Saturday, August 27, 2011

Andrew Discovers the Terrible Price of Defeat: Freedom's Sword


The morning dawned with a muggy heaviness. Sweat gathered under the iron bracelets on Andrew's wrists, stinging in the open sores they'd rubbed. A length of chain no more than two feet in length ran between the irons on his ankles. His hair, dank and matted, hung in his eyes. At full daylight, with fifty other prisoners, he was herded towards the rutted dirt road by a handful of mounted men-at-arms. His hands got clammy and cold as he wondered where they were being taken through the shadowy pinewoods. He pictured the piles of bodies after the battle and someone dragging Brian by the feet leaving a crimson track in the dirt. His stomach turned and he gagged.

This was the first time he and his father had been moved since they were taken prisoner. His father... the earls of Atholl and Buchan... and two hundred or so of their men... the ones who hadn't died in the fighting.

Back bruised black and stiff from the blow he'd taken, stripped of his armor, clad in a penitent's rough brown sackcloth, Andrew awaited the will of the conquering English king. Until now, the only change had been when Sir William Douglas, taken prisoner after the slaughter of the city of Berwick-upon-Tweed, had been added to their number.

A grassy hill opened before them and in the center stood Strachthro Church. Prodded by the pikes, he tramped toward the gray stone building, exchanging puzzled glances with the other men. Manacles rattling, he climbed the steps. His father stumbled over the chains on his ankles, and Andrew grabbed his arm.

Inside, a man-at-arms used the butt of his pike to jostle Andrew against the cold stone of the wall. As his father was pushed back, he gave Andrew a dazed look. His father had not been clear-headed since the blow that had split open his scalp in the battle. Blackened blood matted his streaky blond hair. None of the prisoners made a sound as they were shoved against the walls.

From outside came the sound of clanking armor and stamping, snorting horses. The doors were thrown open and a shaft of July sun made a golden carpet across the polished floor.

A huge bay destrier tossed its head as its rider, gray-haired and heavy jowled, dressed in steel armor etched with gold, rode through the doorway. Iron-shod hooves struck sparks, scoring the granite. Bareheaded, he rode. His helm with its golden coronet hung from his saddle. Hoof falls, clanging, echoed from the narrow walls and high-beamed ceiling as King Edward of England rode up the length of the church to the very altar steps, not glancing once at the prisoners lined up on the side.

Sweet Jesu... Andrew's heart pounded.

Behind the horseman strutted a fat man with a ponderous belly in shining half-armor over velvet hose and tunic. Then strode in men in armor covered with emblazoned surcoats, three dozen at least. The crests of Warrenne, Aymer de Valence, the Bishop of Durham, Percy, and Gloucester he recognized. The rest were strange to him, lesser lords and knights of England no doubt.

At the end of the tail of armored men strolled a blond man, shining armor under a sable cloak, broad shouldered and comely--Robert the Bruce, the younger, who had only months before inherited the earldom of Carrick. Though the Bruce was three years his elder, he'd been a friend once when they'd both been squires. No more. Andrew glared, but the Bruce stared down at his feet.

The bland-faced king of England pulled the warhorse up and in a half circle. It dropped a steaming plop of shit on the floor. His fleshy companion took a place, straddle-legged, at his stirrup, and the rest ranged on either side of the steps. The Bruce hung back near the doorway, frowning.

King Edward raised a hand. "Bring him in."

A chill went through Andrew at more clanking sounds from outside. Now they'd find out why they had been hustled to the church. Nearby, Sir William Douglas gave a low growl, his dark face flushed.

The first through the door was a man-at-arms, well-turned out in iron-studded leather, a sergeant perhaps. Over his shoulder ran a rope he grasped in both hands.

The rope led to a noose about King John de Balliol's neck; his shoulders slumped. Andrew dragged in a ragged breath, too horrified to move. His king. Bareheaded, King John was in a red velvet tunic and hose, but the sun shone off his cloth-of-gold tabard with the rampant lion of Scotland worked in rubies, dazzling the eye. On each side walked another guard.

King John lurched forward as the man-at-arms jerked on the rope. The shackles that bound his feet clamored. He stumbled, grasping something to his chest. One of the guards caught a shoulder and shoved him upright.

As John de Balliol, King of the Scots, shuffled into the middle of the church, the men around King Edward watched in silence. Andrew's father gave a cry, "Your grace!" No one else spoke. The man at King Edward's stirrup spat on the floor. Well to the side, Robert de Bruce looked once towards King John, his lip lifting into a sneer before he looked down once more.

King John continued his clanking way towards the mounted Edward of England. In King John's hands were the Royal Regalia of Scotland, the crown and the scepter.

The great warhorse stamped as the regally clad man stopped a stride away. King John craned his neck to stare upwards. Edward's blue glance swept the watchers before he lowered it to the man in chains before him.

King John made a choked sound and cleared his throat. "My Lord."

Edward's teeth bared in a grin. "Past time you remembered it." He glanced at his nearest companion. "Cressingham, see you to it."

The man at King Edward's stirrup stepped forward, his silver half-armor catching the light. He bowed towards King Edward before turning to the Scots king.

"John de Balliol, traitor. Miscreant." Cressinghim's rich voice was ragged with unveiled scorn. "I charge you in the name of the dread Lord Edward, King of England, of Wales and of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Guyenne and Lord Paramount of Scotland. I charge you with refusing his commands, renouncing your allegiance to your liege lord and raising arms against him in rebellion."

The man he addressed continued to stare silently upward at the English king.

"You have dealt openly with King Edward's enemies and consorted with traitors. In all things, you have failed in the submission due him. You have led astray the realm that our king, in his generosity, granted you."

At last, John de Balliol, white-faced, turned his head to gaze at Cressingham. "Granted me? A throne that was mine by right?"

Robert de Bruce coughed. His hot eyes stared at Balliol, and Andrew sucked in a breath. How much has that hatred cost?

"Continue," King Edward barked.

Cressingham took an angry step toward Balliol and thrust out a finger, jowls trembling. "You will say these words after me. Before these witnesses who were traitors with you. At your king's command."

Wildly, Andrew shoved away from the wall. With a shoulder, he rammed into the guard, hurling him out of the way. "No!" He stumbled on the shackles he'd forgotten. "You have no right." He shook off a hand grasping his arm as he stared into John de Balliol's face. "You can't!"

A shadow moved. He sensed an upswept movement, a weapon swinging. There was barely time for a dodge to the side and a half turn. The smash came on his shoulder with shattering pain and he groaned. Saw another blow coming.

He ducked under the pike's butt, but it caught his head. He was flat on the cold floor. A kick to the side of his head knocked him dizzy. Thoughts scattered and flew. They used their boots on arms, legs, stomach, and back. He curled up, arms over his head. A warm trickle ran down his face and dripped onto the stone.


Freedom's Sword is available for only $2.99 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords in eBook form and in paperback for $8.99 on Amazon.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: High on a Mountain by Tommie Lyn

High on a Mountain is a historical novel not only of Scotland but of the roots and beginnings of the Scottish American community. Millions of us in the US grew from these roots, and yet, they are too little understood and known.

First, I'll just say as someone who is incredibly picky about historicity in historical novels that Tommie Lyn did an excellent job of historical research for this novel. Set in the early 1700s just beginning just before the Jacobite uprisings, through the destruction of the Highland culture, and the flight to freedom in the US, this is an amazing story.

First in the Highlands of Scotland and in those terrible days ripped from home to be transplanted to America, she tells the story of Ailean MacLachlainn. On his father's Highland croft, he had always longed for adventure, of being a great warrior, until he got it in full measure in battle and the aftermath. Hunted by an enemy, trying to save his family, trying to survive in a hostile land, Ailean has lost everything, except his determination and his stubborn Scottish pride. Even his country is lost to him in his flight to America. There is only the ability to struggle on, for the past was gone, never to be regained. Yet, Ailean had the courage and endurance to seize his new life and claim it, even though it was a hard life, never whining.

The prose is smooth and solid and the dialogue very believable. Some might find the extensive use of Scots difficult but the author includes an extensive glossary. Anyone who wants to understand the Scottish roots of so many in the US will find this a thoroughly satisfying read. Or just read it for a good story.

I must admit I am not fond of the cover which does not well represent what a very good novel this is. Do give it a look if you enjoy historical novels either about Scotland or the early settlers in American and the real reasons so many of them came.

You can sample or buy High on a Mountain in various formats at Smashwords or for Kindle at Amazon.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Scots Wha Hae Wi Wallace Bled

On this day, 23 August 1305, Sir William Wallace was tortured to death, executed for High Treason by the English for defending his homeland from invasion.

Occasionally my novel, Freedom's Sword, is compared to the movie 'Braveheart' since William Wallace makes several appearances and it covers the Battle of Stirling Bridge. I realize this was a popular movie, but I must admit I cringe, since the ONLY accurate bit of the movie is (sort of) Sir William's execution--except that it was far more horrific than represented.

What was the truth of that execution and the many similar executions carried out against Scots who defended their homeland in the following years?

After his showcase trial in which he was not allowed to defend himself, Wallace was stripped naked. He was tied by his heels to the tail of a horse to be dragged the four miles to the Elms at Smithfield while being pelted with rotted food and shit by the watching populace.

Still alive, he was then strangled by hanging, but carefully so that it did not kill him and cut down. He was then castrated. Afterwards, his belly was slit open and his intestines were drawn out and burned before his eyes.

No one knows the exact point at which the brave freedom fighter died. In the end, he was beheaded and his body cut into four parts. His head was tarred and displayed atop London Bridge, later to be joined by the heads of other patriots executed for defending Scotland, including the Earl of Atholl.

I have visited the place of William Wallace's execution which is marked by a plaque and left flowers there. While he was not by any means the only hero of that gallant fight for Scottish freedom and independence, he was one whose importance can not be over stated. Thomas Jefferson centuries later said that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots... It was indeed fed by the blood of this Scottish patriot and martyr.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Talon of the Unnamed Goddess

Chapter One

I knelt on the hardwood floor with the other five remaining members of my seventh year aerie. We waited for Master Jiang to speak. He was a thin man, average height with long gray hair and goatee, and the piercing gaze of a deadly bird of prey. I froze when his eyes settled on me for a moment.

"You six are what remain of the one hundred and four candidates we admitted seven years ago. You have demonstrated your suitability to be considered for membership into the Raptor Clan through your hard work, adherence to our rules, and by surviving your first four Ordeals," Jiang said, pausing as if considering his next words. "One more Ordeal awaits you. The three who triumph will be allowed to continue training. The other three must leave."

I detected no hint of an apology or concern as to where the others would go. Each Ordeal purged half of the remaining students, the clan's method of extracting the best. Ninety students had failed to survive them, and eight were asked to leave because of poor performance in their studies, laziness, or failure to obey the rules. I loved my life as a student, but I hated the Ordeals.

"Your Ordeal will begin tomorrow at first light." He waved his hand to dismiss us.

I bowed and rose. My aerie exited the room in a solemn line.

As the door closed behind us, Kolek grabbed my arm. "Aisha, where will you go after you lose tomorrow?" He smirked. "You survived by luck and treachery over the years. Many made the mistake of feeling sorry for you, and you took advantage of them. I hope you're my opponent tomorrow. You'll get no sympathy from me."

My stomach twisted. I had arrived at the Raptor Clan's remote fortress, the Aerie, with vengeance as my only thought. Raiders had destroyed my life when they raided my village, killed and kidnapped my people. I was off in the forest exploring when I should have been working in the village. I returned to smoking ruins and dead bodies, the only survivor not dragged into slavery. After burying the dead, I made the week long trek through the mountains to the home of the legendary Raptor Clan, hoping to be accepted as a student, to become a skilled fighter, and to find and kill the raiders who had killed my parents and kidnapped my younger brother. If I failed tomorrow's Ordeal, I had nowhere to go, no family and no village.

"I'm not lucky enough to draw an easy opponent like you, Kolek." I refused to back down, although he was one of the better fighters. He said something under his breath as I walked away.

I had been frail when I came to the Aerie. I could not have competed against any of the others in a fair fight, so I learned to outwit them. I’ve become stronger than most women because of my rigorous training and developed excellent reflexes and balance. My speed makes me a good knife fighter. Constant training keeps my figure lithe and trim. My face is typical of the mountain people of the Camori: long and narrow with high cheekbones, dark-brown almond-shaped eyes, straight nose, full lips, and pointy chin. I love my long midnight black hair worn in a horsetail with a small blade woven into it.

* * * *

I stepped out of my room onto the portico the next morning. Students in their simple brown cotton tunics and pants crowded the edges, a zealous audience. A group of clan members, clad in black were among them. I stopped for a moment to survey the courtyard where my Ordeal would soon start, a two-acre square yard, covered with white gravel. A portico led from the yard to hundreds of rooms that abutted the massive gray walls of the fortress, their roofs forming a wide parapet. Above the walls, I could see the snow covered peaks of the Camori Mountains.

The sun shown brightly in the cloudless sky. Above the foothills the mid-summer air carried a chill. I stepped onto the gravel of the courtyard where the rough surface improved our sure-footedness. I would need that today.

Normally the area would have been swarming with activity: students exercising, stretching, and practicing fighting techniques with swords, knives, bows, or with nothing at all--using only the natural weapons of the body. Today, only my seventh-year aerie was there as I walked over to join them.

We waited without looking or speaking to each other. After a few minutes, Master Jiang strode toward us, followed by three masters. He would control the Ordeal from inside the circle. The others would judge it from the outside.

"Seventh-year students," Jiang said. "The Ordeal today is with knives. The winner is the one who draws, in our judgment, significant first blood or who forces their opponent out of the circle. You will cease fighting immediately upon my command. If a contestant dies, it will be the decision of the judges whether the death was intentional or accidental. If it is determined to have been intentional, Master Dragos will decide the student's punishment. Is this clear?"

"Yes, Master Jiang," we said in unison. Ordeals are serious contests. Real blades increased the risk. My hands shook. Only the best would move from student to Talon, from nestling to bird of prey.

"We have paired the three strongest students with the weakest. This is in keeping with the Clan's intent to select the best to become a Talon." Jiang pointed to two students to enter the circle, marked off in the gravel. The student considered the best would be paired with the fourth best, the second best with the fifth, and the third best with me. I felt no surprise when Tellac, tall and lithe, entered the circle although I would have thought Olsim, his opponent, would have been rated lower than forth.
The two opponents circled each other. Olsim seemed cautious, his motions jerky. He scored first, a scratch to Tellac's arm but received two cuts to his arm in the exchange. The contest ended a few seconds later when Tellac darted in to leave a shallow slash from Olsim's neck to his belly.

Several minutes later, as I expected, I wasn't summoned into the circle for the second contest, but my stomach knotted when Kolek wasn't called either. He was a skilled knife fighter, fast, aggressive, and sadistic. My blood pounded in my chest as he looked at me and his lip curled into a contemptuous smile.

I didn't fear being hurt. I feared being forced to leave the Aerie and having my dreams smashed. Think Aisha. Keep your wits about you. I struggled to slow my breathing. I was prepared for this Ordeal even if my preparation had been with cunning. I couldn’t help but smile and felt his glare.

Time after time, Master Jiang had told us, "Emotions kill." Kolek always got excited when he fought. He enjoyed causing pain and often lost his temper. I could use both against him, but I would need time, skill, and my wits.

I must gain control of my raging emotions. But how? I could do that by not caring, but I did care. The Aerie was my life. I forced myself to think calmly about what fueled my fears, losing the Ordeal, having to leave, or not being a Talon. I needed to blur my feelings, to stop thinking about what might be. I focused on slowing the rapid beat of my heart.

"Too scared to move, Aisha?" Kolek said, jolting me back to reality. The second contest was over. Melor had won, as expected. His opponent's blood dripped in a line on the gravel as he was carried out injured but alive. "Take a good look. That's you in a few minutes."

"I'm more worried you'll cut yourself, Kolek," I said with a chuckle. I had reached a strange place. My vision had changed, expanded. I drew my knives at Master Jiang's "ready" command and could sense Kolek's confusion at my composure.

"Begin," Jiang said and moved away from us. I looked towards Kolek but not at him. I could see more than I had ever seen before. I saw Kolek's slight coiling as he prepared to lunge and sidestepped him as he thrust at me. I made a puny thrust with my left hand. I could have cut his extended arm when I sidestepped him but held back. It would only have been a shallow cut.

"Dung face," I muttered loud enough for him to hear, hoping to enrage him. It did.

Only seconds later, he lunged at me with both knives, going for my throat. I sensed this was more an attempt to scare me than to score a winning cut. He didn't move in close enough for a killing blow. He needed me to be scared. He craved it. I parried and jabbed his arm hard enough to draw blood. He answered with a slash that left a few drops of blood running down my hand.
I held back any left-handed blows I knew wouldn't end the match. The longer we fought the stranger I felt, as if I watched from above. I saw Kolek's subtle shifts in weight and muscle tension as he prepared to slash. I heard his breathing. He muttered a curse. Behind me, I heard Jiang's movement as he shuffled out of our way.

Kolek dove in, scoring another nick to my right arm. His right hand dropped. I knew his anger had overcome caution as he plunged his knife in a fierce thrust toward my stomach. I twisted sideways, using my left knife to block his blade. With an upward move, I slashed across his wrist. A gush of blood splattered over my hand and onto the gravel.

I stepped back as Master Jiang shouted, "Stop."

Snarling with fury Kolek threw his knife down and grabbed his wrist. "Damn you, Aisha!" His face twisted in anger. He turned towards Jiang. "She cheated."

"You're right, Kolek. I had a sharp knife." I had won. With one stroke of my knife, I had become clan.

Master Jiang walked over to Kolek and examined his wrist. "The gash is deep but not fatal. Aisha, you, Tellac, and Melor are declared the winners of the fifth Ordeal."

The three masters left the courtyard. Jiang motioned for me to join him. "Aisha, do you know why I placed you in the last rotation?"

"Because I was the weakest."

"No, we considered you third best, Kolek, last. You have a distinct disadvantage if I consider strength or reach. You are smaller than the average woman and much smaller than the average man. But you are two steps ahead of most students. You survive because you are always thinking, 'What if?' I believe you could have defeated Tellac had I paired you with him." He cocked his head and a smile twitched his lips. "Was your left blade ever weak or did you always fake that?"

I grinned. "I faked."


Talon of the Unnamed Goddess is available on Amazon and Smashwords, only $2.99.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Review: The Hadrian Enigma, a Forbidden History by George Gardiner

In many ways, Hadrian Enigma is simply a historical “murder mystery” seen through the eyes of a most unusual PI, the historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. This novel, by the way, is rather a lengthy tome.

In 130 AD, while accompanying the Emperor Hadrian on a tour up the Nile, the beautiful youth Antinous plunges into the Nile and drowns. Hadrian, near maddened with grief, declares Antinous a god. However, Suetonius just happens to be along on this imperial tour. Already the author of juicy books on contemporary Roman life, he is perfectly placed to investigate this mysterious death, so Emperor Hadrian commands him to investigate and find the murderer within 48 hours or suffer the consequences.

In the imperial compound on the Nile, Suetonius searches for clues. Here, semi-isolated, the bubbling cauldron of the Roman court has been transplanted to a fabulous tent city. Yet, the mystery of Egypt is an ever present backdrop to this baffling death.

Perhaps the murderer is one of the other ephebes with whom Antinous shared quarters. They have reason enough for jealousy of the emperor's beloved eromenos. But there are plenty of other possible suspects and witnesses in the royal court: the Empress Sabina, Hadrian's flamboyant heir-apparent Lucius, and a whole coterie of scheming courtiers, not to mention the creepy Egyptian high priest.

Why was Antinous clad in heavy ceremonial parade armor and weapons when he died? How did he come by a slit on his left wrist and strange marks on his throat? And how can Suetonius unravel all this when the Emperor refuses to let Suetonius even touch the body to examine it?

The characterization is vivid and the historicity meticulous in this novel. I enjoyed savoring the characters and setting as Suetonius unraveled the imperial goings on. Some might find themselves impatient with the sprinkling of Greek and Latin throughout the novel. I thought it added to the impact and feeling of being there, but I suspect not everyone would enjoy the necessity to look some of it up. There were also moments when the author slipped into modern jargon which was jarring.

All in all, it was an enjoyable read, but not necessarily a light or fast one in spite of being rather a page turner. The ending, which I won't go into, is satisfying and well worth the journey.

Definitely a four-star read. I recommend it to any historical fiction fan, especially any fan of the redoubtable Mary Renault. You will find The Hadrian Enigma on Amazon at $9.99 for Kindle.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tamra is warned of onrushing danger - Blood Duty

Tamra's pulse quickened when she glanced over her shoulder at Jessup, who was leaning back against the wall, unsmiling.

Someone who didn't know him so well might mistake that slouch for carelessness rather than a habit to disguise his coiled tension. Outside the inn, a coach had just pulled up, and the driver shouted for the stable boy. Bright afternoon sun poured through the window. She closed the polished oak shutters and the clamor sank to a murmur. She'd given the innkeeper orders they weren't to be bothered.

"A Faragund army?" She frowned. "After all these years of peace? It's hard to take in."

"It's there all right. And killing everyone they get near." He scowled and twitched his shoulders. "That torture stank of some kind of magic, too. Nasty."

She poured two mugs of ale from the pitcher and handed him one. The innkeeper brewed a fine dark one, so she took a slow sip. Anyway, it gave her time to think. Jessup looked a bit scruffy as always, sandy stubble covering his chin. He'd sent her a message at the keep as soon as he'd arrived. Well, of course he did. She felt the heat flush her cheeks. Their eyes locked, and she could almost feel the kiss they hadn't yet shared. It had always been like that with him.

Gods, she missed him when he was gone. But she hadn't expected him to talk war when he came back. Faragunds... She frowned. "You're sure they're marching toward Daggerfell Pass?"

He shrugged and pulled a chair from the table. He sat in it, tilting it back so it touched the wall. "No way to be sure unless I go into the camp and ask that king of theirs. And I saw what happened to the last scout they got hold of."

She sat on the edge of the table, taking another sip of the rich brew. "But?"

"But they were marching in this direction. Not fast. I'm weeks ahead, but they're moving. Burned three villages that I saw. No prisoners." His lips thinned in a grim look. "Just bodies."

She shook her head. "I don't understand that. I grew up on stories of the war. I heard about… oh, torture. Most people lost someone. My father's brother for one. It was bad, but they took prisoners. Traded prisoners… took ransom for them."

Jessup grunted. "That was then."

"I'll have to think about this. Tell my lady mother first." She bit her lip as she calculated how many guards she had and how many she'd need to hold the keep in a siege. Mostly the guards she led were for patrolling the roads, which her mother was charged with by the prince as levy for holding the keep.

"Telling her is your problem," Jessup said with a curl of his lip. "I don't curry favor with ladies and lordlings."

She gave a quick laugh. "You're more likely to insult them. No. I'll take care of that; you're right. But what about the prince? He needs to know."

Jessup set down his empty mug and let the front legs of the chair thump on the floor. "I came to tell you, not the prince. But all right. I'll report to the palace in Madrian. I'll be back afterwards. Shouldn't take more than two days. If they want to yap about it, they can do it without me." He uncoiled from the chair.

Enough of this. Tamra couldn't think straight when all she wanted to do was kiss the blasted man, so she set her mug down. One step, and she had her hand on his chest.

"About time," he said, voice gruff. He wrapped a hand around her blond braid, bending her head back as his mouth came down on hers.

Their mouths melded, and her blood hammered in her ears. Her body melted from internal fire. He moaned softly as his mouth went to her neck, kissing and nipping. She caressed the back of his neck and took a shuddering breath. This wasn't the place or the time, but it had been too long. As she pulled out of his arms, he rubbed his finger, callous- rough from his bow, along her chin. "Was that all I came back to, Captain?"

"Did you want more?" She grinned a little. "For a scout who never says when he'll be back, you expect a lot."

"Do I?" He grinned.

"Egotistical man." She ran her eyes over him hungrily. "Don't you ever shave?"

"I may—when I get back. And we'll talk. That fealty of yours..."

She kissed him quick and hard to shut him up. "Not now. But hurry back." She strolled out to lean against the wall of the whitewashed tavern as Jessup rode away.

His description of what he had seen on the other side of the mountains had her sufficiently distracted that she barely nodded at the stable boy as she tossed him a coin and mounted. Her horse cantered towards Wayfare Keep and its own stable with a bare twitch of the reins. Tamra looked across the valley with its mixed stands of pine and aspen, past the knot of lime-washed cottages with wood shingle roofs and the patchwork gardens and open fields where goats grazed. Above them on a stark crag rose the massive structure of gray stone keep. The trade road from the nearby mines to Madrian passed under its shadow.

A peasant in brown homespun stopped his goats beside the road. "Fine morning, Cap'n Tamra," he said as she passed.

She nodded and managed a smile. Tales of burned villages and soldiers trampled under the hooves of cavalry charges ran through her mind. She shuddered and shook off her imaginings. Reality was enough to deal with.

In the keep bailey, a bustling wagon train was delivering goods. Mule drivers shouted, and the smell of damp wool and leather mingled with that of animal dung underfoot. Tamra scanned and saw her older brother, Garris, neatly built with brown hair so dark it was almost black, across the bailey yard with his head bent as he talked to the merchant. Sharniz, the white-haired and wizened wagon-train master, was probably doing his best to diddle a few more coins for the goods out of Garris.

Tamra stepped close to one of the guards at the gate, a sturdy girl only recently recruited from one of the nearby farms, eager to escape marriage and farm drudgery. "Go find Farren for me. Tell him to attend me here straight away." As the girl dashed away, Tamra pushed her way through the jumble of workers unloading the wagons. She nodded to the merchant with a smile.

"Think you can beat him out of a few extra coins, Master Sharniz?"

The old man grunted and scowled. "That doesn't happen, Captain. He's a hard man, he is. Takes after his lady mother."

Tamra could happily disagree that her brother was hard, but that was hardly a subject for a merchant's ears.

Garris scraped a hand through his hair, pushing it off his forehead. "I think we're through . I'll have your payment for you shortly."

Tamra grabbed Garris's elbow. "I need to talk to you—now," she said, keeping her voice low enough so that no one else could hear her over the clatter around them.

He gave her a puzzled half-smile. "Something wrong?"

She pointed with her chin towards the steps that led into the keep and led him in that direction until they were away from the crowd. "I just got some…" She frowned. "…some alarming news from Jessup. He was past the mountains. He says the Faragund army is on the move."

Garris gaped at her for a moment, speechless. "By the Light! On the move to where?" He blinked. "That's a stupid question. He couldn't know that. Did he have a guess though?"

"This direction, he says. It doesn't make much sense to me, any of it. He said they're killing prisoners—torturing them. I don't know what to think."

"But you trust his word on it."

"You know I do."

He crossed his arms over his chest and studied the stone steps where they stood as though they might tell him something. Finally, he sighed. "Mother has to know about this."

"It'll come better from you."

"But you're the one Jessup told."

Tamra met his eyes. "Since when did she listen to what I tell her?"

Garris looked as though he'd rather deny it but couldn't. He made an unhappy sound in his throat. "You're right. I'll tell her."

She put a hand on his arm. "Thanks, Garris. I knew I could count on you."

Garris shook his head. "Wish I knew what to think. Perhaps I should be glad that Lizza is gone."

She gave his arm a squeeze. He'd been like a lost puppy ever since his wife of a year had left to visit her family in the city of Rishard on the far side of the imperial capitol. "She's well away from any fighting, Garris. There's no way they'll ever get that far."

He nodded unhappily. Seeing her lieutenant wending his way through the drovers towards them, Tamra said, "I'll go over the list of our weapon stores with Farren. I want to make sure we're ready if it comes to a siege."


Blood Duty is available on Amazon for Kindle and Smashwords in various formats for only $2.99.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Blood Duty - Chapter One

A scream echoed through the valley. Jessup stood in the copse of trees, barely breathing as he watched the camp of the Faragund army below teeming with movement. He pressed back against a tree. In the dense shadows of the forest, he would be impossible to spot. The scene down showed him what a bad idea being captured would be.

The wind brought the sound of the mages chanting. One of the scouts from Ilkasar hanged, bound by his hands from a tall stake, feet dangling a hand span above the ground. The muscles of Jessup's jaw knotted, but saving the man in the middle of an army that stretched nearly to the horizon wasn't a possibility.

Jessup felt fairly sure it was the Faragund king who stood before the prisoner. Five mages, covered from head to foot in flowing black robes, stood in a semi-circle near the king. The king was of no great height, but massively muscled with a vast chest and arms. His biceps bulged from his gold brocade vest which caught the bright sunlight. He wore no armor, but a gold scimitar hung from his belt. The man's blond hair flowed below his shoulders in a mass of braids. On each side of his face, scars ran from mouth to hairline. A long blond mustache drooped from corners of his mouth.

He raised a long ceremonial dagger and plunged it into the scout's arm. The man screamed. Blood gushed, and one of the mages rushed forward to catch the liquid in a bowl that glinted golden in the sunlight. For the entire day Jessup had watched the scout being bled. The ground below him was black with it. At first they had simply let the blood drip into the dirt while the prisoner had refused to scream. Now his head drooped, and he hardly seemed alive. With each slash, they poured blood onto the nearby stone altar.

Jessup stared past the camp into the thick oak forest to the east where giant trees reached toward the sky and a gentle dark settled between the columns of their trunks. He sucked in a deep breath to slow the pounding of his heart. He had seen horrors, from the day his own people had been slaughtered, but watching this twisted his guts.

Jessup forced his eyes back to the Faragund camp. The altar he recognized as one to the God Kanandra, but he wasn't sure what magic they were powering with their magic. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Khyle would want word of their movements, though. From the number of bodies decorating the camp, Jessup doubted that any of Khyle's scouts had escaped. The emperor's spymaster would be frantic for news. He had told Jessup that he feared the Faragund had gained enough power to attack the Ilkasar Empire again.

It had been twenty years since their last attack had failed, and the Faragund army was wiped out by the Ilkasar's Sharenta mages and the Ilkasar Imperial Army. The hatred between the Faragund god, Kanandra, and his twin, the Goddess Urthus, whom the Ilkasar worshipped, mirrored the hatred between their followers. Stories still circulated about the fierceness of the fighting. There were few families who hadn't lost someone to the Faragund.

One of the mages turned to the king and seemed to speak. The sound of the chanting changed, becoming softer but more insistent. Jessup shuddered. He had no magic but even he could feel the surge of power as the chants grew demanding. He sucked in his breath as the king plunged the dagger to the hilt into the scout's chest. Jessup gritted his teeth.

The mages' chanting again changed, growing faster and faster. Smoke swirled around the altar. The king ripped into the dead scout's chest with the dagger and jerked and sawed before pulling out the dripping heart. Jessup thought he removed other parts, but the king blocked his view of what was happening. The king turned to a smoking cauldron and raised both arms over his head. Blood ran in rivulets down his arms as the mages chanted on and on, getting louder with every heartbeat.

A roar from the smoke ripped the air. The chanting stopped. Smoke from the altar drifted on the breeze.

The king stood, motionless, watching the altar. He turned and struck one of the mages across the face, knocking the man to the ground. The conjuration, whatever it was supposed to do, hadn't made the king happy.

Jessup backed up a pace and slipped through the deep shadows under the copse's tall spruce trees. Time to put some space between him and this camp. His dun was tied just inside the edge of the woods on the other side of the slope. As he jerked the reins loose from the branch where they were looped, he heard a snap behind him.

He whirled, drawing his sword to find himself looking into the face of a Faragund warrior, the tip of the man's scimitar swinging toward him. Jessup met it with his own in a clash of metal. Their blades caught fast. Jessup leaned in with all his strength. The Faragund spat in his face. Jessup smiled. The warrior twisted his blade down Jessup's, leaving a line of blood dripping down his arm. They broke apart and moved in a circle, blades low and ready. The warrior brought his scimitar up to slice downward; in less than a breath Jessup dodged to the side, bringing a sweeping backhand cut to hack through the man's neck. Blood gushed as the warrior fell.

Jessup leapt onto his horse and jabbed his heels to its flanks. Taking word of this to Khyle would repay an old debt. But the Faragund army was a long march from Ilkasar. He had plenty of time to get there and something more important to take care of first—


Saturday 6 July through Monday 8 July, I am offering review copies of Blood Duty FREE for download from Smashwords. You will find Blood Duty here in most formats and use Coupon # PB77C at the checkout screen.