While I don't have a new release quite yet (but hopefully soon!), I do have a teaser for you. I've been working on this book I'm calling Brother Mine. It's fantasy, a little darker than my norm, and I'm thoroughly enjoying writing it. How about I give you a sample of the first chapter? Keep in mind, this hasn't been touched by an editor yet. Still, I think you'll enjoy it. If you do, let me know. I love feedback!
Taahira was free. She and her little one, Taavi.
Four long years ago, when Taavi was still growing in her womb, she had known she had to escape. But she had been so afraid. She should have left when she discovered she was with child. She should have left before then. She had been a fool. For too many years, she had been a foolish, silly female who actually believed in love, believed he might one day love her as much as she had worked to convince herself she loved him.
Which was madness. How could anyone love someone who was so cruel?
Taavi made a small noise, no more than that of a mouse, but Taahira shushed her anyway. Slipping away with a three year old youngling was foolish in so many ways. She had traded one foolishness for another. But she had to. He would have taken Taavi away from her if she’d stayed, and Taahira would rather cut out her own heart than give up her child to that monster. Even if the monster was her child’s sire.
They had made it to the outskirts of the village. It had been so long since Taahira had been outside the castle that she hardly recognized it. Although, it was also so dark she could scarcely see anything, so perhaps not so much had changed from her childhood memories.
She had been seventeen, teetering on the edge of womanhood, when she caught his eye. Her mother had been thrilled. She had believed that to give her daughter to the Diktator would be to better her life. But Gable received; he did not give. Ever.
He gave me Taavi. Of course, that had been a mistake, and in his mind, was solely her own doing. The night Taavi had been conceived, Taahira had been asleep, passed out after her one and only experience with too much mulled wine, and Gable had climbed into her bed and took what he presumed was rightfully his to take. It hadn’t been the first time he’d done as much, but Taahira’s mind had been so groggy and it had happened so quickly, she’d not whispered the infertility incantation.
Her own fault.
She heard a sound, faint, like the beating of a bird’s wings. Taahira wrapped her arms around her daughter and pressed her back against a dilapidated building, holding her breath and praying for safety. But it was, in fact, only a bird, a lone hawk, flying in circles above her. She could just make out the outline when the bird swooped low for a moment, before flying away. Then all was quiet again.
Gable must not have realized she was gone yet, which was good. She needed time. Time to figure out a way to slip from the village, leaving the land Gable controlled. She had no idea what lay beyond his borders, but it had to be better than here. Anything was better than allowing the Diktator to turn her daughter into a carbon copy of himself. An even stronger version, too, if Gable was to be believed. He apparently knew what lay beyond his borders, and he wanted to control it, too, and believed Taavi was his means with which to do so. If Gable wanted to own it, then whatever was out there couldn’t be so bad. She hoped.
The village was unnaturally quiet at this time of night. The new moon lent a blanket of darkness that seemed to dull even those sounds that should be natural; bugs, nocturnal predators. It was as if they all knew something big was happening. Were they intentionally quiet, meaning to help her escape, or were they anticipating her capture?
She spent a brief moment wondering what would happen if she was caught, but she knew Gable well enough to know she should not go there, not even in her mind. She would paralyze herself with fear and get caught for certain.
“Come, Taavi,” she murmured, barely loud enough for the child to hear. Taavi rubbed her eye with one fist, while lifting the other arm, wanting to be held. Taahira would have preferred she walk, but poor Taavi had been through so much in the short time since they left the castle, much more than a pampered three-year-old should, especially in the middle of the night.
Taahira swept the child into her arms and slipped into the building. It smelled of manure and must, with a strong sense of disuse. Had the village deteriorated even more since she’d been whisked away to the castle, seven years prior? She shuddered at the prospect. It wasn’t fair. Gable expected everyone to provide for him, but he gave nothing back, nothing at all.
Despite the smell and the lack of blankets or anything soft to lie on, Taahira was sorely tempted to curl up and sleep for a few hours. But she knew she could not. She had bought herself some time by lacing Gable’s drink with a sleeping potion after he’d had his way with her that evening, and she could not waste that time sleeping, not until she was far enough away that he could not reach her. She hoped that place, wherever it was, truly existed.
The building was an old stable, with a wide path down the middle and stalls on either side. Ancient bits of tack still hung on the walls, the leather having been eaten away and the metal so rusty flakes showered the ground when Taahira accidentally brushed against it. The idea of finding a horse with which to escape more quickly was banished. Of course there would be no horses in the village, at least none that would be strong enough to carry her and Taavi across the countryside. They had all been confiscated long ago, for Gable’s army to use to maintain the peace. Or rather, to occasionally remind the villagers of his absolute power.
“Oh Taavi, I fear we will have to walk. I only pray it is not as far to the border as I suspect it is.”
“You will not walk, child.”
The voice and the dark shape that loomed in the doorway before her startled a shriek out of Taahira.
“Shush,” the voice admonished. “You have made it this far. Do not ruin it now. Come. Follow me. Quickly.”
The voice was scratchy with either disuse or age, or possibly both, but it was clearly feminine. Taahira did not move.
“What are you doing? You are here because you wish to escape, yes? I must say, it’s about damn time. I have been waiting years for this moment. I was afraid I would go to my grave before you finally made the decision.”
“You–you knew I planned to escape?” Who was this person?
“Knew? No. Hoped? Yes. Believed? Yes. I had no other choice but to believe. Otherwise, I would fall into as deep a depression as every other person in this godforsaken place. Now follow me, quickly. I have no idea how you managed to slip from Gable’s clutches, but I know there will be a price on your head the moment he realizes you are gone. I will not be able to help you then.”
She called the Diktator by his given name. No one did that, ever. Even Taahira was required to call him by his title, except when they were intimate. Then he commanded her to call him Gable. Loudly. Despite the guards standing outside the door, whom she knew could hear everything they did.
“Who–who are you?”
“I am Cachi. I mean to see you to safety.”
“Well, not by standing here discussing it, that’s for certain. Come. I will explain when the time is right.” Without waiting this time, the woman turned away, her dark cloak fanning out behind her. Taahira caught a glimpse of a bulging sack, swung over the woman’s left shoulder, before she hurried down a dirt path at a far quicker pace than Taahira would have expected, given how old the woman sounded.
Taahira paused and clutched her daughter to her chest, fearing a trap. But Gable was not so sneaky. He preferred a straightforward attack, shouting his intent as he went. He told her once he liked to see the fear in his enemy’s eyes, the no uncertain knowledge they were about to be slaughtered. It was far more satisfying than sneaking up behind someone and slicing his throat. He wanted there to be no doubt who had caused the end of that person’s death.
“We have no other choice, do we, Taavi?” She hoisted the child higher on her arm, lifted her skirt, and hurried after the other woman.
They followed a winding path through a thick stand of trees, the trunks crowded so closely together it was amazing they were able to thrive, considering Taahira doubted much sunlight breeched the canopy of leaves above them. Shadows loomed everywhere, occasionally morphing into the shape of dwellings, all immersed in a shadow of despair that had only increased in the seven years she’d lived in the castle. She had hoped things would have improved over time, and even this small glimpse of the misery within the village surrounding the castle gave her a strong sense of guilt. If only she could have done something to help the villagers. But she’d had her own crosses to bear, her own misery to deal with.
She wondered if her mother was still alive. In the beginning, Gable had allowed her mother to call on her at the castle, every few months. And each time, the woman had looked worse and worse, clearly starving, aging well beyond her years. “Please, Taahira,” she had begged the last time. “I need food. I have nothing.”
Taahira had asked Gable to help her. It had been the first time she had ever asked for anything. In response, he had demanded she perform sexual acts with her mouth–on each of his personal guards. It had been the first time since he’d moved her into the castle that she had been required to do anything of the sort with anyone except him. And she’d done it, mostly because she did not have a choice, but also because she had wanted to help her mother.
She never saw her mother again.
“This way,” the old woman whispered, tearing Taahira out of the horrid memories. They stepped off the path and began walking through the trees. Their movements were slower now, as they had to maneuver around protruding roots and stumps, branches that brushed past the old woman and then came flying at Taahira’s face at high speed.
Finally, they reached the edge of the forest. Although she could not see it in the darkness, Taahira could hear the sound of waves gently lapping at a beach. Surprisingly, nostalgia washed over her. While her life prior moving to the castle had not been an easy one, in truth, as she’d known no differently, she’d enjoyed her childhood. Playing in the lake in the summer, sliding on the ice in the winter. Building castles in the sand, collecting clams for her mother to cook in the fire for dinner. She had not realized how poor they were until she was dragged into Gable’s life. The village and the castle were on opposite ends of the spectrum.
More guilt hit her, because most who lived within the walls of the castle were happy, or so they appeared to Taahira. Even the women, whose sole purpose was for the pleasure of the king and his warriors, did not seem to mind as much as Taahira had. “It’s better than living in the village,” one such woman once told her.
“Just a little further,” her escort promised, and Taahira chose to believe her. She was exhausted. Her arms ached from carrying Taavi, who had fallen asleep. Her calves burned from walking. She was not used to so much strenuous exercise.
I had better get used to it. Running for your life undoubtedly requires a strong body as well as a strong character. She feared she had neither.
They skirted the edge of the forest, walking away from the village instead of toward it. But at least they were walking away from the castle, too. The older lady abruptly veered away from the trees and headed toward the water’s edge. Taahira followed, stopping slightly behind her when the woman paused in front of a dark shadow that, upon closer inspection, was a pile of brush and driftwood that looked as if it had been there for ages.
“Here,” Cachi said, dropping her sack and pulling off her cloak to lay it on the sand. “Place her there and help me clear this brush away.”
Cachi was indeed an old woman. It was still hard to see her in the darkness, but Taahira could tell she had gray hair that was pulled into a messy bun at the nape of her neck, and lines on her weathered face. She was thick around the middle, but not so much out of shape that the walk had winded her. In fact, Taahira was certain she was more out of shape than this woman, who had decades on her.
While Taahira gently placed her daughter on the cloak, Cachi began pulling sticks and driftwood away from the pile. “What are we doing?” Taahira asked when she stepped up to help.
“There is a boat hidden under here. I hid it the day I heard you’d birthed the babe. What is the little one’s name?”
“Taavi. You–you planned for my escape when she was born?” That had been three years ago. And why would this woman plan her escape? Taahira was certain she had never met her before in her life.
“Taavi. Beloved. I like it. And yes, I did. But had you tried before then, I would have happily helped as well. Unfortunately, you had fallen under Gable’s spell. Or at least the spell of living in that castle.”
“I wasn’t under a spell.”
“Not in the literal sense. But in the sense that it was such a better lifestyle than living in this village. And, I imagine, for a beautiful young girl, catching the eye of the Diktator was also too attractive to pass up.”
“That is not how it happened.” Taahira felt the need to defend herself. Now that she’d made the decision to escape, she did not want anyone to believe she had ever enjoyed a single moment of her time in that place.
“I am glad to hear it. Now stop musing over it and help.”
Taahira did as she was told. If she had learned anything from seven years as Gable’s concubine, it was to do as you were told.
Taahira’s hands and arms were covered with scratches and she had at least a dozen splinters by the time they unearthed what looked like a questionable excuse for a boat. She was not even confident it would float. Was this how she was supposed to escape? Where was she to go? The lake was huge, so large she could not see the other side from the window in her room in the castle. The idea of drifting about on that massive body of water was far more daunting than attempting to flee by land. While she had been a strong swimmer before the Diktator had whisked her away, she had not touched toe to water since, and Taavi had never done more than enjoy baths in the bath house built underneath the castle.
“On three,” Cachi said, and she bent at the knees and slipped her hands under the edge of the boat. Despite her doubts, Taahira helped flip it over. A tarp had been placed on the sand under the boat, and Cachi unfolded it to reveal a pile of blankets, which she tossed into the boat.
“Clothes,” she said, lifting the sack she had been carrying when she found Taahira. She dropped it into the bottom of the boat. “For you and the little one. And a flask of water and bread, in case you get hungry along the way. What was the catalyst? Why did you finally leave?”
The woman shifted topics so quickly, it took Taahira a moment to realize she’d been asked a question. She glanced at her sleeping daughter and wondered how much to tell a perfect stranger. What if this entire thing was a plot to get her captured?
“Whatever you are thinking, do not. My only wish, before my long life ends, is to see Gable toppled from his throne. That is why I am helping you escape. You are the key to making that happen.”
Taahira shook her head. “I am no more than a concubine.” A whore. If this woman knew the things Gable had forced her to do… The moment she slipped from the castle proper, she had vowed not to ever lie with another man again. Not ever.
“You were a pawn. But you are much more than that. You must believe it, for this endeavor to be successful. Now help me pull this to the water.” Cachi pulled, while Taahira pushed, and soon, the older woman stood in knee deep water, holding the boat steady, as waves lapped against the sides. She started to lift her daughter off the cloak, but Cachi said, “Keep it. That way he will be unable to doubt you, when you arrive.”
“Who is Ash?”
“My grandson. He lives on the other side of the lake. There is quite literally nothing over there except forest and his home. You will be safe with him.”
Taahira lifted her gaze and stared into inky blackness. “I am supposed to row across this lake, in the dark?” She was already exhausted. How would she find the strength? How would she know if she was heading in the right direction?
“Exactly,” Cachi confirmed. “Even if Gable has now realized you are gone, you will be too far out onto the lake for anyone to see you, by the time the guards make their way down here. And I doubt it would occur to them that you would use the lake as a means of escape. They will assume you will have run through the forest, trying to get to the border everyone whispers about, but few have ever seen. And frankly, I doubt any of those who have seen it are still alive, aside from Gable’s guards.”
“Why do you call him Gable?” Taahira asked. “If he knew, he would have your tongue cut out.” She knew; she had seen the aftermath of such a punishment.
“My own little act of defiance,” Cachi said. “I know when not to say it. But he does not frighten me as much as he frightens most others.”
Taahira supposed that had to do with the woman’s advanced age. She likely had few years left in this world. That no doubt made her more daring than a younger person might be.
“Thank you,” Taahira whispered. She felt an urge to hug the woman who was giving her another chance at living. Even if she still had to cross a vast, dark lake to get there, freedom was closer than it ever had been, and it was all because of the woman standing before her. “I do not know how I could, but if I can ever repay you…”
Cachi nodded at the child in Taahira’s arms. “May I?”
She hesitated, but then handed over the most important thing in her life, and watched as Cachi snuggled her for a moment, burying her nose in the child’s downy red hair and breathing deeply.
“You will repay me. I know you will. Now get in. There is no time for tears.”
Accepting the bundle of sleeping youngling, Taahira swiped wetness from her cheeks. She had not even realized she’d started crying.
As she climbed into the boat, Cachi gave it a surprisingly hefty push, and Taahira had to grab the side to keep from tumbling overboard. She righted herself and heard the older woman muttering an incantation she had heard before. It was meant to keep the boat on course to its destination.
And then she was on her way. To a new life.
Her daughter was safe.