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Archive for May, 2012

Screw Surviving, I Want Success!

A study was recently released where authors on Amazon were studied and the data smashed into a bunch of charts and demographics. I forget the name of it, and for the record I’ll admit I haven’t even purchased and read it myself. I have read other opinion based reviews of it, and that’s what prompted me to write this.

Let me add one more qualifier before I get into this. I love statistics. There, I said it. It’s out there. Math and statistics are powerful things. The powers of probability are what keep me from gambling…well, mostly. I gambled when I met my wife and married her, what with the statistic at the time stating that 50% of marriages end poorly, but that gamble paid off wonderfully. I’m ahead – why should I risk ruining my winning streak by gambling on anything else?

So my review of other people’s reviews is based on hearing how the KDP Select program has run its course and now Amazon is changing their system to help them bring in more money, rather than helping people find more freebies. That’s speculation on the part of bloggers, mind you, and not anything Amazon has indicated they are doing or will be doing. It makes sense though, especially if you’re prone to cynicism or conspiracy theories. Admit it, you are…we all are, otherwise we wouldn’t be so worried about dark corners fearing that “they” might be lurking in them.

So the research says most writers on Amazon make $500 or less a year. The ones that make it big though…phewy, they make it big! Jeff Bezos also stated that over a thousand authors are selling a thousand plus books a month. I haven’t seen the numbers but I believe there are probably at least tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of writers on amazon. I’m very proud to be in that thousand+ group. Depending on how today goes, I might even make it into the 8000 books sold per month club. Unfortunately, my biggest selling books are my Vitalis series, which are $.99 novellas, so the profits are not nearly as impressive as it may seem.

Unlike some of the lucky big names in the business, I haven’t had any overnight successes with my books. I’ve got 21 books published and I’m close to releasing numbers 22, 23, and 24. That has been my “secret” – I keep writing more books and I do so at a near-frantic pace. My current project that I had to tear myself away from to write this is Voidhawk – Lost Soul. It’s the fifth book in my Voidhawk series and I’m nearly done with it. I’m fighting hard to finish it by tomorrow night to get it in my editor’s hands, in fact. Two more chapters to go…roughly 10,000 words or so. In two days?! Yeah, I do that.

That brings me to another statistic in the report – although I beg your forgiveness for not being precise. Among the wildly successful writers on Amazon the vast majority of them write far more than those who are moderately successful or, well, not. I’ve already outpaced all of my peers I know when it comes to volume, and I have no intentions of stopping or slowing down. That’s what I mean when I say in the title of this post that I want success. I love writing and I approach each story anxious and excited to see how it turns out.  I think that’s a necessity in order to be able to throw words together in a manner that people will find interesting. That love and excitement combined with a work-a-holic ethic is what makes me confident that I will achieve the success I want. After all, if something doesn’t work for me I’m not afraid to try something else. When it comes to setting goals and reaching them, it’s important to remember to be honest and frank with one’s self.

So why aren’t I afraid of the speculation regarding Amazon changing their rankings to devalue the importance of freebies? That’s easy too – I’m not running any gimmicks. I have some free books out there but they’re not an advertising ploy that runs for a day or two then switches back to full price. To me that’s cruel. “Sorry Bob, if you’d have been here yesterday you could have had it for free but today it’s $4.99.” Not my style. My freebies are for people to sample and see if they like the kind of story I’m writing about. They are free and they remain free. One of them is even well over 100,000 words. At 250 words per page that’s more than 400 pages. For nuthin!

Do I care if Amazon lowers the rankings on that book compared to paid books? Nope. It’s not meant to compete against paid books, it’s meant to offer people a free ride to decide if they like my books and characters and want to learn more about them. It’s worked quite well thus far, I have to say, and it’s something I plan to continue doing. As much as I love writing, it’s also a business and one I want to make a living at. See the aforementioned “I want success” part above.

So my friends, be you a reader or a writer, take to heart what I’ve said. I will keep writing. I may branch out and try different things, but I’ll also continue doing what I’m doing presently. People seem to like it and that’s great because so do I! It is a lot of work, and if you’re a writer dreaming of making it big you need to be prepared for all the work involved. The days of one book every two years are over. I’m striving for a book a month these days. This is no place for slackers of for the faint of heart. Readers know what they want and they are in control of the market. As writers, we must appease them! It’s a win-win scenario, and in case you hadn’t figured it out by now, I plan on winning.

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

After Careful Consideration, I’ve Got Style!

For those who know me, rest easy. I’m not talking about my fashion sense. I have clothing older than my children that I still wear regularly, making me very much a typical guy in that regards. I also take delight in regular manly things – for example I learned just recently my nephew was complimented by his grandmother (my mother) on the fact that he’d been working out and looking good. He shrugged it off and she made a reference to uncle Jason. To this he replied, “The difference between me and Uncle Jason is that I’ve still got a neck!”

Of course I laughed at that. I considered it a compliment, in my simple borderline redneck mind. Bless my mother for feeling the need to defend me though: “He has a neck…it’s just a really thick one.”

In spite of my caveman instincts, I do have some higher level traits. I was asked on Twitter the other day what my style was. It was in regards to writing, thankfully, otherwise I’d have been lost. My first instinct was to respond with saying I’ve got no style, I just let things happen. Then I thought about it some more and decided there was more to it. I’ve refined my writing over the years and found some things that work for me.

The first, and the one I responded with, was that my style involves letter the characters tell the story. I believe the characters are the most important part of any story. After all, as a reader I want to identify with who’s telling the story or who the story is happening to. If I can’t be interested in that character, then what’s the point in learning more about them and their predicament? I want to see characters learn and evolve, hopefully becoming better along the way. I want them to overcome challenges, but not because they come out of the womb as a resident all-knowing badass, but rather because they’ve made mistakes like a real person and they’ve learned from those mistakes (hopefully also like a real person).

Beyond that, I’ve evolved my writing process into a few important steps. I start out with the characters and brainstorm what’s going to happen to them. For example, I spent Saturday with my family at the Pittsburgh Zoo. It’s a good zoo and we had a good time in spite of the temperature reaching 93 degrees. On our way there we went the wrong way and had to go through a couple of toll booths on I-76. The first one was manned by a woman who took our $4.70 (for traveling about 15 miles on the road!) very politely and respectfully. Those might not be the right words, she just seemed like a happy and positive person. And not in a crazy or delusional way.

As much as the 10 seconds of exposure to her personality was pleasant, what initially drew my interest was how she looked. She was a slender girl with some truly rocking hair. So blond it might have been white, she had it spiked up to resemble a mohawk. Maybe it was a mohawk, I’m not sure (see my earlier comments on my fashion sense). The sides of her head weren’t shaved, I know that much. She also had some small tattoos on her forearms that I could see. Nothing offensive, it looked appropriate. If I had to describe her in a word, I’d use the word “beautiful”. However, I didn’t consider her beautiful in an I’m-attracted-to-her sense. Rather she was inspiring to me. I knew immediately that a character based on that woman was going to make an appearance in one of my books. I have no idea which book, nor do I know what her role will be, I just know it’s going to happen at some point.

So I’ve got characters first when I write, then I decide what I need to motivate those characters. Take my latest Voidhawk book (Lost Soul) as an example. I’m still writing it but I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what could come next for the characters of that series. They’d reached a position in their lives that, to be honest, was kind of boring. I had to shake it up but I wasn’t sure how to manage that in a way that would make for something I would want to write about, let alone read. A stroke of inspiration hit me one day – I think while I was driving into work. What sort of event could pull established and responsible adults from their daily routine without a second thought? What if their child had been taken and the only hope for getting them back required dropping everything?

So I had characters and I had a plot. As I brainstormed and wrote, subplots appeared and so did a few surprises. Such is the magic of my Voidhawk series that I usually can just write and the story unfolds but I wanted to enforce a little more structure, so I worked ahead and jotted down some highlights of what I wanted to happen along the way in future chapters. Already, one chapter into that outline (I didn’t start until chapter 10), I had to rework my outline and add a new chapter. I like to think I’m flexible and able to adapt – not that I let my characters walk all over me.

Lost Soul isn’t finished yet, but I’m hoping I’m less than two weeks away from having the rough draft down. Tentatively I’m really hoping for a release date of mid July – early August. Until then I plan on releasing an omnibus edition of the first seven Vitalis books. A lot of reviewers have whined about them being short. In a bit of defensiveness, I openly marketed them as novella length stories designed for quicker entertainment. I’m irritated by those reviews, but c’est la vie. In an effort to please as many people as possible I’m putting the omnibus together and should release it mid June – early July.

Speaking of Vitalis and tying it back into character driven writing, I had a conversation with another Twitter friend who was sharing her love of Vitalis with me. She was shocked at how Matriarch, Vitalis book 7, ended, but she absolutely loved it and felt it was her favorite book in the series. I agreed with her, I think it was the best one I’d written – just don’t tell the other Vitalis books I feel that way or they might be upset. I shared this with her, and it’s very true: Matriarch surprised me. It unfolded in ways I never expected. The characters I write about have a tendency to do that more and more – they take the story places I’d never intended or considered. That happened with Vitalis: Matriarch, and it happened to a greater extreme than I’d ever dealt with before. I loved how it worked though, not only because it offered up so many potential future options but because it truly allowed the characters to develop and evolve and to tell their stories.

I liken Vitalis to a cross between something with Ridley Scott’s alien chestbursters scaring the crap out of people, a world with its own spirit or sentience guiding life ala James Cameron’s Avatar, and a slew of very interesting characters with their own wants and dreams drawn together into a situation in a manner similar to the TV show, Lost. Unlike Lost, Vitalis makes sense and doesn’t jump around and leave the reader confused or frustrated.

So that’s my style. It’s working better and better for me as sales ramp up into a happy place. Oh sure, I’d love to get more and I’m writing furiously to achieve that, but writing isn’t about instant success. For most writers it’s not about the business of selling books at all. That’s not because they’re sucked into loving their art more than anything, it’s because they have to love their art – the sales aren’t there to support anything else! I’m very fortunate in having as many sales as I do – it gives me the very real hope that I might be able to make writing the day job in the future.

In fact, I read Jeff Bezos release to Amazon’s shareholders recently. In it he said he’s thrilled to have over a thousand “independent” writers on Amazon that are selling more than 1000 books a month. I’ve been over the 1000 mark since December of last year. I’m no Amanda Hocking, John Locke, or Selena Kitt, but I’m trying hard to get there! I know Selena personally and she’s been somewhat responsible for my success. I’ve felt challenged and competitive towards her for a while now and it’s driven me to try and perform better and better in hopes of meeting or exceeding her sales. I’ll probably never get there, given the different genres we write about and the number of people willing to read those genres. Still, I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon!

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

Betrayal – Becoming a Monster

Here’s chapter 10 of Betrayal’s Hands. I have to admit, this one took a lot of editing to resemble something publishable. Very passive – but it does the job of telling the story. I hope to rework it more thoroughly down the road a bit, but I promised a chapter / week and I intend to come through on that!

 

Chapter 10

 

Leagues away, Cor slipped unnoticed over the terrain on his way to Duth Darek. By the time he reached the city again Teri and Krev were in the half-ogre’s cottage and Makan and Darleth were waiting in an empty cave for bandits that would never come.

Cor knew where to go this time. He scouted Makan’s estates, only to learn that the Baroness and her youngest daughter had left the week before for their home, the capital of Makan’s barony, Kahltop. He also learned that Makan was out hunting him and his escaped slaves still. This amused him, and gave him a moment of levity from his otherwise dark mission.

Then Cor was on his way, traveling east to Kahltop. It took him two more weeks, since he had no horse and had to play the part of a wandering mercenary. He arrived to find the town quiet. With the baron gone the residents seemed relaxed and the guards were lazy. He kept his disapproval to himself, but studied everything. Corillius felt confident that with a dozen men he could capture the castle.

He spent three days studying the manor house itself. He noted the guards, their shifts and rotations, and the comings and goings of the baroness and her daughter. The soldier within him studied with a keen eye, noting opportunities and weaknesses. The man that he was despaired at the deed he must commit. He hated himself for it, and he suspected he might never sleep a night through once his mission was complete.

He had his chance early on his fifth day. D’lariana, with a pair of guards nearby, was in the garden taking her breakfast. Cor’s subtle questions had found out that she was 11 years of age, and promised to be quite a beauty when she grew up. She’d given her mother and nannies a handful of trouble while younger, and was still known for impropriety unbefitting a noble lady. This earned many of the commoners an unusual warmth in their hearts for the cute and winsome girl.

D’lariana was chatting with one of the guards, drawing both their attention away from the innocuous flowers, stone statues, and burbling fountain. Cor slipped over the chest high mortared rock wall and slipped in behind a hedge before the guards noticed him. He crept silently along the hedge until it ran no more, then hefted up some pebbles from the ground and tossed them in a high arc to the other side of the garden.

He waited a few seconds, then slipped out from behind the hedge and lightly ran the short distance to a column, stopping abruptly and peering around it. The guards were looking, with curious expressions on their face, away from him. He slipped back a little so he was out of site and closed his eyes, breathing deeply. He was all business now, but inside of him that part that despaired beat on the bars of the cage he had put it in.

Cor burst from around the pillar, throwing a hand axe and catching the further guard in the front of his shoulder. He grunted and fell back into the wall, stumbling and going down. The closer guard turned to see his partner fall, then turned back. The hilt of Cor’s sword crashed into his face, breaking his nose and knocking him unconscious.

Cor had D’lariana then. He slung the surprised girl over his shoulder and ran back to the wall. The guard he’d hit with his axe lifted himself up and cried out, making Cor curse. He threw the girl over the wall and vaulted up himself. He landed beside her and picked her up, hearing her breathing fast and seeing a brief glimpse of her eyes wide with fear and shock.

Tucking her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, he ran from the palace and ducked through a street and into an alley he’d scouted out earlier. The girl started to scream then, her fists beating on his back futilely. He kicked in a door to a nearby building and lunged through it.

He pulled D’lariana from his shoulder, his face a mask of rage. He’d built up his walls within himself to do what needed to be done, and now was the time. He had to be quick, before the people outside told the guards where he had gone.

Cor held her with one hand and drew his Kingdom sword with his other. He looked at her and drew the sword back. He’d meant to spill her blood in the garden, but for some reason he’d brought her there instead.

She stared at him, meeting his eyes, her mouth open in realization and horror of what was to happen. A tear leaked from her eye and then she did something that he could not have possibly been prepared for. She straightened up, nodded, and closed her eyes.

The rage drained out of him. He stood there and lowered his sword. He stared at her face, marveling at the innocence and maturity impossible for an 11 year old girl.

“What are you doing? Aren’t you afraid?” Cor whispered, unable to strike.

She opened her eyes and looked at him, spearing him with their green gaze. “Yes, I’m afraid. But there’s nothing I can do about it… my father’s upset someone, no doubt, and my death is to teach him a lesson. If it makes him a better man to my mother and sister, then maybe it will be worth it.”

“Wha.. how… Bah!” Cor said, slamming his sword back in his scabbard. “I’ve been bewitched, that must be it!”

He turned and looked out the door behind him. No one was readily evident but he wasn’t so naïve to think they’d escaped. He stuck his head out and saw a dozen guards at the end of the alley talking to some people. The commoners pointed down the alley.

Cor turned back and saw that the girl, his target, had tried to escape. She ran to a shuttered window and opened it. Already only her fluttering legs were visible as she tried to pull herself through the small opening. He cursed and rushed after her, grabbing her by the back of the dress and hauling her back in. She screamed for help, causing him to cuff her on the head.

“Be silent, wench, or you’ll force me to kill you!” Cor hissed.

“You’re going to do it anyway, you pig!” She spat at him, refusing to be intimidated by him.

“No, I’m not,” Cor said, realizing it was true. “I’ll not murder a child. But you must come with me.”

“What, so you can have your way with me? I think not!”

Cor cursed again, something involving a troll having intimate relations with the Kingdom’s Queen. D’lariana blanched a little at the strong language. “I’m no rapist, now shut up and do as I say!”

Her lip trembled but she nodded. Cor saw her eyes look past him and widen. He spun about and ducked when he saw the threat. Two crossbows twanged as they released their deadly bolts. Both missed the dodging Northman, but both made wet sounds of impact, followed by a soft cry.

Cor spun again and the crossbowmen dropped their weapons. D’lariana collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath that would not come. Blood stained her expensive yellow silk dress red. She hiccupped a few times and then lay still, shuddering as death took her.

Cor couldn’t believe his eyes. She was dead! He’d promised himself that he’d do the evil deed, but he’d changed his mind. Yet the result was the same. How could she die? He turned back to the guardsmen, who saw him and were furiously cranking their crossbows back to reload. He reached them first.

Once outside the storeroom barely registered the ten guards that surrounded him. He carried his momentum and seized the initiative, attacking them without pause. They reacted slowly, and by the time they understood that death was in their midst three had fallen. The remaining didn’t last long against the raging Northman. It took Cor longer to chase down the final guard that fled than it did to butcher the others.

Cor stood up, the blood of his enemies dripping from him, and looked around. The street was empty, unheard of at such an hour. A few people were hiding and peering at him, but they offered no threat. He glared at them all, breathing hard, and then turned and ran towards the gates of the city.

He looked down at one point and realized that his sword, a Kingdom long blade, had broken in the fight. He held only a portion of it in his hand. He let it fall from fingers gone cold and did his best to melt into the crowd. The cry of alarm had gone up but he escaped out the gate before the confusion could be settled.

He spent the night far from Kahltop, staring at his hands even though he had long since washed the blood from them. They were responsible for the girl’s death, he knew. He was responsible. It had been his order and intent to do it, even if he discovered he could not. He’d shifted tactics, intending only to capture her and take her back to his people to hold as a hostage. But no, she’d died and her blood was on his hands.

Killing the guards was a matter of course. He spared no time nor grief over them. The girl’s death was different. She was young and innocent and impossibly brave. She might have even grown up to be someone with the kind of strength Anna had once held. Save from everything but the demons within, Cor wept. Murder had been his agenda and what he’d achieved. Was that, then, what he’d become?

 

* * * *

 

Baroness N’meria held her satin robe closed with trembling fingers. With Makan gone, she’d invited Karoak to her bed each night. Some nights all she wanted from him was to be held, sheltered and warmed in his arms. Other nights she wanted him to sweep her away with passion so she could forget that their lovely child had been taken from her by the northlanders.

The first night, Karoak had turned red with anger when he beheld the darkening bruise on her cheek.

“He has dared strike you! One day very soon should the northlanders not finish it, I will kill him.” He had softened his words by pulling her into his arms and kissing her softly.

Tonight she needed him. Needed to be swept away from this world. She had no tears left. She had been weeping since the guards had brought her the body of her youngest child.

Karoak entered the room, closing it softly behind him. His strong face was haggard and drawn. “I have failed you, my Lady. This is my fault.” He dropped to his knees before her. “If I had only been more vigilant.” Tears streamed down his cheeks.

“There was nothing you could do. Makan has done this by angering someone with his scheming. It is he who has killed my children.” She dropped down beside him, leaning in to kiss the tears from his face. “Come to me now.” She smiled wanly, standing and drawing him back to her bed. “Let us forget together, if only for a moment.” With that she dropped the robe and reached for him.

 

* * * *

 

It had reached the second week since Darleth and Makan had been waiting in the bandits cave for the return of Krev and his captive. Makan despaired that they might never arrive. Sven, who had survived his questioning and was mobile again. The man’s full strength had yet to return and with the passage of days he grew nervous that his usefulness would end. Darleth chafed at the chance to return home. It was obvious no more was to be gained, but he waited impatiently for Makan to be finished with it. He need Makan’s good graces still, now more than ever if his eldest daughter was no more.

Winter came quickly to the northlands, and although less harshly, just as quickly to the Kingdom of Aradmath. Baron Makan returned to Duth Darek and learned by messenger of his daughter’s fate. In a fury he ordered every man in his service he could spare to search for the spy that had shot her and then killed his guards. He even posted rewards for the assassin’s capture or death. Later that same day, when finally alone, he collapsed in his office and for a moment let his fears and his grief overwhelm him. The northern bitch’s vow was coming true.

Makan stayed at the capital, unable and unwilling to face N’meria. D’lariana’s death was his fault, he felt. He should have taken better precautions to have her protected, especially since his other daughter had already been taken from him. He alternated between raging and weeping. His concern for N’meria showed itself at one point, but he felt reassured that Karoak was there to watch over her. He even sent a missive to his captain of arms to spend every waking moment in her company. Word had already spread of his children’s fate; if his wife were to be taken as well Makan would be publicly laughed at by the other nobles.

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

This is what worked for me

I’ve been reading recently about how Amazon changed their algorithms to determine what’s listed on the most popular lists. I guess there are now three lists even, one which takes free books into account, one which decreases freebies and another which ignores free books and weighs books based on their price (higher price = higher ranking).

This change is upsetting a lot of independent writers, most especially those that use the KDP Select program. By offering up their books for a day or two free every 30 days they can boost their downloads and appear higher on the “most popular” charts. Then they drop down again as other people do the same thing. It’s a vicious cycle that requires a lot of work. I tried it for a little while and my ultimate opinion on it was…not for me.

I felt kind of like a used car salesman offering up blue light specials and dancing leprechaun gimmicks. Instead I decided to forgo the KDP Select and instead focus on expanding my distribution to include Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Sony, Kobo, Diesel, and a few other retailers for my ebooks. My print books are available to Amazon and Createspace.

So what’s my angle? I’ve got free books out there. But the difference is they’re free all the time. Voidhawk, Wanted, and Dark Earth are freebies at present. I anticipate that changing in the near future, but for the benefit of my readers. I’m adding another freebie to the mix! But more on that when it becomes available.

Until then, I’ve got my freebies that stay free. The sequels for those books I do sell, and I seem to do pretty well at them. Not well enough to give my dayjob the finger, but I’m working on that.

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

 

Betrayal: Into the Ogres Den

Here’s chapter 9 of Betrayal’s Hands, for your reading pleasure. Already a dark book it takes an even darker tone near the end. Darker than I’d intended but my editor when this was written called for a harsher treatment. I actually argued with her and ended up working out a compromise. What am I talking about? Read it and find out!

Chapter 9

Teri was cold. Her feet were ragged, bloody and numb. Krev had run for what seemed like hours before stopping to set her down.

“You’ll run, girl. Like your life depends on it.” Krev grinned, “It does.”

She stared at him dumbly until he had reached out to push her onto the twisted trail. She’d stumbled and started to run with Krev behind her every step. They’d pushed through bush too dense for armored men on horseback, hoping to delay pursuit. To throw off the pursuer’s hounds, Krev made her run through an icy stream for what seemed like an eternity. She’d emerged dripping and shivering, only to be pushed on again by her captor.

“Please…” Teri whimpered, shaking, “I can’t run anymore.”

Looking at her, the half-ogre noticed the bluish tinge to her skin. She wouldn’t last long unless he got her warmed up. Nodding brusquely, Krev pulled her off of the path into the bush. He found a sheltered spot in the lee of a fallen tree and pointed to it.

“We’ll sleep there tonight. Take off your clothes.”

Teri stared at him, uncomprehendingly. “What?” she whispered weakly.

“Get them off!” he snapped at her, having very little patience left. “You don’t want me to have to do it.”

Tears formed in her eyes as Teri slipped the shoulder of her tattered dress off and dropped the remaining fabric to the ground, crossing her arms over her small breasts.

“You’re not my type.” Krev growled at her fear, although he could feel himself hardening at the sight of her smooth pale flesh revealed. Tossing his short cape into the log, he gestured to Teri. “Get in there. I can’t have you freezing to death.”

He watched as she scrambled onto the cloak, laying down to fit into the tight space. Sighing, he picked up the remnants of the dress, throwing them over a branch to dry. He moved to her side, watching her tense and shiver with his nearness. Opening his leather vest, he lay beside her, wrapping her in his arms against his chest, sharing his body heat with her fragile form.

The exhaustion of the day soon overpowered her discomfort with his nearness. In moments she drifted off into a black sleep.

* * * *

“The brute got away it seems,” Darleth said from his horse. Makan grunted, his mount stamping its foot impatiently in response to its owner’s mood.

They stood upon the shore of the stream, with scouts scouring up and down the length of it looking for tracks.

“Let us be off for the cave the bandit mentioned,” Makan said, turning to him. “We can make it there before they do.”

Darleth nodded, “Yes, but that bandit is unconscious and the priest said he’d be so for a day or more, and we’ve no idea where it is.”

“Wake him!” Makan snapped. “I don’t care if he lives or dies, damn you, I just want it found!”

Darleth’s eyes narrowed at Makan’s tone and words, but he kept his tongue in check. “Aye, My Lord Baron, let us see what we can do.”

They turned their horses and headed back towards the makeshift camp that had been set up. Darleth intended to make sure the bandit lived, he had uses for the ruffian. Makan’s needs were short term. Darleth had grander ambitions in mind.

* * * *

Nearly a week had elapsed and Teri was getting used to the life of an outlaw. She wore some badly sized peasant clothes that Krev had stolen for her. They were rags to her, but Krev had said that they’d once belonged to a woman who might have spent a month’s worth of wages on them. It was a lesson in humility, but she kept her head high and marched on with him in spite of it.

Her feet were beginning to heal, though they were still cracked and sore. He hadn’t acquired shoes for her, and after complaining enough to draw a slap from him to shut her up, she hadn’t mentioned it again. His slap, while slow and soft in his opinion, was powerful enough to send her stumbling. She shivered every time she remembered it and the strength he possessed.

Krev returned to their cold camp, returning from a scouting mission. He untied her from the tree he had bound her too, as he always did when he went out on his own, and sat down with a chuckle.

“They made one of my boys talk, it seems,” Krev said, digging into a pouch and pulling out some salted meat. “They’ve set up an ambush at our old hideout. Fools!”

Krev spat and used his large teeth to tear off some of the meat. He chewed on it and thought for a moment. “I’ve other holes to winter in, don’t you worry. And I’d not go to that one for a while anyhow. I thought my boys knew better than that though.”

Teri looked up at him and said, softly, “Sven.”

Krev looked at her and then chuckled. He handed her a piece of meat, which she greedily took and shoved into her mouth, drawing another chuckle from him. “He’s dead, snapped upon a tree. I heard the bones crack and break, no man can survive that.”

“So where are we going then? It’s getting really cold,” Teri said, hoping he wouldn’t slap her again.

“You’ll know when we get there. It’s in the Darkwood, that much I’ll tell you now.”

Teri’s eyes widened. The Darkwood was a dark and frightening forest. Its northern borders touched the Fens that separated the Kingdom from the savage lands to the north. The Kingdom claimed it, but they didn’t log it nor have anyone who lived within it. It was said that dark creatures lived within it, and many who entered its edges did not return, or were mad if they did.

Krev chuckled again, seeing her expression. “Look at me, pretty, where do you think I came from? Not one of your civilized towns! Ha! My mother was raped by an ogre from a raiding party from there. She nearly died giving birth to me, and hated me for what I reminded her of.”

He stared off into the distance. “The villagers took care of me when she finally died, five years later. I was strong and they needed me to tend their forge and do their work for them, but they ridiculed me and beat me. Never gave me a chance to be… Bah!”

Krev stood up, glaring at her. “Mind your own business, wench,” he spat out, forgetting that nothing she’d said had caused him to recall his youth. He tied her back to the tree and muttered something about scouting, then loped off into the darkening twilight.

As darkness fell, Teri grew more and more frightened. Krev hadn’t returned and she felt at that moment that even his ugly face would be welcome. She tugged again on the rope tying her to the tree, accomplishing little but pain in her raw wrists. An owl hooted in a nearby tree, making her cry out in terror. Tears flowed down her face unheeded.

“Lady, if you let me survive this…” she moaned.

Huddled there against the tree, she heard what sounded like footsteps approaching. “Krev?” she whispered, her voice hoarse with panic. “Please…”

The footsteps came closer, followed by a harsh chuckle.

“Glad to see me pretty?” Teri nearly fainted with relief at the big man’s voice. He reached out and untied her wrists from the tree. “So far we’ve eluded pursuit, we start in the morning for my wintering hole.”

“Don’t think I’m stupid, Pretty.” Krev warned, “You know who’s chasing us, and I will find out why you’d rather be my slave than return to them.”

Teri gasped, for he chose that moment to haul her to her feet. Her mind raced with the words he had just uttered. His slave? What did that mean for her? What would he want from her?

Krev chuckled again, “It will be a very comfortable winter for me.” He emphasized the word ‘me’.

And so it was that Krev led a weary and terrified Teri into the depths of the Darkwood. The very air seemed heavy and filled with dark and foreboding things to her. Animals larger than any she’d ever seen flitted about the forest at the edges of her vision, teasing and taunting her. Krev showed no concern for them, but instead led her a day’s walk within the wood to a rundown cabin.

Teri couldn’t believe her eyes. It was a simple cabin. A house, in a remote and frightening location, but the mundane nature of it buoyed her spirits. Krev led her to it, holding her behind him as he stalked in and looked around. Several small creatures, no taller than her thigh, squeaked at their entrance and tried to escape. Krev showed them no mercy, swinging a wooden branch as a club and crushing as many as he could. A few escaped out the door or the unshuttered windows.

“Lousy tree elves,” Krev muttered, looking at the mess of the place. “Thieves and scoundrels, the lot of them!”

“Those weren’t elves!” Teri protested. “I’ve seen elves, they’re much taller and more noble!”

Krev glared at her. “Them was tree elves, slave,” he said brusquely. “Not the high and mighty kind, true. Those were the savage cousins your elves don’t like to admit to being related to.”

Teri blanched at his tone and his labeling her a slave. Still, she held her ground as she faced him. “Who are you to vilify them for being thieves?”

Krev glared at her and then chuckled. “That’s fair. I suppose you’d like to take them clothes off so I can return them?”

Teri blushed and looked down, realizing she was as much a thief as he was. She shook her head, looking back up at last. Krev had turned and was already setting things right in the cottage. She sighed and moved to help clean things up, not knowing what else to do.

Teri spent the winter with Krev. She learned to cook and to clean and to do his laundry. It was hard work, but she learned not to protest. On rare occasions they had visitors. Some which Krev spoke with in a strange tongue she didn’t understand and at other times they were creatures that the half-ogre fought off with his great strength and amazing speed.

Teri was immersed in a world that frightened her. Over time her understanding of her captor led to a strange companionship. She could get him talking at times about topics and concepts a simple creature as cruel and as savage as he was had no right to know about. He would catch himself before too long and stop talking, behaving even more gruffly towards her for days afterwards. She began to want to know more about her complex captor.

Snow fell outside the cabin, piling up against the walls and sifting in through the cracks. Sitting next to the fire, Teri shivered. Krev had gone out this morning hunting. Teri sat quietly, mending his spare clothing. Lately she had begun to feel strange, missing him when he went out for the day, yet dreading his return. Her cheek was still tender from where he had struck her two days ago, she could hardly remember what provoked him. Setting down her sewing, she moved to the fire, stirring the stew in the cauldron. One thing she could always predict was his appetite. Soon he would return, and she hoped that his hunt had been successful. He was far more likely to be decent company after a successful hunt and a ready meal.

As she stirred the stew, the door banged open and Krev stomped through, slamming it closed behind him. The fresh blood on his jerkin answered her questions about the successfulness of his hunt. Brushing snow from his shoulders, he clumped over to the fire, sitting in the only chair.

“Where’s my meal, slave?” He growled. Teri hurried to fill his bowl and place it in his open hands. Sitting on the floor by his feet, Teri ate her own meal. When he finished, Krev tossed his bowl to Teri and sat back, relaxed for the moment. He began telling her a story about his childhood, very rare for him.

The story lasted for nearly an hour, in which Teri sat, enraptured. She relaxed, resting her head against his knee and closing her eyes. She missed the look he gave her and was nearly drowsing until his big hand touched her hair.

“I think I should teach you some things, my little slave. You’ve learned well to please me in domestic matters, but I believe you can still use a little education.” She looked up, startled by his tone. She watched in growing horror as Krev’s other hand loosened the ties on his pants. The hand on her head tightened in her hair, pulling her towards him.

When he was finished, Teri coughed and wiped the remnants rom her chin. She dashed the tears from her face with the back of her hand and hurried to their sleeping pallet, where she lay down and pulled the pelts up to her chin.

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

Matriarch Has Me Up Early On A Weekend

Technically my daughter woke me up way too early this Saturday morning. But if she hadn’t I’d probably have woken up on my own soon anyhow – I’m excited about an early release of my latest Vitalis book: Matriarch. Unfortunately the caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet so I’m having a heck of a time coming up with anything witty to say to try and sway the massed to rush out and check it out. I will say that some extremely unexpected things happened in this one – unexpected even to me. The characters spoke to me and then Vitalis itself guided me a few times. Sometimes the world overrode the characters, much to their dismay.

As for a message hidden within the science fiction, I like to think Matriarch shows the characters struggling to improve themselves and searching for what matters most to them, all the while learning to accept what fate has in store for them and making the best out of it. In short, the same sort of thing we all have to deal with. The Vitalis characters just get to do it on a very cool, if a bit hostile, planet.

Here’s the blurb for it! Now it’s time for me to get working on the next chapter of Betrayal’s Hands to post for the weekend. Enjoy!

Vitalis possesses deadly beauty and unlimited possibilities. In order to survive both the human survivors must learn to put their differences aside.

In their darkest hour since they crash landed on the planet the unlikely colonists are faced with a choice: will salvation come from the Terran Coalition ships in orbit or by embracing the natural evolution of Vitalis?

Matriarch, book 7 in the science fiction series Vitalis by Jason Halstead

Matriarch on Amazon

Matriarch on Amazon UK

Matriarch on Smashwords

Matriarch on Barnes and Noble

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

Betrayal: War Crimes

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there! Some people send flowers and cards, others do dinner or tend to a honey-do list. Heck, I’ve even done jewelry in the past. This time around here’s chapter 8 from Betrayal’s Hands as a freebie to all the mom’s out there. Okay, maybe it’s a little gruesome for Mother’s Day, but it’s the though the counts, right? :)

Chapter 8

Anna sat looking out the window of the healer’s hall wondering what the future would hold. A white clad woman came in with a steaming mug. She could only imagine the contents were something noxious. She shot the older woman a dirty look but drank the contents quickly. Her task finished, she returned mug and moved away to find a new spot to seclude herself.

‘The bars on the window ruin the view.’ Anna thought to herself.

A cough sounded behind her, and Anna turned to find the healer-woman standing in the doorway. Anna had made it clearly and violently known that she would accept no male healer, and no male had crossed her threshold again.

“There’s a man to see you, Milady Captain.” The woman stuttered, “He says you’ll see him, says he’s family.” The woman stood nervously with her hands clasped around the mug.

“Show him in.”

Startled, the healer bustled off to let Captain Corillius know that her recalcitrant patient would see him.

“The army is eager to see you again. Word had spread of your defiance of the Baron and what you did to try and protect your warriors,” Cor said to her back after he entered the room.

“They still died and it only served to get me raped and beaten,” Anna said, bitterly. “I learned only the folly of my actions.”

“No, damn it, Anna!” Corillius said, very nearly walking over to her and grabbing her by the shoulders. “It proved that you care! Or that you once cared,” he added angrily. “It showed that you would do anything for your people, for our people! It showed that no price was too great. No burden to heavy to bear!”

“I was wrong! I thought I knew what I was doing but look at me, just look at me!” She shrieked, turning to stare at him. Trails of tears streamed down her face. Her nails were bitten to the quick and her skin was pale and waxy. It had been only a week but she was obviously letting her health suffer.

“Your soldiers tell the tale of the swamp,” Cor said, his tone softening. “Of how you slew a troll with your bare hands. No one has ever done that before, and the tale grows with every telling.”

“Your story, not mine,” Anna said, turning back to the window.

“Your deed, Anna.”

“They should have killed me,” Anna muttered.

Cor threw his hands up in the air unseen behind her. He turned and walked to the door. His hand upon it, he stopped and spoke again. “Against the healers’ advice, your command is ready for you to resume. If you seek death so badly, then you can at least do it on the field of honor.”

Anna’s eyes closed and fresh tears ran from them when the door shut harshly behind her. She hung her head and let her forehead rest against the bars, then proceeded to wrap her skull against them increasingly hard until the pain made her dizzy. She backed away and fell to her bed, holding her head in her hands and sobbing.

“Why can’t I be me again?” She asked the air around her.

* * * *

Three days had passed and Anna had decided to try to rebuild what she could of her life. She walked in her boiled leather cuirass and greaves, her shield on her back and her short sword at her side. She was in charge of her soldiers again, every one that had survived their capture, plus several fresh ones that were eager to join her ranks. She held no words of wisdom for them, nor did she do anything to gain their love or their trust. Her troops had plenty of it spare, and with the stories of her capture, denial of torture, and then her barehanded assault in the swamp upon something that was twice her size, none was needed.

Now she walked to the prisoner camp and ground her teeth in frustration when a guard saluted her at the entrance. His quick movement snapping to attention had startled her and nearly made her cower.

“Captain Promus, I am honored to be at your service,” he said, hand against his breast respectfully.

Anna nodded, “Fetch me a prisoner… please.” She nearly cursed at her subservient tone, but the warrior made no notice of it. He disappeared inside the compound for a moment then returned a few moments later and told her that one would be brought along shortly.

A few minutes later the prisoner was led out, his hands and feet in chains. He studied the ground then saw her standing there and sneered.

“What is it with you barbarians trusting women to bear arms? They’ve no souls, you fools! They’ll gut you in your sleep and take what’s yours!”

The soldier out front punched the prisoner in the stomach, doubling him over. The man that brought him out kicked him in the rear, driving him to his knees.

“You kneel before the likes of Captain Promus, dog!” The guard growled. “She’s better than 10 of your nobles!”

Anna had paled before his cutting remarks, but now that he was on the ground she felt a little better, even if only because he wasn’t staring contemptuously at her.

“Captain, he’s all yours,” the prisoner’s escort said, handing her the rope that was around his neck.

Anna took the rope and studied it, then followed it up to the man’s neck. He caught his breath and stared up at her, looking at her angrily. “Do your worst, bitch!”

Anna took a step back, surprised at his animosity. The soldier raised a hand to backhand the prisoner but Anna stopped him. “Hold, warrior, if he thinks himself so mighty, let him prove it.”

Inside Anna was quaking. Sweat ran down her sides from the challenge she’d issued. The guard laughed at the idea. “Good idea, Captain!” He grabbed the dirty tunic the man wore and hauled him to his feet.

“Come with me, dog, and learn the strength of our women,” he said. “You’ll be sorry for your impudence. You face Captain Anna Promus, and she killed a troll with her bare hands!”

The man glanced back disbelievingly at Anna. She looked calm, if a bit pale. He looked away as the guard hauled him off to a nearby ring that was designed for stabling horses or livestock. Now it would serve as an arena for the two of them. The prisoner, like the others, had heard tales of Anna, but they all disbelieved that a women could be so brave, so strong, or so capable.

Anna’s stomach was churning. She felt her gorge rise at the prospect of fighting, and not just fighting, but fighting a man. She stopped outside the ring, her gorge rising too with too much force to be controlled any longer. The Captain turned and retched into the cold mud, doubling over as the spasms shook her body. The prisoner laughed mockingly at her.

“Captain Promus, are you alright?” The guard said, hurrying over to her.

Anna straightened slowly, deeply ashamed of herself. How was she to ever attempt to regain her sense of self if she got sick at the thought of combat? It wasn’t combat that frightened her; it was the fear of fighting a man.

“I took ill from the swamp water I drowned the troll in,” Anna lied. Her voice was rough. She wiped the back or her mouth off on the back of her hand then turned to face the prisoner.

“Do this another day, Captain. If you are ill there is no dishonor…”

“No,” Anna snapped. She must do it now. Either she would kill him or he would kill her. If the latter happened, her fight would be over and she would have what she deserved. If she were to win, then she would maybe win a little piece of herself back.

Anna left her sword with the guard, then handed him her shield as well. She stepped into the pen and let them shut the gate behind her. It was a simple fence of wood meant to hold in livestock. I wouldn’t stop a man bent on escape, but it would at slow them enough to allow the archers time to finish him.

“Come, pretty lady, and let me show you what a real man is like,” the prisoner said, gesturing to her.

Anna held her ground, eyeing him warily. Nervously. He shrugged when she made no move to attack and charged at her, surprising her with his speed and bearing her to the ground with his hands around her throat, clutching and squeezing.

Anna gasped, both in surprise and then for breath. He was heavy and his fetid breath gagged her as much as his grip did. She struggled under him, thinking that she deserved what was happening. The difference was that his attack was not sexual. Without that weapon to use against her, Anna overcame her paralyzing fear and to react.

She wiggled under him, suddenly furious for  his arrogance and his assault upon her. Her vision darkened and a red film seemed to cover her eyes. She writhed under him and lashed out, driving her fingers into pressure points in his armpits. He grunted and felt his arms stop responding.

Anna flipped him over then rotated upon him rapidly, showing more than a hint of her legendary speed and flexibility. One leg wrapped behind his head and the other provided a scissor against his neck. She flexed her legs and watched gleefully as his eyes bulged and his tongue stuck out. She flexed once again, twisting this time, and felt his neck snap. His body twitched beneath her, his legs and arms flailing, and she rose.

A small group of cheering warriors had gathered to watch. She rose, looking down at the dead Kingdom warrior and feeling her rage drain and leave her empty. She smelled his urine his body had voided from it at the moment of death and the strong scent of it in her nostrils nearly caused her to be sick again. She spat on him and turned away, heading out the open gate and taking her sword and shield.

She walked away in a hurry, wanting no one to see her if she needed to be sick again.

* * * *

Corillius heard of the incident with the prisoner. He was tempted to seek Anna out. He wasn’t proud of her, as the others were. He knew too well what had happened. She’d lashed out in anger, wanting to kill a Kingdom man. Perhaps in the hopes of venting some rage at what had happened to her. He wondered if Makan’s leering face had been what she had seen when she snapped the prisoner’s neck. Cor hoped so, if only so that Anna could become herself again.

He had more important matters to attend to, however. Cor finished throwing the last of his equipment into his pack and lashed it tight. He looked at his tent a final time, then slung the pack over his shoulders and slipped a shield over it. He grabbed up his spear and emerged from the flap of the tent, stopping to let his eyes adjust to the receding sunlight. He wore the clothing and leather harness of a mercenary. It was studded with bits of metall. He wore a cured fur cape from a Kodiak, dented metal grieves, and bracers of Kingdom design.

He looked about, nodding to a few nearby warriors, then set off, walking to the edge of the Nordlamar camp and then beyond. He spoke with the sentries when he reached them, warning them of his presence, then moved on into the disputed lands between the Kingdom and Nordlamar.

Cor’s mission was simple. He was to avenge Anna and teach the Aradmathians that such inhumane treatment of prisoners was unacceptable. He refused to consider Anna’s own treatment of a prisoner, for it would only make him grind his teeth in frustration. Cor was a soldier, first and foremost, and he had made a vow on top of that. His mission was merciless and he would have the blood of innocents upon his hands when he was done, but the fate of his soul was not as important as the fate of his nation.

To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.

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