Tuesday, July 23, 2024

DARK HOURS, a Fantasy Romance by Linda Mooney - Chapter 7

Posted by: Linda Mooney

DARK HOURS

Chapter 7 

            Kayge glanced up at the cloudless sky. It was turning out to be a beautiful day despite recent circumstances. A beautiful day to cap a beautiful morning, which will end with a beautiful night.

            Emers tightened her grip around his waist before laying her cheek against his back. Reaching down, he gave her hands a squeeze. She hugged him in reply.

            “How much farther, do you think?” She didn’t have to explain what she meant by her remark. He knew exactly what she was referring to.

            “If this fair weather continues, by tonight.”

            She answered him with another squeeze.

            That moment had been long in coming. Heaven knew how many times they’d been tempted to let their carnal desires override their common sense and morals. Fortunately, by the grace of the Lord, they’d managed to abstain before it went too far. Now they were glad they had held back. It made the promise of tonight that much sweeter with anticipation.

            Once they were far from Noranye, they had stopped near a small stream to let the horses drink and have a moment to rest before continuing on their way. During their brief respite, Kayge removed his armor and tied it to the saddle of Emers’s horse, keeping just his sword and dagger on him. Since only the king’s royal guards were known to wear armor, he knew he’d draw attention to themselves from passersby and townsfolk if he kept it on.

            After draping a horse blanket over the armor, he’d had Emers climb into his saddle with him. “This way I can have you close to me,” he’d stated.

            They took their time, careful not to push the animals too hard despite the fact that they both knew their disappearances would soon draw the attention and the ire of Gola and her heathen horde. And once it was discovered they were no longer in Noranye—

            “Tis past noonday,” Emers remarked, drawing his focus back to the present. “I am hungry.”

            He eyed their surroundings. “We are coming up to forestland. There could be fruits and nuts we could gather.”

            “Or a rabbit or squirrel we could quickly roast over a fire,” Emers countered.

            He nodded. “Your suggestion is better. A rabbit or squirrel would keep our bellies from tightening too much before we reach the inn.” He pointed ahead. “We will stop once we reach the safety of the trees.” He didn’t explain what he meant. She would know. Once they were within the sheltering confines of the forest, they would be safe from immediate discovery by vagrants, thieves, and other miscreants using the road to travel between the villages and towns.

            It would also afford them a little privacy if they chose to steal a few kisses.

            He found the perfect spot nestled within a grove of trees. Sliding off his stallion, Kayge reached up to help Emers down. He eyed the gown she wore. It was a beautiful yet simple dress and outlined every curve of her body. But it wasn’t suitable for travel on the back of a horse. A carriage or wagon, yes. But not on a horse.

            “You need to change your attire,” he remarked.

            Emers gave him a challenging look. “It is already rumpled and stained from our journey. What difference will it make if I keep it on until we arrive at the inn?”

            “Even stained and rumpled as you claim it is, one look will let others know it is beautiful and costly, for one thing,” he countered. “The closer we get to Lisstanbor, the more people we will encounter.” He indicated the other horse. “I divested myself of my armor so strangers would not be aware of me being a Centurion. You need to change to the other clothing you brought—”

            “So they will not suspect I am a lady of stature and wealth? Is that it?”

            “That is correct.” He expected her to balk. To his surprise, she acquiesced.

            “It would be a wise move. It would make someone less likely to consider robbing us.”

            Kayge smiled. Sometimes he misjudged her wisdom and intelligence. He made a mental note to refrain from doing so again.

            “I will go in search of something we can cook,” he informed her. “Can you start a fire while I am away?”

            “I will as soon as I change my attire.”

            “I will not venture far. Call out if you should need me.”

            She waved a hand to let him know she’d heard him as she went to retrieve a less fine gown from her satchel she’d tied to the saddle on her horse.

            It didn’t take him long to find to find the narrow, tell-tale trails left by rabbits when they ventured out of their burrow in search of food. He briefly debated with himself whether or not to set a trap, but decided to wait it out instead. Knowing his sword was too bulky, he left it behind and drew his knife.

Luck was with him. Presently, a nice fat hare loped into view. A quick flick of his wrist, and the animal was pinned to the ground. Kayge snatched up the rabbit and his blade and was about to hurry back to the clearing when a second, smaller rabbit appeared. It, too, fell victim to his deadly aim. Feeling triumphant, Kayge returned to discover Emers had constructed a shallow firepit where a small fire was already going. She glanced up at the approaching sound of his heavy boots. He immediately recognized the faded dress she wore. It was the same one she’d been wearing the very first time he’d laid eyes on her. Although it was well-worn, she still managed to look regal in it.

“Oh, good! That did not take you long.”

“They were waiting to jump into my hands,” he joked.

“Want me to skin them?” she offered.

Kayge stared at her in astonishment. “You know how to skin a rabbit?”

Emers pretended to be insulted. “You forget I spent several years at the nunnery. We did not spend all our spare time doing needlecraft. Everyone there learned how to tend to and prepare what was grown in the gardens, as well as dress and cook whatever game was captured or brought to us. I can also tan that pelt and sew it to make a cloak.” She held out her hands in a mute request for him to turn the rabbit and his knife over to her. He did so with a smile. “Now, while I skin and gut these, you can fetch more firewood. Oh, and if you find one, a nice long branch to skewer these.”

Laughing, Kayge grabbed her by the shoulders before she had the chance to walk away. The kiss he placed on her lips was too brief, but it was as sweet as the one they’d shared when they’d sealed their vows in front of Father Matthias. Before she had the chance to say anything more, he turned on his heel and went to retrieve his sword as he searched for more dead wood.

By the time he returned with an armload and a short branch he’d stripped of leaves to make a skewer, Emers had the rabbits ready for the fire. She snickered when he presented the skewer to her.

“Yes, I know it lacks length, but it is sturdy,” he assured her.

“Let us hope that stick is the only thing that lacks length,” she quipped, earning a hearty laugh from him. He was tempted to grab her and plant another kiss on those rose-colored lips.

As he fed the fire, she got the larger rabbit secured to place over it. “When this one is done, I can place this other one over the flames to cook while we feed. By the time we are finished eating, this one should be cooked, and we can take it along with us.”  

            A chilling breeze washed over them. Emers shuddered as she washed the blood from her hands with the water pouch.

            “Come sit by the fire,” Kayge said as she dried them on her skirt. He patted the ground beside him. Emers joined him, and he slid an arm around her shoulders to share his body warmth. They remained that way, facing the fire and watching the rabbit as it roasted, while occasionally rotating the stick to cook it evenly.

            “Do you think she is aware we are gone?” she whispered.

            Kayge grunted. He’d known that they would eventually have to discuss the reason why they’d fled the only home they’d known. Namely, Gola. “Most certainly,” he admitted. “That witch’s rage must be fearsome to behold by now.”

            “Do you think she has sent her soldiers to find us?”

            “Of that I have no doubt.”

            “What do you think will happen if they manage to catch up with us?”

            Kayge looked down to find her staring at him, her eyes wide with fear. “If they do, you have nothing to be afraid of. She is not after you. She is after me.”

            He was tempted to venture toward another kiss to allay her anxiety when she reached inside her waistband and removed a small bundle. Getting up from where she sat, she turned to face him and dropped to her knees.

            “I had planned on giving this to you when we got to Lisstanbor, but I cannot wait any longer.” She cast him a small smile and held out the bundle. “Take it, my husband. My husband.” She repeated the last two words as if savoring them. Affirming them. The smile turned shy. “This is my wedding gift to you. You know I have no dowry. I have nothing other than myself to give you, but Father Mathias was generous and offered this to me to give to you.” Her words came fast and soft, stumbling and hesitant. “He blessed it. I hope you like it, as I have not seen you wearing one.”

            Curious, Kayge plucked the small bundle from her palm. It was wrapped in a piece of fabric and tied with twine. Undoing it, he slowly lifted back the linen until he saw the fine silver links glitter in the sunlight. Removing the last layer of fabric revealed the simple yet exquisite silver cross. The crucifix was no larger than his thumb, and the small embodiment of Christ was detailed to the point of almost appearing lifelike. Kayge stared at the necklace in awe.

            “Emers, this is…”

            She didn’t wait for him to finish. Taking it from his hand, she lifted it over his head, lowering it to where the cross rested against his chest. This time he didn’t hesitate to pull her into his embrace to kiss her long and hard.

            It would have lasted longer, and possibly led to a more serious pursuit, but a loud pop reminded them of their meal hanging over the fire. Kayge released her and went to check on the rabbit, hoping it hadn’t burned. Fortunately, he saved it in time. Chuckling, he turned to let Emers know their feast hadn’t been ruined when he was stopped with a jerk. Something dug into the back of his neck, preventing him from lifting his head, and he realized his necklace had gotten caught by the end of the stick they were using as a skewer. Luckily, the sudden stop didn’t break the chain.

            “Kayge?”

            “All is well,” he quickly assured her. “This gift is too precious to me. Forgive me, but I am going to put this someplace where it will be safe.”

            He considered tucking it inside his shirt. On second thought, he removed it and placed it inside the pocket of his breeches.

            “I believe this hare is done.” Lifting the roasted animal to his face, he sniffed it and smiled, then held it out to her. “Tell me you agree.”

            Emers smiled up at him and reached for the stick when sheer terror turned her face into a silent scream. Kayge whirled around as a dark, silent shape descended upon them. He reacted instinctively and used the skewer like a short sword, thrusting it in front of him. It was ripped from his grasp. At the same time, a leathery wing slammed into him, knocking him several meters away.

            Kayge hit the ground and rolled, leaping to his feet in time to see an enormous dragon looming over Emers. As she cowered, it opened its mouth as if to regurgitate a ball of flame, its black wings nearly filling the sky.

            He searched for his sword, but it wasn’t where he’d left it. Emers screamed as she crouched, unable to flee. Weaponless, Kayge charged at the creature, yelling and waving his arms above his head, hoping he could startle the creature. Instead, it turned to face him. Kayge shouted a warning to Emers a split-second before the dragon pounded the ground with its wings, one of them landing directly where she lay.

            The screaming abruptly stopped. The dragon stepped toward Kayge, and he caught sight of the still form left behind. Cold fear froze his heart at the realization that Emers could be dead when something glittered on the other side of the firepit.

            He sprinted around the dragon, hoping to lure it away from Emers as he raced to grab his sword. The thing roared in anger or frustration and lunged for him. Throwing himself on the ground, he rolled, snatching his sword before leaping back to his feet.

            The dragon launched itself at him, wings up. Its neck stretched out as it opened its maw, teeth gleaming, and Kayge saw the ball of flames forming in the back of its throat.

            He swung at its head. The sharp blade struck the neck, but the hard scales deflected the blow. Adjusting his grip, he tried again when both wings came down together and almost crushed him.

            Dizzy, Kayge fell to his knees, his arms still extended, his sword held with both hands. The creature closed its jaws around the weapon and jerked it from his grasp. Kayge was aware of the sword flying away from him but couldn’t see where it landed.

            The beast must have realized Kayge was no longer a threat, and it turned back in Emers’ direction. Seeing it begin to move toward her, Kayge bellowed for it to stop, but it paid no attention. Its focus was now on Emers.

            Staggering to his feet, Kayge tried to run to her, to throw himself on top of her to protect her, hoping to prevent the creature from either eating her or flying away with her, or whatever else the damned beast intended. He’d almost reached her when the dragon bowed its head and rammed its snout into Kayge’s side. Kayge fell hard onto the ground, narrowly avoiding landing in the fire. Sharp teeth closed around his right leg, and he was flung almost to the edge of the tree line.

            The dragon roared again, and Kayge would swear he heard it cackling. Cackling in a voice he thought he recognized. Cackling like that hell bound witch.

            He tried to get back to his feet but his body wouldn’t obey. Struggling to breathe, he was barely aware of the creature advancing toward him. It was at that moment when he knew Gola hadn’t sent a battalion of her soldiers to hunt down him and Emers. She’d sent this creature. This monstrosity that was opening its maw, eyes glowing like the fires of Hell as it descended on him.

            Kayge barely had time to throw his arms up in a feeble attempt to ward off the beast when the cavernous mouth came down on him, its teeth clamping around him and trapping him inside like a cage of flesh and bone.

            Lifting its head, it stretched out its neck, and with one hard gulp, Kayge was swallowed whole.

 

TO BE CONTINUED 

Monday, July 22, 2024

HERE BE NEWS for Monday July 22, 2024

Posted by: PG Forte

 

 




 Monday July 22, 2024 

Welcome to HERE BE NEWS, where each monday we bring you all the latest from the fantasy romance authors at Here Be Magic:



Thursday July 18, 2024: PG Forte discusses recurrent themes in her work in her post Stop Me If You've Heard This...

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Stop Me if You've Heard This...

Posted by: PG Forte

 So I've been working on several books at once (which is not my preferred mode of working, btw) and I've noticed something interesting about my writing that hadn't occurred to me before.  There are some oddly recurring themes that I don't think I'd ever have noticed if I wasn't re-editing a twenty year old book, writing a brand new book, and re-reading a ten year old book (in anticipation of writing a sequel novella) all at the same time.

But I was doing all that stuff and...wow. Two of the three books are set in wineries and have a main character who's involved with a cop/sheriff's deputy (and a somewhat dicey past).  All three books are set in California--but that doesn't count, since most of my books are. Two of the three books have a heroine with a troubled-teen backstory. All three books have loads of family drama, and multiple scenes involving food and community--which, again is not a surprise being totally on brand. Only one has paranormal elements, however--and that was a surprise...although the planned sequel does, as well, so maybe that counts?

Anyway, it was eye-opening. And extremely interesting (for me, anyway). I don't know exactly what it means--although I'm sure it means something--and I don't know that I'll change anything about the stories I write going forward. But I'll definitely be on the look out for more recurrent themes in my work.







Touch of a Vanished Hand

Oberon Book 5.0
https://books2read.com/TouchHand

 Sinead Quinn has always been something of a drifter.   But now, with her ex-husband trying to blackmail her, and her ex-boyfriend's widow trying to put her in jail, she has no choice but to go to ground.  What better place to hide than with your family?   After all, what are sisters for?  Especially when you're a twin.

 

But the first rule of hiding out, is to keep a low profile.  And that does not mean kissing your sister's boyfriend (even if he can't tell the two of you apart); rescuing a troubled teen; or taking a highly visible job as hostess of Oberon's most celebrated new inn.

 

 Adam Sasso has always dreamed big.  But big dreams beget big complications.  First, his goal to turn the vineyard he inherited from his grandfather into a world-class winery is threatened by a mysterious saboteur.  Next, his plan to run the finest bed & breakfast Oberon has ever seen, is broadsided by a hostess who wants to run him.  Finally, it seems his fondest wish, of finding love-everlasting with the soul mate of his dreams, is about to go up in smoke when he can't convince her that they're destined to be together.

 

 This summer, it's going to take all the wizardry in Oberon to craft a happy ending for the drifter and the dreamer.


Monday, July 15, 2024

HERE BE NEWS for Monday July 15, 2024

Posted by: PG Forte

 

 




 Monday July 15, 2024 

Welcome to HERE BE NEWS, where each monday we bring you all the latest from the fantasy romance authors at Here Be Magic:







Touch of a Vanished Hand

Oberon Book 5.0

PG Forte

Paranormal Romantic Suspense

 Sinead Quinn has always been something of a drifter.   But now, with her ex-husband trying to blackmail her, and her ex-boyfriend's widow trying to put her in jail, she has no choice but to go to ground.  What better place to hide than with your family?   After all, what are sisters for?  Especially when you're a twin.

 

But the first rule of hiding out, is to keep a low profile.  And that does not mean kissing your sister's boyfriend (even if he can't tell the two of you apart); rescuing a troubled teen; or taking a highly visible job as hostess of Oberon's most celebrated new inn.

 

 Adam Sasso has always dreamed big.  But big dreams beget big complications.  First, his goal to turn the vineyard he inherited from his grandfather into a world-class winery is threatened by a mysterious saboteur.  Next, his plan to run the finest bed & breakfast Oberon has ever seen, is broadsided by a hostess who wants to run him.  Finally, it seems his fondest wish, of finding love-everlasting with the soul mate of his dreams, is about to go up in smoke when he can't convince her that they're destined to be together.

 

 This summer, it's going to take all the wizardry in Oberon to craft a happy ending for the drifter and the dreamer.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

New Release! Touch of a Vanished Hand (PNR Romantic Suspense) PG Forte

Posted by: PG Forte


Touch of a Vanished Hand

Oberon Book 5.0

PG Forte

Paranormal Romantic Suspense

 Sinead Quinn has always been something of a drifter.   But now, with her ex-husband trying to blackmail her, and her ex-boyfriend's widow trying to put her in jail, she has no choice but to go to ground.  What better place to hide than with your family?   After all, what are sisters for?  Especially when you're a twin.

 

But the first rule of hiding out, is to keep a low profile.  And that does not mean kissing your sister's boyfriend (even if he can't tell the two of you apart); rescuing a troubled teen; or taking a highly visible job as hostess of Oberon's most celebrated new inn.

 

 Adam Sasso has always dreamed big.  But big dreams beget big complications.  First, his goal to turn the vineyard he inherited from his grandfather into a world-class winery is threatened by a mysterious saboteur.  Next, his plan to run the finest bed & breakfast Oberon has ever seen, is broadsided by a hostess who wants to run him.  Finally, it seems his fondest wish, of finding love-everlasting with the soul mate of his dreams, is about to go up in smoke when he can't convince her that they're destined to be together.

 

 This summer, it's going to take all the wizardry in Oberon to craft a happy ending for the drifter and the dreamer.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Now Available as an Audiobook! PAYA, Tarraka Book 1, a Dark Sci-Fi Romance by Linda Mooney

Posted by: Linda Mooney

Now Available as an Audiobook!

PAYA
Tarraka, Book 1
Dark Sci-Fi Romance
Word Count: 67.1K
$3.99 e / $10.99 p

Narrated by
Jessica Mathison
Length: 6 hr, 25 min
Hear a Sample

Tired of sitting back while their borders are being attacked regardless of peace treaties signed, Amalt Paya decides to take it upon herself to investigate anyway, regardless of the punishment she’ll face for defying direct orders not to. Her people are dying. What she and her fellow Ree warriors soon discover is worse than she thought. Entire towns are being razed to the ground. But how? And by who? Their enemy is not who they once thought.

Ivan Mandrake, a lieutenant colonel in the United Planetary Forces, is tracking a race called the Ya that is destroying planets. Following the Ya to a planet the UPF isn’t allowed to touch, he and his group come across a legion of winged warrior females. Their orders are to not make contact with the indigenous species of the planet, but the Ya are attacking, which means he and his men don’t have a choice.

The Ree know nothing of the technology the Terrans have, but Paya trusts them to help. Unfortunately, the Ree leaders don’t share that trust for the Terrans or Paya. She’s labeled a traitor, stripped of her title, then sent to the breeding stocks as punishment for the rest of her days. But she’s not done fighting, they won’t break her, and Ivan won’t stop fighting for her.

Regardless of the way her people have wronged her, Paya is still determined to save them from the Ya. With Ivan by her side, her feelings for him grow, and she knows Ivan cares for her, but she’s unworthy now of his love. She’s tainted after what her kind did to her. He’ll have to work to convince her otherwise.

In the meantime, their mission is to save her planet. Together.

Warning! Contains trust issues, fields of destruction, debilitating pain, alien castles, lies and deceit, a brutal punishment, spaceship billiards, saving bacon, unorthodox and spur-of-the-moment decisions, loving promises, and one woman learning to accept the fact that the man she's come to love is willing accept her under any circumstances.

Excerpt and Buy Links

Monday, July 8, 2024

HERE BE NEWS for Monday July 8, 2024

Posted by: PG Forte

 

 




 Monday July 8, 2024 

Welcome to HERE BE NEWS, where each monday we bring you all the latest from the fantasy romance authors at Here Be Magic:




New!

ILLUSTRA
Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Romance
By Linda Mooney
Word Count: 24.2K
$2.99 e / $9.99 p 

After driving through the night, Cecily Mars is ready to get settled in her new town when she arrives, but first she needs to crash for a few hours. When she awakens, she decides to grab dinner at the local diner, and is met with rude comments about an obviously pregnant server. She’s curious as to why, and doesn’t feel it’s fair to judge, so she requests that server.  She wasn’t expecting the remarks she heard regarding the sweet waitress, or for the locals to treat her so badly. But even Cecily has to admit, the story they claim the woman’s telling about the baby’s father does seem a little…out there. 

When Cecily returns the next night for dinner and learns that the pregnant waitress, Eva, has been let go, she feels sorry for the girl and comes up with a possible solution. She offers the woman a job at the store where she is working. Regardless of the rumors flying, Cecily wants to give the mother-to-be a chance.

Still, she wonders how Eva could be so adamant and sound so truthful? No one in town believes her, but Cecily wants to find out more. Eva’s story pulls at her heartstrings, as well as piques her curiosity. Whether it’s true or not, it’s evident Eva will need help with the coming birth, and she could also use a friend.

It doesn’t take Eva long to make Cecily a believer.

Illustra is an out-of-this-world tale of love, kindness, compassion, acceptance, and rescue from a doomed planet.

Warning! Contains eating an apple—stem, seeds, core, and all—small town gossip, a harrowing rescue, and the consequences resulting from a simple act of compassion.

Excerpt and Buy Links:
https://lindamooney.com/Illustra.htm 








Snowed In Romance

Coming this Winter!
 

This is a pre-order promotion for Snowed In Romance books releasing between November 1, 2024 and December 31, 2024.

Now available for pre-order.


https://books.bookfunnel.com/SnowedInPreOrder/wakg3iz2jv

Friday, July 5, 2024

New! ILLUSTRA, an Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Romance by Linda Mooney

Posted by: Linda Mooney

New!

ILLUSTRA
Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Romance
By Linda Mooney
Word Count: 24.2K
$2.99 e / $9.99 p 

After driving through the night, Cecily Mars is ready to get settled in her new town when she arrives, but first she needs to crash for a few hours. When she awakens, she decides to grab dinner at the local diner, and is met with rude comments about an obviously pregnant server. She’s curious as to why, and doesn’t feel it’s fair to judge, so she requests that server.  She wasn’t expecting the remarks she heard regarding the sweet waitress, or for the locals to treat her so badly. But even Cecily has to admit, the story they claim the woman’s telling about the baby’s father does seem a little…out there. 

When Cecily returns the next night for dinner and learns that the pregnant waitress, Eva, has been let go, she feels sorry for the girl and comes up with a possible solution. She offers the woman a job at the store where she is working. Regardless of the rumors flying, Cecily wants to give the mother-to-be a chance.

Still, she wonders how Eva could be so adamant and sound so truthful? No one in town believes her, but Cecily wants to find out more. Eva’s story pulls at her heartstrings, as well as piques her curiosity. Whether it’s true or not, it’s evident Eva will need help with the coming birth, and she could also use a friend.

It doesn’t take Eva long to make Cecily a believer.

Illustra is an out-of-this-world tale of love, kindness, compassion, acceptance, and rescue from a doomed planet.

Warning! Contains eating an apple—stem, seeds, core, and all—small town gossip, a harrowing rescue, and the consequences resulting from a simple act of compassion.

Excerpt and Buy Links:
https://lindamooney.com/Illustra.htm 

Monday, July 1, 2024

HERE BE NEWS for Monday July 1, 2023

Posted by: PG Forte

 

 




 Monday July 1, 2024 

Welcome to HERE BE NEWS, where each monday we bring you all the latest from the fantasy romance authors at Here Be Magic:



Tuesday June 25, 2024:  Linda Mooney treats us to chapter six in her fantasy romance, Dark Hours 

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

DARK HOURS, a Fantasy Romance by Linda Mooney - Chapter 6

Posted by: Linda Mooney

DARK HOURS

Chapter 6

Kayge continued to stare at the distant horizon in the direction where the dragon had flown. The creature was no longer visible, but it didn’t matter. He knew where it had gone. More importantly, he knew why it had gone there. And to whom.

“That witch has power over it,” he muttered. “That explains everything. Damn her. Damn you, Gola! The beast is doing your bidding! That is why it was here! That is why it swallowed me, then Emers! It is your voice I hear! You sent it to torment me by taking my bride!”

As if she’d heard him, her words returned to haunt him.

Follow me if you want to see your beloved again!

Follow me if you dare!

He took a step backwards and almost stumbled. Hot agony zipped up his right leg, causing him to cry out from the pain. Intense and momentary blinding, the leg buckled under him and he fell to the ground. Somehow he’d injured it although he had no memory of the incident. Neither could he recall if the wound was the result of a battle he’d fought.

Gasping for breath, he clutched his hip and thigh as he waited for the fire to subside. He wasn’t yet recovered from being inside the dragon’s gullet. Or from being vomited up, naked and defenseless against the freezing weather. If his emergence under such circumstances and in a strange location wasn’t confusing enough, this campground was just as odd. A saddlebag he knew wasn’t his or Emers’ lay across a nearby rock, yet there were no horses in the immediate vicinity. A water skin sat near the fire’s circle of protective rocks. From the prints in the dirt, it looked as though the fire had been tended to all night, leaving him to suspect Emers was responsible.

“How long was she here? How did she get here?” He checked around him. “I do not recall this place or coming here.”

It was then he saw the smears of dried blood leading away from the encampment. Unconsciously he crossed himself. “Oh, dearest God…”

He struggled to get back up on his feet. Moving slowly, he followed the trail over to a nearby thicket to find the body almost completely hidden from view. Ants had already laid claim to it, but it was clear the man had met his demise from a wild animal. Most likely the dragon. Noticing the man was barefoot, Kayge assumed the boots he’d found once belonged to the deceased.

Years of training took over, enabling him to assume the same calmness that served him well in battle. Self-preservation became his first concern. For without the first, he couldn’t focus on his second and most urgent concern.

Emers!

Sunlight glinted off something to the side. Limping over to that area, to his relief he found his sword lying in the dead grasses. Its blade glistened, clear of gore or scratches. Neither did it appear to have been used to chop wood or abused in another way that would blunt its keen edge.

Kayge licked his dry lips. He had to go after the creature, after the dragon. But this terrain, this place, was completely unknown to him. Nothing seemed familiar. There were no landmarks to jog his memory, which still seemed to be trapped inside a thick veil of fog.

Reaching inside the waistband of his breeches, he found the small pocket sewn there. His fingers felt the bump, and he let out a sigh of relief. He couldn’t remember why he’d removed it from around his neck to secure it inside the pouch in the first place, but he was glad he had. It was a gift from Emers in preparation for their wedding. If he hadn’t taken it off, he feared he might have lost it forever once the dragon consumed him.

Digging out the small cross, which was attached to a thin chain of silver, he placed it back around his neck. A silent, earnest prayer and an Our Father helped his spirits, but did little to allay his growing trepidation.

A crackling sound came from just ahead. He froze in place and strained to hear what might come next. Slowly, soundlessly, Kayge drew his sword from its sheath and scanned the trees for the sight of a pair of dark wings or the fiery red eyes.

Or, if his prayers were answered…

Emers. The word formed on his lips but was unspoken. It was a fervent wish, a hope.

The crackling sound came again, fainter and farther off. Moving away from the area. Kayge slowly followed after it, taking care to remain as quiet as possible until he reached a small clearing.

A yearling was feeding on the last of the fall foliage. By the looks of it the animal was half-starved, and Kayge was certain it wouldn’t live through the harsh winter. Using his sword as a spear, he dispatched the animal, and after gutting it, hefted the carcass across his shoulders to trudge back to the campsite.

Curiously, Kayge didn’t feel any hunger pangs, although he couldn’t recall the last time he’d eaten. But he had a hazy memory of a tavern in the woods, an inn, and something shiny descending down on the table…

A quick shake of the head did little to disseminate the ghost-like images. They would float in and out of his subconscious without welcome or denial.

A wave of dizziness suddenly overtook him. His stomach protested, and he almost felt himself start to heave against the rush of uneasiness. Kayge dropped to his knees in a patch of sodden leaves and bent over, clasping his stomach. His head was ringing, clamoring like a church bell gone wild. It gradually grew louder, forcing him to press his palms to his ears in an effort to muffle the noise.

“Stop it!” he growled. “Stop it!

His stomach clenched, throwing him into paralysis, but nothing came up. Kayge coughed, then gasped. A thin thread of saliva fell from his mouth. His belly tried again, without success, as his mind became a cavern of empty images.

He had no way of knowing how long he remained there. Eventually the symptoms abated, enough to where he could get back to his feet. Grabbing the yearling by its front legs, he dragged it back to the fire.

He was prepared to use his sword to carve the animal into chunks and throw a haunch onto the glowing coals when he noticed bloodstains on a nearby rock. A knife, his knife, lay on the ground where it had fallen, almost hidden from view. Which was why he hadn’t spotted it before now.

Kayge stared at the scene—the rock, the knife, the dried blood. Hazy memories gradually floated into his mind’s eye. Something about a squirrel…

            As if a bucket of cold water was suddenly dumped over his head, it flooded his senses, and  he remembered. Remembered how this had come to pass. Remembered it all. And the worst part, he remembered the pain. The feeling of absolute helplessness. The suffocation. The never-ending darkness. The bone-numbing terror. And Emers’ deafening screams. Screams that mixed with those of the horses.

            Kayge felt his legs go out from under him as he collapsed next to the firepit. Unable to move and barely able to breathe, he watched it play over again in his head as the nightmare returned to life. Reminding him of the witch’s sick and twisted power, and how deeply her need for revenge was fueled by her anger.

The visions left him shattered, weak, and weeping.

 

TO BE CONTINUED


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