IT’S HERE!!! My cover art for Curse of the Ice Dragon! Isn’t it amazing?! As some of you know, I am a graphic designer, but I felt this cover needed the work of a true artist, so I hired Littlemeesh (Michelle Ulmer) from Deviant art. Didn’t she do a fantastic job creating Lydra, my dragon, and my boy hunter, Markus? I did the fonts, but the real credit for this brilliant cover goes to Littlemeesh.
I’ve decided to publish this book as an indie, which means I’m responsible for hiring and paying for cover art and editing, but I absolutely LOVE having all of the creative power over my book. After getting my publishing rights back for my YA paranormal series, Whispers, the indie route has paid off, and I’ve sold more books as an indie than ever before. Expect book four in the Whispers series to be released sometime in the fall. I am nearly finished writing Curse of the Ice Dragon, the first book in my Keepers of the Stone saga, which I estimate to be about 75 thousand words. Expect a release in late August or early September. I’ve posted chapter one below, edited by my awesome editor, Vickie Johnstone.
A thick mist coated the night sky with an unforgiving chill that stretched across the horizon for miles. The soft blanket of snow had turned to ice, leaving the ground barren, cold and unforgiving. All was quiet beneath the frosted pines. Even the glaciers surrounding the cragged peak of Tehra’s Ice Mountain seemed immobile. No soft winds carried the sounds of animals on the breeze. The only sign of life resided in a small log hut, nestled in a deep valley beneath the mountain. A fire kindled within, but life there was still. Breaths were stilled as faces resembled stone masks of worry.
A babe’s cry broke the silence.
The mother, having used the last of her strength for the final push, slumped against the sweat-drenched furs and fell into a deep slumber. Cradling the infant in a worn, but thick pelt, the midwife placed the bundle in the gnarled, weathered hands of the old prophet.
The child’s cherubic face, crimson-flushed from crying, was almost perfect in form and proportions. The only mar on his features was a scar, tracing from the corner of a tiny ear to the tip of his brow. It resembled the shape of a half-moon or a hunter’s bow waiting to be drawn.
“The boy has the hunter’s mark.”
The many lines surrounding Dafuar’s pale stone eyes belied his age. The ancient healer and prophet was older than any of the villagers, and perhaps even older than the village itself. For his longevity alone, people sought his knowledge, but they also feared him, for many of his dark prophecies had come true. After he’d predicted the great famine, the villagers avoided him, fearing he’d not only prognosticated, but precipitated starvation and death.
To some, Dafuar was a bad omen.
But Rowlen refused to cower to foolish fears. He was a man, strong and brave. He’d brought Dafuar to his hut this night, hoping the prophet would bless the birth and cast a spell to ward off the sickness that had plagued his firstborn son.
A smile cracked the hardened shell that coated the grim lines around Rowlen’s face. “Then the village shall celebrate, for my son will keep them well fed.”
Dafuar shook his head. “He must be taught humility or he will wield his power with destruction.”
Rowlen laughed, his booming voice shaking the stagnant air. “My son will be a great man, a fierce hunter.”
“A hunter need not be fierce to feed his people. His skills must be tempered with kindness and compassion.” Dafuar’s eyes softened, saddened, before he closed them altogether.
Rowlen knew Dafuar was lost in distant memories; knew he would soon conjure up the old tale about the cursed hunter who was killed by the breath of the beast. The prophet had served him well this night, but he had no time for the old man’s foolish fairytales.
“Compassion is for the weak, old man. I have no use for weak words — or weak sons.” He shot a menacing glare at a small child crouching in the corner of the room.
The child blinked once, and then did not stir. He would have been invisible to the naked eye, so small and quiet was he, were it not for the blinding tufts of pale blond hair that curled around his nightcap and wide, watery eyes that shone with both longing and fear.
Scowling, Rowlen turned his back on his eldest son.
Only then did the boy resume the ragged rise and fall of his chest. Struggling for each breath, he silently coughed into his palm, having learned to conceal any sign of his infirmity. The boy whispered his thanks to the Goddess that this night he had been given a brother. In his short lifespan, he’d been blessed with neither strength nor skill, but he had been gifted with a wisdom and compassion beyond his four years. He prayed his brother would be compassionate, too.
He’d give his last dying breath to make certain the babe did not grow up to become a monster.
“Wait up! You know I cannot run as fast as you!”
“We must hurry before Father whips us for delaying his supper!”
Markus threw a glance behind him, before coming to a halt. Alec had once again slowed their progress. Tossing his sling and the rabbit carcasses to the ground, Markus went to help him. Although the onset of spring had thawed most of the perilous icy freeze, his brother’s condition appeared to get worse with each melting snow cap.
Alec clutched one hand to his chest, using the other to steady his slender frame against a pine tree. “We both know I will be the one whipped, not you.”
“Even more reason to make haste.” Markus grimaced, knowing his brother’s words were true, but he could not understand why Alec was always the victim of their father’s heavy hand.
Perhaps Father knew that if he beat Markus instead, he’d risk injuring his drawback arm and then there would be no more venison stew for supper.
Even so, he hated seeing his brother abused. The red and purple splotches on Alec’s pale arms and back were daily reminders that Markus was the favorite child. He should have been grateful that it was Alec that attracted their father’s wrath, but watching his brother degraded and hurt unleashed strange emotions inside him. Anger welled up in his heart every day he witnessed Alec’s torment.
Anger at their father.
Anger at himself.
Was it not Markus’ destiny to be a mighty hunter and a fearless leader? Hadn’t he already been providing the village with most of the meat for their tables? Yet, when it came to his father, why hadn’t he the courage to stand up to him and defend his brother?
Although Alec was twenty winters, and by all accounts old enough to be a man, he had the physique of a juvenile boy and was not strong enough to live on his own. Thus he was forced to endure their father’s wrath in exchange for a warm bed and food. Hardly a life worth living.
Markus promised himself that when he came of age, he would make it up to his brother. They’d live in a hut of their own and he would hunt for Alec, give him all the choice meats. Alec would grow stronger then and recover from his sickness.
“Do you wish me to carry you?” Markus asked. Standing over a head taller, he looked down as Alec coughed and wheezed through the rattle in his chest.
Alec looked up, glaring. “Carry me? Don’t be foolish. You cannot carry me and your kill.”
But carrying Alec would be easy work. By his thirteenth birthday, Markus had been blessed with the strength and size of a full-grown man. Now, three years later, he could toss his brother’s hollow bones over his shoulder in one sweep.
“I’ve carried stags heavier than you,” Markus laughed.
Pale orbs beneath Alec’s sunken sockets darkened as he sneered. “I just need a moment to catch my breath.”
Sometimes Markus marveled how Alec had lived so long as to reach his twentieth birthday. Each night, Markus had sent a silent thanks to the Goddess for his brother’s fortitude for he truly didn’t know how he could go on living without him by his side.
Leaning against the pine tree, Markus’ voice softened. “One moment, then we must go. It is nearly time to eat, and I’ve not skinned the rabbits.”
A wolfish grin spread across Alec’s face. “Had you not stopped to spy, we would not be delayed now.”
Markus felt a rush of heat burst forth from his chest and inflame his face. Dianna was his one weakness, and he silently cursed his brother for alluding to her. “I was not spying.”
Alec burst out laughing before he was forced to give into a fit of coughs. Once his coughing had subsided, he looked at Markus with a hint of mischief in his pale eyes. “What would you call it then?”
Folding his arms across his chest, Markus exhaled a breath of frustration. What was it about that girl that confounded him so? Despite all of his efforts to help her, she refused, paying him no more heed than the mold growing beneath her boot. Out of all the villagers, she should have desired his hunting skills the most. Her parents had been killed in an avalanche the previous winter, leaving her and her brother to fend for themselves.
“The girl is stubborn. I was just making sure she and her brother do not starve.”
Alec shook his pale head. “I saw the skin of a doe hanging from a nearby tree.”
“A small doe.”
Alec shrugged. “’Tis all they need.”
“I could have killed a bear for her!” Markus felt a surge of anger infuse his skull. Pushing away from the tree, he picked up the rabbits and marched towards home.
Girls were so foolish. Why did men see any use for them at all?
“They’ve no need for that much meat,” called his brother from the distance, while coughing through his words.
Storming through the darkened forest, Markus easily dodged the perilous, winding roots that snuck up from the ground, threatening to trip the hapless wanderer. But he’d traveled this path since he was old enough to draw back a bow. He knew he should slow his pace, but anger fueled his movements, and he was in no mood to be ribbed by his brother. It was not in Alec’s nature to tease him, unless the topic strayed to Dianna.
“She wastes her time on the hunt when all she needs is to ask me,” he growled, trudging heavily along the well-worn path to their hut.
“Mayhap she likes the hunt.”
Marcus whipped round to face his brother, who had remarkably kept up with his fast stride. “She’s a girl,” he spat. “Girls do not like hunting!”
Folding his arms across his chest, Alec leveled him with a smug smile. “Is that so?”
Markus wasn’t sure he liked his brother’s cocky attitude.
Alec was the more intelligent of the two, for sure, and he didn’t want to be reminded of his superior wit. “What do you know about girls?”
He wished the venomous words back as soon as they’d slipped off his tongue. Despite Alec’s every effort, girls refused to pay him any heed. Maidens wanted strong husbands who could keep their family well fed. That’s why Markus had no shortage of admiring females. They practically flung themselves at his feet — well, all except Dianna.
“More than you, it would seem.” Alec snickered, ignoring his brother’s attempts to silence him.
“You should have let me kill that stag,” Markus grumbled, as he spied the clearing through the trees. “I would have left it at her door.”
“’Tis a good thing Father does let me go on your hunts, otherwise you’d have killed the whole forest by now! Do not waste the lives of our woodland creatures!”
Markus rolled his eyes at the change in his brother’s
tone. Sometimes he acted more like a parent than a sibling. “I do not need another lecture from you on the preservation of species.”
“Where are those damn boys?!”
The familiar roar sliced through the frigid air, sending shards of ice-cold fear to the marrow of Markus’ bones.
Why did his father affect him that way?
Why did he allow his father to affect him that way?
“We’re here, Father,” he called back, regretting the crack of fear that broke through his strained voice.
Trudging through a new growth of snake moss, he led the way towards their small hut. A fire kindled through the smoke hole, and freshly washed shirts and trews dangled from a weathered rope. A small patch of newly plowed soil graced one side of the hut. Beneath the majestic backdrop of the snowcapped mountain peak, all would have seemed perfect on this tiny plot of land.
Save for him.
Almost as large as a great snow bear and twice as mean, Rowlen had no patience for anything save brewing his many pots of ale. His mouth was draped with a permanent scowl and an acerbic bite of condescension seemed to linger at the end of every word that dripped off his venomous tongue. Eyes darker than stone reflected the contents of his heart — cold and impenetrable. The only things harder than his heart were his meaty fists when they pummeled Alec — almost a daily occurrence.
When he was little, Markus learned to recognize the loathing gleam in his father’s eyes just before he was about to strike; knew the exact time to run. When there was no place to hide, Alec would shield Markus’ body with his own. Though it didn’t matter; Rowlen was only after Alec’s blood.
As he grew older, Markus became more aware of rumors circulating about him. He’d been born with the mark of the great hunter. He would free their people from starvation. Over the past few winters rumor had turned to reality. As if by a miracle, the more he honed his skills, the more the animals appeared to flock to the forest.
At first their father was proud, boasting to the whole village how his son had saved them from famine. And for a short while, Rowlen was happy. With their father’s lighter mood, Alec was spared his cruelty. But his mild temper was short-lived and the abuse would begin again. Markus blamed himself — he thought perhaps Father wasn’t pleased with his hunt. Mayhap if he harvested more animals, Father would spare Alec. But now it seemed that with each fresh kill, Rowlen used Markus’ success against Alec, chiding his oldest son for his incompetence.
Dropping an axe on top of a pile of wood, Father strode over to them in long, heavy steps, never tearing his fiery glare from Alec’s feeble frame. “Do you purposely mean to make me wait for my supper?”
“’Tis my fault, Father,” Alec said, coughing into his hand. “I had to stop for breath.”
Markus’ limbs turned to ice and his eyes darted to his father, bracing himself for his angry reaction. Great Goddess! Why had his foolish brother taken the blame upon himself?
Rubbing one thick hand through his scraggly, graying black beard, Rowlen eyed Alec with a sneer. “I do not know why I allow such a weakling to attend my son on the hunt.”
“Do you forget I am your son too?”
Markus felt the anger in Alec’s shaky voice and could only stare back at him in awe.
“How dare you speak to me that way!” Rowlen raised his hand to strike.
“Father, wait!” Marcus jumped between the two men, surprised at his own act of courage. “I need Alec to help me skin the rabbits.”
Growling under his breath, Rowlen lowered his arm. “Put him to work, son. He is of no use to me.”
Markus turned, and with a shaky hand he grabbed his brother by the elbow and led him to the skinning shack. Still puzzled at how he was able to stand up to Father, his elation was short-lived. This meager defiance meant nothing when so much damage had already been done. When so much violence was still to come.
What would he have done if Father had pushed him aside and struck Alec? Would he have defended his brother? Probably not. His quivering innards reminded him that he was a coward.
After they had reached the shack and lit the oil lamp, Markus turned to his brother and grumbled, “Why do you lie for me?”
Had Alec not lied, Markus would not have been forced to defend him. For that he was angry, but most of all, he was angry with himself for his cowardice when it came to standing up to their father.
Alec dropped his shoulders and a wry grin crossed his face. “I do not know.”
“I wish you’d stop,” Markus growled, before turning his back on his brother and tossing the rabbit carcasses on the skinning table. Pulling the boning knife out of his belt, he grabbed a rabbit and pierced the animal just below the belly.
“Why?” Alec hissed at his back. “So he can beat you?”
“Well, don’t provoke him then.” Markus bit his lip before he said too much, before he admitted his fears. He sliced the blade up to the rabbit’s neck and the blood from the exposed flesh warmed his shaking hand.
Taking a deep breath, Markus forced himself to relax, putting all of his effort into skinning the rabbits and trying to block out the memory of his father’s face and the sound of his voice. For a brief moment, he savored the stagnant air, smelling of blood from all of the animals he had slaughtered on the weathered, red-stained skinning table. The pungent odor of the freshly killed rabbit carcasses blended with the old blood. To some the smell would have been overpowering, but, to Markus, the stench brought an unexplained sense of peace.
“If he’d acknowledge me as his son, and treat me as a human, then mayhap I wouldn’t.”
Markus sighed. His brother’s words refused to allow him to push the image of Father from his mind. Besides, Alec was right. Why did Father hate him so? It was not Alec’s fault that he was born with an infirmity and Father’s daily beatings did nothing to improve his condition.
But at least Alec had the one elixir that neither Markus nor Father could lay claim to — Mother’s gentle touch, her soft, soothing voice and tender smile.
“’Tis no special honor.” His throat tightened with emotion.
“At least you have our mother’s love.”
Markus ripped open the rabbit’s flesh at each extremity with brutal strokes, slicing his way toward the belly before hacking off each foot. After cutting off the tail, he pulled the pelt of the rabbit up over its neck.
Father had repeatedly told him it wasn’t mannish to savor the soft caresses of a woman, but how he longed for Mother to brush her fingers across his cheek, to hold him and stroke his hair as she did with Alec. But Markus’ hair was as black as the night sky and coarse, like straw, unlike the soft, pale wisps of his brother’s. And he was far too large to fit in the cradle of her arms, while Alec could still fold his slender frame into her lap without crushing her.
Of course, Mother only showed affection to Alec when Father was in the barn, drowning himself in brew. Alec would come into the hut with a fresh bruise, his eyes pooled with moisture and Mother would open her arms to him. Markus had no choice but to turn away, an aching in his heart, for he never knew that kind of love from his mother.
“She loves you too, brother,” said Alec, placing a steady hand on his shoulder. “Father forbids her from showing it,‘tis all.”
Markus exhaled a long breath, choking back the tide of anger rising in his throat. “That, I cannot accept.”
“The Great Hunter cannot be fierce if he is coddled.” Alec mimicked their father’s stentorian tone.
In one swift stroke, Markus chopped off the head of the rabbit. It rolled down the gentle slope of the table and landed in a bucket beneath. Blood pooled from the empty cavity that was once its head.
“I wish I never had such skill. I wish I was more like you.” Tossing the blade aside, he turned toward Alec.
Eyes narrowing, Alec’s gaze intensified. “Do you wish for every breath to be a struggle? To be weak and infirm, and hardly a man even at twenty winters!”
“You are the strongest man I know, Alec. It takes strength and courage to stand up to our father. And your kindness to me…” His voice quavered as he dropped his gaze. “I do not understand.”
“You are my brother.” Alec gripped Markus by both shoulders, looking up into his face with a pained expression. “What is there not to understand?”
Markus shrugged and swallowed the lump in his throat that seemed to originate from a hollow pit in his belly. “He beats you, even for my mistakes. A lesser man would despise me.”
“You have good in you, brother, despite our father’s best efforts to make you a monster.”
“I do not stand up to him as you do. I do not defend you as I ought.”
“You might be as strong as an ox, but you are a lad still. Your time will come, brother.” Alec’s voice cracked before he coughed into his hand for several interminable seconds. Finally, Alec righted his posture and looked at Markus with a glazed-over expression. “On the night you were born, I made a promise to the Goddess that I would teach you compassion. A promise I will give my last dying breath to uphold. ‘Tis why I scold you when you kill more than you can eat. A kind hunter respects those animals he kills and does not take their lives unnecessarily.”
Markus turned back to his kill. Picking up the knife, he cut through the meat of the rabbit before ripping open the ribcage with the tip of his blade. “Aye Brother, but when I see an easy target, I cannot stop the blood that pumps through my veins, driving me to kill the beast. It is a feeling I cannot explain.”
With a hand on Markus’ back, Alec breathed at barely a whisper. “You must not surrender to your impulses.”
Repressing the urge to laugh at his brother’s request, Markus pulled down the animal’s innards before ripping them free of its body. A smile crossed his face as the gutting was finally finished. All that was left were meat and bones for the stew. “I cannot help it.” He shrugged before tossing the organs in the bucket.
Alec stood speechless behind him, leaving nothing between them but the wheezy sound of his strained breathing and the redolence of fresh blood. Finally, he cleared his throat. “Killing comes too easily to you, Markus. It would seem your gift is more of a curse.”