What would you do if you were the monarch of a
perfect, tropical paradise without a care in the
world? Well, King Norr would like to leave, and
"Where else but Nibb?" his subjects would contend.
Venturing away from Nibb was only inviting misery
Nevertheless, the King was intent to experience
the world beyond and this is the story of the
adventures that found him during that pursuit.
Telling too much would ruin the surprises in store,
but some of the mysteries include --
Who was the curious, little girl who would not speak?
Had Doctor Hinkus fallen prey to marauding drumbkins?
Whose prank set the Palace afloat?
What's a spudcake?
Do pirates bathe?
Did Uncle Fenwad roll out of the Palace?
What's a Sober Tooth Tiger?
Do Nibbian pigs have a future in aviation?
These questions and more arise just as Norr may
have found what he had always wanted. Never
mind his world had become perfectly chaotic. It
was also chaotically perfect, and nothing that
couldn't be remedied with an additional nap.
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R E V I E W S --
Marigold Deidre Dicer @ Versus Blurb -- Brisbane, Australia
Maxine @ Parakeet Book Reviews -- California
Deborah Gafford -- writer & book blogger -- Texas
Bethanie Armstrong @ Bethanie's Books -- Alabama
Laura W @ Blue Eye Books
Trang @ Bookidote -- Montréal, Québec
Saradia Chatterjee @ The Page-Hungry Bookworm
AUTHOR'S BIO --
The Gift of the Quoxxel is Richard's debut novel. His life
experience includes visual arts, freelance graphic design and
illustration, truck driving, verb conjugating, military service,
and mastery of an adequate meatloaf.
A Michigan native and parochial school survivor, Richard resides
with wife Marina close to, but far enough from New York City.
Brandon Cass is not your average teenager. He has a taste for blood—human blood. For sixteen years, he stumbled through life without a hitch until the enigmatic aroma of blood awakened something dark within him. Visions of a beautiful young woman with chocolate brown hair and ocean blue eyes haunt his mind, yet her identity is a puzzling mystery.
His hunger for blood strengthens, and the cravings become too powerful to control. No one is safe, not even his family. To safeguard all he once found dear, Brandon sets out on a quest for answers. In an unfamiliar city, he comes face-to-face with the beautiful young woman, confronts the dark force which controls him, and learns what he must endure to reclaim his soul.
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Nora knows three things: she is a servant, her parents are dead, and she lives in the kitchen house with her adoptive family. But her world is torn apart when she discovers that her birth father has always been right there, living in the house she serves.
This discovery leads Nora to more questions. Why was she thrown in an ash-covered room for asking about her father? Why is a silver-bladed knife the only inheritance from her birth mother? Why is magic forbidden in her household—and throughout the province of the Runes? The answers may not be the ones Nora hoped for, as they threaten a possible romance and her relationship with the adoptive family she loves.
With the announcement of a royal ball, Nora must decide what she is willing to give up in order to claim her stolen birthright, and whether this new life is worth losing her family—and herself.
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I sat at the window with the sun on my face, slicing tomatoes I picked from the vine that climbed the back of the kitchen house. On the other side of the room, Greta hummed an old tune. The words tickled at the fringes of my memory, not quite making their way to my lips. I hadn’t heard them since she used to sing me to sleep almost seven years ago. When I was six, old enough to hold my knife, hearth-lit songs and dreams had been replaced with work.
Tomato juice sluiced across the cutting board as I bore down with my blade. The carvings that covered its handle had practically tattooed themselves on my palm. I imagined it had been the same way for my real mother—the knife had once been hers.
“Nora, Robert stopped by while you were outside,” Greta said, arm-deep in a bowl of dough. “He said there’s a new woman and her son coming sometime this week. They’re going to work here with us.”
“Why?” I said, glancing up from the mess of tomatoes on my board. The kitchen house already felt small with Greta, Peter, and me living there.
Greta shrugged. “Sir Alcander must have thought we needed the help.”
Bright pain burst through my hand. I drew a breath and looked down at where my knife had bitten into my finger.
“Are you okay?” Greta asked.
“I’m fine.” I hid my finger under the table until she turned back to her dough. I didn’t want her to take away my knife.
“Anyway, we’ll need to clear out some space in the loft.”
“Mm-hmm.” I held up my hand and stared at the red teardrop of blood glinting in the sunlight. It was beautiful, I decided. Like a jewel. I wrapped a rag around my finger before Greta could see it.
A chirrup of delight sounded outside. Siobhan and Annabelle had come out to play. Even though they rarely acknowledged me, I swore that the girls, the daughters of Sir Alcander and Lady Portia, played in view of the kitchen house just to remind me that they had the time and leisure to play when I did not.
“Greta!” Siobhan ran up to my window and leaned inside. “Do you have any chocolate?” Her voice was sweet, a voice that tried to please.
Greta knew better. “No dessert before tea.”
Siobhan’s innocent mask fell off. “I said give us some chocolate. I’ll tell mother if you don’t.”
There was a fleeting moment when I thought Greta might say no. Tell them to say please. Make them ask nicely like she would make me do if I ever talked to her like that. Instead she shook her head and went to the shelf to get the chocolate. She never would have given in to me, but my mother wasn’t the lady of the house.
“Ella-Della!” Annabelle peeked her head through the window as she reached for the chocolate.
“Not Ella-Della,” I said. “Nora.” Della was the name of the simple milkmaid in one of Annabelle’s favorite stories. Her stupidity always got her in trouble with the lord of her household. Once I had the misfortune of walking by with a bucket of water while Portia was outside, telling the story to the girls.
“Look, there goes Della now,” Portia said. At the time, I didn’t even know what the name meant, but the way she laughed let me know it wasn’t a compliment. Siobhan and Annabelle echoed her laughter and her words, and the name stuck.
“Ella-Della, we heard a secret,” Annabelle said through a mouthful of chocolate.
Siobhan shushed her. “I said I was going to tell her!”
She picked up a piece of tomato from my cutting board and threw it at my face. Warm, acidy juice trickled down my cheek. I wiped it off with my rag. Annabelle murmured in disgust at the blood that streaked the cloth.
“You’re going to want to hear it,” Siobhan said as I moved the cutting board out of her reach. “It’s about you.” She looked at Greta, who pretended not to pay attention, then back at me. “Meet us by the tree.”
“Race you!” Annabelle shouted and ran into the field. Siobhan followed. I imagined them tripping in their silk slippers and staining their dresses with dirt.
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was curious about what they had to say. But I also knew Greta would not let me leave until my work was done. I picked another tomato out of my basket, cut a slit into the side, and squeezed it so the slit cracked into a mouth.
“I have a secret! It’s about you, Ella-Della. Now give me chocolate!” Pulp lolled out of the tomato-mouth.
I wished Peter were here. His stories full of chivalrous heroes, brave maidens, talking animals, and the occasional fairy always made time go faster. But Peter was up on top of the main house, patching the roof again. I wished I were up there with him, outside and above everything, but Greta had insisted I stay with her.
“What if you fell off the roof?” she said as we ate breakfast.
“Then you’d heal me and make me all better,” I replied.
“Lucky.” Peter grinned as he drank the last of his tea. “She’d leave me for dead.”
“You know that’s true,” Greta said, and we all laughed. She and Peter had been married for so long that she liked to say that their jokes about killing each other were sometimes serious.
I looked out the window at where Siobhan and Annabelle had settled themselves under the hazel tree in the middle of the field.
“Greta?” I said. “Can I go outside?”
Greta tsked and shook her head. “You know those girls don’t have anything worthwhile to say.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. I wanted Greta to be right, but there had been a wicked delight in Siobhan’s eyes that made me think that she really did have a secret to share. There was no way I was going to let her keep it to lord over me later.
Greta waved her hand. “Put the soup on, then go.”
I diced the rest of the tomatoes and carried the cutting board to the pot that hung over the fire in the hearth. The tomatoes went in on top of the carrots, parsnips, and rosemary that I threw in earlier that morning. I poured a pitcher of water on top of the vegetables and wiped my knife on my apron. The tomato pulp left an orange swath across the fabric.
Greta nodded. Her long braid fell over her shoulder as she worked. She pushed it back behind her. “Go. But you’re a glutton for punishment. And I’m not going to stop your soup from boiling over.”
I untied my apron and hung it over my chair by the window. I usually took my knife outside with me so I could use the handle to smash open the skins of the hazelnuts. Greta watched me with a raised eyebrow and the hint of a smile on her face. I left the knife behind.
I could feel Greta watching from the window as I crossed the field behind the kitchen house. Smoke meandered from the chimney, a reminder of the soup that would boil soon. The kitchen house was a squat brown-and-grey stone block compared to the massive size of the main house next to it. I could walk to the main house in minutes, but it felt like it was miles away. I’d never been inside. Greta always murmured something about my being too young when I asked if I could help bring in dinner.
Siobhan and Annabelle sat on the grass under the hazel tree. I bristled at their presence. I claimed the tree for myself long ago. It was close to the rest of the forest but set off by itself, pulsing with a secret, solitary life. I used to climb over its branches, rubbing my feet over the smooth bark and leaning my ear against the trunk to listen for a heartbeat.
It was my tree, alone and proud. I didn’t want them playing near it.
Siobhan sat with her legs tucked under her skirt, pulling up blades of grass, knotting them, and throwing them at Annabelle. She threw a clod of roots and dirt at me. It landed harmlessly an arm’s-length away. I was sure that if I hadn’t already gathered most of the hazelnuts from the ground that morning, Siobhan would be throwing them instead.
“What took you so long?”
“I had work to do.” I put my hands on my hips, trying to look imposing. Siobhan stood up and brushed off her skirt. Even though I was more than a year older, she was taller and always managed to look down on me.
“Of course,” she said, miming forgetfulness. “Ella-Della is our servant.”
“Della, Della, Ella-Della,” Annabelle sang. “Fetched some milk and met a fella.” She was ten, a year younger than Siobhan. Her face screwed up in an expression of intense concentration as she tried to remember the next part of the song.
“What is it?” I asked. “You said you had something to tell me.”
“You need to earn it, Ella-Della.” Siobhan pointed to the top of the tree where the tail end of one of Annabelle’s bird-shaped toys stuck out between the leaves.
“Why don’t you get it yourself?” I said.
Siobhan snorted. “Climbing trees is not ladylike, Ella-Della.”
Annabelle, having given up on the song, fit a chain of clovers on top of her golden curls. As she and Siobhan waited, ladylike, on the ground, I grabbed the lowest branch and swung up into the tree. There was a curved branch halfway up that I liked to sit on. I stopped there, balancing with one hand against the trunk. The toy was stuck between the branches far above my head.
“Just because it’s a bird doesn’t mean it can fly,” I called down.
Cocooned among the dark, jagged leaves, I couldn’t see Siobhan. But the leaves didn’t stop her voice from reaching me.
“Just because you look like a horse doesn’t mean you can run.”
I continued to climb. Greta was right. They didn’t have anything useful to tell me. They just wanted someone to get Annabelle’s bird.
The cloud-dappled sky came into view near the crown of the tree. The toy’s red body stood out from the green around it. I stood on my tiptoes on a thin branch and stretched to reach it. My fingers brushed against the painted wood, and it plummeted out of the tree, hitting branches and smashing to the grass below. I climbed down as slowly as I could.
Annabelle held the bird’s wooden body in one hand and the wing that had broken off in the other. Her cheeks were reddened with anger. She started to speak, but Siobhan brushed her off.
“Father will buy you a new one,” she said. “Tell him that Ella-Della broke it. He’ll take it out of her wages.”
I shuffled my feet, which smarted from landing on the ground. What did they even know about my wages? I’d never seen any of the money due to me—I always assumed Peter and Greta kept it safe for when I was older. What did I need it for, anyway? When he went to the Market, Peter used his own wages to buy me small toys or the charcoals and chalk I used whenever he or Greta had time to give me lessons. Did Sir Alcander take from my wages any time I did something he didn’t like? I’d only ever seen the man from a distance, but he seemed imposing enough that I could imagine him doing it.
“Ella-Della,” Siobhan said, “don’t you want to know the secret?”
“No.” I turned back to the kitchen house.
“I heard Mother and Father talking in the parlor. They thought I was in bed, but I was getting those black biscuits from the servants’ rooms.”
Annabelle dropped her toy back on the ground. “You said I could come with you! I wanted biscuits, too!”
“Those were for the house servants,” I said. Greta and I made the thin bilberry biscuits a week ago. It was my idea to smash up the berries to give the dough its dark color.
Siobhan went on as though she hadn’t heard me. “Mother and Father were talking and Mother said, ‘Someday she’s going to find out, and when she does, she’s going to want to know why, Alcander.’” She did a pitch-perfect impression of her mother, cocking her head just like I’d seen Lady Portia do.
Curiosity won out. “Why what?”
Siobhan opened her mouth to answer, but Annabelle got there first.
“Why you live in the kitchen house when your father is in the main house.” She gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. Siobhan looked around. Her haughty expression was gone, replaced by guilt. She was not good at burying her thoughts. They were telling the truth.
Siobhan’s moment of humility didn’t last long. “I always thought your father lived in the oven,” she said. “That would explain why your arms are all messed up.”
I crossed my arms behind me, trying to hide the pink burns scarred onto my skin.
“You’re lying,” I said. Even if they actually heard Lady Portia say those words, what she said wasn’t possible. Greta and Peter were my parents. My real mother died in childbirth, and my father followed her to the World Apart soon afterwards. That’s what Greta and Peter always said. But the hazel tree brightened behind Siobhan’s head, and my feet felt lighter than before, like they weren’t quite touching the ground. It might have been hope.
“Am not,” Siobhan snapped. “I’m being nice. I just thought you’d want to know that your father threw you away in the kitchen house so he wouldn’t have to see your ugly face every day. See if I ever do anything for you again.”
She turned on her heels and hauled Annabelle back to the main house. I stood there for a moment, letting the colors of my small world return to normal. I couldn’t go back to the kitchen house, not yet, not if what they said was true. Why would Greta and Peter tell me that my father had passed? Was his presence the reason I wasn’t allowed in the main house? He could be there, waiting for me to come find him. Did he know who I was? Did he even want me?
“Nora!” Greta’s voice pierced through the fog of questions swirling around me. “The soup is burning!”
I ran back to the kitchen house and hefted the pot off the fire. I hadn’t put in enough water, and what I did add had boiled away. I poured in two pitchers this time and put the pot back on the hearth, hoping no one would notice the vegetables’ smoky taste. I barely heard Greta’s reprimands as I ran through the list of men who worked in the main house. There were three male servants: Matthew, Sir Alcander’s valet, was married to Sarah, the head maid. They came to work at the Runes when I was eight, so it couldn’t be Matthew. Victor, the footman, was only seventeen. The only one left was Robert, the butler. He began working at the Runes before Greta and Peter, and he was certainly old enough to have a daughter my age. He had only ever been kind to me when he came to deliver messages or get food from the kitchen house.
Someone knocked at the door. Greta opened it, and there he was. Breath caught in my throat.
“Robert.” Greta nodded, and he came inside.
“The new kitchen maid will arrive from the Vale the day after tomorrow.”
“From the Vale?” Greta sounded surprised, but I didn’t understand why. “Is she Kindred?”
“She and Alcander are like-minded when it comes to”—he glanced over at me—“the goings-on at the Vale.”
I held Robert’s gaze for as long as I could, scrutinizing his features. He carried himself with a dignified air, stately even. He took pride in his work, which was probably why he’d been employed at the Runes longer than any of the other servants. His hair was wiry and grey. I ran a hand through the scraggily, dark red tangle on my head. I’d never met anyone else with my thick, ratty hair. Greta’s braid, while heavy, was smooth and dark. Annabelle and Siobhan’s curls were always brushed to perfection. Robert’s hair reminded me of trees I had seen in the woods that had been struck by lightning, an image I often associated with myself when I looked in the mirror. I could imagine his hair being the same color as mine once upon a time. His eyes were grey instead of gold like mine, but I could have gotten my eyes from my mother.
Had Robert ever been married? He wasn’t now. Maybe he had a wife who died in childbirth, and he couldn’t bear to have the child near him because she—I—reminded him too much of her. It was all very romantic. I wanted to rush over to him, but I held back. What if I were wrong? I would just embarrass myself.
Robert and Greta’s conversation ended with the determination that Peter would meet the new servants in the woods west of the Runes proper the next day. Robert brushed past me on his way out.
“Nora.” He nodded at me.
I wanted to follow him back to the main house, but as soon as the door closed behind him, I turned to Greta.
“My parents,” I said. “My real parents—do you know who they were?”
She startled at the abruptness of the question. “Why are you asking this now? Did the girls say something?”
“I just want to know.”
Greta beckoned for me to sit down with her.
“You know the answer. The couple who worked in the kitchen house before us gave you to Peter and me.”
“But those people weren’t my parents,” I said.
“They didn’t say who your parents were,” Greta continued. “Only that they’d passed, and you needed someone to take care of you. We always wanted a child, and—” She stopped talking when it became obvious I wasn’t listening. This was a story I knew by heart, but it wasn’t mine anymore.
Greta narrowed her eyes. “What did the girls say to you?”
I stood up. “Nothing.”
I went back to my seat by the window, put my apron on, and began to mash up a pile of sprigberries that Greta had put on the table while I was outside. If she and Peter knew anything about my real parents, they would have no reason to hide it from me. They gave me my mother’s knife, after all. Sir Alcander and Lady Portia obviously knew, but I couldn’t ask them. Lady Portia’s visits to the kitchen house were rare and always came with demands. Less salt in the soup or an extra dessert tart for Siobhan and Annabelle. She gusted in and out, never staying for longer than her words and never looking in my direction. Sir Alcander never even set foot near the kitchen house. The only times I’d laid eyes on him had been through a window when I brought something to Peter while he was patching the exterior of the main house. I knew Sir Alcander more by his maps. Peter had one in the kitchen house, and he used it to teach me the geography of Colandaria. Sir Alcander’s intricate compass roses were more familiar to me than his face.
No, I would not get answers from either of them. But I would go to the main house. I had to talk to Robert.
“Good morning, early riser. Any chance you made breakfast while we were sleeping?” Peter said as he climbed the ladder down from the loft and joined me in the kitchen, where I’d been trying to quiet the pounding of my heart since before sunup. He put his arm around me and kissed my forehead. The bristles of his short beard tickled my chin. All fathers should feel like this, I thought.
I had to keep myself from trailing behind him when he brought breakfast to the main house. I would have to wait until everyone was doing their work before I could go inside. I’d seen Greta and Peter go in the back door of the main house as often as I’d seen Robert, Sarah, or one of the other servants come out of it on their way across the field. The servants’ quarters were supposed to be right near the entrance. There had to be something there that would tell me about Robert.
I picked at my breakfast. The nervous flutter in my stomach made me too nauseated to eat. I’d occasionally thought about my real parents resting in the World Apart. Their ashes would have been given to the wind somewhere meaningful. Someone would have held me nearby to ensure that their spirits would watch over me. Growing up, though, I had the parents I needed. Greta and Peter gave me a fire burning in the hearth, a garden to pick food from, and stories to fill warm nights in the loft.
Now, with just a few words from Siobhan and Annabelle, I needed more.
No one would be in the main house servants’ quarters after breakfast. I waited until Peter went outside to repair the fence around the chicken coop and Greta began making her daily bread at the counter that faced away from the window.
“I’m going to see if any more tomatoes are ripe,” I said as Greta took out caraway seeds and flour and put them next to the eggs that I gathered from the coop before breakfast.
She nodded, and I headed out, glancing back to make sure that she had started on the dough. While she was busy measuring ingredients, I ran across the field to the main house and went in the back entrance. Once inside, I cracked open the first door I came to. The room I entered was about the size of the floor of the kitchen house, large enough to fit six beds. Some belongings—probably Victor’s, since Peter always complained what a mess Victor was when he came back from bringing in supper—were strewn about the floor, while others sat on shelves or against the wall. The largest bed would belong to Matthew and Sarah. That left only a few beds that could be Robert’s. A green satin vest with gold edging hung on a stand across the room. That had to be his. He would wear it to serve at Sir Alcander’s and Lady Portia’s banquets. Robert’s shelves were bare except for a few books and a tin of my bilberry biscuits. I warmed at the thought that my father had a stash of my cooking. There was something else on the shelf, something flat enough that I couldn’t see what it was. I stood on my tiptoes and retrieved a palm-sized agate cameo. The carving was of a young woman not more than twenty years old. She was lovely, with long, wavy hair tied back with a large bow.
Was this my mother? In profile, it was difficult to make out anything specific about her features. I wished her image were in color so I could see if she had my gold eyes. I had to talk to Robert before I lost my nerve. I went back to the hallway with the cameo clutched in my fist. I didn’t know where to go, but I did know that I would be in trouble if I were caught roaming the halls. I picked a direction, glancing around each corner before proceeding as I looked for a shock of steely grey hair.
Portraits lined the hallway. All of the subjects wore the same shade of dark green that marked them as the noble family of the Runes. I stopped in front of a painting that depicted Sir Alcander and Lady Portia posing with younger versions of Siobhan and Annabelle. The artist captured the girls’ smug expressions well. The paint in Siobhan’s eyes shined with mischief. Lady Portia’s every hair was defined. The painter had arranged his light source to highlight her sharp, elegant cheekbones. Sir Alcander’s eyes were duller than those of Lady Portia or their daughters. Even Annabelle’s eyes twinkled with specks of white that were missing in her father’s.
I wheeled around to face Sarah, the head maid.
“What are you doing here?”
I looked at the floor. The grey and green grain of the marble flowed like the lines on one of Sir Alcander’s maps. I ran the tip of my shoe along one of the paths.
“I’m looking for Robert,” I said. “I need to talk to him. It’s important.”
“He’s taking dictation for Sir Alcander.” Sarah looked past me down the hall. “He’ll be done soon. Come with me.”
She put a hand on my back and ushered me in the direction from which I’d come.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” she said.
“I know.” I tucked the cameo into my pocket. “But it’s important. Don’t tell Greta, please.”
Sarah glanced behind us. The pressure of her hand on my back became more urgent.
“It’s not Greta I’m worried about.” She opened the door to the servants’ quarters and pushed me inside. “Stay here. I’ll get Robert.”
She left the door open a crack and hurried down the hall. I sat on Robert’s bed. A long piece of straw poked out of the mattress. I pulled it out from the fabric and broke a piece off the end. By the time Robert arrived, shutting the door behind him, there was a small pile of straw on my lap. I leapt off the bed, spilling it on the floor.
“Sorry.” I bent down to sweep the straw into my hand. Robert knelt to help me.
“Nora, what are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be—”
“I need to talk to you,” I said. “It’s about my—” The word stuck on my tongue. “Um, Siobhan and Annabelle said that…” I took the cameo out of my pocket. “Who is this?”
Robert snatched it out of my hand. “What are you doing with this?”
My cheeks burned. “I found it on the shelf. Is it your wife?”
The angry lines on Robert’s face softened. “No, it’s my sister. She died a long time ago. Why do you ask?”
I sat on the bed. I felt heavy enough that I might sink into the straw and never come out.
“Siobhan and Annabelle said they heard Lady Portia and Sir Alcander talking, and they said that my—” I choked out the word. “—father was in the main house. I thought that you might be—”
Robert moved away, dropping the straw into a bucket next to the bed. I sank farther into the mattress. Being poked with spindles of straw was preferable to the silence in the room.
“Your father?” Robert said. “Nora, the man who was your father is long gone.”
“But you have to be,” I protested. “Your hair, it’s just like mine.”
“What, this old mess?” Robert ran a hand through his hair and sat down next to me.
My voice dropped to a whisper. “It has to be you.”
“I’m sorry, Nora. I don’t have any children. Peter’s been a good father to you, hasn’t he?”
“Yes.” I could feel each razor of straw jabbing into my skin. “I just thought—”
Wait. What did he say?
“You know who my father was!” It came out as a statement, not a question. Robert jumped up from the bed.
“No, Nora, you misunderstood. I—”
“Yes, you do!” I leapt up after him. “You said he was gone, but you know who he was. Tell me!”
Robert’s eyes darted back and forth as if he were looking for a way to escape the conversation before fixing on a point behind me. Panic tinged his voice.
“She was just bringing a message from the kitchen house.”
I turned to see Lady Portia standing on the other side of the door. I hadn’t heard it open. Waves of anger passed through her cold ocean eyes. I had only ever seen Lady Portia angry, but this was different. This was rage, and it was aimed squarely at me.
Robert put a protective arm around my shoulders.
“I’m sending her back right now.”
“Eleanor.” Lady Portia’s voice was ice cracking. “You are not permitted in here.”
“I'm sorry,” I croaked. “I’ll go back.” This was different from Sarah’s confusion at finding me in the hall or Robert’s initial anger at discovering his cameo in my hands. Different, and infinitely more dangerous.
Before I could move, Lady Portia was in the room, grabbing my arm and wrenching me from Robert’s grasp. I could feel her breath on my cheeks as she pulled me close.
“You are supposed to stay in the kitchen house,” she hissed. She jerked me out of the room and down the hall.
“Ma’am—” Robert started after us.
“Stay where you are,” Portia said without turning to look at him. “This is none of your business.”
I looked back, panicked, as I flailed in my attempt to keep up with Lady Portia’s long stride. I heard the sound of the back door being thrown open. I could only hope Robert was going to get Greta or Peter.
Lady Portia’s fingers burned on my arm as she pulled me behind her, making a series of turns through the hallways. Anytime I opened my mouth to protest, to apologize, to cry, she jerked me forwards, and my words were swallowed in a yelp of pain. She finally stopped in front of a plain, wooden door. It felt out of place next to the other doors in the hallway, which were lacquered and covered in carvings. Its austerity didn’t belong, just like I didn’t.
My wrist glowed red when Lady Portia let me go, and I rubbed my arm to quell the pain. My mouth ran ahead of me, spitting out every apology I could think of. She ignored me as she sorted through the keys on a ring she took from her dress pocket and fit a large iron key into the lock. The door creaked open. I couldn’t make out anything inside—there were no windows to let in the light. The darkness in the room felt different than when the kitchen house darkened after sunset. This darkness was hungry. I turned to run.
Portia caught my wrist and shoved me into the room. I fell on my hands and knees. Small pieces of something—dust? ash?—rose up around me, making their way into my throat. I started to cough.
“Never ask about your father again.” She slammed the door, plunging me into the dark. The door fit so snugly in its frame that there wasn’t even a sliver of light shining at the bottom.
It was a moment before my shock allowed me to react. The room smelled scorched with death, like it hadn’t been opened in ages. I coughed again, trying to get out the pieces of the room that had infiltrated my throat, my nostrils, my eyes. I shuffled forwards until I reached the door and felt for the knob. It was cold to the touch. I pulled as hard as I could, but it would not turn.
“Robert!” I screamed. “Sarah! Peter! Greta!” I kept screaming their names until my throat was raw. The fine powder that covered the floor stuck to me wherever my body touched the damp ground. There were voices down the hall, but they were too far away for me to hear what they were saying.
“Father?” I whispered.
My arm ached where I could feel a bruise blooming around my wrist. I wanted Peter and Greta. I wanted my father and my mother, but I didn’t know their names. Only the darkness held me as I cried.
I'm Mark Morrison. I'm originally from a teeny-tiny town in Ohio called Salem. My father used to say that it was the armpit of the country. Peeuuw! I have seven brothers and sisters, a slew of nieces and nephews and a couple dozen great nieces and nephews. I now live in Florida with my loving wife, four children and two beautiful grand-babes. It's hot, but it's just a sticky, obnoxiously wet heat. Hahaha!
My father used to say that I was an uneducated genius. I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that. I suppose it was because I spent most of my time in school more involved in sports and art classes growing up than mathematics, history or science. I did, however, sneak in several elective credits as a librarian's assistant. That was a whole lot of fun and I was able to read a ton of awesome books.
As a boy I grew up reading things like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew mysteries, and the classics, like Huckleberry Finn and Charlotte's Web. I also read some outstanding comics and MAD magazines. But as I got older my taste changed. I was big into Isaac Asimov, George Orwell and Edgar Allen Poe. I didn't just read. I watched a little Television as well. Star Trek, Dark Shadows, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, Andy Griffith, Mary Tyler Moore, the Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island rounded out some dull afternoons.
As most folks with large families know, board games are an inexpensive way to entertain ourselves. We'd always get a batch of new games at Christmas along with a new pair of socks and underwear. On one particular low budget Christmas, my father introduced us to a game he claimed he'd invented called, “Uh!”
We'd all gather in the living room and one of us was elected to start. That person would have to create a totally fictitious story out of thin air. They'd pause mid-sentence and let the next player take over from there. This continued around the room until someone hesitated or said “uh”. That player was out and the game continued until only one person was left. The stories were creative and often incredibly strange, each of us attempting to make the next in line chuckle and fumble. It was an awesome game of improvisation and I credit my love of storytelling to that silly game.
Every night my mind is inundated with a fresh batch of unusual dreams and nightmares, always in outlandish worlds and dimensions fraught with bizarre characters who can do wondrous things. But through my writings I've allowed some of them to escape onto the freedom of the blank pages and into my first novel, Twospells. I'll pardon another batch of weird mind games and characters in future books.
TwoSpells is a magical tale about a set of teenage twins, Sarah and Jon, who find out that they're heirs to an ancient, magical realm containing an enchanted library that can transport a reader to anywhere or anytime the author has written into the story.
They're soon caught up in an inter-dimensional war between good and evil, both sides looking to claim the library's unique magical enchantment. Along the way, the twins meet astonishing and fascinating characters who can do amazing things, but not all are good. Some are of unspeakably horrific creation and are bent on one thing: destroying the two strange intruders who have entered and disrupted their sacred two-dimensional domain.
Sarah and Jon must leave behind their much simpler life as Regulars and embrace their new positions as successors to a very special kingdom designed for their kind only, the Irregulars. I truly believe you'll enjoy every moment of this story.
I've attached a snapshot of me and my daughter Sarah, whom the phenomenal heroine of TwoSpells is based. She's beautiful, tough and clever.
Here's a link to TwoSpells on Amazon:
Thanks for listening,
Sarah and her twin brother Jon are heirs to an ancient magical realm and its most valuable treasure, an enchanted library. The library endows readers with the supernatural means of crossing into the uncharted inner-sanctum of the second dimension, inhabited with peculiar and sometimes perilous creatures.
The children are emboldened with a wondrous mystical gift that no other being has ever possessed. But fate intervenes and triggers a disastrous inter-dimensional war that disrupts the fabric of time and space spanning multiple universes, tearing destiny a new and savage pathway.
The two must rescue their world from a phantom hybrid alien race controlled by a demented dark-wizard, Jeremy Sermack. They will either assimilate or be exterminated.
Will they be the saviors the prophets spoke of, or will they retreat to the perceived safety of their distant homeland?
"Durant’s story is slyly whimsical as she builds up the world of Marbryn, a world where there are many wonders, but also threats to the existence of Blue’s tribe." - Jack Magnus From Reader's Favorite.
"The Blue Unicorn…reads like old time fairy tales…where life and death choices are made…" - From Fundinmental As The Eyes See It Blog
"The gentle reminders of the importance of acceptance and maintaining a sense of self worth are artfully woven into this fun adventure tale." - From The Reading Addict Blog.
This YA book is perfect for fans of science fiction/fantasy books like Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey and The Xanth Series by Piers Anthony or illustrated fantasies like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and The Wizard of Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum. Mix in some Brother's Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale themes and you're good to enter this enchanting world of the metal horn unicorn tribe.
Everybody loves unicorns! OK maybe they don't but for those who do, they will love this story about a little unicorn who was born into a tribe of magical, metal horned unicorns. The little guy has no magic and he has no metal but somehow he must save the tribe from an evil sorcerer. Read this book for teens and older readers to find out if he can do it.
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THE ENTIRE TRIBE WAS IN THE COURTYARD WAITING FOR BLUE.
He should have already arrived. Now, he was twenty minutes late and they were getting restless.
“What’s so important anyway?” Cornum grouched. He looked across the room to where Alumna and Ghel stood alone.
The oracle was whispering in hopes no one else would hear but all ears swiveled her way at, “The Moon-star is coming.”
That was real news! All the others surrounded them, talking at once.
Flustered, Alumna found a break in the questions being thrown at her to ask Ghel to go see what was taking Blue so long.
Upon entering their stall, the gold-horned unicorn noticed something fluttering on the desk. It was the letter for her from Blue.
“Oh no," she cried, after reading it. “He’s left alone!”
She put on the necklace he had left her and raced out of the Halstable.
“He can’t be very far away yet. I’ll find him and bring him back,” she said to herself. She did not think it would take long so she left without alerting the others.
Ghel followed Blue’s hoof tracks for many miles until they ended in the hard rocky dirt. Looking up, she realized she was completely lost. She moved forward, stretching her neck to look around and tripped on a sharp rock jutting from the ground.
The sweet scent of blood flowing from a gash on her knee caught the attention of a very hungry manticore. He followed the smell until he came upon a natural land bridge right at the north-western point of the Kinubalu Desert. The bridge was a short-cut across a deep, wide canyon. It ended near the edge of the Guarded Forest.
On the other side of the canyon, the manticore saw a blue unicorn standing a few feet from a thick green wall made up of huge spiky vines.
“There’s my prey,” the manticore grunted, thinking the unicorn was trapped.
He dashed across the bridge, hoping to catch the unaware unicorn. Halfway across, he skidded to a stop. “What happened to the scent of blood?” he wondered. It was gone and he was confused.
As he tried to figure it out, the vines loosened up and opened a space just big enough for the unicorn to step through. “Arrgh! Lost him,” he groaned, as the thorned vines closed up tight. His empty belly rumbled.
The blue unicorn was safe. The Guarded Forest would not let a predator like the manticore in. Disappointed at losing his dinner, the beast turned back across the bridge.
To his delight, the scent of blood reappeared. Just a few yards away was the gold-horned unicorn, head down, stumbling his direction. She was wounded, paying no attention her surroundings.
The manticore wetted his lips. This one would make a good meal and there was no way she could escape.
A shiver ran along Ghel's spine. She felt like someone or something was watching every stumbling step she took. Intense fear gripped her heart, making it beat faster. “Something dangerous is out there and it’s close,” she thought.
She stopped and looked around, trying to find the source of the danger.
The manticore smiled to see how fear made her eyes glow white against her honey-colored coat. He smiled because fear gave the meat a better flavor. Abruptly, he asked, "Do you want a moment to say your prayers before I send you to your maker?"
Ghel's eyes snapped up to meet those of the ugly beast. The look she saw frightened her out of her wits. There was no way to escape.
"Oh, where can Nix be?" she blurted out. "Doesn't he know I'm in serious danger?"
Nix always arrived in the nick of time when a unicorn was in trouble. His powerful horn could detect a unicorn in distress from twenty miles away.
Indeed, Nix did detect that Ghel was in big trouble all the way from the crowded Great Room of the Halstable. A huge warning tingle forced Nix’s head to swing abruptly around. His nickel horn aimed in the direction of Ghel like a compass needle.
With a shake of his dark gray mane, he nodded a salute to Silubhra, saying, "Ghel is in danger but never fear, I will rescue her in the nick of time.” A blaze of light filled the air with silvery sparkles as he disappeared into the brightness.
Upon hearing Ghel’s words, the manticore twisted his neck around, trying to see who she was talking about. Seeing nothing, he thought, “The silly thing has taken leave of her senses!”
Laughter boomed from his terrible throat. It stopped when he caught glimmers of light just behind the frightened filly.
When Nix fully materialized, he took note of the dangerous situation, saying, "Stand aside, Ghel, while I nix that needle!"
The manticore had heard of Nix, the great unicorn defender. He skittered away in fright, trying to escape. Nix aimed a powerful blast from his nickel horn toward the brute. It was meant to destroy the scorpion stinger at the end of its tail but Nix missed his target.
The land bridge was hit instead. It loudly crumbled away into the giant hole it had spanned. The short cut across the canyon was completely destroyed.
Nix was angry he had accidentally destroyed the only easy path to the Guarded Forest. He caught up to the manticore and tapped his stinger with his spiraled horn. To the manticore’s horror, the tip of his tail completely disappeared.
“Now beat it buster, before I nix your nose, too,” Nix said, looking fierce.
The manticore answered meekly, "Thank-you, kind sir, thank-you," then ran away on jellied knees, with what remained of his tail tucked protectively between his legs.
Teenage girls don’t believe in fairy tales, and sixteen-year old Elena Watkins was no different.
Until the night a fairy tale killed her father.
Now Elena’s in a new world, and a new school. The cutest guy around may be an evil dragon, a Prince wants Elena’s heart, and a long dead sorcerer may be waking up to kill her. Oh. And the only way Elena’s going to graduate is on the back of a dragon of her own.
Teenage girls don’t believe in fairy tales. Now it’s time for Elena to believe – in herself.
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A GIRL SINGING HER heart out about a miracle boomed inside my ear. A miracle would get me what I needed: a chance at a semi-normal life.
The bedroom door hitting the wall expelled the thought from my mind. With his hand tangled up in his copper hair, and with huge brown eyes, Dad’s figure filled the entire doorway. “Pack your bags.” He had that set to his jaw, the one that meant there was no way out of this. He bolted out of the room just as suddenly as he had appeared.
I ground my teeth, hard. A sharp pain behind my eyes, I guessed from the lack of sleep, grew stronger. Every fiber of my being wanted to explode.
Ever since I could remember my name, Dad and I had been on the run. From what? Beats me.
For the past two weeks, I’d been pacing through the house, struggling to fall asleep at night, waiting for this day.
For the love of blueberries, no sixteen-year-old should live this way!
I climbed off my bed, and the first step I took left my toe tangled in the wide leg of my jeans. I tried to regain my balance as the closet inched closer, but with wildly flailing arms, I came crashing down. The thud reverberated across the wooden floor, and it sounded as if I’d broken something.
Dad darted back into my room. “Are you okay?” He lifted me back onto my feet as if I weighed nothing.
Tears lurked in the corners of my eyes, as I stared up at him.
“Don’t give me that look, Elena. Please, we need to hurry.” He pulled my suitcase from the top shelf and chucked it haphazardly onto my bed. “We need to go. Now.”
He started to grab my clothes from the shelf and tossed them messily inside my small suitcase. Then he paused, sighed, and looked up with soft eyes. He stroked the side of my cheek. “This...” He looked past me. “...wasn’t the right place, Bear. Please, you’ve got to trust me.”
He reached back to pull everything off my shelf, while I curled my hands into balls of fury. My heart pounded fast as those two words bounced inside my skull. “Trust you?”
“Elena, we don’t have much time,” he yelled. “Pack your bags! You can ask questions later.” He left, and the hollow thump from his stomping footsteps rang loudly as he made his way into the hall.
Ask questions? Yeah right! I’ll only get answers that don’t reveal why we are on the run for the gazillionth time. “Trust me” and “I’ll tell you when the time is right” were the only two answers Dad gave. Guess the time with him will never be right.
It was no use arguing with him anyway. Once, he had thrown me over his shoulder and carried me out without any of my things.
So I grabbed the stuff I needed: my MP3 player, a photo of Mom and me on my first birthday that Dad didn’t know I had, and my journal from underneath my bed. I tossed them into my backpack. It wasn’t much, but it was the stuff that made my miserable life feel less pathetic. I zipped up my suitcase and took a deep breath. Looking around my bedroom for the last time, I said goodbye to my sixtieth-something room.
Dad almost ran me over in the hall, his army bag slung over his shoulder. He grumbled, which I assumed was an apology, took my suitcase, and ran downstairs. He always rented these huge old houses, pre-furnished and near the countryside, and we always left after three months.
The pickup’s horn honked as I shut the front door. I closed my eyes and took another deep breath. Just two more years, then I’ll be eighteen and free from this freak show. Huge raindrops fell hard onto the ground. The smell of wet dirt filled the air. It was my favorite smell.
The water that pooled on the ground covered all the gaps in the driveway, forcing me to hopscotch around all of them. My shoe got caught in one of the gaps and I smacked down hard in a huge puddle. By the time I reached the truck, my jeans and shoes dripped with water.
Warm heat from the vents inside the truck hit me full blast as I jumped in; a million goosebumps erupted across my skin. As soon as I shut the rusty door, Dad floored the gas pedal. Tires screeched and the truck spun away as if the devil were chasing us. My lower lip quivered softly as he swerved onto the road. The streetlights flew by in a blur, and I plugged in my earphones. The same stupid song about a miracle boomed from my MP3 player, drowning the sound of the engine and the hard dribbles on the roof, a percussion that became the perpetual soundtrack to my misery.
A feeling of utter loneliness consumed my heart while I stared out the window. Homes with white picket fences and a convenience store whizzed by in a flash. A tear rolled down my cheek. Saying a silent goodbye, I released my breath and watched as it created a foggy condensation on the glass. With my index finger, I reached out and drew a small heart. These were the reasons why Mom had left. She couldn’t handle his paranoia, but why she’d left her two-year-old daughter to deal with it was a mystery. Dad constantly reminded me of the latter; that was the only time he ever spoke of her. If he ever discovered I had that picture, he would kill me. That was how much he hated her for leaving us.
The lights of a vehicle in the upcoming lane shone directly into my face. I shut my eyes, waiting for it to disappear. When I was little, I used to watch Dad as we drove away from yet another house. He would glare into his rearview mirror every five seconds, all the muscles in his face clenched, and his knuckles white on the steering wheel. I hadn’t been able to force myself to peek out the window then, as it used to scare the living crap out of me to consider the possible reasons why he was fleeing, or who might be following us. Now, I didn’t look at him or care much about what he was going through. He’d created this problem, with me becoming the luggage. It was a ritual I endured every three months, and nothing during the past sixteen years had ever changed that.
The “Interstate 40” sign flew by in a whirl, and the pickup slowly moved onto the turnoff lane.
My eyes started to burn as I stared at the rain running sideways against my window. Each rivet resembled another town, another place I could never again call home. Exhaustion consumed me and my eyelids felt heavy. I laid my head against the window and struggled to stay awake.
Suddenly, a huge figure flew past me. Dad swerved to the left, which made me crash into his side. My entire body pumped with adrenaline. I jumped straight in my seat and tore out my earphones as I wrenched the seatbelt over my shoulder to buckle myself in, while trying to process what had just happened.
“What was that?” I looked at Dad.
His eyes huge, he kept checking his rearview mirror every five seconds. Beads of sweat rolled from his hairline down to the side of his temple. Sure, he was paranoid, but I’d never seen Dad this scared in my entire life. This was something more than his usual paranoia.
“Did you see where it went?” he asked, attempting to inject calm into his voice, but I could hear the fear lacing each syllable.
“See where what went? Dad, what was that?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“For once in your life, just tell me!” I screamed. Sixteen years of frustration exploded from my lungs. I couldn’t take the unknown anymore.
“Fine.” He mumbled something else that I didn’t catch. “Do you remember the stories I used to tell you?”
“Stories? What stories?”
“The stories about Paegeia, Elena.” He looked in his rearview mirror again.
Vaguely, but I didn’t tell him that. “What does that have to do with this?”
I froze and stared at him.
“All of it, it’s real. The dragons, the magic, the Wall, everything is real.”
“Dragons!” I couldn’t believe this. “Is this why we’ve been on the run my whole life? That’s your reason?” I took a deep breath.
“You can believe what you want, it doesn’t change the fact that they are real, and somewhere out there.” He looked over his shoulder.
A figure with huge paws and talons flew in front of the truck. Tires screeched at the same time as I shrieked. The truck spun around a couple of times and came to a standstill on the dark stretch of road. My heart jumped at a great speed. My throat and lips became dry from my deep, heavy breathing.
My face pushed against the cool glass of the passenger window, I searched the horizon for any sign of life. Apart from the pickup’s headlights, not a single light peeked through the blanketed darkness, and the rain crushing down made me see figures, but I couldn’t tell if they were real. Dragons don’t exist.
“You okay?” my father yelled.
“I’m fine.” I tore my gaze away from the window.
His hands were on the door’s handle. “Elena, I need to get out—”
“No, no, please don’t leave me here!” I grabbed his jacket. I could feel the fear beginning to rise again, and my vision became blurry. Why am I afraid? Dragons aren’t real.
He cupped my face and made me look at him. I only noticed now how his hands trembled. “Listen to me, Elena. Listen!”
I tried to swallow my tears, but it was no use. They were caught in the back of my throat, silencing me.
He hugged me tightly and kissed me on my forehead. I could feel the love he had for me behind that kiss. “You drive like hell, you hear me? Don’t slow down for anybody. There’s a motel on Interstate Forty. Just stay on this road, you can’t miss it. Someone named Matt will meet you there.”
“Dad, it’s pouring outside. I can’t leave you here with whatever...” We can sort this out rationally.
Dad cringed and stared at his jeans When he looked at me again, that set to his jaw was back. My words hadn’t made any impact on him whatsoever. He had already made up his mind for the both of us.
My strength returned as I slowly came to terms with what I had to do.
A man appeared in the middle of the road. We both stared at him for a few seconds. I squinted, as the rain made it hard for me to see him, but the headlights of the truck outlined his figure. I looked back at Dad and could tell from the look on Dad’s face that this guy was no stranger.
My gaze turned back to the guy in the rain. He was tall with long black hair; wet strands clung to his face. He wore a pair of pants, no t-shirt, and it looked like no shoes either. He stared at the pickup and it made my heart pound faster. He began to walk slowly toward us.
“Dad?” I slapped his shoulder, trying to expel the fear from my body.
“Elena.” He grabbed my wrist. “I’ll be fine. You need to go. Now. And, Bear, I’m so sorry. Whatever happens, don’t stop for anything.”
“Dad?” My lower lip quivered again. He kissed me one more time on my forehead and wiped away my tears gently with his thumbs.
“I’ll meet you there.” He sounded stern, climbed out of the truck and slammed the door. My gaze switched back to this macho loon making his way toward Dad, who stood right next to the pickup. I quickly moved into the driver’s seat, took a deep breath, and buckled up.
With my hands trembling on the steering wheel, I took another deep breath.
You can do this, the voice in my head rambled a few times. The key sat lazily in the ignition, and I jerked it to the right. The pickup sputtered and died. The guy disappeared into the darkness, and a new fear pumped through my veins.
“No, no, no, no! Please don’t die on me now,” I mumbled as I tried to restart the engine. The man appeared again in the faint glow of the headlights. He was getting closer.
“Start you stupid piece of crap!” I yelled over the roar of the blood pumping in my ears.
The engine came to life and I screamed as the man leaped toward the pickup. Dad jumped and tackled him in midair. “Go, Elena!” he shouted over the pounding rain.
I floored the gas pedal and the pickup’s tires screeched as I drove past Dad, who’d wrestled the guy onto the road. Tears blurred my sight.
I can’t just leave him back there. I struggled to come to terms with what was going on.
My father and the other man quickly disappeared into the horizon of my rearview mirror. I wiped away my tears with the back of my hand and lowered the mirror so that I could see Dad, but they had vanished into the night.
Don’t stop for anything, his voice replayed inside my head.
My hands trembled on the shift as I found third gear. A strong force hit the pickup on the passenger’s side. The impact of the blow jolted through my body as the truck rolled a few times then came to a halt on its roof, leaving me suspended in the air. My head and body throbbed, and my hand went automatically to the ache on my head. It was warm and wet, and when I brought back my hand, it was smeared with dark blood. My head began to buzz and my vision started to slip away.
Lightning struck, and the road was instantly engulfed in flames, leaving me wide awake. Something to the left grabbed my attention as the fire slowly began to creep toward the overturned truck. Something lifted the truck, righting it on the asphalt once again, and a shrill sound left my lips.
The belly of a huge, blue beast on four legs the size of tree stumps stood in front of the pickup. The sight left me breathless and my entire body froze. Dragons don’t exist.
A part of its head popped in front of me. Huge horns on the top of his nose lingered inches from the windshield, leaving a foggy condensation on the glass as he breathed. One of his frilly ears lay flat against his head, like a cat’s when sensing danger.
He placed a front leg on top of the hood, and my body trembled as the truck started to crumple. A part of his wing came into sight. It appeared to be shredded, with a sharp talon located at the end. Oval-shaped blue scales fanned over its entire body, glistening in the flames on the side of the road. Maybe it only looked that way through the tears blinding my sight. Beady eyes, sunken deeply into its skull, locked with mine. The picture in front of me just became my nightmare. I yelped as the dragon’s weight shifted, forcing the pickup to crumple even more.
Another dragon sank its jaws into the one in front of me. Two huge copper horns lay flat on top of its copper head. The blue dragon growled, and snapped with gaping jaws at the copper one attacking it. With powerful force the blue dragon was dragged off the pickup’s hood and thankfully away from me. The truck shook slightly and groaned, while my heart pounded as if I’d just run a hundred meters.
A bolt of fire came from the sky and lit up the entire scene in front of me.
More dragons landed with thuds in the middle of the road. One seemed to be green with a long neck and a fin-like mane running from the top of its head to its tail. A cloud of dark fog emerged slightly from its nostrils. Another was red and oddly beautiful, but something evil derived from its aura. They attacked the copper dragon with startling savagery.
Get the hell away from here, my inner voice shrilled. Quickly, I tried to unbuckle my seatbelt, but the clip wouldn’t release. The earth shook with bolts of fire, and lightning flew through the air, while I tried to free myself.
My father wouldn’t just leave me here! As each second ticked by, I worried more about Dad.
The dragons came close to the truck a number of times, but the copper one kept driving them back, as if it was trying to protect me. I shook my head, trying to expel that thought. Dragons don’t exist. Wake up. The tips of my fingers felt raw as I hammered endlessly on the buckle of the safety belt. My face was soaked with sweat and blood, and I knew that I had to get out of the truck, quickly. With trembling hands, I pounded on the buckle with my fist until it unlocked. Throwing the restraint from around me, I watched in horror as the copper dragon bit fiercely into the blue’s neck. Blood squirted everywhere and pooled in thick puddles on the road. The blue dragon staggered and dropped down to the ground. Electricity still sparked off its body, but soon died away. The green and red dragons jumped on top of the copper, but it knocked the red one onto the ground forcefully and crushed the green dragon with its huge front legs. The sound of flesh ripping was sickening, and I had to lean over as tremors wracked my stomach, but for some reason I couldn’t look away. The picture of the copper dragon shredding the green dragon’s wing sent a stab of new fear deep into me.
“Dad, where the hell are you?” I pleaded into the darkness.
The red dragon got back up and flew away just as the copper one moved from the green’s wing to his neck. I flinched and finally looked away as more blood squirted out of where the green dragon’s neck used to be. When I looked again, the copper dragon had turned its gaze to me.
I started to kick at the windshield with my newly freed legs. A new sense of urgency punctuated every kick.
C’mon! I kicked three, four times, but it only left long cracks in the glass. Watching the copper dragon trudge toward the pickup through the jagged cracks made the scene before me even more terrifying. The dragon stopped right in front of the pickup, our eyes locked, and I could see the vertical pupils inside a pair of dark, rich brown irises. My heart thumped wildly as it hooked one of its talons gently into the windshield and ripped it off.
It paused, stared at me for what seemed like an eternity, took a few steps back, and nodded in my direction.
It wants me to get out? You’re imagining things, Elena. Dragon’s aren’t real.
I didn’t act. I couldn’t. The dragon started to shrink. Its wings and legs dwindled into a smaller size until they disappeared. Its big head and horns shrank into nothing. I watched as the dragon’s huge shape melted away, and the heap transformed into a low-crouching figure. He lifted his head, and huge cuts seeping with blood became visible. It felt as if somebody had squeezed all the air out of my lungs. I’d finally found my father—without a shred of clothing.
Rustam Chalice, dance tutor, gigolo and spy, loves his life just the way it is, so when the kingdom he serves is threatened from within, he leaps into action. Only trouble is, the spy master, Prince Hal, teams him up with an untouchable aristocratic assassin who despises him.
And to make matters worse, she’s the most beautiful woman in the Five Kingdoms.
Plunged into a desperate journey over the mountains, the mismatched pair struggle to survive deadly wildlife, the machinations of a spiteful god - and each other.
They must also keep alive a sickly elf they need as a political pawn. But when the elf reveals that Rustam has magic of his own, he is forced to question his identity, his sanity and worst, his loyalty to his prince.
For in Tyr-en, all magic users are put to death.
Award winning novel, THE PRINCE’S MAN, has been described as ‘James Bond meets Lord of the Rings’ - a sweeping tale of spies and deadly politics, inter-species mistrust and magic phobia, with an underlying thread of romance.
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At the second ring of the bell, Rustam knocked on the door to Halnashead’s study. He glanced uneasily up and down the empty corridor. Where were the guards? Perhaps Halnashead had sent them away to protect Dart’s identity, but the back of Rustam’s neck prickled, and that was a warning sign he never ignored. He slipped his small dagger from its wrist sheath, and eased the door open. The room was mostly in darkness, with just a row of candles flickering on the front edge of the prince’s substantial desk. There was someone behind the desk, though Rustam could not make out who stood there.
Wending his way between the high backed chairs and ornate tables that cluttered the main floor space of the study, Rustam trod as lightly as he could with his injured leg, balancing on the balls of his feet, prepared to dive for cover at the slightest hint of trouble. He held the walking cane poised in his left hand like a javelin ready to throw, the dagger nestling coldly in his other palm. His eyes roved the room for signs of a third person. If that was Halnashead behind the desk, then Dart could be anywhere. And if it wasn’t…
With a rustle of ivory silk, the figure behind the desk sat down, bringing her face clearly into the candlelight. Rustam stopped in confusion, hastily lowered the cane to a more conventional position and made a small bow. “Your pardon, my Lady. The prince asked me to meet him here…”
Rustam’s voice trailed off as the Lady Risada Delgano vas Domn laughed; a resigned, self-mocking sound.
Risada shook her head. “Ah, Chalice. I suppose it had to be you, with your pretty face and your courtly manners.”
The study door opened, and Rustam spun around. Silhouetted against the light from the corridor was Halnashead’s bulky figure. The prince shut the door and strode across the room. “Splendid,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “I see you two have met at long last.”
“What?” blurted Rustam, his famed manners deserting him. “You mean—”
Lady Risada vacated the prince’s chair, and moved around the desk, preceded by her exotic perfume. Rustam’s breathing became rapid, though whether in response to the heavy scent or the lady’s proximity, he wasn’t sure. Halnashead sat down and beamed at them.
“Dart, meet Charmer. Charmer, meet Dart.”
Rustam looked pleadingly at Halnashead. “You’re joking, surely? You must be. She can’t be Dart; she’s—”
“What?” cut in Lady Risada. “A woman?”
“No! Well, yes. I suppose so.” Rustam shifted uncomfortably, his mind reeling as it tried to adjust to the concept of a noblewoman as a player. Female servants on occasion, yes. But a lady?
He glanced aside at the lady in question. She stared coldly back.
“Please, please!” Halnashead drew their attention. “I want you two to get on with each other. Does it surprise you so much, Rusty?”
“Rusty?” echoed Lady Risada derisively.
Taken aback by the lady’s obvious animosity, Rustam considered the prince’s question. “I suppose it shouldn’t. With her court position, the lady has access to all levels of nobility. Certainly a great asset to your Highness.”
“And don’t you forget it, dancer boy,” muttered Risada.
Halnashead frowned. “Be nice, Risada. Rustam is my most skilled agent.”
“Most skilled womaniser, you mean!”
“Risada, enough.” Halnashead did not raise his voice, but his displeasure was clear. The corners of Rustam’s mouth quirked up, but he quickly dropped the smirk when the prince scowled at him.
“You will get on with each other. This is a serious matter and you are both professionals; I expect you to behave as such. Now sit down. This could be a long meeting.”
This volume presents nine new stories which seem, to the author, to fit under the rubric of “creepy”. The unfortunate beggar man in Canto do Virapuru is, or was, a real person who occasionally still haunts my dreams and defines “creepy” for me. All of the stories are fiction, of course, but most are based on events and places from my past, both distant (Good Morning Lisbon and The Corcoran Dream) and recent (Bird of Constant Sorrow, I, Agave, Three Suns on the Horizon). Grotto of the Golden Snake is modified from a chapter in a novel that I hope to publish at some point. I have no explanation at all for Ha’boon except to say that the title came to me 20 or 30 years ago, long before I began writing fiction, and rested in hibernation until the present. The title story Burnt Corn derives from my 4H days on the farm where I fell in love with raising rabbits. Later, as a married grad student at New Mexico Tech in Socorro I had to resurrect this skill to supplement my pitiful income and I continued my affair with rabbits well into my first professorship. The title, Burnt Corn, derives from the birthplace of a friend in Commerce, Missouri who died many years ago. I don’t know why that name stuck with me over all these years since but I would like to think my friend would have approved of my story celebrating his home town. My favorite of the nine stories is The Corcoran Dream. I don’t know how many times I have read it, but it brings tears each time. I hope it reminds you of Willa Cather’s prairie novels.
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A BORDER CROSSING INTO UNMAPPED TERRITORY
Mexican agave farm worker Porro Camorra never meant to do anything wrong. He is in love with his girlfriend but when she becomes pregnant, his life is in danger. Fleeing the vindictive wrath of her enraged brothers who have sworn to kill him, Porro runs for the border. But when he reaches the barrier between Mexico and the United States, he finds more than the safety he seeks. As he is thrust into a mystical realm, he must agree to a fascinating and dangerous bargain in order to reclaim his place in the world. Vivid, inventive and suspenseful, Exchange at the Border is a thrilling and colorful exploration of the timeless battle between good and evil with a story and characters that will keep you spellbound.
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Triena is alone, her rabbit stolen from her, and the Energy is behaving in unexpected ways making it difficult for her to predict the future. Her love for Braklen is strong and she sets out to find him, while trying to keep away from the Queens. With no other option she takes passage with Captain Ri who forces her to use the Energy for his own benefits.
Will she be able to find her beloved rabbit, and Braklen, before the Queens find and destroy her?
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Braklen looked down into the bowl full of gray something that was meant to be food.
“I wouldn’t eat that, man,” said a fellow evening-shift worker sitting opposite Braklen.
Despite the warning, Braklen dunked a spoon into the thick broth. “Can’t be too bad.” He spooned the greasy liquid with gray floating bits into his mouth. He choked.
The other man laughed, slapping his hand down on the metal table. “You’ll get used to it.”
Braklen coughed as the last of the liquid went down. “Tastes like jet fuel.”
“Wouldn’t put it past the cook to put some in. He probably thinks that it’d give us a boost to work harder.”
“How can you eat it?” Braklen’s spoon was poised above the liquid, but he couldn’t bring himself to take another mouthful. This was a long-haul flight and the bowl of slop was the only thing to eat. He’d just finished a twelve-hour shift in the engine room trying to repair the electronics in the backup system that were so worn out and old, it should’ve been thrown out instead. It was the first ship that accepted his qualifications as a mechanical engineer. He’d boarded, wanting to get as far away as possible from Triena.
His heart lurched, skipping beats, then contracting, causing pain to spread out across his chest. He knew he shouldn’t have boarded, or left her unconscious on the ground. But, since the chip had been deactivated, there was no point hanging around. She didn’t really want me there, not really.
The guy shrugged his shoulders, scrapping the last of the broth onto the spoon and delivered it into his mouth. “I’m already pretty thin. I’ll fade away if I don’t eat.”
Braklen laughed. “Hasn’t anyone complained?”
His men put up with a lot when he was in charge but he would’ve had an uprising if they’d ever had this food from the galley. Emptiness clawed at his gut at the reminder he didn’t command a unit of Peacekeepers anymore. Worse, he was now a wanted man.
He’d contemplated taking Triena with him, turning her in to the authorities and begging to be reinstated. But, much as he wanted his life back, that wasn’t an option. It was clear he’d been set up, a pawn for them to use to get to her. She’ll be better off without me. Safer without me.