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The Fear of Betrayal

Here’s chapter 15 of Betrayal’s Hands. It’s nearing the original stories end, but I think I’ll need to rewrite the ending to make it a complete story. Originally I’d hoped for a trilogy but I lost my steam in taking the story any further beyond this initial volume…at least for now. Perhaps when the characters in my other series and stories stop being so damn interesting and fun I’ll revisit Cor, Teri, and Anna…but that’s for the future!

 

Chapter 15

 

“Why did we leave the forest?” Teri asked as they stood along the edge of the Darkwood. The morning sun offered hope of a pleasant day, though neither one felt their mood brightened.

“There are things in the northern reaches of the Darkwood you’d not want to run into,” Cor said. “Things that make your last boyfriend look like a family pet.”

Teri made a face at Cor behind his back for his comment about Krev, but otherwise let the barb go unanswered. Instead she asked, “So where do we go? This way leads to Aradmath.”

“I told you I’d show you the way to Nordlamar,” Cor said gruffly. “It’s to the north. I’ll take you through the fens on this side, then you’re on your own.”

“I don’t want to go there,” Teri lied in a quiet voice.

Cor glanced at her and saw that she was lying. He shook his head, baffled by the contradictions posed by the small female. “It’s a good place for a girl like you. Lots of people be happy to help you out, and you can meet a good man there.”

Teri’s jaw dropped. “How dare you,” she said, stunned. “I don’t need to meet a good man, I…” It was true, she didn’t want a good man. She wanted Cor.

“Fine,” He snapped, interrupting her. Shrugging, he turned away from her before muttering, “There’s plenty of good women you could meet too, if that’s your mind.”

Confused by this last comment, Teri remained too stunned by it to mount a retort. Cor started walking, keeping near the verge of the woods, and Teri was forced to trail after him. After a few minutes of walking in silence Teri’s face began to burn. She’d realized what he’d meant by his last comment. She tucked her chin down, trying to hide her embarrassment. It wasn’t unheard of in Aradmath, the joining of two women, but it was hardly polite conversation.

The pace he set wasn’t as brutal as that of the prior day. Teri found she could keep up with the big man, although it took most of her energy and concentration to do so. She wondered for a brief moment if Cor could have out-walked Krev with his long legged pace.

She had little chance to talk throughout the day, even when he stopped to rest she found herself too tired for thought. When she caught her breath embarrassment stayed her tongue. Cor’s wit was rapier sharp and no matter what she said he always seemed to be able to infuriate her with his retort.

That night, fatigued and aching, she nevertheless stirred up the energy to ask of him, “Why can’t you be nice?”

Cor looked at her, surprised by the blunt question. He almost laughed at her, then realized it might not be what she wanted by way of a response. He shook his head and muttered something under his breath about women.

“I saved you, didn’t I?” He asked, annoyed. “I’m taking you somewhere where you’ll be safe. I even kept you a maiden, as you claim to be.”

He stood up from where he’d been tending the fire and stared at her, then with a growl he turned and moved off into the darkness descending around the campsite. She caught something from him about never satisfying a woman as he stalked off to make sure nothing came at them from the swampy fens they were on the border of.

Teri, frustrated with Cor’s strange behavior, shook her head. “Claim to be?” She kicked at an offensive dirt lump, “Why would I claim to be something I’m not?” She vented her frustrations aloud. Suddenly a thought occurred to her which had been hiding in the back of her consciousness for some time. “He thinks… that Krev… that I…” Hysterical laughter pealed from her and she collapsed against a tree trunk. Tears ran unheeded down her face, and the giggles simply couldn’t be put down.

This was how Cor found her when he came storming back from the fen. “What the…” He reached out and shook her gently, and then realizing she was hysterical, and without thinking, he slapped her across the face. As soon as the blow connected, he was backing away. Teri had stopped laughing, and was sitting slumped against the tree with her hand over her face.

She’d been slapped before. Much harder, in fact. Cor’s blow almost seemed playful compared to Krev’s heavy handed discipline. Still, she hadn’t expected it. It stung and surprised her, and the simple fact that he did it made her eyes fill with tears. She looked up at him through her fingers and saw the look on his face.

She gasped.

Teri had expected a glare or a look of smugness. What she saw made her heart open for him in spite of his brutality. It was brutality that, she now knew, was unintentional. He looked like someone that had just accidentally killed his own family.

“Cor,” she said, letting her hands fall away. Already a red mark was appearing on her cheek.

He backed up another step, his hands coming up in front of him defensively. “I… No. No, not again!” He backed up another step and then whispered with moisture in his eyes and pain in his voice. “I’m sorry.”

He was gone then, turning and stumbling not only away from the campsite, but into the fens.

“No!” Teri cried after him, scrambling to her feet and following into the marsh. “Wait! Please!” She stumbled on a hummock and splashed into the muddy water. When she looked up, he was gone. Determined not to let him flee to his death, she followed doggedly, stumbling and splashing in the fen water. “Don’t leave me!” she wailed, suddenly afraid of what it might mean for them both if he continued to run. She might indeed lose her life, but from the look on his face, she felt it possible that Cor would lose his soul.

When he came to his senses, Cor was a good distance ahead of the girl in the dark marsh. He could hear her splashing about behind him. Stopping, he crouched in the dark, struggling to pull himself together. “Cor?” She called to him. “Please, I’m not hurt…” He could tell she was crying now, her voice growing hoarse with the tears. “Don’t leave me alone…”

The fens were dark and there was an unpleasant smell rising from the murky water. Not the smell of plants and earth that Teri had expected, but more a stench of death, of rotting flesh and putrescence. The scent and the darkness, coupled with sounds echoing from hidden places, amplified Teri’s fear.

“Please Cor…” Teri was sure he couldn’t hear her. He was gone and she was alone in this terrifying place. She continued to splash through the muddy water, her clothes soaked through and her body chilled to the bone. She started to shake, but more from fear than cold. She stopped moving and sat despondently on one of the taller hummocks rising from the marsh.

“How am I going to get out of this?” She wept aloud to herself, and then she straightened some. “At least if I die here, it will be better than going back.” She sighed, and picked herself up to continue wading through the water.

Cor shuddered, still crouched in the shadows only a few paces ahead of the girl. His face was wet with tears he couldn’t remember, and his heart still raced. He wondered for a moment how he had gotten himself into this mess, he was in no position to be responsible for a girl, even a pretty one like Teri. Gathering the tattered remnants of his dignity to his breast, he stepped out from his concealment.

Teri shrieked as a dark shape moved towards her from the dense brush. Flailing her arms wildly, she would have landed in one of the deeper pools if the blackness hadn’t caught her first. She thrashed and struck out at her captor, until the black beast growled, “Stop that you little fool! Unless you’d like me to let you drown?”

Cor’s voice sent little thrills up and down Teri’s spine, and she began to weep in earnest her relief at having found him. “Thank the Lady you came back!” was what he thought he heard from the face pressed into his chest. His hand reached down and tipped her face up so that he could see her. He chuckled softly at the image she presented, all mud and weeds. Her pretty eyes peered solemnly out from behind a mask of mud.

“They wouldn’t recognize you now.” He smiled, feeling a bit better from her obvious joy at their reunion.

“No,” she giggled, “I don’t suppose they would.”

The moment, tender and filled with promise, was fleeting. As much as the desires Cor had hidden deep within himself fought to be let loose, his caution overpowered them. “Come, the fens are no place to spend the night.”

Teri’s greatest concern wasn’t the dangers of the swamp, but rather the fright she must look. She just knew that if she were cleaner Cor would have been unable to resist her, swamp or no. She reached up and wiped some of the grime from her cheeks, hoping to make a difference. She knew how precious the moment was; how rare and possibly unique the opportunity.

“Come, this is no place to dally,” he said again, his tone softening the effects of the words.

Cor pulled away from her and turned, aiming for the southern edge of the fens. Teri hurried to stay close to him, reaching out and capturing her hand in his. Cor took a deep breath but otherwise made no sign he noticed.

Once back at their campsite Cor grudgingly allowed a small campfire so that Teri could warm herself. She, in turn, grew bold by the turn of events. “How much water do we have?” She asked him.

“Two skins we filled earlier, why?” Cor asked her, uncertain.

“I need to get out of these muddy clothes and clean them,” she said, untying the laces on the crudely sewn dress she’d made for herself over the winter.

Cor felt his heart beat faster. He looked forward to seeing her, but didn’t welcome the distraction and confusion it would bring. Reluctantly he said, “Let it dry on you, there’s no water safe to drink until we clear the fens.”

Teri’s final hopes were dashed against the rocks. She’d been ready, then and there, to let Cor have her. She bit her lip and blinked away the tears of rejection. After a long moment of fighting to maintain her composure she asked, “may I at least wash my face?”

Cor gave her one of his rare smiles and nodded, “won’t help, but go ahead.”

Teri’s mouth fell open in spite of herself. Fresh tears sprang to her eyes and a small squeak of protest escaped her mouth. She stood up and turned away, stomping a few feet away from him, where she hugged her arms about herself.

How could he? She could not believe that he could just so callously insult her like that. Perhaps the Aradmathian view of women being little better than property was true. Perhaps she was no more than a object of passing fancy.

She was surprised when she felt Cor’s hand on her shoulder, pulling gently at her. She resisted at first, and only when he gave up and removed it did she turn to face him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, the words sounding strange coming from a man such as he. “I meant it could not improve your looks.”

Teri, without thinking, reached out to slap him. Cor jerked his face back, surprised by her speedy and sudden attack. Her fingers still grazed his lips and chin, leaving a tingling sensation in their passage.

“Gods, woman!” Cor said, holding his hands up defensively. “That’s not it! I meant that you are pretty no matter what mess you’ve made of yourself!”

Teri’s hand no covered her own face, and fresh tears ran from her eyes clearing a path of dirt and mud from her cheeks. “Cor… I’m sorry! I thought you meant… I thought…”

“You thought I was like your betrothed?” Cor guessed.

Teri nodded, too ashamed to speak.

Cor chuckled self-deprecatingly. “I’m probably worse,” he said. Then he shrugged and turned away and headed back to their campsite.

Teri followed him, sitting down on a rock and reaching for her skin of water. She splashed some in her hands and then proceeded to rinse her face reasonably clean. She looked up at him and found him watching her afterwards.

“Less a swamp rat and more of a drowned rat,” he said with a smile.

Teri understood he meant no insult this time, though his smile was what it took to convince. She smiled in return and thanked him, then blurted out the question truly bothering her. “Why are you so hard on yourself? What horrors have you done?”

Cor blinked in surprise at her question, then sighed. “I’ve too much blood on my hands,” he admitted finally, staring at her challengingly.

“Too much blood? You were a soldier, weren’t you?”

Cor shrugged. “Yes, I was.”

Teri looked at him curiously. Something about his manner clued her in that she had guessed poorly. “That’s not it, is it?”

Cor chuckled darkly again. “This is no game, lass. I was a soldier, that’s where I learned how to kill. It’s what I do best,” he said. Then, in almost a whisper he admitted, “and I learned that it’s easy to do… more so when the innocent fall before me.”

Teri’s eyes widened at his vague but chilling confession. She couldn’t imagine the man that had saved her butchering the innocent. It seemed so out of character. Sure, he had his grumpy moments – a lot of them, in fact. But even at his worst she couldn’t imagine him committing such an evil action.

“I don’t know what you did, nor who you are,” Teri said softly and slowly, making sure each word was spoken as heartfelt as she meant it. “But I do know that I cannot see such a person in you.”

“You don’t know me,” he said. Anxious to be done with the conversation, he rose up from his seat. “I’ll take watch, get some sleep.”

“Cor, wait!” Teri said.

With an impatient pose he turned to face her. “What?”

Pressing the time she had remaining to her, she said. “I’ve grown to know you well over the winter and now. You are bothered, true, but you are a caring and gentle person. One who only commits to force when no other option is available.”

Sarcastically, he said, “like when I slapped you earlier.”

Teri shook her head emphatically. “No! I let my emotions get control of me and needed it, I think, to make me stop. I realized that you thought I loved Krev, or that I had lain with him.”

“And that amuses you?”

“Yes, it does,” she said, smiling. Her smile faded as she made herself remember her captivity to the half-ogre. “Krev was a monster and a brute. At best I could get him to talk with me at times, but I was his slave. He made me do things for him, some unpleasant, some horrible.”

“And yet you remain a maiden?” Cor asked, his tone one of disbelief.

Teri could accept his suspicion at her claim. It was a bold one to make, that a simple bandit would leave her, a young and attractive woman, untouched. “He insisted that I would fetch a better price as a maiden.”

Cor nodded, understanding the claim as possible. “He made me do other things for him in place of that,” Teri openly admitted.

“Other things?” Cor was curious, even if the question bordered on the inappropriate.

Teri blushed but wouldn’t relinquish his gaze nor the rare moment of openness between them. If it meant spilling her soul to him she would do it, if only it would get him to open up to her in turn. She would do anything to help him, she realized. Anything at all.

“Yes, other things. He taught me how to pleasure a man with my mouth and hands, and taunted me with the threat that one day he would take me in other… well, my maidenhood would remain intact, at least.”

Cor watched her carefully for her reaction. She spoke openly and honestly, it seemed, and though she was embarrassed she confessed willingly to him. “And these are the things you offered to me once?”

Teri nodded, a fresh surge of redness appearing on her cheeks. “Yes, I did,” she said softly. She wondered if he wanted them now. In spite of the sadness she felt at the thought that he might use her thusly, she felt a tingle in her belly and in her loins at the thought of it.

“And do you still offer them?” He pressed.

The excitement at her progress with him dropping considerably, she nevertheless held her ground. “If you desire me in such a way, yes.”

“Sounds like it must have been horrible,” he muttered before he could bite off the bitter sarcasm. He did, indeed, desire her, but not like that. No, if that was all she offered then he was by far better off abandoning her as soon as possible. Once she was safe, of course.

Teri blinked the moisture from her eyes that his verbal slap caused her. She took a deep breath and said insistently, “There was no pleasure from it for me. He was a cruel monster that used me for his pleasure and beat me if I refused or did not perform to his liking. With you it would be different, I think. I hope.”

Cor looked at her, at a loss for words. He opened his mouth and then shut it, deciding he dare not say anything before thinking it through. Finally he nodded and said, “Yes, I would never beat you.”

Teri smiled sadly. “That’s a kindness, but it’s not what I meant.”

Cor nodded, suspecting as much. “I… yeah, well, I’m going to make sure nothing followed us out of the swamp. Get some rest, we’ve a hard day ahead of us tomorrow.”

Teri nodded and watched as he turned and left the campsite. He looked back at her once then was gone into the darkness. She sighed longingly. “Why won’t you love me?” She asked softly of the night.

 

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.

I Have the Coolest Toys!

For those that know me, the title of this post might raise an eyebrow. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not talking about those kinds of toys. :)

When I was a kid riding the school bus to elementary school I remember being too old for toys like action figures and such. It wasn’t cool, you see, but I sure did like playing with G.I. Joe and Transformers. I would even take one of them to school each day, stashed away in my school bag. Some people had a security blanket. Others had a teddy bear. I had play soldiers. That probably says something about me even at an early age… if it helps I always preferred the good guys over the bad guys.

Expanding upon the story, I somehow ended up one day sitting with the cool kid in the back seat of the bus. You know who I’m talking about, he was the good looking kid that was bigger and more athletic than everybody else, not to mention more socially adept than the rest of us could ever hope to be. He was also the guy who could determine the social status of every other guy in his grade just by what he said about them. Frightening power, in hindsight.

So I’m sitting with this kid and I’m scared shitless. Yeah, this guy was that cool and who was I? Just a stupid kid that liked to play with toys. Travis never played with toys, he was sooooo much more grown up and, well, cool! Well, somewhere along the way that particular toy came out and yes, there was some teasing that took place. I don’t remember the specifics at all. What I remember was that pretty much every day after that one the rest of the year he wanted me to sit with him and we’d break out whatever the day’s toy was and, in a very grown-up and cool / macho way, we’d play with it.

That was the last year of that. I don’t remember the grade or how old I was, but I do know it didn’t persist beyond that. Maybe I grew up too, but the toys stayed at home. Before too much longer the toys ended up being boxed away too, but thankfully my desire to play with them never did. I evolved into playing role playing games with friends, but time and distance eventually ended that as well. Soon my toys were gone, all I had was the memories of the good times. I felt like Al Bundy reliving his glory days of high school football before he became a shoe salesman.

I was reminded of this the other day when my daughter, who’s a month away from being 6 years old, sat in front of my salt water aquarium with my younger son (age 3) and went on and on telling him stories about the fish. He tried to add his own embellishments, but it was an amazing sight. She still plays with toys, though the Barbies don’t get nearly as much playtime as they used to. Instead she spends a lot of time in books and drawing / coloring, telling stories and making things up. Is she destined to be a writer like her old man struggles to be? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t put it past her. In a few years I hope to write a book with her to see if it clicks (or if not, to at least help with the college fund).

The epiphany I had at that moment was that I still play with toys. Sure, I’ve got the manly grown up toys like a Harley and power tools, but I’m talking about the toys we keep stashed away for our private time. No, I already told you this wasn’t about those kinds of toys, I mean the ones that allow you to make up your own stories and your own scenarios. The characters are people you create, with talents and quirks that you pick out. The toys are in my head, and when you read my books they’re in your head too. Oh, and because some of you just won’t let it go, on rare occasions there might even be a book that has those kinds of toys in it. ;-)

The moral of the story is that the toys may change, but we’re never too old to play with them!

In other news, keep an eye out for a pending new release from me called Bound. It’s got all sorts of great toys in it, from drug labs to hockey sticks to racy underwear and more! It’s technically a romance novel, but readers of my books will know that I’ve yet to meet a genre I can’t step outside of and take somewhere else!

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.

Exiled from Exile, a New Form of Betrayal

Chapter 14 of Betrayal’s Hands wasn’t as bad as the last couple. Oh it still needs plenty of work – there’s too much passive vs. active – but it didn’t make my eyes bleed as much. :)

 

Chapter 14

 

The questions stopped. Not the small insignificant ones, but the probing questions into Cor’s past ceased. He didn’t realize exactly when it happened, but he noticed that she’d stopped digging into his history.

First one excuse, then another had arisen to keep Teri there. After the snows had finally abated Cor had delayed, making sure winter had loosed its hold. Then she’d come down with a stomach flux that forced him to care for her for a few days. Afterwards he wanted her to gain her strength back. Then he admitted that her help was handy with the garden she had planted behind the hut. He still planned on being rid of her, but it was looking more and more like it would not happen until the fall. Or at least that was what he would gruffly explain when the subject came up.

In the meantime he lashed together some branches to make a cot for her. Using pelts of animals he hunted she finished the cot and made extra blankets for herself. Life was far from easy or simple, but she found herself enjoying it for the first time in a long time. Gone, most of the time, was the fear she had come to live with constantly. In its place was a sense of warmth, familiarity, and security. Cor had saved her, after all, from Krev and from the others that had come for her. Cor had also cared for her when she was ill, something she had not been sure he would be capable of.

Now she knew, or at least suspected, his fondness for her. She knew she thought quite highly of him. Often silent, always capable, he was a rock in the turbulent storm that served as her life. Without Cor she had no idea what she would do, where she would go, or what might happen to her. It bothered her that he refused to admit to himself the things she suspected, and it scared her a little that she might be projecting her own feelings onto him.

Teri felt not only safe around him, she felt liberated. For the first time since she’d set foot on the road out of Duth Darek, she had a sense of freedom about her. She felt as though anything were possible, she had only to imagine it. She owed that feeling to Cor and she wished she could show her true gratitude to him in ways other than the simple ones that often went unnoticed.

She’d tried going out of her way to raise his interest in her, in ways that women knew best. She let him catch her partially clothed on occasion, whether washing or changing. She would offered to nurse the minor injuries he acquired; scrapes, scratches, and bruises though they were. She rubbed his shoulders once, in the hopes of relaxing him. While doing so she marveled at the strength she felt beneath the clothes he wore.

Somehow he always managed to wash himself or change when she was not around, adding to her sense of mystery. It was only a one room hut, she didn’t understand when, where, and how he managed it!

Teri wanted to help him as he’d helped her. It became her driving obsession. Before she could figure out a way to make it happen, however, fate intervened.

Cor sat at a table in Mung’s Place, listening to the latest snippets of conversation he could hear. He saw Mung from behind the bar, the troll shorter than average for his race but still massive compared to everyone other than an ogre or half-ogre. What concerned him was that Mung kept looking at him. Not at the crowd, so much, but at him.

Finally, at the point where Cor was past being uneasy and ready to leave, Mung made his way out from behind the bar and over to his table. He traded jokes with a few of the patrons on his way over, then finally stopped in front of Corillius.

“You should leave,” Mung said bluntly.

Cor looked at him, then shrugged. “Alright,” he said, pushing his chair back and standing up.

“Briam’s Crossing,” Mung continued. “Word’s spread that you’ve got the girl with the reward on her head.”

Cor looked at him, eyes narrowing. “What reward?”

Mung chuckled. “Took me a while but I put it together. You’re not so stupid. I don’t know how it came down, but there was a lot of guys after that girl, and you ended up with her. Asked around, I did. You killed some trolls up north of here.”

“So why warn me?” Cor asked him, confused by Mung’s behavior and his seemingly random thoughts.

Mung shrugged. “I like it quiet around here, good for business.”

Cor’s eyes narrowed. There was more to it, he was sure, but he was just as sure that he would not get it from the troll. “Alright,” Cor said again, tossing a few coins on the table for the ale he had drank and then turning to the door. He stopped and looked back. “What’s the reward for?”

Mung shrugged. “Word is a thousand gold for her safe return.”

Cor cursed. “Return to where?”

“Duth Derek’s all I know.”

Cor nodded. “Thanks,” he muttered.

Mung grinned. “Just keep it civil in the Crossing, that’s all I ask.”

Cor left the tavern and shook his head outside of it. A society minded troll, what next! Chuckling darkly, he turned and stomped off back towards his cabin, wondering with each passing step if he would be there in time.

 

* * * *

 

Teri was taking her time washing, hoping Cor would return early. She luxuriated in the feel of the warm rag against her skin, wiping away the sweat and dirt from working in her garden. She lingered as she washed her chest, feeling her breathing quicken at the sensations the washrag caused her stiffening nipples. She even moaned lightly, wishing that Cor was there and that he would help her with her problem.

The door slammed open, startling her. She dropped the rag into the pot filled with water and stared at the intrusion. Cor looked around the cabin, then his eyes fell on Teri. He paused, his eyes taking in her nudity like a dehydrated man drinking from a stream. He shook his head and growled, seemingly annoyed with himself. Averting his eyes he walked in and grabbed up the set of clothing she had made from the pelts of wolves he had slain when he caught them either in his snares or trying to steal the things he had caught in his snares.

“Put these on, it’s time,” he said.

“Time for what?” She asked, confused, excited, hopeful, and startled.

“Time to leave,” he said.

Her worst fears came crashing in on her. “You’re sending me away?” she asked, tears forming in her eyes.

He looked at her and sighed. “We are leaving,” he said again, emphasizing the word ‘we’.

“Where are we going?” Teri asked, her spirits buoyed slightly, but the sudden change still left more questions than answers.

Cor just shrugged and moved to another trapdoor in the floor. In this one he removed his mercenary garb he’d worn long ago, in what seemed like another life to him. He clenched his stomach muscles and took a deep breath as he stared at it, then began to gird it on.
Teri watched, surprised, as he fit the mismatched armor on. It looked to be patchwork, but his familiarity with it and the effectiveness with which it was worn made her certain that Cor was every bit as formidable as he looked. He glanced up at her as he stood up and cinched the belt around his waist with a hatchet at one end and a long sword at the other.

“Get dressed!” He snapped, not bothering to ogle her beauty this time.

Teri jumped, realizing she was brazenly displaying herself to him. She stepped into the patched together leggings and then pulled on the loose fitting top. She slid the supple moccasins she had made onto her feet and hurried over to her pile of belongings, which had grown in the months she’d stayed with Cor. She slipped the things she felt she would need into her pack and stood ready. She was amazed, in hindsight, at how differently she valued material possessions now compared to when she had first run away from her former life. Now she valued function over wealth. Utility over fashion.

“Here,” Cor said, tossing her a Nordlamarian short sword.

She caught it awkwardly, yelping slightly in surprise. She looked at it, tucked safely in its scabbard, and wondered at what she could ever hope to do with it.

“Just in case,” he offered, then slipped his own pack over his back and headed for the door. “Let’s go,” he said, walking out and into the Darkwood in the evening.

Teri swallowed nervously then tied the weapon around her waist. She looked longingly at the cabin, suspecting she would never know a time as peaceful and free as she had just known, and then turned and followed the man she had come to know as a protector instead of a captor.

 

****

 

As they moved through the darkening woods, Teri ran through her mind, trying vainly to figure out what could have spurred Cor to such strange action. He set a grueling pace and she was hard-pressed to keep up. Panting, she struggled along behind him, feeling a bead of sweat run down and curl under her breast. Finally she was nearly to her breaking point, and gasped, “Cor…Please…” and collapsed to the forest floor.

Cor looked back when he heard the plea, just in time to see the girl sink to the ground. He quickly made his way back to her side. “We can’t stop yet,” he said.

At her pained expression, he growled, “Come then, I’ll carry you.” He reached down and lifted her to her feet. “On my back.”

He crouched and she clambered up onto his broad back, locking her hands around his neck and her legs around his waist. He thought for a moment that he would certainly like to be between her legs, but this was neither the time nor the place. Once she was settled, he took off running again, a relentless pace, even with the extra weight. She sighed, settling her face against his back, concentrating on holding on.

As the sun began to rise over the horizon, seen only as a pale haze in the forest, Cor slowed his pace and finally stumbled to a halt near an enormous oak stump. Teri raised her head to see where they were, seeing still nothing but the forest. Cor dropped to one knee, releasing Teri’s legs, and she slowly slid to the ground. A tortured moan escaped her as her abused feet hit the ground.

“Will you tell me now what this is about?” she asked softly, moving around to look into his face. He still had not moved from where he had settled.

“Who wants you Teri?” He countered, his face tight and angry for a moment. She looked at him, confused, not knowing what he meant. He growled, “There is a thousand gold reward for your return to Duth Darek.” He spat the last like a curse. Teri paled, stepping back and away from him.

“You aren’t taking me back there…” she swallowed hard, “are you?”

Cor swore, wiping the sweat from his brow before replying. “We’ve been heading North all night.” He dragged himself to his feet and closed the distance between them. “Who wants you back so badly?” Suspicions lay heavy on his mind, and he hoped there was nothing to them.

“My betrothed…” She whispered in a tiny voice. “A monster.” Suddenly she began to shake so hard that her teeth chattered. “More than even Krev. His intentions, at least, I understood.” She looked at the growing dawn, “Krev kept me safe. Virgins bring a better price, he said.” A tiny hysterical laugh escaped her. “I know only a little of what awaits me if I am returned to Duth Darek. I will not go there.” For a moment, Cor could see the core of steel which had kept the girl alive through the winter.

“You were promised to another against your wishes?” Cor said, ignoring the strange feeling in his stomach.

Hugging her arms to herself self-consciously, Teri nodded. Cor grunted, his thoughts hard to pin down. “And you ran from him, how did you come to winter with the half-ogre?”

“Krev?” Teri asked, personalizing him. “I stumbled onto his bandits, he saved me from them.”

“He saved you from his bandits?” Cor asked, somewhat incredulous. “Then where are they all at?”

Teri’s answer fit in with the pet theory Cor had been working on… a theory that made him no less nervous. “We were attacked but soldier’s from Duth Darek that had tracked me. They killed most of the bandits and Krev saved me from them by taking me with him as he fled.”

Cor nodded, frowning slightly at her continuing association with the bandits. Bandits were little better than lawless scum that preyed upon the old, the young, the weak, and the helpless. Fresh from a noble home and skilled in little more than embroidery, he imagined Teri fell under the helpless category.

“Bandits,” he said, his voice dripping with disdain. Then he realized that he was little better than they were at many times. He chuckled, his self-deprecating tone sounding cruel.

“My fate amuses you?” Teri asked, her voice soft and her chin trembling at the thought that he was making fun of her.

“No,” Cor said, shaking his head and looking away. “My fate amuses me.”

“We’ll camp here for the night,” He said, changing the subject. “On the ‘morrow we’ll veer to the east and be free of the Darkwood.”

“Where then?” Teri asked, glad that he continued to speak of them as being together. She did not know what she would do if he abandoned her.

The Nordlamarian stared at the darkening limbs of the trees above them. He sighed. “I’ll not turn you in,” he said at last, drawing a exhalation of relief from her.

Cor turned and gave her a rare smile, which felt to her like a beam of sunshine. “Worry not, I may not have the honor of my ancestors, but some things I still hold dear.”

“You’ve always been honorable with me,” Teri said softly and consolingly, knowing that he spoke of a deep pain within him.

He shrugged. “My penance,” he said with an air of finality on the topic.

“Who are your people? Are you not from Aradmath?”

Cor looked at her for a long moment, then glanced away to the north, almost as if he expected merely thinking the name would bring its attention upon him. “I was born in Nordlamar,” he finally said.

Teri’s eyes widened. Cor, her protector, savior, and champion, was a barbarian from the north! She remembered the woman her father had captured and tortured and shivered in spite of herself. She was glad that Cor did not see her involuntary shudder.

“Is it true, what they say of them?” Teri asked cautiously.

“What do they say?” Cor asked.

“That they are barbarians. Heathens that treat their women as equals?”

Cor chuckled and looked at her. “You don’t consider yourself the equal of a man?”

“Well,” Teri stammered, realizing she had backed herself into a corner. “I don’t know… I mean, I think I could be, in some things. It depends upon the man…”

“Yes it does, and it depends upon the woman,” Cor answered her. “It is true that Nordlamarians let every person, be they man or woman, determine their own worth and choose their own fate. To do less would be slavery.”

“Then I think I would like to visit this place some day,” Teri said, her mind running wild with the possibilities.

“It is to the north. Once we are free I will show you the way,” Cor told her.

“You won’t come?” Teri asked, her excitement fading with the speed of a crashing wave.

“I…” Cor hesitated, then he shook his head. “No, I cannot.”

“But, Cor… why?”

Cor opened his mouth, then closed it as his throat rebelled against him with the rising memories. He shook his head and forced out in a tightly controlled voice, “I’ll show you the way, no more.”

Teri stared at him, tears gathering. A chance lay open before her to escape Aradmath once and for all. Even the long reach of her father and Baron Darleth could not have her in Nordlamar. But, apparently, the arms of Cor would never reach her either. It was something that troubled her greatly.

“Get some sleep,” Cor said, moving off silently into the woods to set a watch for them.

Teri watched him go and then let the first tears fall. She wiped them clear, knowing that crying accomplished nothing. Still, she had no idea what else to do. In the end she took Cor’s advice and cleared a spot on the ground free of sticks and rocks. Stuffing her pack under her head and wrapping her cloak about her as a blanket, she fought her anxiety and tried to find the peace of sleep. It was a long time in coming to her.

 

* * * *

 

 

Sleep was also Cor’s enemy. It would not come, and then when it did, it brought the nightmares. He lay huddled in his blanket trying to think of anything but the stricken look on the girl’s face when he had told her he would not travel back to Nordlamar.

He could not go back. Doing that would mean facing his family, most especially Anna, with the memory of how he had failed her. Facing Anna with what he had not done – could not do. He frowned, the child had had no part in Makan’s assault of Anna, it was not right that she had paid the price for it. His morbid introspection did not last long, however, as the clutching arms of sleep dragged him quickly into the dark abyss.

 

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.

It’s Bound to be a Good Time!

And by bound I don’t mean nylon rope and / or handcuffs. Although I suppose that’s not too far off, in hindsight. The Bound I’m referring to is my latest book that I finished the rough draft on last night! I’ve got some minor revisions to make and then editing to do, then the usual cover art and such. What’s that mean to interested readers? It means look for Bound sometime in late July or, possibly, early August!

But wait, what is it and why should you care? Well, it’s my writing, which is fast paced and filled with fun, combined with a touch of romance. Okay, more than a touch – the plot pretty much revolves around a romance between two characters that are about as star crossed as they can get. The book starts out with a hefty dose of stereotyping and racism and then spends the rest of it trying to recover from the damage a single moment in time can do. Bound takes place in my Dark Earth setting and I do have a a reason for that (let’s call it an ulterior motive so it sounds more devious), but as a stand alone book the setting is irrelevant. For the faint of heart let me offer warning, there is some bloodshed in the book, though I only go into semi-graphic detail at one point. There is also an unusual amount of, ahem, adult behavior. Personally I don’t think it’s enough to earn it the title of erotica but others may disagree. The book is not about bumping uglies at all, it’s about two people finding each other and persevering in spite of the difficulties along the way. And bad guys – what fun can there be without bad guys?

Bound came to me out of nowhere on my ride down to Florida on vacation. I’d just finished Voidhawk – Lost Soul, and I was wondering what I wanted to do next. Bound slipped into my head somewhere between Ohio and West Virginia and I just knew I had to write it. Well, 19 days later I’ve finished the first draft of it. I know it’s good because when the words rush out of me like they’ve been doing lately, there’s no other option.

For the Dark Earth setting fans Bound fits in the same general timeline that Voices is in – kind of before The Lost Girls series and concurrent with it.

So stay tuned, my friends, Bound will be available before you know it! As for me and what’s next… I haven’t thought about that yet. First I want to tidy up Bound then I’ll get into thinking about what comes next. It might be Black Widow, book 4 in the Lost Girls series, or I might write Vitalis part 8. It’s good to have options!

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.

Learning to Surf

I spent a week in Florida recently in a hotel on Daytona beach. Beautiful hotel, beautiful ocean, beautiful beach. You get the idea. Anyhow, I was blessed with some waves coming in from some mild storms that happened a few days and happened to see several people surfing on them. I was clueless as to how to surf, but I decided I want to learn how someday. The rest of this post, however, has nothing to do with the ocean or with surfboards or the ocean, for that matter.

It’s really about the changing tides writers must deal with when it comes to book sales. And by writers I mean me – I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d wager other people have similar experiences. Right now, for me, the ocean of book sales is calm. Calm, by the way, is not always a good thing. By calm I mean very little movement, or maybe only the little swells best used by someone with a boogie board.

Back in February my books started taking off. I’d already grown disillusioned with KDP select so I wasn’t using it much at all. Instead I just focused on writing and releasing books. My daily sales grew at a rate that astonished and thrilled me! I climbed from 30 books a day to 50 and then by the time March was in full swing I was nearing 100. April saw my sales climbing to 200 on a daily basis, and in May I’m not sure I had a single day under 200, with many breaking 300. I was in the zone and loving it! Now it’s June, and suddenly things have changed. I say suddenly because it’s been just like that. Over the last week my sales have tanked. I was amazed (in a good way) to see I still broke 100 yesterday.

So WTF happened? I’m still writing and releasing more books as rapidly as my fingers and editors will allow, yet the sales have dropped. This is interfering with my kids college plans, not to mention my own desire to write full time. Can I blame Amazon for tweaking their algorithms yet again? My guess is that there is something along those lines behind the drop in sales. Frankly, I can’t imagine anything else causing a drop so severe. I could shake my fist at Amazon and beg them to bring back the old formula, but I might as well stand and curse at the ocean for a still day.

As a creative and driven guy, it’s easy to see that wallowing in self-pity isn’t going to fix the problem. Action begets action! The answer then is to push forward. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced the successes that I have thus far. I’ve sold thousands of books (and given away tens of thousands), but I desire to sell hundreds of thousands more. Sure, maybe I’m greedy, but I’m a very thankful kind of greedy!

My plan, in case you haven’t figured it out, is to weather the storm. Keep writing and publishing. Perhaps I’ll stay in becalmed waters, but the more material I have available, the more people it will reach and the more word will spread. It might be slow, but it beats climbing out of the surf altogether. Long term success in this field, I believe, comes from perseverance and in having a large library for readers to choose from. I’m branching out into different genres and trying many different things, all geared at broadening my offerings. It may not be a big help, but I guarantee it’s not going to hurt me. And at the end of the day, every book sold is a exactly that, a book sold.

So my fellow writers, take heart if you don’t see things taking off as you’d like them too. You may never ride a massive wave, but as long as you keep trying you should have some level of success that makes it worth it. And for my readers – thank you so very much for reading and enjoying what I’ve done thus far. Take heart from this that I will continue to write and continue the stories you’ve loved, as well as attempt to introduce you to new stories and new characters that are also deserving of your love.

And my apologies for the excessive use of oceanic metaphors and allusions. No dolphins or other marine life were harmed in the creation of this blog post.

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 by Birth

This is a short chapter, and it’s entirely too passive for my tastes. Otherwise it’s ready to go, but it deserves the time to be fully rewritten. In spite of that it inspires some wicked thoughts for the future – thoughts and a direction the original story never took but one I might very well add to it. Originally Betrayal’s Hands was going to be a trilogy but the interest was lost in it and now, rather than continue it over multiple segments, I think I’ll just end up making this longer and tie up the loose ends that I left for another day.

 

Chapter 13

 

In the north Anna showed signs of returning to who she’d once been, but she grew more and more ill as the season changed. Within a few months it became impossible for her to deny, she carried Makan’s child in her womb.

Anna was devastated by the realization and fought to hide it. She also considered trying to void the babe from her body, but it was too late by the time she’d accepted the truth. Killing  it could kill her as well. And so she lived, hating herself and hating the baby within her each day more and more. She was determined to destroy it with her own hands as soon as it was born.

As time passed and her belly grew she was forced to retire from her command, if only temporarily. She wouldn’t have her soldiers knowing what it was that she carried within her. How tainted she’d become. She sought out her sister and arranged for her to go into hiding to bear the child in secret. Shar created a special assignment for her, as far as her soldiers were concerned. A secret mission to strike fear into the hearts of the Aradmathians. None but the two women knew the truth.

Winter was longer than usual, and by the time it was over Anna was nearly ready to bear the bastard child. Shar had her cloistered with a midwife that visited daily in a small homestead a week’s ride from the army, out of the way of the supply routes to further conceal her condition.

Anna had also put in a request to see Corillius. She’d thought long and hard on her behavior towards him and knew she must put it right. Her attitude towards men had grown somewhat rougher than it was before; it was the only way she found herself able to deal with them. Gone was the camaraderie she’d once felt. In its place was the uneasiness of a cat that knew only that the dog wouldn’t snap at it so long as the dog knew the cat would attack it at a moment’s notice.

But Cor she’d treated wrongly, and she knew it even if she didn’t feel it. Having sent for him, she waited impatiently. She was anxious to see him and afraid to see him. Cor was the only one who’d seen her at her worst, when she had been Baron Makan’s plaything. She spat at the thought of it, dredging up considerable anger. Yet at the same time a part of her quailed in terror at the memory.

Her sister, Sharlotta, had arrived instead of Corillius. Shar told her of their cousin’s fate, how he’d ridden back into Aradmath to exact the vengeance upon Makan that Anna herself had called down upon him. She also told her how intelligence had learned that Makan’s two daughters had disappeared, one slain and another missing. No more news had come of it, and after many months had since passed, the worse was assumed. Corillius Argondiir, one of the army’s greatest single warriors, had fallen.

Anna’s mood grew sullen at the news and she took ill for many days. The rest of her pregnancy was plagued with troubles of one sort or another. It was only the end of it, one cool late spring night, that brought Anna and her midwife any relief.

Several hours enduring the pains of labor finally produced a large baby boy. Anna stared at him, sweat and tears running down her face from the agony of the ordeal. She was in a state of shock, unbelieving that such a thing had come from within her. She stared and she reached for him, her lips trembling. The midwife finished tying the child’s cord and dried him off, then wrapped him in a blanket before handing him to Anna.

Anna took the child, then remembered her silent vow to herself. Her hand rubbed down his cheek then settled around his throat. Still trembling, she tried to make her hand squeeze, but she couldn’t do it as she stared into the innocent babe’s eyes. She looked away, fresh tears running from her eyes.

“Take him!” Anna commanded, thrusting the boy back to the midwife. Confused, she did as she was ordered, then helped Anna finish her ordeal while the babe rested in a cradle, strangely silent for one just introduced to the world.

While finishing her delivery, Anna’s mind wandered. She still sought the death of the child. It represented her slavery and imprisonment to her enemyl. But now she had hatched a better way of making it happen. Instead of slaying the boy herself, she wanted to take up the quest that Corillius had failed. She would take her bastard son and confront Makan himself with him Before his very eyes she would spill the boy’s blood and then Makan’s as well. His whore of a wife had only born him daughters, she knew, and the one he had sired would die in front of him, with him helpless to intervene.

The midwife looked up, alarmed, at the strange laughter that kept coming from her charge while she pushed out the last of the remnants of the pregnancy with her final contractions.

 

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.

There’s Power in Numbers

June 15, 2012 2 comments

It’s been a rough week for me. My book sales have slumped considerably. Oh, I’m not distraught or feeling like the end is near – but it is disheartening. Depressing even, when coupled with the volume of difficulties my day job has been presenting me with lately. But depression isn’t productive, therefore I crawl right back out of the bottle of Jim Beam and get to work on the next project!

In the meantime, I thought I should share some of this on my blog. Firstly about reviews – I’ve gotten a lot of lackluster reviews on my Vitalis series lately because of the length of the stories. Almost every review cites how enjoyable the story and the characters are, then they blast me for the length and assume I’m a greedy bastard for charging $.99 for them. I’ve gotten a larger amount of fan mail telling me how much the stories were enjoyed by readers, but alas the reviews paint a negative picture and may very well be scaring would-be readers away. I even had one guy complain that my Vitalis omnibus edition was only 1/3 as long as a proper book should be. Really? One third? It’s approximately 440 pages. I can’t recall very many books that I’ve read that were anywhere near that long. Perhaps some Terry Goodkind and definitely Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books felt like they were seventeen times that many pages, but that’s just my personal take on them. My point is quite the opposite. If people read my books and they went fast, it’s not because they are less than a chapter or shorter than a short story (each one is a novella in length, average at or over 20,000 words. A short story typically maxes out at 5000 words). Perhaps it’s because they liked what they were reading so much they flew through them and, because they lacked the thickness of a paperback book, they assumed that must mean it was short.

So, to jump on the bandwagon many of my fellow writers have already boarded, it’s time for me to ask readers to help a brother out. Leave a review. It can be quick and easy. If you liked it, just share that with the world. Preferably on the Amazon page for the book (or Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords, or iTunes, or wherever), but sending out a tweet or a Facebook status update is mighty groovy too! “I just read (insert book name here) by (insert author name here, preferably mine) and I liked / loved / wallowed in it!” There, that’s a suitable review. It doesn’t need to be drawn out and complicated. Just a little something pointing out that you liked it. It helps me stay in the business of writing, and that means I’ll get more books for you to enjoy out there. There are countless stories yet to be told, whether they’re in the Vitalis world or one of my many other settings.

Okay, I said my piece and added my voice to the power of others who cry out for the same sense of justice, now I can move on. But what am I moving on too? Well my friends, I have a new Voidhawk book coming out very soon (Lost Soul). Like all of the others I have to say I think it’s my favorite one in the series. Take that for what you will. My current project is a new stand alone novel that is different than my usual stories. This one is not filled with fantasy or science fiction – it’s got romance and a love triangle, as well as some danger and thrills. And there’s some naughty stuff in it too. Oh yes, I mustn’t forget to mention the naughty parts. Sadly, I’m halfway through it or more but I don’t have a name yet. Stay tuned, as soon as I figure out the name and get it finished, I’ll be sure to share it! Then it’s off on my next project, either another independent book or perhaps the eighth part of my Vitalis series.

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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