Hal and The Firefarer on sale!

Both Hal and The Firefarer are free to download until Thursday 27th September. Hal now includes the bonus story ‘Orla’ – a steamy short about Hal’s first love.

Hal

A stubborn, strong-willed, disinherited aristocrat, Hal leaves the imperial court at an early age to make her living with her sword. Finally, she seems to have found all she needs in life – that is until she meets Meracad, the daughter of a rich businessman. The two girls are about to find out that true love comes at a price. All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a wealthy merchant. Meracad’s father will stop at nothing to ensure his own wealth and position, and plans to marry Meracad to Bruno Nérac, a powerful northern lord. Hal’s world is about to be thrown into chaos when she sets out to save the woman she loves …

The Firefarer

Ash covers the homes of the Ahi, flames consume their lands. Their hopes rest in Hori, a young boy who seems able to channel the mountain’s destructive powers. Through him, they hope to carve out a new life across the sea, enslaving the artist enchanters of the Pagi and taking their land. But the Ahi are not the only people to covet the Firefarer and his powers …

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Sample Chapter – The Firefarer

Three exiles, one destiny.

When Vito’s monastery is destroyed, he is thrust into the dangerous world of deceit and enchantment which lies beyond its walls. 

Moran, lost scion of a lost people, embarks on a quest from which she may never return. 

And Muna, descendant of warriors, will stop at nothing to protect her brother the Firefarer: hunted for his fabled powers of destruction.

Three strangers, one fate.

The Firefarer: the deadliest secrets lie in the heart.

 

PART TWO: CHAPTER ONE

SPIRITS

Consciousness crept up on Moran ˗ stealthy, remorseless. She opened her eyes to catch a blur of waves and sky, her face pressed into the wet grittiness of the beach, surf breaking over her bare feet. Her stomach pulsed and she brought up a mouthful of brine before rolling onto her back, her skin now almost blue with cold. High above, clouds scudded across a raw swathe of sky, chased by the biting wind which blew down from the north.

With a long, low groan she pushed herself upright, resting with her hands flat on the sand, her legs crossed before her. The sea was grey, crested with foam, whipped up by the storm which had driven her back onto the mainland and away from the Source Isles for which she had so desperately aimed. It were almost as if the spirits themselves had conspired against her.

Moran dug her hand around a small clutch of pebbles ˗ polished smooth as glass ˗ and turned them over in her palms before carefully throwing each one back into the sea. At least, she decided, her appearance ought to be enough to scare away any Pagi who might happen to stroll across the beach. The thick plaid of her dress was now ripped at the shoulder: loose, sodden and misshapen. Wind tugged at wet locks of hair, and she shook and trembled as the cold mined beneath her skin, burying deep within her body until she could no longer feel her fingers or toes. If she stayed here, she would die ˗ her body washed out once more to sea, drifting beyond sight or memory. And so with an effort which seemed to wrench her limbs from their sockets she rose, turned, and dragged herself up towards the dunes which fluted off the beach above her and offered some hope of shelter.

A hollow amongst the sands staved off the worst of the wind. She fished around for driftwood, finding a few bare pieces on the beach and then concentrated on lighting a fire, splitting a piece of wood and stuffing the groove with dry, matted grass before working over it with a slim stick. The process seemed to take hours. The light was fading, and with it went the dregs of her strength. When a spark finally caught in the tinder, she could have wept. She transferred the precious flames to the driftwood and, as the fire caught hold, she stripped and laid her tattered dress before it to dry.

There would be no chance of catching anything to eat, she realised. The evening was drawing in and the sea was too wild. And so, lying naked on the sands as close to the fire as she dared, she drew an arm up beneath her head and fell into fitful sleep, with the break of waves and the crackling of flames for company.

She could not say what had woken her. Soft footfalls on the sand, perhaps, the sense of another presence. Moran stirred, moaned and rose, trembling. The fire had long since died away to red embers and the wind had picked up. Shivering, she tugged on her dress.

“You’d make the spirits blush, sister, lying there without a stitch on.”

“Carin?” She craned into the shadows, picking out her sister’s dark, sinuous outline. “How did you know I’m here?”

Carin leant forward and prodded at the cinders with a piece of wood. A few fine wisps and sparks spiralled upwards into the night air. She tapped her temple with a dirt-encrusted nail. “You know how.”

“Spirits?”

“Amongst others.”

Moran experienced a sudden surge of relief. At least she wasn’t alone to face the perils of the mainland. Carin rose, and Moran stared up into her sister’s face, into the sharp, angular features, the closely cropped dark hair, her eyes two gleaming slivers of jet. “Too bad I lack the skill, Carin.” She drew her knees up in front of her and rested her head on them. “In fact, I’ve nothing left now.”

“Self-pity doesn’t become you, sister. Besides, you can’t say we didn’t warn you.”

Carin reached above her shoulder, drawing out the trident she kept strapped to her back. A small eel dangled limply from one of its prongs. “I imagine you’re hungry.”

“Ravenous.”

“Best get that fire started again, then.”

They stoked up the charred fragments of driftwood, flames lapping around fresh tinder. Carin crouched down, her dress tucked about her thighs and twisted the trident over the rising heat, the eel hanging from one of its prongs. When it was cooked, she ripped it in two, passing half to Moran who sank her teeth straight into its salty, smoky juice. It slithered down her throat; warmth spread through her body, restoring energy and strength. Carin handed her a leather flask and she sipped from it, gasping as the sharp, fruity tang of alcohol burst across her tongue.

“Where…where did you get that?” she choked.

Carin shrugged. “Some old woman by the road ˗ too blind to see me for a Ruach. She called it best summer liquor. I call it rancid bilberries. But it goes down all the same. So…” she leant forward, her chin cupped between rough, strong hands, her face half lit, half in shadow. “What happened?”

Moran sucked in a deep breath, releasing it in a long sigh. It was all too fresh, too painful to put into words. And yet find words she must, if she were to restore her sister’s love.

“I ran.” She shook her head, the shame rising within her like a sickness.

“She made you go?”

“No. I never even said goodbye. I…I left without a word.” Tears caught in her throat. She swallowed them down, masking her grief with a bitter little laugh. “Her brother ˗ he warned me. He was always good to me. Her whole family was. They’re good people, Carin ˗ the Pagi are not all animals.”

Carin shook her head, stoking the fire with the butt end of her trident, provoking an angry blast of sparks. “You’re blind, sister. They kill us. They maim, torture and persecute us. Enslave our children, humiliate our old men. They hate us.”

“It’s not true!” Fury entered Moran’s voice. “You’re as bad as they are if you can’t see that ˗ if you think they’re all the same. That’s how they think of us ˗ that we’re savage, barbaric, primitive, dangerous.” Her voice shook under the strain of emotion. She’d gone too far and she saw it, registered the flash of indignation in Carin’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered then. “You’re not like that.”

“Go on.” Carin’s tone was stony, unmoved. “Tell me your story.”

Moran remained silent for a few moments, gathering her thoughts, listening to the crash and suck of waves as they hit the beach, the hissing of burning driftwood. “I saw what was happening, but I closed my eyes to it,” she said at last. “Everyday brought new tales of executions, lynchings and hardships. Her family sheltered me as best they could. I taught languages well, they claimed, and above all else they valued knowledge. They left me the keys to their library, time to be with her. They saw our friendship blossom, saw no harm in it. I taught her Ruach, Ahi, even the antique languages ˗ old Pagese, ur-Ruach. She was…she is a good student, ready to listen, to learn, all heart and ears.”

Her words faltered, her memory straying to a time before the fall. Andre lying naked in her bed, a shaft of sunlight rendering her skin golden, her hair snaking over her shoulders as she recited love poetry in old Pagese. The sudden sense of loss felled Moran like a blow.

“It was her brother, Estachien, who finally told me to leave. They could no longer protect us, he said. At night the town’s people would surround the palace with torches in one hand, unsheathed blades in the other. They would demand the expulsion of any Ruach. And so, like an adulterer or traitor, I slipped away. I saved my own skin. I ran for the coast, sleeping by day in hedgerows, hidden, dirt smudged across my face for camouflage. At night I ran like a hunted beast, avoiding the lights and laughter of their villages until at last I smelt salt on the air. A line of rafts and coracles rested on the beach. I stole one out in the pale dawn light. I thought, if I could only make it to the Source Isles, hide amongst their rocks and forest, then perhaps word would reach me of new times, of better times. And then I would come back, search for her once more, beg her for forgiveness…”

“But the storm.”

“Yes. The storm. I clung to the broken hull of my little boat until, all my energy sapped, I let go and gave myself up to the waves.”

“The Golach commanded the storm.”

“What?” Almost feverish with grief, she seized Carin’s flask, gulping down a sour mouthful of liquor.

“The winds told him of your fall, sister. But he wants to hear it from your lips, as you have told me now. He offers you redemption.”

“Redemption?” Moran snorted. “Nothing can repair my mistakes.”

Carin shifted stiffly. “He considers your offence to have been against the Ruach, not Ol Adama.”

“Against the Ruach? An offence? What business is it of his who I love?”

“It’s his business if you bed the enemy, sister ˗ the scum who killed our parents, our friends…I told you once before ˗ bed them and forget them. It’s a hollow victory but it’s better than none. We shared this land with them once, we lived beside them as neighbours.” Carin’s dark eyes seemed to capture the fire’s light and hold it. She rose, her back to Moran as she continued to speak. “It was their arrogance, their blindness, their magic, the filthy corruption of their arts which made them think they had the right to mistreat and kill us, to see in us animals, vermin. The spirits weep, sister.” She turned around, her face streaked with tears, her lips quivering with rage. “And you claim to love one of them?” Her fingers folded around the polished bronze of her trident. “I will spear her on this, as if she were an eel, if I ever set eyes on her.”

“You will not, you ignorant, heartless bitch!”

The fury welled within: a hot, harsh seam of violence which she knew had lain, hidden but not dormant, for months. Rising, fists clenched into balls, she ran at her sister, knocking her off her feet. They landed amongst the dunes, punching, kicking, scratching blindly in the darkness, just as they had as children. Back then, their mother would settle such arguments with a few keen blows of her belt. But now there was no mother to punish her wild daughters, no father to shake his head in despair when they traipsed inside, all ripped clothes and split lips. Now there was only the night air, the breaking waves and the spirits who, Moran knew, were not on her side. Nor had they ever been. For, unlike every other Ruach, she lacked the gift to conjure them.

And so, her strength once more at an ebb, she surrendered at last to her sister’s brute power, Carin’s sheer size and hardened muscle overwhelming her until she lay, stretched out upon the sands, blood issuing from her nose and the air forced from her lungs. And at that, she laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Carin growled, slumped against a dune, the fight now gone from her.

“Us. We never grow up, Carin. Do you think we’ll still be doing this when we’re a pair of old hags?”

“We’ll not live that long, sister.” Rising, she towered over Moran. Blocking out the moon’s pale rays, she extended a hand and Moran took it, seizing Carin in an embrace, clinging to her, tears leaking from her eyes, mingling with the blood which streaked her face.

“What does the Golach want of me?” she whispered.

“I don’t know, sister,” Carin replied. “He told me only this ˗ for there to be redemption, there must first be sacrifice.”

Moran buried her face in Carin’s shoulder, still weeping like a child. “Take me to him,” she said at last.

The Firefarer is free on Amazon until Thursday 27th September.

 

 

Review – Alias by Cari Hunter

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Thrillers really don’t come any better than Alias by Cari Hunter. The story begins with a fatal car crash high in the wintry wastes of Snowdonia, and a victim whose amnesia means that she’s lost track of her own past. And it ends in a bloody and terrifying finale which had me on the edge of my seat. This is a book which sucks you in from its mysterious start to its shocking conclusion, and Hunter succeeds in racking up the tension on every page.

Rebecca/Alis stumbles from the wreckage of a hired vehicle unable to remember who she is, let alone the identity of the dead woman beside her. With the help of Detective Bronwen Price of the Welsh police, Alis gradually pieces together a past in which she was almost certainly caught up in a criminal underworld. But whose side was she on? And can she trust the people who now claim to know her?

There is so much detail in this book – a no holds barred realism which sweeps the reader along as Alis tracks her pre-amnesic self from north Wales to the backstreets and suburbs of Manchester, risking her life in search of the truth. And the slow burn romance which develops between Alis and Price adds extra tension to this multi-layered narrative, as it could jeopardise their whole investigation.

I downloaded the Audible version of Alias – which I can’t recommend enough. Nicola Vincent captures all of the characters perfectly, bringing out the snarky, clever dialogue at one moment; Alis’s deep trauma and fear at others. What more can I say? Download it now!

Review: Beowulf for Cretins by Ann McMan

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Sometimes you find yourself yearning for the characters you encounter in books to be people you really know. They’re so artfully brought to life that you think, “I would give anything to be in on this conversation; to sit down with this lady and share a bottle of wine with her.”

At least, that was how I felt about Grace Warner – hapless heroine of Ann McMan’s novel Beowulf for Cretins. With her self-deprecating wit, her inner conflicts and her absolute devotion to the woman she loves, Grace is the kind of character you root for from beginning to glorious end.

Following a messy break-up, Grace finds herself indulging in an “over-night rental” – as she terms it – with a beautiful stranger at a party. Back at the liberal arts college where Grace works teaching freshman English, it turns out that her one-night stand just happens to be her new boss. And while Grace ends up falling hopelessly in love with Abbie – the new president of St Alban’s college – she knows that it’s a relationship which could spell disaster for both of them.

Both Abbie and Grace are the kind of leading ladies who really don’t get enough airtime in fiction: mature women who are warm, intelligent and flawed enough that you can fully relate to them. At the same time, the novel dishes up an eclectic “supporting cast” of characters ranging from CK – a punk physics genius who pulls no punches as Grace’s best friend – to Dean – Grace’s ‘Cro-Magnon’ of a brother, and of course Grendel – the misfit freak of a dog that Grace finds herself saddled with.

The dialogue fairly zings with wit, and beneath the comedy there’s always a hint of the insecurities and sensitivities which make Grace such a fascinating character – from her lapsed Catholic heritage to the jealousies and politics of campus life.

Just a perfect read which made me want to rush out and buy all of Ann McMan’s books right away.

Review: Survival Instincts by May Dawney

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Given the fact that the hands of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ are currently set at two and a half minutes to midnight; given the constant barrage of media reports on climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and rising geopolitical tensions, it’s perhaps not surprising that dystopian fiction keys into some of our deepest collective fears. How might we function in a world without technology – or an excess of it? Will we be able to resist the political extremes of totalitarianism or anarchy? What happens to us if, stripped of our humanity, we’re forced to fall back on our most primitive instincts, with the survival of one meaning the destruction of others?

This last question is what haunts May Dawney’s novel, Survival Instincts. War has ravaged the planet: humanity has all but obliterated itself. Only a few survivors eke out an existence either as ‘wilders’, relying on their own wits and skills to hunt and fend for themselves, or in defensive communities and homesteads.

Lynn Tanner is a wilder: a woman who has learned the hard  way that she can rely on no one but herself. She makes her way across the scarred landscape which was once New York State, scavenging and searching for hideouts, preying on wild animals for food and being preyed upon in turn by wolves, bears and other predators.

Lynn is forced to question her own values and instincts, however, when she is taken prisoner by a group of homesteaders and tasked with a quest which could well lead to her death. Accompanied by Dani, a hunter for the community, and her dog Skeever, Lynn finds herself suddenly forced into a position of trust, and experiences emotions which challenge her entire sense of who she is and whether there might be more to life than mere survival.

This is a gripping, beautifully written and uncompromising story which asks significant questions about how people might function when deprived of even the most basic comforts. Dani and Lynn’s unfolding relationship is perfectly paced, as the two women are beset by issues of trust and yet somehow start to believe that love might be more than just a luxury; it could imbue their lives with real meaning. It’s a story which confronts the daily grind of survival in a realistic way, and it does what all good speculative fiction should – it leaves you thinking long after you’ve read the final page about how we would function in such a future, and how distanced we really are from it.

Survival Instincts is simply an exceptional read, and a book which stays with you long after you’ve finished it. Highly recommended.

Review: Just Jorie by Robin Alexander

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So before I review Just Jorie, I’d just like to say that this was a story which broke my audio book virginity, if you can forgive the expression. I haven’t listened to audio books before, simply because for whatever reason Amazon Audible wasn’t available in Poland until recently. And now I’ve tried one, I’m absolutely hooked – it means I can fit more books into my week without even trying!

But anyway, onto the book itself. Just Jorrie is the sweet and engaging tale of two women who find true love for the first time at forty (or thereabouts). It’s mostly set in New Orleans and focuses on Jorie (Marjorie Andolini) and Lena Vaughan, who find themselves thrown together by chance while waiting for a plane home. They decide to make the journey back by car together, and end up discovering out a lot more about each other than they’d bargained for.

Lena is forty, a high flying businesswoman who for some reason never seems able to meet the right guy. Jorie works for her family’s car parts company and is out and comfortable with her identity as a lesbian. Ostensibly worlds apart, they both begin to realise that each might be the other’s ‘one’: that certain somebody who’ll bring magic, love and security into their lives.

For Lena, this means a late-in-life examination of her own sexuality. For Jorie, it comes with plenty of concerns: is Lena just toying with her? Is it possible that someone with Lena’s background could fall for her? And that’s without taking into account the helpful ‘advice’ which comes their way and threatens to rock the boat, courtesy of various friends and family members.

The key note of the story is its humour. Avoid reading or listening to this book in public, because you will laugh. A lot. The dialogue is fast, sharp and witty and the characterisation is just perfect – especially when it comes to the Andolini household, and Jorie’s crazy Aunt and Gramps who never hold back. And I loved how easy it was to relate to all the characters and the situations they found themselves in.

Put simply, Just Jorie is a beautifully written, upbeat romantic comedy. And I can definitely recommend the audio version, narrated by Lisa Cordileone, who brings all the characters to life.

Leda: An Extract

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When Hal goes bad, she goes really bad. Here’s an extract from my latest book, Leda – Part Three of The Duellist Trilogy. 

Tipping the Balance

This bloodsucking leech of a world which just seemed to keep taking until Hal had no more left to give…it had finally thrown something back. Leda was the break of sun through storm clouds; she was flower petals mingling with the sand and heat of the desert. She had returned.

Hal held Leda at arm’s length, unable to speak, taking in the girl’s outlandish clothes ˗ the shirt and trousers twice her size, besmirched with mud and torn to rags. Her ill-fitting boots and the heavy sheepskin draped over her shoulders. Her wild curls were plastered to her face with rain and sweat and dirt. She was thin: half-starved, Hal guessed, and pale with exhaustion. And somehow aged, as if in weeks she’d witnessed years. Unwilling to let the girl go again, Hal drew her closer, squeezing her so hard that Leda yelped.

“Where have you been?”

“If I told you, Hal, you might not believe me. I’ll write you another book some day. It all seems more like a story than the truth.”

Hal read the suffering in Leda’s face, the lines of worry etched into her skin. “A tale to frighten children with?”

Leda looked away. “Something like that.” She gnawed on her lower lip and shivered. “My saviour, Oræl,” she said.

Drawing from Hal’s embrace, she threw an arm around the shoulders of her companion: auburn haired and golden eyed, strong and long of limb, her face freckled, weather-worn and honest. Hal warmed to her immediately.”Is it true?” she asked. “Did you save her?”

“We saved each other,” Oræl said. Hal detected a crofter’s accent, thick and melodic. She observed, too, how Oræl leaned towards Leda, as if drawn to her on an invisible thread.

There was a snapping of undergrowth, a pummelling of the ground, as Roc’s army marched outwards and onto the moors. Leda gripped Oræl’s hand in fear.

“Don’t worry, Leda. That’s the rest of us. Magda is here and Jools, and…”

“Mother?” Leda asked, the breath catching in her throat.

Hal shook her head, guilt and loss stealing up on her in equal measure. “Leda, your mother is Josen’s prisoner.”

“What?”

“It was my fault. We argued and…”

“Well, well, well…the moors do deliver up their treasures!” Jools jumped down from her horse, her voice sharp with surprise. Hal closed her eyes in frustration.

“Leda, from which well of hope did you spring?” Jools grinned, swinging Leda around. “Sometimes it’s like all your birthdays rolled into one, ain’t it, Hal?” She caught Hal’s eye and winked. “Well cheer up for the spirits’ sakes! Something good’s happened for a change.

“She doesn’t know yet,” said Hal.

“What doesn’t she know?”

Hal hissed with irritation. “Leda,” she began gently.

“We’ve already heard, Hal. We passed through Lake End and they told us everything. We were headed for Hannac, but…” her voice trailed away, her eyes deepening with sorrow. “Now Dal Reniac needs us. I’ll talk to Castor, I’ll do anything to stop him.”

“Well, what do you know?” Jools said, elbowing Hal in the ribs. “That’s exactly where we’re headed too, isn’t it, Hal?”

Hal winced. “My dead are at Hannac.”

“But it’s the living in Dal Reniac who need us now, Hal.” Magda, pushed her way through  the throngs of soldiers. Word of Leda’s return was greeted with cheers and shouts as the news carried through the ranks. Magda embraced Leda warmly, kissing her on her forehead.

“Hal, you can’t help Hannac now. I know how desperately you must want to get back there,” Leda said. “I want that too, believe me. But we have a duty to the city. And to Edæc.”

Magda threw Hal a confused look. “But my brother’s probably dead, Leda.”

“No! At Lake End they said he fled to Dal Reniac before Castor had reached Hannac.”

Relief flooded Magda’s face. “Spirits, may it be the truth,” she whispered. A snort of contempt from the older of the two prisoners cut through her prayer.

“So these are Castor’s spies?” Jools turned her gaze on Davic and his companion, still held at knife point by Roc’s men. “Hal, they’re all yours.”

Reluctantly, Hal shifted her gaze from Leda to Davic. “It seems odd, doesn’t it?” she asked. “We hear so many reports of Hannac destroyed, of all its people put to the sword or burnt alive. And yet here you are, Davic. Wandering the moors at will.”

“I escaped, Hal,” Davic gasped. “It was awful. I ran, and…they were screaming. People running, Castor’s guards everywhere, blood…” spit flecked his lips.

“Yes. So I imagine. Every hour of every day and night.”

“He’s lying!” Leda cried. “We heard them talking before you arrived. They were speaking about you, Hal, and of the thieves…and of what Davic had done at Hannac.”

“Well is that so?” Hal wetted her lips with her tongue. She’d never trusted the boy. He’d always had a tendency to whine, to blame others for his own weaknesses, to gossip and gloat over the tenants’ misfortunes. She’d tolerated him for Luc’s sake. “And just what is it that you did at Hannac, Davic? Perhaps your friend here can enlighten us. I don’t remember seeing him before.” She slipped her sword from her belt, waving it an inch from the spy’s face. “You’re a Berasé man, perhaps?”

He watched her for a moment, a thin smile creeping across his dark, unshaven cheeks, his eyes fuelled with hatred. And then he hawked hard and spat in her face.

After all those nights spent dreaming of murder and revenge, after the days of riding, hollowed out and lost, she surprised herself with her restraint, dragging the back of her sleeve across her cheek. But then, she realised that for the first time in days she had power. She was in control. And she was prepared to take her time.

“Your friend doesn’t seem to like me, Davic,” she said. “I wonder why?”

“It’s true what I said, Hal! I met him on the moors. I was wandering for days. My Da killed, and Arec and all of them.” He broke into pitiful sobs. “It was hell.”

“I’m sure. Tie them both to that tree over there.”

As Davic and the older man were dragged to a thick oak tree on the fringe of the forest, Magda laid a hand on Hal’s arm. “Hal,” she warned. “We’re no better than they are if we…”

“I know what I’m doing,” she growled, hit by a sudden flash of anger. “And you’d do the same in my place. Jools, give me your knife.”

“With pleasure.”

She was wrong of course, and Magda was right. She knew it in the very fibre of her being. What she wanted to do now would break her apart. It would send her spiralling, plummeting away from herself, from all the rules she had ever consciously clung to. And yet she couldn’t stop herself. Something had snapped within her back at Roc’s fortress. She couldn’t hold herself back. The world had demanded too much for her to care about restraint anymore.

Hal crouched in front of the two men, now bound to the broad trunk of the oak, Davic whimpering and crying, the older man still capable of contempt, his eyes hard and fixed on the point of Jools’ knife which she waved before his face.

“So who are you, Sir? I like to put a name to a man I’m about to hurt.”

His lips tightened to thin, white lines. She considered him for a few moments, balancing the knife on the tips of her fingers, rotating it over and over. And then she drove it hard into his left shoulder. There was a collective gasp, punctured by a few ugly cheers. Magda dived forwards to stop her, but Roc and Cesary held her back.

“Bastard born bitch of a whore.” He spat the words out at her in his pain, sweat beading his brow, blood blotting the worsted of his jacket and fanning out beneath his armpit and across his chest.

“Well he’s right about the first part,” said Jools helpfully, peering over Hal’s shoulder.

Hal threw her a look of disgust. “Now, Sir, no more speculating on my birth, my character or my occupation. We’re here to talk about you. And what you were doing wandering the moors with Davic.”

“Kayetan!” Davic suddenly screamed. “His name’s Kayetan!”

“Good. That’s good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“Don’t utter another word, fool!” Kayetan gasped, his face draining of colour.

“Davic,” leaving the knife buried in Kayetan’s shoulder, she twisted round to face the Hannac boy. Leda stood just to the left of the oak. The girl’s face was bereft of emotion, her grey eyes cold and impassive. Something told Hal to stop: to pull out the knife, to patch Kayetan up, to leave him to heal and Davic to his guilt. To stop this vile, bloody performance before more damage was done. But she couldn’t. The anger, the sorrow, the fracture to her spirit: it all ran too deep.

“Davic,” she said again.

He was a crumpled, weeping mess. A hot trickle of urine leaked out onto the grass between his legs, steaming as it hit the cold earth.

“I want you to watch what I’m about to do to Kayetan,” she continued.

“No!” He moaned.

“Watch him!” She seized the boy’s hair, twisting his head around until he could not help but look at the older man. “Because I’m going to do it to you too…”

Davic’s breathing grew feverish and ragged, his sweat coated her hand.

“…unless you answer all my questions. For the sake of your father who was ˗ I assume he’s now dead ˗ an honourable man, I’ll give you a chance. But tell me, what really did happen at Hannac?”

“I ran,” he said, but this time there was no conviction in his voice. “I escaped.”

“But Leda says otherwise. And with all the best will in the world, Davic, I trust her far, far more than I ever trusted you.”

“I…ran.”

“No you didn’t.” She curled her fingers around the handle of Jools’ knife. And then she twisted, Kayetan screaming as the blade ground through gristle, tendons and muscle.

“I think he’d rather you told the truth actually, Davic. Isn’t that right, Kayetan?”

“You monstrous traitor.” Kayetan was breathing hard through his nose, his jaw clenched in a bid to stop himself from howling in agony.

“Now I’m certain that he doesn’t like me.” She turned back to Davic. “I don’t blame him. I’ve been there myself, you see. I know how he feels. At first, you think that the torture will stop…eventually. When you realise that’s not about to happen, you start thinking about death, and what a relief it would be.”

Kayetan seemed to be fighting a battle with consciousness, his eyes rolling in their sockets, his breathing feverish.

“I don’t think he’s quite there…yet,” Hal said. “When you realise that they won’t even grant you that mercy, you wonder if you can bring yourself to beg. For death, I mean. It’s an awful thing. It takes you apart piece by little piece, until you forget who you really are. I don’t think you ever truly recover.”

Leda was still there, hovering behind Davic, her expression one of crafted ice. Hal immediately regretted the confession.

“But look,” she said. “I don’t want us to get that far. So for the spirits’ sakes!” She grabbed his hair again and shouted into his face. “Tell me what happened!”

He twitched and spasmed, his body now jerking beyond his control. He closed his eyes. “Arec let him in,” he said at last.

“So it was all Arec’s fault?”

“No! He thought…he though Castor would respect the ancient laws of hosts.”

She rocked back on her heels. Arec ˗ he would have done that, the trusting fool. He would have seen Castor as another Diodiné: a firm, fair respecter of tradition. “And then what?” she asked quietly.

“Castor and his men…they murdered, slaughtered, burnt…all of them.” Bending over in his bonds, he heaved and retched, vomiting into a patch of leaves. Ready to throw up herself, she backed away, rose and turned.

Still caught between Roc and his son, Magda shook her head. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Whatever it takes.”

Hal twisted back round and peered down at Davic. “So they all died, did they? All of them? Your father, Arec, Elis, the tenants, their children?”

He nodded, a few strings of drool flecking his lips and chin.

“Except for you.”

“He betrayed the Crofter, you stupid cow!” Kayetan suddenly brayed.

“What?”

“He betrayed the Crofter from here to hell and back.”

“No!” Davic gasped.

“You told them Edæc had run?” She dropped back down to face him. “Did you?”

There was a silence, broken only by the angry mutterings of Roc’s men. And then Davic screamed, “Yes!”

“Why?”

“I thought it would save us if I told them Edæc was gone.”

Before she even realised what was happening, Leda had slapped Davic hard across the face. “How could you? Davic, we were children together ˗ all of us. We were friends!”

“He was never one of us!” Davic rasped, ducking from her blows. “He was always yours!”

“Leda!” Hal seized Leda’s wrists, drawing her close until the struggle had left her, until she had exhausted herself.

“Didn’t make any difference, anyway.” Kayetan’s laughter was a hoarse rattle of phlegm. “Fabiac and Gric handed him over to Castor once he reached Dal Reniac. He screamed for you, Leda Nérac, when they strung him up. Screamed and yelled your name, he did, thinking you were dead. Wept like a babe.”

She tensed in Hal’s arms. And then she fled, ripping from her grasp, running down into the forest. Without a word, Oræl turned and followed her.

“And you too.” Kayetan fixed his leer on Magda. “You’re Brighthair, aren’t you?”

Magda had wrested free of Roc and Cesary; was prowling with soft, dangerous steps towards him, her revulsion at Hal’s cruelty now giving way to abject, undisguised horror. “They hung him?”

“Aye. With a placard around his neck: ‘Lord Crofter.'” His laughter was like a rook’s harsh caw. “You’ll see him before you reach Dal Reniac. In fact, you’ll probably smell him before you see him by now, I’d expect.”

Magda ran, bowling into Hal who pushed her back. “Magda, don’t. We need him alive,” Hal yelled, but Magda had already forged past her, dragging the knife from Kayetan’s shoulder. His eyes rounded in fear as he saw his own death before it hit him, as she plunged the dagger deep into his chest. Blood bubbled out between his lips and he flailed helplessly against the ropes. And then he sank, the life moaning out of him as Magda stepped away, staring at her own hands and shaking, her face twisted with torment. Hal reached for her but she staggered from her grasp and disappeared amongst the troops.

“Well,” Hal breathed. “It looks as if it’s just you and me now, Davic. So you really had better start giving me more. What are Castor’s intentions in Dal Reniac?”

Davic swivelled around, unable to look away from Kayetan’s corpse; at the way the dead man’s head lolled on his neck like a ball on a string, his body folded in upon itself. Then he looked at Hal. “He’ll bend it to his will,” he said, his voice now strangely sober, the tone of a man who’d witnessed so much terror that he’d been purged of all fear. “Or he’ll break it.”

“I see. So Gric and Fabiac let him in?”

“They opened the gates to him, yes.”

“And if he’s so certain of his power, why send spies like yourself back outside the city?”

“Because…Hal, did you mean it? Will you let me go?”

“I always say what I mean, boy.” She was tired suddenly, so tired of all this pain, this cruelty, of the damage she’d inflicted on others and upon herself.

“An army’s coming.”

“Well of course an army’s coming, boy!” Roc sounded incredulous. “My army!”

“No!” Davic panted. “From the east. Another one. When he heard of it he…Castor…he decided to send out scouts everywhere.”

“She’s done it!” Jools suddenly screeched, performing a mad little dance. “Oh my darling! Oh my princess! She’s a diamond, a little beauty! Oh! Oh, Kris! Oh, you’re a genius, mate!”

“Jools!” Hal turned to her, shaking her head. “Please!”

“Don’t kill me! Please, Hal!” Davic begged again.

“Shut up! Shut your lying, betraying mouth, Davic!” She pulled the knife from Kayetan’s chest, her hands now slippery with blood and raised it before the boy’s face. He closed his eyes, whispering to himself in prayer. And then she brought the blade down hard against the ropes. When he opened his eyes, he was free.

“Listen to me, Davic.” Before he could scrabble to his feet, she’d grabbed him by the back of his neck and forced him to his knees, his face hovering an inch from Kayetan’s slumped body. “You see what I did? You see what Brighthair did?”

He nodded, snivelling and sobbing, his entire body heaving. “I’m going to give you a horse. I’ll even give you an escort, just so I know you’ve made it to the gates of Dal Reniac. And once you’re in, I want you to deliver this message back to your Master, back to Castor.”

He shifted beneath her grasp but she held him down, pressing the knife to his neck. “Tell Castor that I’ll do the same thing to him. Look at him, so that you remember every detail. Can you do that?”

He nodded again.

“Good. Now get up.”

He was on his feet, his face flushed, his eyes red.

“And go.” She was so exhausted that she could barely stand herself. “Go!” She pushed him towards a pair of guards. “Follow him. Make sure he gets there,” she said.

“He won’t tell Castor.” Jools bent to retrieve her knife, wiping it on a rag.

“Once he’s inside Dal Reniac, he’ll have no choice. They’ll find him.”

“I never knew you had it in you…” the thief said, jabbing her thumb at Kayetan’s mutilated body, her eyes glittering with what might have been admiration.

Hal felt sick. “Neither did I,” she whispered, heading for the forest. “Leda!” She yelled out into the trees, but there was no reply. “Leda!”

Had she lost her again? Desperate, she scrambled down the bank: running, clinging to branches for balance.

“She’s here!” Oræl’s voice filtered back up to her through the woodland. Hal ran, slipped, cursed and ran again, spying at last the two women as they clung to each other ˗ Leda shaking, her knuckles white where she gripped Oræl’s shoulders. Over Leda’s head, Oræl stared at Hal with a look which almost bordered on fear. Hal glanced down at her hands, still running crimson with Kayetan’s blood. Bending over, she plucked some leaves from the ground and wiped them across her palms. The crofter backed away, leaving Leda alone amongst the trees.

“What have you done?” She turned to Hal, drawing her hands across her face, her lips twisted with shock and disgust.

“What do you mean?”

“Hal, you just tortured a man. You tied him to a tree and you…that wasn’t defending yourself or fighting in battle. That was sadistic. It was…oh, I haven’t words!”

“Leda…Edæc’s dead!”

“I know he’s dead! I know that. I feel it with my entire body. But will your butchery bring him back to me?”

“Butchery?”

“Yes! Let’s call it by its real name. Let’s not pretend. What makes us different from Castor, Hal, is that we don’t torture or kill others just because we have the power to do so. And the minute we do…as Magda said, we’re no better than they are!”

“Magda…who just drove her knife through a man’s heart out of revenge?”

“She was finishing what you’d started. What would my mother have said, Hal?”

“Oh…” flooded with shame, she turned away, unable to look at Leda. “You play your cards so well.”

“This isn’t a game and I’m not holding any cards. What would she have thought?”

She was so weary, her spirit so weighted down now. Hal leant against a tree, her back to its bark and slowly worked her way down until she was sitting amongst the roots. “She’d not recognise me,” she said at last. “These days, Leda, I barely recognise myself.”

Her face swollen from crying, Leda stared at her for a long time. The fog had lifted, but rain had taken its place ˗ light, gentle, as if the sky itself were weeping. With a long, mournful sigh, Leda flung herself down onto the wet earth beside Hal. “I still see you, Hal Hannac,” she said at last. ‘You’re still there. Just try to do what you do best. Defend us with your sword if you have to, take the fight to Castor. But please, no more torture. No more cruelty.”

Hal rested the back of her head against the tree, rain dusting her face.

“Hal, I know…I understand what tips the balance between man and monster, I feel it so well. It would take so little to turn me into my father.”

“What?” Shocked out of her stupor, Hal turned to look at Leda. “What did you say?”

“I understand,” Leda said. “I could kill every one of them now, for Edæc’s sake. I could have stood and watched you rip out Davic’s heart. I come this close every single day.” She held her thumb and forefinger up to the air. “My fear over what you’re becoming…it’s my own fear. It’s fear for myself.”

Hal shook her head. “What are you talking about, Leda? You’re the purest thing living in this rotten world.”

“No, I’m not. And you see it…you and my mother. I know that you do. You see my father every time you look at me.”

“Your father? Oh, Leda!” Hal slipped an arm around the girl’s shoulders, pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “You’re not Bruno Nérac’s daughter,” she said.

Leda stiffened. “Am I not? Whose daughter am I, if not his?”

“You’re mine.” Hal drew her closer. “You’re my daughter, Leda. You always have been. And you always will be.”

“Spirits!”

She felt the girl break again, her body racked with sobs as they sat beneath the tree, rain washing away the blood.

Review of “Building Love” by M E Tudor

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A sweet romance about real people finding real love.

Following the sudden death of her father, Patricia McNeal goes off the rails, taking drugs, partying and ending up pregnant at eighteen. Her mother Mandy, also coming to terms with the death of her husband, embarks on a new life and opens a B&B.

Enter Theresa Garland, working for her father’s construction company, who is tasked with turning Mandy’s dream into a reality. There’s a definite spark between Theresa and Patty, but it takes a great deal of soul searching and bitter experience before they can acknowledge it. And even then, both girls seem to be victims of their own pasts: of circumstances which it’s hard to keep secret in a small town.

What I liked about the book is just how easy it was to relate to the main characters. Both Theresa and Patty are strong, stubborn, beautiful women who’ve been dealt a poor hand in life and learn to make the best of it. And you find yourself really rooting for them in their search for love, family and security. The perfect summer read.

The First Fight: Final Chapter – Breaking the Rules

the first fight

So this short story (a prequel to Hal) is now complete and available to read on Wattpad while I edit it. Here’s a link to the last chapter:

https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/145657002/write/585247438

 

And here’s an excerpt:

Chapter Eight: Breaking the Rules

“You’ve only got yourself to blame, Hal.”

Hal cast mournful eyes on Marc.

 “I told you to be wary of Cara,” he said, dropping a summons to the palace into her hands.

“Yes, Marc.” She stared at the scroll, unwilling to break the seal. “So you did.”

Marc sat down on the bench beside her, slid his fingers beneath her chin and tilted her face to the light. “Ooh.” He scrunched up his brow. “A split lip is going to play right into her hands.”

“Yes, I think you’ve made your point.”

She drew away. If she still appeared tender and bruised from the fight with Orla, he could have no idea how raw she felt inside. It were as if she’d been hollowed out with a knife: her core cut clean away. Orla was gone; gone forever. And the impending threat of disgrace and exile was enough to drive her out of her mind.

With a long, throaty sigh, she unravelled the parchment and read aloud:

“At the behest of Lady Cara Thæc, the palace summons Halanya X, duellist and former imperial ward, to answer for her actions in bringing shame upon the court. May she present herself at midday on…Blah, blah, blah.” Hal rolled the scroll back up, leant against the wall, closed her eyes and tapped her forehead with the parchment.  “What can they do?” she asked at last. “Kick me out?” She turned to look at Marc.

“Well…” he stroked his chin. “That is one option. The others include…”

“Wait!” She raised a hand. “I don’t even want to hear it.” Grabbing her coat, she jumped to her feet. “Let’s just get this over with, shall we?”

 

The First Fight: Chapter Seven

the first fight

The full version of Chapter Seven of The First Fight is now available on Wattpad. As this was one of the steamier episodes, I can only publish an extract here. Final chapter next week.

https://www.wattpad.com/583034434-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-seven

Chapter Seven (excerpt)

Early spring and the first thaws saw water cascading from gutters and rooftops; slabs of snow thudding to the ground and splintering to be trodden beneath passing boots into a grimy mush. The river rose: there was talk of flooding, and Hal wondered whether to seek refuge in the academy. But she had grown to love her little refuge too dearly. And eventually the Col sank back in upon itself, as if it had stirred briefly like a restless animal and was now lying back down to sleep.

She sought to push thoughts of Orla far from her mind; rarely visiting The Emperor in case their paths crossed. A part of her still yearned for the soldier’s embrace, but she couldn’t allow herself to be swept up again in all that fury; all that rage and pain. Hal felt for Orla; for the wounds to her mind and body which the desert had inflicted. And, the duellist told herself, she would have done all she could to help heal those wounds. But Orla had seemed intent on turning her own anger against Hal. And that was more than she could bear.

So Hal channelled her own energies into duelling, surprising herself and Beric: delighting those who crowded into the arena to watch her fight, her fame spreading as word leaked out of the courtier who’d exchanged wealth and privilege for a rapier and the duelling circle. Until one evening, when the sun had almost bled out and the streets were rich with shadow. And someone rapped hard three times on her door.

Weary after a day of training, Hal hauled herself up off the bench and padded barefoot across the floorboards, easing aside the door.

She stared into green eyes and cursed. “I thought I said it was over between us.”

Orla had regained some of the muscle she’d lost after Yegdan. She was dressed not in gambeson and leathers, but in linen shirt and canvas breeches; greatcoat and boots. And her gaze was cool, not crazed, as she leant against the door frame with her hands in her pockets, her lips sealed and fine and her face unreadable. Hal shivered.

“I suppose I owe you an apology,” Orla said.

“You suppose?”

“Yes. And I’d rather not deliver it out here in the street.”

“I’m not sure I want to hear it anyway,” Hal said, closing the door.

The soldier wedged her boot between frame and threshold. “Just give me a chance.”

Resting her head against the hard, damp oak, Hal sighed. “You set out to hurt me.”

“I didn’t! I didn’t know what I was doing. I was injured; torn apart. I’m better now. I’m whole again.”

“Are you?”

Orla paused and turned to look back up the street, chewing on her lower lip. “Yes,” she said after a few moments. “I am.”

Hal sucked in her cheeks, deliberating. She had the strength to kick Orla’s foot out of the way, slam the door in her face and bolt it fast. But part of her had tensed under Orla’s gaze. Part of her wanted her lover back; the woman who had drawn her on with hard words, who’d made love to her in the street, whose body had curved into her own. With a groan, she pulled open the door. Orla’s smile was brief and tight as she pushed past Hal and into the room.

“Still living in this dump, then?”

“And where else would I be?” Hal asked, closing and locking the door.

“Well, I’d have thought…with all your renown…I heard you’re drawing in the spectators.”

“But it’s a mere performance,” Hal said through gritted teeth. “Isn’t it?”

They stared at each other, the silence prickling Hal’s skin. And then Orla lowered her head.

“I am truly sorry,” she said at last. “After…after all that happened…down there in the south. I wasn’t myself. I … came loose for a while. I fell apart.”

“And now you’re back?”

When Orla raised her head, Hal saw that her eyes were glistening. “I’ve stitched up the holes,” the soldier said.

“I see.” Hal folded her arms across her chest, sinking back into herself, unable to look back at Orla. The soldier stood and she stood, as if waiting, hovering on a mountain ledge or cliff, daring each other to jump.

“Hal, I missed you. I understand why you walked away…”

“You hurt me, Orla! You humiliated me; and yourself.”

“I was at a loss! I needed you, but my mind was a wild place. I had such thoughts, Hal…such dreams after….after it all. Just the thought of sleeping filled me with dread. My dreams were full of horrors.” A single tear spilled, inching down her cheek. She trembled. And without thinking, Hal took her in her arms. Against herself, against her own will, she revelled in the heat of Orla’s body; in the hint of sinew and muscle beneath her fingertips, in the brush of Orla’s lips against her ear.

“I’m sorry. I truly am.”

Hal framed Orla’s face between her hands. “Don’t hurt me again, Orla.”

“I won’t.” Orla spoke through a kiss. “I promise.”