Here is the luscious cover again in case you missed it the first time. And then I'll give you another sneak peek at the tale. Specifics and buy link will follow soon along with the other four titles and their authors.
Excerpt: Dark and Stormy
(this is about a third of the way into the tale and Martin again meets the mysterious dark rider of his arrival night.)
At one point, Martin’s feet went out from beneath him when he hit a slick spot in a narrow gully. Down he went, slipping and sliding, scooting on his arse down a muddy slash in the hillside until he finally fetched up against a tree that leaned out over the declivity. He grabbed the rough bark, halting his headlong fall and dragged himself up onto a rockier but less slippery spot. From there he continued down with no further mishap but his wet and muddy trousers clung to his legs, clammy and chilling. A fire would be most welcome. He hoped the hut offered at least that much.
As he approached the odd little structure, Martin heard muffled sounds which he could not quite identify, like a heavy step and a snuffle or whuff. Deep in the valley, dusk had turned to real dark. Nearly blind, he ran smack into a huge, dark bulk. When he flung his hands up to stop himself, he encountered warmth and soft fur over a solid wall of flesh. A horse, a big one and dark, a shade darker than the trees and ground. The animal snorted and sidestepped but did not offer him any harm. To his hands, bruised, scraped and cold, the soft fur felt wonderful. The beast shuffled, snorting mildly in an anxious manner, apparently as startled as he by their sudden collision.
“Easy, big boy,” Martin murmured. “If you’ll allow, I’ll just move around and past you.” The horse shifted another step or two and revealed a gentle glow that seemed to come from the far side of the hut. Either a door was open or that side was not walled. Martin stumbled toward the light. Before he was able to peer around the corner, a low voice challenged him.
“Halt. Who goes there? What is your business?”
The voice was not that of a humble and unschooled huntsman, shepherd or wood cutter, which Martin expected. It was a cultured voice, each word clearly and precisely spoken. The tone also held a note of warning, even perhaps of threat. Martin sensed the speaker was not a person to be trifled with or presumed upon but his needs drove him past caution.
“It is I, just a weary and chilled hiker who’s become lost in the hills.”
As Martin rounded the hut to look into the front, which was indeed mostly open, his eyes were dazzled by the dancing fire in a rustic fireplace inside. At first all he could see was a towering black form, more shadow than shape, looming to bar his way. Then, as if the other man decided Martin posed no threat or danger, he stepped aside.
“Come then, and warm yourself. I haven’t much to offer but was about to brew a bit of tea. I can share my pasty with you if you’re in need of nourishment. It’s quite a large one.”
Martin stumbled to the fire and held his hands out to the welcoming warmth. Within a moment, his trousers were steaming as the heat started to drive the moisture from the woolen fabric. When his front had warmed enough to warrant it, he turned to let his back dry, too.
As he looked at the other man, sudden recognition jolted through him. A black horse, a big man with a black cloak—who could it be but his mysterious benefactor from the night of his arrival, now several fortnights past?
The man kept his face averted from the firelight at first. When he finally turned, Martin realized he wore a silken black mask which concealed all but his mouth and chin. What skin he could see was darkened as if rubbed with charcoal or boot black. Disappointment speared him. It seemed he would not get to see the face of his rescuer after all.
“I think I know you,” he said, after a moment. “Were you not the one who snatched me from the mired coach and bore me to Ravensrawn the night of the terrible storm back in February?”
The masked man laughed. “It seems you have a proclivity for getting yourself caught in difficulties. You’re the young tutor for the Ravensrawn children. How come you to be out in the woods alone?”
Something familiar about the man’s voice tugged at Martin’s awareness but he could not quite pin it down. He lacked time to ponder on it, for he knew he needed to answer the man’s question and did so. “The children and the housekeeper are away for a few days and I was at loose ends. Since I hiked in my youth on my grandfather’s estate near the Scots border, I thought to explore a bit. I must have gone farther than I intended or else I got turned around completely. I’ve been lost since well before sundown.”
The other man nodded. “We’ll have some tea then and I’ll see you safely home before I go on about my business. Though it isn’t really far, I can understand how one unfamiliar with our hills and deep gullies could become lost. It looks like you took a tumble, too. Are you hurt?”
Martin shook his head. “No, the only real damage was to my attire and my dignity. In retrospect, I would have been wiser to stay on the grounds. Hindsight is always so much clearer…” At his host’s gesture, he sat where indicated, on a rough bench to one side. The rustic seat looked to be made from a large log, split in half and cut to a length of four or five feet. At least my muddy arse won’t leave a mess on a better seat.
As he looked around, he saw the amenities were few. Surely no one actually lived here. The hovel could not be anything more than a temporary shelter for hunters, shepherds or others wandering in the wilds. Once sitting, he realized in a few breaths how very weary he was, even more now than when atop the hill. He had no idea how far he’d hiked but it had to be several miles, most of it up and down steep slopes.
He watched as his strange host fetched two rough earthenware vessels from a single shelf above the fireplace. From a knapsack beside the hearth he extracted a small pouch and took from it a generous pinch of tea leaves which he sprinkled into the mugs. As the kettle hanging over the fire began to chirp, he filled the crude cups with water and handed one to Martin.
Then he dropped to the bench on the other side and sat quiet for a time, gazing down at the steaming beaker in his hands. Although Martin could see little of the other man’s face, he sensed his host was troubled, perhaps worried or even angry. He found himself hoping he was not the cause of such distress.
Although the black clad man spoke in a mild voice and made no sudden or violent moves, he emanated confidence, power, even danger. A slight shiver tracked down Martin’s spine. Although he told himself he had nothing to fear, a mixture of anxiety and inexplicable attraction heated him almost as much as did the fire.
Although it made no sense, he felt as if he could follow this man to the ends of the earth were he asked to do so. The same strength, courage and defiance he’d sensed the first night still radiated from the tall stranger. He might not be exceptionally large, but his posture and attitude made him seem huge.