The Road to Shanhasson: Gregar

Out of the cast of a hundred of so characters in the Shanhasson trilogy, I get the most comments about Gregar, the Shadowed Blood.  I even wrote a prequel short story from his point of view (available here as a free read), and I often joked about The Road to Shanhasson being “Gregar’s Book.”  He’s my Muse; when I think of the “still silent voice” that helps me write, it’s his voice I hear.  Even when I’m writing something different, he touches my writing. 

Let’s just say, he’s been a very, very bad influence on me, in a very good way.

What’s funny is that I created him and the rest of the Shanhasson cast long before I knew anything about “proper” character development.  Which is maybe why he’s so very, very wicked. 

So with small excerpts from The Shadowed Blood (pdf), The Rose of Shanhasson, and The Road to Shanhasson as appropriate for illustration:

Top Ten Reasons Why Gregar Isn’t a Proper Romancelandia Hero

(See explanation of proper at the bottom of this post.)

10. He has a terrible, ribald sense of humor. 

 

“Will you let me claim you here and now?” Rhaekhar asked.

From the heated thickness in his voice, she dreaded asking for an explanation.  “Claim?”

“Gregar, what is the proper word?” 

“Marry, wed, consummate, pleasure, mate, copulate, tup,” the dark-haired warrior replied with a wicked smile of delight.

 

9. Gregar is famous on the Plains for “arse competitions.” 

 

“Since you’re new to the Plains, you might not know that Gregar is actually very famous.” Watching the red-haired young man, she narrowed her gaze, wary of his wide-eyed innocence. “You could always ask them for an arse competition.”

She spluttered. “What?”

Dharman groaned. “That isn’t appropriate for Khul’lanna’s claiming.”

“Why not?” Sal winked at her and whispered conspiratorially. “You must like their arses rather well.”

Face hot, she started walking toward the center of Camp. Dharman still held her upper arm, walking slightly behind her and close enough he would trip over her feet if he wasn’t careful.

The lad with the wretched sense of humor walked alongside her. “Don’t you?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“At the Kae’Khul, he made quite an impression on everyone. Alea still remarks about it sometimes.”

“Only when you’re up to mischief yourself,” Dharman retorted. “Leave Khul’lanna alone, Sal. She obviously doesn’t want to talk about arses, Gregar’s, Khul’s, or yours for that matter.”

“But Alea often mutters that I could give Gregar a hard gallop for his rahke. When I’m older, of course.”

A surge of what Shannari could only call jealousy burned in her stomach at the thought of the tall sun-kissed woman getting an eyeful of Gregar’s ass, delightful or not as it might be. Through his bond, she felt only a smug silence, which actually made her madder. “Tell me about the Kae’Khul. Is that when Rhaekhar became Khul?”

“Oh, aye, it was a glorious event,” Sal replied. “Gregar and Varne were at it as usual …”

“Wait. I thought they were friends, like you and Dharman.”

“Nay, Khul’lanna,” Dharman said. “Friends, true, but there has always been an edge between them. They aren’t friends like Sal and I. We have an understanding.”

“An understanding?”

“What’s mine is his; what’s his is mine. I lead; he follows. There are no questions or doubts between us.”

“Unless it comes to mischief.” Sal leaned in close to whisper. “Then I lead Dharman where he’d hesitate to go.”

“Aye, and have led me into more trouble than I care to admit.” Although grumbling, Dharman smiled at his friend. “I shall lead you to yet greater trouble soon enough.”

“I cannot wait,” Sal breathed, his face softening with something rather like reverence.

“Me, either, my friend. Me either.”

They both looked at her with expectation, hope, and a sort of worshipful awe that embarrassed her. If they knew even half of the darkness that she carried inside … The Lady’s Lake within her resonated with a deep humming echo of power. Uneasy, she changed the subject. “So did Khul compete in this arse competition at the Kae’Khul?”

“Nay, the competition was between Gregar and Varne. It started as a friendly bet, but I believe they came close to formal challenge. I always thought they disagreed over which would lead as nearest Blood to Khul, but now …” Dharman glanced at her, his gaze considering. “Whatever the disagreement, Gregar lightened the argument with a joke, dared Varne to an arse competition—”

“Which he won, of course,” Sal added helpfully.

“Aye, and gained legendary status as a result. I’ve heard he’s even been known to flip up his memsha at kae’don to infuriate his opponents.”

She could absolutely picture it: the dark-haired Blood, laughing and winking as he flipped up the short cloth about his hips. He’d probably shout a few obscenities, too, all to better rile his opponent.

:Kiss my arse works rather well.:

 

8. He used to be a Death Rider, an assassin dedicated to the Great Wind Stallion.

  

She pointed her sword at Gregar.  “Back off.”

The Blood took a step closer, pressing the sword tip into his body.  Her jaw tightened with determination and she pushed a little harder, puncturing his chest.  Smiling with anticipation, Gregar pushed back.  A little closer, a little more steel pressing into his body.

She shifted her grip on the hilt, fully prepared to skewer him.  A coldness settled on her features that told Rhaekhar she’d killed before and often.  Very impressive.  He liked a hint of danger in a woman. 

Evidently, so did Gregar.  “Go ahead,” he taunted, his low voice echoing with amusement and his trademark wickedness.  Shannari shivered and her eyes widened.  “Run me through.  I shall greatly enjoy it.”

Her gaze flickered to the smaller wound she dealt to Rhaekhar’s neck earlier.  “Are you all crazy?”

“Gregar is… special.  He used to be a Death Rider.”  At the blank look on her face, Rhaekhar added, “An assassin.  Death Riders delight in sacrificing blood to the Great Wind Stallion.  Blood sacrifice is a very great honor among us.”

She jerked her sword away.  Gregar wiped his hand across his chest and licked the blood from his fingers.  “Would you like a taste?”

 

7. As a Death Rider, he can wrap himself in Shadows and disappear, lying in wait until his mark comes close enough to sacrifice. 

She stared at the feathered arrow sticking out of her shoulder. How could she have forgotten the archer? She fell to her knees and used the tall grass to shield herself, but it might not be enough.

“Khul’lanna!” Gregar roared with fury that another had hurt her. Only the Shadowed Blood was allowed that privilege. Shadow swallowed him, engulfing him whole, and Death came like a killing frost up the hill toward her.

 

 

6. He’s arguably one of the best rahke fighters on the Plains and is never without his ivory knife that he earned as a Death Rider.  Just don’t ask what the “ivory” hilt is made out of if you don’t really want to know.

“This one is Gregar, my shadowed Blood who used to be a Death Rider.”

So cold.  She opened her mouth to ask where he was, her teeth chattering harder.  A blade touched her neck and she froze.  Blessed Lady, the Blood was close enough to hold a knife to her throat while she sat here, oblivious until he touched her with steel.  As always when threatened from her blind spot, terror screamed through her body.  Muscles bunched, her fingers locking on the hilt, her heart thundering in her ribcage.  Her fear only intensified the sense of bone-chilling cold rolling off the Blood. 

Varne removed his hand from hers and stood at Rhaekhar’s side protectively.  Automatically, she started to draw the sword.  Helpless with a knife at her throat, she couldn’t just sit here and—

The wickedly sharp blade lifted her chin higher and the sudden press of bare flesh against her back scalded her.  The Blood whispered against her ear.  “Shall I draw a bit more of your sweet blood for Khul?”

 

#

 

Gregar hovered against her back, barely visible in thick, black shadows.  As a Death Rider, he could wrap the cold Shadow of Death about himself and disappear.  He could slit Shannari’s throat before she even knew he was there, and the knowledge shook her to the core.  Silently, Rhaekhar waited for her to look to him for assistance.

The Blood whispered something to her too low for him to hear.  Her jaw clenched and she stiffened, her fingers tight on the sword’s hilt.  Shadows draped across her shoulders, darkening her face.

Rhaekhar felt a sudden and irrational urge to drag her away from the Blood.  In his heart he knew the Blood would never hurt her, but he couldn’t ease the trepidation.  The shadows wanted to suck her down and drown her in a sea of blood and agony. 

Gregar raised his head, his dark eyes glittering like black ice in the shadows.  At his familiar smirk, Rhaekhar loosened the tension straining his shoulders. 

“Or perhaps I shall draw Khul’s blood for you.”

Her gaze leaped to Rhaekhar’s face, her eyes wide with fear and reluctant desire.  The surge of hunger through their na’lanna bond at the thought of tasting his blood very nearly sent him plunging over the cliff into raging, uncontrollable lust.  Why did she fear his disgust when he would like nothing better than to give his blood to her?

“Leave us,” he ordered, his voice thick and heavy to his own ears. 

Gregar drew his rahke up her neck, trailing the blade across her cheek in an odd, dangerous caress, but he stood and backed away.

 

5. Before Gregar became Blood, he very nearly assassinated the main hero of the Shanhasson trilogy.

Rhaekhar dropped his voice to a fervent whisper.  “The Rose will be mine, a love like no other.”

Those words rocked Gregar to his heels and the Shadowed Call thundered louder.

Kill him, kill him, KILL HIM!

This warrior would be Khul, any Death Rider’s greatest mark.  Nay, the woman, his woman, would be Khul’lanna, his greatest mark, his most secret heart’s desire, and Rhaekhar would take her as his own.

Gregar held himself very still, but inside, his heart raged, his stomach rebelled, and his very blood boiled in his veins in denial.  The ivory rahke came into his hand eagerly, hungry for this warrior’s blood.

 

4. He knows he’s going to die, and soon.  Surely that makes him poor romance hero material, right?

“While I live, no one will touch you with steel or blade again.  As long as you let me stay close, at your back, like this.”

“I can’t love again.”

“You already do.”

Gregar spoke so matter-of-factly, so calmly, while she wanted to hack and slash all about her with a sword.  “Even if I do, I can’t stay.  I know my destiny, Gregar.  I must return to the Green Lands.”

“Eventually.”  He rubbed his cheek against hers and then released her.  “I know my destiny, too, and Khul’s.  Your priest is not the only one who has premonitions.  I’ve seen the day of my death.  I’ve seen the years of happiness it will buy you with Khul.  And it’s worth the sacrifice.”

 

3. He loves Shannari, but she’s also his greatest mark as a Death Rider.  e.g. the temptation to kill her rides him hard.

 

Midnight eyes pooled with tears, she lay beneath him, trembling as his life’s blood poured out on her skin.  She had not come easily to his embrace.  She never did.  Fighting for her life, she’d enjoyed wounding him as much as he’d relished her pain.

 She fed his darkness like no other. 

“I love you.”

“Aye,” he whispered, smoothing his thumb over the pulse thumping frantically in her throat.  “My heart is yours, na’lanna.” 

My beloved.

And he buried the ivory rahke in her heart.

 

2. Pain and blood only turn him on.  

Shannari took a long, shuddering breath.  Her eyes flew open.  And with a low, vicious cry, she buried the rahke in Gregar’s chest. 

The dark-haired Blood with the wicked smile fell forward slowly, the knife in his chest still in her hand.  Horrified, Shannari tried to pull back, but his hands gripped hers in a vise, pressing the blade deeper.

He fell on her, staring into her eyes.  No surprise, no reprisals, no pain.  His gaze was heavy lidded, smoldering with desire, pleasure, raw hunger, death.  Blood gushed from the wound, searing her skin.

“Thank you,” Gregar whispered, his voice thick.  “You honor me.”

 

1. He has no limits. 

Her voice flat and cold, she admitted the atrocity of her Dream. “I let you hurt me, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed hurting Khul by letting you hurt me. And then I killed you.”

“Shadow lies to you again, Shannari.” Gregar unsheathed the ivory rahke and laid it on the tent floor before him. “I’m tainted with Shadow, this we all know. However, my heart’s desire is not to die in your embrace.” He forced the words from his throat, and ice fisted Rhaekhar’s heart with each word. “My most secret heart’s desire is for you to die in my embrace. It’s what I dreamed for years before I became Blood. I killed you a thousand times before I ever knew your name.”

“You would enjoy hurting me,” she whispered, a question not an accusation. “You would enjoy killing me.”

“I have no limits,” Gregar replied, his voice cracking with strain. “I warned you, and I warned Khul. That’s why I refuse to participate in your claiming and why I didn’t push for you to admit your love for me. Aye, I would hurt you and enjoy it. I would kill you and enjoy it, even while I raged at myself for ending your life. I love you too much to risk you.”

 

Despite knowing he’ll die, that he will kill her if given half a chance, Shannari still loves him.  And yeah, so do I.

And here’s the explanation about why Gregar always puts special emphasis on proper.

“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.”

Reviewers, Readers with Blogs

I’m looking for reviewers for The Road to Shanhasson.  It’s proving slightly more difficult than usual because this is book two of a trilogy, and Road will ONLY make sense if you’ve read Rose too.  I can’t send it blindly to the normal romance review sites if I can’t guarantee the same reviewer will be assigned.  And, well, Road isn’t exactly standard Romancelandia fare, with violence, extreme sexual situations, and some really really bad villains.  

Then there’s Gregar, the sadomasochist assassin.

So if you have a blog or website, you’d like to read some smoking hot romantic fantasy, and you’re not grossed out by violence and blood, please drop me a line or comment here and I will contact you. 

A few of you have already read Road, so if you’re so kind as to blog about it, let me know so I can link to you.  (Let me know if it’s okay for me to pull an excerpt from your post to advertise both here and at Drollerie Press.) 

The first two chapters of Road are now posted if you’d like to take a gander first.

Thank you!

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.

 

 

Calling All Gregar Fans

All these threats of making me go to the doctor might be helping me feel better.  Or maybe it was simply eating the first real food of the day.

Or maybe it’s just getting some excellent news!

Tomorrow, “Prometheus Unbound” will be included in the weekly newsletter at All Romance E-Books.  This is a great opportunity to reach new people and let them see a bit of the Mythomorphoses world.  Hopefully they’ll be intrigued enough to come visit Athens with Isabella. 

In pulling together my backlist and coming soon items for the newsletter, Deena and I agreed to target: 

The Road to Shanhasson, March 2009

Which I often called “Gregar’s Book.”

I’ll be making my final pass on paper tonight to make sure all the loose ends are tied up now that I know exactly how the trilogy ends, and then I’ll work with Deena the next few months to ensure the story shines as brightly as Gregar’s ivory rahke.

Oh, and over lunch, I finished the first draft of the short story, which came in just under 2,400 words.  Yes, Virginia, it is possible for me to write something less than 100,000 words!

Blood and Shadows Timeline

As much as possible, each story is independent of the others unless clearly stated otherwise (like the Shanhasson trilogy). The Keldari novellas do not have to be read in any certain order, but subtle references between them do exist. This document lists the explicit timeline of the world as a whole for the purist who wants to read in exactly the right order.

Title Historical Significance Setting
Survive My Fire Chanda and Jalan form tribe Tellan Keldar
The Horse Master Origination of the Shadowed blood line in Shanhasson Keldari rav’Tellan visits Shanhasson
The Fire Within Agni Comes to Keldar and issues a dread commission Shanhasson visits Keldar
Touch the Sky First Death Rider is Called by Vulkar Sha’Kae al’Dan Plains
Given In Fire A kidnapped Prince is saved by a Keldari woman Keldar and Shanhasson
The Shadowed Blood Gregar must choose between Death Rider and Blood Sha’Kae al’Dan Plains
The Rose of Shanhasson Destined High Queen finds Our Blessed Lady’s greatest gift of all Green Lands visits the Plains
The Road to Shanhasson Shannari claims the High Throne Sha’Kae al’Dan to Shanhasson
Return to Shanhasson Shannari fights to keep the High Throne Primarily Shanhasson with Keldari vistors and a trip to the Plains