Thursday, October 17, 2013

Thursday's Teaser - Freedom’s Heart by Amber

Today's teaser is from Freedom's Heart by Amber.

Jessica Da’Gran cleared the outer wall of the castle, laughing wildly as she urged the grey mare under her to even greater speed. Behind her, frantic shouts echoed from the castle walls, but she didn’t bother looking back. Leaning forward, the young girl whooped joyously and let the bubble of excitement welling deep in her belly grow. Her horse, Andromeda, caught the rebellious mood and galloped harder still away from the stables and the shadow of castle Da’Gran, thrilled at the wild race.

The winter air was bitingly cold despite the midday hour, making every breath the young woman took sharp and painful. Still, Jessica reveled in the chill, knowing today’s work would warm her blood quickly enough. Tendrils of long blonde hair pulled free from their braid and whipped about her face as she galloped down the road, Andromeda’s hooves kicking up mud and snow along their path. Squinting against the tears that were squeezed from her jade-colored eyes by the icy wind, Jessica grinned madly as she made out the line of mounted figures she was swiftly gaining on.

Within moments, the group of riders realized they were being followed and their procession halted. Drawing back on the reins, Jessica slowed Andromeda to a trot before stopping in front of the man at the head of the column, her breath coming in short, hard gasps. The man eyed her speculatively, his features stern and grim. With an effort, Jessica wiped the excited grin off her face and returned her fathers steady appraisal calmly.

Sir Richard Da’Gran - lord knight of the castle that bore his family’s name - was dressed in sturdy, functional plate-armor designed to offer maximum protection while allowing enough mobility to fight. His greying hair was partially hidden by a chain-mail headpiece, but the open face of the coif allowed his thick beard to flow freely over his chest. A beautifully crafted broadsword was sheathed at his side, and a short lance rested in a stirrup cup, its tip aimed proudly at the overcast skies. Though in his late fifties, Sir Richard still cut an imposing figure; strong, intelligent, and bearing his mantle of responsibility with dauntless courage.

Jessica felt the weight of intense grey eyes as they flicked over her. Sir Richard’s weathered features tightened as his mouth drew into a firm line and his thick eyebrows lowered in a scowl.

"Jessica." He nodded a gruff welcome. "I thought your mother was keeping you busy." His voice was deep and rumbling, yet at the same time cultured and carrying a hint of a Scottish accent.

"I guess she got distracted," Jessica said once she’d caught her breath from the wild ride. Her grin somehow escaped and flashed across her face before she subdued it once more. Still, her laughing eyes betrayed her merriment, and together with her flushed features, Jessica’s excitement was obvious over her attempt at somberness.

"Mmhmm." He grunted, turning away and signaling to the others that they were continuing on. "You’ll be wanting to join us I expect. Just be sure to keep your head on your shoulders and your wits about you. I’m not wasting my time protecting your neck if you’ve a mind to be risking it." With a gruff wave, he ordered his daughter to his side.

Now she couldn’t help but grin as she took her place, nodding a greeting to her father’s second in command, Sir Miles Elirist, who returned it with a solemn bow. Her father’s gruff words didn’t bother her — she understood the pride and love that stood behind them.

Jessica had first followed her father into battle when she was twelve years old, and ever since then she rarely missed a chance to join him. Her mother usually tried to keep her busy in the castle, but Jessica always managed to slip away. Sir Richard pretended to be displeased at having to put up with his daughter’s company, but Jess knew his surliness was all an act. This conversation was one they had every time he rode out to deal with the roving bands of thugs and ruffians who plagued his lands. She knew his next words before he spoke them.

"You didn’t hurt her, did you?"

Always the same. Jess shook her head. "Not this time," she grinned.

"Good." He glanced at her and smiled a little, his usually somber eyes twinkling a little in amusement. His expression vanished, however, as he appraised her outfit. "Think maybe next time you can find something more appropriate to wear, girl?" He gestured to the soldiers around them. "This is a battle you know, not a picnic."

"I know that," she said angrily. Her green eyes flared a little, but she flushed as she glanced down. Her short, muscular frame was covered by a simple white shirt and brown trousers more commonly worn by the peasant men. In the fight they would give her no protection at all — especially since she’d torn the sleeves off the shirt, exposing her smooth, tightly muscled arms, covered in a few scars and gooseflesh from the winter chill. "I didn’t have time to get my gear."

This was true. Her mother had been harder than usual to elude, and her armor was still arranged neatly in her room back at the castle. "I got this, though." She patted the slender, elegant rapier sheathed at her side, the scabbard hanging below the flare of her hips from a length of course rope wrapped loosely about her waist. Meeting her fathers steady gaze, she said firmly, "It’s all the protection I’ll need."

Sir Richard grunted. He knew his daughter was a capable fighter. Hell, she’s more than capable, he corrected himself. The darn girl can already outfight almost every soldier in the bloody garrison. And she’s got more than her fair share of battle experience, too. The clothes may not look fancy, but her skill can back her up. Still . . .

Jessica watched her father closely, trying to judge his mood. "I want to fight," she said, a gentle lilt catching in her voice as it slipped into the accented speech she’d adopted from the soldiers, who’d spent many years in Ireland fighting in blood feuds. She only spoke like this when outside the presence of her mother; the older woman would have been shocked to hear her daughter speaking in such uncultured tones. "I can handle myself . . ."

"I know that," he interrupted her gently. "I’m not questioning your ability, girl, but you need to be better prepared next time." He paused, then added, "This fight won’t take much; just a few bandits camped too close to the village for comfort. The men can do most of the work, okay Jess?" His voice was soft with understanding, and he ignored the angry look he was faced with. "If I wanted a baby-sitter, I’d have stayed back at the castle," the young blonde muttered angrily. She glared around her at the other soldiers, none of whom would meet her gaze. She knew that many of the men were uneasy about a woman fighting with them, even after all these years. Her talent and dedication had earned her their respect, though it was often given reluctantly.

She felt her former elation starting to drain away, replaced by a sullen anger she didn’t like. It made her feel she was behaving like a spoilt brat, and she hated that feeling. She was a fighter, and nothing her mother or anyone else could do would ever change that. It was the path she had chosen long ago.

Sir Miles leaned over from his massive and flighty war-horse to squeeze her shoulder with his left hand; his right had been taken from him in a fight during his youth. "We’re not here to baby-sit ye," he growled. "This ain’t no competition. Ye wanna fight . . . fine. We all know ye can." He gestured to the soldiers riding behind them. "Not one among ‘em would dare to question yer courage, Jess. But ye gotta be smart." He patted her arm and drew back. "You’ll be more use if ye stay on the outside ‘a this fight, girl."

Jessica studied the man intently. Sir Miles was a man she respected above all others . . . except her father, of course. He had been her friend and confidant since she’d been a child, and had been responsible for her training in combat and woodcraft. Despite the loss of his right hand, Miles was the best fighter among her fathers men, and his wisdom was extensive.

Her emerald eyed narrowed. "What do you mean?" she asked suspiciously.

"These bandit’s we’re after are hidin’ in the woods," he explained. "No way to move a war-horse through them trees all that fast — that’s why we’re gonna try’n surround ‘em and strike before they kin form a defence. But in the confusion, a few of ‘em’ll surely try to bolt. If ye’re waiting on the outside, ye can chase ‘em down on that quick beast ‘a yours." He pointed to Andromeda. "She’ll move fast through the woods. Ye can stop ‘em from gettin’ away, can’t ye?"

Jessica considered the idea and nodded slowly. "I guess . . ." She knew Andromeda could maneuver through the woods at great speed; the mare was nimble and light, unlike the heavier war-horses the soldiers rode, which were bred for strength and endurance over speed and agility. She frowned and glared at the older man. So . . . they get the fun stuff, and I’m stuck with mopping up the cowards who decide to flee? "You expect me to clean up the stragglers, huh?"

"Gods above, girl . . . you’ll not be happy till we say ye can get in the thick of it, will ya!?"

Jessica shrugged and patted a nervous Andromeda. "All I want is to be allowed to jump in where I feel like it!"

Sir Miles grinned and chuckled. "Aye lass," he agreed. "And nothin’ we kin say’ll stop ye, will it?"


"Fine then," he agreed, his smile vanishing as his tone grew harder. "But remember . . . before ye go in arse first, keep in mind that any a them ruffians get away and harm the common people, it’ll be on yer head, child." He fixed her with his most serious glare. "Ye’ve got yer job to do, same as the rest of us. See that it’s done."

Jessica swallowed and nodded earnestly. "Yes, Miles." Trust the man to say the one thing that’d get me to behave, she scowled.

Miles glanced at Sir Richard, who nodded his thanks for settling his stubborn child. Damn girl just had to have her way, he chuckled silently.

Her mood restored somewhat, Jessica grinned again and faced into the stiff breeze that had picked up. A familiar tingle raced up and down her skin making her shiver a little as her heart beat faster. The thrill of anticipation was high today. It made her blood sing in her veins and made everything in the world seem fresh and new. The daughter of a noble knight, Jessica had lived among steel and sweat all her life. The prospect of battle was nothing new to the young woman . . . yet something about today’s adventure seemed different. More thrilling, somehow.

There was deep portent in the air. She remembered that description from one of the books she’d read. It seemed to fit well the energy she felt crackling about her as they neared the woods. ‘Deep portent in the air’. Like before a thunderstorm. She flicked her blonde hair over her shoulder and rested a hand reassuringly on the ornate hilt of her sword, reveling in the strange sensation that made her feel like God himself was watching her with more than passing interest.

She had a feeling this was going to be an interesting fight.


Kaleah had watched the group of rough men at their camp for over an hour now, her breath fogging in the winter air. Her muscles were growing stiff and cramped from holding the same position so long, and beyond that, she was just plain getting impatient. Still, it was better to take precautions when approaching strangers. She knew from bitter experience what could happen when she didn’t keep a chain on her patience and just charged in without watching first.

There were about thirty-odd men in the camp — a fair number. They were gathered around three small camp-fires set in a triangle, rubbing their hands together and trying to ward off the bitter chill. Even from where she sat hidden, Kaleah could smell the scent of roasting pheasant, and her stomach growled to remind her how unsuccessful her own hunting efforts had been of late. All the men were armed, though she noticed with a professional eye that their weapons were ill-maintained. Much of the metal was rusted, and their blades were of poor craftsmanship. The armor they wore was all leather, though a few had added squares of chain-mail to the hides . . . no doubt scrounged from battlefields. A few lookouts armed with bows were posted in the trees, so she had to be careful. All in all, Kaleah thought the group looked to be made up of thieves and bandits of a very common stock.

Thieves and bandits who’re still able to feed themselves, she reminded herself. That’s more than you can say for yourself.

Scowling, she rose slowly, letting her aching muscles adjust to movement again. Keeping her hands to her sides and away from the Spanish blade hanging prominently at her side, Kaleah started walking slowly towards the camp.

She hated doing this, but knew she would starve if she didn’t. A stranger in this land, Kaleah had little experience with weather this cold, having lived most of her life in cities or on the coast. The animals had seemingly vanished, and her efforts at lighting fires gleaned only sporadic success. These men - though doubtless outlaws and misfits - were experienced with the land enough to provide for themselves. If Kaleah wanted to survive this harsh, frozen season, she would have to mingle with other people . . . as hateful as it was to her.

A look-out quickly saw her coming and yelled a warning to the other men. Kaleah continued her approach undaunted, holding out her sturdy bow in a way that made it clear she meant no threat. The sentinels perched high in the trees trained their own bows on her, ready to cut her down if she made any hostile move.

The bandits reacted quickly to the warning of the look-out, scurrying to grab their weapons and form a defense. Seeing that only a single person was approaching, not an army, they relaxed slightly but continued to eye her warily.

"Ho!" Kaleah hailed the man who appeared to be the leader of the group — if they could be said to have a leader. "I come in peace!"

The man — a tall, grizzled individual with a scarred and rough looking face - pointed at her bow with his sword. "Put the bow on the ground," he ordered.

Kaleah did so slowly, laying the length of strung wood on the thin, crisp snow, maintaining eye contact all the time.

"Whadaya want?" the man demanded once she’d stepped away.

Kaleah cast her eyes towards the fire. "I’m cold," she said, "and hungry. I just wanted to share the fire with you, if I could. And maybe some of your food." Her voice carried a distinct accent with it . . . part Spanish, part something more exotic but indefinable. She understood that most people found it quite pleasant, though it marked her as a foreigner in this country.

The grizzled man scowled. "We ain’t no charity, woman! We don’t give handouts."

"I can pay you," Kaleah assured him, moving a hand slowly to reach into a pouch hanging at her side. She pulled out a few coins and held them up, glad to see the man’s scowl disappear, replaced by a quickly muffled look of greed. "I won’t stay long . . . I just want something to eat and a moment to warm myself, that’s all."

The man eyed her a long while, his sharp eyes shrewdly taking in the well-kept leather-and-chain-mail armor she wore, and the fine sword at her side. Kaleah held herself upright under his scrutiny, knowing others were often impressed by her appearance. She was tall for a woman, and from experience she understood that her clear blue eyes contrasted with her dark hair and bronze skin in a way that many found attractive for some reason. She had often cursed her appearance, hating the good looks that drew the attention of the worst kind of men . . .

She shook her head mentally. You don’t have to remember that, she told herself. It’s the past. You’re not a slave anymore . . . you’re a free woman!

But Kaleah knew the marks of her years in servitude were not easily erased. Even as she acknowledged this, she felt the man’s eyes pause on her face and knew he was studying one of those same marks even now. The scar that cut diagonally across both her lips was not long, but it was extremely prominent. It marred her otherwise perfect features and served as a constant reminder of the pain that had been a part of her life since as far back as she could remember.

"Alright then," the man allowed, his inspection complete. "But you’ll have to give up that fancy sword first." He eyed the beautiful weapon hungrily.

Kaleah shook her head. "No deal," she said firmly. She’d die before handing over the weapon. "I promise not to use it, but I won’t come unarmed into a strange camp."

Some of the men laughed and nodded their understanding, knowing she was justified in her desire to keep the blade. Their leader also grinned and nodded agreeably, waving her forward. "Fine then," he allowed, seeing she was as much a veteran as she appeared. "Come on."

She tossed him the coins as she passed and headed straight for the nearest fire, breathing a sigh of relief as the warmth permeated the thick numbness that stiffened her fingers and limbs. The cold tended to settle deepest in the joints of her fingers and along the worst of her scars. She was wet and cold from crouching in the snow all that time. Kneeling down to be closer to the blaze, she rubbed her hands together and groaned with pleasure.

The bandit leader and several of his men gathered near her. She ignored their curious looks. When one handed her a hunk of slightly blackened meat, she bit into it hungrily, not caring what it was. The men noticed and chuckled at her obvious hunger.

"Been by yerself a while, I’d be thinking," said the leader, holding out his hand. "I’m called Pete."

Kaleah hesitated, never liking physical contact, even a simple clasping of hands. Still, she knew what was expected and returned his gesture. "My name’s Kaleah," she said softly. "And yes, it’s been a while since I had company."

Pete grinned, showing slightly yellowed teeth. "New to the area, then?"

Kaleah just nodded as she tore at the meat, her stomach rumbling it’s appreciation and willingly overlooking the fact that the food was burnt.

"Ye running from someone?"

This was one of the reasons she avoided all contact with others — with company came the need for conversation and interaction. Kaleah hated company, and she hated talking. Still, these men were sharing their food and their fire; if the least they asked for was a few words in return, she could indulge them.

"Not running," she said around a full mouth. "Just wandering."

"Aye," he grinned, suspecting otherwise. "Well, we’re not ones to judge." His men nodded and poked at the fire, stirring it to greater heat.

Kaleah could feel her body start to uncoil as it warmed. "Neither am I." True enough. Let them go their way, and I’ll go mine.

Pete laughed and slapped her on the arm. Kaleah tensed, but restrained the impulse to retaliate, knowing the gesture to be one of acceptance and camaraderie. Though somewhat limited in experience dealing with people, she knew enough to get by and was learning more all the time.

"Regardless, ye’ll probably want to be avoiding the local lord of these parts," Pete said. "He does a better job than most with people like us."


"Aye. His men’re damn good, I’ll tell ya that. Well trained ‘n’ smart to boot." He tore a hunk of meat from the carcass over the fire and bit into it, giving her a thoughtful look. "Doubt they’d bother you much," he added. "Don’t see to many women dressed in that get-up."

Kaleah had observed as much in her travels, which had covered much of the region between here and Spain. It seemed there were few females who took up arms in this land. She just nodded. "If his men are so good, why come here?" she asked. "There must be easier pickings elsewhere."

"Aye," he agreed. "Easier, but not near as ripe."

"Ripe?" She knew the word, but not the context.

"These lands are rich. The people — even the peasants — all have a bit of money put aside. So long as we keep hidden and move about often, the soldiers ain’t too much of a problem." He shrugged. "We do okay, even now it’s winter." He paused, thinking, before adding, "There’s rumors of other reasons to be here, too."

Kaleah heard the conspiratorial hint in his words. She didn’t much care about rumors; curiosity had brought her a lot of pain as a slave. Still, she knew she’d be expected to show interest in his secret, whatever it was, so she politely asked, "What rumors?"

Pete grinned. "I heard talk someone’s getting an army ready hereabouts," he whispered to her. "Work for us if it’s true. Dunno who they’d be attacking, but I don’t really care . . . loot’s loot, ya know."

Kaleah nodded and went back to her meal, eating slower now and relishing the food. She knew it might be a while before she ate meat again. She could sense the steady scrutiny of the bandit leader but ignored it. She didn’t care about joining an army, though the information would be useful if she were forced to turn to mercenary work — this winter would be hard, and she had no idea what might happen.

Pete pointed with the bone of meat he held to her side. "You any good with that there fancy sword?" he asked. "Or is it just for show?"

Kaleah froze in her meal. She turned her pale blue eyes on the bandit and was satisfied to see him shrink back a little, startled by their intensity. "I can use my blade," she assured him, her voice calm and steady.

He nodded and swallowed in reflex. Damn, this woman’s got a glare that’d scare the Devil himself! "Just askin’" he said, glad when she turned back to her meal. She must be some kinda mercenary . . . either that or a criminal on the run, he pondered. The look about her and the way she spoke told him the strange woman was foreign, and the scar on her face and the way she moved suggested she had some talent. But there was something about her . . . something he could feel but not define, that told him not to offer her shelter or alliance as he had been about to do. She positively radiated tension and power, like the taut string of a loaded crossbow.

This woman was dangerous . . . plain and simple.

"Well," he coughed to cover his discomfort. "I’d still avoid the soldiers, if I were you."

Kaleah had every intention of doing just that. "Aren’t you afraid they’ll come get you here," she asked. "These fires are smoking enough that anyone could find your camp."

Pete laughed. "They won’t enter the woods," he said confidently. "And they don’t know where we are."

Suddenly, one of the look-outs gave a piercing cry and fell from his lofty roost. Kaleah and the bandits sprung away from the fire, startled. Even before the man had hit the ground Kaleah saw the wooden shaft firmly embedded in his chest. Her hand went instantly to the hilt of her sword, but she looked around before she drew it, unsure of the direction of the threat. Another look-out fell from his post, similarly slain.

The bandits reacted with the same speed they had displayed earlier, only now Pete was shouting orders, realizing his last words to Kaleah weren’t as true as he might have wished. The men had just managed to form a loose ring facing outwards when the forest erupted with sound and movement. Over a dozen mounted figures charged into the clearing from all directions at once, yelling war-cries and lowering lances as they came.

Still, Kaleah didn’t move. She crouched low, hand ready to draw her weapon. She was in the middle of the bandit ring and not that eager to die for these men. Several of the bandits were struck down by the lances, then chaos broke out as the battle was joined.

Crouched seemingly calmly in the center of the fighting, Kaleah looked around for an escape route. A few of the men chose to flee but were cut down by the mounted cavalry. She saw Pete and another grimy outlaw manage to yank one of the soldiers from his horse, but the armored knight proved just as dangerous on the ground as off it, slicing the chest of one man before clashing blades with the bandit leader.

It was then Kaleah noticed she wasn’t the only one holding back from the fight and simply watching. Just outside the clearing, a young woman with golden-blonde hair mounted on a grey horse surveyed the writhing field of combat with intense interest. The woman wore men’s clothes and carried a sword, but even at a distance Kaleah could make out her curvaceous, muscular figure. She looked like a peasant, but her calm appraisal of the bloody battle made it clear she was something more.


Freedom's Heart by Amber - 472 pages
During a routine skirmish against bandits, Jessica DaGran, the daughter of a local lord-knight, meets Kaleah, a recently released slave-turned-warrior. Sparks immediately fly. Jessica is determined to befriend the dark-haired stranger, and while Kaleah at first stubbornly refuses her kind overtures, eventually she cannot fight against her own desire for companionship. Their friendship quickly grows stronger and deepens into love, then desire. But there are problems each will have to overcome in order for their love to grow, and stirrings of war that will threaten the lives of those Jessica has sworn to protect.

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