Review: Return to Shanhasson

Mea culpa, Sherri actually won the “first review kae’don” but I totally missed it!  I’ve fallen behind on my blog feeds and google alert failed me.  Read her entire review here:

Where Joely shines is her characters. Not a two-dimensional person among them. These characters are so real. (I think I said it best in my review of Road when I said, “I lived a lifetime between these pages!”) I love with them. I laugh with them. I hurt with them. I cry and scream with them. Even with the hints peppered on Joely’s blog I came apart completely at one point. And yes, I screamed, scaring the dog, LOL. There were more than a few tears, not just sad but happy ones too, during this story.

Aw, poor Roxy!  Thank you so much, Sherri!  You’re absolutely right about Shannari being a little exhausted.  *winks*

P.S. Don’t forget – TODAY is the last day to enter the giveaway!

Review: Return to Shanhasson

Many thanks to Soleil for not just reviewing all the Shanhasson books — but for also helping me beta read an early copy of Return before submission.  Here’s her review with a snippet:

Shannari has come along way since Rhaekhar, Khul of the Nine Camps of the Sha’Kae al’Dan, decimated her army and won her heart. She’s become such an iconic heroine for me. I have watched her love, hate, fight, win ….and lose. I have watched her suffer, truly suffer some horrific events and come out all the stronger for it. Because Shannari dal’Dainnari never ran from anything. Not for long. Her truly epic capacity for love puts all other heroines to shame. None of them can hold a candle to her passion.If there was one thing Joely managed to get through to this cynic, it’s that love can save you, no matter how Shadowed you are.

*wipes away a happy tear*  That’s exactly what I hoped this series would say.  Thank you so much, Soleil!

Return to Shanhasson – Spicy Excerpt

 

Return to Shanhasson, book 3 of The Shanhasson Trilogy, a Blood and Shadows book available at Drollerie Press.  For more of my free reads, check out this page.

“I thought your Green Land baths very strange after our steamtents, but I enjoy a long soak, especially when you’re at my side.”

She stirred and stretched her arms over her head, arching her back in blatant invitation. “Why don’t you lie down on the edge and let me begin my massage?”

Eyes heavy lidded, he ran his gaze down her body, but he complied, his mighty arms levering his big body out of the water. “I thought you wanted to give me such a bath that I would lose control.”

“I am. On your stomach, please.”

Laughing, he stretched out as she wished, carefully shifting his weight so he didn’t lie completely flat on his belly. “I can’t fully comply for obvious reasons.”

“Well, let’s see what I can do about that,” she purred.

Dunking her head beneath the water, she surged up out of the pool and straddled his lower back.

Na’lanna.” His voice was rather strained. “I don’t believe this is a very good starting position. One of us is backwards and it is not you.”

“Patience, my heart. I want to give you a massage first.”

“I don’t want a massage.” Heat rumbled through his voice that had nothing to do with anger. “I want you. Preferably this very moment.”

Selecting the smoky amber vial, she popped off the cork and sniffed it carefully. Exotic scents washed over her: roasted sticks nearly burnt, dark, sultry sandalwood, and beneath, a feral musk that she couldn’t identify.

According to Benton, the desert dwellers of Keldar threw sticks and seeds onto a stone, let the natural heat of the sun roast them, and then they tossed the burnt spices into both their tea and oil. Since their drink of choice was called “Fire Tea,” the oil had captured her imagination, for obvious reasons.

She poured a small amount into her hands and rubbed it into her skin, testing it on herself. The oil heated immediately, releasing a mouth-watering aroma of exotic sandalwood. Whether the oil heated her skin or her skin heated the oil, she didn’t know, but the spreading fire was unmistakable. It didn’t hurt, though, so she smoothed her palms from the small of Rhaekhar’s back up the slabs of muscle to his shoulders. Kneading her way across his shoulders, she said nothing, waiting to see his reaction.

“Great Vulkar, woman, what is that?”

“Fire Oil,” she replied innocently. She didn’t know what the Keldari called it. “Doesn’t it smell delicious?”

“Forget how it smells.” He sucked in his breath and shifted beneath her, his back humping like a horse getting ready to buck her off. “No wonder it’s called Fire Oil; my flesh is on fire.”

“You don’t like it?”

He shuddered, his big hands fisted in the soft mat. “If I were inside you, I’d like it much better.”

Stretching out on top of him, she rubbed her breasts against his back, spreading the oil into her skin. Deliberately, she moaned, tormenting him with her own sounds of desire. It did feel like fire spread across her skin. The scent burrowed deeper in her body, twisting and stirring her hunger. She gripped his shoulder in her jaws and slowly sank her teeth into the heavy muscle until he growled and moved beneath her, his hands sliding back to tug at her ankles and calves.

Her lips and tongue heated with the oil, buzzing and tingling as she rubbed her mouth across the broad expanse of his back. “You smell good enough to eat.”

Wriggling lower on his thighs, she licked a path down his spine, smoothing her palms up and down his flanks. She bit him again, hard enough he groaned so loudly the Blood must surely hear it. “Remember our challenge. You’re not going to lose control, are you?”

“That depends.” Panting, he raised his head enough to glare at her over his shoulder. Sweat dripped into his eyes, and his hair was dark and heavy with steam. “Are you finally going to mark my arse?”

She’d marked Gregar’s ass years ago on the night of their claiming, and Rhaekhar had long regretted that he’d lost that competition, even though he wore many other marks on his throat and chest. “That was my general intention.”

He buried his face in his forearm and cursed, muttering beneath his breath so she couldn’t make out his words. She took that as permission. But first…

She poured more oil into her hands and kneaded it into both cheeks and down his hamstrings. Lady above, she’d never seen a finer warrior. Hot velvet skin stretched tight over sculpted granite, he was a complex mixture of explosive power and incredible gentleness. Although there was nothing gentle about his hoarse growl when she reached under his raised hip to wrap her oiled hand around him.

“I’m going…” He arched his back, lifting his rump so he could thrust in her hand. “To pour…that cursed oil…all over you…while I hold you down…and let your Blood…lick it off.”

Lady, he might as well have doused her head to toe in the sizzling oil. Immediately, her mind pictured it: Rhaekhar lying at her head, pinning her arms against him, while auburn and golden brown heads moved eagerly down her body.

Using his own challenge words, she retorted, “You’re welcome to try.”

She struck, biting deep, gripping his cheek in a punishing bite until blood filled her mouth. Rich with strength, spiced with love, his blood stoked a fire in her that had nothing to do with Keldari oil.

Whatever he meant to say was lost on a roar.

He rolled over so hard she tumbled off to the side and nearly spilled the oil. “Come here.”

“The challenge.” She couldn’t seem to catch her breath. “Do I win?”

He slammed his arms down to the mat, fists at his side. Eyes blazing, he ground out, “Continue.”

“Are you sure?”

He shot her a dark look. “Be wary with that oil, na’lanna. When I come inside you, it’ll spread like wildfire on your tender flesh, too.”

Holding his gaze, she tipped the vial over his chest. “I’m counting on it.”

Return to Shanhasson is Live!

Blessed Lady above, thank you for your bountiful blessings of love.

The final book in the Shanhasson trilogy, Return to Shanhasson, is now available at Drollerie Press here.  In the next few days it should also pop up on Amazon, B&N, etc.  I’ll add buy links as they’re available.

Reviewers:  please contact me (joelysueburkhart AT gmail DOT com) for a review copy!

What George RR Martin Taught Me

For my early formative years of writing (early 2000s), there were only a handful of authors I read heavily:  Robert Jordan, Laurell K. Hamilton, Amanda Quick, Julie Garwood, Johanna Lindsay, and George RR Martin.  Since the Shanhasson trilogy was my first project, you’ll probably see a lot of those influences.

I tried to take everything I loved from epic fantasy… the lushness of romance…and the sultry romps of LKH (before the arduer took over)…and create a world that contained it all.  Political intrigue, worldbuilding, large character casts, sweeping story arcs, epic journeys mixed with emotional relationships and complex erotic situations.  If LKH taught me that one heroine could have many lovers, then George RR Martin taught me…

To kill characters.

I’m so in love with Game of Thrones on HBO and I’m absolutely thrilled that it’s generating such excitement for people who might not have read the series, but seriously, I’m worried about people’s reactions as those beloved characters start dropping like flies. 

Okay, I don’t quite kill as many characters as Martin, but major characters DO die in the Shanhasson series.  If you already read Road, you know that.  But killing characters is a huge no-no in Romancelandia, and since I write a lot of romance and romance-like work, I want to be clear up front.

Return to Shanhasson is NOT a romance.

However, if your heart isn’t singing with joy at the end…and yes, a few tears might spill from your eyes (I cry every time I read it)…then I’ve failed utterly and completely.

To be completely fair, characters might be DEAD but they’re not GONE.  e.g. there are still scenes with the characters who were killed and they’re still important to the story.  They’re simply bound to appear only in Dreams.  So here’s a little twist for you:  if I bring back the beloved characters, then it’s only fair that I bring back the hated ones too, right?  *wicked grin*

Anyway, if you take a look at the Return to Shanhasson page, you’ll seen the following warning:

THIS TRILOGY IS NOT ROMANCE. Bad things happen. Significant characters die. Love is the greatest gift of all, and sometimes requires the greatest sacrifice. However, love shines in the darkest night. The road is long and hard, but when Shannari reaches her destination, she’ll reunite with all her loved ones she’s lost over the years and find more love and happiness than she’s ever known.

Thank you, Mr. Martin.

Return to Shanhasson Cover

We’re finalizing the release date as I type, but it’ll definitely be THIS MONTH!  Thank you, everyone, for your patience.  I hope the final book in the Shanhasson trilogy meets your wildest expectations!

Meet Mykal tal‘Mamba, a man so cloaked in Shadow that he doesn’t remember exactly who he is.  Or rather, who he’s been

Raising his voice, Mykal yelled after the fleeing trader. “Tell Shannari dal’Dainari that soon I’ll soar over her Shining Walls!”

Return to Shanhasson News

The formatting is complete and we’re working on the cover.  This one will be done by a new cover artist.  I’ll keep you posted but we’re very close!

REVIEWERS:  I have ARCs (pdf — and I can probably make you an epub too)!!!!  This is the third book in a trilogy and I’m afraid it will NOT make sense if you haven’t read the others.  If you’re interested in rating/reviewing on any book site and would like the book(s) please contact me!

Gregar is Coming…Again

I’ve been thinking about another short read before Return to Shanhasson, the final book in the trilogy, comes out in October.  Last night, Gregar walked in my dreams and gave me this, below, the opening to a new short project I’m working on.  Depending on its length, it’ll either be a standalone or combined with my other Blood & Shadows short stories for Kindle in the next month or two. 

I sure wish I had his image for the cover of Shadowed.  *hint hint*

Some men tremble in the face of death.

Others bare their teeth and fight to the very end.

While I’m the cold Shadow that glides forth from darkness to slit your throat before you even know I’m there. 

My name is Gregar and I’m the deadliest, most honored assassin on the Sha’Kae al’Dan’s Sea of Grass.  They call us Death Riders, for we ride death like the wind across the rolling Plains.  My hair is heavy with red kae’als, each bead a life that I have snuffed out in the Great Wind Stallion’s name.  Vulkar, may He sire many foals.  

My ivory rahke is silent and swift.  When I draw it, I will not sheathe my blade until it is red with blood, whether yours or mine.

Nothing short of death will stop me, but you cannot kill me.

For I am already dead.

Return to Shanhasson Chapter One

Merry Christmas!  My gift to you this year is Chapter One of the third Shanhasson book.   Deena hasn’t gotten her hands on this yet, so all mistakes are mine.  Warning:  there are inevitable spoilers to the first two books.

CHAPTER ONE

Blessed Lady above, if these vipers are my allies, then I am already doomed to Shadow.

Masking her disgust and impatience, Shannari struggled to keep silent while her advisers argued. After three years of ruling afar from the Plains, she felt less the High Queen than ever.

She watched the tells her father had trained her to notice: the tiny glances between King Phillip of Maston and Royce, the new Duke of Pella who’d replaced Stephan after his own peasants revolted; the deference every single one of these arguing idiots paid to King Challon, who sat silently at the opposite end of the table; and the utter disregard for her presence.

Her father, King Valche of Allandor, met her gaze and gave her a brief nod of encouragement.

Silently, she stood. The raised voices continued about her, the majority of her Council oblivious to her displeasure. King Challon noticed her signal but did nothing to alert the other men at the table, confirming his power at this table and his silent refusal to assist her. It’d been a mistake to include him on her Council. She knew that now. The others were powerful men in their own right but not threats.

King Challon appeared to be one of her closest allies—and had saved her life years ago when Theo would have murdered her outright–but she could sense the silent, invisible undercurrents eddying about him. He had his finger in the current and knew exactly which way the waters flowed, and it certainly wasn’t to the High Queen, Rose Crown or not.

Refusing to give any sign of her displeasure, she waited in silence until the elderly King of Taza noticed that she stood. Of an age that had long ago passed, he feebly pushed to his feet in respect. “Your Majesty!”

The raised voices slowly tapered off into an awkward silence. Royce, a very young cousin of Stephan’s and so a distant nephew to King Challon, actually blushed. Phillip refused to meet her gaze, but he’d possessed a rather weak stomach with respect to her ever since he’d seen how she opened the Gates of Shanhasson with the help of her Blood.

At the thought of them, their bonds suddenly filled her mind, gleaming so brightly that her vision tinged red.

As always, Dharman stood behind her, one hand on her person nearly every minute of the day. Most of the time, she honestly forgot his presence, until some small thought made her realize how close he was, how attached and attentive. Nothing passed him; no one approached her but through him.

Sal and Jorah crouched on either side of her. She’d tried to persuade them to stand, or at least allow her to provide them with chairs, but they both refused. They wanted to be ready to grab her and carry her to the floor beneath them at a moment’s notice. Each of them occasionally touched her, just a brush of a hand, their shoulder against her hip, some small assurance that she was well and they were near. It had become so constant and engrained that she forgot them.

Until they purposely reminded her.

:Let us clear this room for you, Khul’lanna.: Sal purred in her mind, the rich pelt and smug arrogance of an adored cat winding through her mind. :Allow me to slice off that one’s ears and the rest will listen to you.:

She knew he meant Phillip, the King of Maston. As if the man knew they were thinking of him, he flushed a dull red and averted his gaze. Sal gave a little rub with his head, a quick feline brush against her waist, begging not for attention, but for permission to gut the outlander who’d insulted her years ago.

Her stomach fluttered, an uneasy and unwanted response to the glide of that incredible auburn hair gliding across her. She couldn’t feel the soft heaviness of Sal’s hair through her armor, but she knew its weight and texture, and especially its scent. Sal smelled like one yummy gingerbread cookie that simply begged to be devoured.

She’d managed to avoid devouring him for years–a feat indeed.

He rumbled softly, very much a purr of satisfaction. The damned bond told them all entirely too much. Keeping a secret from one of them was next to impossible.

:You keep secrets only from yourself, Khul’lanna.: Dharman’s mental voice was slow, thick and sweet, the dark amber of honey. He might smell sweet and innocent like honeycakes, but over the years, he’d managed to lose most of his innocence.

Thanks to me. The thought pained her. The Blood had killed numerous times to protect her, and the body counts always increased when they were in the Green Lands. Her own countrymen made the Death Rider assassins appear lazy. A Plains assassin hadn’t tried for her in over a year.

Forcing her attention back to the table of expectant men, she let a small smile curve her lips. Benton, the Steward of Far Illione who had proven instrumental in Allandor’s acquisition of swift Keldari mounts for her army, immediately relaxed and smiled in return. The poor man was inept at politics, hence his post in the very far reaches of her kingdom. The others thought little of him, but she’d placed him on her Council for a reason.

She never forgot a favor or a gesture of good faith. That trust had been ill-placed in King Challon. Hopefully Benton was more worthy of her trust.

She reached up to remove the gold crown from her head and placed it on the gleaming mahogany table before her. Intricately carved roses wound about the crown with long spiked thorns sharp enough to make her scalp bleed if she didn’t place the crown carefully.

Silence deepened in the room. The nobles stared at the symbol of her right to rule this land as if the deadliest serpent uncoiled in preparation of a vicious strike.

Keeping her voice low, soft, and pleasant, she said, “Would any of you like to wear this crown?”

Royce made a small sound very much like a whimper, Benton blanched, averting his gaze and shaking his head so hard he lost his quizzing glass, while Phillip turned green as though he might vomit beneath the table.

It’s very heavy,” she continued, keeping her manner casual. “Every day that I’m here in Shanhasson, I hesitate before putting it on my head. You see, when I’m here so very close to the Great Seal, He stirs.”

She didn’t mention His name, but every Green Lander in the room shuddered and muttered a quick prayer to Our Blessed Lady.

Lygon, the Blackest Heart of Darkness, had walked her Dreams for years, trying night after night to lure her into Shadow. She didn’t try to hide the quiver in her voice or the dread thickening her voice.

Dharman pressed fully against her back and dropped both hands to her shoulders. He held her against him, the heat of his body solid and protective.

He knows when I’m here and strains harder to break free of His prison. Each day the chains weaken and thin. Each year, He touches the world easier. Someday He will stretch out his hand…” She met King Challon’s light blue gaze, so similar to his dead nephew’s eyes. “…And simply throttle us all.”

Not unless you die, Your Majesty,” King Challon replied, thoroughly unruffled by her grim prediction. “As long as you live, your blood bars Him away from Our Blessed Lady’s Green and Beautiful Lands.”

Somehow, she thought he meant those words as a curse instead of a blessing. “So why are there so many attempts on my life each time I return to Shanhasson?”

None of them dared answer. Even King Challon broke and glanced down, avoiding the question. Someone in this room wanted her dead very badly.

Perhaps all of them.

:You know that is far from the truth.: Sal touched her again, deliberately nudging her thigh harder, a playful attempt to distract her from such grim thoughts. :I want something very badly, and I assure you, Khul’lanna, it is not your death.:

Heat crept across her cheeks, but she carefully kept her gaze up instead of looking down at the young man rubbing himself against her side. At least most of what he did was hidden beneath the table so her Council didn’t know.

Enough.” Directed at Sal, the word came out harsher than she intended. King Challon’s gaze jerked back to her face, narrowed in consideration. If a sharper tone got her Council’s attention, all the better. “Am I High Queen? Do you want my protection against Lygon’s foulness, or shall I allow His Shadow to taint you all until Our Lady’s Green Lands are destroyed utterly?”

They hesitated. They actually had to think about it.

She was losing them. Inch by inch, day by day, her Council plotted more openly against her. She lost another acre of her country to Shadow. She couldn’t be here every single day. Lady help her, the few days she managed to travel such distance from the Plains was already difficult enough. She and Rhaekhar both had extensive responsibilities to the Nine Camps of the Sha’Kae al’Dan. At least they treated her with some amount of respect.

Most of them, she amended. Even after three years, not all of her husband’s people welcomed an outlander in their midst.

I’m losing, she thought sadly, shaking her head. Blessed Lady, forgive me for failing you.

Sadness and guilt, regret and heartache, another brick stacked on her heart, another weight she had to carry. So many deaths lay along her path to the Rose Crown and the High Throne of the Green Lands, only to be mistrusted, doubted, and betrayed. The unfairness of it strangled her.

Without another glance, she turned away and strode toward the door. Dharman glided at her back, Sal and Jorah each at her side without a single command from her. They knew her thoughts before she did. Two Blood proceeded her; the rest trailed to protect her back from the roomful of outlanders they knew would eliminate her without a second glance.

Your Majesty! Your Crown!”

Bitterly, she replied over her shoulder, “Wear it if you dare.”

Her threat carried little weight. No one would touch it. Legends said that any man who dared lay a single finger on Our Blessed Lady’s Rose Crown would instantly fall dead. If only her enemies would dare such a foolhardy attempt then they’d all be eliminated effortlessly.

#

By the pale, tight look on her face, Rhaekhar knew her meeting had not gone well. He suppressed a sigh. If she felt his impatience to return to the Plains, then she would only feel more guilt and frustration that she kept him from his duties as Khul.

Muttering, Varne shook his head. “Why doesn’t Dharman simply gut them all?”

Amused, Rhaekhar agreed, noting the grim slant to her First Blood’s mouth and his white-knuckled grip on his rahke. Each of her Blood glowered at any and all outlanders, frustrated by their inability to punish those who didn’t support their Khul’lanna wholeheartedly. That so many of them plotted to murder her infuriated them all.

Even when Khul approached his mate they were slow to make way and allow him to touch her. As soon as she stepped foot on Green Land soil, the assassins attacked each and every day. Rhaekhar could forgive her Blood much as long as they kept her alive and well.

A tough kae’don, my heart?” Rhaekhar cupped her cheek in his hand, stroking his thumb tenderly over her lip. “May I challenge any of your Council this day?”

No,” she grumbled, burying her face against him. He felt her breathe deeply and immediately some of the tension eased from her shoulders. “If I let you kill everyone who disagreed with me, they’d all be dead.”

Perhaps you need a change in strategy.”

She raised her face, her gaze narrowed in thought.

You have tried well-reasoned arguments and bargains with men who have no honor.” Rhaekhar couldn’t keep the distaste out of his voice and didn’t try to hide it. She knew very well what each trip to the Green Lands meant to him, to her Blood, to any warrior used to wearing his honor and pride for all to see. These people had no understanding of honor. How could they, when they wished their own Queen dead? “You are a warrior at heart, Shannari dal’Dainari. Challenge them in a way they don’t expect.”

I can’t whip out my rahke and cut them into agreeing with me.” Mouth quirked, she shook her head. “They’re not warriors. They wouldn’t understand it, and certainly couldn’t meet me likewise.”

I didn’t mean a kae’rahke, na’lanna, although I admit I find the thought amusing.” His warrior woman was fierce with a blade. He proudly bore many scars from her rahke, as did her Blood. “You attempt a Market Day with curs who simply shred and gnaw your hides, oblivious to the goods you offer.”

When you bargain with Shadow, all are compromised.” At Rhaekhar’s surprised glance, Varne flushed. His nearest Blood had always been most vocal in his disapproval of an outlander Khul’lanna, so any word of wisdom was most unexpected. “Toss a bone among them, and they tear each other apart. It’s folly to linger among them.”

Dharman gave Khul’s nearest Blood a gruff nod. “I agree. Give us the word, Khul’lanna, and we shall eliminate them all.”

You cannot force them to respect me.” Shoulders drooping, she rubbed her eyes. “I must win this kae’don myself, but Lady help me, I’m losing.” Bitterly, she sharpened her voice. “I hate losing.”

Rhaekhar’s heart went out to her. All day she hid her emotions and fears, constantly wearing that proud mask he had come to despise. He dreaded each trip to the Green Lands. Not because of the time away from his homeland, but for the cost she paid in pride. It was a constant drain on her spirit to be here among her own people, and that saddened him more than he could say.

Let us return to your room, my heart.” Rhaekhar threaded her fingers in his and led her down the hallway. The twins would put a smile on her face when nothing else could. “You have neglected to join me for a Green Land bath this trip.”

She squeezed his hand and the heat in her eyes squeezed his heart in turn. He had made love to her countless times, but he would never weary of her passion. “I get to give you a massage this time.”

Your wish is my desire. However, whatever you do to me, I–”

Get to do to me, I know.” She laughed softly and leaned into him, rising on her tiptoes. He obliged by leaning down so she could whisper in his ear. “I bet I can make you lose control.”

You challenge me, na’lanna.” The rumble in his voice made her eyes darken, her lush mouth softening as she dropped her gaze to his lips. “I accept.”

Dharman bumped into her, smashing her fully against Rhaekhar. Thinking the lad meant to insinuate himself into their challenge, he growled a challenge. If she had invited her Blood, Rhaekhar would accept him without question, but he refused to tolerate a warrior’s interruption, not even one as close and loved by her.

Turning toward Dharman, she opened her mouth to take the lad to task, but the harsh look on his face stalled her retort. He gripped her close, tucking her against him while backing them both tightly against Rhaekhar. Someone cried out and the Blood didn’t hesitate. He took her to the ground and covered her protectively with his body.

Rhaekhar let her go else find himself on the cold tile as well. His own Blood pressed closer but Varne’s manner of protection was much different. Rahke in hand, he took up stance shoulder to shoulder with Khul and the other eight Blood, wary but not alarmed. They all knew to whom any threat would be aimed, and she was safe beneath her nearest Blood.

A crossbow bolt quivered in the wooden doorframe, not a hand’s span from where her head and been moments ago. Immediately, he glanced down at her, but he couldn’t see anything but her Blood’s broad back covering her.

Great Vulkar,” Rhaekhar ground out, gripping his rahke but not drawing it. There was no need: her golden-haired Blood, Jorah, charged after the assassin. “Will she never have any peace?”

Varne shook his head. “Not while she returns to these Green Lands.”

Listening to her na’lanna bond, Rhaekhar searched for any hint of pain to make sure she hadn’t been wounded. He trusted her Blood implicitly, and they would take any wound to her body, no matter how small, as a grave failure. All Blood possessed a fierce sense of honor, but Khul’lanna’s Blood extremely so. Only lads when Vulkar had sent them to her side, they had never worn their own kae’valda and never would.

Until she dies.

Rhaekhar pushed that horrible fear away. He’d already sworn to die before her. If Vulkar called her home to His Clouds early, Khul would ride at her side.

He felt a wrenching in her bond, an unexpected emotion. At first, he thought she had picked up on his grim thoughts of death, but Dharman jerked his attention down to her. Whatever he saw, the lad dropped his body fully against hers instead of politely hovering above her.

There was no mistaking the surge of physical response through her bond. Rhaekhar hold his breath a moment, and then let it out, slow and steady. He’d known this day would come eventually. She was too close to her young Blood to ever deny them her heart and body for long. That she’d made it so many years since she claimed them had astounded him.

He still didn’t like the thought. She was his, his na’lanna and Khul’lanna. She carried his honor and had borne him two children. That another warrior encroached on Khul’s woman sent a rush of…

Rhaekhar breathed deeply again. Not jealousy or rage, not exactly. If she loved another, he would see to her need, as he’d done with Gregar, but he’d been different. The laughing Shadowed Blood had been his friend and protector for years before they even set eyes on the outlander who would own their hearts.

Gregar had been his; Dharman would only ever be hers.

A sense of finality washed over Rhaekhar, and he felt a moment of weakness. His knees trembled enough that he leaned his weight against the wall. He suddenly felt as old as his nearly forty years, every kae’don and kae’rahke he’d battled, the scars he carried, the sheer weight of honor he carried weighing him, dragging him.

Great Vulkar, he prayed silently. I beg you, don’t call me home yet.

#

After years of agony and yearning, the untouchable mated woman Dharman had loved since the first moment he met her looked upon him as a warrior and not a lad. Her lips pressed against his chest, her breathing ragged, her heart pounding so hard in his head through the Blood bond that he couldn’t hear. He managed to give a quick signal to Sal, alerting him to his own incapacitation as her First Blood.

How could he think to protect her with his blood pounding so hard his skull threatened to crack open? She arched beneath him, and Dharman nearly died at her soft cry of desire. Tightening his arms around her, he breathed the words against her lips. “At last.”

She shuddered, her fingers digging into his back. Emotions tore through her, no secret to him through the bond. She was shocked, afraid, guilty, her first thought of Khul and how he might feel. All these emotions Dharman knew and expected. Yet overpowering it all was the fierce ache in her body. That she would need him so much…

Him.

After all these years.

He couldn’t resist a slow rock of his hips, giving her his weight, the grind of his hips against hers. She made a low sound of need that rocked through his mind. Thick, sultry roses, heated by her desire, clogged his nostrils. She wants me.

Sal placed his palm on Dharman’s shoulder, squeezing hard enough to help break through his physical instinct that demanded a quick, hard thrust to claim her as his before she changed her mind. He remembered their location, and most of all, the extremely close presence of her mate. Before he could do anything, he must request permission else find himself challenged by the greatest warrior on the Plains.

All clear,” Sal murmured, his low voice aching with yearning. Would she respond to him the same way?

As lads, they had sworn an oath in blood, deeper than brothers, deeper than Camp loyalty, deeper, even than honor, for at the time, they’d possessed none. With Khul’lanna bleeding and close to death on the ground between them, Dharman had known one thing and sworn it to Sal.

Where he went, so too, did Sal. If she didn’t want the red-haired Blood, Dharman would not go to Khul’s blankets, either, no matter how much he wanted to love her.

Deliberately, Dharman rolled off to the side and allowed the other Blood to assist her. Of course, Sal–as wicked and salacious as Gregar had ever thought to be–took advantage of her rather dazed and needy state. Sal backed her into the wall, shielding her with his body with admirable determination that no assassin steel should touch her without first sliding through his flesh.

Without even seeing her face, Dharman knew the way her breath caught in her chest, her throat tight, the scent of spice in her nose that felt as familiar to her as his own scent. Unerringly, her mouth found the mark on Sal’s throat that she’d placed an eternity ago, her teeth in his throat, his blood hers to command.

Dharman stood and met Khul’s fierce gaze. Squaring his shoulders with determination, he strode to him, ignoring the glower of Khul’s Blood. He knew Khul had felt her response. No thought or need passed through her mind and heart that her bonded warriors didn’t feel, whether Blood or na’lanna or both. She simply didn’t know it yet.

Khul, may I challenge for right as co-mate?”

As soon as we return to the Plains.” Khul replied curtly. “Sal, too?”

Aye.” Despite his confidence, Dharman felt a twinge of…not fear exactly, but wary respect. Khul would make him earn the right to come to his blankets. The kae’rahke between Khul and Gregar before she’d accepted the Shadowed Blood was burned into Dharman’s mind. “Where I go, he goes.”

Khul glanced at her. Relieved and reassured that she would want him as much as his friend, Sal had backed off and allowed her to push away from the wall. She stared at Khul, pale, her midnight blue eyes large and dark with her emotions. Khul’lanna was not a woman to run from any battle, no matter how grim, but this kae’don threatened to tear her apart. She gripped the rahke on her hip and thought seriously about challenging both of her Blood.

Dharman sent some of his eagerness through her bond and her eyes widened even more with alarm. A little blood would only inflame them all the more.

I’m sorry,” she whispered, dropping her gaze. Misery filled her, regret and anger and unwanted need wrenching her heart, tangling her bonds into knots in her mind. After all these years of serving as nearest Blood, Dharman had yet to understand her reluctance to admit any love, let alone the love she felt for anyone but Khul.

I will not pressure her this time,” Khul said, drawing Dharman’s attention. At least Khul’s face had softened with acceptance, touched with wry sympathy. “I forced her to admit her feelings for Gregar, only because he swore he would not live long. I chose to bear her anger rather than any long-held regrets that she’d never loved him as he deserved. I won’t do it again.”

Dharman hadn’t expected any assistance. He certainly knew Khul’lanna well enough to accept that simply because she’d felt desire for him and Sal that she would not immediately ask them both to Khul’s blankets. In fact, he expected the reverse. Her reluctance to hurt Khul in any way was too great. “How much leeway do I have to convince her myself?”

Khul grinned widely and slapped him on the back. “As much as you dare, lad.” He paused, ignoring Khul’lanna’s sharp inhale and fierce surge of ire through their bonds. “Nay, you’re a lad no longer. If you desire to win your way to my blankets, warrior, then you are welcome to try through any means you deem necessary.”

Over my dead body.” Khul’lanna advanced on Khul and shoved him in the chest. The mighty warrior didn’t even budge. “You’re not going to simply stand there and let them…”

Nag you?” Sal asked brightly.

Her cheeks flooded with color. She whirled, but froze. A flood of nausea swamped her bond.

Dharman immediately stepped up to her, his senses alert. Sal took her other side, all thoughts of co-mates and finally making love to her wiped from their minds. They scanned the hallway, seeking any shadow or threat that would clutch her stomach with such fierce cramps of sickness reserved for the darkest, most tainted Shadow, but all they saw were the twins.

Nearly three years old, Rhyra and Anya ran toward their mother, hair sungold and dark sable respectively. No one questioned the stamp of each child’s parentage. Both as lovely as their mother with dark-blue eyes, Rhyra was obviously Khul’s daughter, while Anya was the Shadowed Blood’s. Khul’lanna might have only taken Gregar to Khul’s blankets the one time before he died, but his gift lived on his daughter.

Both girls had sticky faces and hands, as though they’d been eating a special sweet, and Rhyra held a small china plate.

Whatever was on that plate made Khul’lanna stagger. Lunging forward, she smacked it out of her daughter’s hands and fell to her knees, retching and crying.

Mama, Mama,” the girls cried, clutching her.

You didn’t eat that, did you?” She cupped Rhyra’s face and stared deeply into her eyes. Dharman felt a wash of cold spring water fill their bond, the Lady’s power rushing through her blood. She turned to Anya. “Did you?”

Nay, Mama, but Sara’s sick. She fell down.”

Oh, Lady.” Khul’lanna wrapped her arms around the girls and hugged them tight. She looked up at Dharman, desperate horror shadowing her eyes despite the gleam of her tears. “Someone tried to poison my babies.”

Friday Snippet: Return to Shanhasson

Since I’ve been working on this project for Revision Hell, I thought I’d share the opening prologue now that I’ve polished and smoothed it a bit.  I’m not one for prologues, usually, but these two sections set up the massive conflict of the entire book.  So much foreshadowing lies in wait in these words.  Keldar–the world of Survive My Fire and The Fire Within–will truly collide with the Green Lands in this book, bringing the entire story full circle.

Prologue to Return to Shanhasson, book 3 in the Blood & Shadows series.

In a wasteland of blasting sun and endless thirst, the man who’d used a thousand names and lived a thousand lives in Shadow stretched out on his face in blistering sand.  Above, a massive twisted spire stabbed the sky.  Poisoned waters hissed and bubbled around the tiny island.  His inflamed, festering flesh bore testimony to the acidic hatred of this place.

He choked on oven-hot air, his throat and mouth desiccated.  After dying countless times, he couldn’t even remember his original name any longer.  He’d lost all sense of time and place.  He rubbed his thumb against the small twisted iron ring on his pinky finger and shivered despite the baking heat.  Soon, he would have a new name, a new body, but his purpose was always the same.

Here in these savage lands of brutal death and endless thirst, the Great Lord didn’t need a sacrifice before He could stretch out His hand to touch and mold the world to His will.  They lived His Shadow every single day. 

It’s the perfect place for a new beginning. 

Lygon–or Yama, as the savages knew Him–moved through his mind.  It felt as though rancid oil soaked through every pore and crevice of his body.

WHAT NEWS, MY MOST FAITHFUL SERVANT?

He didn’t try to speak aloud; there was no need.  The Great Lord of Shadow could pull any secret thought from a man’s heart without effort.  Instead, he let the words ring in his head.  :Forgive me, Great Lord, but your son, Theo, the High King of the Green Lands, is dead.:

HERE IN THESE CURSED LANDS, ALL ARE MY SONS.

The ground shook, a merciless groan of laughter forced through the imprisoned earth.  Yama might taint the Spire and Venom Lake, but the rest of the Trinity exacted Their punishment on Keldar fiercer than any other land in the world.

Fools, he thought.  It was much better to plot according to a God’s will–even the Blackest Heart of Shadow–and live than risk eternal punishment and suffering.  However, there was one small catch.  He needed a new body, a new life, which only Yama could provide.

I will be Keldari this time

The thought sent an unaccustomed shiver of dread down his spine.  He’d been many men and lived many lives, some more vile than others, but he’d never actually carried a beast within him.

:What would you have me do, Great Lord?:

YOUR PURPOSE HAS NOT CHANGED.  I WANT her FILLIES OF THAT CURSED BLOOD EITHER BUTCHERED OR CORRUPTED BY OURS, BUT MOST OF ALL, I WANT A SON TO SOIL THAT SHINING BLOOD WITH MY OWN.  I WILL TAINT her LAST DAUGHTER FOR ALL TIME.

HERE IN THESE ENDLESS SANDS, BECOME ONE OF MY SONS AND CORRUPT HER YOURSELF.

Despite the blazing heat and burns on his body, he couldn’t help the shiver from head to toe at the thought.  She had never been part of his reward, not directly at least.  The Great Lord was jealous of His prizes, and the Last Daughter was the greatest prize of all.

He must be absolutely certain.  :You wish me to train one of your Keldari sons to corrupt her?:

NO ONE WILL BREAK HER BETTER THAN YOU.  IF YOU ARE WILLING TO PAY THE PRICE, THIS TIME YOU WILL BE REBORN KELDARI.

Something that might have been praise poured through him, although it was blackest night and smelled of rotting flesh.  There was no greater reward from the Great Lord.  He’d never hoped to be given this last, most important task of all.  :I will pay any price to drag her into Your Shadow.  What of her barbarian husband?:

Shrieking laughter crashed through his skull like boulders tumbling from the highest mountain.  THE HORSE KING WILL NOT LIVE FOREVER.  I NEED DO NOTHING TO SPEED HIS DEATH.  THE HORSE GOD CALLS HIS SON HOME TO WHINNEY AND CAVORT IN THE CLOUDS, WHILE HIS WOMAN SUFFERS ALONE.

ALONE, UNTIL YOU ARE PREPARED.

:I am ready, Great Lord, to do Your will, no matter how dark, no matter how painful.:

A painful, metallic shriek sliced against stone directly above him.  Slowly, he lifted his head, craning his neck to look up at the black rock rising above him.  At first, he couldn’t see anything, not in the moonless night.  The screeching came again, only feet away.  Shards of black glass stabbed his upturned face.

A massive claw seized his shoulder.  Talons sank into his flesh, grinding on bone.  The beast lifted him off the ground. 

Feathers and leathered scales filled the night, a stink of corpses roasting in the desert heat.  Red serpentine eyes glowed like burning cinders, searing him with hatred.  The beast lowered its head:  foul breath in his face, teeth as long as small swords, salvia drizzling on his flesh, hissing and popping like acid. 

Yet he didn’t cry out.  Pay any price, he’d said, and he meant it. 

IN THE LAND OF BURNING SANDS, THIS IS MY FORM.  THIS IS MY GIFT TO YOU.  LET her SHINING SYMBOL REMIND YOU OF YOUR PURPOSE.  WELCOME TO KELDAR, MY MOST FAITHFUL SERVANT.

The dragon opened its jaws wide and closed its mouth over his head.  He couldn’t help but scream as the beast devoured him.

#

He opened his eyes and winced at the brilliant sun making its climb in the sky.  So hot, so fierce; he’d never felt the heat of the sun so miserably until he’d come to…

Startled, he jerked upright.  A black dragon was sprawled on the sands, already decaying.  The smell of roasted meat was thick in his nostrils.  A young man hacked beneath the beast’s chin and removed two small dripping sacs.  By his baggy trousers, fancy coat and wide-brimmed hat shading his eyes from the miserable heat, he must be a Far Illione trader.  Likely a well-to-do son with decent breeding, making a dollar or two for his family, hoping to find a way to escape this hellhole and make his way to court.

How do I know this?

“A foul beast.”  The man grimaced.  “Prepare the oil, and then I’ll ensure it’s delivered directly to her hands.”  He turned, pale eyes sharp as steel.  “What’s the matter?”

He blinked at the other man, trying to decide whether he could trust him or not.  Nausea burned up his throat.  His entire body screamed with remembered pain from rending teeth and claws.  He distinctly remembered a dragon eating him, ripping him limb from limb, but then the dragon had folded up, somehow, and slipped…inside out

Ice picks darted deep into his skull and he couldn’t stifle the cry of pain.

“Can you keep your part of the bargain?”

“What…”  He swallowed, wincing at the blades shredding his dry throat.  “What bargain?”

The other man harrumphed and squatted beside him.  He didn’t neglect to note the blade in the man’s hand, stained with blood.  The putrid musk leaking from the sacs made him gag.

 “You’re going to make a seductive oil that the High Queen of the Green Lands will find very, very amusing to be sure,” the man spoke slowly, as if he were too stupid to understand.  “Then you must find a way to get your lazy dirty hide to Shanhasson, into her Court, and then, ultimately, into her bed.  Simple, iyeh?” 

The last word was spat forcefully, a mockery, if only he knew what it meant.

Breathing deeply, he forced his body to accept the foreign odors of this place:  the rotting dragon, the stink of its glands dripping some noxious fluid onto the blasted sands; the rank body odor of the man beside him; and the scent of his own body, sweat mixed with an exotic spice he couldn’t quite place. 

It smelled…right, that scent, soothing his unease.  It was his scent, blending with the reek of the dragon until even it smelled right.

Mine. 

His stomach calmed, as well as his mind.  The High Queen of the Green Lands was definitely someone he knew.  The dragon had surely been a dream.  Now, if he could only remember…

“Tell me, my young friend,” he began casually, but the trader’s eyes widened with shock.

“Your voice.”  Suspicion narrowed the trader’s eyes and he drew back warily.  “No Keldari talks like that.”

He kept his face smooth and unconcerned, even though his mind lurched.  Keldar, yes, the place of dragons, poisoned sands, and savages.  He glanced down and noted the rough black garb he wore, the curved blade on the sand beside him, covered in dried blood.  Lightly, he touched his head, trying to remember how he’d killed the dragon.  “The dragon must have knocked me unconscious.  I’m afraid I don’t remember much at all.  What’s my name?”

The trader inched backward, his hands smoothing the fine linen of his shirt.  “Mykal.”   

A dull black ring on the man’s right hand sucked at the brutal sunlight, a black hole of evil that made him narrow his gaze in recognition.  Odd, wasn’t it, that he recognized a ring but not his supposed name? 

“You’re Mykal tal’Mamba.”

Ah, it was beginning to come back to him.  Tal, chief, he knew, of the tribe of Mambas.  Appropriately named, to be sure, for the mamba was the deadliest snake in all the desert.  Before the thought had even crystallized in his mind, his body exploded up with the curved blade in his hand.  He knocked the young man to his back and planted a knee on his throat.  “I’ll uphold this bargain, munakur, else the sands swallow me for all time.”

Wheezing, the man flailed at him with the knife, but Mykal effortlessly blocked the blade with his own.  This man had never been skilled with a blade; he knew that, now, as he also knew that he himself could dance the blades with any warrior on the sands and best him.  Cocking his head, he let his gaze travel down the man’s fancy clothing to fine leather boots and back up. 

His gaze stopped on the ring.  He stared a moment, and then deliberately examined the dragon corpse.  Its left front paw had been hacked, its claw missing.  “I believe you took something that belongs to me.”

Babbling choked entreaties, the man’s cries rose to a wail as the scimitar cut through his pinky.  Mykal picked up one of the leaking sacs and dropped it into the man’s wounded hand.  He howled, heels drumming on the sands, but the fluid cauterized the bleeding stump.

“Go to Shanhasson.”  Mykal claimed both sacs for himself and shook the severed finger from the ring.  Closing his eyes, he slipped it onto his left hand.  The ring fit his finger perfectly, as he expected.  Sands shifted within him, settling, filling up the empty spots of his memory.  Without opening his eyes, he unhooked the leather packet–which he now remembered preparing with his own hands–from his belt and dropped it onto the trader’s chest.  “Trade my oil to Her Majesty.”

He let the young man scramble away, cradling his wounded hand to his chest.  His pretty white shirt was ruined, stained by blood and burned by the dragon musk. 

Raising his voice, Mykal yelled after the fleeing trader.  “Tell Shannari dal’Dainari that soon I’ll soar over her Shining Walls!”  He rubbed his thumb over the ring and dropped his voice to a whisper.  “I have a purpose.”