|From My Cover Art|
This short story will be for sale for Kindle and Nook in the next few days. Here is the opening:
The night brightened as lightning forked across the sky. I flinched, but at least, in the sudden flash of light, I could see the stranger moving ahead of us on the narrow trail. I had feared we'd lost him in the worsening weather. We'd been lucky he came along when the carriage floundered on the road and showed us the path to higher ground. Even this narrow, hard-packed trail had turned to a mucky morass in the downpour, though. The road had likely flooded by now.
My horse protested again and came to a sudden stop. I'd been leading the animal on foot for the last quarter mile, arguing with the animal the entire way. I yanked on the reins, even though I knew it wouldn't help.
"Let him go, Lauren," Janus said, slapping the beast on the haunch and nearly winning a hoof on his foot. "That damn horse is going to get us all killed!"
"You're free to go on without me." I pulled the horse aside so the other two could pass. We'd met a few hours before when we boarded the carriage and I didn't trust them much, even though I didn't actually want to be left behind, either. "I'm not leaving the horse. Once this storm passes, I have no intention of walking to the next town. We're in the middle of nowhere."
The trust was that I didn't dare get caught without transportation -- caught being the important word. I am a professional thief, though I hadn't told my traveling companions about my occupation. They were both larger than me and even the surly carriage driver appeared inclined to mayhem at the slightest provocation. A bag full of jewels, to which I could claim dubious ownership, might be provocation enough.
When the stranger came and helped extricate us from the mud, I had untied my horse from the carriage and brought him along while the driver turned the other two beasts free. Now the recalcitrant animal disagreed with me again, head shaking as he tried to back away.
I pulled at the reins, wishing I knew his name. I had -- well -- acquired him rather quickly this last dawn, right after I finished work in Acklin. I'd ridden all night to Bowith and caught the carriage post there, where people had thought I'd spent the night in a room at the Inn.
I wasn't getting far and if things didn't change, I might be forced to use my less reliable magical skills to get out of this mess. The only good thing about the weather was how the downpour would slow anyone coming after me as well. I just needed to stay ahead of the pursuit.
The farmer reached the top of the hill and stopped. I could see him outlined by frantic lightning rushing across the sky at quick intervals. I decided being at the top of the hill might not be wise, but the others trudged up the hillside. The farmer had said there was shelter nearby, which probably meant the other side of the rise.
I didn't want to be out here alone where robbers preyed on single travelers.
"Come along, you obstinate beast, or I'll leave you here to drown. I only need the blanket, you know."
The horse bared teeth at me: Just my luck to find such a bad tempered animal in a city full of fine steeds. I'd had enough of the creature. A glance showed the others nearly to the top of the hill where the stranger waited. I cursed and grabbed at the saddle, intending to loosen the cinch and pull the blanket free along with the small, leather bag of jewels I'd tied into the cloth. They might think I only wanted to make certain I had something for warmth when we reached wherever the farmer led us. Besides, unsaddling the horse was a kindness I would do even for this brute. I wouldn't turn the horse loose weighed down with something he might on a branch and never get free.
I had my fingers on the cinch when the animal neighed and took a step backward, pulling me down in the mud. Cursing under my breath, I glanced back to see if my companions saw this new embarrassment.
They still scrambled up the hillside where --
Where something other than a man now stood.
I thought what I saw an illusion in the first flash of lighting. I sat unmoving in the mud and stared, making myself not blink. The next flash of light confirmed the last. What stood upon that hilltop had a huge, horned head and massive arms. The next flash made the image twice as horrific, mostly because a second joined the first horrific figure. Then a third. I saw the glint of metal in their hands, and suspected they didn't hold nice farmer's hoes, either.
"Good horse," I whispered, taking hold of the stirrup and preparing to stand. "Damn good horse. You're right. We do not want to go up there."