Pre-Order The Rose of Shanhasson

Wheeeeeee, look!  The print release of Rose is officially available for pre-order at B&N and Amazon!

I have a ton of flyers printed off (and I’ll do bookmarks next month) so if you’d like any to distribute in your local bookstores, etc. just drop me a note and I’ll gladly mail you some!

Road to Shanhasson Review: Best Book Rating!

Wheee, check out this fabulous review from Holly at Long and Short Reviews — BEST BOOK!

…this book pushes the limits to new levels, in terms of passion, strength and pure lust. The scenes between the three main characters are so explicitly hot and erotic I expected my e-reader to melt. Ms. Burkhart creates her world so skillfully, the people and places become real to the reader, and the emotions are deep and, at times quite gut-wrenchingly real. There were many places in the story where I cried along with Shannari, at her depth of loss and her heights of joy and passion.

You can read the whole review here.  Thank you so much, Holly!

News & Thanks

First, thank you to everyone who helped make this a great week for Dear Sir, I’m Yours!  I’m stunned and honored to see Dear Sir in the #1 bestseller slot at My Bookstore & More.  I hope you’re enjoying it!

Second, I have news.  If you were at the Drollerie Press chat last night, you know this already.  The Rose of Shanhasson is coming to PRINT this November, along with Confessions of the Creature and two others (sorry, I can’t remember them off the top of my head — some of our earlier releases).  As we get closer and details are firmed, I’ll update Rose’s page.  I’m so excited I can hardly sit still!

Watch the DP Bookshop for several new releases coming today or this weekend, including Needles & Bones, a fantastic looking anthology I can’t wait to get my hands on.

Lastly, the Drollerie Press blog tour will be this weekend, too.  In honor of Father’s Day, Isabella Thanatos (Beautiful Death) has a few choice words to say about her father (monster! murderer! bastard!)  Oops, maybe she’ll talk about Icarus instead.  He’s the father she wished she had.

The Road to Shanhasson – Review

Soleil of Beyond the Invisible has posted an incredible review of The Road to Shanhasson.  She says:

For a short snippet of what I said about Rose:

“The characters and their world will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Yep. Still haunted.

and

This book literally tore my heart in two when I read it the first time. I had tears streaming down my face. But I love books that make me FEEL as opposed to leaving me lukewarm, so this was the perfect book for me. If you’re hopped up on Romancelandia’s supposed “rules”, this may not be the book for you. Me? I think some rules were meant to be broken and Joely breaks them superbly. I LOVE series books and I love THIS series. “Road” is a great sequel to Rose and has me pining for the third installment, tentatively titled Return to Shanhasson.  But seeing how busy poor Joely is and intends to be, I might have to wait awhile. (*off screen* *SOOOOOOOOOB* CRUEL FATES!!!)

Ok, ok. I’m composed. I can wait.

forliketenseconds.

Haha, not to worry, dear Soleil, but the first draft of Return to Shanhasson is indeed finished and only awaits Revision Hell.  The only problem will be deciding which Revision Hell to tackle first…

Thank you so much, Soleil! 

And yes, Gregar haunts me too.  He always will.

The Road to Shanhasson Excerpt

Available from Drollerie Press

Chapter One

Blessed Lady above, thank you for bringing me home.

Shannari drew rein and paused her mare at the top of the hill. Rolling waves of golden hay stretched off into the distance. The scent of baking bread and warm earth filled her nose, a visceral reminder of the warrior on her right. Not the home of her birth, perhaps, but the Plains had definitely become the home of her heart.

Rhaekhar, Khul of the Nine Camps of the Sha’Kae al’Dan, had defeated her heart as well as her army and she was sure would admit the former had been much more difficult a battle. His tousled golden-brown hair hung well down his shoulders, begging to be combed by her fingers. The braids at either temple were heavy with colored beads, golden rings, and other symbols of honor he had won over the years. His skin gleamed like polished bronze in the summer afternoon light, tight over his powerful arms and shoulders. Looking at him made heat unfurl deep in her stomach.

The breeze picked up enough to flutter her cropped hair into her eyes. Irritated as much by the stinging pang to her vanity as the tickling hair in her face, she swiped at the unruly mess. She missed the heavy weight of hair down her back but she was extremely lucky Theo hadn’t taken her head as well as her hair.

“In a matter of hours, I’ll be making you my Khul’lanna.” Rhaekhar’s voice rumbled, thick and tight with desire. “Do you desire Gregar to participate in your claiming?”

 She opened her mouth to respond, but she really didn’t know. Did she want Gregar? Definitely. Did she want a complicated relationship that made her uncomfortable, let alone with Rhaekhar and such an extremely dangerous man? Not really. Especially in this so-called claiming, where Rhaekhar’s whole intent would be to make her scream as many times as possible while everyone outside the tent listened.

“Even if you asked, I would refuse.”

Jerking her attention to the Blood, she listened carefully to his bond. His heart ached with longing, even while a darker need twisted his own rahke in his heart.

“You’re still my greatest mark, na’lanna. I refuse to risk you. I won’t rush you into asking me to Khul’s blankets.”

“Are you saying never?”

“Great Vulkar, nay.” Gregar laughed shakily. “You’ll be Khul’lanna; the honor of your claiming is rightfully Khul’s. My time will be later, if you so desire.”

“I shall declare you co-mate before the Camps,” Rhaekhar said to his Blood, his voice ringing with command. “If you want to participate, she shall ask you, or I shall order you.”

Shannari felt heat sear her cheeks at the thought. “No ordering. If it happens, it happens.”

When it happens.” Rhaekhar cupped her chin in his palm and tilted her gaze up to his. “His blood is mine to command, and he offers himself to you. You want him. You will have him. Our honor is greater than this doubt you carry.” His eyes darkened, turning smoky amber. “Besides, I want very much to expand on that delightful image you created for us. I want to see the pleasure in your eyes when he touches you.”

“And I want to see your pleasure when Khul touches you,” Gregar said.

Both warriors laughed at whatever expression was on her face.

Another gust of wind drew her attention to the sky. A storm brewed in the distance. Clouds scuttled toward them, thickening on the horizon. Shadows raced across the hills. Despite the two warriors so close and the army of mounted barbarians behind them, she shivered and touched the sword at her hip. She’d come so close to dying in Shadow. Could she ever see a shadow stretching across the ground and not remember the madness in Theo’s eyes?

Both warriors crowded their horses closer to hers: Gregar at her left, his heat searing her back, Rhaekhar on her right, his hair tumbling into her face. Their scents filled her, sweet hay and flowers, warrior and leather, accented with dark, rich caffe and the smell of baking bread. Her heart ached, clutching with fear. Eventually, she’d have to go back to Shanhasson. She’d have to face Theo and exact Our Blessed Lady’s justice, and when she did …

Either one of them could die.

“I won’t stay you from your destiny, na’lanna.” Rhaekhar sighed heavily, and through his bond, she felt a fierce surge of warrior instinct to wrap her up in his arms and carry her far to the south where he’d never let her face danger again. “But I care nothing about those honorless curs in your homeland. Your own people would have stood by and watched Theo kill you. I say let them writhe in agony in the Three Hells forever.”

 “As long as Theo lives, he’ll try to kill me and any children we have. I refuse to live in danger the rest of my life, and I certainly won’t let him destroy the Lady’s Green and Beautiful Lands.”

Gregar whispered against her ear. “Let me stay tight at your back, and as long as I live, Shadow shall not touch you again.”

:You won’t die. You can’t.:

:The day of my death is closer than ever, na’lanna. Do not wait too long to ask me.:

Straightening, Rhaekhar guided his horse down the slope, and Wind automatically followed, with Gregar close behind. “We must discuss the arrangements of our co-mating.”

“Shall I stop drinking drakkar?” Gregar asked. “Just in case?”

Drakkar was the warriors’ method of birth control on the Plains. Shannari’s hands clutched the reins but she didn’t dare look back over her shoulder. She was sure to see a big smirk on the Blood’s face.

“Aye. All children, whether mine or yours, shall carry my honor.”

“Agreed.”

The awful reality of the position she’d put Rhaekhar in twisted her stomach into knots. The greatest warrior on the Plains might be faced with the task of raising children not his. His honor, which she had only begun to understand, would surely be lessened. How could he let this happen? “Don’t I get a say in this?”

Rhaekhar ignored her. “When she asks you to my blankets, I’m First. I reserve the right to impose limits if she is unable to do so.”

“Actually, I insist you do so,” Gregar replied, his voice hard and brittle with ice. “I have no limits. If the dreams I’ve had over the years are any indication, she has none either, at least when it comes to me.”

Years before she’d ever known him, she’d dreamed of a man wrapped in shadow, lying in wait for her. In these dreams of darkness and death, they’d battled and loved and killed each other, over and over. Those gruesome dreams still haunted her.

Evidently, they haunted Gregar, too. “My honor is yours, Khul. I ask that you make one solemn oath to me.”

Rhaekhar drew his golden stallion to a halt and turned to face his Blood. “Anything, my friend.”

“If she bleeds at any time, you must kill me.”

She gasped and reached out to Gregar immediately. His forearm was corded, his fingers white on the reins. His eyes glittered like obsidian.

“I’m not to be trusted if I catch the scent of her fresh blood. Don’t let me slide into bloodlust, or I may—” His voice broke. “I have no limits,” he whispered hoarsely. “Don’t let me—”

“On my honor, I shall kill you first.”

The tension bled out of the Blood and he nodded. “My thanks, Khul.”

“You can’t be serious.” Heart pounding, she looked from one warrior to the other. “I love him. You can’t kill him. You promised!”

Rhaekhar stared at her, his eyes dark, his face grim. “I’ll do whatever I must, na’lanna. You want him, you have him, but I won’t let him hurt you.”

Shivers crawled down her spine. Ice crept around her heart.

“Much,” Gregar whispered softly.

Rhaekhar growled, his hand dropping to his rahke.

“She’ll like a little, Khul. Just rein me in.”

“We shall see.” Rhaekhar turned his gaze to her, his eyes almost as dark as his Blood’s, his voice thick. “Together.”

Heart pounding, she stared at him, trembling. “I’m sorry.”

He shook his head, a small smile playing about his lips. “Are you up for a kae’rahke this night, Gregar?”

The two warriors rode ahead, leaving Shannari staring after them with dread pounding in her veins. A kae’rahke? Challenge? Sometimes they fought to the death.

“Aye, I’m up for many things, Khul.”

Rhaekhar laughed, a dark masculine sound of arrogance that made her grind her teeth together. “I bet you are. Good. I’ll declare you co-mate before the claiming. What do you want for terms?”

Groaning, Shannari tried to think of a way to distract them. Short of ripping her armor and clothes off, she didn’t think much would distract them from their goal of blood.

Gregar winked at her. “I would certainly enjoy another kiss. This time, I want a proper kiss.”

“Oh, aye,” Rhaekhar replied, giving her a smoldering look over his shoulder. “Do you want her tongue in your mouth, or yours in hers?”

“Preferably both.”

Very firmly, she turned her attention to her horse. Wind’s ears flickered back and forth, listening to the warriors. Her head was up, her muscles tight beneath Shannari’s thighs. The mare’s entire manner was alert, whether to flee or charge Shannari didn’t know. She stroked the sleek silvery neck and fingered the moonlight mane that was as soft and fine as Rhaekhar’s hair.

Deep inside her, Shannari felt a ripple in the still waters of the Lady’s lake she carried. Wind was not just a horse. Perhaps Wind was the Lady’s horse as well.

Clucking to her, Shannari urged the mare to canter ahead of her warriors, determined to put a little distance between them and all their “arrangements.” She felt both relief and regret at Gregar’s words. She wanted him … but that desire was fraught with danger, blood, and turmoil. She hated putting Rhaekhar through such conflict.

Yet something dark and raw quickened in her heart at the thought of exploring those bloody dreams with the Shadowed Blood.

Tightening her grip on the reins, Shannari leaned lower over the mare’s neck. Faster, she thought. Let’s outrun them. Outrun the doubts and guilt. Outrun the darkness inside me.

The mare’s ears flickered back as though she heard. Lowering her head, she tore off across the Plains at a gallop so smooth that Shannari barely felt the thud of hooves on the baked earth. Her hair whipped her face, and grass snapped at her thighs in sharp whips that made her thankful for her leather pants. For once, she was free, not chasing her destiny or fighting a losing battle. She was running away, and it felt … good.

She glanced back over her shoulder through streaming eyes. The golden and black warhorses chased after her, but they were no match for Wind’s speed. The mare was truly a gift from the Lady. She could outrun them and escape.

If she wanted.

Ah, that was the catch. Because she didn’t want to lose them, not even if it meant she failed her destiny and lost the High Throne forever. They each held a rein on her heart, and although they could have, they didn’t use their bonds to slow her or draw her back. Her own heart held her captive.

Wind slowed to a more manageable canter that allowed the warriors to catch up. Shannari kept her gaze straight ahead and didn’t make any apologies. As soon as she’d run ahead into the Plains unprotected, she’d felt the immediate clutch of fear in Rhaekhar’s heart and Gregar’s surge of icy shadow. It didn’t occur to them that she could never be unprotected now that the Lady’s gift welled in her heart. All they knew was the strength of their blades and the weight of their honor.

Whatever either warrior had been prepared to say was interrupted by a hail from the top of the next hill. They’d been sighted. Now the Camp would empty to come and greet the returning warriors, and they’d want news of the battle. How many of them would be disappointed to see her still with their Khul?

“It doesn’t matter,” Rhaekhar replied to her thought. A glance at him confirmed the arrogant slash of his mouth, the hard line of his jaws, and the determination glittering in his eyes. He was Khul and he’d beat sense into anyone who objected. Such a display of arrogance made her mouth quirk with amusement.

They galloped up the next hill. People already lined the other side of the slope, cheering as their Khul made his appearance. Drendon and Alea led the foray. After the rocky start to their acquaintance, the woman would likely be furious to see the outlander still at Khul’s side. Shannari searched the other woman’s face for dismay but oddly enough, she thought that Alea looked rather pleased.

“Welcome home to the Sea of Grass, Khul,” Drendon said. “You were victorious, of course.”

“Aye, but in the end, the greater battle was for the Rose of Shanhasson,” Rhaekhar said without resentment. In fact, the look of stark possession in his eyes damned near curled her toes. “Both are mine. In fact, I have an announcement.”

The crowd quieted expectantly.

“I, Rhaekhar, Khul of the Nine Camps of the Sha’Kae al’Dan, hereby claim Shannari dal’Dainari, the Rose of Shanhasson, as my Khul’lanna. Anyone who dares challenge me for her, let him come.”

Most of the people roared with approval, but not all. Shannari scanned the faces carefully, watching for a flicker of anger, hatred, or secrecy. The mix of negative and positive emotions seemed relatively balanced. Great, she thought. Only half of her soon-to-be husband’s people hated her.

Of course, tight-lipped and silent, Varne, Khul’s nearest Blood and the last line in his defense, looked like he’d swallowed a bellyful of rahkes.

Gregar’s voice rang out, “I challenge for her,” and she nearly fell off her horse.

People whispered excitedly, looking back and forth between the two warriors like they’d break out knives and fight to the death here and now. Braced for condemnation or outrage that both warriors would claim her—and Khul’s own Blood at that—she was shocked to find the glares and grumbles at Rhaekhar’s announcement disappearing beneath genuine excitement.

“Fun and games,” she whispered, shaking her head. Now Rhaekhar’s acceptance of another warrior at her side didn’t seem quite so far-fetched, although she still battled her Green Land sensibilities.

Rhaekhar drew out the silence, staring at his Blood with the grim, implacable glare of the Khul, weighing and considering, as though he tested this warrior’s honor kae’al by kae’al. Each moment’s threat of bloodshed only improved the mood of the crowd.

Gregar might not wear any beads in his hair now that he was Blood, but she knew that everyone must remember what he’d been before Rhaekhar became Khul. Death. Shadow. Assassin.

Fun and games indeed, and in true Sha’Kae al’Dan fashion, a great deal of blood and honor were promised in Khul’s silent examination. The watching warriors were nearly jumping up and down with glee at the prospect.

“She loves me,” Rhaekhar growled. “What claim do you have on my woman?”

How much of this was playacting, and how much was torment for both warriors? Her own emotions were in too much turmoil for her to be able to understand what she was receiving of theirs. Shannari’s heart pounded, her palms sweaty. It was all she could do not to draw her sword or turn the mare and run back across the hills. She didn’t know where she’d go, but if she weren’t here, this couldn’t happen.

Gregar flashed his trademark smirk. “She loves me, too.”

Alea gasped out loud and the whispers increased until Rhaekhar turned to look at Shannari. Silence fell, as though the whole Plains listened and waited.

“What say you, na’lanna? Does my Blood speak the truth?”

Bloody hell. She sent a dark surge through their bond, allowing him to feel her irritation. Surely he could have prepared her for such a public and sudden announcement. Gripping the sword hilt on her hip, she lifted her chin and squared her shoulders. She could do this. Rhaekhar already knew the truth, as well as Gregar. They’d known long before she’d admitted the truth to herself. “Yes. I love you both.”

The crowd erupted into cheers again.

Rhaekhar smiled and it was like the noonday sun shining down on her. “Then I accept your challenge as co-mate, Gregar. Let us offer blood this night to bind our oaths to Shannari.”

“Agreed, Khul. My blood is yours; my blood is hers.” Gregar’s eyes swam with shadows and glittering obsidian. “She will taste us both.”

Concentrating on breathing, she closed her eyes a moment. She’d promised Gregar that she’d taste his or Khul’s blood whenever they offered, no matter where they were, no matter who watched.

“Can you wait a few days so we might contact the rest of the Camps?” Drendon asked. She scanned his face and posture, trying to guess if Rhaekhar’s best friend were pleased, shocked, or horrified at this development. She didn’t know Drendon that well, but his reserve surprised her. She’d expected his reaction to be more blatantly obvious, either for good or bad she didn’t know. “I’m sure many would like to be present. It’s not every day that a Khul claims his Khul’lanna.”

“I’ll not wait a single night.” The tone of Rhaekhar’s voice was low, rumbling bass.

“Neither shall I.” Gregar’s voice was cold with shadows, sending goose bumps racing down her arms.

:I thought you refused to participate.:

:I did. Yet I will feel Khul’s pleasure as his Blood, and your pleasure as na’lanna.: Gregar’s voice wound through her mind like black, thick velvet, stroking where no hand could ever reach. :The two of you will likely kill me, but I shall ride to Vulkar with a smile on my face.:

She swallowed hard and scrubbed her sweaty palm on her leathers. :This is not the day of your death.:

He laughed silently, but beneath the amusement echoed heart-rending sorrow. Her heart stuttered in response. :Not yet, na’lanna.:

The silvered lake in her mind rippled briefly, disturbed by small plops on the surface like tears. Shannari’s throat constricted. If the Lady wept …

Please, Blessed Lady, save him. Don’t take him from me.

:Do not weep for me, Shannari,: Gregar whispered in her mind. :Dead or not, I shall never leave your back unprotected.:

Rhaekhar touched her knee, drawing her attention to him. He’d dismounted and offered her a hand down. The sympathy and even grief on his face—because she loved and ached at the thought of losing another man—made the tears shimmering in her eyes fall down her cheeks.

She slid down into his embrace and wrapped her arms around his neck. :Is he right? Will he die?:

Rhaekhar’s voice through the bond was somber. :Only he knows what visions Vulkar gave.:

Unless Gregar was mistaken, one of the men she loved more than she’d ever thought possible would die because of her, because he loved her. Yet he had no reason to lie.

Guilt and agony flooded her. Her grip tightened on Rhaekhar’s hair, and she fought not to reach for her sword and challenge him, just to make herself forget that awful finality she sensed on the horizon. :I can’t bear for either of you to die for me.:

:My life is yours, my heart. His life is yours. It will be our greatest honor to die to keep you safe.:

His scent filled her, bread hot from the oven. The thought of him laid out on the white marble of the High Court, gasping his last breath, sent a shudder through her so fierce she actually cried out.

Gregar, bleeding, dying, and Rhaekhar … It was her worst fear.

All these years, she’d told herself she couldn’t love because of Devin, the lover who’d tried to kill her in her own bed years ago. Perhaps she’d been lying to herself. Perhaps the reason she hadn’t wanted to love had been another reason entirely, because it would kill her to lose either of these warriors who walked beside of her.

Oh, Lady, why? Why give her love greater than anything she’d ever hoped to feel, and then take it away so harshly?

Resolve tightened her grip on the sword and firmed her chin. Nobody had died yet. She had the skill to fight and protect herself, as well as the Lady’s power filling her heart. Surely it would be enough, no matter what vision Gregar had received. I will kill to keep them safe.

Thunder rumbled across the Plains.

“Come on, Shannari.” Alea grabbed her arm as it began to rain. “I’ll prepare the steamtent for you and then you can rest awhile. I’m sure you’re exhausted.” She hurried Shannari off toward the camp.

* * * *

Ill at ease, Shannari couldn’t relax in the thick clouds of steam, even as the heat soaked deeply into her muscles. She’d never had a true female friend, and she and Alea had certainly gotten off on the wrong foot before. The other woman must be nearly bursting with questions about Shannari’s complicated relationship, and she had questions of her own. Alea obviously knew both warriors better, and had known them longer, than she. Part of her wanted ask for details that would help her deal with them easier, but the other was afraid she’d learn too much. She felt poised between two pawing, snorting horses that were ready to tear off in opposite directions, ripping her limb from limb.

“I see you have a new injury.”

Shannari flicked her gaze up to the other woman’s face. Surprised, she realized Alea was actually concerned, not appalled at all the various scars Shannari had earned over the years. “I took a wound in battle, but one of Our Blessed Lady’s priests was thankfully nearby and Healed me.”

True, definitely, but she didn’t admit she likely would have died if not for the Lady’s intervention as well as Her priest’s. Her blood had spilled on the ground to break a curse of Shadow, and she’d killed several hundred troops at once without lifting a weapon, with Gregar’s unwilling help.

:Not unwilling. I was more than pleased to assist you.:

:Quit eavesdropping.: Shannari closed her eyes and listened to the bonds, trying to estimate how closely both warriors listened. They hovered inside her mind, listening and feeling everything. She knew where the pawing, snorting image of horses came from as soon as she touched Rhaekhar’s bond. He was like a warhorse screaming a challenge as he crushed his enemy beneath massive hooves.

Gregar laughed in her mind, making her shudder. :Be quick with the bath, woman, or Khul may decide to start the count before our kae’rahke.:

Shaken, she concentrated on toning down that raging, pounding stallion leaking from Rhaekhar’s bond. :What’s wrong with him?:

:He leads the Nine Camps for Vulkar. Is it any wonder that the Great Wind Stallion would walk in his body when Khul claims his Dark Mare?:

Shannari wished she understood their religion better. The Dark Mare sounded rather ominous, and yet fitting, too. She was definitely dark, and mare to Rhaekhar’s stallion. She’d never thought of it that way before. Perhaps there were more parallels between Our Blessed Lady and this Dark Mare than she’d thought. If so, that made Gregar …

:I am Shadow. I am Death.:

Yet Lygon, Lord of Darkness, had never felt such overwhelming sorrow and love. She didn’t believe it one moment. :And you’re mine.:

Startlement shimmered through his bond, making Shannari smile. Alea blinked and smiled back hesitantly, which only made it funnier. :Stop it. Even Alea thinks I’m trying to be her friend now.:

“I know we started off … awkwardly,” Alea said, her face and eyes warm and sincere. “But I see how much Khul loves you and you him, and I’m more happy then I can say. If you need any assistance as Khul’lanna, please ask.”

Shannari studied the woman, looking for any hint of duplicity or falseness, but her gaze remained steady and her eyes open. “You truly do care for him like a brother, don’t you?”

“Aye. I hope we can be friends, Shannari.”

What would it be like to have a friend, a real friend, someone she never had to suspect of a plot to entrap her? Could she truly trust Alea? Listening again for any ripple in the magical lake that welled within her, Shannari sensed no reason not to trust her. She smiled more openly herself, relaxing some of the ever-present guard that she kept about her heart and mind at all times. “Let’s bury the hatchet … er … rahke, then. What can you tell me about this claiming business?”

Alea gave Shannari a bright, eager smile. “The very first kae’rahke ever recorded on the Plains was between two warriors who desired to claim the same woman.”

Shannari’s stomach knotted and she clenched her hands so tightly her nails dug into her palms. “What happened?”

The other woman shrugged. “They fought, they bled, and they came to an agreement. The first kae’rahke led to the first co-mates. It’s even rarer than na’lanna bonds but you’re not the first woman to love two warriors.”

Pushing strands of wet, clinging hair off her face, Shannari asked, “What does Drendon think?”

“I didn’t speak to him, but if I know my warrior, he’s more concerned about Khul’s protection. If he falls, the responsibility of all Nine Camps falls to my mate, and with one of Khul’s Blood otherwise occupied …” Alea gave her a rather lecherous wink that sent a wave of embarrassment hotter than the steamtent flooding across Shannari’s face and neck. “Did I mention that not too many years ago, a claiming was a very public event?”

Shannari shook her head, though she could imagine. The moist heaviness in the air weighed on her chest and she felt like she couldn’t get a deep breath. Suddenly anxious to get some fresh, rain-slick air, even if she got wet and cold, she stood up to leave the tent, but swayed and almost lost her balance.

Alea jumped up to steady her. “Are you well?”

Weariness suffused her limbs and Shannari was grateful for the other woman’s arm. “All of a sudden, I feel rather tired.”

With halting steps, she exited the steamtent into Khul’s adjacent tent where Gregar immediately took her other arm. She yawned and nearly cracked her own jaws.

“Well, no wonder,” Alea exclaimed. “It’s a long ride to Dalden Bay and back. The ceremony won’t begin for at least an hour, so you have plenty of time for a nap.”

Gregar lowered her to the cushions. “Why don’t you rest a while?”

Her eyes were so heavy, but she fought to stay awake. “Khul—” She slurred.

“He’ll wait, na’lanna. Rest.”

She tried to say more, but the words wouldn’t come.

Chapter Two

The dream was so real and vivid that she began to doubt her memory of falling asleep.

Cheering despite the wind and rain, the crowd hovered in a ring, watching two warriors fight. Rhaekhar and Gregar danced in the center of the ring, already dripping blood. Rhaekhar’s face was hard and grim, the furious face of the Khul, while Gregar fought coldly, his deadly rahke illuminated blue by the constant lightning in the sky. They fought viciously, each grunt and strike punctuated with thunder.

Shivering, Shannari watched them and prayed they wouldn’t kill each other. The fight came closer and the scent of blood hung tantalizingly thick and sweet in the air. Her stomach clutched tightly, rumbling with hunger. Her mouth watered. Her palms sweated, aching for a weapon.

Without pausing the fight, Rhaekhar called to her. “Unsheathe your sword, woman. Bleed me.”

Suddenly, she regretted her adamant refusals to touch the six-inch knives the warriors used on the Plains. On the night of their wedding, she wished to honor him, and she knew that a wound from her sword implied less honor. “I don’t have a rahke.”

“No matter.” Gregar shrugged and winked suggestively. “Blood is blood.”   

Rhaekhar’s chest rumbled on a low growl. “The honor doesn’t matter. Don’t you want to taste us?”

Something tickled her mind, a feeling of unease. A horse neighed, the whinny high-pitched and strident.  Wind, she thought, pleased that she’d remembered the mare’s name. She glanced up, but the people and tents were gone, and her mare was nowhere in sight.

Her hand was curled around the hilt of her sword, but she didn’t draw it. Dread tightened her throat, her heart racing. If they were all three fighting, truly fighting, bleeding … What if one of them drew her blood?

Rhaekhar had promised to kill Gregar the moment she bled.

She fought herself, trying to release the sword, but her fingers were locked about the hilt. Panic crawled through her body. Fighting her own urges, she didn’t realize Gregar had moved behind her until he wrapped his forearm around her neck.

He hauled her tight against him, dragging her into the cold thick shadows that always hung about him. “She’s mine, Khul.”

Rhaekhar roared, charging like an enraged bull, but he could no longer see them. “Shannari! Where are you?”

Wrapped in Gregar’s shadows, she didn’t want to answer, despite the terror screaming through her body. She hated a threat at her back, but this was Gregar, the laughing, lecherous Blood. Shadowed, true, but she knew him.

He wouldn’t hurt her …

“Much,” he whispered against her ear. He shifted his grip on her so his hand encased the column of her throat. His other hand pressed the rahke dripping with her lover’s blood to her body. He smeared her with blood but didn’t draw her own. Deliberately, he rubbed himself against her, at first she thought to arouse her and to show her his own heavy need grinding against her.

Then the blood started to burn her skin.

Oh, Lady, now she remembered those Shadowed dreams they’d shared for years before they’d ever met. Inflamed with bloodlust, they’d usually killed each other. His blood stoked a fire in her, lighting up every inch of her skin. She fought his grip, but not to escape, not now. She wanted to turn around and lick the blood from his skin.

She wanted to use his rahke to make more wounds.

He slid the rahke down her belly. :Na’lanna.:

“Shannari!” Rhaekhar shouted. “Answer me!”

“Here,” she moaned, twisting in the Blood’s grip.

:His blood Calls you,: Gregar whispered in her mind. :Just as your blood Calls me.:

She could feel Rhaekhar rushing about, unable to find her in the stormy night with Gregar’s gift of Shadow obscuring her. Khul’s blood burned like a beacon, calling her to come and draw more, to taste that wealth and coat her skin with his blood. Doubt trembled through her. She was dangerous, as dangerous as Gregar. If she ever lost control and hurt Rhaekhar … she couldn’t live with herself.

:I could make love to you right here while he searches, and he’d never be able to find you.:

It felt like the blood on her skin had sunk beneath the surface to torch the blood in her veins. Need pulsed with every beat of her heart. :You could kill me, too.:

:Aye, he would hear every cry and scream, but never find you.:

Heavy against her back, Gregar pushed her to the ground, his grip nearly crushing her windpipe. The trampled grass was wet and lightning tore the sky, but she couldn’t feel the rain on her skin. She felt fevered, blazing with need. The razor sharp rahke pressed to her throat.

Gregar peeled some of the shadows away, and she screamed. It felt like her skin had been flayed open to the bone, her arms and legs flaring with pain. Immediately, Rhaekhar charged toward her, but he drew up short when he saw the rahke tight at her throat.

“What are you doing?”

Displeasure and horror echoed in his voice, but so did something else: jealousy. If the Shadowed Blood was touching her, he wanted to be a party to it, even this … this bloody business of shadow and pain.

“Ask me aloud, na’lanna, so he can hear you.”

“Please,” she whispered.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Bleed me, hurt me, kill me, I don’t care, as long as you’re inside me.”

Rhaekhar recoiled a step, his proud arrogance faltering. “Great Vulkar! What have you done?”

“Nothing yet.” She heard the smirk in Gregar’s voice. “Do you want to participate?”

Thunder rolled like a thousand hooves across the sky. The knife danced quickly across her body before she could even react or cry out. Braced for pain, it took her a moment to realize all he’d done was slice her clothing away. Glittering bone white in the night, the rahke hovered before her face. Death approached. The hair on the back of her neck screamed with alarm, her skin thick with goose bumps. Her stomach convulsed.

The rahke jabbed toward her and she cried out, a pitiful whimper that shamed her.

The knife sank into Gregar’s shoulder behind her. He shuddered, groaning softly, and it wasn’t a sound of pain. Through his bond, she felt only a dark, expansive need pounding in his skull. Even with the blade buried in his body, he was thick and hard against her buttocks.

Then the blood poured down her neck and she knew why he’d hurt himself. The thick hot slide sent a torrent of need rushing through her that obliterated every doubt and alarm she possessed. Writhing in his grip, she fought to get him inside her, but his clothing kept him from her.

“She needs to be filled. Shall it be me or you, Khul?”

Without answering, Rhaekhar jerked his memsha off as he came to her. His eyes blazed gold in the murk, hot with desire. She felt a wrenching in her heart, a deep, aching sadness that she’d corrupted him, but then he was on the ground, flat on his back, and Gregar moved her closer to crawl up his prone body. Rhaekhar’s hands closed on her hips, drawing her tight to him as he slid inside.

Orgasm exploded through her immediately, sending her twitching and screaming with pleasure between the two of them. Gregar used his weight against her back to drive her harder onto Khul, pinning her tightly. She couldn’t move; Khul couldn’t thrust. They were both trapped, by their own desire and the Shadowed Blood.

She turned her face into Gregar’s neck. His thick sable hair hung like a curtain down to Khul’s chest. “I want you inside me too.”

“I know you do.” He reached down to yank his memsha away. “But the way I’ll take you will hurt.”

“Good.”

Na’lanna …” Rhaekhar’s voice was full of agony, his eyes still torched with lust but also darkened with regret, pain, and grief. “Don’t do this.”

Her heart stuttered, torn and shredded beyond repair, but then Gregar plunged the blade into his side. He bled down her back and buttocks. Blood burned higher, obliterating the twinge in her heart that said there was more than death and nightmares for her, for them all. His palm closed over her mouth, a fresh cut pouring intoxicating blood into her, stoking her thirst, her need, even more.

Blood and shadows closed in, dragging her fully into his embrace. Gritting her teeth, she whimpered as he pushed inside. Pain, such pain, each cry feeding his dark need. Filled with the two of them, she could only shudder with each ragged breath.

“You’re not hurting enough,” Gregar growled in her ear. He thrust deeper, crushing her against Rhaekhar, and she rewarded him with a high, thin scream.

“Stop,” Rhaekhar whispered, his voice harsh. “You’re hurting her.”

Gregar laughed roughly, drawing another cry of pain from her. “She likes it. Do you want me to stop, na’lanna?”

“No, no, no, don’t stop.”

“We’ll take it all the way this time,” he promised against her ear, sliding the rahke into her hand. “You know what you must do.”

After countless dreams of Shadow and death, she did know. At least this time the rahke was in her hand and not his, so he’d die first. His body strained against hers, his breathing fast and hot. He licked Khul’s mark, the scarred bite in her neck. A spasm shook her, drawing a growl from Rhaekhar. He didn’t like another touching his mark. He leaned up and punched Gregar in the face, but the Blood gripped her shoulder harder in his teeth and growled back.

:Tell him to hit me again. Make me bite until you bleed. Then we’ll all die.:

“I heard,” Rhaekhar replied, his voice clipped. “We’re all going to die anyway.”

Her heart protested, wailing at the thought of losing them, even while something nasty in her reveled in the jealousy and hurt glimmering in Rhaekhar’s eyes. She tried to break free of the bloody trap, but Gregar’s voice caught, his body shaking. “Now, na’lanna. Finish me now as I come inside you.” His voice rose on a roar of release. “Finish me!”

With a harsh cry, she plunged the rahke backward over her shoulder, aiming for his throat. The big artery in his neck gushed a fountain of blazing blood. Screaming, she shook with him, her skin on fire. Her release drove Rhaekhar over the edge, his fingers digging into her hips as he heaved beneath her.

The Shadowed Blood fell beside Khul. Gasping for air, he smiled despite the ragged hole in his throat. “Thank you, na’lanna.”

“Your heart’s desire,” she whispered.

Agony tore her into a million pieces. Rage filled up what was left of her, thick and black and foul. She hated him; she hated herself. They were corrupted, tainted, so stained with Shadow that no amount of blood could wash them clean. Now they’d corrupted Rhaekhar, too. He’d lain there beneath her, taken his pleasure, and done nothing to stop the Shadowed Blood from hurting her. He’d done nothing to stop her from killing Gregar in the midst of their pleasure.

Betrayal ripped her heart out of her chest. She’d trusted Rhaekhar to pull her back from the Shadow; instead, he’d participated. He’d helped drag her to hell. “Why didn’t you stop me?”

“You didn’t want me to stop you.”

That he was correct only infuriated her more. Gnawing rage blackened her heart and she plunged the bloody rahke into Rhaekhar’s chest. “Now we all three have scars over our hearts.”   

He shuddered beneath her, his eyes widening with shock. “My heart,” he whispered. His hands fell from her and the light in his eyes died. “My life is yours.”

Both warriors drew their last breath while she sat there with a bloody knife in her hand and cried.

 

 

A New Free Read

…including a sneak peek of The Road to Shanhasson, book 2 of the Shanhasson Trilogy, in honor of E-Book Week

If you love Gregar, you’ll definitely want to check out his prequel, The Shadowed Blood, and the first two chapters of what I’ve called “Gregar’s Book,”  The Road to Shanhasson.  Download here.

If you have any problems with the download or feedback, let me know!

The Fire Within Excerpt

Available from Drollerie Press.

Blessed Lady above, let him kill me quickly.

Eleni refused to cower as her brother strode toward her, his darkened face twisted with rage beneath the simple gold circlet on his head. Blood splattered the front of his velvet frock and once pristine ruffled shirt. The messenger had been reduced to a dark smear on the white marble of the High Court.

From the very first day of Darius’s rule–when he’d killed his predecessor, wife, and their three-year-old child with his own hand–everyone in the Green Lands had learned to fear their new High King’s wrath.

“How close?” Veins throbbed in his forehead and neck, but his voice was painfully calm. Darius didn’t need volume to intimidate. “Can I stop them before they reach Allandor?”

“My contacts confirm she’s already in Rashan.” Eleni’s stomach clenched, but her hands were steady; her face, smooth; her voice, the same melodic and deliberately soothing tone she painstakingly cultivated. From an early age, she’d learned best how to diffuse Darius’s temper in order to survive. “Both Taza and Maston have already sided with her.”

Darius paced before the golden monstrosity he’d stolen with murder, treachery, and lies. Massive lions pawed above the High Throne, mouths gaping, claws like swords. Old blood stained the regal profiles. The last person to infuriate the High King had learned those vicious talons were not merely decorative. The young noble had suffered for two days dangling above Darius’s head before finally dying.

“The North Forest holds strong with me, and the Shanhasson Guard is mine.”

Prudence told her to remain silent, but she couldn’t when her brother needed information she possessed, no matter how much he would dislike it. “Your Shanhasson Guard is down to only two hundred, Your Majesty. An entire division was sent to silence the rising rebellion in the east, along with two divisions of Northerners. All were lost to Princess Jenna. You have few troops on hand, and resources stretched thin. We must–“

Darius whirled, charged, and before Eleni could soften the truth, she found herself dangling with his hand wrapped around her throat. “We, dearest sister? We must what?”

Her heart hammered in her chest, and instinct screamed at her to fight, dig her fingernails into his forearm, scream, and kick toward his groin, yet she did none of these things. Fighting would only inflame him. Crying out would only incite his need to hear more screams and pleading.

“Allies,” she forced the word out through her strangled throat.

He set her on her feet but kept his fingers locked around her neck. “I’m listening.”

Dark spots filled her vision and she couldn’t help a loud rasp, fighting for air through her constricted windpipe. Eleni gasped out, “disposable allies…fighters…no claim to Throne.”

“Who?” His voice was still cold with menace, but he grudgingly loosened his fingers enough that she hauled in a wheezing breath. “The bitch has taken Allandor, my strongest enemy, along with all its allies. Pella will stand with me, but it’s only a duchy, no match for the other countries in our happy republic.”

Eleni took another deep breath of air before answering. She had a feeling he would dislike this answer as well. “Keldar.”

“Savages?” Darius laughed, his dark eyes dancing as he slowly squeezed his hand shut again. “Why should the High King of all the Green Lands seek help from desert bandits?”

A wave of nausea flooded her stomach as the darkness rolled back. So many times she’d feared he would kill her. She’d dreamed it for years, in a thousand gruesome ways. Surely he wouldn’t kill her this way, so easily; endless torture was much more to his liking. She forced the word out. “Revenge.”

He waited for her to continue, but she couldn’t get enough air. Head aching, lungs blazing in agony, she clutched his wrist and tried to keep the pleas out of her eyes. Keep calm, she thought. No panic, no tears. That will only infuriate him.

Impatient, he slung her on the floor. She fell on her back, barely catching herself on her elbows to avoid smashing her skull open on the marble. Panting, she concentrated on breathing. With her skirts tumbled crazily, her silk stockings were bared to the room, but she made no move to cover herself. Darius would enjoy humiliating her before the entire High Court with worse if she acted missish. He’d done so, countless times already. He knew very well how best to torment and punish without a single mark.

“I’m waiting.”

“Would it not be poetic justice for you to use her distant relatives to quell her rebellion?”

Darius stroked his chin and jaw. “Perhaps. The idea has merit, but only if the savages would consider such an alliance. From the little we know of Keldar, they have no such inclinations. They know only thieving and killing.”

Now to play her most important card, the one ace that might free her from beneath her brother’s boot heel. “They’ve shown an undue interest in Green Land women in the last few years, don’t you think?”

Eyes narrowed, he stared at her for several long moments before gesturing that she could rise and continue.

“We’ve lost two caravans to Keldari raiders in the past month, and both times they took the goods and Green Land women. The men were either killed or ignored. The merchant of the last caravan had a Mambian wife, and she was untouched.”

“Perhaps the savages have no taste for exotic women.”

“I can find out for you,” she said, trying to keep the eagerness out of her eyes. “Once they capture me, I’ll bargain with their leader and win them to your cause.”

“You?” Darius turned away, hiding his face from her. He knew how well she read people. “I can’t spare you, Eleni. I considered sending you to Princess Jenna instead to parley.”

“Humbly, Your Majesty, I suggest that might be a mistake. Do you want your greatest enemy to have your best eyes and ears? Why not use me, instead, to win a horde of savages you can loose on the rebels?”

He paced, silent and hard and grim. He valued her skills as a negotiator, but he was also possessive of her. Why, when he enjoyed beating and berating her for the simple pleasure of seeing her broken yet again?

“I can’t lose you, Eleni.”

Despite all the years of torture and abuse, her heart still warmed. He was her only family left in this entire world. He’d done horrible things, and forced her to join him time after time. Yet he was her brother, and she loved him.

“Before Father died, he told me that he’d dreamed I would seize the High Throne and legitimize his royal blood. The key to my success was you, dearest sister. As long as you were by my side, I would hold Shanhasson. But if I lost you…“

Darius threw himself onto the High Throne and buried his face in his hands. Stunned, Eleni went to him and hesitantly laid her hand on his head. She’d never seen such vulnerability from her brother.

“He told me I would be better off to cut your heart out of your chest before ever letting you out of my sight.”

Her hand froze. Horror churned her stomach, burning up her throat. She could well picture their father telling young Darius such a thing. Their family had long been tormented by nightmares, darkness, and taint through their bloodline. Touched by Shadow, they wrought evil in the world without premeditation simply by breathing. Since their grandfather had raped his own High Queen all those years ago, her family’s existence was a testament to the evil done in the world by men’s hands.

Ignoring the terror screaming through her body, she forced her fingers back to his hair. She stroked him like a little boy and deliberately lightened her voice. “I’m never out of your sight, Your Majesty, not when you haunt my dreams every night.”

“True.” Darius raised his head, a smile quirking his sensual lips. His eyes were dark with madness, hurt, and death. Worst of all, though, was the mirth. The foul joy he found in such atrocities. He could kiss and pardon or murder with his own hand, and his eyes would never change. “I will walk in your dreams every night, dearest. I will know if you intend to betray me.”

He reached out and touched her neck with the steel blade of a knife she hadn’t even seen him draw. His voice lowered to a silky smooth seduction that prefaced his most horrific crimes. “I can kill without laying a single hand on you, Eleni. But it would be much sweeter to hear your screams, taste your blood, and earn your agony with my own hands. Do not fail me, dear sister, or I will leave my throne for that bitch, Jenna, who dares to challenge me and hunt you down in the darkest, farthest reaches of the world.”

Relief and terror warred in her heart. He would let her go, for now.

To win her freedom, her brother must die. She couldn’t do it herself, though, and the very people who would bring him to justice would rightfully execute her as well. She had to win an ally for herself. She needed someone far from Shanhasson and strong enough to protect her from him, someone who could kill him.

Darius had chained her at his side her entire life with her love and duty. Now, before the darkness growing in her heart claimed the last bit of the hope, before he killed her with that love, she had to flee.

Survive My Fire Excerpt

Available at Drollerie Press.

A foreign scent intruded while I slept. A warrior. Miles away and on foot, he wouldn’t reach my lair until dusk. Sweat and musk, muscle and pride. Oh, how tasty, how divine a feast.

My dreams became torment in the roasting heat of afternoon. Memories returned from centuries ago, of my life before the curse. Rage crawled in the dark secret fissures of my heart, a fire stoked hour by hour. Trapped in this prison of wing, scale, and claw, I hated the approaching warrior. His phantom blood burned on my tongue.

I would tear him limb from limb. Shred his skin and lick his spicy blood from the unforgiving sands. Crack bone to feast on his marrow. I would dine on his fear, shred his dreams and char his most secret hopes.

As soon as the sun touched the horizon and shadows stretched across the red sands, I crept from my lair.

Hundreds of warriors over the years have braved my domain. They came with sword and magic, bows and shields, hearts bursting with courage, hope, rage, envy, even lust.

They came, and they died.

I killed them all.

This one would be no different.

Ah, but he was a cocky son of a bitch. He stood in plain view on the highest point of my barrens. His back to me, he stared out over the empty Well of Tears. The Well I had not been able to fill despite an eternity of suffering.

The dying sun blazed behind me, outlining his warrior’s body, the proud tilt of his head, and then the chiseled lines of his face as he turned. Dark eyes, shadowed, hollowed with misery. Keldar was a hard land, a hard life, even for a warrior.

A curved scimitar gleamed in the growing shadows, ready in his hand but not offensive. Not threatening, not yet. The black taamid flapped about his shoulders like wings, loose and flowing to the ground. Leather knife straps crossed his chest, and a coiled whip hung on his hip. I could smell the sweet herbed oil used to keep the dragon hide supple.

No fear flickered in his steady gaze. No emotion showed on his stone face. He stared at me, waiting. For what?

Casually, I flicked a wing at him. He ducked, tucked into a smooth roll to the side, and flipped back to his feet. Impressive. Instead of trying to knock him down, I flipped around and grabbed him with my tail as thick as his body. Squeezing scaled muscle around his chest, I locked him in bands of living iron he couldn’t possibly break.

Crush him. I would crush his bones, blood spray–

Pain.

The curved blade slid into my flesh, just enough to anger me. I slung him to the ground so hard I heard his ribs creak. But no grunt of pain. Not from him.

The scent of blood–even my own–brought my hunger roaring to life. I breathed deeply and threw my head back. Flames blazed to the heavens. The ground rumbled and cringed beneath my claws. I heard horses miles away scream in terror and I knew people quaked in their flimsy hide tents and whispered prayers to deaf and uncaring Gods.

The warrior before me licked my blood from his blade.

He dared to taste my blood. A shiver crawled down my spine. This was no ordinary warrior. Already, I felt a gnat’s brush against my mind through the fragile blood bond he attempted to weave.

I dared say mine was a bitter and noxious brew compared to the sweet wealth of his blood that would soon roll in my belly. With my hunger fully awakened, I ignored my unease. I flapped my wings and scrambled at him.

He dodged aside with a roll and then leapt, kicking sand in my eyes. A child’s trick. I didn’t have to see him. I smelled him. Burnt cinnamon, roasted sage, sweat, warrior.

I would eat him alive.

He led me on a merry chase, and I found myself strangely reluctant to end the game. He smelled so good, fought with such tenacity. I felt something other than rage. Or hatred. A strange joy burned in my dragon heart.

Enough. I seized him delicately in my front claws, pinning him flat on his back against the red sands. Panting, he stared up at me. No fear, still, and he even gave me the barest hint of a smile, if the faint wrinkle around his eyes was any indication.

“I’m Jalan tal‘Krait.”

I cocked my head, trying to remember what words meant. Tal, chief, of the tribe called Krait.

“I’m the last Krait dra’gwar.”

I blew hard, shaking my head. I had no understanding of the last word. Warrior class, I guessed. The last? The Kraits were once a mighty clan even in my day, second only to the Mambas. Oh, how the years eroded everything. Even the unshakeable rock crumbled before the winds of time.

Lowering my spined muzzle, I sniffed at his neck. Peeling my lips back, I snagged his clothing in my teeth and tugged it aside to reveal darkly bronzed skin. Black hair spilled like blood against the rock.

I tasted him, just a lick, a graze of teeth. He shuddered in my grasp. My claws broke his skin despite my care.

Blood. Oh so sweet, so rich. I licked the fine red trails from his skin. The only element missing was fear. A few high-pitched screams to flavor my meat.

So I gripped harder, shaking him. No sound, no cry of pain, no harsh intake of breath. Curious, I raised my head.

He searched the sky behind me, and at last a small smile curved his lips. Night fell around us while I played with my food. So why was it so bright?

Why did my scales twitch and dance along my back? Why did my wings tremble, white feathers and scales raining about us? Agony wracked my body, twisting and crunching my bones, reshaping my body. I roared with fury, but flames died in my mouth. Ash filled my lungs.

Straddling my prey, I jerked around. A full moon hung low in the sky, enormous gleaming silver. Melting my shining white scales to skin. My wings to limbs. My powerful body to this slim, fragile gossamer of blood and skin.

Human.

How had he known?