A former Civil War soldier embarks on a quest on behalf of his former commander. He expects to find outlaws and gunslingers in the high deserts of New Mexico, but instead stumbles upon death incarnate in "The Cave."
The Cave is one of six short stories in my book "The Illusion Exotic." Here is a small sample, I hope you enjoy it.
“It’s there, in the cliff face on the east side of the river.” Townsend pointed down to a sharp bend in the river about half a mile north of their vantage point on the cliff.
Knight lowered his hat against the naked sun and followed Townsend’s finger to an overhang in the opposite cliff. There, the river had carved out a hollow in the soft yellow clay. In the stark midday shadows, he couldn’t be sure how far it penetrated the cliff. With monsoon season nearly over and the Brazos Mountains snow pack almost gone, the Chama shriveled to a trickle. The challenge would be finding a way down the cliff to the streambed.
“I see it. How do we get down there?”
“The cliff descends in another mile north.”
“Something is moving down there, just south of the cave,” Knight pointed to a dark speck trotting out from the cave’s shadow.
Townsend shielded his eyes from the sun and sat higher in the saddle, wiping sweat from his brow every few minutes.
“That there’s a cay-yote-aye, maybe a mangy wolf. Hard to tell from here, I didn’t see any sign of a...” Townsend jumped in his saddle as Knight’s Colt thundered inches from his ear.
“SON OF A BITCH! I’m gonna be deaf in that ear for a week, you...”
Ignoring Townsend, Knight calmly replaced the revolver in his holster, and rode through the blue smoke. Townsend rubbed his ringing ear and looked where Knight shot. Far below, the animal lay motionless on the riverbank.
“It had something in its mouth. I want to see it.”
“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled and spurred his horse after Knight.
As Townsend promised, the cliff soon descended to the sandy streambed. Knight stopped just short of the river and trotted back and forth, looking intently at the ground as Townsend caught up.
“Hell of a shot back there. Musta been three hundred yards. Never saw a revolver shot like...”
“What’s east of here?” Knight interrupted, pointing to a wisp of black smoke on the horizon.
“That’s Foreman McGhee’s railhead camp, maybe four miles. The line stays north of the river until it enters the mountains.” Townsend took off his hat and wiped his head with a rag. “Looks like ole’ McGhee’s making good progress all things considered.”
“Answer me this, and answer carefully.” Knight turned and directed his gaze squarely on Townsend. “Have you told anyone what Amado spoke of last night? Does anyone in town, other than you and Amado know of this place?”
Townsend shook his head. “Only the kid from the pueblo and Father Garza.”
“I ain’t worried about the boy. If what Amado told me is true, there isn’t a red skin alive who’ll come near this place.”
Knight galloped about fifty yards downstream and halted, studying the sandy bank. Warily, Townsend trailed a few yards behind. Knight suddenly wheeled about, pulled his gun and pointed it squarely at Townsend.
“The boy, did he accompany you and Amado back to the cave?”
Townsend slowly raised his hands. “Hey, I ain’t done nothing to you or any of those poor souls!”
Knight cocked the hammer. “Answer my question.”
“No, he was too afraid. Stayed upstream ‘til we came back fer him.”
“Father Garza...when did he leave you and Amado and head back to the Espanola?” Knight asked.
Townsend looked confused. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s important you answer my question, Mr. Townsend. Otherwise, it’s going to go bad for you.”
“Last night, neither of you told me what happened after you found the cave. Tell me what happened to Father Garza after you left the cave.”
Sweat poured down Townsend’s face. “He took the boy north, to the pueblo. Don’t rightly know what became of them since. I suspect Garza made his way back to San Marcos.”
“He went back with us, I know Amado told you as much.”
“We’ll see. Turn around and ride north ahead of me.”
“Are you gunna tell me what the hell’s going on? I ain’t done wrong by you or anyone.”
“Maybe,” Knight replied casually from behind. “There’s what you tell me and what the tracks tell me. I’ll find out soon enough who’s telling the truth.”
They rode several hundred yards north toward the distant railhead, until the terrain flattened and sand gave way to scrub and thistle. He commanded Townsend to stop, but stay on the horse. “Keep your hands were I can see them.”
Knight dismounted and walked through the scrub, once again studying the ground, Colt always pointed in Townsend’s general direction. He bent down and examined the dirt.
“Wellsby vanished, just like that?” Knight inquired.
“It ain’t no damn different than like we told you,” frustration rising in the sheriff’s tone. “We got back just before dark. Wellsby told us to keep quiet and he was gunna wire back to Colorado Springs what we found. He never met us the next morning, like he said he would. Ain’t seen him since. Amado said we should keep quiet until you showed up. That’s the truth, I swear. Hey, if we were lying, why would I bring you up here?”
Knight remounted his horse. “Because this would be a good place to dump the body of an agent of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Now, turn your horse around and ride back to the river.”
Townsend spit. “You planning on killing me?”
They returned to where the cliffs enclosed both sides of the river. The horses splashed up to their hooves in the muddy water as they rounded the bend and the cave came into view.
“Dismount,” Knight ordered.
The railroad agent dismounted and cut an “X” in the sand with his boot heel next to the stream.
“Stand here. Don’t move until I see if what you and Amado told me is true. Most of what you said lines up with the tracks going in and out of this canyon. If I see tracks newer than two weeks old coming from the south, I’ll know someone lied. And if I don’t find what you described in the cave, I’ll still know someone lied.”
“We weren’t lying, Knight.”
“We’ll see. If you move off that ‘X’ I’ll kill you before you mount your horse, understand? Even if my back is turned, I’ll still hear you. And if I can’t hear you, I’ll smell you. If I find what I should in there, then me and you, we’re okay.”
Townsend remained silent as he tied his horse to a piece of scrub and stood on the X.
“Ain’t you gunna take my gun?”
“If I thought you knew how to use it, I would.”
Townsend’s cheeks turned red. He jerked his hat low and crossed his arms with a huff.
Knight tied off his horse and crossed the sluggish current, barely getting his boots wet in the process. As he walked down the canyon the cliffs rose higher and the breeze abandoned him to the New Mexico sun.
Overhead, buzzards dragged their shadows over the creature lying next to the stream bed. It turned out to be a mangy coyote with a mottled coat and sore-covered skin. Jutting ribs and bulging eyes spoke of a creature already dying of hunger. A human femur, partially covered with dried flesh, lay beside its head. He nudged it with his boot, revealing blood-soaked sand under its chest.
Knight stepped over the coyote, not bothering to look back at Townsend, knowing he hadn’t moved.
The cave waited.
If you enjoyed that sample, you can read the rest of The Cave and other short stories in The Illusion Exotic.
Brian L. Braden presents six tales of souls turning life’s corners. From the Old West, to the edge of space, six people must learn to abandon the illusions that feed their fears, and trust in love, friendship, and their own courage.
The end of the world is bad enough, but its worse when you’re a kid. For little Anant, hope comes in the most unlikely of forms, the voice of Captain James T. Kirk. However, in "Spaceship Name", hope does not come without a price.
In "Green", a young pilot’s courage and fledgling skills are tested to the limit in the pitch black skies above a treacherous battlefield. In one terrifying moment, she will either lead her crew to triumph, or perish.
A former Civil War soldier embarks on a quest on behalf of his former commander. He expects to find outlaws and gunslingers in the high deserts of New Mexico, but instead stumbles upon death incarnate in "The Cave."
After a long day, second grade teacher Margaret Nichols only wants to go home, run a warm bath, and open her wrists. Fate has other plans, however, in the form of a bloodstained Bible and "The Boy in the Hole."
On a Saturday night, high school nerd Mike faces a tough choice: pursue a chance for romance with a popular cheerleader, or hang with Todd, his best friend and notorious loser. What he doesn’t know is his decision will mean life and death, and forever go down in history as the "Incident at the West Flatte Dairy Queen."
"Carson’s Love" takes the reader into the lives of the Campbells, a family falling apart. Megan and Rob have become so lost in their own lives, they’re about to lose each other. Then, while giving their baby a bath, Rob Campbell makes a startling discovery, and their world suddenly turns upside down.
I'm interrupting my blog series on the Bible for a brief update on my writing progress.
As a way of saying "I'm sorry this is taking so long" to my readers, here is an unedited sample from my upcoming novel THE CHRONICLES OF FU XI, Book 3: THE BASTARD GODS.
I'm making slow but steady progress and I am still hoping for a 2018 release.
The Demon Fish
The two men stood, side-by-side at the barge’s edge, in comfortable contemplation as if pondering something so casual as an afternoon swim. Arms crossed, Levidi rested all his weight on one leg like a crane, scratching the back of his calf with his toe. Ghalen leaned lazily on his crooked spear and scratched his nose. They talked softly as the enormous fin sliced slowly back and forth in the gentle waves a few yards away.
“They’re not serious, are they?” Ezra whispered to Sana. “It’s almost a third the length of the barge.”
“Yes,” she replied flatly. Sana had seen this scene many times before among her people, the Scythians. It was the way men spoke to one another before the hunt, or before battle. These were murmurs of strategy, scheming or just mischief.
A crowd of men and boys gathered behind Sana and Ezra, careful not to get close enough to the edge, lest they unbalance the barge.
“It’s too far,” Levidi kept his voice level, but Sana could detect his excitement at the size of the monster cruising just below the surface.
“I wonder how it tastes?” Ghalen squinted, as if in deep thought.
“I bet its wondering the same thing,” Sana remarked just loud enough to ensure being heard.
Ghalen ignored her.
“Its hide looks tough,” Levidi pondered.
“Yes,” Ghalen raised his eyebrow. That it does. The spear may not penetrate.”
“Perhaps its hide is tough enough to repair our deck bindings.” Okta stepped alongside Sana, followed by Alaya.
“Don’t encourage them!” Sana gave Okta a not-so-gentle shove to the laughter of the crowd.
Okta shrugged. “It’s just a fish.”
“Men are all the same. Not a shred of sense.” Sana remembered how a much smaller demon fish had sliced a sea dog in two with just a bite. This one looked like it could swallow a man whole. Sana looked around for Aizarg. She spotted him on the opposite end of the barge, back to them and staring off into the distance.
He will be of no help, she thought.
The demon fish began to slowly cruise closely alongside the barge. Levidi, Ghalen and the gallery followed.
“We’re going to have to jab it if we stand any chance of puncturing the skin,” Levidi said.
Ghalen’s shook his head. “It’s too far for a spear jab, I’ll have to throw.”
Levidi pursed his lips and looked as if calculating the distance. “You’ll just lose the spear.”
“That twig isn’t going to penetrate that thing’s skin.” Arms crossed and losing her patience, Sana followed a few paces behind. Behind them, the Lo straggled along, heads craning and murmuring expectantly.
The sun lorded high above, the dappling reflections making it difficult for Sana to see. The big gray fin, three hands high, sliced back and forth as if daring the men to attack.
Ezra leaned toward Sana and spoke in a low tone, “Even if they do spear it, how are they going to get it on the barge?”
“I have no idea.”
After a few more minutes of discussion, they agreed to let Ghalen throw the spear.
“Remember, that is my spear,” Levidi reminded.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Ghalen screwed up his face in concentration and brushed back his thick blonde hair. Then, he cocked back his arm.
Ghalen’s skill with the spear always amazed Sana, and was legendary among the Lo. If any man here had a chance of slaying the beast, it was him.
The wooden tip hit dead square behind the shark’s head, and bounced off harmlessly. It landed with a weak splash before beginning to drift away.
Levidi shrugged. “Tough fish.”
Ghalen nodded. “It will take metal to punch through that hide.”
They looked at one another and, as if reading each others’s thoughts, grinned knowingly.
“I know that look.” Alaya grabbed Sana’s arm. “He’s about to do something stupid.”
Ghalen and Levidi simultaneously drew their daggers from their loin-cloth straps.
“They’re not…” Sana looked on in disbelief.
“They are!” Ezra smiled broadly and snatched the knife from his loincloth.
“One of us takes the top, the other the bottom,” Ghalen said.
“Fair enough, stay clear of its tail,” Levidi gave each of his legs a brief shake to limber up.
“Another good point.”
“Levidi! Stop this foolishness,” Alaya screamed.
“It’s okay, my song bird. Me and Ghalen know what we’re doing.”
“Ghalen?” Sana asked incredulously.
“It’s just a fish,” he winked at her.
“It’s a fish as big as a wooly rhino with the teeth of a lion!”
Ghalen and Levidi nodded at one another and, knives drawn, a moment later jumped on top of the beast.
A mighty cheer went up from the Lo.
Ezra scrambled to join them, but Sana snatched him back by the arm. “Don’t be stupid. You swim worse than I do.”
Knife between his teeth, Levidi dove deep as Ghalen grabbed the beast’s dorsal fin and plunged his blade just ahead of the fin.
The water exploded in spray and blood. The beast rolled and thrashed, and Sana finally saw the monster’s true size... and its teeth. Each bigger than a lion’s tooth, they stood in jagged rows. If either man lost their grip, the creature would spin about and rend them to pieces. Just as bad, its crescent-shaped tail would smash them.
Sana shuddered as she finally got a look at the beast’s eyes, which were unlike anything she’s ever seen in a fish or land dwelling creature. They were like obsidian stones, lifeless and cold.
Every roll revealed Levidi clinging to the pectoral fin; each stab created a brief red bloom on the it’s underbelly before the sea washed away the blood. Ghalen held on to a dorsal fin and sliced bloody ribbons down the beast’s back.
Okta looked on, though to Sana he didn’t seem concerned. “Ezra, go fetch one of the two good coils of rope from my raft.”
Ezra slowly backed away, as if unable to take his eyes off the battle.
“Go, son. We’re going to need that rope soon.”
The beast suddenly snapped its body into a “U” shape, shrugging Ghalen off its fin. Before Sana could register what was happening, the fish snapped the other way, slapping Ghalen with its tail so violently he sailed out of the water and onto the deck, bowling over several men lined up along the edge. His knife skittered along the deck and stopped as Sana’s feet.
Okta clenched his knife between his teeth and dove in, followed by most of the Lo men. Soon, men covered the demon fish like ants, knives piercing and slashing.
Ghalen lay unmoving, a large red abrasive rash on his chest weeping blood in some places. Sana dropped to her knees beside him, shaking his chest.
Alaya knelt beside her. “He’s not breathing!”
“Ghalen!” Sana pushed on his chest, trying to rouse him.
Ghalen reached up and grabbed Sana by the back of the neck, pulling her down and kissing her hard. He rolled over on top of her, and pressed his body against hers. At first, she resisted, but Ghalen pressed her arms over her head, and inserted his hips between her legs. She began to melt as his tongue, and the tang of salt and blood, filled her mouth and ignited her Scythian blood.
He pressed harder. She pressed back, and let a moan escape.
Alaya scooted back and giggled.
“Sana?” Ghalen whispered tenderly.
“Yes?” Sana panted and fought the urge to push her pelvis harder against his.
“Where’s my knife?”
She looked at him oddly, wondering if she heard him correctly.
He glanced left and his face lit up. “There it is!” He snatched it off the deck, scrambled up and leapt back into the water to join the melee.
Cool air invaded the spaces where hot flesh once covered. Sana exhaled and covered her face with her hands. “I hope the beast bites his head off.”
Alaya giggled again.
Did you like the sample but haven't read any of my books? Begin the adventure with the historical fantasy novel BLACK SEA GODS.
Chronicles of Fu Xi, Book 3: Coming 2017.
I am working hard on this novel, and hopefully will have finished it by this time next year. He is a sneak peak of what is to come.
Two demigods roam a shattered world - one driven by conquest, the other on a mission of salvation. Caught in between are humanity’s last survivors.
From the south, marches Leviathan and his army of cannibal warriors. After surviving the Cataclysm and a voyage halfway across the world, the son of Poseidon is bent on establishing a new “Empire of the Gods.” The slave Amiran is locked in a desperate battle of wits to stop him. Amiran struggles not only to mask his conspiracies from Leviathan, but to hide his feelings for the beautiful woman who recently washed ashore.
From the west rides Fu Xi, son of the Goddess Nuwa. He must find the Man with White Hair before Leviathan does. Fu Xi also searches for the only family he has left, a half-brother he has never known. Along the way Fu Xi unexpectedly finds a survivor, a boy that could lead him to everything he seeks, if Fu Xi can keep him alive.
To the east Aizarg’s bedraggled people make landfall, but at a terrible price. Now the Lo must make their way through perilous mountains, desperately trying to find a promised land. The Lo however, are led by a new holy woman, one just as comfortable wielding a spear as a talisman. Sana and Aizarg must keep their people alive and united, as forces without and within seek their demise.
While Demigods and mortals are on a collision course, an ancient and dangerous force has awoken in their paths, one that could change the fortunes of both men and gods.
The end of the world is over, but the battle for the new age has just begun.
Just a few more days and The Golden Princess will be here. For those of you who have pre-ordered, thank you.
For those who are waiting for the release or haven't heard of my novels,
Here's a sneak peek of what's inside.
Sarah burst from the enormous gilded doors, just as she had done on the first day of Festival every year since she could remember. Excitement vibrated through her body, invigorated by the late afternoon sunshine. Rosewater and jasmine floated on the air as she dashed down the stairs and across the crowded courtyard. Brushing by the central fountain, she didn’t care if the spouting lions splashed her with icy water. Sarah had to see the wagon, to touch it before it departed to join the parade assembling just outside the palace gates. As with every Festival, Sarah pretended she would be a participant in the glorious event, and not just another distant spectator.
She glimpsed the beautiful wagon through the milling crowd. Between the wagon and the palace gates, she spied Asul barking orders at his warriors as they struggled to assemble the House Azubehl’s contribution to the Parade of Princes. Behind them, drummers and trumpeters warmed up, filling the palace grounds with music. Soldiers herded gayly dressed dancers, acrobats, fire breathers, and plumed horses to the head of the line. Behind them milled a bedraggled pack of chained slaves, her Father’s slice of the booty from Hur-ar’s many wars against the steppe tribes. All of these would precede her father’s wagon, announcing the power of the House Azubehl.
She ducked low to avoid Asul’s eyes, and weaved amid the crush of Hur-ar’s high ranking warriors and royalty chosen to follow the Prince’s wagon. By following the prince’s wagon in the annual parade, they announced their fealty to the ancient and powerful House Azubehl.
Tended by a small army of slaves, the nobles clucked excitedly to one another. Broad silver trays piled high with exotic delicacies from across Hur-ar’s vast trading empire twirled and danced through the crowd. The struggling slaves beneath their shadows remained invisible to privileged eyes.
Sarah, however, was not invisible. Noblemen occasionally ogled her despite her golden veil, but Sarah knew her status as First Daughter and betrothed to the Crown Prince kept her safe.
Her father had arranged for his guests’ every appetite. Scantily-clad slave girls and boys, rented from the city’s finest brothels, prowled the lush gardens at the courtyard’s edges. As her mother had taught her many times, Sarah averted her eyes from the goings-on in the shadows. While Sarah had no illusions what the men did with the slave girls behind the garden’s thick foliage, she felt uncomfortable at the thought some of the girls were younger than her.
The enormous parade wagon resting before the sealed palace gates commanded her attention. Slaves hurriedly put the final touches on the family’s contribution to the Parade of Princes, the Festival’s opening event. Long ago, it had been a heavy wagon used for hauling trade goods and ore up and down the steep Cliff Road to the Black Fortress. Standing almost twice as high as a man, her grandfather had ordered it rebuilt decades ago. Ornately carved stairs replaced the mundane wooden loading ramp on its side. Silk bunting draped over polished wooden slats and interwoven with silver and golden threads, bore images of the House Azubehl’s great deeds. Wooden wheels were replaced with gilded bronze spokes encrusted with glittering jewels. Atop it all, two gold and ivory thrones sparkled in the sun.
This is where her father and mother would sit as two snow-white oxen pulled the wagon up the Avenue of Kings. Only the wagons of the King and Prince Hector, first in line for the throne, would proceed them. The rest of Hur-ar’s nobility would follow in order of their Court status. All the great houses were expected to participate, each displaying their wealth and might. The parade would terminate at sunset at the King’s Palace in the city center. There, a gala feast would rage until dawn, marking the official opening of the Festival of Gold.
Sarah looked about, making sure Asul wasn’t watching. The High Prince and his First Wife, her mother and father, had yet to make their appearance. Noblemen drank and laughed around her, ignoring the High Prince’s daughter lingering in the wagon’s shadow. The slaves tending the oxen paid her no mind, nor did those tasked with shoveling manure from the cobblestones.
Sarah reached up and caressed the silky bunting, still as crisp and bright as she remembered it as a young child. The wagon held a special magic for her. In her imagination, she pictured it one day transporting her beyond the palace’s gilded prison. She could count on her fingers the number of times she’d been beyond the palace walls. In those times, she had been concealed behind thick curtains in a wagon, on her way to and from the family’s country villa.
Impulse overrode good sense, and she scurried up the stairs.
Perched on her Mother’s throne, Sarah straightened her white silk and chiffon dress, pushed up her golden bracelets, and firmly set her gaze on the closed courtyard gates. If the force of her stare could open the gates, it would. She imagined what it would feel like to ride down the Avenue of Kings with the entire city’s eyes upon her. Sarah wanted to see the people, to experience Hur-ar’s vibrant sights and sounds.
Her mother would have none of it.
Laughter shook Sarah from her trance. Afraid Mother or Asul might have spied her, Sarah slunk down and peered around. The crowd paid her no attention, everyone focused on the party’s latest arrivals.
A court page cleared his throat and shouted above the chattering crowd, “Announcing Her Highness, Ashtoreth, Eighth Princess of the House of Azubelh, and her son Prince Bal-eeb.”
With disarming smiles and leering eyes, the freemen flocked to Ashtoreth’s side. The women of court fell back, whispering to one another jealously.
“Witch,” Sarah heard several of the women hiss under their breath.
Hiding behind her mother’s throne, Sarah could not tear her eyes away from the woman who had arrived into their lives like a whirlwind only a few months ago. Her father’s latest, and eighth wife, Ashtoreth had become a powerful force in court.
Fully in control, Ashtoreth waded into the crowd, goblet in one hand. Her dress looked as if it were spun from black spider web, originating from her full left breast and radiating across her body. Golden silk beneath the black strands afforded minimal modesty and accentuated each dangerous curve. Diamonds woven into the thin strands gave the illusion of morning dew clinging to the black webs. Long ebony hair fell down her right shoulder, glistening in the sun and barely concealing her right breast.
Beautiful, Sarah thought. And then, with a hint of unease, Powerful. She watched the way Ashtoreth drew men to her, and manipulated them with a look, or a word. Sarah frowned, considering her own body, wondering if men would ever look at her that way.
Then she caught the gaze of another. From behind his mother, Bal-eeb grinned at Sarah.
She blushed and turned away, slumping deeper into the wagon, back pressed against the chair.
Her heart thumped wildly. She slowly snuck a peek, but he no longer looked at her and mingled with the crowd.
People said Bal-eeb had already distinguished himself in battle against the Scythians. Broad shouldered and bare-chested, he wore only military sandals and the traditional ocher waist wrap of a Royal officer. Tall, with a bushy black mane of hair and thick oiled beard, he resembled his cognomen, The Lion. Her father’s younger officers flocked about him, as did many of her step-sisters. The handsome prince had caused a great stir among Prince Azubehl’s many daughters since his arrival. Many of her half-sisters openly wondered if marrying their stepbrother would be permissible.
Sarah hated to admit it to herself, but she thought of it, too. Though she never publicly showed it, her mother had been furious when Prince Azubehl had taken a new wife who already had a son, and one so old. Everyone knew this presented an immediate threat to Ezra, the First Son. Sarah wanted to hate Bal-eeb, but kept finding herself stealing glances at the handsome Sammujad.
Brash, arrogant and savage, Bal-eeb represented everything Mother taught her was wrong, everything the ancient teachings of the Narim, the god-men of the Black Fortress, rejected. To Sarah, Bal-eeb was like spring thunder in the mountains. She knew he should be feared, but she couldn’t pull her attention away from his power.
“All Hail Prince Azubehl and his beloved First Wife, the High Princess Meribeph!”
A flurry of activity in front of the palace’s great doors foreshadowed the imminent arrival of Mother and Father. Sarah knew she must leave the courtyard before Mother spotted her. Backing down the stairs and staying low, she tried to blend in with the crowd. Then, her right sandal caught a stair, sending her tumbling backwards. She grabbed at the wagon’s edge, but only snatched air. She closed her eyes and braced herself.
Corded muscles caught her. Sarah’s arms naturally fell across an iron neck.
When she dared open her eyes Bal-eeb smiled down at her.
“You must be more careful, princess.”
Sarah’s face turned bright red behind the veil. Her mind battled between the desire to crawl beneath the wagon and curl up and die, or perhaps, to stay right here in Bal-eeb’s arms.
“P-put me down.” She added, “Please,” and then cursed herself.
“Of course.” He set her down, but inched closer, trapping her between the wagon and his broad chest. He snagged a goblet from a nearby tray, eyes twinkling playfully. He smelled of wind and steel and smoke and every fantasy she’d ever imagined of life outside Hur-ar.
She smoothed her gown and hair, struggling to regain composure.
Sarah struggled to think of something, anything, to say. Her years of training under the stern matriarchs of Hur-ar’s oldest families did little to prepare her for the likes of Bal-eeb.
“Are you enjoying the party?” She asked voice cracking.
Bal-eeb emptied the goblet in one deep swig, and tossed it to the ground. He stepped even closer, further invading her space. “You talk much. All of you city dwellers love to talk.”
“Yes. I guess we do.”
Ironically, Sarah realized this was the most they had said to one another since his arrival at the palace.
He placed a palm against the wagon, blocking her escape, and leaned even closer. “You’re different from your sisters.”
“Oh, really?” Sarah swallowed.
“A man might find you desirable.”
Sarah held her breath; her heart pounded. Desirable?
He playfully fingered her hair and toyed with the delicate knot holding her veil in place. “Your hair. Your eyes. There are no women like you beyond the wall.”
Sarah glanced around, but no one in the crowd seemed to take notice of them. Unexpected excitement washed over Sarah as his warm breath caressed her cheek.
“Princess, you should not be here.” A stern voice came from beside them.
Sarah turned to find Asul locked eye-to-eye with Bal-eeb.
“Hello, Captain Asul,” she exhaled, simultaneously relieved and disappointed.
“Be gone, guard,” Bal-eeb gave Asul a dismissive glance.
“Princess Sarah isn’t supposed to be here.”
“Go away,” Bal-eeb glanced at Asul the way a mad dog does before it snaps.
“She’s coming with me.”
Bal-eeb drew himself up and turned to face Captain Asul. “When does a commoner give orders to a prince?”
Those who took no notice before now turned and watched the two warriors face off. Bal-eeb hovered over her like a predator protecting its kill, Asul the unyielding interloper.
Asul’s tone never changed, his face impassive. “I am under orders from High Princess Meribeph. Take it up with her.”
Even though she seemed forgotten, Sarah tried to flatten herself as much as possible against the wagon.
Bal-eeb laughed and stepped back. “Who am I to oppose the will of the High Princess?”
The tension broke as Asul grasped Sarah’s wrist and pulled her away.
The crowd began to chatter again like crickets after a passing storm. Asul led Sarah behind the columns at the courtyard’s edge.
“Sneaking about again, my princess?” Asul said gruffly once they were out of earshot.
“A proper princess doesn’t sneak, isn’t that what you tell me?”
“Then I guess I wasn’t sneaking.”
Thanks for stopping by this week for THE GOLDEN PRINCESS cover reveal. Its been a great promo. The novel is the late stages of editing, and will be released this spring. Keep watching this space for a official release date.
As a bonus to top a great week, enjoy this sample of the upcoming novel. Oh, and don't forget today is your last day to get both books in the CHRONICLES OF FU XI for free!
Part One: Afternoon
“The Age of Gilded Darkness rose and fell thousands of years before Yu the Great built his capital upon the Yellow River, before the Silk Road, or the Pharaohs laid the first stone of the first pyramid. That age came crashing down when the Emperor of Heaven turned his face from the unspeakable evil of men and gods, and pronounced a terrible judgement on both. He buried their empires, and cursed them to be forgotten for eternity. Millennia passed before men dared to stack stone once again, or remembered what it was to read and write.
“In the twilight of that forgotten age, one city stood above the rest in splendor and wickedness. Hur-ar, City of Gold, reigned at the edge of the Caucus Mountains, and challenged the Scythian Empire for domination of the steppe surrounding what men would one day call the Black Sea. Yet, even in that dark place an ember of hope was born. Here, a princess fell from a golden throne, and transformed by grace, became a flame of hope for a lost people.
- Emperor Fu Xi, First Sovereign of China
Chapter 1: Shadow over the Gates of Gold
It wasn't so much a city, as it was a lair.
Surrounded by jagged mountains and nestled deep in a three-sided canyon, Hur-Ar resembled the gaping jaws of a ravenous beast. The weak would find themselves consumed by her power, the foolish crushed under her might. This city would one day devour the world, of that the trader was certain. Here, a cautious man might survive, but a cunning man could make himself a prince…
…Or a king.
He walked between the worlds of steppe and city, lord of neither. Behind him lay the endless grassland ruled by terrible horsemen, the Scythians, masters of the west. Ahead rose Hur-Ar, the rising power in the east. The trader found himself trapped between two princes, each determined to conquer the world, each sworn to kill the other. Only one could emerge victor, and, at this moment, both needed his services. One slip, one misspoken word, and either would tear him apart. If he played his hand wisely, he would find himself on the winning side, not to mention considerably wealthier.
Half a dozen iron chains draped over his shoulder gently clinked with each step. Forged by his personal blacksmith, he relished the metal’s weight pressing against his heavy fox fur cloak. Only truly powerful men possessed iron. Most displayed it on their hip in the form of a blade, but not this trader. His personal bodyguards could carry their swords for all to see. He, however, kept his dagger sharp and hidden. The chains dangling over his shoulder spoke adequately regarding his power and status.
The trader had almost reached the wall when his men, following a few paces behind, began to laugh.
He turned and scowled. “You jabber like a bunch of hags. What do you find so funny?”
“We look forward to an evening of wine and whoring,” one of them replied.
The trader looked beyond them toward the west. “Have any of you fools considered glancing behind us from time to time?”
The six Sammujad bodyguards halted and considered their master. With slack expressions, they turned around and looked west from whence they came. The King’s Road cut straight through the wheat fields on either side, toward the Hur River. A few miles away, the sun began to dip behind the two massive towers that supported the Kupar Bridge.
“Are we being followed?” the biggest warrior asked.
The trader shook his head.
Mountainous men, shaggy black manes, and grizzled beards blended with their filthy furs, giving his men the appearance of spear-wielding bears. To enemies, they may appear fearsome, but the trader knew how stupid his bodyguards truly were.
Stupid is easier to control, he thought.
“Do you see dust rising above the fields?”
“No, my lord.” No hint of understanding graced the enormous man’s face. For a moment the trader considered trying to explain it to the oaf, but knew such an endeavor futile.
“Come here,” he curled his finger at them as if they were children.
The men crowded around the trader, towering over the little man. Not the least bit intimidated, he rubbed his bald head impatiently.
“Listen carefully. Where is our caravan?”
The warriors frowned at one another, and then at their lord.
“Where is our caravan?” he repeated.
One of them shrugged. “Back at camp where we left it, lord.”
The trader leaned in. “Why do we enter Hur-Ar?”
They shook their heads. “Because you wish to trade?” another replied timidly. The trader slapped him hard.
Cowed, the warrior dropped his gaze.
“Because I am buying, not selling.” He jingled the heavy purse tied firmly to his waist. “Having no caravan marks us as carrying gold, and that marks me for a knife across the throat.
“I don’t give a damn about the Festival. In and out by tomorrow night. We deliver the goods to base camp before Prince Tuma and his warriors arrive. And you know what happens when the Scythian prince is disappointed, don’t you?”
The mercenaries exchanged uneasy glances.
“No whoring. No wine. Stay close to me, don’t let anyone within arm’s reach. If you have doubts, kill first, talk later. I’ll pay any fines for bloodshed. This time tomorrow, we march out of these gates with our treasures, or face death under Scythian hooves.”
Without another word, he turned and resumed the march, his shadow, stark and crisp, led the way.
The sunset swept across the unbroken steppe and bathed the city wall and the mountains beyond in glittering glory. Only at sunset did Hur-Ar live up to its name, the City of Gold. Nestled at the bottom of a box canyon, sheer cliffs and rugged mountains protected three of it sides, but cursed the city to almost permanent shadow. Its only wall sealed its western access overlooking the Hur River, and beyond that, the Steppe.
Thick crowds milled before the closed gates, beseeching the captain for entrance to join the Festival of Gold. The annual celebration of the yellow metal, with its unrestrained debauchery and decadence, drew threefold the number of traders from the Steppe and beyond.
The trader gestured his warriors forward. With shoves and threats, they cleared a path through the riffraff who could not afford entrance into the city. He strolled casually forward, hands on hips. He relished the way his shadow towered against the giant gates, an omen that one day he would become a giant, a force to be reckoned with.
Flanked by two warriors, the gate captain crossed his arms and glanced the trader up and down. Resplendent in gleaming bronze armor and richly embroidered ochre waist wrap, golden ringlets laced his thin, oiled beard. The trader didn’t recognize this particular officer, likely a minor prince from a family in the King’s good graces.
The captain stalely recited the challenge he’d likely uttered thousands of times before, “State your name and purpose. But be warned: All who enter must pay the King’s tax. All who enter must come to trade.”
The trader bowed low. “I am Virag, Lord of the Marshes that surround the Great Sea, Master of the Limita, and friend of Hur-Ar.” From somewhere in the folds of his tunic, the trader produced a gleaming gold coin bearing the likeness of the city’s king and held it out to the captain. “Of course, I can pay the tax.”
The captain eyed Virag suspiciously and then reached for the coin. Virag quickly closed his hand, before slowly reopening his fingers, palm up, revealing not one, but two thick coins.
“I can pay the kings tax, and then some,” Virag purred.
The captain took them both. He tested each with a small bite, and grinned. He craned around Virag, perhaps to see if any wagons or carts followed behind. “Welcome, Virag. Do you come to buy or sell?”
Virag grinned and shook the rusty chains on his shoulder until the manacles clanged together.
Raised in splendid isolation.
Betrothed to a man she despises.
Destined to rule over the greatest city on earth.
She is the Golden Princess.
Sarah dreams of love and adventure beyond her gilded prison, but tonight her dreams come true in the most terrifying way imaginable. A bloody power struggle erupts for the throne, and dawn finds the princess on the run with a bounty on her head. Alone and hunted by guards, criminals and a ruthless slaver who will stop at nothing to burn his brand into her flesh, Sarah must summon courage she never knew she possessed.
Hope, however, comes in the form of two lowly thieves. Driven by a secret, they race through Hur-ar’s underworld to find Sarah before her enemies do.
Before the next sunset, Sarah’s fate, and that of empires, will be decided with gold, steel and blood.
Huge thanks for Hanna Elizabeth for the fantastic cover. And don't forget to take advantage of the CHRONICLES OF FU XI free promo, ending 23 January 2016!
Coming this spring from DeadPixel Publications!