and intrigue.  Despite his skepticism of the validity of the stories Jake is seeking, Des reluctantly accompanies Jake on his latest adventure—all with the promise that Jake can help Des secure an audition with the city symphony, a break Des desperately needs.

When Jake’s search takes the two out to the country to investigate an unusual phenomenon at the Snowden estate, Des encounters a startlingly beautiful young woman who claims to be magical.  That young woman is Kalida, a mysterious creature who has escaped from the people of the Caverns and renounced their evil ways.  But when Kalida is discovered, her people will stop at no end to get her to return to their world. Will Des be able to cast aside his fears in order to save Kalida….before it’s too late?

A mesmerizing tale that blends music, mystery and magic, Butterfly Waltz charms with its enchanting storyline and compelling characters. Resplendent with adventure, intrigue, and the allure of the supernatural, Butterfly Waltz is delightful.

 CHAPTER ONE  

The music was clearer.  It had been the faintest whisper, the tune barely discernible.  The theme grew familiar, a soft, beckoning tune, a waltz of lilting melancholy.

Kalida woke, smiling.  Traces of the dream music hung about the dark room, brightly colored ribbons of sound.  For several moments, she savored the melody, but her smile faded with the music.  She would have to decide soon.

She folded back the rose-colored sheets, removed her bedclothes, and slipped into her gown.  Her long black hair glittered as she ran her comb down its length.  Faint sunlight picked its way delicately through the forest and bathed the small room in pearly light.  Another beautiful day waited outside.

Kalida took an apple from the blue glass bowl on her small table and sat down on the little bench outside the doorway of her home.  She gazed at the silent wood.  Small birds flickered from tree to tree.  A few butterflies danced above the wildflowers that grew in the grove.  Bright colors, sunshine, butterflies—these things were alien to her nature, but she had grown to love them.  Alone with time to think, she had decided her people, the people of the Caverns, had been wrong about so many things it was impossible to count them.

The Caverns.  To think of them was to be back within the dark hallways of cold stone, the only sound the rustling of her gown on the smooth floor, while all around, silver eyes and ruby eyes cast secretive glances full of malice as they studied the rules, the dark etiquette that bound all to the Legion.  Conquer and destroy.  That was the only way.  How many worlds had she seen blown to ashes, how many beings had she heard crying out in despair?

She had been part of the destruction.  She had flown with her people, but always reluctantly, as if there were something else just beyond her reach, something different.  She could trace her discontent to the Leader’s celebration, the night she first heard music.

As a small child, she had watched in awe as the veterans of the Legion received honors at victory celebrations.  The leader she first remembered was a dark-eyed man as rough and sharp as a stalactite, who called the young ones up for a better look.  With their transforming skill, members of the Legion re-enacted the battle.  Young Kalida, thrilled by the sights and sounds, longed to be a part of it all.  Everyone clapped until sparks flew from their hands.  But one celebration night had been different.

That night, a great whispering filled the tunnels.  Kalida heard a man say, “Some new entertainment.  The Lady has brought an Andrean man to the celebration.  We’ll have some fun.”

The Lady was the title of their Leader, a harsh, demanding woman who rarely held celebrations.  Kalida followed the others to the Hall.  The Andrean man stood in the center.  He didn’t seem worried or afraid.  He wore tattered clothes and boots.  An odd-looking instrument was slung over his back.

More whispers.

“They say his brother joined the Legion.”

“How would The Lady allow that?”

“What is that thing on his back?”

“Is he going to sing?”

“Sing?” Kalida said.  “What do you mean?”

Her companion grimaced.  “You’ll see.”

Kalida stared at the man.  “But isn’t The Lady mounting a massive campaign against the Three Worlds, Trieal, Andrea, and Fey East?  What’s this Andrean man doing here?”

“I told you.  You’ll see.”

At last, The Lady appeared, accompanied by her latest creation, a creature in the shape of an eerily beautiful child.  She sat down in her stone chair with the child beside her and introduced the man. “This is Raven.  Don’t stare, child.  He’s here to sing for you.  He is always welcome.”

“But isn’t he an enemy?” the child asked.

“Under usual conditions, yes, but his brother enjoyed a brilliant if rather brief career with us, and therefore we admit Raven to our social gathering out of pity, shall we say?”

The man looked at her without expression.  “My brother’s choice to join you shamed my family, but his music will live long after you are gone.”

The Lady gave a short laugh.  “Very good.  Sing now.  I want my people to hear what you call music.  It will give them another reason to eradicate your race.”

“Whatever you wish.”

Kalida listened, fascinated, as the melody pierced the darkness of the Hall.  The members of the Legion groaned and cursed at the sound.  Her companion gave her a curious glance, so she winced, as if the sound hurt her ears as well, but it didn’t.  It intrigued her.  It made pictures in her mind of things she had never imagined.

“Love will find me,” the man sang.  “Love green and golden.  I’ll not turn from you, nor change all the while.  Safe in the magic of your smile.”

She wanted to hear more.

But there was no more music from the Andrean man.  After the celebration, he was taken away.  She never saw him again, which made her moody, not an unusual emotion among the Cavern-born, so no one suspected she had changed.  Over the years, she saw Leaders come and go, but never wanted to be one.  Her acquaintances were puzzled by her lack of ambition, but Kalida hid her growing unease.  She could not forget the alien man or his song.  Quite unexpectedly, she found a way out.

In one wild moment of rebellion, she fled the Caverns to Andrea, hoping to find the man.  She flew to the woods near Traditional City, planning to take animal form to avoid detection.  In the woods, she fell through a blaze of light, fell to this world.

Escaped.

That first morning, when the golden sun touched the lush green grass, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the color.  What was it?  Light she knew, and shadow, but this deep rich hue that colored the grass and the moss and the leaves intrigued her.  She knew red and black and white, silver and gray, colors of the Caverns.  Yellow and gold were rare, but she had golden eyes, or so everyone said.  This alien shade, though, calm and deeply satisfying, she had seen only once, on the tattered clothing of the man who played music so many years before.

Green.

She could sit in the grass for hours, reveling in new colors, even the rich browns of the earth and trees.  Everything spoke of life and growth and energy.  Exploring beyond the new forest, she discovered a large white house and watched the people who lived there.  She learned the names of colors from Mister Snowden as he taught his children in the garden.  She learned that the world was called Earth, and there was no magic here.

For a while, she didn’t need magic, just sunlight and birdsong and new colors.  Then disturbing dreams began, dreams of night flying, her hair streaming behind in the cold wind as she swooped down on cities like a bird of prey, touching the tallest towers and watching them burst into flame.  She would wake, trembling with fear and desire.  She thought her people would be unable to track her to this world, yet she saw misshapen shadows in the trees and heard harsh sounds haunting the night.  Had her people found her?

She thought of the bottle in the back of her cabinet and a shiver went through her.  No, don’t back down now, she told herself.  But how much longer can you live like this, lonely,  friendless, purposeless?  She shivered again.  She knew exactly how much longer.

She couldn’t eat.  She spent the day sitting in the doorway.  Light shone through the little bottles of potions on the window ledge: pale lavender, rich violet, amber, blue, and red.  The day itself was green and gold, so unlike the days of her childhood, which had been filled with fierce red light and the cold dark silence of the Caverns.

I am not like that now, she thought, as the sunlight faded and the colors died.  Night was the time she liked best, but this night, the darkness closed in around her.

Do I really want to do this?  Why put it off?  Drink the potion and be done with it.  The music was a dream, nothing more.  Drink the potion.  Who knows what other worlds lie beyond death?

Tomorrow.

*                      *                      *

“Tomorrow?”  Desmond Fairweather stared at his friend Jake Banner in astonishment.  “I can’t go anywhere tomorrow.”

Jake beamed, undaunted, hands outspread as if he’d caught a record-sized fish.  “This is it, Des, the big story.  Actual reports of talking flowers.  You know you can’t pass this up.  I know you can’t, and I’m staying here till you agree.”

A grand piano dominated Des’s sparsely furnished apartment room.  Jake perched on the piano bench, slicked back his hair, and gave the impression of settling in for the day.  His neon green shirt and pink tie created a jarring combination that made Des’s eyes ache as he glared at his friend.  His last student, Melissa, a giggly seventeen-year-old, had just left, after a thorough and determined massacre of her Scarlatti lesson, and he was still waiting for his head to clear.  With an impatient gesture, he pushed his dark hair out of his eyes.

“Not another of your harebrained stories for the Galaxy.” He moved a stack of sheet music out of the way before Jake’s elbow toppled it over.  “It’ll be a fake like all the others.”

“A fake?” Jake’s blue eyes widened.  “None of the others were fake.”

“I’m not going to argue with you,” Des said, “and I’m certainly not going to go chase talking flowers.”

“Aw, come on.  It’ll be fun.”

“Fun for you, you mean.”

“The owner happens to be a beautiful young lady,” Jake said in his most wheedling tone.

Des motioned wildly to the crumpled balls of paper littering the floor around the piano.  “Do you see all this?  I’m trying to compose.  I’ve told you I don’t want to travel all over the country tracking down old magic.  I don’t believe in old magic.  I don’t believe in new magic.  I don’t believe in magic of any sort.”

Jake kept his grin.  He twiddled a few piano keys and fiddled with the metronome.

Des snatched it out of his hands.  “Will you go away?”

Jake leaned back against the piano as if he found it the most comfortable spot in town.  “How’s the cash flow at Chez Fairweather?  Paid this month’s rent yet?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Talked to Sylvia yesterday.  She says she’ll recommend you for that symphony thing.”  He glanced up, eyes crinkling with amusement.

Des found it hard to speak.  “Are you talking about symphony auditions?”

“Sure.”

“She can do that?”

“Just call her up.”

Des took a deep breath to steady himself.  Jake’s reliability was questionable, but his sister Sylvia had important connections with Parkland’s music community.  “Did she get on the Arts Council Board?”

Jake swung around on the bench.  “Get on?  Pal, she’s the new president.  She’ll be happy to set things up for you, chum.  That is, when we get back from our little day trip.”

“Day trip?”

“To the land of talking flowers.”

Des gave Jake a narrow-eyed glare.  “Damn it, Jake, that’s blackmail.”

Jake shrugged.  “Hey, you do me a favor, I do you a favor.”

“I won’t do it.”

“Okay.  I guess you like living in such splendor.”  He played a loud version of “Chopsticks.”  “This thing needs a tune-up.”

Des closed the piano, sorry he missed Jake’s fingers.  “I’ll just call Sylvia and ask for her help.”

“Uh-uh, doesn’t work that way.  This is a package deal.  You help me get a story, and Sylvia will smooth the way for you, get you a good time slot or whatever.  Sounds pretty reasonable to me.  You want as many things going in your favor as possible, right?”

Des sighed.  Dealing with Jake always gave him a headache. “If I go watch you make a fool of yourself, will you leave me alone?”

“Of course.  Won’t take a minute.  We ride out, hear the flowers, record them.  I get definite proof of magic, old Basil down at the Galaxy is happy, I’m happy, and you get your audition and leave this lovely roach condo you call home.”

Des slumped in his one chair and regarded his friend, wondering how Jake managed to be so damned cheerful all the time.  He was right, though.  The apartment was dismal: a tiny grubby kitchen, an even smaller bathroom, and this room, full of piano.  Giving piano lessons wasn’t the most lucrative of careers, but he had made the decision to move out, to try his luck.  A successful audition with the prestigious city symphony could be the break he was looking for.  What he wasn’t looking for was talking flowers.  “I still don’t see why I have to go.”

“Why, pal, you’re the best,” Jake said.  “Critters just flock to you.  Haven’t you noticed?  You have a definite affinity with the Other World.”

“I do not.”

“Must be those big soulful green eyes.”

Des heaved himself out of the chair and gathered the papers off the floor.  “Will you get out of here?  I have work to do.  Real work.”

Jake reached the door.  “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at six.”

“Six?  Why so early?”

“I wanna be there when the dew dries.”

Des made a lunge, but Jake eluded him, laughing, and was out the door and gone.  Muttering under his breath about unwanted guests, Des bent to pick up more papers and caught sight of his reflection in the one small window.  Soulful green eyes, indeed.  Did Jake think he’d fall for that line?  Yes, his eyes were green, his hair dark and unruly, and his expression serious, just like his father’s, in fact, so much like his father’s he was afraid he might meet the same tragic fate.  Now there was a story Jake could appreciate, a story full of magic.

Magic.

What if—no, he dared not try.  He had made his decision.  He had given up the family home and the family fortune, so he had given up the family curse, as well.  He prayed he had.

Wouldn’t a little magic make things easier, though?  A better place to live, a better job, even that symphony position?

He shuddered and tried to suppress the memories.  Make things easier. Isn’t that what his father wanted?  Look what happened to him.

No, don’t look.

Categories: Fantasy, Mystery | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: ‘Ashamet, Desert-Born’ by Terry Jackman

Ashamet-CoverTitleAshamet, Desert-Born

Genre: Fantasy/adventure/romance/paranormal

Author: Terry Jackman

Websitewww.terryjackman.co.uk

Publisherwww.dragonwellpublishing.com

Find out more on Amazon

A desert world. A warrior nation that worships its emperor as a god. But for Ashamet, its prince, a future filled with danger…

Ashamet is confident his swordsmanship, and his arranged marriage, will be enough to maintain the empire’s peace. But when a divine symbol magically appears on his arm, closely followed by an attempt on his life, he no longer knows who to trust. Worse, the strange attraction he feels toward a foreign slave could be another trap. As events unravel, too fast,Ashamet must find out if this innocent young male is a tool for his enemies–or the magic key to his survival.

“Ashamet, Desert-Born” is a debut adventure fantasy with an exotic Arabian-style setting and elements of same-sex romance.

Chapter One

The king my father named me Ashamet. It means a copper-coloured whirlwind off the desert (colour of our own Kadduchi flesh). It’s meant to be poetic. Huh. Apart from that a princely life was pretty good – until my taster went into convulsions. Happily, they pinned it on some merchant’s less-than-healthy crawlfish. Panic over then; I didn’t bother witnessing the execution. But I was that rarity, a single offspring, and I’d been a single step from danger, and I didn’t have an heir yet.

Quite enough to make my father’s mind up; I was sentenced to be married…

Now, a thread of moisture trickled down my backbone as I took my seat again for yet another day upon the royal dais, formally escorted by my Uncle Raggesh. I had picked a sleeveless tunic in my lightest silks, a minimum of jewels, my thick, black hair lay braided at one shoulder, but it didn’t help. The Gate Hall, grandest audience chamber in our empire, had descended to a rowdy, yellow marble sweat-box.

Rag sat too, his longer robes spread out to swamp his sandalled, copper-coloured toes. Today he’d left his close-trimmed claws their natural white as mine were. Bet he wished he’d dressed like me as well. The tiny windows in the blue-enamelled arch above our heads were meant to keep this stage-like alcove cooler. Meant to, but the Gate – the famous golden screen of star-shaped so-lar lamps, at present dropped between us royals and the outer chamber – turned it back into an oven. Gods, I could have been up on a horse. In the fresh air. With a few companions I could actually trust.

I should have been receiving end-of-year assessments from my generals about our southern army’s readiness for action, given that my father had been taking more than normal interest in our southern borders lately. I suspected that our empire was again expanding.

But instead I blanked my face and scanned the throng beyond the ornate, semi-private metal filigree that dangled inbetween us.

Out there, thin coils of vapour from the ordinary iron lamps obscured the vaulted, gold and turquoise ceilings. Below, my father’s hairless, ochre-hided Kemik guard, exotic giants of our kingdoms, lined the path toward us, fangs retracted peaceably. The flame-reflections dancing off their breast-plates were the only movement there but outside them… Alpha Lords of every size and shade and all their twittering attendants skittered back and forth like termites, and the piled-up offerings destroyed the last pretence of taste the place had ever managed. I jerked my beard-point at the nearest jumble. ‘Look at it, we’ve swapped the Gate Hall for the Grand Bazaar.’

My uncle didn’t blink. ‘Show some grace. They’re your wedding gifts.’

I might have growled. It didn’t help that he was right. With five days still to go my marriage had progressed from bore, to stinking torment. Every perfume in the world was up my nose today, but none of them could mask the ripened bodies. Worse, my sword arm itched like seven hells, and with so many watchful eyes I had to curb an uncouth urge to scratch it.

Muffled creaks, from chains and pulleys underneath our feet. The Gate began to shiver upward, to disclose… ‘Gods, forget bazaar. It’s a cattle market!’

A pair of pure-bred white camels were being tugged forward, their plate-like pads scraping over the marble. Their willowy necks hung with ropes of pearls? Was the sheer volume of these eccentricities meant to make up for their inanity? As if it heard, one of the brutes chose to relieve itself, while the lordly fool in front attempted to pretend he neither heard, nor smelled, the ‘splop’ of brittle yellow crap behind him. Rag’s long nose pinched shut as brown-robed clerks made clucking noises. Slaves were chivvied forward. I think I sighed. ‘At least the colour complements the marble.’

Raggesh choked behind his drooping moustache. ‘Keep it down, Ash.’

I’d have given him a sharp retort except a guard distracted me with, ‘Highness? There’s a message from the outer gates.’

I tossed the message tube back at him and unrolled the paper. ‘Oh joy, the bride’s finally turned up… horsemen, eight baggage carts and three horse-drawn litters? My fingers tightened, crumpling the flimsy paper. I relaxed with conscious effort. ‘How many crones have they sent with her? No wonder they’re so late, they couldn’t use a desert route with those things.’

‘Uh.’ My uncle watched the frantic sweeping, quite ignoring my reaction. I obliged him with a beaming smile instead. At least my mouth did. She was here then, the daughter of our newest vassal-king, Farad of Sidass.  The bigger picture: the last of our smaller, paler, snubber-nosed Chi cousins were finally merging into the empire; a fading dynasty was being swallowed by a newer, fiercer bloodline. From where I sat I was stuck with her, unless she proved infertile.

Small chance of that. Females were rare enough. There was nothing rarer than one barren. I resisted growling at the luckless messenger. ‘Have someone send a message to the Inner Palace, to the closter-eunuchs. Tell them to unbar their doors, their future mistress is arriving.’ Though they’d very likely known as soon as I had, maybe sooner. They’d been looking forward to it.

I read on, since cleaning up the hall had halted the proceedings. Heavens forfend a lord should step in something. ‘Looks like the rumours about King Farad’s health could be true; he’s not with them.’

‘Uh.’ Rag at his chatty best. ‘Prince Effad?’

‘Not him either. This says Prince Thersat leads her escort. That’s the lesser son, right? The one who wasn’t there for the surrender?’

‘Uh.’ Rag  (another lesser son, and cut accordingly, to centre our succession) raised a lordly finger. The next noble was ushered in. The Gate lowered.  More gems.  They moved him on.

‘So what do we know about this Thersat?’

The Gate lifted again. One out, one in. Another gift, then Rag could answer. ‘At the time we assumed he’d been wounded, but now we’re told he’s “prone to illness”.’ Rag maintained his bland expression.

I drew breath. ‘Farad can’t travel, Effad’s tied to his side, so we’re lumbered with a permanent invalid?’

‘Uh,’ denoted end of topic as the Gate reopened.

‘Great.’ The cursed itching made a fresh assault. It had to be insect bites. I looked about for some distraction and spied a short, bald figure, absent from the court since summer; yes, the tubby Sheshman, copper-skinned but built more Chi than Kadd, and strident in his household’s blue and orange. Ah, and something loomed behind him.

My spirits rose. If anyone would bring me something more amusing, surely it was Sheshman, of the rolling gait and wicked chuckle. There was more trader there than noble, so my father said. More pirate too, he’d added, laughing.

I must have grinned. I felt my uncle’s disapproval so I faced toward the lord approaching, nodding gravely, like a bigger, younger copy of my stately father. But I glanced aside again to guess what Sheshman might have brought me. Four slaves were moving up a heavy-looking, box-like… something… swathed in dull grey fabric. Hmm. A cage? An animal? The male knew better than to insult his prince – and thus his king – with something paltry.

Meanwhile, the slightly slimmer northern Chi in front of us, distinguished by his nose, his browner hair and pale red skin, had bent a creaky knee before us. I shouldn’t have frowned, but it was difficult to see how the Chi, so often weaker than the other races, had been dominant so long, for all their boasts of direct bloodlines from the Ancestors. As for this one, kneeling made him look like a slave. Our own Kadduchi lords would never kneel, except to Father. Though of course these gifts were really for my father; vying for the notice of our gods-protected Voice of Heaven.

Possibly my frown grew darker; certainly my thoughts did. If I was ever crowned – I tried not to plan that far ahead – I figured their loyalty to me would be less certain. The lord before us, backing off again, looked troubled; probably convinced his present hadn’t thrilled me. ‘What was it?’ I muttered.

Rag almost shook his head. ‘Deeds to an orchard,’ he gritted. ‘Listen, will you!’

‘What-’ Now I was offended.

‘Wine, nephew, and Sultaki brandy.’

‘Ah.’ A gift worth having.

Despite his flash of temper Rag gazed calmly outward. To those who watched, he was my father’s only sibling, and his twin and his most loyal kinsman. Or to put it bluntly he was here to keep his royal nephew out of trouble. Headstrong was the least I knew they said about me; unpredictable, both in or out of battle. Rash, impetuous, a wicked sense of humour? Gods, I hoped so. Almost thirty now, and still no wiser? I ignored the carping. Sober was for years yet to come. And there was only one more presentation left before I got to see that odd-shaped box of Sheshman’s.

I turned back to my duty long enough to marvel at the antique bowls a Kemik lord brought forward. They were delightful; translucent porcelain, hand-painted by a master. Not a gift one would expect from any of the rough-skinned Kemik either, who were prone to value battle gear or horses. In fact the only gift of real taste I’d seen all morning. ‘A rare possession. I am honoured, sir.’ They moved him off. I signalled to the clerk that he record my personal approval. Now for Sheshman.

‘My prince, I bring you every prayer for your approaching marriage.’ Old Sheshman bounced up, bowed outrageously, then watched me. Ah, the sight of simple, honest motives. Bribery. Ambition. Life-blood of the palace. Earlier I’d read his beaming smile with interest, now I noticed it had faded. Second thoughts? What had the scoundrel brought me?

Despite my sudden doubts I felt my back and shoulders loosen. Moments in the old rogue’s company and I was feeling more myself, I almost burst out laughing. Well, Sheshman was both small and round, a difficult shape to look dignified. It was amusing to see him try though. He squared his shoulders, sucked in his paunch beneath one of those bright sashes he loved, and waved a lordly hand. The slaves, their cropped heads lowered, brought their burden up the outer steps and forward to my feet, then grounded it on recessed legs and cowered.

It seemed to float above the floor. Silently I awarded him marks for detail, and waited for more. He actually lowered his voice. ‘My prince, I bring you a rarity I never thought existed.’ The old fool waved again. Two slaves pulled free the heavy draperies. I started frowning; couldn’t help it. First a puzzle, now a riddle? It was a cage right enough; rounded; big enough for a large hound. But this thing was a fantasy, its bars were curled and gilded. And there was silk now, white, stretched taut inside it. A silk-lined cage? I found I’d leaned toward it. Sheshman’s eyes had sharpened, and his face gone solemn.

‘Well?’ I challenged, but I smiled. I couldn’t help that either.

‘Well enough, I hope, my prince.’ He drew a breath. ‘Perhaps.’ He glanced around. ‘Would the prince deign to open it himself?’ The fellow offered a key, from around his own neck.

Rag had straightened, in surprise or in alarm, but Sheshman wouldn’t leave alive if there was anything in there to hurt me. Besides, the key was silver. I rather thought I’d guessed the secret. Not so tempting as it had been but a well-presented trifle, and the cage, and lowered Gate, would block the view of those outside it more or less politely. So I stepped down and took the key (and the unspoken challenge) and turned it in the lock.

Sheshman was murmuring in my ear by then, his voice gone knowing. ‘Your wedding duties draw close, my prince, and your subjects know you will perform with taste and honour. But afterwards…?’

I caught the bars and pulled. Hot air rushed past me as the twin doors of this almost-cage unfurled like curving wings about me, neatly blocking the interior from anyone not right before them. The light rushed in.

There was indeed a figure; half knelt, half seated on the silken cushions. Loose white trousers were the only clothing, as I’d guessed. And silver shackles, delicate as bracelets, etched with three-point royal stars. The chain that linked them had been pegged into the cage’s flooring. And the head was ritually gift-wrapped, mummy-like, in white silk wrappings.

‘Such as this would stir the blood of any male, much less my prince, whose appetite is fabled.’ The murmur made me turn my head. The beady eyes looked up at me, expectant, earlier nerves forgotten.

I drew a breath. ‘I may be about to marry, my lord, but I haven’t yet gone blind.’ I let my voice turn cold. ‘Nor stupid. This is no youth.’

“This” was too tall, even crouched as he was. The chest, the hands and arms stretched down toward the cage’s flooring all had shape, and muscle. Maybe twenty summers? Bodyslaves were usually at least a few years younger: newly-adult: left untouched, kept very private like a female. Hells, a bodyslave was often more exclusive. After all a contract with a female – where the cursed female wasn’t royal – could be drawn up for as little as a single year. Then her family would repossess her and consider bids from other males fit to breed with.

But this one… kept apart this long, till only ten years less than I was? Virgin white and silver, on a full-grown male? What did Sheshman take me for?

Behind me Rag had risen. Sheshman’s face, which should have been as yellow-eyed and copper-hued as mine was, turned a nasty shade of umber, likely both embarrassment and fear, but he stood his ground. ‘My prince, I swear to you, I swear he’s still a virgin: more than that, a holy male, taken as an infant, grown behind high walls. I would not cheat you, highness.’ Sheshman weighed my mood and laid a final hand down. ‘My prince, I trust you to decide my honesty.  I’ll wait upon your judgement. If you judge him less than I have said, I’ll… send my youngest son to grace your chambers, to expunge the insult.’

Had I blinked? I’d heard that Sheshman kept a real trader’s superfluity of children, but my eyes and ears said he favoured that one. Give him into bondage? He’d never offer – not unless… My eyes slid back toward the cage.

I’d thought him painted. Now I saw he wasn’t. Wherever Sheshman found him it wasn’t in any of our kingdoms, not with skin like creamy marble that looked unreal in the lamplight. I followed the line of his neck and shoulder, the swell of his chest. His skin looked… fragile, and there was no sweat, though when I’d opened it I’d felt the metal cage was hotter than this alcove; never good. Surely he barely breathed, there was so little movement. One leg was tucked beneath him, the other raised before. Unusual, but graceful. Then I saw the triple-knotted cord about his waist. My breathing deepened. Truth, or lies, a very fine body.

Trust my fond uncle to spoil the moment. ‘Keep your pants on, Ash. Believe this, you’ll fall for anything.’ Dry amusement on the surface. Mockery beneath?

I defended any outward sign of interest. ‘Might be fun finding out, though.’

‘Huh. You haven’t even seen the face yet.’ Ever the cynic.

My own thoughts shifted. ‘Curious, uncle? I’ll oblige you,’ I said outrageously. I stepped forward, right into the opening, and reached up to the wrapping. The knot, loose at the nape of the neck, slid free between my fingers. One gentle tug and the silk fell away in rippling folds.

The head revealed stayed lowered, the eyes hooded. The hair, far from cropped, was long enough it would have brushed his shoulders, lighter coloured even than the Chi; not braided of course but tied back loosely. I had disarranged it somewhat. Below that a high forehead and good cheekbones framed curious brows, more delicate arches than our upswept wings. No sign of any beard, nor hair upon the chest, the face as pale as the body.

Still no movement? Perhaps the slightest swaying. As if the chains helped keep him upright? I caught the jaw and jerked it upward, gasped to feel a child-like softness, but then the eyelids lifted too, a reflex surely for he didn’t seem to focus.

Wide grey eyes, like still winter pools. Rag stirred, but I’d forgotten he was there. The eyes blinked twice, all up and down – no inner storm-proof membrane? – then gazed back at me as if he was my equal. I should have felled him, or had him whipped. Instead I stared back. My mouth dried up. I felt light-headed. This creature was weak, and confused, and more? Yes, surely. How much more though?

Curse these bites, my grip had tightened in reaction so I let my fingers drop away. I didn’t want my tougher skin to mark that silk-thin whiteness.

The lips parted. A tiny frown formed between the arched brows. ‘Are you… a vision? Or a nightmare?’

Faint, and husky. I doubted anybody else had heard him. ‘Call me either one too loud, they’ll cut your tongue out,’ I said softly.

He just looked back at me with those eyes. ‘No,’ he whispered. ‘Real..?’ His gaze lowered to the shackles at his wrists. ‘I saw this. I saw…’ Again his voice tailed off to silence. Then the white chest heaved, one huge, shuddering gulp of air. The tethered arms began to shake.

‘Call my slave master,’ I ordered. Someone scurried.

The world returned around me. Despite being shorter Rag was practically breathing down my neck. Indecent. I was stung to comment. ‘Put your tongue away, eh, uncle? If you’ve seen enough, I’ll shut this up again.’

Rag recovered with a warrior’s speed of reflex. His mouth did close, but only to reopen. ‘Aye, best keep it hid. There’ll be enough laughter as it is.’

He didn’t believe Sheshman, then. Not unreasonable, I conceded. To myself, not out loud. How in all the world could any male stay innocent this long past adult? But that face, those eyes. I’d never seen such innocence, even in youths whose balls weren’t dropped yet. And his words… My thoughts rebounded. If it was an act, it was a damn good one. And if that was so, I’d see both Sheshman and his slave regretted their performance. I shut the cage and turned. ‘I’ll weigh your claims,’ I said curtly.

Sheshman backed away as Medishel bustled forward, my half-Chi slave master, a swollen, amber echo of my own appearance in a red and yellow outer robe and broad yellow sash.  When I jerked my head he pulled at one door of the cage, peered in cautiously, then backed his head out and latched the thing up again. His manners were as excellent as ever. Not a word, not a look, just a polite, ‘My prince?’

‘Take him away, Medi. See if he’s ill, or drugged. Best keep him separate, in case, until I give you other orders.’

Medishel bowed, caught the key and waved to Sheshman’s slaves. The cage was carted off, which caused a lot of heads to turn, and furtive whispers. I wondered sourly how long it would take for the rest of the tale to spread. Have you heard the latest? Sheshman actually claimed he’d found a twenty-year-old virgin. Gods, how many of these visiting lords would ask each other if they had a complete fool for a prince, if he was even tempted to believe such rubbish.

But in my heart I think I always believed, right from the start. Some things can’t be weighed, or measured, can they?

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Wishes and Sorrows, by Cindy Lynn Speer

perf6.000x9.000.inddTitle:  Wishes and Sorrows

Genre:  Short Stories, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

Author:  Cindy Lynn Speer

Websitehttp://www.cindylynnspeer.com 

Publisher:  Dragonwell Publishing

Purchase linkhttp://publishing.dragonwell.org/

For every wish there is a sorrow…

Wishes are born from sorrows, blessings are sometimes curses, and even fairy godmothers cannot always get what they want. In this original collection, Cindy Lynn Speer, the author of “The Chocolatier’s Wife”, brings to life creatures of myths and tales, mixing them into a vibrant tapestry of stories, happy and sad, magical and real, each lovingly crafted and sure to touch the reader’s soul.

Step into the world where magic is real, and every mundane bit of reality is as magical as a true fairy tale.

Excerpt from “Every Word I Speak”

My husband is gone. I can be silent today, tomorrow, and until his return. There’s freedom in that, knowing that I can go and sew by the lake, perhaps, or take meals in my room by myself.

In my dressing table there is a secret compartment. In it I have hidden slips of paper, even though paper and ink are forbidden. They are one of my rare rebellions, a way to make my wishes known in silence.

“Please bring my dinner.”

“Please fetch my maid.”

“Please prepare a coach.”

Please. A habit, from my destitute youth when I believed sweet words were more precious than pearls.

I’ll do anything not to speak, these days. In my youth I could not speak enough.

“Your majesty?” I turn, slips ready in my hands, fingers light without jewels. I nod for her to speak.

Deirdre, my lady in waiting, gives me a sad look.

“A diplomat from Andovia is here to see you.”

I nod again, put aside my papers. Together we go to meet him.

***

“Queen Sarah,” the diplomat murmurs over my hand. I recognize him, though to my knowledge we have never been formally introduced. He is Amon, the Grand Duke of Andovia.

I look at him, his dark hair tied smoothly back, his carefully fitted clothes expensive. He smiles charmingly, and I remember what I have heard about the way he uses his handsome looks to good advantage.

“Amon,” I say, and with that one word, a pearl, perfect and creamy, iridescent, rolls from my mouth, falling from the curve of my lower lip, and into the bosom of my gown. I blush, but he is watching with such avid interest that he does not seem to notice.

“So it is true,” he whispers, amazed. “You have been enchanted by the fairies.”

“Every word I speak,” I reply, and one rose, pink as a blush, another pearl, and two diamonds cascade from my mouth.

A page hurries forward, a basket in his hand. He ignores the flower, going straight for the treasure. The diamond lands next to Amon’s feet. Before the page can pick it up, it is in his hands, being rolled thoughtfully, tested for reality. He pinches it between thumb and forefinger and peers at me through its fractured light. He laughs a little, a man playing at a boy’s mischief, and hands the jewel to the page. He smiles at me, inviting me to share in his silliness, but I do not smile back. I do not trust handsome men.

I find myself thinking in the ensuing silence of the old woman at the well. She looked so weary (as weary as I now feel, staring at this man) that I fetched a drink of the coolest, cleanest water I could find for her. In return, she confessed to be one of the Fair Folk, and granted me this gift.

This gift. I say it over and over, to remind myself, to convince myself. This is the gift that gave me my husband, who in turn saved me from my family, who has professed to love me deeply. Love me, I fear, only as long as I continue talking.

The duke knows the story well. I can see in his eyes that he has speculated long upon it, and I realize that the timing of his arrival is no coincidence.

“Your husband, I hear, is fond of Andovian cherry wine. It has come to my attention that he might wish to own some of our orchards for himself.”

My heart sinks. The negotiation for land and the rights to sell the produce from it will make for a long and tricky process. Talking makes me so hungry and my mouth so dry, and my lips cannot always form words properly, even though I have had plenty of time to learn how to talk around the jewels. I am tempted to send him away, but my husband would be ill pleased to lose such an opportunity.

“Is this of interest to you, milady?” He mocks me, I think.

“I shall be honored to discuss terms with you, sir, but perhaps you would be better pleased to speak with my husband? He will return in a few days.”

He kneels to pick up an orchid, which he tucks behind my ear. I allow my eyes to tell him how I feel about this familiarity. My skirts rustle as the page goes through them, looking for lost jewels, anxious not to miss one pearl.

He smiles a little. “You’ll do, my lady queen.”

A gentle rejoinder forms in my mind, but I smother it, the first word sounding in my throat. Something else forms, a diamond from the feel of it. I tuck it behind my teeth and smile.

“If you can’t say something nice,” my mother told me once when I was very little, “say nothing at all.” She’d told me this with a gentle slap. My sister received no such advice, nor treatment. She did not believe in the magic of kind words.

He turns and leaves without asking my permission. As I signal a guard to lead him to his chambers, I wonder if he is really so confident of his charms.

I spit the diamond at the wall.

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Shiloh’s True Nature, by D.W. Raleigh

shiloTitle: Shiloh’s True Nature

Genre: YA/Fantasy

Author: D.W. Raleigh

Pages: 260

Publisher: Hobbes End Publishing

Purchase at Amazon 

When 12 year-old farm boy Shiloh Williams is sent to stay with his estranged grandfather, he discovers a mysterious new world inhabited by ‘Movers’. The Movers live in symbiotic harmony with one another, except one extremely powerful Mover who has stolen the town’s most precious artifact, the Eternal Flame. Shiloh investigates his supernatural surroundings, makes new friends, and begins to think of the town as home. However, just as soon as he starts to fit in, he realizes his newfound happiness is about to come to an abrupt end. One decision and one extreme consequence are all that remain.

Chapter One

July 20th

Shiloh Williams walked along in the late-afternoon heat, on his way home from the town of Salem. The lanky twelve-year-old brushed his sweat-soaked, brown hair away from his blue eyes with one hand while trying to finish the ice-cream cone he carried in the other. His bare feet were relieved to step off the asphalt main road and onto the narrow, shady dirt path leading to his home.

The dusty, dirt lane was flanked by a vast cornfield to one side and towering black willow trees and intertwined brush on the other. Shiloh inhaled the sweet scent of honeysuckle as he licked the cone, gazing toward the two-story, white Victorian house in the distance. The house was his home, and the cornfield part of his family’s farm. One of the few farms left in the area, his father always liked to mention.

Shiloh was in a good mood: partly because he had spent the day in town playing with some friends, but mostly because this was his first actual vacation day of the summer. Until today, he had been working on the farm all day every day, since school ended. When his father told him he was receiving a two-week break, Shiloh decided he was going to make the most of it and be thankful he didn’t have to work another day in the brutal July heat.

As he strolled along the dusty path, Shiloh heard something rustling in the brush beside him. He turned his head and saw two large black birds only a couple of feet away. The birds cawed as they boldly jumped from branch to branch trying to keep pace with him. He assumed it was the ice cream they were after, so Shiloh tossed the remainder of the cone toward the brush and watched as the birds descended upon it.

Farther along, Shiloh spotted an expensive-looking, black car in front of the house. It was parked next to his father’s battered, old pickup truck, which made any other vehicle look nice. There was a man leaning against the rear of the car wearing a black suit and cap. Shiloh found that strange, considering he was dressed in a white T-shirt and shorts and had been sweating since he stepped outside that morning.

As he drew closer to the house, Shiloh realized his hands were sticky with ice-cream residue. He wasn’t supposed to be eating sweets this close to his suppertime, and knew his mother would scold him if she found out. So he slipped into the cornfield to let the giant stalks conceal his five-foot frame until he could reach the back of the house to wash off undetected.

He quietly snuck through the field and came up behind the giant stack of hay bales perpetually piled at the rear of the house. After glancing around to make sure it was clear, he crept up to the porch and over to the rusty, old spigot. He winced as he slowly turned the squeaky faucet handle, hoping the noise didn’t make it through the kitchen screen door just a few feet away.

As Shiloh cleaned his hands, the aroma of his mother’s cooking filled his nostrils, while the sound of arguing voices filled his ears. When his hands were no longer sticky, he quietly moved over to the back door, and stopped when he could hear the discussion in the kitchen. He immediately recognized one voice as his father’s, but there was another, unfamiliar, rough-sounding man’s voice. It must have been whoever came in the black car, he thought.

Listening intently, Shiloh was startled when something rubbed against his leg. It was one of his cats, Lovie. The gray and black tabby mix rubbed her face against his anklebones as she walked figure eights between his legs. Shiloh knew if Lovie was around, his other feline, Cheepie, couldn’t be far behind. He looked over his shoulder toward the faucet and found the other gray tabby, one that looked like a miniature tiger, entranced by the remaining water droplets dribbling from the nozzle.

His attention returned to the kitchen door when the rough voice said, “I don’t know how you’re keeping this farm productive when all the others in this area have gone under, but whatever you’re doing is going to fail eventually. So you might as well sell it to me before I decide to withdraw my more than generous offer.”

Shiloh imagined the scowl on his father’s face as he heard him answer, “You’ve been trying to get your hands on this property for years, but I’m not going to give it to you. Not now. Not ever. Not at any price. And if there are problems with the soil around here, you need only look in the mirror for the cause.”

“I’ll not be insulted by the likes of you, Joseph Williams. Good day,” the man huffed.

Shiloh heard footsteps, followed by the front door slamming. He was curious about this unfamiliar man, so he leapt off the porch and ran up along the side of the house. In his haste to see the stranger, Shiloh slipped on some pebbles and fell just as he reached the front corner of the house. The man immediately turned toward Shiloh scowling. Shiloh looked up at the stranger, but the bright sunshine kept him from distinguishing any of his features. The one thing Shiloh did notice was, like his driver, the man was dressed all in black, except for a hideously bright orange tie.

The man’s gaze was broken as two black birds descended and began attacking him. The man quickly ducked into the rear of the car, the birds turning their attention to his driver, who ran around to the other side to enter. As the car pulled away, Shiloh noticed it had a peculiar, black license plate with orange lettering reading HAINES.

When the vehicle left his sight, Shiloh returned to the back door, but again paused by the screen door when he heard his father’s agitated voice. “The crops looked a little off today. We definitely need to get some cash together for fertilizer. They could use a dusting too. And on top of that, I haven’t paid Rikki and Peco for a couple weeks. I’m glad I agreed to let them stay in the old barn. Otherwise they might’ve left by now. I’ll need to find a way to make it up to them.”

Shiloh heard the oven door open and close, followed by his mother’s voice, “Are you having second thoughts about Haines’ offer, Joe?”

“What? No! I’ll work the fields alone and eat dirt before I let that man get his hands on this land, Mary,” Joe stubbornly declared.

Mary scoffed. “Okay. Well, I’ll see if I can round up some recipes for dirt . . . just in case.”

Joe chuckled slightly and Shiloh smiled to himself, thinking about the easy way his mother was always able to diffuse his father’s anger.

Joe then noted, “By the way, I spoke to Doc and he said it would be all right. In fact, he suggested it before I even asked.”

“He’s not going to be happy about it,” Mary sighed.

Shiloh frowned, wondering what they were talking about, as Joe continued, “Well, that’s too bad. A vacation is a vacation. He’s almost a man now, and he needs to learn that part of being a man is having to do stuff you don’t want to do.”

Mary snorted sarcastically. “Say it just like that, Joe. That’ll make him feel better about it.”

Joe chuckled again and said, “Give me a break, Mary.”

“I won’t give you a break, but I will give you dinner. Go wash up,” Mary replied with a giggle.

Shiloh heard a chair slide across the kitchen floor and waited until the footsteps faded before opening the screen door. When he stepped through the doorway onto the black and white tile, he found his mother’s tall and slender frame at the sink. As Mary washed her hands, her long sandy-blond hair was illuminated by the sun shining in from the window above the sink.

After she dried her hands, Mary turned to open one of the nearby wooden cabinets and said, “No . . .” pointing in Shiloh’s direction and downward. Shiloh looked around in confusion. “. . . I’m making dinner and those two are not coming in here,” she finished.

Shiloh looked down and realized she was referring to the cats lingering in the doorway.

“One keeps trying to drag dead mice in the house. And the other keeps eating bugs, which wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t throwing them up all over the place afterward,” she continued.

A tight-lipped smile rolled across Shiloh’s face as he turned to shoo the cats back out the door.

When he turned back around, Shiloh found himself face-to-face with his mother. Her chestnut-colored eyes stared straight into his baby blues with a smirk. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to his chest. “Ice cream?”

Shiloh looked down at his T-shirt to see a couple of stains from his earlier treat. “Oh . . . that was from earlier this afternoon,” he replied with a wide grin.

“Really? Because it still looks wet,” Mary noted, returning his smile with a shake of her head. “Go wash up. Dinner is almost ready.”

The family dinner was relatively quiet. Shiloh tried to stuff himself so he wouldn’t be lectured by his mother about eating ice cream before supper. He avoided eye contact with his father, because after hearing Joe grumble about all of the farm’s problems, he feared he might lose his time off.

When he finished, Shiloh took his plate to the sink and tried to make a hasty retreat out the back door without saying a word. However, it wasn’t to be. “Hey . . . take a seat,” Joe called, pointing to Shiloh’s empty chair at the dinner table.

Shiloh walked back to the chair feeling certain his father was about to revoke his vacation time “for the good of the farm.” He looked up to see his father leaning forward with his elbows on the table and his large callused hands folded. Joe was a tall, muscular man with perpetually unkempt, light-brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and his face always appeared to need a shave.

Joe stared at Shiloh for a moment before asking, “How would feel you about spending some time with your grandfather?”

He was taken off guard by the question, but shrugged and answered, “Okay, I guess.”

“Good,” Joe smiled. “He’ll be by to pick you up tomorrow.”

“What?” Shiloh responded in shock.

“You’re going to spend a couple weeks with your grandfather,” Joe answered pointedly.

Shiloh’s disbelief and agitation spilled out of his mouth in rapid succession. “A couple weeks? Why? I’m supposed to go swimming at the pond tomorrow! The carnival is in town next week! My birthday is in two weeks! I don’t want to go!”

Joe leaned back in his chair, shaking his head, “You’ve been complaining about having to work the fields all summer. I’d think you’d be glad to get a break from it.”

“Yeah, I wanted a break to have some fun with my friends. Not a break where I’m sent away to some strange place . . . I’m not going!” Shiloh’s voice shook with anger.

Joe, not the kind of man to listen to long protestations, replied, “You are going. End of discussion.” He returned to his meal.

Slamming his hands on the table, Shiloh rose from his chair, and walked toward the back door. “Get back here,” Joe called, as Shiloh forcefully pushed open the screen door.

He heard his father yell, “Shiloh!” but he ignored him and ran into the immense cornfield. He ran through the field until he grew so tired he had to walk. He continued walking until he found himself on the far edge of the field, where he stepped out onto a narrow dirt trail that surrounded it.

Shiloh looked back to see how far he had come and the farm’s old horse barn caught his eye. The faded, maroon monstrosity had fallen into disrepair, but the barn’s current residents, Rikki and Peco, loved it for some reason. It was their big, red dilapidated mansion.

When his gaze drifted across the field, Shiloh saw his home in the distance. The towering cornstalks obscured all but the top half of the house. Taking a couple of steps backward, trying to find a better view, he suddenly lost his balance. He began tumbling down a slick embankment covered with reeds and into the swampy marsh that separated his family’s property from the Delahanna River.

Shiloh was uninjured by the fall, but landed on his backside in the mud. He sat for a moment to catch his breath, gazing toward the river stretching out in front of him. He saw some Great Blue Herons standing nearby in the marsh. The large gray birds were motionless, with their S-shaped necks pointing up into the distance.

Following the herons’ gaze, Shiloh saw the large factory to the south. He knew the factory was there, but never paid it much attention. It was practically invisible due to the thick cluster of hickory trees lining the rear of the farm. The factory’s most distinguishing feature was an enormous cylindrical brick smokestack with a giant, orange H on its side. The huge tower emitted a perpetual gray smoke that seemed to linger in the air.

Hearing voices in the distance, Shiloh turned back toward the river. An old fishing boat was anchored just offshore with some young people frolicking around the deck. He watched as a young man jumped from the deck into the river. “It’s freezing!” the young man hollered, emerging from the water.

Shiloh smiled, remembering how he used to love the crisp bite of the river water on a hot summer afternoon. His parents wouldn’t allow him to swim in the river anymore. They said it was too polluted and dirty.

Straight across the river were some lights from the town of Old New Castle. Just beyond that was Pike Creek, where his grandfather lived and where he would apparently be going the next day. This made him think of the things he’d be missing in the next two weeks: going swimming, the carnival, spending time with his friends.

Thoughts of his impending departure made Shiloh feel sick to his stomach, so he tried thinking of something else. He looked around and noticed several gray puddles of water with a number of long-stemmed, gray wildflowers growing out of them. He frowned because he couldn’t recall ever seeing a gray flower before. He plucked the closest one and thought it was a wild daisy of some kind.

Another flower grew out of the puddle right before his eyes, taking the place of the one he picked. This second flower was not gray, but golden yellow with a black center. Though startled, Shiloh scowled and dismissed the peculiar occurrence, recalling how he’d seen colorful mushrooms grow right before his eyes while working very early in the morning on the farm.

As the sun began to set, Shiloh climbed the embankment, deciding he had better return to the house. He chose to walk back through the cornfield instead of the path along the edge of the field, because it was shorter. He came to regret that decision when the sunlight faded and the tall cornstalks blocked out what little light was left in the sky. To make matters worse, it was a new moon, so there was no heavenly light to guide him.

In the darkness, the size of the farm became more apparent than ever. Shiloh walked and walked, seeing only dark rows of corn ahead of him. He knew he would escape them eventually, but not knowing exactly where he was made him uncomfortable. The odd collection of noises echoing out of the darkness only added to his discomfort.

Shiloh dismissed some fluttering and flapping sounds, thinking it was probably one of the Great Blue Herons he saw earlier in the marsh. He then heard an odd, thumping sound, as if something was running around. He tried to dismiss that as well, remembering his father had mentioned seeing red foxes in the fields. Shiloh had never seen a fox on the farm, but supposed one could be the source of the noise.

The thumping sound seemed to grow closer and closer, but every time Shiloh stopped to listen, it would cease. The louder the noise grew, the more Shiloh’s heart raced. He tried to ignore the sound, focusing into the distance to locate his house. When the thumping became so loud it seemed just a step away, Shiloh panicked, breaking into a run.

He sprinted along until he tripped, falling forward onto the ground. Shiloh remained still and listened for a moment, but the only sound he could hear was his pounding heart. Looking behind him, down the corn row, he saw an indistinct dark mass just a few feet away.

Fear gripped Shiloh, who now thought only of escape. He turned his head around, thinking if he could just stand he might be able to outrun whatever was back there. He was shocked to discover a second dark figure blocking his path. The second shape was lower to the ground, with glowing eyes, and it was growling.

Shiloh didn’t know what to do, but figured whatever it was would have to start with him being on his feet. He took a deep breath and readied himself to stand, but before he could, the second dark figure charged him. He placed his hands over his head, preparing for an attack. However, no attack came. The figure leapt over him, chasing whatever was behind him down the corn row. Shiloh stood and sprinted away as fast as he could.

As he neared the edge of the field, he could hear a loud, fierce growling and tussling behind him. Resisting the temptation to look back, he broke through the edge of the cornfield and ran straight into the house.

 

 

 

Categories: Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Stolen Herd by K. Madill – Win a $25 Amazon Gift Card

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00068]Title:  The Stolen Herd
Author: K. Madill
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Paperback: 181 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace (February 20, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1482640023
ISBN-13: 978-1482640021
Kindle:B00GBQ9V8O

Purchase at http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/B00GBQ9V8O

About the book:

Mandamus is only a foal when his herd is captured by the terrible Rakhana Army. Rescued and raised in secrecy, he knows nothing of his heritage until a dreadful incident in the woods brings him to the attention of the Forest council – and everyone else. Sent away for his own protection, he is determined to seek help on behalf of the many animals who have gone missing from the forest, including his own family.

With the help of a troubled man and a stout-hearted bat, can Mandamus save his fellow creatures before it’s too late?

First Chapter:It was a pale spring morning when a green butterfly failed to save the Alsvid herd. The wind, brisk in the early hour, carried the small creature in its swiftly flowing current. The sun had not quite risen but lit the edges of the world, colouring the sky a still and sullen grey. The butterfly, whose name was Gideon, pulled out of the rigid breeze and swirled down to the empty field below. Landing on a fat coneflower, he hungrily searched for food. An inky black bat swooped and darted behind him.

Gideon took a deep gulp of nectar and then shook his head sadly. He turned to the bat that had landed softly next to him.

“Well, Arkas,” he said gloomily. “I tried.”

Arkas nodded sympathetically and dug around the flower bed, as if he hoped to find something tasty.

“I should have put an arrow through Arion’s heart,” said Gideon, plucking half-heartedly at a petal. “His…and the rest of the horses. They’re all are as good as dead now, anyway.”

Arkas chirped in agreement then scrounged up a strawberry and stuffed it in his mouth. He had begun rooting around for more when a rumble of thunder shook the sky. The ground began to quiver and the trees that lined the meadow swayed wildly from a sudden, howling wind.

“They’re coming!” yelled Gideon over a sharp crack of lightning. “Let’s go, we have to find Daleth and Mareva.” He dove into the air and sped away while Arkas flapped closely behind.

 

* * *

 

Mareva awoke with a jolt. Her mate, Hengist, flicked one gray ear at her movement but did not wake. The cave was quiet in the early morning. The queen mare took a deep breath. The tangy smell of smoke reached her nose and lit her senses with an uneasy spark.

She shook her chestnut coat and stepped carefully through the sleeping horses of her herd to the entrance of their cave. Looking out, she faced a long stretch of white sand and deep green sea. As she listened to the rush of the surf, her instinct began to nag in slow whispers. She listened closely, and then crept out of the cave. A cold wind whirled around her, bending the flowers and tearing the leaves from the trees. Shielding herself behind a gnarly oak, she peeked down a worn path to a clearing where several figures were gathered. 

Are those humans?” she asked herself, drawing a deep breath. “Yes…that is the smell of man, but…it’s different somehow.” She inhaled again. Her nose picked up the scent of unfamiliar horses—a dusty smell that didn’t match the burnt-grass odour of her herd, the Harena. She moved closer for a better look, jumping when thunder crashed closely overhead. A storm was coming.

“Do you smell that?” asked a voice from behind. Her younger sister, Daleth, a golden mare with amber eyes and a pearly mane, had followed her. “That is the stench of man and his fire.”

“It doesn’t smell like a regular man,” Mareva said with a puzzled frown. “And that fire is black—that’s not a normal flame. There is something else… a strange scent I would not associate with humans.”

Daleth studied the clearing through narrowed eyes. She flared her nostrils, testing the air for herself.

“You are right, Queen Sister,” she agreed. “It smells like an animal that has lain dead in the sun. It is the Rakhana Army, the Silver City’s most dreadful pick of soldiers, led by that reprobate, General Caucus. That’s him there, the tallest one. I’ve tasted that scent before.” She pushed her sister with her muzzle. “We should wake the others and hide further in the cave.”

“Not yet,” said the queen, for her instinct had begun to whisper again, telling her to wait… or she would miss it. “Miss what?” she thought as watched a terrible scene unfold in front of her.

The Rakhana had caught a herd of horses, trapping the terrified animals in a ring of black fire. With fat whips, the men lashed any horse that tried to dash out of the blaze. General Caucus, his face hidden by a glinting silver mask, had cornered the herd’s king. The stallion reared and struck, but the man quickly leapt out of the way and jabbed the horse with a long stick. A jet of blue flame stunned the creature and he crumpled to the ground. Men swarmed the horse, tightly pulling ropes around his thrashing form. The general attacked the stallion’s mate with bolts from his weapon until she too collapsed, only with a loud ‘snap.’ He stood over the mare and watched her flail on the hard ground.

“Oh, no,” Daleth whispered in horror. “Her leg is broken.”

General Caucus pulled a small, silver ball from his cloak and aimed it at the wailing mare, who scrambled to get to her feet. A thunderous boom rang across the field and the mare was still. He kicked at her limp form and then strode away to where the stallion lay struggling against the ropes. Mareva strained her ears and fought to pick up what the man was saying, but his words were lost under the stallion’s furious whinnies. The sisters huddled miserably together.

The moon still cast its faint light across the land as Gideon and Arkas reached the beaches.

“What pretty green wings,” said Daleth dryly, spotting the butterfly who landed at her side. Arkas squealed and flapped over to Daleth. He nuzzled the large horse affectionately.

“Daleth,” Gideon said breathlessly. “It is good to see you, old friend; you too, Mareva.”

“Never mind that,” said Daleth impatiently. “What are you doing here, Forest Man? You’re only a lucky charm for humans. Anytime I see you, it usually means trouble.” She tossed her head warningly at him.

“Gideon, what is going on down there?” asked Mareva anxiously. “Who is that herd?”

“It’s the Alsvid. That fool, King Arion, came here to make a deal with Queen Asura. She wanted animal Bonds with his herd for her soldiers of the Rakhana. In exchange, she promised them immortality.”

“What?” Daleth shrieked. “Immortality…has he been bitten by a rabid fox? How ridiculous!”

“I thought the Alsvid were dead against Bonding,” Mareva murmured.

“So did I,” answered Gideon. “But her falsehoods fed his large ego. He actually believes his herd legends about being created for the Gods and he was lured by the lies of Asura and that wizard of hers.”

“Oh, don’t tell me that scoundrel of a magic maker, Dazra, is still hanging around and stinking up the castle?” Daleth hissed. “Why he and Asura weren’t beheaded for killing their human king is beyond anything I’ve ever…”

“They weren’t beheaded because they rule the Silver City now, in his place,” Gideon interrupted. “Most people still believe their lies about him dying in a riding accident. An accident while atop your back.”

“Hmpf,” Daleth snorted. “So, they’re still up to their two favourite pastimes, trickery and untruths, are they? I see nothing has changed since I left.”

“It’s gotten worse,” Gideon answered grimly.

“Did you not tell Arion what that so called “queen” has been doing to the animals in the Silver City?” Daleth asked bitterly.

“Of course I told him,” came the reply, followed by a soft pop.

Where a butterfly had been only moments before, stood a tall, lean man. He had a bony face lit by fierce, green eyes. His long hair was the colour of tree bark and he wore a green cloak that brushed the tall grass. Arkas flew up and roosted on his shoulder.

“You’re getting old, Gideon,” said Daleth, studying the lines on his face.

“If Arion was coming to make a deal with the queen, then why are the Rakhana rounding them up?” asked Mareva quietly.

“Because she had no intention of giving them immortality,” Gideon said angrily. “She just plans on turning them all into warhorses. I came to warn him that it was the army coming to meet him, not her, but he didn’t believe me. What a fool.” He watched the soldiers with an expression that was both miserable and furious.
“Oh, no,” Mareva whispered, “the entire Alsvid—finished.”

“Not quite,” said Gideon turning to her. “I managed to do one thing right today and that’s where you two come in.”

“What do you mean?” Daleth asked.

“I took his foal.”
“Good heavens, you did what?” gasped Mareva.

“I took him,” Gideon replied. “Like I said, Arion wouldn’t believe me when I told him the army was on its way. I stood there arguing with him as the minutes ticked by and with each one the Rakhana grew closer. So, I changed to my butterfly form and teased his foal into following me. He’s so young; there’s no way he could have made the journey from here all the way to the Silver City. The first time he tried to lay down to rest, the Rakhana would have just left him there…that or killed him.”

“Where is he?” Daleth asked.

“I hid him in that brush, just over there.” Gideon pointed to a clearing further up the edge of the forest.

“Oh, Gideon, his son…” Mareva whispered unbelievingly.

“He’s your son now,” said Gideon. “Mareva, I need you to keep him here at the beaches and raise him as your own.”
“Wait a minute, you mean you want us…?” Daleth began.

“Daleth,” interrupted Gideon, “I don’t trust anyone else to take him. There’s more to this and I don’t have time to…” he stopped short, as if taking a cue from the worried looks on their faces.

“There is a legend,” he said as the violent wind that whipped his hair, “about a man who rides a ‘white-eyed steed; Alsvid are the only horses to have white eyes, as far as I’ve seen. I must keep him safe. What if he is the horse from the myth?”

“A legend,” Mareva muttered. “But if the legend is about a man and men are rounding them up then wouldn’t—”

“No,” Gideon interrupted shortly. “I need you to trust me, Mareva. Now, tell no one he is here except for the Forest Council, do you understand me?”

Without waiting for their answer, he and Arkas disappeared in a rush of green smoke.

“Good old Gideon,” said Daleth with grudging affection. “Always running around sticking his nose in everyone’s business—turns out it was a good thing, this time.” She turned to Mareva. “You stay behind me and if I tell you to run, you do it, no matter what. Let’s go find that foal.”

Daleth quickly led her sister in the direction that Gideon had pointed. As they reached the small clearing, Mareva caught the fresh-morning scent that always accompanied a young horse. She pushed past Daleth and poked her face into a small hillock.

Huddled in the weeds was a small, shaggy foal. His coat was the deepest shade of midnight and his hooves were as black as coal. He would have looked like a perfectly ordinary horse if not for his white, glowing eyes that shone like two full moons in the dark morning. He looked up at Mareva’s looming figure and gave a surprised snort.

“Daleth, my goodness,” Mareva whispered in amazement. “Look at this!”

“Let me see him,” said Daleth, shoving Mareva aside. She eyed the odd shape on the colt’s flank—a white spiral, bordered with a scattering of tiny, silver spots. “There is his mark,” she muttered. “Alsvid, indeed; we should get him to the cave.” She stared back out at the Rakhana army.

The Alsvid had stopped fighting and were grouped miserably under a swollen storm cloud that had settled solely over them. Under a shroud of pounding rain, the soldiers bound the horses into a long line. The largest soldier led the limping king stallion to the front of the row and began dragging the horse away.

“That is not a fight we can win,” Mareva said warningly, after seeing the blazing look on Daleth’s face. “And if the Rakhana see you, you will be caught too. Come, Sister, we have to get this foal to safety.”

“Quickly now, little one,” Mareva whispered to the small horse. He shakily got to his feet and they rushed him to the trees outside their cave. Here, they looked him over.

“An Alsvid,” Daleth said wondrously. “I’ve never seen one before. Look at those strange eyes. Oh, how I hate leaving them to this. Now that the army has them, who knows what dreadful things fate has in store for them.”

The foal sank to his knees and laid down between the sisters. Mareva began to wash his coat with soft, gentle licks. Comforted by the queen horse’s affection, his strange eyes grew heavy, and with a deep sigh, he fell fast asleep.

“Look at that,” said Daleth quietly. “He’s settled right in already. How lucky for us too, what with no foals this year.” She swished her tail and gave the foal a small push with her nose.

“I worry about what Hengist will say.” Mareva said with a frown. “Bringing a strange male into the herd will seem like a challenge to him, don’t you think? He won’t like it at all.”

“Well, that’s too bad for Hengist, isn’t it?” Daleth answered, laying her ears back. “You are the Queen of the Harena herd and your stallion will do as you say, if he knows what’s good for him. Besides,” she added, “Gideon told us to take him and trust me—you do not want to go against his wishes.”

Seemingly satisfied with this reasoning, Mareva finished grooming the foal. “There you are,” she whispered. “You don’t need to worry; we are your herd now.”

“I wonder what his name is,” Daleth mused. “Gideon, that twit, he forgot to tell us.”

“Now, now,” chided Mareva. “Gideon might not have known it himself. This poor, little fellow; he must have one. I hate the thought of changing it on him.”

“Well, he can’t tell us what it is and we have to call him something,” Daleth said logically. “What should it be?”

“I don’t know,” answered Mareva as she got to her feet. “You’ve never had a foal. Would you like to name him?”

Daleth looked pleased. “Well,” she replied, licking her lips. “My Bonded human used to shout a very strange word just before he led his army and me into battle. I don’t know why he said it—it didn’t seem to have any effect on the enemy, but he did it every time. I always loved the sound of that word. To me, it meant victory.”

“What was it?” asked Mareva.

“He yelled, ‘Mandamus.’”

“Mandamus,” murmured the queen. “What does it mean?”

“He told me that it meant “we command,” in a very old human language, spoken before creatures decided to use the Common Words that we and the humans share now.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mareva said with a frown. “That sounds dangerous to me, naming him after a human battle cry. It could bring all sorts of problems and we don’t want that for him.”

Daleth snorted. “Right, well if you think this little guy is going to go through this life without running into any problems, then guess again—no one gets off that easy. For starters, he is the last of the free Alsvid… I’d say his troubles have already begun.”

“‘We command,’” said Mareva thoughtfully. “Shouldn’t it be ‘I command’?”

“Absolutely not!” Daleth answered. “Who should be allowed to command on their own? You said I could pick what we call him; now, let’s name him.”

Mareva smiled at her sister’s stubbornness. “Mandamus,” Mareva said softly, touching the foal’s forehead with her muzzle. “By the Goddess Epona, we will call you Mandamus.  Mandamus of the Harena.”

The sisters stood over the sleeping foal and listened to the fading sounds of his herd being forced away. When the sun finally rose on that dreadful morning, the Alsvid and the army were gone.

About the author:

Karai MadillA chronic “head in the cloudser” K. Madill lives in a rickety house on a well treed street in British Columbia, Canada.  When she’s not hanging out with her best equine friend in the woods she can be found trying to stay upright on her roller skates or mediating the affairs of her various furred and feathered friends that rule the aforementioned rickety house. 

K. Madill’s website: kmadill.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/K-Madill/161159890706088

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KaraiMadill1

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20643483-the-stolen-herd

 

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Categories: Adventure, Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures by Joe Sergi

Sky-Girl-Front-CoverTitle: Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures
Genre: Young Adult Superhero Fantasy Adventure
Author: Joe Sergi
Publisher: Martin Sisters Publishing (May 28, 2013)
Pages: 272
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1625530277
ISBN-13: 978-1625530271

Buying Link:  AMAZON

Being a teenage girl is hard enough, but for DeDe Christopher, it is proving impossible.

In addition to cliques, books, and boys, she has to worry about capes, apes, and aliens. Last year, DeDe discovered that she possessed fantastic abilities that were strangely similar to those of a comic book character named SkyBoy.

With the help of her best friend Jason, a self-professed comic geek, DeDe accepted her legacy and became Sky Girl. Now, DeDe must learn what it means to be a heroine as Sky Girl faces the all too real enemies and allies of SkyBoy, including the clever Quizmaster, the beautiful Penny Pound, the enigmatic Jersey Devil, and the magical MissTick.

DeDe must also face personal challenges as she discovers the secrets of her late father and his connection to Skyboy–secrets that will affect Sky Girl’s destiny.

Book Excerpt:

Jason turned toward the tunnel, watching with a mixture of fear and excitement as the figure emerged from it. DeDe had run up against several villains in her short career as Sky Girl, but this guy was the big one: Professor Z. He was the cream of the crop, the greatest at being the worst. After all, Professor Z was the villain that had beaten SkyBoy. Jason squinted as the villain stepped into the bank from the tunnel.

An overweight, masked teenager dressed in black spandex and a black cape exited the Z-Gate. The ill-fitting spandex failed to fully cover his mid-section, and his stained white undershirt poked through. The tunnel vanished as quickly as it had formed, causing the villain to trip over his cape and sprawl out on the bank floor. As the villain regained his footing and tried to stand, Jason noticed that the fiend’s cowl-like mask had shifted and sat askew, so that one eyehole was blocked.

“Aw, man!” exclaimed the villain.

Jason cleared his throat, and the teenager in spandex turned to look at him. He smiled as his eyes met the villain’s uncovered one. ”Um, hi. Are you a super villain?”

“Hi. And why, yes, I am,” he said as he readjusted his mask.

“You know, they never mention in the movies how hard it is to keep the mask on.”

Jason nodded knowingly as he remembered DeDe’s many complaints over the summer during their mask trials. “I know what you mean. You know, a little spirit gum will hold that thing right in place.”

“Really? Spirit gum? Like the circus guys use? I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks.” The man smiled and then looked over at the wall.

“Well, okay then. Nice meeting you. I have, you know, villainous work to do.” He moved toward the vault.

Jason threw up his hands. “Wait!”

“Yeah, what?”

Jason stared at the overweight spandex-clad teen. “Um, you cannot just rob the bank.”

The villain stared at him. “I cannot? I mean, I can’t?”

Jason rolled his eyes. “Duh. First you have to announce your fiendish intentions and tell everyone your name.” Jason looked around the bank. Only the old woman remained.

The villain appeared to think for a moment. “Well, okay then. I guess there is some merit to that.” The villain took a deep breath and attempted to sound menacing as he spoke. “I’m Alex, and I’m here to rob this bank.”

Jason stared at him with an annoyed look.

“What?”

“Alex? Really?”

“What’s wrong with Alex?”

Jason glanced at his watch and hoped the police would be there soon. “It is a little plain. You want a name that invokes fear, like Professor Z, or Evil Brain, or Commander Chimp.”

Alex pursed his lips in thought. “I know—my mother always wanted me to be a doctor. So call me Doctor Doom!”

Jason shook his head from side to side. “That name is taken by a Marvel Comics villain. Trust me, you do not want them coming after you for infringement. They are owned by Disney now.”

“What about Doctor Destiny?”

“Nope. DC Comics.”

“Doctor Midnight?”

“No way.”

“Doctor Horrible?”

“Joss Whedon used that one. Neil Patrick Harris played him.”

“You mean that Doogie Howser kid?”

“Yeah.”

“I loved that show. How about Doctor Strange?”

“Marvel again.”

“Doctor Evil?”

“Oh, come on. You are not even trying now.”

The duo’s debate was cut short by the sound of sirens. Alex peered out the bank window. “Aw man, now the police are here. I didn’t even get to rob the bank.”

Jason smiled. “You had better go. You do not want to face them without a name.”

Alex, the nameless villain, pressed a button on his gauntlet and the tunnel reappeared. “Yeah, I don’t really have any weapons either.”

Jason chuckled. “Going back to your evil villain’s layer?”

Alex looked confused. “You mean my evil villain’s lair.” He stressed the last word. Jason pointed into the tunnel, and Alex read his spray-painted sign. “Darn it! You know, I thought I might have spelled that wrong.” Alex raced down the tunnel as the police broke into the bank. Jason watched as the glowing lights of the Z-Gate shrank away and vanished.

Jason threw up his hands as the police approached him. He could hear the security guard began to groan his way back to consciousness. “He is gone now. I do not think he took anything.” “Did he say who he was?” one of the officers asked.

Jason smiled. “Not really.”

Categories: Adventure, Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anselm, a Metamorphosis, by Florence Byham Weinberg

Anselm_medTitle: Anselm, a Metamorphosis

Genre: metaphysical fantasy

Author: Florence Byham Weinberg

Website: http://www.florenceweinberg.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Purchase the book on AMAZON

Christians believe the spirit survives the body. The philosopher René Descartes equated mind and spirit and tried to prove them totally separable from the body. Are they?

Cocky young Professor Eric Behrens, fired for seducing an undergraduate, curses the world and wishes he were someone, anyone, else. He trips, is knocked out, and wakes in the body of a middle-aged, overweight Benedictine monk with a severe heart defect. He must survive in an alien environment and in a defective body, while trying to “go home again.”

“Anselm: A Metamorphosis by Florence Byham Weinberg plays upon an ancient longing as well as ancient fears. What is it like, it asks, to wake up as another person, unrecognizable even to those closest to one, being in all but one way wholly new to oneself? That one way is an abiding sense of self-identity. In a fascinating tour de force, this novel follows the sudden change in the identity of a carefree young English professor into a middle-aged priest by exploring many layers of his consciousness… A fantasy? Of course. Unreality? No. Instead of removing himself and becoming another, the searching protagonist of Anselm achieves a sense of his true identity that had been closed to him before.”
~ Ralph Freedman, author of Hermann Hesse, Pilgrim of Crisis

 

——————————————————————-

Chapter 1

Transformation

I grinned at Sally, the dean’s attractive secretary-receptionist, eyeing her cleavage spilling out of a crisp, white blouse. She stood, leaving her desk to cross the small but neat outer office to the filing cabinet in the corner. She turned to give me a better view of her seductive nylon-sheathed legs and her shapely hips in a tight yellow skirt. She glanced over her shoulder, rolling her eyes with a playful head-toss. I knew she liked what she saw, and I reciprocated. She pulled a file, swiveled those hips and returned to the desk.

“What does the dean need me for, Sally? It’s Saturday.”

“Don’t know, Eric . . . uh, Professor Behrens. You’ve been naughty, it seems. He was grumpy when he called me to come to work and told me to contact you.”

“I hope this won’t last long. I’m on my way to play a round of golf with Jim Stevenson.”

“Oh, yes, Professor Stevenson. He . . .” She was interrupted by the buzzer. She picked up the phone. “Yes . . .? Yes, he’s here. I’ll send him in.” She looked at me, holding her hand over the receiver. “He’ll see you now. Watch out; he sounds angry.”

“Uh . . . thanks, Sally.” I hesitated on the threshold of the wood-paneled and carpeted inner office.

Bernard Graham, Dean of Woodward State University in upstate New York, stood facing the window as I entered. He swiveled, his face in shadow, his stocky outline silhouetted against the bright October day. His greeting was brusque. “Sit down, Professor Behrens.”

I was surprised at his terse greeting and took the chair facing his tidy mahogany desk. “Thank you, Dean Graham. May I know why you called me in? Did the draft board contact the University? Are they drafting professors for Vietnam?”

“No, no, Behrens. Nothing so simple—I almost said nothing so honorable.” The dean took his seat behind the desk, his square face severe. “I hate to say this to any of my faculty. But you’ve violated our university’s moral code. I have to ask you to tender your resignation.”

My hands clutched the arms of the chair and a roar thundered in my ears. I managed a few words. “Wh-what? I’m sorry, but . . . but I don’t understand, sir.”

“Does the name Diana Gregg mean anything to you?”

“I . . . I . . . She was a student in my summer literature survey course.” I began to sweat.

“Did you know that her father, Durwood Gregg, is the chairman of the Board of Trustees?”

“Not at first, sir.”

“He tells me you seduced his daughter. She’s an undergraduate!” Graham shook his head, his expression a blend of anger and reproach. “For God’s sake, man! You know the rules: no fraternizing with undergrads. And you must have gone further . . . a lot further . . . . What do you have to say?”

Scenes from the previous summer flashed through my mind: the poolside party where it all began, the clandestine meetings at the riding stable, rides into the woods, making love in forest meadows, at the lakeside. “It’s true. I can’t deny it. We had an affair, and she wants me— wanted, I guess—to marry her. I said no; said we’d have to wait.”

“Durwood demands that you wait forever. You’re Protestant, aren’t you?”

“Lutheran. But what has that—?”

“The Greggs are Roman Catholic,” he cut in. “Strict. Under no circumstances would he have allowed such a marriage. I have a form here, a resignation form. I need your signature.”

“But, sir, classes have already begun. I’ve passed out my syllabus; the students are already working on their first paper.”

“Hampton Clarke retired just last year. We’ll call on him to finish the semester while we look for your replacement.” The dean turned to his desk, picked up a sheet of paper and thrust it at me. I scanned it: at least it said nothing about moral turpitude. I could deny nothing. I had violated the rules, thinking I could get away with it. I’d used Durwood Gregg’s beautiful daughter, flagrantly, irresponsibly, and then wanted to leave all that behind; close the summer dalliance like a chapter in a book. I still hadn’t told her. It would have been the old story: seduced and abandoned.

I felt cornered, helpless, and most of all guilty. I felt in my shirt pocket for a pen.

“Here.” Dean Graham’s voice was harsh as he held a pen under my nose.

I placed the paper on the edge of the desk, signed and then stood, my legs trembling. “I guess there’s nothing more to be said.”

“No, nothing. Clear out your office before Monday.”

I moved to the door, turning once to see the dean standing again silhouetted against the sun streaming through the window. I passed through the outer office in a daze, only hearing Sally’s goodbye after I had closed the door behind me.

Jim had waited on a bench just outside the administration building, kicking at the leaves piled there. “So, what did he want?”

“Let’s walk. I’ll tell you.” A dry wind rustled more fallen leaves across the path under our feet and intermittently carried the notes of the tower clock to our ears. Chimes followed by two solemn strokes. Two o’clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon, yet I was oblivious of the beauty of the day, the glowing fall colors and the crisp air: my world had crumbled. I told Jim everything as we shuffled through the swirling leaves toward the chemistry building, my voice shaking with self-pity. Jim made surprised and sympathetic noises, wondering if, rather than the golf course, we should go to Kenny’s Pub near campus to talk over the situation.

We rounded the corner of the chemistry building. Jim stopped by the wall to shelter from the wind and tried to light a cigarette while I walked on and began to climb the long stairway to the upper campus.

In a sudden rage against my persecutors—now including Diana—I raised my fists to the sky and snarled, “Damn them all! Damn the whole world! Satan, take them to Hell and take me, too—just make me into someone else! I’d give anything, even my soul, to be somebody else!”

The surrounding air closed in on me like a smothering plastic film. I gasped and tripped on the next step. Had I been pushed? The fall gave me the sensation of traveling through time and space, and yet I had no time to stretch out my hands. I then realized I was lying in extreme discomfort on the stairs, my head and shoulders propped against Jim’s leg. The first thing I saw was his face. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he saw I was conscious.

“That was a nasty fall! Do you think you’re badly hurt, sir?”

Puzzled by his tone, his words, his attitude, I struggled to my feet, using him as a prop. I weaved as I stood, unable to regain my balance, as everything seemed out of perspective. I blinked, then lowered the hand that had been feeling the wound on my forehead. “N-no . . . I don’t think so, not seriously.”

My voice gave me a violent start. It was a deep, metallic bass, utterly unlike my own light tenor. I cleared my throat, watching to see if Jim had noticed anything unusual. His attention seemed divided between concern for me and some other worry. His brow creased and his eyes searched the campus in all directions as if looking for someone.

“Eric?” he called, almost under his breath.

“Yes?” I answered, again unprepared for that unfamiliar bass.

“Oh, is your name Eric?”

I stared at him, not answering. Was Jim crazy, or was I?

He hesitated, then excused himself, “Well, sir, if you’re sure you aren’t seriously hurt, I must be going—my friend seems to have run off and left me.”

He turned and ran up the steps, stopping once to scan the lower campus and glance at me with a half guilty, half frightened expression. Jim’s behavior should have given me a clue, but I was far from suspecting the truth. My right hand again went to my forehead. Dizziness became one enormous, pounding pain that began at my hairline. My fingers found the spongy, sticky area. I stared at them, now red with blood.

Something other than blood froze my attention. I stretched both hands out palm up, then turned them over. They were large with prominent veins; the long, tapering fingers ended in clean, square-cut nails. On the backs, an orderly pattern of black hair grew from wrist to knuckles and in tufts at the base of each finger. They were powerful and brutal, yet elegant hands, but they were not my own.

The sight of them filled me with creeping horror mixed with curiosity. I must find a mirror to see if all this had some easy explanation. I looked down. I wore some sort of black wool robe with a wide leather belt around the waist. I had obviously tripped on the hem—but where had the black robe come from? I staggered, dizzy and close to nausea, as if I had on someone else’s glasses. By reflex, I felt the bridge of my nose. Perhaps something was really wrong with my eyes, something resulting from the fall? I descended the few stairs back to the chemistry building, the wind flapping the robe against shaking legs, gravity dragging at me with every downward step. My balance point seemed to have shifted; I had to lean farther back than usual to maintain my equilibrium, my body thus blocking a clear view of the next step, forcing me to guess where I should set my foot. The fall must have affected my balance, too. I caught a glimpse of my toes and saw sandals. Sandals . . .?

I arrived at the bottom step and pushed against the side door that opened slowly, as if by itself. The hall seemed dark and stank of sulfur. Perhaps a student experiment had gone wrong. While my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I felt my way to the men’s room where I remembered a small mirror. Inside, I groped to find the light switch, then crossed the room in two strides. The face reflected in that mirror was someone I’d never seen before. I gave an inarticulate scream.

Panting, I ran back into the malodorous corridor.

After a few steps I stopped, shaking all over. I stared down at the black robe, the sandaled feet, and those hairy hands that, independent of my will, fingered the ebony rosary at my waist.

“My God, my God, who is this?” That unfamiliar voice boomed into the emptiness. I shrank against the wall, needing but fearing to look again in a mirror. I must fit the pieces of the puzzle together, somehow.

The faculty lounge on this floor had a wide plate-glass mirror on the far wall. It would show a full-length image. I hurried through the dark hall, exhaling the sulfur fumes that seemed to grow ever more pungent, and entered the brightly lit but deserted lounge. The mirror faced me across the room and I froze with my back against the door.

I should have been around five feet ten, slight, with one of those freckled complexions that often goes with red hair. My nose was average, my eyes gray, and I’d been wearing a pair of charcoal gray slacks, a white shirt, and a pale blue sweater-vest.

The figure cowering against the door was perhaps five inches taller than I was . . . or should be . . . and much heavier. His square figure seemed almost menacing in its potential strength, although his deterioration was clear. A paunch strained the leather belt, caught at the last hole, to its limit; deep buckle marks at each of the preceding four holes gave mute testimony to a recent weight gain. Here was the reason for my difficulty on the stairs: the paunch had prevented me from seeing my feet.

The forward shift of the body’s center of gravity was offset by this man’s hypercorrect posture—militarily correct. He held his tonsured head erect on a muscular neck. His remaining hair, a sort of crown, was black, salted with gray, and totally white above the ears. A bloody gash broke the crown at the hairline above the right eyebrow. The wound dwindled into a purplish weal, still swelling, slanting across the forehead to the left eyebrow.

I moved closer to the mirror to examine the man’s features. He was handsome in a dark, forbidding way. The eyebrows were thick, black and peaked in the center, the nose thin and aquiline. The full-lipped, sensual mouth seemed to express scorn even in repose, its disdainful curves underscored by the square chin. He seemed to be in his fifties: not only was his hair graying, his swarthy skin was coarse. The lofty forehead bore horizontal wrinkles as well as deep frown-marks between the brows. The gold-flecked brown eyes seemed to mock me, to censure my very essence.

I recoiled.

This man, this dark, almost sinister creature was . . . me?

It could not be true—I must be mad. I moaned and hid my face in my hands; I could no longer bear to see that image as it mimicked and mocked my every move.

Amid the confusion of conflicting impulses and ideas, I remembered my half-serious invocation to the Devil. Had he instantly fulfilled my wish to be somebody, anybody, else? Could I have traded the eventual fate of my soul for this new body? I couldn’t have been serious; I didn’t even believe in the existence of a soul. But if there is no soul, what was left of “me” in this stranger? Does the self then reside in memory alone? I’d willed to become someone else and had no one but myself to blame for the results.

An acute sense of loss filled me, many times more painful than the humiliation I’d suffered at being dismissed from Woodward State. Where was I, who was this; what should I do now? I could have been transformed into anyone at all—a shoe salesman, a fireman, an artist—but instead, I’d been changed into a monk!

The irony struck me like a blow: a tremendous practical joke by the Devil to punish me for having slighted and scorned Diana, in the process betraying my better self. I had asked to give myself to the Devil, but was now in the form of someone who had given himself away utterly. To God! Perhaps I was being punished for my irresponsible sensual appetites. In my present form, it would surely be more difficult to satisfy them. Perhaps the Devil is a reformer?

The essence of that outcry on the stairs had not been my invocation to Satan, but my fervent wish to be someone else. Had I precipitated this disaster by wishing it? I remembered Freud’s remarks on “compelling thoughts” that primitives and neurotics believe actually control reality. Perhaps, after all, under certain circumstances, they do?

The only hope of saving the last shred of sanity lay in action: I must care for this stranger. I made my way among the chairs and low tables to the coffee bar against the wall. After removing the pot half full of stale coffee, I stooped over the sink and bathed the gash with cold water. The cut had stopped bleeding and did not seem deep; the greatest damage was caused by the crushing force of the fall. The bruise throbbed at my pressure.

I dried my face on paper towels and cleaned the sink and then began searching my clothing for identification. In a pocket of the robe, I found a handkerchief and a battered wallet containing a five-dollar bill and a familiar card: a meal ticket for the student cafeteria. The name “Anselmus” was scrawled in a bold, black hand at the bottom. I assumed this was my own name—but I now must try to find out who and what Anselmus was, where he was from, and what monastic order he belonged to.

My only association with that name was Saint Anselm, a brilliant theologian of the eleventh or twelfth century. I clutched at my memory of the saint like a drowning man reaching for a plank. Here was something familiar, something removed from the horror of the present moment that might stave off the panic crowding the edges of my consciousness. I’d learned in college that Saint Anselm had invented a clever argument for the existence of God, a precursor to the one Descartes tried centuries later. That’s the one where he notes that we all have an idea of perfection. Since we get all our ideas from an outside source, and yet there is nothing perfect in this world, there must be a perfect Being who implants the idea: namely, God. Therefore God exists. The theory works only if one believes in the absolute reality of ideas.

Could I concentrate enough to recall Saint Anselm’s argument? If my memory was correct, it went something like this: “The fool says in his heart there is no God. But even he would agree that God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived, including all perfections, such as absolute goodness, omniscience, omnipresence, and existence in reality. If one can conceive of God at all, one is forced to concede that He exists, otherwise something greater could be conceived.” Not bad, but after all, merely a slick manipulation of words and ideas. I smiled. At least I could still put two coherent thoughts together. Irrelevant, but coherent. Madmen can do the same, though, can’t they?

Anselm. Anselmus. Yes, maybe I had seen a black-robed figure on campus. Normally, I avoided the school on my off days. Perhaps the monk never came here on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, when I teach . . . taught. But if I, Eric, now inhabited the monk’s body, where was his essence, his “soul?” Now that my “soul” seemed trapped in a monk’s body, I’d have to behave—temporarily, I hoped—like a monk. And how was that, anyhow? Should I be addressed as “Brother” or “Father”? It would be the latter if Anselm—if I—had been ordained a priest.

By this time, I’d reached the main door of the building and paused. I had begun to identify “me” with “Anselmus”—but what else could I do? Before I tried to claim any of my own—of Eric’s—possessions, I must try to discover what had happened to my realself, my body, while I was forced to “be” Anselmus.

I pushed open the heavy main door with such unaccustomed ease that I almost lost my balance. I turned back to peer into the dark hall and a clanging laugh rang out, buzzing in my brain, terrifying me. I let the door close behind me and before I could take three running steps, I realized that I myself was convulsed with mirthless laughter. Had I heard the echo of my own voice, or was my convulsion a reflection of some unseen, controlling power?

I fled up the long stairway to the upper campus, just enough wit left to hold up the skirts of my robe so as not to trip again. The paunch and heavy flesh around my flanks and hips dragged and bounced, resisting every upward step. I’d often run up those stairs before, but this time, once I’d reached the top, I was soaked in sweat. My legs trembled and my breath came in ragged, painful gasps. My heart pounded irregularly in my throat; my head seemed about to explode with the pressure of the throbbing ache. My hand fumbled for the handkerchief and I blotted my forehead gingerly, sweat in the new wound adding to my misery.

I turned to face the door I’d just left below me, expecting to see a formless somethingappear in pursuit. There was no visible movement about the façade of the chemistry building; everything looked normal in the golden light of the afternoon sun. Thatsomething remained hidden, at least for now. I trembled, not just from my exertion, but in terror: not only of that controlling power but of my own possible madness.

Other preoccupations plagued me as well. I wondered what had caused me to be so short of breath and waited until I could breathe comfortably. Surely, my increased weight wasn’t enough to account for all those symptoms. What was wrong with this body?

I must find people, make human contact, or I would indeed go mad. I turned to the student union. As I entered, two co-eds brushed past me. They stared, then one whispered loudly enough for me to hear, “Now there’s a cool-looking dude!”

“He looks like the devil to me,” replied the other dryly.

Were they seeing Eric or . . . Anselm?

The student health service at the end of the hall offered a temporary refuge. I hesitated with my hand on the doorknob. Would the nurse see me as I’d just seen myself in the mirror? Maybe “Anselm” was merely my hallucination. I opened the door with a jerk. At the moment there were no students in the office.

Miss Cunningham, the nurse, sat alone at her station. A tall, bony woman with a horsy face, I’d pitied her as a perpetual spinster. Now, I sought her for comfort. I leaned toward her, my knuckles on her desk. “Miss Cunningham, I wonder, could you spare a couple of aspirins?”

She faced me with a start. “Why, Father Anselm! That’s a nasty bump on your head.”

I sighed both in disappointment and relief. At least I was not mad, but it was terrifying to think that I might no longer have contact with myself. 3

Miss Cunningham brought me two aspirins and a paper cup of water. “Let me clean that wound and bandage it, Father Anselm,” she said, “How did it happen?”

I gulped down the aspirins and crumpled the paper cup in a nervous fist. “I tripped and fell on the steps out there. Could you bandage it? I’d be most grateful.”

I sat in a straight chair while the nurse got out cotton, alcohol and materials for a bandage. She bustled over to me, an alcohol-soaked swab in her hand. “This is going to sting, now, Father,” she said in a singsong.

I closed my eyes, anticipating the smart of the alcohol with a wince. Miss Cunningham went over my forehead well: then I could hear the snip of her scissors as she fashioned a bandage. Her firm yet gentle fingers on my face filled me with longing for my home, my mother. Could I never go home again?

Tears of self-pity must have escaped my closed eyelids, for Miss Cunningham’s nasal voice, filled with concern, broke in upon my thoughts. “Are you in much pain, Father?”

I looked up at her, startled, and brushed the wetness from my cheeks. “No, not too much. I’m sorry, I was thinking of something else.”

“Father Anselm . . . I think you’d better have that X-rayed,” she said as she placed the last adhesive strip, “You might have a concussion and even some bleeding inside there.”

“Perhaps I will, Miss Cunningham.” I stood up, smiling.

“Oh, and Father, don’t forget the sign-up sheet; we keep track of everyone who visits our health services.”

How should I sign? Obviously, I could only write the priest’s name. Taking up the pen, I wrote “Fr. Anselm.” It was as far from my own over-precise Palmer penmanship as possible. The heavy black scrawl was identical with the signature on the card in my pocket.

“Father, are you having trouble focusing?” Miss Cunningham asked in alarm.

“Oh, it’s not that—it’s just my head; I have a terrific headache. I’ll be all right. And thanks so much for fixing me up.” I touched the bandage in a sort of salute, then turned unsteadily and re-entered the hall. I paced up and down the corridor past the student cafeteria that emitted the odors of stale frying fat and onions I usually found nauseating. Today, it smelled good. The obsessive rhythm of one of the Beatles’ recent recordings, “Nowhere Man,” pursued me as I walked. Instinctively, I clasped my hands behind my back in a priestly gesture. What should I do now? I was obviously known on campus—even Miss Cunningham knew me—but how was I to find out who I was without appearing ridiculous?

The door of the cafeteria swung open, and one of the cooks appeared. “Hullo, Father, you here today? And you haven’t come to see us? Hey, what’s wrong with your head?”

“Just a bump, Rudy.”

“Well, hey, you know, it’s late, but we still have plenty of chicken and dumplings on the steam table. Enough for seconds . . . and thirds,” he smirked, glancing sidewise at me.

“Oh, no thanks, Rudy.” My reply was interrupted by a loud growl from my stomach. I closed my arms across my belly to suppress the noise, sheepishly joining in his laughter. “I see I’m receiving contrary orders!”

He winked. “We’ll be open for twenty more minutes; I’ll keep the steam tables hot.”

I shook my head. “Thanks, Rudy, but some other time.”

“Well, it’s there waiting for you, Father, if you want it. Think it over.” He smiled as he moved away down the hall.

Unexpectedly, I felt a light hand upon my arm. I turned and saw that it was Diana Gregg, the source of my misfortunes, looking both sorrowful and more beautiful than I’d ever seen her. She drew me into a small lounge, where we were alone. She raised her face to me. “Father Anselm, you’re hurt!”

“It’s nothing, Diana,” I replied.

Her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. “I’m sorry I am burdening you with an unwanted confidence at a time like this, but since you’re a teacher as well as a priest, you can understand the problems better than anyone else. It’s Eric—I’ve told you so much about him—and you know I want to marry him. He wants to wait, but I was still sure I could persuade him. But now Mom and Dad won’t let me. They think he’s irresponsible—unstable, they call him—and besides, he’s a Protestant. I love him and I don’t care. I’d elope with him this minute, but Professor Stevenson says Dad just had him fired and he has completely disappeared! Oh, Father Anselm, I’m so worried! He could be desperate! Can you help us find him? Can you bring him back to me?” She burst into sobs and slid slowly to her knees, then to the floor.

Her words echoed in my ears. Find him? Bring him back? Diana, my lovely Diana, he is here in this room, that man you want to marry!

I suddenly knew I loved, needed this girl I’d been ready to abandon. My desire flashed through me with an intensity I’d never felt before. I shook, vibrating from head to foot, forgetting my situation, everything, in a fury of passion that my new body seemed to intensify. I would tell her everything. She, like no one else, would understand my nightmarish situation; she would quiet my fear. I would carry her away to my apartment where we could be alone, where she could care for my bruised body—and soul.

I stooped and picked her up tenderly, with amazing ease, and cradled her like a child. My forehead, my lips, my body burned in fiery anticipation of her cool kisses, kisses that could only increase my sweet agony. Out of the medley of my violent feelings and turbulent thoughts, only one word, “Diana!” escaped aloud.

Diana, whose shock had at first rendered her helpless, braced her fists against my chest. “Father Anselm, let me go at once! Have you gone mad?”

I set her on her feet, lucidity flooding over me like cold water. I looked down upon us both from a great height. Father Anselm, the chaste, holy monk, had intended to betray his sacred vow and had begun an assault on an innocent and trusting girl who’d come to him for help. The scene was pure caricature. I felt my blush. “Diana, my child, forgive me, please, forgive me! I’m only human, you know. Diana, I didn’t mean . . .”

She gave me no chance to explain. With a toss of her lovely head that expressed her contempt for me and her triumph in an unexpected conquest, she turned and walked majestically away down the hall.

I stood aghast, my body’s fire dwindling to the heat of shame still glowing on my face. With my head bowed, I wondered at such passionate, impulsive behavior. I’d never been like this before: slow to action, I normally had held back, cool and calculating, from any decisive step. Now, I’d nearly succumbed to two deadly sins: gluttony and lust. The body must determine a large share of the personality, but the essence, the knowing essence, seemed somehow independent. I must retire to some less exposed position until I could learn how to live with myself, to manage this body and prevent further injuries to others—especially to someone I loved—or to myself.

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Lucas Trent 3: Grand Theft Magic by Richard Blunt

Grand Theft MagicLUCAS TRENT 3: GRAND THEFT MAGIC, by Richard Blunt, Blunt Publishing, 297 pp., $19.97 (Kindle 3.99).

After a field trip suddenly turns into a near catastrophe Lucas and the others shift into high gear to avenge their injured friend. But when an unexpected foe arrives at the scene they quickly find themselves in a life or death situation that not even their extraordinary skills can solve. Realizing that they have bitten off more than they can chew Lucas desperately starts looking for trustworthy allies, just to find out once again that things are never as easy as they appear at first.

Can they survive the battles at hand? Will they be able to tell friend from foe? Or will the epic quest they have stumbled into be too much for them to handle?

Follow Lucas Trent and his friends through an action-paced story of mysteries, secrets and deceptions and find out…

Book Excerpt:

It was a cold December day; the year was 2008. Within the corridors of a chemical plant near Luton, England, a teenage boy was running behind two security guards.

“I know that he is here somewhere,” the boy said after running around a corner. “I saw him go that way.”

“I saw him, too, but it seems that he is gone now,” one of the guards said. “Damn thief. Almost like a phantom.”

The guards walked around another corner, continuously looking. The boy continued down the corridor he was convinced he had seen the thief run into. He walked it up and down twice before he spotted the shadow behind a closet.

“Here he is!” he shouted.

Immediately a figure jumped out of the shadow, dressed in a black suit, looking like a modern day Ninja. He ran off through the corridor, the boy in pursuit. After having chased him through a number of hallways, they finally approached a dead end, with only office doors alongside and a small window almost two meters above ground level at the far end of the brick wall.

“Stop. You have nowhere else to go,” the boy yelled.

But the thief had no intention of complying. With an impressive jump, he plunged through the half-open window out into the yard.

“Damn it, what kind of circus clown is that?” the boy cursed. But he didn’t slow down and jumped through the window also, following the man in black.

“Base, Base, this is team four,” the security guard that followed a few meters behind yelled into his radio. “The thief has left the building through a window. He should be on the meadow, west of the main entrance.”

“Base copied,” a voice said. “We will send a team immediately.”

Another security team instantly raced out the front entrance to the described area. When they were halfway there they heard two gunshots and in response immediately drew their own weapons.

“Shots fired, shots fired,” the second man in the team yelled into the radio.

When they finally came around the corner, they saw someone lying in the grass.

“Man down, man down. Send an ambulance,” the guard yelled into his radio again.

The first guard continued on around the next corner, while the second one approached the body. It was the teenage boy, lying there unconscious, blood soaking his jacket and his jeans.

“They are gone.” The second guard now also approached the boy as well, holstering his weapon.

“Hold on, boy, hold on. Help is on the way.” The guard had taken the boys hand, pressing it firmly.

Only two minutes later, the ambulance arrived on scene, with three men jumping out of it immediately. The guards made a few steps back.

“Multiple gunshot wounds,” the medic commented. “One in the leg, one in the lower back.” He then started touching and tweaking the boy before continuing, “Patient is alive but unconscious. We need to get him to a hospital ASAP. Jimmy, get the spine board; Paul, see if you can get us a helicopter.”

The other two ran off while the first one started carefully cutting through the boy’s jacket. He had just started giving him fluids intravenously when Jimmy returned with the spine board.

“The bird can be here in 15 minutes at best,” Paul yelled from the car.

“Too long, by that time we can have him at Luton General ourselves,” the first one replied.

He and his colleague carefully moved the boy onto the board and carried him into the ambulance.

“We are heading for Luton General,” he then said to one of the guards. “Please inform the boy’s parents.”

He then jumped in, closed the door and signaled the driver to go. Then they started supplying the boy with oxygen and giving him medication.

“He is coming around,” the second man in the ambulance said.

The boy reached for him and pulled him down to his face.

“Guardian…,” he said with a very weak and shaky voice.

“Yes, your parents have already been informed. They will be with you at the hospital,” the medic replied, smiling at the boy. “Hold on, we are almost there.”

“No.” The boy weakly shook his head and pushed the oxygen mask aside. “Not parents… Guardian….” He coughed and closed his eyes in pain, tears running out of them. “Guardian…,” he then continued with an even weaker voice. “IT College… Lucas… Trent… Darien… Stance… Call them… Please…” With that, he faded out again.

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Book Spotlight: Rast by Christopher Hoare

Title: Rast
Author: Christopher J. Hoare
Publisher: MuseItUp Publishing
Publication Date: March 2011
Paperback: 269 pages
ISBN: 978-1-926931-43-2
Genre: High fantasy

In Rast, magic is not a convenient parlour trick, it’s a deadly force that takes no prisoners. Those who must wield it are doomed, for it never ceases to work within the mind and nerves until it destroys its master.

And now, the time of the interregnum is here; the reigning sorcerer king, the Drogar of Rast, is struggling for a last grasp on magic power while his heir, Prince Egon, must take up the deadly mantle. Egon is fearful but courageous in his duty. Not one peril threatens Rast, but many. 

While he struggles to tame the magic to his command the mechanistic Offrang adventurers arrive to seize the land for their empire. The Offrangs don’t just disbelieve in magic, they treat any attempt to discuss it with withering scorn. Then, when the Drogar falters, the North Folk sweep out in their multitudes to cover the land of Rast at the behest of their depraved Casket of Scrolls. Deepning too, a creature of earth magic in its mountain pools, stirs to gain power enough to conquer Rast.

The Prince’s sweetheart Jady does her best to support him, but she is not strong enough in the power of the lineage to bear him a magic wielding heir. She sets out to meet the caravansi of the cousin princess who is sent to be his consort with duty and anger both warring in her mind. The crisis will reveal surprising enemies, surprising friends, and as the Drogar tells Jady, “Even a Drogar may not see a future not yet determined.” While Egon goes west to spy on the Offrangs and Jady makes her way east, the oracle provided by the Pythian that lives in a cavern beneath the palace reveals, “You have no high point to see the scattered threads but must trust to those who grasp them.”

Everyone, enemy and friend, has a part to play in the preservation of Rast.

Book Excerpt:

Chapter Two
Jady pulled firmly on the reins, the tall pickaback reared to his full height and planted his aft-most claws tight into the root-born path. His long body flexed beneath her as three of his six legs pawed at the air. When his middle claws again touched the musty smelling moss she leaned forward to whisper words of an ancient language into his feather covered ears.

Pellad, Cerefrus. Dosar––let me dismount.”

The obedient animal bowed low his head to let the mail-clad maiden slip from the saddle to the forest floor.

She stood a moment, tall and slender in the shadowy forest, watching the flicking movements of her mount’s ears—noticing each glance of golden eyes into the overhanging branches. No single sound or sight held more than a momentary notice––then they were alone. The only other occupants of the small clearing lived in her memory.

Their mound occupied the center. The scavenger-chewed bones of a thousand Krachins decorated its surface, and at the summit sagged the bloodstained talisman of the Soulingas, the family of the first Soule. It hung tattered from its staff, waiting for an eldest son to reclaim and restore it to glory. An eldest son who may never be.

“I cannot help it, father,” she sobbed, falling to her knees before the tomb.

In her mind, he looked down at her and smiled. “I would not ask you to forsake the man you love…but your dreams are sterile.”

“I would receive him in shame––if that were the only way.”

“That can never be. You know he could not––and you deceive yourself if you think you would.”

“But Rast…without the Soulingas––?”

“Your brothers and I are patient with you, but––”

“I could never love another!”

“Have you given any other the leave to win you?”

She knelt silently for many minutes. “Am I making it hard for him?” she said, at length.

“You both know his duty.”

“And yet his father has never spoken harshly to me. Surely if the Drogar saw the error of it he would have ended my hopes.”

“Even the dead cannot see into the mind of a Drogar.”

She breathed in sharply. The thought of her Prince becoming a Drogar in his turn was frightening. Would his gentle glances become veils of ice-hard magic? Not Egon––surely not Egon!

“Do you know why the Drogar sends you at this time?”

“This time? What do you mean?”

“Your Grandfather, my father, saw omens in it.”

“He didn’t speak to me of what he saw.”

“A commission to Deepning is never given lightly.”

She opened her eyes wide to take in the evidence of the tomb. “Three times have I come. Five times if I count the journeys with you and my brothers.”

“But this time the Drogar’s words are stronger, his intent more given in detail.”

“I know not why.”

“Go, Daughter, be about your mission. We cold bones will delay you no longer, but we will ever hold your life to our charge. We will never take rest until you and a husband kneel here—until the son you shall make together can be prepared to take up our talisman.”

Without another word or backward glance she stood and walked to Cerefrus. He bent to allow her to mount. Continuing along the forest paths she rode until she could see the dark overhanging rocks of a mountain through the branches.

Here she dismounted again and set the pickaback loose in a forage dell until her return. She settled the bow of sinew, horn, and wood across her shoulders, tightened the coil of long dark hair beneath her leather helm and glided forward beneath the tangling branches into paths no mounted warrior could follow. Testing again the Vales of Deepning Pools she trembled slightly, shivered within her taught nerves. She stifled her misgivings and set out upon the mission.

The Drogar spoke of some future sons of Soule. Did he mean the words in truth, or were they mere bolsters for her courage?

She walked watchfully; stepped softly. No gentle forest animals stirred, no bird flew. The trees grew tall and twisted as if they had wrestled, each with the other, for every scrap of sunlight falling dappled into the forest. Jady knew the secrets of each. She smelled resin weeping from wounded bark, wooden tears seeping from the trunks where tree had flailed against tree in wind-borne combat. She knew the smells of every forest dweller, and feeling her soft leather boots sink to their moss covered roots, caressed them in her walking.

The Deepning Pools lay above her, in a hanging valley upon the edge of the mountain.

She bent her footsteps up through the slanting trees and followed a path made by the many feet of the only animals strong and fierce enough to live near the magic Vale—the sharptoothed Krarks. Broken branches told of the rough passages they forced with their segmented bodies. Here and there, a fallen tree lay torn in two by mighty claws. Jady reached to touch the crystal-tipped arrows at her waist, and plunged on up the path.

She walked more quickly for about a league. When she felt the magic singing—the distant hints of dangerous melody ringing in her ears—she stopped to take the gossamer net from her pack. Woven by a wraith of midnight sorcery, the heirloom was handed down from distant ancestors. It had shielded generations of warriors from the spells. Fierce, dark-haired men with arms like the roots of trees. Men who let fly the crystal tipped arrows from tempered bows of horn and wood. Brothers, fathers, uncles and grandfathers, descended in unbroken line until at last, the only watcher of the forest was this high-breasted maid—the last of the Soulingas. She carefully draped the shimmering silver over her head and wrapped its folds about her. Safe within the wispy filament from the sirens’ temptation, she stepped gently on, spells buzzing futilely against the gossamer shield as angry bees against the keeper’s net.

Few but the Soulingas could venture into the Vale of Deepning Pools. Even Drogar magic rarely clashed with the fey enchantry—except at a few intervals in the circle of time, force was blocked by force. Prince Egon knew where the Pools lay, but had never glimpsed their glowing, living liquid. Only the Krachins were drawn to the fetid swamps by their lust for sour smelling vapours. The Guardian of the Forest must mark their comings and goings, and when the moment was right thwart their fell intention. Thwart also the evil purpose of the Pool creature, whatever strange reality it might possess––and prevent it gaining living sacrifice.

Only flying crystal point could secure payment and account in such magical commerce.

About Christopher Hoare

Christopher Hoare lives with his wife, Shirley, and two shelter dogs, Coco and Emmie, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. As a lad he lived, breathed, and dreamed aeroplanes, won a place at RAE Farnborough learning to engineer them, but found the reality didn’t fit the dream. Did a stint in the army and then away to Libya to join the oil circus. Flying objects only appear as tools when they now appear in his writing.

His stories never take place next door to the lives most people live; the less charitable find similarity in characters who tend to be stubborn, independent, and contrarian. Perhaps there’s a connection between the worlds he portrays in fiction, and his working life in oil exploration in the Libyan Desert, the Canadian Arctic, and the mountains and forests of Western Canada.

He has written stories set in Anglo-Saxon Britain, in modern industrial projects, in the alternate world of Gaia, and the fantasy world of Rast. Sometimes known to satirize jobs and organizations he knows. Likes to write central characters who are smart, beautiful, and dangerous women who lead their male counterparts to fulfill dangerous duties they’d rather avoid. Gisel Matah in the Iskander series is perhaps the most Bond-like of these, but Jady in Rast can match her in many aspects.

Visit his website at http://www.christopherhoare.ca/ to learn much more, and download the free novella “Gisel Matah and the Slave Ship”. You can find his blog at http://trailowner.blogspot.com/

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