Book Tour: The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice by Fred Yu @FredLitYu @PRBookPro @RRBookTours1 #RRBookTours #FantasyBooks

We’re thrilled to share The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice with all of you today! This epic Asian fantasy novel will be available on October 5th, so read on for details and a chance to win a copy of this stunning book!

The Orchid Farmer's Sacrifice - eBook (2)

The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice (The Red Crest Series #1)

Expected Publication Date: October 5th, 2021

Genre: Asian Fantasy/ Epic Fantasy

He was born of prophecy. If he can’t embrace his destiny in time, his country is doomed.

Ancient China. Spoiled and overconfident, eighteen-year-old Mu Feng relishes life as the son of an honored general. But when his sister is abducted and his friends slaughtered, he flees home. He soon discovers the mystical birthmark on his body has attracted an enormous price on his head.

Pursued across the Middle Kingdom, Feng finds allies in two fierce warriors and a beautiful assassin. When he learns his ultimate enemy plans an incursion with advanced weaponry, he must call on his friends and his own budding military genius to defend his country. His plan is desperate, and the enemy outnumbers him twenty-five to one…

Can Feng fulfill a duty he didn’t know he had and unite the empire against a terrifying force?

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Chapter One

Mu Feng woke to the call of a rooster, unsure where he was. He was staring into an empty flask flipped over and wedged against a stack of plates.

He pulled his silk robes tighter around his body. This was not his bed. His body lay bent and twisted against the hard edge of a wooden table, and his face was soaked from sleeping in a puddle of spilled liquor all night. He supported himself on one elbow to stretch his sore hip.

His three friends were still asleep, two of them snoring on the floor and another sprawled on a narrow bench, his arms and legs dangling.

Vague memories of the night before brought a smile to Feng’s lips—drinking, eating, and playing dice deep into the night. Empty flasks were scattered everywhere. Two large buckets of water remained half full.

Feng flinched against the dull pain at the base of his skull. He rubbed his oversized forehead and reached for a bowl. He hadn’t drunk enough water, and now the headache would nag him all day.

He sat back and gulped down the water, one bowl after another, and then paused to take a deep breath. He remembered coming to the Rider’s Inn with three of his best friends last night. The first floor of the little inn was packed. There were no rooms left upstairs, and the innkeeper was going to ask one of his customers to find somewhere else to stay because the general’s son, Mu Feng, needed a place to sleep.

Feng assured the innkeeper he would be drinking all night and didn’t need a room.

He remembered the innkeeper bringing him the very best drink they had to offer, a liquor made from sorghum buried in the ground for thirty years. It was something so exquisite only a Tiger General’s son could afford it. Feng remembered sipping the liquor and commenting that the taste resembled an onrush of invading cavalry, the sound of a thousand war drums approaching until it became thunder, then breezed by to leave an exhaustive state of calm. One of his friends laughed and told him to get drunk.

Feng needed to hurry home. The ride back would not be long—only a trip through a small forest. But he was to train his father’s pike unit that morning, and it wouldn’t look good for the instructor to arrive late.

The front door had been left open, and a little boy, his face filthy and his clothes in tatters, stood outside.

The boy’s a beggar and wants something to eat, Feng thought. He took a piece of copper from his pocket and stumbled to the door. The boy inched back, leaning away as if preparing himself to run.

Feng placed the coin on the table closest to the entrance. “Here, kid. Get yourself some food.”

Ding, facedown on a bench only a moment ago, was already on his feet.

“We need to go,” Feng said. “I can send a servant later to pay the innkeeper.”

“You must have paid him four times already,” Ding said. He planted a sharp kick into one of his friends on the floor and squatted down to scream in his ear. “Get up, Wen!”

He proceeded to the next drunk, curled under a table and still snoring, and kicked him in the ribs. “Get up, Little Chu. Feng needs to go home.”

Little Chu groaned. He lifted his head, his eyes still closed. “I don’t want any breakfast.”

“You’re not getting any,” Feng said with a laugh. “But there’s plenty of water in that bucket.”

Ding headed for the door, his long sword dangling by his side. “I’ll get the horses ready.” He stopped by the table near the entrance. “Who left the coin here?”

“It’s for the kid,” Feng said, turning and pointing outside. The boy was no longer there. Feng walked to the door and pulled it wide open for another look. “He was just here.”

Wen lumbered to his feet, towering over the others. “What boy?” he asked, his voice booming across the room. He hoisted a heavy bucket to his lips for a gulp or two, then poured the rest of the water over his head.

“A young beggar,” Feng said. “So many of those little things around here.”

Wen’s laughter thundered across the room. “See? Even a beggar knows he can’t take money from a dead man. You drank so much last night the boy thought you were a hungry ghost.”

“Shut your mouth,” Chu shouted, clapping Wen’s back with the hilt of his sword. Wen laughed even harder.

Ding returned, pulling the horses with one hand and carrying all four saddles with the other.

Feng stepped into the morning sun and took a deep breath. He reached for the harness of a gigantic warhorse, a gift from Uncle Shu this year for his eighteenth birthday. He stroked the nose of the charger, then the mane, and took the saddle. The horse reminded him every day that he was an adult, despite his boyish features and lanky arms, and he was commander of the best pike men in the world.

Little Chu turned back to the mess they were leaving behind—the empty bowls, the plates, and the overturned liquor flasks. “Too bad Du didn’t want to come last night. Since when did we ever go drinking without him?”

“He wanted to,” Ding said, “but he was vomiting and couldn’t get up. Must have been something he ate at the whorehouse.”

“He ate at a brothel?” Wen asked. “What kind of meat do they serve there?”

Ding turned to his friend with a smirk. “Why don’t you ever go to the whorehouse, Feng?”

Feng finished saddling his horse and leaped onto his charger. “Let’s go.”

“Feng’s father is a Tiger General,” Little Chu said. “He can get any girl he wants.” He guided his horse toward the road and squeezed its belly with his stirrups. The horse lurched forward.

“But then he’ll have to marry her!” Wen shouted from behind, hurrying after his friends. “I’d rather pay some money to amuse myself than be stuck with a wretch in my house.”

In a moment they were on the main road, riding at a comfortable pace. After a while the path bent into a forest and narrowed. The four friends merged behind one another, proceeding in single file. The dirt trail was an easy ride, well maintained and free of overhanging branches and intruding vegetation.

It was still early in the morning, and the ride home would be short. Feng relaxed a little, but not entirely. His father would be furious if he found out his son was too drunk to come home last night and couldn’t return in time to train his pike unit. He might even forbid Feng from leading his men again, a position Feng had to beg for over the years.

General Mu, Feng’s father and one of four Tiger Generals in the empire, was known as the General of the Uighur Border. He guarded the westernmost fortress in the empire. The portion of the Great Wall that he protected and the North Gate, which opened into the City of Stones, faced the land of the Uighur. It was the final stop on the Silk Road before entering the Middle Kingdom.

General Mu’s city was one of few fortresses built in a valley along the northern mountain chains. It was low enough to lose the advantage of elevation, which so much of the Great Wall depended on, but flat enough for travelers and barbarian traders to meet in this border city. Over the years General Mu had imposed heavy punishments on anyone harassing or discriminating against the foreigners, and despite countless skirmishes at the Great Wall, the City of Stones was never attacked in earnest. Commerce thrived at a time of heightened tensions between the Middle Kingdom and the barbarian nations. Chinese and Uighur, Khitans and Mongols assembled in the same bustling marketplace in the center of town and bartered. The city seemed oblivious to the politics of the Asian kingdoms.

The general placed his only son, Mu Feng, in command of the pike unit, but he was never permitted to confront the barbarians. The archers, the cavalry, and the anti-siege personnel were all deployed during border skirmishes with the Uighur.

Feng’s pike units were never battle-tested, and he never understood why. In military matters his father always sought his advice and often adopted his strategies. For years he studied The Art of War and every other military classic his father could access. In simulated battle, Feng had proven again and again he was capable. Yet, his father never trusted him in a real war.

Feng and his friends breezed along the narrow forest trail with Ding in front, Feng following from a short distance, and the other two in the rear.

Moments later, Feng noticed two rows of armed men standing in a line, motionless, blocking the road.

“Slow,” Feng said, loud enough only for his friends to hear. “Bandits.”

The foliage around them was dense with thick trees and low branches reaching into every empty space. It would be impossible to penetrate the forest and ride around the blockade.

Ding reined in his horse and slowed to a walk. “Small-time bandits trying to rob the general’s son. Wait till they find out who you are.”

Wen sent his horse lurching forward and stopped in front of the outlaws, so close he could have easily barreled into them. “Why are you blocking the road?”

None of them answered. They simply stared.

“If you don’t step aside, we’re going to run you over!” Wen said, his booming voice echoing through the forest.

 The armed thugs remained silent, motionless. Wen reached for his sword. Feng held out his hand, fingers outstretched, and motioned for him to stop.

“There’s only ten of them,” Little Chu said in a low voice. “And they’re on foot.”

“Get out of my way,” Feng said to the bandits, his voice loud and firm. “We’re military officials. We have important business in the City of Stones.”

A short bandit with a gray topknot broke into a smile. “Military officials,” he said, speaking slowly as if to pronounce every syllable. “Exactly what we’re waiting for.”

Feng stiffened. Soldiers earned modest salaries. They were well trained and armed, and very few of them traveled this road. For a small team of robbers to block the road, waiting for soldiers to rob, didn’t make any sense.

“One of our women was raped last night,” the short one continued.

Ding moved forward to Feng, his hand on his weapon, and whispered, “There’s more of them in the forest on both sides. Maybe a hundred.”

Feng nodded and turned back to the short bandit. “You’re not listening. Civilian crimes should be reported to the magistrate, not the army.”

“The criminal was a military official!” the thug shouted over Feng’s voice.

“I see,” Feng replied, fighting to remain calm. His heart was pounding.

His hand crept into his pocket to touch a bronze plate half the size of his palm, a token he always carried with himself. He still remembered the day so many years ago when he was afraid to climb onto a horse for the first time. He went to bed that night feeling disgraced and useless. His father came to his bedside and gave him this little bronze plate embossed with an image of a fierce tiger. His father told him if he carried it in his pocket, he would be able to do anything he set his mind to because the tiger held the powers of the Tiger General, powers meant for the strong and courageous. Much later he realized it was a standard pass the Tiger Generals’ messengers used.

He kept this one particular plate on himself every day.

The situation in front of him required much more than strength and courage. A hundred bandits had gathered to surround a few soldiers when very little money could be made.

Something was very wrong.

“Bring your evidence to the magistrate, and he’ll assign officers to investigate,” Feng said. “But blocking the road and randomly harassing any soldier is plain stupid. Harm the wrong soldier, and you’re all going to be killed.”

Chu pulled up behind Feng. “They’re behind us as well. We’re surrounded.”

“The criminal may be you!” the bandit continued, pointing the butt of his saber at Feng. “Why don’t you come with us to the magistrate, and we’ll talk about it in front of him?”

So, they didn’t intend to rob. They were looking to abduct, and they were waiting for the right moment to strike. The group of friends was in grave danger. Feng drew his horse back, opening up the space in front so he could see everything around him. How could this be happening?

Feng’s heart raced faster than he could withstand. They were on horses, and the bandits were not. That extra speed was their only advantage. He didn’t notice anyone on the road earlier, so they couldn’t have installed too many traps or ambushes behind them. Turning around, charging through the bandits in the rear, and riding the main road back toward the Rider’s Inn seemed like the sole course of action.

“After all, you look like a sleazy rapist to me!” the bandit shouted for all to hear. There was a roar of laughter.

“How dare you!” Wen shouted, drawing his sword. “Do you know who he is?”

Feng reached out in alarm, trying to grab Wen’s attention. He was too far away. Wen’s loud voice pierced through the thundering laughter.

“He’s General Mu’s son! Do you all want to die?”

The bandits fell silent, but only for a second. With a roar the men from both sides of the forest charged. Feng drew his sword, spun his horse around, and shouted, “Retreat! Back to the Rider’s Inn!”

His friends reacted, turned, and broke into a hard gallop. The bandits swarmed in like floodwater. Feng had never encountered a real battle before, but if they were out to kidnap for ransom, then he—not his friends—would be the prized possession. He needed to lead the bandits away from his friends if they were to have any chance of escaping.

Feng turned around and attacked the short bandit with the topknot, flying past him and slashing him across the face, almost cutting his skull open. The thug died instantly. Feng stabbed left and right, kicking his horse’s belly to urge it forward, struggling to break through the ring of hostiles.

Then he heard Wen shouting from behind. “Feng’s stuck back there! Feng’s stuck back there!”

“No!” Feng screamed as loud as he could. “Back to the inn!”

He knew they heard him, but in the distance he saw them approaching as fast as they could.

“No!” he shouted again. A spear flew across the air and struck Wen in the belly. He bowled over and fell from his horse. The bandits surrounded him and stabbed him over and over again.

Feng stared in disbelief. “Wen!” he shouted. They weren’t out to kidnap. They intended to murder. He kicked his warhorse and pummeled into the dense rows of bandits, slashing and stabbing as hard as he could, hoping to get to his other two friends before it was too late.

Chu’s horse screamed, lurching back and dismounting its rider.

They were attacking the horses. Without horses there would be no hope of getting out alive. Feng leaped off his mount and sent his horse away, wielding his sword with both hands like a battle ax and carving a path to Little Chu.

It was already too late. Chu was surrounded and stabbed from all directions at once, multiple spears and swords buried in his body. Dark blood poured from his mouth, and with his last breath, he screamed, “Run, Feng!”

Feng stabbed a bandit in the rib cage, pushed his sword all the way in until the hilt slammed against his chest. With a roar he shoved the writhing body into a crowd of enemies. He grabbed someone’s saber and swung and thrashed behind himself, fighting off those attacking his back while shielding his front with the dying bandit. He planted his feet on the hard ground, sensed Ding’s location, and pushed his way through.

Ding had already fallen off his horse, but he was hiding behind two trees standing very close together in front of a narrow gap only one person could penetrate at once, allowing him to hold back his attackers.

Feng forced his way to the two trees and dumped the dead bandit from his own sword and into the gap to seal it. He then circled around the smaller tree. “My horse is still alive,” he said. “Let’s go!”

He whistled for his horse and grabbed another saber from a dead bandit, and with a weapon in each hand, he leaped out from behind the trees and slashed at his nearest enemy.

The bandits were hardly skilled swordsmen. They were poorly coordinated and clearly had never trained to fight together.

But there were so many of them.

Feng created an opening when his warhorse broke through from behind. The massive charger was kicking and stomping the enemy, pressing them back, throwing them into disarray.

Ding stood right beside him, covered in blood—perhaps some of his own blood. “Go!” Feng shouted. He slashed another bandit in the neck, lodging his blade in the man’s collarbone.

“Careful!” Ding shouted from behind. Out of the corner of his eye, Feng noticed a spear flying toward him. Ding leaped in, crossing in front of Feng and blocking the spear with his body. He collapsed, the warhead plunged in his abdomen.

“No!” Feng wrenched his weapon free, hacked down another enemy, and leaped onto his horse. He grabbed Ding and dragged him onto the saddle, smacking the horse with the side of his saber. The charger surged forward. They were on a warhorse, one of the best in the army, and the bandits originally sealing off the road were out of position. Many were killed. Others couldn’t climb over the dead bodies littered across the narrow path. Feng’s warhorse met little resistance.

Ding yanked the spear out of his belly, and with a shout he threw it into the closest bandit. A stream of dark blood flew from Ding’s mouth.

Slowly he leaned his full weight against Feng’s back, fading out of consciousness. Feng threw away his saber and reached back with one hand to clutch his friend’s belt, preventing him from falling over. He urged the horse on, and the powerful stallion responded, charging forward at breakneck speed. The shouts and insults from behind were fading. In a moment, Feng found himself riding in silence.

His back was soaked with Ding’s blood. Ding’s breathing was becoming shorter and quicker.

“Ding! Wake up, Ding!”

How could this be happening? To think a few hundred untrained ruffians would dare confront a Tiger General’s army for mere ransom was hard to believe. Besides, they could have captured Wen and Little Chu when they fell off their horses. But they rushed in to kill without hesitating a step, as if taking them alive was never considered.

Feng felt a squeezing pain in his chest at the thought of Wen and Chu. They were gone. They were drinking and laughing and bickering only last night, and now they were gone.

A little side path branched off from the main road, and a small house hid behind a row of trees. He pulled his horse’s reins toward the house. It looked like the home of a local peasant, with coarse mud walls and an old wooden door once painted red. Feng had never spoken to a peasant before, much less asked one for help. He was the son of a Tiger General, high above the rest. Normally the peasants would be kneeling in front of his father’s mansion.

With Ding dying behind him, it didn’t matter if he had to bow to a beggar.

Feng reached the front door of the hut, dismounted, and dragged his friend’s unconscious body with him.

He took a deep breath and pounded the door with his fist.

An old woman with a wide gap between her oversized front teeth opened the door. She looked at Feng from head to toe, then at Ding. “Come on in,” she said. “I was afraid you wouldn’t knock. He’s bleeding to death, you know.”

Feng was more thankful than surprised. He lifted his friend as gently as he could and dragged him into the little hut. There was nothing inside except for a small bed, a table, and a brick cooking stove in the corner.

“We were attacked by bandits. There were four of us, and—”

The old woman sneered. “Stop barking like a neutered dog. You lost a fight, and you want to hide here. Put him in the bed. I’ll boil some towels to clean his wounds.”

Feng ignored her insolence, dragged his friend to the bed, placed him on his back, and tucked a coarse pillow under his head. Blood dripped everywhere. He yanked open Ding’s shirt and sucked in his breath. “No,” he whispered. “No.”

Ding looked up with a blank, lifeless stare.

The old woman brought a bucket of water and with one glance turned around to leave. “You should’ve told me earlier. I wouldn’t have brought the towels if I knew he was almost dead.”

Feng climbed onto the bed with trembling hands, lifted his friend’s head, and wrapped his body in his arms. “How do you feel, Ding?”

“I’m cold.”

“I-I’ll find you a blanket. I’ll—”

“No. Don’t leave.”

Feng held his friend tighter. “I’m here. I’m here.”

“What happened, Feng?”

Feng’s entire torso shook. His quivering lips were barely able to speak. “I don’t know.”

“Wen and Chu. They’re gone?”

Feng nodded.

A sob escaped Ding’s lips, and a trickle of tears rolled down his face. “I’ll . . . I’ll see them soon.”

“No!” Feng said. “Stay with me, Ding. Stay with me.”

“I’m sorry, Feng. You and Du are left behind. It’s still better than drinking alone. Tell him to stop eating at the whorehouse.” Ding tried to laugh at his own joke but only managed a choked sob. “How could there be so many bandits here?”

Feng shook his head, unable to respond.

“I’ve never heard of . . . of so many bandits . . .” Ding’s voice trailed off, and then the room was silent. Even his light gasps for air faded.

“How did we fail the people?” Feng whispered, struggling to speak so Ding could hear him. “Why did so many turn to crime?”

Ding took his last breath, his cold, limp body sinking into Feng’s arms. For a moment, the tears wouldn’t flow.

“Why are the people discontent?” Feng’s broken voice managed to say. He held his friend’s body closer. He felt ill and dizzy, as if he might vomit and faint all at once. He squeezed his eyes so tightly together that his tears couldn’t flow.

He threw his head back to scream.

“He had a gaping hole in his chest,” the old woman shouted from across the room. “Did you expect him to live?”

Feng collapsed on his friend’s body and wept. He shook with every sob, his clenched fists pounding the bed with every convulsion.

The door flew open so hard the old iron hinges rattled. A group of peasants carrying thick bamboo poles charged in, all of them young and strong. They moved in lock step with perfect discipline. They formed an arc around the door, each facing a different direction with their bodies poised to react. Feng recognized them.

“How dare you break my door!” the old woman shouted. “Get out of my house! I’ll report you to the magistrate!”

One peasant drew a sword halfway out of his bamboo pole, and the old woman fell silent.

A tall man with thick eyebrows and a short beard stepped in. He acknowledged the old woman once, then turned to Ding’s body.

“I’m sorry.”

“Uncle Shu,” Feng said, his voice trembling. His father’s brother was here, a powerful man of great skill and military prowess. At least he was safe now. “Wen, Chu, and now Ding. They’re all gone.”

Uncle Shu came to the side of the bed.

“How did you find me?” Feng asked. “How did you know?”

His uncle pulled a ragged sheet over Ding’s face so the horrid look of death would not stare back at them. The little hut was silent while he took Feng’s hand and led him to the table on the other side of the room. “Sit. I need you to calm down and tell me what happened.”

“I . . . we . . .” Feng couldn’t find words. He was so relieved to see his uncle and even more relieved to see the army’s elite, personally trained by his uncle, gathered around him. Strange, they were dressed in the coarse gray fabric of peasants, and their weapons were concealed in bamboo poles. Why would his uncle need to travel under disguise?

“You’re safe now, Feng,” Uncle Shu said. “Tell me what happened.”

Feng’s hands were still shaking.

Uncle Shu motioned for one of his men. “Bring the young master some liquor.”

Just the night before, they were drinking the finest liquor the little inn had to offer, laughing and playing dice late into the night. Feng remembered debating Mongol military tactics. Little Chu’s words echoed in his head. The Mongols may have the strongest cavalry in the world, but horses can’t climb walls. I can drink a bucket of liquor and still defend the country.

One of the soldiers placed a flask of liquor in front of Feng.

“I let my friends die,” Feng whispered. He didn’t wait for his uncle to respond. He grabbed the flask and emptied it in his mouth, guzzling the hard alcohol without taking a breath. He planted the flask on the table and tried to shake his head clear as his vision already began to blur.

“You shouldn’t be drinking like that, young man,” he heard the old woman say behind him. “Here, drink some water before you vomit all over my table. Not that I don’t have to spend all day cleaning up your friend’s blood.”

Feng grabbed the bowl of water placed before him and drank everything in one gulp.

“Take her outside,” Uncle Shu said to one of his men. “Give her some money for her troubles and ask her to leave us alone.”

Feng felt dizzy, incredibly drunk for a single flask of liquor. Maybe that was what his uncle wanted for him, something to numb his senses and help him forget. “Where is my father?” he asked.

He lowered his head onto his arms, leaned against the table, and closed his eyes. He had slept in the same position on a similar table the night before. His friends were alive then.

Nothing made sense anyway. His uncle was here, and very soon he would be taken home. His father would summon the army, they would round up all the bandits, and soon after he would find out why his friends were slaughtered in broad daylight, why even a Tiger General’s son could be attacked on his own land.

But in that moment he was dizzy and intoxicated, and he wanted to let everything go.

Very quickly the effects of the alcohol disappeared. He didn’t want it to leave his head, didn’t want his escape to be over so soon. He remained still, head in his arms, resting on the table with his eyes squeezed shut. Maybe if he tried not to move, he would eventually fall asleep and have sweet dreams.

“Sir, the young master is unconscious,” one of the soldiers said.

“Bring him to the carriage,” Uncle Shu replied.

“Do we need to secure him? In case he wakes up before we get there?”

“No need. He won’t wake up for another day.”

Feng’s heart beat so hard he thought his ribs would crack. He waited. Two men lifted him off his seat, wrapped his arms around their shoulders, and dragged him outside. Feng was determined to find out where they were taking him and whatever Uncle Shu wanted to do to him. He kept his eyes closed, his arms limp, his head hanging.

They lifted him into an enclosed carriage, settled him on his back, and walked away. Outside, at least a hundred men and numerous horses and carriages shuffled around. Feng heard his uncle giving orders to depart.

“You stay with the young master,” Uncle Shu said.

The operation was well planned and rehearsed. No one asked a single question after that.

Someone climbed into the carriage with Feng. The soldier placed his sword on the floor and shouted, “Go!”

The driver cracked his whip. They eased forward, then pulled into a steady speed. Feng waited. The road became smoother, and the horses picked up the pace. The heavy pounding of warhorses shifted to the front of the carriage, leaving only a few soldiers to protect the rear. The attack units had moved, and it was time.

Feng grabbed the sword lying on the floor of the carriage, drew the weapon, and pinned the blade against the soldier’s throat before he had time to react.

“Where are you taking me?” Feng asked in a quiet voice.

The soldier shook his head. “You—you were supposed to be unconscious . . .”

Feng pressed the tip of the sword harder into the base of his throat, piercing the skin. Blood trickled at the tip. The soldier froze.

“Answer me!”

“We’re going to the City of Eternal Peace.”

Feng’s eyebrows knit together. “General Wu’s fortress?”

The soldier nodded. “Young master, we didn’t mean to—”

“Why is my uncle doing this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why am I being escorted to another Tiger General’s city? Where’s my father?”

“I’m just a soldier, young master. You know we only receive our orders.”

Feng took a deep breath. “I’m going to kill you if you don’t tell me.”

The soldier’s face was blank, his lips pressed together.

“I’m the general’s son. I can kill you for entertainment, and no one would do a thing.”

“We’re the general’s soldiers, young master. But we’re also your soldiers.”

Feng paused, lowering his sword. “You’re the people’s soldiers. You fight to defend the people, not my father or me. Don’t ever forget.”

“I won’t, young master.”

Feng spun his sword around and hammered the soldier’s head with the handle. The soldier collapsed.

Feng reached for his peasant clothing, about to strip him, and hesitated. He had never worn the coarse fabric of a common man, much less the filthy rags of a peasant. He could almost smell the soil stains on the straw sandals.

His own clothing reeked of dried blood, so changing into dirty canvas would not be so bad.

Feng cursed himself for worrying about the quality of his clothes at a time like this. He stripped the soldier and dressed him in his own bloody robes, then lifted the unconscious body with one hand and the sword with his other and kicked the carriage door open. He threw the soldier halfway out, facedown, and released a long, tortured cry.

“Young master!” one of the riders in the rear called. The soldier hurried forward, closing the distance between himself and Feng’s carriage. Feng threw his sword out the partially opened door. The soldier outside evaded the flying sword and was barely recovering when Feng leaped out, slammed into him, and sent him toppling off his horse. Feng recovered his own position on the speeding mount, grabbed the reins, planted his feet in the stirrups, and squeezed the horse’s belly. The other guards were charging up behind him. A side road appeared ahead. Feng saw his opportunity and brought his horse thundering down the little path.

The guards followed. Feng reached for the sword hanging from the saddle, spun around, and charged into his pursuers.

“Young master!” one guard shouted. They recognized him and pulled back. No one wanted to fight the general’s son.

He tried not to think of how his friends had died that morning, how hundreds of bandits waited for him in ambush, how Ding died in his arms. The little beggar at the inn that morning, who watched them from outside and didn’t bother to collect the coins Feng left for him, must have been there to report when they began their ride home. The ambush was prepared for them and only them.

His uncle could have encountered the slaughter in the forest and traced his tracks and Ding’s blood to the peasant woman’s house. There was no way to understand why his uncle was out there looking for him, his elite unit dressed as peasants, or why he drugged his own nephew.

Feng kicked his horse and rode as hard as he could, heading south for Major Pass toward the City of Stones. Major Pass, the main artery running across the north of the empire and parallel to the Great Wall, connected the city fortresses of all four Tiger Generals. It used to be named something else, but the people called it Major Pass because it was the widest, most well paved road north of the capital. Armies and their supply wagons could efficiently move on this road.

As far back as Feng could remember, the empire was at peace within its borders.  Aside from skirmishes with the barbarians in the north and short wars with the island nations in the south, people lived well in China.

He remembered the quick briefing he received from two officers right before he left for the Rider’s Inn. They had told him the Venom Sect was recently active in this area, but no one knew why. Feng recalled asking the local government to involve themselves, saying that the military shouldn’t interfere with civilian criminals.

The Venom Sect was a powerful group of poison users rumored to be four hundred members strong and headed by a ruthless leader named Red Cobra. The officers told him yesterday that Red Cobra was also spotted in the area. Feng laughed and asked how much snake venom it would take to poison an army.

Then they informed him that the Silencer had killed Tiger General Lo. They had expected this news ever since he was ordered to invade Mongolia and capture the undefeated barbarian king known as the Silencer. General Lo walked into Mongolia with only two hundred men in an apparent act of suicide. As of yesterday they still hadn’t found his body. All his men were dead, and the Silencer took no prisoners. Some even said the Silencer was spotted killing off the Chinese soldiers by himself. General Lo guarded the easternmost fortress in the empire facing the Khitans. For the emperor to order him to march away from the barbarian nation he was guarding against to attack an undefeated Mongol king made no sense at all.

None of these events should have had anything to do with what happened that morning. The bandits were clearly not members of the Venom Sect. They were thugs carrying steel weapons they didn’t know how to use, fighting in plain view instead of killing from the shadows.

It was almost noon by now, and Feng was rapidly approaching the City of Stones.

Available October 5th!

About the Author

author+pic

As a lifelong student of martial arts, and growing up watching martial arts flicks in the 80s and 90s, Yu decided early on that he would write in this genre. Inspired by George RR Martin’s work, he decided he would write a series in English in this centuries-old Asian genre. Yu has written three previous novels, The Legend of Snow WolfHaute Tea Cuisine and Yin Yang Blades. Yu has a BFA Film and Television from NYU Tisch School of Arts. He was born in Guangzhou, China, but presently lives in New York City.

Fred Yu

 

The Redcrest Prequel

Red Crest Prequel

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Book Blitz: The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice by Fred Yu @RRBookTours1 #RRBookTours #Books

Look at this incredible cover! Check out The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice, coming this Fall!

The Orchid Farmer's Sacrifice - eBook (2)The Orchid Farmer’s Sacrifice (The Red Crest Series #1)

Expected Publication Date: October 5th, 2021

Genre: Asian Fantasy/ Epic Fantasy

He was born of prophecy. If he can’t embrace his destiny in time, his country is doomed.

Ancient China. Spoiled and overconfident, eighteen-year-old Mu Feng relishes life as the son of an honored general. But when his sister is abducted and his friends slaughtered, he flees home. He soon discovers the mystical birthmark on his body has attracted an enormous price on his head.

Pursued across the Middle Kingdom, Feng finds allies in two fierce warriors and a beautiful assassin. When he learns his ultimate enemy plans an incursion with advanced weaponry, he must call on his friends and his own budding military genius to defend his country. His plan is desperate, and the enemy outnumbers him twenty-five to one…

Can Feng fulfill a duty he didn’t know he had and unite the empire against a terrifying force?

Coming Soon!

Chapter One

Mu Feng woke to the call of a rooster, unsure where he was. He was staring into an empty flask flipped over and wedged against a stack of plates.

He pulled his silk robes tighter around his body. This was not his bed. His body lay bent and twisted against the hard edge of a wooden table, and his face was soaked from sleeping in a puddle of spilled liquor all night. He supported himself on one elbow to stretch his sore hip.

His three friends were still asleep, two of them snoring on the floor and another sprawled on a narrow bench, his arms and legs dangling.

Vague memories of the night before brought a smile to Feng’s lips—drinking, eating, and playing dice deep into the night. Empty flasks were scattered everywhere. Two large buckets of water remained half full.

Feng flinched against the dull pain at the base of his skull. He rubbed his oversized forehead and reached for a bowl. He hadn’t drunk enough water, and now the headache would nag him all day.

He sat back and gulped down the water, one bowl after another, and then paused to take a deep breath. He remembered coming to the Rider’s Inn with three of his best friends last night. The first floor of the little inn was packed. There were no rooms left upstairs, and the innkeeper was going to ask one of his customers to find somewhere else to stay because the general’s son, Mu Feng, needed a place to sleep.

Feng assured the innkeeper he would be drinking all night and didn’t need a room.

He remembered the innkeeper bringing him the very best drink they had to offer, a liquor made from sorghum buried in the ground for thirty years. It was something so exquisite only a Tiger General’s son could afford it. Feng remembered sipping the liquor and commenting that the taste resembled an onrush of invading cavalry, the sound of a thousand war drums approaching until it became thunder, then breezed by to leave an exhaustive state of calm. One of his friends laughed and told him to get drunk.

Feng needed to hurry home. The ride back would not be long—only a trip through a small forest. But he was to train his father’s pike unit that morning, and it wouldn’t look good for the instructor to arrive late.

The front door had been left open, and a little boy, his face filthy and his clothes in tatters, stood outside.

The boy’s a beggar and wants something to eat, Feng thought. He took a piece of copper from his pocket and stumbled to the door. The boy inched back, leaning away as if preparing himself to run.

Feng placed the coin on the table closest to the entrance. “Here, kid. Get yourself some food.”

Ding, facedown on a bench only a moment ago, was already on his feet.

“We need to go,” Feng said. “I can send a servant later to pay the innkeeper.”

“You must have paid him four times already,” Ding said. He planted a sharp kick into one of his friends on the floor and squatted down to scream in his ear. “Get up, Wen!”

He proceeded to the next drunk, curled under a table and still snoring, and kicked him in the ribs. “Get up, Little Chu. Feng needs to go home.”

Little Chu groaned. He lifted his head, his eyes still closed. “I don’t want any breakfast.”

“You’re not getting any,” Feng said with a laugh. “But there’s plenty of water in that bucket.”

Ding headed for the door, his long sword dangling by his side. “I’ll get the horses ready.” He stopped by the table near the entrance. “Who left the coin here?”

“It’s for the kid,” Feng said, turning and pointing outside. The boy was no longer there. Feng walked to the door and pulled it wide open for another look. “He was just here.”

Wen lumbered to his feet, towering over the others. “What boy?” he asked, his voice booming across the room. He hoisted a heavy bucket to his lips for a gulp or two, then poured the rest of the water over his head.

“A young beggar,” Feng said. “So many of those little things around here.”

Wen’s laughter thundered across the room. “See? Even a beggar knows he can’t take money from a dead man. You drank so much last night the boy thought you were a hungry ghost.”

“Shut your mouth,” Chu shouted, clapping Wen’s back with the hilt of his sword. Wen laughed even harder.

Ding returned, pulling the horses with one hand and carrying all four saddles with the other.

Feng stepped into the morning sun and took a deep breath. He reached for the harness of a gigantic warhorse, a gift from Uncle Shu this year for his eighteenth birthday. He stroked the nose of the charger, then the mane, and took the saddle. The horse reminded him every day that he was an adult, despite his boyish features and lanky arms, and he was commander of the best pike men in the world.

Little Chu turned back to the mess they were leaving behind—the empty bowls, the plates, and the overturned liquor flasks. “Too bad Du didn’t want to come last night. Since when did we ever go drinking without him?”

“He wanted to,” Ding said, “but he was vomiting and couldn’t get up. Must have been something he ate at the whorehouse.”

“He ate at a brothel?” Wen asked. “What kind of meat do they serve there?”

Ding turned to his friend with a smirk. “Why don’t you ever go to the whorehouse, Feng?”

Feng finished saddling his horse and leaped onto his charger. “Let’s go.”

“Feng’s father is a Tiger General,” Little Chu said. “He can get any girl he wants.” He guided his horse toward the road and squeezed its belly with his stirrups. The horse lurched forward.

“But then he’ll have to marry her!” Wen shouted from behind, hurrying after his friends. “I’d rather pay some money to amuse myself than be stuck with a wretch in my house.”

In a moment they were on the main road, riding at a comfortable pace. After a while the path bent into a forest and narrowed. The four friends merged behind one another, proceeding in single file. The dirt trail was an easy ride, well maintained and free of overhanging branches and intruding vegetation.

It was still early in the morning, and the ride home would be short. Feng relaxed a little, but not entirely. His father would be furious if he found out his son was too drunk to come home last night and couldn’t return in time to train his pike unit. He might even forbid Feng from leading his men again, a position Feng had to beg for over the years.

General Mu, Feng’s father and one of four Tiger Generals in the empire, was known as the General of the Uighur Border. He guarded the westernmost fortress in the empire. The portion of the Great Wall that he protected and the North Gate, which opened into the City of Stones, faced the land of the Uighur. It was the final stop on the Silk Road before entering the Middle Kingdom.

General Mu’s city was one of few fortresses built in a valley along the northern mountain chains. It was low enough to lose the advantage of elevation, which so much of the Great Wall depended on, but flat enough for travelers and barbarian traders to meet in this border city. Over the years General Mu had imposed heavy punishments on anyone harassing or discriminating against the foreigners, and despite countless skirmishes at the Great Wall, the City of Stones was never attacked in earnest. Commerce thrived at a time of heightened tensions between the Middle Kingdom and the barbarian nations. Chinese and Uighur, Khitans and Mongols assembled in the same bustling marketplace in the center of town and bartered. The city seemed oblivious to the politics of the Asian kingdoms.

The general placed his only son, Mu Feng, in command of the pike unit, but he was never permitted to confront the barbarians. The archers, the cavalry, and the anti-siege personnel were all deployed during border skirmishes with the Uighur.

Feng’s pike units were never battle-tested, and he never understood why. In military matters his father always sought his advice and often adopted his strategies. For years he studied The Art of War and every other military classic his father could access. In simulated battle, Feng had proven again and again he was capable. Yet, his father never trusted him in a real war.

Feng and his friends breezed along the narrow forest trail with Ding in front, Feng following from a short distance, and the other two in the rear.

Moments later, Feng noticed two rows of armed men standing in a line, motionless, blocking the road.

“Slow,” Feng said, loud enough only for his friends to hear. “Bandits.”

The foliage around them was dense with thick trees and low branches reaching into every empty space. It would be impossible to penetrate the forest and ride around the blockade.

Ding reined in his horse and slowed to a walk. “Small-time bandits trying to rob the general’s son. Wait till they find out who you are.”

Wen sent his horse lurching forward and stopped in front of the outlaws, so close he could have easily barreled into them. “Why are you blocking the road?”

None of them answered. They simply stared.

“If you don’t step aside, we’re going to run you over!” Wen said, his booming voice echoing through the forest.

 The armed thugs remained silent, motionless. Wen reached for his sword. Feng held out his hand, fingers outstretched, and motioned for him to stop.

“There’s only ten of them,” Little Chu said in a low voice. “And they’re on foot.”

“Get out of my way,” Feng said to the bandits, his voice loud and firm. “We’re military officials. We have important business in the City of Stones.”

A short bandit with a gray topknot broke into a smile. “Military officials,” he said, speaking slowly as if to pronounce every syllable. “Exactly what we’re waiting for.”

Feng stiffened. Soldiers earned modest salaries. They were well trained and armed, and very few of them traveled this road. For a small team of robbers to block the road, waiting for soldiers to rob, didn’t make any sense.

“One of our women was raped last night,” the short one continued.

Ding moved forward to Feng, his hand on his weapon, and whispered, “There’s more of them in the forest on both sides. Maybe a hundred.”

Feng nodded and turned back to the short bandit. “You’re not listening. Civilian crimes should be reported to the magistrate, not the army.”

“The criminal was a military official!” the thug shouted over Feng’s voice.

“I see,” Feng replied, fighting to remain calm. His heart was pounding.

His hand crept into his pocket to touch a bronze plate half the size of his palm, a token he always carried with himself. He still remembered the day so many years ago when he was afraid to climb onto a horse for the first time. He went to bed that night feeling disgraced and useless. His father came to his bedside and gave him this little bronze plate embossed with an image of a fierce tiger. His father told him if he carried it in his pocket, he would be able to do anything he set his mind to because the tiger held the powers of the Tiger General, powers meant for the strong and courageous. Much later he realized it was a standard pass the Tiger Generals’ messengers used.

He kept this one particular plate on himself every day.

The situation in front of him required much more than strength and courage. A hundred bandits had gathered to surround a few soldiers when very little money could be made.

Something was very wrong.

“Bring your evidence to the magistrate, and he’ll assign officers to investigate,” Feng said. “But blocking the road and randomly harassing any soldier is plain stupid. Harm the wrong soldier, and you’re all going to be killed.”

Chu pulled up behind Feng. “They’re behind us as well. We’re surrounded.”

“The criminal may be you!” the bandit continued, pointing the butt of his saber at Feng. “Why don’t you come with us to the magistrate, and we’ll talk about it in front of him?”

So, they didn’t intend to rob. They were looking to abduct, and they were waiting for the right moment to strike. The group of friends was in grave danger. Feng drew his horse back, opening up the space in front so he could see everything around him. How could this be happening?

Feng’s heart raced faster than he could withstand. They were on horses, and the bandits were not. That extra speed was their only advantage. He didn’t notice anyone on the road earlier, so they couldn’t have installed too many traps or ambushes behind them. Turning around, charging through the bandits in the rear, and riding the main road back toward the Rider’s Inn seemed like the sole course of action.

“After all, you look like a sleazy rapist to me!” the bandit shouted for all to hear. There was a roar of laughter.

“How dare you!” Wen shouted, drawing his sword. “Do you know who he is?”

Feng reached out in alarm, trying to grab Wen’s attention. He was too far away. Wen’s loud voice pierced through the thundering laughter.

“He’s General Mu’s son! Do you all want to die?”

The bandits fell silent, but only for a second. With a roar the men from both sides of the forest charged. Feng drew his sword, spun his horse around, and shouted, “Retreat! Back to the Rider’s Inn!”

His friends reacted, turned, and broke into a hard gallop. The bandits swarmed in like floodwater. Feng had never encountered a real battle before, but if they were out to kidnap for ransom, then he—not his friends—would be the prized possession. He needed to lead the bandits away from his friends if they were to have any chance of escaping.

Feng turned around and attacked the short bandit with the topknot, flying past him and slashing him across the face, almost cutting his skull open. The thug died instantly. Feng stabbed left and right, kicking his horse’s belly to urge it forward, struggling to break through the ring of hostiles.

Then he heard Wen shouting from behind. “Feng’s stuck back there! Feng’s stuck back there!”

“No!” Feng screamed as loud as he could. “Back to the inn!”

He knew they heard him, but in the distance he saw them approaching as fast as they could.

“No!” he shouted again. A spear flew across the air and struck Wen in the belly. He bowled over and fell from his horse. The bandits surrounded him and stabbed him over and over again.

Feng stared in disbelief. “Wen!” he shouted. They weren’t out to kidnap. They intended to murder. He kicked his warhorse and pummeled into the dense rows of bandits, slashing and stabbing as hard as he could, hoping to get to his other two friends before it was too late.

Chu’s horse screamed, lurching back and dismounting its rider.

They were attacking the horses. Without horses there would be no hope of getting out alive. Feng leaped off his mount and sent his horse away, wielding his sword with both hands like a battle ax and carving a path to Little Chu.

It was already too late. Chu was surrounded and stabbed from all directions at once, multiple spears and swords buried in his body. Dark blood poured from his mouth, and with his last breath, he screamed, “Run, Feng!”

Feng stabbed a bandit in the rib cage, pushed his sword all the way in until the hilt slammed against his chest. With a roar he shoved the writhing body into a crowd of enemies. He grabbed someone’s saber and swung and thrashed behind himself, fighting off those attacking his back while shielding his front with the dying bandit. He planted his feet on the hard ground, sensed Ding’s location, and pushed his way through.

Ding had already fallen off his horse, but he was hiding behind two trees standing very close together in front of a narrow gap only one person could penetrate at once, allowing him to hold back his attackers.

Feng forced his way to the two trees and dumped the dead bandit from his own sword and into the gap to seal it. He then circled around the smaller tree. “My horse is still alive,” he said. “Let’s go!”

He whistled for his horse and grabbed another saber from a dead bandit, and with a weapon in each hand, he leaped out from behind the trees and slashed at his nearest enemy.

The bandits were hardly skilled swordsmen. They were poorly coordinated and clearly had never trained to fight together.

But there were so many of them.

Feng created an opening when his warhorse broke through from behind. The massive charger was kicking and stomping the enemy, pressing them back, throwing them into disarray.

Ding stood right beside him, covered in blood—perhaps some of his own blood. “Go!” Feng shouted. He slashed another bandit in the neck, lodging his blade in the man’s collarbone.

“Careful!” Ding shouted from behind. Out of the corner of his eye, Feng noticed a spear flying toward him. Ding leaped in, crossing in front of Feng and blocking the spear with his body. He collapsed, the warhead plunged in his abdomen.

“No!” Feng wrenched his weapon free, hacked down another enemy, and leaped onto his horse. He grabbed Ding and dragged him onto the saddle, smacking the horse with the side of his saber. The charger surged forward. They were on a warhorse, one of the best in the army, and the bandits originally sealing off the road were out of position. Many were killed. Others couldn’t climb over the dead bodies littered across the narrow path. Feng’s warhorse met little resistance.

Ding yanked the spear out of his belly, and with a shout he threw it into the closest bandit. A stream of dark blood flew from Ding’s mouth.

Slowly he leaned his full weight against Feng’s back, fading out of consciousness. Feng threw away his saber and reached back with one hand to clutch his friend’s belt, preventing him from falling over. He urged the horse on, and the powerful stallion responded, charging forward at breakneck speed. The shouts and insults from behind were fading. In a moment, Feng found himself riding in silence.

His back was soaked with Ding’s blood. Ding’s breathing was becoming shorter and quicker.

“Ding! Wake up, Ding!”

How could this be happening? To think a few hundred untrained ruffians would dare confront a Tiger General’s army for mere ransom was hard to believe. Besides, they could have captured Wen and Little Chu when they fell off their horses. But they rushed in to kill without hesitating a step, as if taking them alive was never considered.

Feng felt a squeezing pain in his chest at the thought of Wen and Chu. They were gone. They were drinking and laughing and bickering only last night, and now they were gone.

A little side path branched off from the main road, and a small house hid behind a row of trees. He pulled his horse’s reins toward the house. It looked like the home of a local peasant, with coarse mud walls and an old wooden door once painted red. Feng had never spoken to a peasant before, much less asked one for help. He was the son of a Tiger General, high above the rest. Normally the peasants would be kneeling in front of his father’s mansion.

With Ding dying behind him, it didn’t matter if he had to bow to a beggar.

Feng reached the front door of the hut, dismounted, and dragged his friend’s unconscious body with him.

He took a deep breath and pounded the door with his fist.

An old woman with a wide gap between her oversized front teeth opened the door. She looked at Feng from head to toe, then at Ding. “Come on in,” she said. “I was afraid you wouldn’t knock. He’s bleeding to death, you know.”

Feng was more thankful than surprised. He lifted his friend as gently as he could and dragged him into the little hut. There was nothing inside except for a small bed, a table, and a brick cooking stove in the corner.

“We were attacked by bandits. There were four of us, and—”

The old woman sneered. “Stop barking like a neutered dog. You lost a fight, and you want to hide here. Put him in the bed. I’ll boil some towels to clean his wounds.”

Feng ignored her insolence, dragged his friend to the bed, placed him on his back, and tucked a coarse pillow under his head. Blood dripped everywhere. He yanked open Ding’s shirt and sucked in his breath. “No,” he whispered. “No.”

Ding looked up with a blank, lifeless stare.

The old woman brought a bucket of water and with one glance turned around to leave. “You should’ve told me earlier. I wouldn’t have brought the towels if I knew he was almost dead.”

Feng climbed onto the bed with trembling hands, lifted his friend’s head, and wrapped his body in his arms. “How do you feel, Ding?”

“I’m cold.”

“I-I’ll find you a blanket. I’ll—”

“No. Don’t leave.”

Feng held his friend tighter. “I’m here. I’m here.”

“What happened, Feng?”

Feng’s entire torso shook. His quivering lips were barely able to speak. “I don’t know.”

“Wen and Chu. They’re gone?”

Feng nodded.

A sob escaped Ding’s lips, and a trickle of tears rolled down his face. “I’ll . . . I’ll see them soon.”

“No!” Feng said. “Stay with me, Ding. Stay with me.”

“I’m sorry, Feng. You and Du are left behind. It’s still better than drinking alone. Tell him to stop eating at the whorehouse.” Ding tried to laugh at his own joke but only managed a choked sob. “How could there be so many bandits here?”

Feng shook his head, unable to respond.

“I’ve never heard of . . . of so many bandits . . .” Ding’s voice trailed off, and then the room was silent. Even his light gasps for air faded.

“How did we fail the people?” Feng whispered, struggling to speak so Ding could hear him. “Why did so many turn to crime?”

Ding took his last breath, his cold, limp body sinking into Feng’s arms. For a moment, the tears wouldn’t flow.

“Why are the people discontent?” Feng’s broken voice managed to say. He held his friend’s body closer. He felt ill and dizzy, as if he might vomit and faint all at once. He squeezed his eyes so tightly together that his tears couldn’t flow.

He threw his head back to scream.

“He had a gaping hole in his chest,” the old woman shouted from across the room. “Did you expect him to live?”

Feng collapsed on his friend’s body and wept. He shook with every sob, his clenched fists pounding the bed with every convulsion.

The door flew open so hard the old iron hinges rattled. A group of peasants carrying thick bamboo poles charged in, all of them young and strong. They moved in lock step with perfect discipline. They formed an arc around the door, each facing a different direction with their bodies poised to react. Feng recognized them.

“How dare you break my door!” the old woman shouted. “Get out of my house! I’ll report you to the magistrate!”

One peasant drew a sword halfway out of his bamboo pole, and the old woman fell silent.

A tall man with thick eyebrows and a short beard stepped in. He acknowledged the old woman once, then turned to Ding’s body.

“I’m sorry.”

“Uncle Shu,” Feng said, his voice trembling. His father’s brother was here, a powerful man of great skill and military prowess. At least he was safe now. “Wen, Chu, and now Ding. They’re all gone.”

Uncle Shu came to the side of the bed.

“How did you find me?” Feng asked. “How did you know?”

His uncle pulled a ragged sheet over Ding’s face so the horrid look of death would not stare back at them. The little hut was silent while he took Feng’s hand and led him to the table on the other side of the room. “Sit. I need you to calm down and tell me what happened.”

“I . . . we . . .” Feng couldn’t find words. He was so relieved to see his uncle and even more relieved to see the army’s elite, personally trained by his uncle, gathered around him. Strange, they were dressed in the coarse gray fabric of peasants, and their weapons were concealed in bamboo poles. Why would his uncle need to travel under disguise?

“You’re safe now, Feng,” Uncle Shu said. “Tell me what happened.”

Feng’s hands were still shaking.

Uncle Shu motioned for one of his men. “Bring the young master some liquor.”

Just the night before, they were drinking the finest liquor the little inn had to offer, laughing and playing dice late into the night. Feng remembered debating Mongol military tactics. Little Chu’s words echoed in his head. The Mongols may have the strongest cavalry in the world, but horses can’t climb walls. I can drink a bucket of liquor and still defend the country.

One of the soldiers placed a flask of liquor in front of Feng.

“I let my friends die,” Feng whispered. He didn’t wait for his uncle to respond. He grabbed the flask and emptied it in his mouth, guzzling the hard alcohol without taking a breath. He planted the flask on the table and tried to shake his head clear as his vision already began to blur.

“You shouldn’t be drinking like that, young man,” he heard the old woman say behind him. “Here, drink some water before you vomit all over my table. Not that I don’t have to spend all day cleaning up your friend’s blood.”

Feng grabbed the bowl of water placed before him and drank everything in one gulp.

“Take her outside,” Uncle Shu said to one of his men. “Give her some money for her troubles and ask her to leave us alone.”

Feng felt dizzy, incredibly drunk for a single flask of liquor. Maybe that was what his uncle wanted for him, something to numb his senses and help him forget. “Where is my father?” he asked.

He lowered his head onto his arms, leaned against the table, and closed his eyes. He had slept in the same position on a similar table the night before. His friends were alive then.

Nothing made sense anyway. His uncle was here, and very soon he would be taken home. His father would summon the army, they would round up all the bandits, and soon after he would find out why his friends were slaughtered in broad daylight, why even a Tiger General’s son could be attacked on his own land.

But in that moment he was dizzy and intoxicated, and he wanted to let everything go.

Very quickly the effects of the alcohol disappeared. He didn’t want it to leave his head, didn’t want his escape to be over so soon. He remained still, head in his arms, resting on the table with his eyes squeezed shut. Maybe if he tried not to move, he would eventually fall asleep and have sweet dreams.

“Sir, the young master is unconscious,” one of the soldiers said.

“Bring him to the carriage,” Uncle Shu replied.

“Do we need to secure him? In case he wakes up before we get there?”

“No need. He won’t wake up for another day.”

Feng’s heart beat so hard he thought his ribs would crack. He waited. Two men lifted him off his seat, wrapped his arms around their shoulders, and dragged him outside. Feng was determined to find out where they were taking him and whatever Uncle Shu wanted to do to him. He kept his eyes closed, his arms limp, his head hanging.

They lifted him into an enclosed carriage, settled him on his back, and walked away. Outside, at least a hundred men and numerous horses and carriages shuffled around. Feng heard his uncle giving orders to depart.

“You stay with the young master,” Uncle Shu said.

The operation was well planned and rehearsed. No one asked a single question after that.

Someone climbed into the carriage with Feng. The soldier placed his sword on the floor and shouted, “Go!”

The driver cracked his whip. They eased forward, then pulled into a steady speed. Feng waited. The road became smoother, and the horses picked up the pace. The heavy pounding of warhorses shifted to the front of the carriage, leaving only a few soldiers to protect the rear. The attack units had moved, and it was time.

Feng grabbed the sword lying on the floor of the carriage, drew the weapon, and pinned the blade against the soldier’s throat before he had time to react.

“Where are you taking me?” Feng asked in a quiet voice.

The soldier shook his head. “You—you were supposed to be unconscious . . .”

Feng pressed the tip of the sword harder into the base of his throat, piercing the skin. Blood trickled at the tip. The soldier froze.

“Answer me!”

“We’re going to the City of Eternal Peace.”

Feng’s eyebrows knit together. “General Wu’s fortress?”

The soldier nodded. “Young master, we didn’t mean to—”

“Why is my uncle doing this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why am I being escorted to another Tiger General’s city? Where’s my father?”

“I’m just a soldier, young master. You know we only receive our orders.”

Feng took a deep breath. “I’m going to kill you if you don’t tell me.”

The soldier’s face was blank, his lips pressed together.

“I’m the general’s son. I can kill you for entertainment, and no one would do a thing.”

“We’re the general’s soldiers, young master. But we’re also your soldiers.”

Feng paused, lowering his sword. “You’re the people’s soldiers. You fight to defend the people, not my father or me. Don’t ever forget.”

“I won’t, young master.”

Feng spun his sword around and hammered the soldier’s head with the handle. The soldier collapsed.

Feng reached for his peasant clothing, about to strip him, and hesitated. He had never worn the coarse fabric of a common man, much less the filthy rags of a peasant. He could almost smell the soil stains on the straw sandals.

His own clothing reeked of dried blood, so changing into dirty canvas would not be so bad.

Feng cursed himself for worrying about the quality of his clothes at a time like this. He stripped the soldier and dressed him in his own bloody robes, then lifted the unconscious body with one hand and the sword with his other and kicked the carriage door open. He threw the soldier halfway out, facedown, and released a long, tortured cry.

“Young master!” one of the riders in the rear called. The soldier hurried forward, closing the distance between himself and Feng’s carriage. Feng threw his sword out the partially opened door. The soldier outside evaded the flying sword and was barely recovering when Feng leaped out, slammed into him, and sent him toppling off his horse. Feng recovered his own position on the speeding mount, grabbed the reins, planted his feet in the stirrups, and squeezed the horse’s belly. The other guards were charging up behind him. A side road appeared ahead. Feng saw his opportunity and brought his horse thundering down the little path.

The guards followed. Feng reached for the sword hanging from the saddle, spun around, and charged into his pursuers.

“Young master!” one guard shouted. They recognized him and pulled back. No one wanted to fight the general’s son.

He tried not to think of how his friends had died that morning, how hundreds of bandits waited for him in ambush, how Ding died in his arms. The little beggar at the inn that morning, who watched them from outside and didn’t bother to collect the coins Feng left for him, must have been there to report when they began their ride home. The ambush was prepared for them and only them.

His uncle could have encountered the slaughter in the forest and traced his tracks and Ding’s blood to the peasant woman’s house. There was no way to understand why his uncle was out there looking for him, his elite unit dressed as peasants, or why he drugged his own nephew.

Feng kicked his horse and rode as hard as he could, heading south for Major Pass toward the City of Stones. Major Pass, the main artery running across the north of the empire and parallel to the Great Wall, connected the city fortresses of all four Tiger Generals. It used to be named something else, but the people called it Major Pass because it was the widest, most well paved road north of the capital. Armies and their supply wagons could efficiently move on this road.

As far back as Feng could remember, the empire was at peace within its borders.  Aside from skirmishes with the barbarians in the north and short wars with the island nations in the south, people lived well in China.

He remembered the quick briefing he received from two officers right before he left for the Rider’s Inn. They had told him the Venom Sect was recently active in this area, but no one knew why. Feng recalled asking the local government to involve themselves, saying that the military shouldn’t interfere with civilian criminals.

The Venom Sect was a powerful group of poison users rumored to be four hundred members strong and headed by a ruthless leader named Red Cobra. The officers told him yesterday that Red Cobra was also spotted in the area. Feng laughed and asked how much snake venom it would take to poison an army.

Then they informed him that the Silencer had killed Tiger General Lo. They had expected this news ever since he was ordered to invade Mongolia and capture the undefeated barbarian king known as the Silencer. General Lo walked into Mongolia with only two hundred men in an apparent act of suicide. As of yesterday they still hadn’t found his body. All his men were dead, and the Silencer took no prisoners. Some even said the Silencer was spotted killing off the Chinese soldiers by himself. General Lo guarded the easternmost fortress in the empire facing the Khitans. For the emperor to order him to march away from the barbarian nation he was guarding against to attack an undefeated Mongol king made no sense at all.

None of these events should have had anything to do with what happened that morning. The bandits were clearly not members of the Venom Sect. They were thugs carrying steel weapons they didn’t know how to use, fighting in plain view instead of killing from the shadows.

It was almost noon by now, and Feng was rapidly approaching the City of Stones.

Available October 5th!

About the Author

author+pic

 

As a lifelong student of martial arts, and growing up watching martial arts flicks in the 80s and 90s, Yu decided early on that he would write in this genre. Inspired by George RR Martin’s work, he decided he would write a series in English in this centuries-old Asian genre. Yu has written three previous novels, The Legend of Snow WolfHaute Tea Cuisine and Yin Yang Blades. Yu has a BFA Film and Television from NYU Tisch School of Arts. He was born in Guangzhou, China, but presently lives in New York City.

Fred Yu
 

 

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Book Blitz & #Giveaway: The Kingdom of Jior Series by Wendy L. Anderson is Now Available in a Box Set!!! @RRBookTours1 #RRBookTours #Fantasy

Great news Fantasy lovers! The Kingdom of Jior series by Wendy L. Anderson is now available as a digital box set! See details below and enter the giveaway for a chance to win the box set for yourself!

image005Kingdom of Jior Box Set

Publication Date: February 10th, 2021

Publisher: Infinity Publishing

Experience adventure, fantasy, and magic in this collection of novels combing all the five books of the Kingdom of Jior epic fantasy series.
Discover a race neither human nor demon. The Ny-Failen are from the Heavens. Led by King Forlorn Icefall of Jior, these beautiful shape changing creatures live, love and battle to survive in the world of the humankind.

Available on Amazon

About the Author

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Wendy L. Anderson is a Colorado native and mother of two boys. She has an English Degree from Regis University and writes books, short stories and poetry. Wendy is a devout reader of the classics, fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction. She has decided it is time to write down the fantasies from her own mind. Writing about everything from fantastical worlds to the stuff of her dreams she takes her stories along interesting paths while portraying characters and worlds she sees in her mind’s eye. Her goal is to deviate from common themes, write in original directions and transport her reader to the worlds of her creation.

Wendy L. Anderson | Facebook | Instagram | Goodreads

To enter for a chance to win The Kingdom of Jior box set (digital), click the link below!

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Book Release Blitz: Aroha by L.C. Conn @ConnLoraine @btwnthelinespub @rrbooktours1 #Aroha #RRBookTours #Fantasy #BookRelease #Books

Huge congratulations to author, L.C. Conn on the release of her epic conclusion to the One True Child Series, Aroha! To celebrate, the entire One True Child series is on sale!

Read on for more details and a sneek peek at chapter one!

Aroha ebook

Aroha (One True Child Series)

Publication Date: April 27th, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Aroha, born of the Universe, needs her godmother’s help. Danger is once more swirling around Claire and her family as Chaos seeks domination over the world. The continuing quest to protect them all will take them on a journey around the world, discovering things about themselves of which they had no prior knowledge. But will it be enough to finally defeat Chaos in the battle that will decide all?

Now Available!

Excerpt

Chapter One

As she stared out of the kitchen window drinking her coffee, Claire Drummond was feeling a little pensive. There was something happening up at the stones that sat on the hill behind the cottage, hidden away in a valley in the highlands of Scotland, her adoptive home. For days now she had felt the changes slowly emerging and spreading out to encompass its surroundings, including the old house in which she now stood. If she were asked how to describe it, Claire honestly did not think she could give a coherent answer that anyone would be able to understand. It was just a feeling.

Claire and her husband, Matt, now lived in the house that had been the home of his mother and grandmother. They split their time between Glasgow ‒ where they both worked at the university ‒ and the small hidden valley. But the cottage always felt more like home to her. Having been born and raised in New Zealand ‒ which Claire still loved fondly ‒ Scotland was where she felt she belonged and needed to be. There was a connection to the land, especially the valley, that she had never felt anywhere else.

Reflecting back over her life, she was in awe at how much it had changed since she had discovered the beginnings of her Abilities at the age of seventeen. The many Talents that were once buried deep inside had grown from the initial two: Hide and Flight. Claire had been born into a very special group of people; so too her husband and their children. Her studies in the library in the outbuildings of the farm had revealed a rich history and insight into this group, more than she could ever have hoped.

Claire and her family were descended from an ancient race of people, the first to live in these lands, and created by the Coimheadair. These people had openly used their Abilities until it was necessary to hide them away, as the rest of the world came to their shores. Claire had read with fascination the references to the Coimheadair, the Guardians of the lands, the creators of this world and, now, a new name she had discovered: Ancient Ones. She had just finished reading an account of an old creation story that had fascinated her and was still wondering if it were true or just some fanciful way of explaining how things had come to be. The Coimheadair were real – of that she was certain; she had seen and spoken to them herself.

Claire had emerged from the library with new wonder and, as always, she looked up to where the two hills joined behind the house. The large upthrust of rock was clearly visible and standing guard as it hid the stones, marking where the brook started with the spring at the top and tumbling down the rocks into the length of the valley.

She placed the empty mug down on the bench and looked at the brook once more. It sparkled under the weak winter sun that had managed to push its way through the clouds. According to the story it had been opened up by an Ancient One to give water and life to the family of people who would guard the stones. Before she knew what she was doing, Claire was out of the house and flying through the air, finding herself already halfway up the hill. She rose up and landed carefully beside the spring. It burbled and bubbled up from the depths under the hill, tumbling down the first few rocks and disappearing over the edge.

Kneeling down she plunged her hand under the cold water and lifted it to her lips. It tasted sweet and crisp. Claire stood and slowly, almost hesitantly, made her way around the guarding rock. They stood as they had done since the beginning of time, tall and straight; they were dark pillars, with only the clinging lichen giving any hint as to how old they really were. The standing stones still called strongly to her; she could feel their vibrations and the anticipation of her touch. She felt the energy swirling around and inside them as they reached out for her, pulling her closer. They had always healed and calmed Claire in her times of need.

Now she reached out her hands that seemed to have aged since the first time she had touched the stones. The energy immediately raced through her fingers and into her body; it filled her up and she felt revitalised. The energy surged and Claire felt the stones searching, seeking more of her. The feeling frightened her. With great effort she pulled her hands away from the dark stone. Always she was wary of touching them for too long, afraid of being lost to them. She walked around the large stones on the outside, touching each one briefly as she went.

This time as she walked it was different. The peace she normally felt was interrupted by voices. Faintly the murmuring came to her as if carried on a breeze from far away, and she frowned as she tried to hear them, only for it to slip away each time, just as she thought she could make out what they were saying. Reaching the entrance stones, she stopped in the gap. Very rarely did she step inside the circle. The last time had been with her family when Aroha, her niece, had been given the blessing of the Coimheadair of the north and south. It was also when Claire had pulled evil from Aroha that had lain hidden away in the depths of her soul, something she had inherited from her great-grandfather.

Stepping through the entrance Claire made her way to the centre of the circle. She stood and looked around her. The change she had felt grew and increased in intensity. It was urgent now. She wanted to turn and leave, it was expectant and weighed heavily on her, holding her in place.

From around the rocks a procession came, seven beings in all, dressed in dark hooded cloaks that covered them from head to toe. Their faces, hands and feet were concealed under the heavy robes. They entered the circle in single file and arranged themselves around her, standing in the gaps between the large stones. Claire did not fear them; she knew they were the Coimheadair.

“Greetings to the One True Child,” they called in unison.

“My greetings to the Guardians of these lands,” she replied.

“Carling,” One of the figures stepped forward, greeting her with the name she had been told was hers. “You once asked that we give you an explanation of what has happened to you.”

“I remember. It was shortly before I disposed of Marcus’s remains,” Claire said, nodding.

“It is now time that you knew everything, Carling. That you were made aware of who and what you truly are. The many lives you have lived down the ages have been hidden from you, your actions and deeds only hinted at and drawn on when those skills were needed. You are so much more than just a wife, mother and scholar. You are the Protector, the Staff and Sword of Order. Your spirit born from two who stand here and sent out into the world to guard against the darkness.”

“I don’t understand. What do you mean, ‘born from two who stand here’? I knew my parents. Is part of them still with me in my mind?”

“We know, we helped them be there to guide you and love you,” the figure said gently. “The time for your education to begin is now, Carling. It is time for you to come into your full potential in order for you to act as Guide and Protector to the Ultimate One, to help her achieve her goal. It has been written in the Book of Destiny and cannot be erased.”

“The Ultimate One is Aroha, our god-daughter?” Claire asked, seeking confirmation to what she already suspected about her niece.

“Yes, it is she that the world has been waiting for. The Universe has sent her daughter to us.”

“What is the task that lies ahead of her?” Claire asked, feeling anxious for her niece.

“That will be part of your education,” another cloaked figure said in a deep male voice.

Claire looked at each Coimheadair that was present; they all stood upright, taller than her. Never once had she glimpsed what was hidden in the depths of those cowls.

“When does my education start?” she asked them.

“When Galen arrives.” A third figure stepped forward, referring to Matt’s true first name. “He will need to be with you. You need to draw on his strength and his love as it has always been between you. That is the reason my son was born.”

“That is tonight,” Claire said quietly, biting her lip a little.

“It is the reason we called you up to the stones. There is so much you must learn, so much you must understand and not one piece can you doubt or reject. The writings in the library are all true, Carling. They were made so that you could read them now, to prepare for tonight. We cannot lie; it will be hard on you, and maybe a little painful. But the time is coming when you need to use everything you have learned over all of your lives to survive and protect Aroha.” Yet another figure spoke now, in a woman’s voice this time.

“You have told me in the past that you are the Coimheadair, the Guardians. But you are so much more, aren’t you?” she asked them.

“We are, Carling, and so are you,” the first figure said. “We must leave now and will meet you here tonight. You will know when it is time. Galen is not far away.”

Slowly the host of beings began to file out of the entrance to the stones and Claire was left in the middle as she watched them disappear around the rocks. All she could hear was the wind as it wound around the stones and the lonely, haunting cry of an eagle on the wing, high up in the cloud-strewn sky above.

Claire made her way back down the hill, taking her time as she pondered on the Guardians’ mysterious words. The texts she had been deciphering came to mind and she flicked through the pages in her mind. It was part of the Abilities she had acquired – understanding their ancient language. It was knowledge that she had shared with her father-in-law and with his help she had made great inroads into the myriad volumes in the family library.

Walking around the house to the front she saw a car making its way up over the rise in the track that led to the ford and the main road. She waited by the door of the cottage for it to arrive and smiled broadly as her husband got out of the car. Claire ran to him and flung her arms around his neck. Matt Drummond was tall; his dark hair now showing traces of grey and the beard he had grown was now almost completely white. He was still the most handsome man to her, still so full of life and love for her. Claire clung to him.

“Hey, what’s up?” he asked, pulling away. He placed his hands on the side of her face, leaned down and kissed her gently. He could always tell when something had happened.

“Just when I thought I was free to live my life, they called me back,” she told him.

“They said… They told you that you were free.”

She could see the agitation growing in him. His hands dropped from her face and he stepped back from her embrace.

“We have to be at the stones tonight. Apparently, I have to finish my education and I get to learn who I am.”

“But we know who you are. They told you that your tasks were done!” Matt said, a little forcefully.

He reached out and took her hand. They walked together into the house and headed to the kitchen, which always felt warm and comforting. The traces of Matt’s grandmother were still there, and Claire had never tried to erase them.

“They want me to guide and protect Aroha as she faces her own task,” Claire informed him.

“This is not fair, Claire,” Matt growled. “You have already done so much for them. You have done everything they asked of you, and it almost destroyed you. They ask too much!”

The deaths of Jack and his father Marcus had affected her greatly, as had the ordeals that Marcus had put Claire and their family through. They were things that they had not spoken of for years; the memories were still too painful, and they had actively sought to suppress them.

She leaned up against the bench and looked out of the window up to the hill. Matt came up behind her and put his arms around her waist, his lips seeking the spot between her neck and shoulder.

“They want so much from you,” he whispered to her. “I fear they want your life, that you will leave me behind. I can’t live without you, Claire. I love you.”

Claire turned in his arms and wrapped her own around him. “I love you, too. I couldn’t have done what I did back then without you, without knowing how much you love me and feeling it within my heart. I still feel the rose that you created for me; it still surrounds my heart and protects me. It fills me with love and hope every day.”

“That is not just my love, but everyone’s.”

“But the rose and dewdrop from your tear is from you. It is the source of my strength and my love.”

“I guess we must go, then, and find out what they want,” Matt said, seeming resigned to the fact. “I’m pleased that they want me there too. In the past they have kept me in the dark and I’ve been floundering around trying to help you.”

“I know they have. I will make sure they include you in this; you have every right to know. Our lives are shared, we are one,” she told him and kissed him again.

They stood in the centre and waited. Inside the circle it felt warm; the wind and rain that blustered in the darkness beyond the stones did not affect them. Matt clasped her hand in his and was growing impatient. Claire turned to face him, her arms going about his waist as she drew him into her. He looked down at his wife and smiled, his bright blue eyes sparkling in the fleeting moonlight and showing the love he felt for her. He reached up and pushed her blond hair away her face and kissed her.

There was no need for words, they had been together for twenty-eight years and they knew each other too well. The connection between them ran deep inside their minds and was unbreakable. Claire rested her head on his chest and closed her eyes, taking comfort from his arms and his presence. Memories of their times at the stones came floating up and she smiled at the ones that meant the most to her.

“Claire,” Matt said, softly bringing her out of her memories.

Pulling away from the warmth of his body reluctantly, she watched the Coimheadair enter the circle. Each figure took their place once more in the gaps between the large stones and faced the couple. With increasing nervousness Claire waited for the Guardians to begin.

“Greetings to the One True Child, daughter and sister of the Sentinels, Staff and Sword of Order, Guardian of the Stones and wife of Galen the Protector,” one of the hosts proclaimed, as he stepped forward from his place.

“My greetings to the Guardians of the lands,” Claire said.

“Greetings to Galen of the Boar, Protector and husband of the One True Child,” another said, moving forward.

“Greetings to the Guardians of these lands,” Matt said.

“That is a lot of titles and some I have never heard before,” Claire spoke to the first.

“The time for all knowledge is now. What once was hidden and kept from you, will now be laid out and revealed to you, Carling,” he replied

“Before we begin, there is something I must ask,” Claire said, her hand still clasping that of Matt’s.

“If it is within our Abilities to grant it to you, Carling, then we shall,” the first Guardian told her.

“I ask that the knowledge is also passed on to Galen,” she requested, using her husband’s real name. “He has a right to know what I do, we share everything, and we are one.”

“My son shall know what you do as far as your joined history together. But there is still knowledge that my son will not be able to comprehend or understand. I do not intend to insult you, Galen, but some of the knowledge is specific for Carling to do with her Abilities,” the second Guardian replied.

“I understand, Guardian,” Matt inclined his head.

“I thank you, Guardians.” Claire bowed her head to them.

“Carling and Galen, it may pay that you sit. I fear that the knowledge will be weighty and hard for you.” Yet another figure spoke with a gentle feminine voice.

The couple sat facing each other, legs crossed, and hands held together. Their knees were touching, and Claire couldn’t tell if it were her hands that were shaking or Matt’s. She gave him a small smile of encouragement and closed her eyes.

The Guardians’ chanting started slowly and quietly, rising in tempo and volume. Some the words Claire understood and recognised as a blessing. The words then formed a request from a higher being than the host gathered, to grant knowledge to the couple. The pressure inside her mind increased as she saw her beginnings here in the stones. Claire witnessed her birth from a great being clothed in sunshine yellow, surrounded by others in multiple hues. Lights under their skin swirled as a storm raged overhead and around the stones. The scene shifted before her, showing Carling as a child with golden hair, her small hand clasped in that of a tall boy with bright blue eyes. Claire recognised the spirit of her husband. They had been destined for each other from the moment of her conception.

Deeds played out before her, travels and people. Marveling as she recognised the spirits of so many, linking them with those she knew in this life. They had followed her down through the ages to be at her side, to support and love her. So many were there her mind began to rebel at the enormity of it and a flash of pain seared through her.

“Peace, Carling. Accept it,” a gentle voice called to her. It was familiar and she relaxed under its smooth tones.

The imprisonment of Chaos was before her. The crystal cave and its bright light she understood. Order was still standing guard over its brother, who was bound to two large pillars of pure clear crystal that pushed their way up through the floor of the cave.

The scene changed quickly. She saw the lives of her children and that of her husband, the love she felt for her ultimate parents, and the Guardians. She saw them once more transform into the seven great trees to stand guard around the sacred lands.

Another life rose to meet Claire. Another called Carling. The same in every single way. The house which sat over the water, flames leaping from the thatched roof and the roar that frightened the small child, the fire that claimed her family. The scene changed and once again she saw the spear as it pierced her grandmother, the blood and the sound of her cries. The man who had taken her and who wanted to possess her. The hazel eyes, the face the same as the Marcus Claire had known, only younger. She saw the evil begin in him.

She saw the great fire she had caused at the Roman fort and the final battle. Galen killing the man, the first Marcus, as he cried out for him to do so. The darkness had not fully possessed his soul; there was a part that was still human and capable of love. Claire also understood where that love had come from: the Guardians.

The aftermath of the great fire and the life as she lived it with Galen with their children on the side of the mountain. The broch she recognised, the little village she knew, and had helped to rediscover, where she had dug the stones from the earth with her own hands. The pendant Matt had found, with the image of a boar, the one she had once worn at her throat, the work of her husband Galen. It all came to her and she smiled at the memories.

Other lives she had lived: in the area around Loch Tay; some later on, further afield in America. She saw the lines of her children. Galen and her offspring spread far and wide across the world, so many now. One she recognised and she stood before its spirit – that of Maddison, her brother Tony’s first wife.

She saw her own home. The small settlement in the valley in New Zealand. The stones as they had once stood at the head of the gully, green stones from the ground, polished and gleaming in the southern sun. She felt the Sentinels of the south as they gathered there, joining their energy to that of the north as they imparted all their knowledge to her.

With the memories finished, it was now time for the truth. In the darkness of her mind, in a small corner, where the glow from the crystal that was the facilitator for her Abilities could not reach, she found herself. It was there that Claire tried to centre herself and accept the new memories.

From the shadows of that corner came another to stand in front of her. Identical to herself in every way except for golden points of light which danced and swirled under her skin. Her hair was the same, her eyes the same shade of blue. Dressed like one of the Sentinels she smiled at Claire.

“We are one,” she said.

“I take it you are the one I call Crystal?”

“I am. It was necessary for the Sentinel side of us to manifest itself in such a way. It was too early for us to understand and accept it. Our first life showed us that the human side would take a little convincing.”

“This is what the Sentinels look like?”

“It is. They were born of the light of Order, although for ourselves we were born from the bodies of Yellow and Blue.”

“This is a lot for us to take on, Carling,” Claire said to her twin.

“It is, Claire. There is more – the Abilities that we used in our first life must now be released. It will be painful as our mind grows to accept them all. To do this, Claire, we must wake from here and open ourselves up to the Stones. Do not be afraid of losing ourselves to them, they will not absorb us. The energy we have felt inside the stones is that which has been stored for us, to draw on at this moment.”

“We shall trust in the knowledge that is stored in your side of our spirit.” Claire told the glittering being.

“Are we ready?”

“We are ready,” Claire nodded and opened her eyes.

Matt was sitting watching her, still clasping her hands in his own. His bright blue eyes widened as he came to terms with his own history and that of his wife.

“The time is now, Carling,” one of the male Sentinels intoned. “Open yourself to the stones and take the knowledge that is yours. Use it well and protect the world and the Ultimate One. The task is yours to take on and once more we ask you to be the Staff and Sword of Order.”

“I accept the task,” she told them and turned to Matt. “I must do this, Galen, it is the reason I was created and born.”

“I understand, Claire. And where you go, so do I, as your support, love and protector.”

“We cannot touch you, Carling, while you are communing with the Stones. This task is for Galen to support you. You must hold her onto the stones, my son, and do not let her release until it is time.”

“I understand, my Ancestor,” he nodded to the Sentinel.

“I’m ready, Galen,” Claire told him, and he walked with her to the largest of the stones.

Standing in front of it and feeling very small in comparison, Claire could sense the knowledge already reaching out to her. She raised her hands and placed them on the flat hard surface and found it warm to the touch. It vibrated with energy as it started to impart knowledge, releasing all the Abilities and so much more. In her mind a bell began to toll, it was a sound she had heard before at the stones and the understanding of where it came from washed over her. The Universe herself was giving Claire her blessing.

When Claire was first granted access to some of her Abilities, she had trouble controlling the influx of information. It was the same feeling she was now experiencing. Everything around her was blocked out, including the feeling of Matt holding her.

“Let it in and do not try to control it. Accept it,” the calming voice told her.

“We are trying to,” Claire replied gritting her teeth and she forced herself to relax, and the pressure eased some.

Beads of sweat appeared on her brow as she concentrated on the knowledge. Her body shook with the force and weight of it. Matt held his wife tightly and was amazed at the capacity she had. He noticed small points of lights flickering to life just under the skin of her hands. They spun and swirled as they made their way slowly up her arms. Looking around at the Sentinels who stood guard over them, he was concerned and sought their guidance.

“The side that has been hidden from her, she is now accepting, my son. Keep her there, the time is not right to release her,” the Guardian reassured him.

“What are they?”

“They are the lights of the Universe. When Order created us, he took the light from his own body, the light that was created from the explosion of the old world and split it into its many facets. We are those facets. A rainbow of colours to stand guard over this world and protect it from the darkness. Carling’s light is purer than ours, her light is greater. It burns brighter and the Abilities she has been granted by our Mother Universe far exceeds our own. She is a gift from the Universe to help bring back balance. Chaos was never meant to be only darkness, the Universe created Order from Chaos’s destruction to bring balance. But unfortunately, it never came to pass. The great plan of Carling was only the beginning. She was always meant to be a tool to be honed and used to prepare and protect the Ultimate One. Aroha is meant to replace Chaos and Order. The balance shall be returned when she has banished them.”

“And what is to become of Claire when it is over?” Matt asked with a great fear beginning to grow inside him.

“It will be decided on the day of the banishment. We cannot see the outcome. Carling, when she does pass, will join us and take her rightful place with the Sentinels, at our side to continue our work. This has been seen.”

“So, I will lose her…?” He looked at Claire. The love he had for her was written clearly on his face, and the pain of knowing they would be separated from one another.

“We cannot see that,” another spoke gently.

“But you said…”

“Yes, it is written in the Book of Destiny, but we cannot see what becomes of either of you,” she told him.

The lights that had started underneath the skin on Claire’s hands were now spreading faster up her arms. They pushed their way with a surging force, advancing and then retreating a little until Matt saw them reach under the pushed-up sleeves of her jacket. They emerged at her throat and he could see them seeking out the rest of her body. The moment they reached her face she grimaced in pain and he almost pulled her off the stone.

“A little longer, my son.” A thin, bony hand was raised over Claire’s head and a spark of light jumped from the hand to Claire, like a little piece of golden lightening. The Guardian pulled back and held the hand under its robe.

The others stood their ground, waiting for the moment when all knowledge had been passed onto Claire. Matt could feel her tremble under the pressure, and she began to weaken. He held onto her, holding her in place. The weight of her body slightly pushing him off balance as he tried to adjust. The lights were now rushing through her body, streaking and pulsating like a meteor shower in the heavens. Under his hands he could feel her racing heartbeat as she absorbed all that she should be, and it became a part of her.

“Now, Galen.” One of the gathered hosts placed a hand on his shoulder and gently pulled him back.

Claire’s hands released their hold on the stone, and she collapsed into his arms. Matt gently lowered her to the ground and cradled her, smoothing the damp hair from her face. Claire’s eyes flickered opened and the lights had even invaded the soft blue of her iris. They flashed for a moment before disappearing and she focused on his face.

“Claire,” he said softly to her.

“Galen, my Galen. So long have we loved,” she said in wonder as her golden laced hand reached up to his face.

“And we shall continue forever more,” he promised as he bent and kissed her lips.

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About the Author

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L.C. Conn grew up on the outskirts of Upper Hutt, New Zealand. Her backyard encompassed the surrounding farmland, river, hills and mountains which she wandered with her brothers and fed her imagination. After discovering a love for writing in English class at the age of eight, she continued to write in secret. It was not until much later in life that L.C. turned what she thought was a hobby and something fun to do, into her first completed novel. Now married, L.C. moved from New Zealand to Perth, Western Australia, and became a stay at home mum. While caring for her family and after battling breast cancer, a story was born from the kernel of a dream. The first book of The One True Child Series was begun, and just kept blooming into seven completed stories.

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Blog Tour: Sword of Betrayal by Robert Evert #Excerpt & #Giveaway! @btwnthelinespub @RRBookTours1 #BlogTour #EpicFantasy #Fantasy #RRBookTours

Welcome to the blog tour for Sword of Betrayal by Epic Fantasy author, Robert Evert! Read on for details, an excerpt from the book, and a chance to win a digital copy for yourself!

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Sword of Betrayal

Publication Date: September 17th, 2019

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Publisher: Between the Lines

Edris’s lay-about life of privilege ends abruptly when his father, Lord Elros, announces that his adolescent son will enter the military in the spring. Edris has only six months to ready himself to serve a king who despises his family and will undoubtedly make his life beyond miserable.

To prepare him, Lord Elros puts Edris through a brutal training regime. Not only does he demand Edris beat every man with whom he spars, but he also insists his son knock them unconscious—even if that means fighting dirty.

About to crack under the relentless pressure, the sensitive Edris seeks a way to get out from under his father’s heavy thumb. A solution presents itself when an announcement for the latest Kings’ Quest arrives. According to the royal proclamation, the adventurer who finds the fabled Sword of Betrayal will win one thousand gold pieces, money Edris could use to start his own life with the woman he loves.

Edris proposes to undertake the quest in order to get in better shape; however, Lord Elros has another idea—Edris will undertake the quest so he can get close to, and kill, the king’s son.

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Excerpt

Lord Elros got even closer to his son’s face.

“I want you to kill the next man you fight. You kill him and strike fear into everybody who ever crosses your god-damned path. Are you listening to me? The next man you fight, you kill. Snap his neck.”

Edris nodded, not sure if he could live with himself if he actually killed somebody. The fights were games. All of this was supposed to be for fun. But fighting dirty and killing somebody? That wasn’t the type of person he wanted to be.

“Look,” Lord Elros said. “You’re starting your service to the king next year. The job of a kingsman is to kill. That’s what you’re being trained for. You’re a warrior. Warriors kill. Get used to it. The king points and you kill the man, woman, or child on the other end of his prissy little finger. You can’t be the best if you’re soft.”

Edris didn’t say anything. The tirade was nearly over, and he didn’t want to inflame his father’s wrath by saying something wrong.

“Be the best,” his father finished, “or you aren’t my son. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

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About the Author

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By day, Robert Evert is an old and decrepit university professor who teaches hordes of smelly college students who rarely deign to look up from their damned phones to pay attention to the many brilliant and exciting things he has to say in class. By night, he is an aspiring writer.

Once young and idealistic and built like a skinny Norwegian god, Robert has been beaten down by time, pointless faculty meetings, and hundreds of students who repeatedly come up to him and ask: “I wasn’t in class last week. Did I miss anything?” He is now a shell of a man who sits in his darkened office sobbing while he waits patiently for Ragnarök.

When Robert isn’t daydreaming about walking through the streets of Bree or sitting in the Great Hall at Hogwarts, he writes fantasy stories which he reads to the critical acclaim of his two dogs and three cats.

His wife wants him to stop grumbling to himself and finish doing the dishes.

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Book Blitz: Stones (One True Child #5) by LC Conn #Giveaway & #Excerpt! @ConnLoraine #BookBlitz

I’m thrilled to present the next installment in L.C. Conn’s epic One True Child series, Stones! Please read on for an exclusive excerpt, and a chance to win a copy of the book!

Also, for all you fantasy loving book reviewers out there, the entire series is available in exchange for honest reviews. Contact R&R Book Tours for more info!

L C Conn - Stones Book 5 CoverStones (One True Child #5)

Publication Date: March 5th, 2019

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Publisher: Between the Lines Publishing

Deep within the New Zealand bush, lies a plateau with a clearing, covered in the many years of fallen leaves, it is damp and dark. Hidden just under the surface are the stones, green and still polished, placed by the Guardians of this land. There is power in them still and they are about to bear witness to a great battle between light and darkness. Claire Drummond is in danger, her very life depends on the actions and help of her husband and family. Also, the man she thought had left her life for good, Tony Benning. Caught up once more in the heavy turmoil of good vs evil, Claire has much more to fight for than just a set of stones in the highlands of Scotland. This time it’s personal. This time he has her daughter

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Chapter One

The house was deathly quiet, and it suited the moment as Claire Drummond hung up the phone with a frown. She had always known that this time would come, but it still made her heart feel heavy. He was the last of his generation, and now her Uncle Geoff was seriously ill and in decline. The last four years had felt like one long funeral, as her grandparents had passed away one by one. But Lynnette, Grace, and Malcolm had all been there for the two most important moments in her life since meeting them when she was seventeen: her wedding to her wonderful husband, Matt, and the birth of their daughter Breena a year later.

No matter how much she had come to love her grandparents, Geoff held a special place in her heart. It was her uncle who had taken her in and cared for her since she was ten years old after her parents had been murdered. He had been her strength and support when at seventeen she had learnt about her past, her Talents, and the truth of where she had come from. Then again with her ordeal both in Scotland and back home, until Matt had found her again—even though she had not appreciated it at the time.

Quickly she glanced at her watch; it was almost time to collect Breena from school. Claire grabbed her jacket and scarf and headed out into the bitter cold southerly wind. Clouds, dark and threatening, raced overhead; she shivered as the cold winter air blasted around her, creeping under the layers she was wearing. The walk was only a short one, but today her feet felt heavy, dragging as she made her way down the street. She stopped for a moment as the news finally sunk in; a tear escaped her eye and she let it fall.

Steadying her breathing and calming not only her mind but also her heart, she carried on. Claire brought forth the image of her daughter—her long, dark curly hair that refused to stay in a ponytail for longer than a few minutes, the bright blue eyes so much like her father’s, and the image of her namesake—Matt’s long-passed sister. Sometimes when they were alone together, Breena would look up at her and smile. It had a depth to it that suggested something to Claire, but she always put it out of her mind as soon as she thought it, refusing to face what might be true.

The gates of the school were already open, and children of all sizes streamed out of them into the waiting arms of parents or walked together for the trip home. The noise of their chatter and squeals of delight turned to shouts and calls of farewell. Claire smiled and waved at friends, promising to get together for a coffee or a playdate with the kids while she waited for Breena to skip out of the narrow entrance. Normally her daughter was very punctual and the wait at the gate was a short one, but today there was no sign of her.

Glancing around frantically, Claire could feel panic starting to rise inside her chest. Today of all days, Breena had decided to tarry. She searched for her daughter in the still-moving crowd of little people, but she was not there. Claire headed in through the gates and made her way to Breena’s classroom; her teacher was at the door, talking to another mother. She smiled as Claire approached, then pointed inside. Looking through the door, Claire found her daughter still sitting at the table, drawing.

“Bree, what are you doing, sweetheart? School has finished,” Claire said as she entered.

“Hello, Mum. I just wanted to finish this.” Bree indicated the paper she was drawing on. The little girl turned back to her task and the long, wavy black hair fell over her face, free from the hair ties Claire had put in that morning.

“We have to go; you can’t stay here after school. How about you bring it home and finish it there?” Claire knelt down and pushed the hair off her daughter’s face. “What are you drawing?”

“It’s a picture for my friend,” she told her mother.

Claire looked at the picture; it constantly surprised her how well Bree could draw, knowing full well she had inherited it from her father and her grandmother. The picture Bree was so determined to finish before going home was clearly of her and a very tall person.

“Who’s that with you?” Claire asked her.

“That’s my friend—I told you about him. He’s funny. He asked me to draw a picture of us.” Bree smiled and stood up. “Can I really take it home to do?”

“Yes, of course you can. Come on.” She held out her hand for her daughter to take and they collected Bree’s bag from the hook outside. As they walked up the street, Claire pondered the person in the picture with a little concern. “So does this friend have a name?” she asked Bree curiously.

“No, he won’t tell me what it is, so I call him Mr Man. He laughs when I call him that.” Bree smiled.

Claire took her daughter’s hand, and she started to skip beside her mother. Her backpack bounced on her back, and Claire could hear something rolling around inside.

“Did you eat your lunch today, Bree?” She looked down at her.

“No; I told you I don’t like cottage cheese and cucumber. It’s yucky.”

“But you liked it last week.”

“Now I don’t. What I do like is peanut butter and…” Bree stopped skipping while she thought, making Claire come to a halt as well.

“What do you like with peanut butter?”

“Shh; I’m thinking.” Her little finger was pressed against her mouth as she contemplated.

Claire waited, starting to feel frustrated. It seemed her daughter’s taste in food changed from one minute to the next, and trying to keep up was becoming difficult. Fat raindrops started to fall, landing heavily on the path around them, leaving dark splatter spots on the pale concrete.

“Come on, Bree, otherwise we are going to get drenched!” She tugged her daughter into movement and they raced down the street together, laughing and squealing whenever they got hit by a raindrop.

After they reached their front door, Bree raced inside and dumped her bag in the living room, then headed straight for the kitchen. Claire picked up the bag and pulled out the lunchbox. Everything she had put in it that morning was gone, except for the offending sandwich. The picture Bree had been so busy drawing caught her attention.

Taking it with her, she walked into the kitchen. Already strewn across the countertop were bread, butter, peanut butter, and three different types of jams. Bree was attempting to spread the peanut butter on the bread, but she seemed to be smearing it on everything else as well.

“You make the mess, missy, you clean it up.”

“Yes, Mum.”

Claire pinned the picture up on the notice board and looked at it clearly for the first time. It was beautifully done, and Breena had captured her own face very well, but the drawing of her daughter’s mysterious imaginary friend gave her an uneasy feeling once more. He was not quite finished, but already she could see some of his features and they seemed almost familiar.

“Mum?” Bree called her.

“Mmm?” Claire broke her gaze at the page and turned to face her.

“Can we go see Granddad soon?” she asked, taking a bite from her jam-dripping sandwich. As soon as Bree could talk, she’d refused to call Geoff by any other name than Granddad; it had made him so pleased that Claire never corrected her.

Her question stunned Claire, especially after the phone call she had received. “Why’s that, Bree?”

“I just get this feeling we should go see him.” Jam was now smeared on her face, not just the countertop.

“As a matter of fact, my little oracle, we are leaving in an hour and will be there tonight.” Claire grabbed a cloth and handed it to Bree. “So when you have finished eating that sandwich and cleaned up your mess, then go and find some things to take with you. And I don’t mean half of your toys.”

Claire finished packing their bags and dropped them at the front door on the way to the kitchen as she listened to Bree chatting about her day. The evidence of her daughter’s cleaning was still on the bench, with smeared lines of peanut butter and jam heading towards the sink. Claire shook her head and picked up the cloth, rinsed it off and finished the job, then went looking for her daughter.

In her bedroom Bree was sitting in the middle of the floor and staring at a couple of her dolls. She picked one up very carefully and then whispered to it. “I’ll take you; I think you will be good on this trip.” She placed the doll carefully into the bag at her side and then put the other away on her bed. “You can come on our next trip, to Scotland.”

“Come on, Bree; we have to go pick up Dad.”

“I’m ready.” Bree picked up her bag and put it on her shoulder, then took one last look around her room.

Claire hated the rush-hour traffic that was already starting to build and knew that getting out of the city would be a nightmare—even more so now that the rain had set in. She threaded the small car in and out of the lanes and waited impatiently for the many traffic lights that were determined to delay her. Finally, she made it to the university, pulled into the car park, and took out her phone.

“Here he comes, Mum!” Bree squealed from the back seat.

Matt Drummond was running down the steps from the administration building and splashing across the rain-soaked car park with his bag over his head. He jumped into the car and slammed the door quickly behind him.

“How’s my girls?” he asked and then leaned over to give Claire a kiss.

“We’re going to see Granddad,” Bree answered him from the back.

“Aye; I know, my wee angel.” Matt looked hard at Claire. “Have you had any word?”

Claire nodded instead of answering in case she started to cry. “Charlie rang,” she said softly, pulling back onto the road and into the madness of congestion.

“Do you want me to drive?” Matt placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“No, you can take over after we stop for dinner.” She smiled weakly back at him.

After the stop-start congestion of the city and suburbs that surrounded it, the journey to the village was an uneventful one. The small family only stopped once when Bree started to complain about being hungry and then got back on the road as soon as possible. Once Matt was in the driver’s seat, Claire could relax and take a breath. She remembered the first time Geoff had taken her on this journey; it seemed then that her life had been turned completely upside down.

But that had been nothing compared to her first trip to Scotland, where she thought she was going to be on an ordinary excavation. The discovery of the heritage of The Community was still ongoing, thanks to what she had learned in Scotland, but also of her own heritage and learning the purpose for which she had been born. The Talents that the Guardians of the land had given her still had not found their limits, and sometimes that scared her—just as much as the death of Jack at her hands had. And always in the background—supporting and caring for her—was Uncle Geoff.

She had always hoped that one day he would find love again. He had told her once that he hadn’t enough time left to train a new wife. Claire knew this was only an excuse; he had found his love and lost her, and he didn’t want a replacement.

Claire looked over to her husband and thought the same thing. How on earth could she replace him? He was so perfect for her, always knowing when she needed extra love, when she needed calm. He made her laugh—a lot—and kept her on an even keel. The day she met him was still so vivid in her mind. The first thing she had noticed about him was his eyes, those beautiful, bright blue eyes.

It was a little bit after nine in the evening when they pulled up outside Geoff Brown’s house in the village. The porch light blazed a warm welcome with its golden glow, and a curtain twitched briefly, showing a patch of light from the living room. The door was opened before they even reached the steps, and her Uncle Ben and Aunt Charlie came out to greet them.

Ben pulled Claire into a big hug and welcomed her home, then turned to Matt and shook his hand. Charlie was next, with a warm smile and an even warmer hug, and then she guided her into the hallway, telling one of her tall sons to go get the bags from the car.

“Do you want to go straight up, or do you want a cuppa first?” Charlie asked her softly.

“I’ll go up. Matt, can you make sure Bree gets ready for bed?”

“Go on up; don’t worry about a thing, my love.” He gave her a kiss and watched as she climbed the stairs to Geoff’s room.

Claire hesitated at the door; taking a deep breath, she opened it quietly. The inside was lit softly by a single lamp at his bedside, and what she saw made her heart break. Geoff, who had been so full of life and vigour, now lay quiet and thin. His breathing was even and shallow, his skin a pallid colour. The full head of hair, which had stubbornly remained mostly dark with a couple of distinguishing bits of grey at the sides, was now almost fully white. His illness had ravaged his body, and he was now so wasted away she nearly didn’t recognise him.

A chair had been pulled up to the side of the bed, and Claire sat in it. She held his hand and kissed it, his skin dry and thin like paper under her touch. She brought it up to her forehead and did something she had never done with him before—she sought out his subconscious.

As she had expected, Claire found an orderly and tidy mind. Everything was compartmentalised and in its place. She found him with ease; it was almost as if he had signposted it for her.

“I wondered if you would,” Geoff said to her as she entered. He stood before her just as he had been when she was a teenager. Tall, with dark hair and eyes, and a grin from one large ear to another, stretched out under his equally large nose.

“Uncle Geoff!” She ran to him and before he could say no, she hugged him close.

“Claire!” Geoff tried to push her off at first, horrified, but she resisted until he hugged her back, wrapping those ever-reassuring arms around her once more. They stayed that way for some time, and by the time she did release him, her face was awash with tears.

“That was a foolish thing to do, Kid,” Geoff told her as he held her at arm’s length. “But I thank you.”

“How are you? Are you in pain?”

“No, I’m fine. I find that I am quite comfortable and happy. It’s my time, Kid, and nothing you do is going to stop it.”

“I know.” She nodded.

“Now, have you brought that little firecracker with you? I would like to see her one last time.”

“Bree is with us. She even asked this afternoon if we could come and see you.”

“Good. She reminds me so much of you. So full of energy and enthusiasm. And Matt—has he been well, not missing Scotland too much?”

“No, he is going back in a couple of months. His mother isn’t too good.”

“Oh, that’s not good. I liked Leana; I’ll keep an eye out on the other side for her.”

“But you don’t believe in God and the afterlife.”

“Ahh, a human failing it is to change one’s mind when the end is nigh.” He laughed, then his mood changed. “There is one thing I would very much like you to do for me before I go.”

“Anything, Uncle Geoff. Just name it,” Claire promised.

“I would dearly love to see John and Jess one last time. Can you call them here?”

She nodded with another trickle of tears chasing each other down her cheeks. Claire closed her eyes and sent the call into the dark reaches of her own mind, and she heard the answer at once.

On either side of her, a man and a woman materialised. John, her father, was in black, and Jess, her mother, in white. They greeted her with a kiss each and then went to meet Geoff. Claire had to swallow a lump in her throat as she watched them greet each other and stood back to give them some time together.

Sitting on a large green leather chair, Claire waited while they talked until she felt a tug at her mind. She grasped onto it and brought it in, and she found she was holding on to Matt’s hand.

“I didn’t want to disturb you,” he said quietly, taking in the scene before him.

“That’s all right, Matt. I was feeling a bit alone.” He wrapped his arms around her, both mentally and physically, and she cried into his shoulder.

“Hey, I don’t want tears in here, thank you; you’ll make everything wet,” said Geoff’s deep voice, and he grasped Matt’s hand and pulled him into a hug. They became close while they stayed at his family’s home in Scotland and had remained just as close when Matt came to New Zealand.

“Thank you for looking after her; make sure you keep it up. And that gorgeous girl of yours,” Geoff told him.

“I will always. I promise,” Matt vowed.

“Now, I thank you all for visiting me, but I would very much like to wake up for a second and tell Bree goodnight. John and Jess, I have missed you, and it was a very great privilege and honour to look after your daughter. She is the daughter of my heart.”

“It is us who should be thanking you, Uncle Geoff. You have raised her to be such a fine woman.” John shook his hand and hugged him one last time.

“Thank you, Geoff,” Jess said and kissed him on the cheek.

“Right—the lot of you, out,” he said gruffly, trying to hold back his own tears.

Slowly John and Jess faded out, and Matt gave Geoff another handshake. They spoke no words to each other, just nodded.

Finally it was just Claire once more, and Geoff gathered her up again in his arms. “I meant what I said. You are the daughter I never had, and if you were truly mine I couldn’t have been prouder, Claire.”

“I love you, Uncle Geoff, and I am proud to be called your daughter. I am so lucky to have had two fathers who have cared so much for me.” She kissed his cheek and then pulled away.

“Go get Bree; I want to see her one last time.” Claire felt him push her away and she left, very carefully, and finally detached her mind from his.

Geoff’s eyes fluttered open, and Bree was by his side in her pyjamas and ready for bed.

“There she is! How are you, my firecracker?” he asked softly and smiled at her.

“I’m good, Granddad. Are you just about ready to go?” Her voice was very low, almost a whisper.

“I do believe that I am, but I waited till I could see you again.” Bree climbed up on the bed and gave him a hug.

“Matt, can you go get Ben and the others? It’s nearly time,” Claire whispered to her husband. He nodded in reply, gave her shoulder a squeeze, and left to go downstairs.

When Claire turned her attention back to the man who had raised her and the child she loved, she noticed that Bree was whispering something to him. Geoff’s eyes widened, and he looked at his granddaughter with surprise and love.

Ben, Charlie, and their two boys, Oliver and Owen, filed into the room, followed by Matt. Ben sat on the other side of the bed and held his uncle’s other hand. Geoff smiled and took one last look around the room at all who were left of his family. Bree, still at his side, rested her head on his shoulder, and he closed his eyes.

His breathing, which had been so shallow when Claire first stepped into the room, now began to falter and become ragged. They watched over him into the small hours of the morning, until his last breath escaped his lips and he became still.

“Owen, can you and Oliver take Bree out of the room, please?” Charlie asked her son.

Bree reached up and stroked Geoff’s face. “Goodbye, Granddad. I love you.” She stood up and went around to Owen and held his hand. Before Bree left the room, she took one last look at Geoff and sighed.

Claire was still holding Geoff’s hand in hers, and she didn’t want to release it. One of the most important men in her life had just left her for the last time, and she felt that a piece of her heart went with him. Tears coursed down her face and dripped onto her lap. A tissue was produced in front of her, and she took it. Finally she let go of Geoff’s hand and laid it gently back on the bed by his side.

Matt was there immediately to gather her up into one of his comforting embraces, holding her gently and letting her cry. He stroked her hair and kissed her head. When she was ready, he led her out of the room and down the stairs, followed by Ben and Charlie.

The bottle of whiskey was produced from its high cupboard in the kitchen, along with some glasses. With a measure each, they raised them in salute to the man who had meant so much to all of them. Bree climbed onto her mother’s lap and cuddled in, as she had when she was a baby, and fell asleep.

The next few days were a whirlwind of emotions, endless tasks, and cups of tea. And skipping through it all and giving bright smiles and cuddles was Bree; she made sure that everyone benefitted from her sunny nature. Claire had often observed when she was with her friends that this child could make anyone smile.

The day of the funeral, Bree stuck close to her mother all day. Whenever Claire turned around, there she was, slipping her small hand into her mother’s larger one. Claire would instantly feel calmer as she looked into her daughter’s beautiful eyes.

It was a simple service; Geoff had insisted on that. He hadn’t wanted anything too over-the-top or sad. The elders each got up to speak; Claire thought this would have horrified Geoff, as he had often complained about how long their meetings were each month. Claire couldn’t face standing up in front of the large crowd that had gathered in the hall, and she had asked Ben to do the eulogy on behalf of the family.

Ben stood up behind the podium on the stage with a few notes in front of him and cleared his throat. Claire noticed how much he had grown to look like his brother, her father, and reminded herself to tell him. He looked out at the crowd and began. Tales of Geoff from a nephew’s perspective garnered laughter from the gathered mourners. Ben spoke eloquently and long, something he seemed to have inherited from his uncle. He touched a little on Geoff’s relationship with Claire and their history without going into too many details, which had Claire both grateful and a little teary.

The wake was held in the village hall, and it was full of people; he had touched many lives, and they had come from far and wide to farewell him. But the core was the family, and Claire watched them carefully. The boys were now young men; Owen, Oliver, and Hunter, now nineteen, were all at university. The twins were studying architecture, and Ben had great hopes of them joining his construction company. Hunter was following in his father’s footsteps and was studying agriculture. He had declared at the age of twelve that he wanted to take over the farm from his father, much to the horror of his mother. The oldest of Claire’s cousins was Jasper, and he had just graduated with honours in teaching.

As she talked to them, she realised how much they were like their parents. Owen had his mother’s gentle nature and also her Healing Talent, but he confessed to having a phobia of blood. Oliver was more like his father, ready for a good laugh and a joke; he had the Seek Talent. Hunter had Flight and regaled Claire with his exploits in freerunning, something he had long loved, having been taught by her. Jasper, now twenty-three and with Light Talent, told her he had had enough of study for a while and was about to embark on his own adventures overseas before taking up his first teaching job.

Adam and Addy and their two children had come from the city the day before, and Claire was glad they had. Their twin boys, Cameron and Dominic, were great friends with Bree, and they took her mind off the serious and sad nature of the gathering. She decided she still had a great and supportive family.

At one point, Claire found herself sitting in the corner alone, watching everyone as they mingled. Beth was there, but now the laughter and smiles were no longer forced. She talked to everyone with ease, so unlike the Beth Claire had first met that night all those years before. And she had a flashback to the welcome party and Jack approaching her.

“Claire? You okay?”

She looked up and found David standing before her. He was her mother’s twin brother and a great support to Claire; she had taken to him at once with his easy nature.

“Just going down memory lane,” she said and smiled.

He sat down beside her. “A lot has happened.”

“It has indeed. How’s the farm going?”

“Oh, you know, still the same. I can’t wait for Hunter to be finished with his studies so I can take a bit more of a back seat. I thought I might take Beth on a trip to Scotland.” He winked and smiled at her.

“Do you think she will be able to handle all the midges?”

“She’ll be all right. Do you think Gerry, Leana, and Gran would welcome a couple of visitors?”

“I’m sure they would love to see you. They always ask after you and your family. You made quite an impression on them.”

“We get a card from them every Christmas. Even though it was such a strange trip, I really enjoyed myself.”

Claire spotted Addy and Beth talking. “So are they getting on any better?” she asked him with a small grin.

“No, they still have arguments on how to raise the grandkids. I still can’t believe that I am a grandfather!” He laughed at the thought.

“Just remind Beth that her mother-in-law also had small issues with her. That might change things a bit.”

“Are you kidding me? That would be like a red rag to a bull. Just keep that nose of yours out of it, Kid.” He watched his wife a bit more then stood. “I’d better get over there and split them up before it gets too heated. Come for lunch tomorrow; I know Beth would love to fuss over you for a bit.”

“We will. Thank you, Uncle David.” David smiled at Claire; she hadn’t called him that in years, and he left her with a warm heart.

The afternoon dragged on, and Claire kept herself occupied by cleaning up cups and plates in between talking to the elders about the work she was carrying out for them. With everyone gone, she shooed out those who had volunteered to help clean up, declaring that she needed a bit of time to herself and would finish cleaning the hall on her own. She asked Matt to take Bree back to the house; he kissed her after making sure she was all right and left her to it.

The kitchenette was scrubbed and the rubbish bags tied and waiting by the door to go out. Out in the main hall, she held a broom in her hands and started to sweep; it was a great time to be lost in her thoughts in the quiet. Memories of Geoff made her smile and cry in turn. The peace and silence of the large room was just what she needed, having had people constantly around her for the last three days. Her defences were down as she reminisced, and she didn’t hear the silent footsteps enter the foyer.

She turned in front of the stage to make the final run down the length of the hall when she saw movement. Standing in the doorway was a tall figure with wavy dark hair, now with the touches of time showing, and dark brown eyes that stared at her with such intensity.

“Hello, Claire.”

“What are you doing here?” Claire asked.

“I came to give you my condolences.” He started to walk towards her slowly.

“I don’t think you should come any further, Tony.” She leaned on the broom as she watched him get closer.

“I really am sorry for your loss, Claire, for all your losses.” Tony stopped and never took his eyes off her.

“Have you been following me all this time?”

“No, I took your advice. I got a job overseas and got back about a month ago. I’ve only checked up on you once since I returned.”

Claire gave him a small smile. “I’m pleased to hear that. And have you gotten over your obsession?”

“I did hope so, but then I read that Geoff died and I found myself halfway out the door to come see you. You seem to be a hard habit to break.”

“Maybe you need to go see someone, get some therapy for it.”

“Oh, I did that too; I ended up in a relationship with her, and she accused me of transference and then broke up with me. So even that didn’t work.” He chuckled.

“You’re a hopeless case, then.”

“Probably. Or maybe I’m just crap with women.”

“So you couldn’t just stay away, stop yourself from coming all this way. A card would have done.”

He stepped closer to her involuntarily. “I needed to see for myself that you were okay. No matter how hard I try, I still care very deeply for you.”

“Ah! You said care, not love,” she told him. “There is a difference.”

“Yes, there is, but I try not so say it, because if I do…” He trailed away. He was closer now, and Claire did nothing to stop him.

“Your daughter is beautiful.”

“Stay away from her, Tony.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not interested in her.” He smiled down at her; he was close enough to touch her now. “I still remember that night—it haunts my dreams. That kiss.”

“This is not helping.” She took a step back from him, unsure whether he would hurt her. Slowly she gathered her energy around her and held it in place, ready for anything.

“No, it’s not.” He ran a hand through his thick, wavy hair. “Look, my offer is still there. If you ever need me for anything, call me.”

“I threw the card away. I found it when we were moving,” Claire told him.

He pulled his phone from his pocket, dialled a number, and waited. Over by the wall, Claire could hear her phone ringing. She turned automatically to answer it before realising that he had her number already. She turned back to him.

“Hi, Claire; just a gentle reminder that I am still around.” He hit the End button on his phone and put it back in his pocket. “There you are; you have my number now. I told you I will always keep tabs on you.”

“Are you ever going to stop this?”

“Probably not. If I haven’t by now, what’s the point?”

“I’d like you to leave, Tony.” She carried on sweeping down the hall and when she reached the end, she turned to find he had followed her.

“You are still the most beautiful woman in the world, Claire. Matt is a very lucky man; I hope he realises how lucky he is.”

She stood up straight; to her, it sounded like he was threatening her husband. “He does. Every day he tells me how much he loves me and how lucky he is, and I tell him the same right back.”

“Good. Because I have tried everything in my power to break you two up, and not once has he taken the bait.” He had a grin on his face that made Claire very uneasy.

“Please leave—before I do something I might regret.”

“Remember, Claire, I was on that hill top as well that night. The Talents given to me by the Guardians are still with me. I think we would be very evenly matched.”

“Why stand there and throw veiled threats at me, then? Why scare me?”

“I’m sorry if I have; it was never my intention.”

“Well, you did. You have said what you wanted to say; there is nothing more to talk about.” She leaned the broom up against the wall. When she turned back, it was to find him standing only inches from her.

Stepping back hurriedly, Claire tripped over the broom and started to fall. He grabbed her, wrapping his arms around her body, standing her up on her feet once more. She looked up into his eyes and had a hard job pulling away—from both his gaze and his touch—but finally she did both and moved away.

“Please, just go,” she begged him quietly.

“I think I should,” Tony replied. He turned, and Claire watched him leave the hall. He stopped at the door and looked back at her. “I know you were looking at my arse.” He smiled and left, his chuckle of laughter floating back to her.

Claire stood staring at the doorway and shook her head, a wry smile tugging at her lips. Her own parting words the last time she had talked to him came floating back to her. Walk away, Tony…stop watching me. My arse isn’t that great!

She finished cleaning, turned the lights off, and headed out of the hall, shutting the door behind her. Out in the cool wintry air, she shivered and pulled her jacket around her more tightly. She hoped the walk would help get rid of any thoughts of Tony that still remained. Just the thought of him made her look around; she could feel him still near and reached out with her mind.

Having already been inside his mind once before made it easy for her to gain access again. She walked through the various compartments, looking for one particular part. When she found it, Claire noticed that it had changed slightly. The white filigree box with golden coils was now very glossy and slightly larger. Slowly she felt the surface; it was warm and slick, and she trailed her hand around it.

“Now who is intruding on whose life?” his rich voice spoke from beside her. “And how did you get in here?”

“I just wanted to see it again, and it is amazing what I can do now. I can access any part of you that I wish, not just your brain. If I wanted, I could stop your heart. If you wanted, I could make you stop loving me.”

“But I don’t want that, Claire. I would rather you stopped my heart. But I know you. I know that you could not hurt me in any way. You proved it on the hill that night. In your own way, you love me.”

“Please leave the village; don’t stay.” Claire withdrew her thoughts from his and walked down the street. The wind was starting to pick up and the moon was rising over the hill. From behind her, she heard a car starting and then driving down the road in the opposite direction. She listened to it leave with a tear in her eye.

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About the Author

L C Conn - Author Photo

L.C. Conn grew up on the outskirts of Upper Hutt, New Zealand. Her backyard encompassed the surrounding farmland, river, hills and mountains which she wandered with her brothers and fed her imagination. After discovering a love for writing in English class at the age of eight, she continued to write in secret. It was not until much later in life that L.C. turned what she thought was a hobby and something fun to do, into her first completed novel. Now married, L.C. moved from New Zealand to Perth, Western Australia, and became a stay at home mum. While caring for her family and after battling breast cancer, a story was born from the kernel of a dream. The first book of The One True Child Series was begun, and just kept blooming into seven completed stories.

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