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Monday, 25 January 2016

DARKEST BEFORE DAWN is ready!


Great news - DARKEST BEFORE DAWN is now available for pre-order on Amazon Kindle! The publication date is 1 February 2016, so if you pre-order, the book will automatically be delivered to your Kindle on that date.

I love writing all my books, but this one was the most fun so far! It's got a bit of everything: forbidden love, intrigue, adventure... and murder. The story centers around Prince Alchflaed of Northumbria, who was an actual historical figure.

Here's what the book is about:


Autumn, 655 A.D. Princess Alchflaed of Northumbria is a spirited young woman who wishes to choose her own path. Unfortunately, highborn women in Anglo-Saxon England have no say in their choice of husband, and her father promises his daughter to the son of his bitterest enemy. 

This attempt at ‘peace weaving’ is not what is seems. Alchflaed’s father orders her to murder her new husband. Charged with this treacherous task, she journeys south to her new home in Mercia. 

Maric – a seasoned warrior with a dark past – leads her escort. Princess and warrior find themselves strongly drawn to each other, but they must deny their feelings. Both bound by loyalty, neither can choose their own fates. 

Alchflaed’s father has given her a terrible choice: to earn her freedom, she must kill a king.


And here's the Prologue to whet your appetite...


Darkest before Dawn 

The Kingdom of Mercia, Book 2

Prologue
Peace-weaving

Bebbanburg, the Kingdom of Northumbria,
Britannia

Late autumn, 653 A.D.



Alchflaed was riding on the beach when she saw the horsemen approach from the south.
She had taken a long ride that morning, enjoying the chill wind in her face and the clean, salt-laced air in her lungs. On the last stretch of shoreline toward home, she urged her pony into a brisk canter. Her two dogs ran alongside her, tongues lolling. She rode close to the water, accompanied by the roar of the surf and the hollow drum of her pony’s hooves on the hard silver sand.
The wind whipped tendrils of hair in her face but Alchflaed paid it no mind. Her gaze travelled across the smooth beach, over the reed-covered dunes, to the rocky promontory ahead, on which the fort of Bebbanburg perched. She could see the wooden palisades that ringed the flat top of the outcrop, and the great tower, made of dark red stone that stood out against the pale sky. The Northumbrian flag – eight yellow rectangles on a blood-red field – snapped in the breeze.
Alchflaed looked away from her home and was about to glance east to where the North Sea shimmered, when something caught her eye.
The horsemen thundered along the road leading to the base of the fortress. It was a sizeable company, the warriors’ spears and standards bristling above their heads.
Seized by curiosity, Alchflaed kicked her mare into a flat gallop. Behind her, the dogs barked excitedly and gave chase. As she drew closer, Alchflaed could make out the colors of the standards that the warriors bore: blue and gold.
Mercians.

***

“Thunor’s hammer, it’s cold up here!”
“That’s just the sea breeze, Elfhere. It’s like the finest ale – drink it in.”
Maric loosened his horse’s girth, grinning at the blond warrior next to him. They had just followed the king into Bebbanburg’s stable complex, which lay beyond the high gate within the inner palisade, and were in the process of unsaddling their horses.
“I grew up amongst hills and forests,” Elfhere grumbled. “What use do I have for the sea?”
“Surely, you admired the view on the way up?”
“Listen to you,” Osulf, a heavy-set warrior with a thick mane of chestnut hair and beard to match, jeered. “It sounds like you’ve had your head in a barrel of ale all morning.”
“Can’t a man be happy about life?”
Osulf snorted. “Aye, but ever since your handfasting you’ve been in repulsively good spirits.”
Maric’s grin widened. “I’ll not deny it – Gytha was the best thing to ever happen to me.”
“So you managed to wed the fairest maid in Tamworth. You don’t have to crow about it.”
“Come now. Don’t begrudge a man a bit of happiness.”
Osulf favored him with a scowl. “Some of us can do no better than a mead-hall whore.”
Nearby, Elfhere choked on a laugh, while Maric turned away from Osulf to hide a smirk. As he did so, he spotted the king heading their way. The king’s eldest son, Paeda, strode at his heels. Maric’s smile abruptly faded. His banter with his friends forgotten, he stepped forward to greet the King of Mercia.
“Milord?”
As always, the king’s face appeared hewn from stone. He had passed at least fifty five winters, and his face now bore every one of his years. His long hair, tied back in a thong at his neck, once blond, was snowy white; yet his physique was still one of a battle-hardened warrior. Beside him, Prince Paeda, although strongly built like his father, was as dark as Penda was pale.
“Leave your horses with the slaves,” Penda ordered. “I need the three of you to attend us. King Oswiu awaits.”
Wordlessly, they did as he bid. The three warriors fell in behind their king and prince, following them out of the stable yard. Beyond, they crossed a wide grassy space and climbed the steps into Bebbanburg’s Great Tower.
Inside, Maric’s first impression of the Great Hall of Bebbanburg was that the seat of the King of Bernicia was a much more welcoming space then Penda’s grey, austere hall. The red stone gave off a warmth in the light of four enormous fire pits burning in each corner. Fresh rushes covered the ground and the air smelt of smoke, roasting mutton and rosemary.
The Mercians strode across the center of the vast space. As he walked, Maric was aware that the gazes of all present had swiveled to the small party. The King of Mercia barely seemed to notice, although his son’s shoulders stiffened under their inspection.
Upon the high seat, King Oswiu watched them approach. Flanked by his kin on both sides, Oswiu sat upon a magnificent carved oaken chair. He was at least a decade younger than the Mercian king; a tall, sinewy man with high-cheekbones and deep-set green eyes. Long sandy hair, flecked through with grey, was brushed out across his shoulders, and a neatly trimmed beard covered a strong jaw. He wore a splendid, rich green tunic, edged with red silk. A plush grey squirrel cloak hung from his shoulders, fastened by gold and amber brooches.
Oswiu favored Penda with a wintry smile.
“Lord Penda. For what do we owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?”
The thinly veiled hostility in the King of Bernicia’s voice came as no surprise. Penda’s reputation as a ruthless warmonger preceded him. He had arranged for his daughter’s marriage to Oswiu’s son, in a gesture of peace, but had broken the alliance shortly after. Oswiu had every reason not to trust his warlord neighbor.
“Greetings, Lord Oswiu. How fares Bebbanburg?”
“It still stands, as you can see?”
“And how fares my daughter?”
Oswiu’s gaze narrowed and shifted to where a golden haired beauty sat demurely on the high seat next to a young man with short auburn hair.
“Ask her yourself.”
The young woman, as regal and fair as Maric remembered, favored her father with a tight smile.
“Greetings, fæder.”
Penda’s gaze moved down his daughter’s lithe figure, coldly assessing.
“No sons yet, Cyneburh?”
The princess blanched, her gaze dropping to her feet, while the young man seated beside her stiffened, his expression hardening.
Maric shifted uncomfortably, his gaze briefly meeting Elfhere’s. They had left their weapons outside, as was customary, but should Penda cause a brawl in Oswiu’s hall they would have only their bare hands to defend him with. Maric readied himself for that possibility.
“Penda,” Oswiu cut in, his voice even colder than before. “I take it you did not travel all this way to enquire after your daughter.”
Penda inclined his head, letting a few moments pass before he replied.
“Indeed… I come to make a pledge of peace.”
Oswiu’s mouth twisted.
“Really? Will it be as enduring as your last one?”
To his credit, Penda appeared not remotely disturbed by the Northumbrian ruler’s chill welcome, or his sarcasm.
“The alliance between us is not yet complete,” he rumbled. “I have played my part, by wedding my first-born daughter to your son. Now, it is time for you to pledge one of your kin to my house.”
“Is raiding our borders also part of this alliance?” Oswiu asked, his mouth twisting.
Ignoring Oswiu’s hostility once more, Penda motioned to the silent young man who stood, ramrod straight, next to him.
“My eldest son, Paeda, is first in line to the throne. I propose a match between him and your daughter, Alchflaed.”
Silence fell, broken only by the snapping of the logs in the fire pits. Penda eventually broke it.
“She is of age, is she not?”
Oswiu leaned back in his chair and regarded Penda under hooded lids.
“Aye… and more trouble than she’s worth.”
Penda stiffened. “Is she still a maid?”
Oswiu nodded, before glancing to his left, where his wife, Queen Eanflaed, sat observing the proceedings. In her arms, she carried a swaddled babe. Eanflaed was a plump woman with a pretty, if slightly pugnacious, face. She wore her dark hair in elaborate braids. The queen met her husband’s gaze and they shared a smile. Oswiu then turned back to address Penda.
“Alchflaed is indeed a maid, but she is a little… wild.”
“My son will tame her,” Penda’s voice held a sneer, “if her father has not already had the backbone to do so.”
His pale gaze shifted behind Oswiu, to where his kin sat.
“Where is the princess?”
“She went out riding this morning,” the queen spoke, her voice high-pitched and oddly girlish. “She has not yet returned.”
Oswiu spoke next, his voice even colder and more unwelcoming than earlier.
“Do you really think this pathetic attempt to peace-weave will fool me, Penda? It made no difference before. I have even less reason to trust you now.”
Penda gave a low laugh, a humorless sound.
“As I said, our alliance is not yet complete. Betrothe your daughter to my son, and I will leave your borders in peace.”
Oswiu’s face darkened.
“You dare issue threats? You stand alone in my hall, with only your son and three of your men to protect you.”
“Now who is issuing threats, Oswiu?” Penda rumbled.
Maric recognized the tone of his lord’s voice well. It was the calm before the storm; Penda was about to unleash his wintry rage. Oswiu was a dolt if he thought being outnumbered and unarmed was any hindrance to Penda of Mercia. Not only that, but his son was almost as lethal as he was. Penda had not chosen Maric, Elfhere and Osulf by chance either. Each of them had earned their place as trusted warriors at their king’s side.
However, the Northumbrian lord’s response was forestalled by his son. Seated next to Oswiu, the young man leaned forward, his voice low.
“Fæder, she’s here.”
Oswiu’s sharp gaze shifted from Penda, travelling over his shoulder to the hall’s entrance behind him. Likewise, the Mercian King and his escort turned, their gazes swiveling to the young woman who strode into their midst.
Maric found himself staring.
When Oswiu described his daughter as ‘wild’, he had not been exaggerating. Alchflaed swept into the hall like a storm. She resembled a warrior maid, rather than a princess. Two shaggy, long-legged hounds – one black and the other brown – trailed at her heels, staying close to their mistress as she crossed the floor.
Her auburn hair was unbound and tumbled over her shoulders in unruly waves. She was tall and statuesque with milky skin, and dressed in a long tunic, belted at the waist. The tunic was split at the sides, to allow for riding astride. Underneath, Maric glimpsed shapely legs clad in soft leather leggings and fur-lined boots. She moved like a huntress, with long purposeful strides. Unlike her sister by marriage, Cyneburh, there was nothing demure or subservient about her.
Sharp, moss-green eyes focused on the party before the high seat, travelling over their faces. Then, unexpectedly, her gaze paused upon Maric.
Their eyes locked for a heart-beat.
Woden.
Maric considered himself happily married. He could not wait to be reunited with Gytha, the raven-haired beauty awaiting him in Tamworth. Even so, this woman’s vibrancy and raw sensuality disarmed him.
A heartbeat passed before he tore his gaze from her, and noted that he had not been the only one captivated by Princess Alchflaed. Both Elfhere and Osulf were gawking at her, while Paeda looked pole-axed. The prince stared at the princess, open-mouthed, as if he gazed upon a goddess.
Only Penda appeared immune. He turned back to the Northumbrian king and raised a pale eyebrow.
“So this is your daughter?”
“Alchflaed. Greet Lord Penda of Mercia,” Oswiu growled.
The young woman dropped into a neat curtsy, a gesture that was at odds with her untamed appearance.
“Lord Penda.”
Unlike the queen, the princess’s voice was low-pitched, with a slight husky edge. The sound of it caused Maric’s pulse to quicken.
Get a hold of yourself, man.
Oblivious to the furor she had caused, Alchflaed crossed the space to the high seat and took her place on the far right of the raised platform, next to her sister by marriage. The dogs sat obediently at her feet, tails wagging.

Alchflaed cast a glance at Cyneburh and received a look of cool censure in response. She had sensed the tension as soon as she entered the hall, and the vexed look upon her father’s face now only confirmed it. Her entrance had interrupted a brewing argument.
She had observed the Mercian party closely as she approached the high seat. Penda of Mercia was as she had imagined; cold, hard and built like Thunor himself. The young man next to him – dark haired and powerfully made – was definitely related to Penda, for he carried himself with the same arrogance. However, it was the three men who stood with him that had intrigued her: one dark, one blond, and the third red-haired.
One, in particular, had drawn her eye. Tall and lean, with long dark hair and pale skin, the warrior was dressed, head to foot, in dark leather armor. He exuded a restless, contained energy, but it was his face that drew her in. She had never seen a man with such defined cheekbones. He had dark finely drawn eyebrows, an angular chin and jaw, and crystalline blue eyes. His face was, simply put, beautiful.
When their gazes met, it was as if someone had punched her, just below the ribcage. Her breath had left her, and for a moment the world stood still. Heart racing, she had torn her gaze away and forced herself to keep walking.
Now that she was seated, Alchflaed allowed her gaze to return, once more, to the mysterious dark-haired Mercian warrior. He stood two paces behind his king, and he appeared to be deliberately avoiding her gaze.
Penda broke the weighty silence that had settled over the hall.
“She will bend to our ways easily enough. What will your answer be, Oswiu? Shall we weave peace between our kingdoms? Shall Paeda and Alchflaed be betrothed on this day?”
Alchflaed’s attention jerked back to the Mercian King.
Betrothed.
For the first time, she looked properly at the young man standing at Penda’s side. He was staring at her; a look of naked hunger upon his face. Alchflaed’s stomach knotted as the reality of Penda of Mercia’s visit took hold. She broke out into a cold sweat and tore her gaze from his, staring down at the rush-strewn floor beneath the platform.
“I think not,” Oswiu’s response brought both relief and dread rushing forth within Alchflaed. “I tire of the games you play.”
“And what games are they?”
“This mask of friendship you wear every time we meet. You killed my brother. You butchered his corpse and hung his remains in a tree for the crows to feed on. Yet, you come here and speak as if another wedding between our families will mend things.”
“Oswald fell in battle,” Penda rumbled. “What my men chose to do with his corpse was their business.”
“Do you think me a fool?” Oswiu snarled. “The last marriage did nothing to ease your warmongering. You wish to rule these lands. Wedding my daughter to your son is just a ruse.”
“So you will not agree to the match?”
Oswiu leaned forward and spat on the rushes at the foot of the high seat. Alchflaed stared at her father, shocked. She had rarely seen him so incensed. His face had gone white and pinched, his eyes were dark with rage. His hatred for Penda was palpable.
“It is you who is the fool, Penda. You are no longer welcome at Bebbanburg.”
“So you would make me your enemy?” Penda replied, his pale eyes glittering.
“I am already your enemy,” Oswiu snarled back. “Your word means nothing to me. Enough with the pretense. Be gone from my hall.”
Penda favored Oswiu with a long, dark look.
“Very well, you have made your choice. The next time we meet, it will be in battle – and I will show you no mercy.”
With these words spoken, the King of Mercia turned, his wolfskin-pelt cloak billowing behind him. His son hesitated, his gaze lingering upon Alchflaed, before it shifted to Oswiu.
“Paeda,” Penda barked. “Come!”
Alchflaed watched the Mercians stride from the hall, her insides churning. Then, she glanced over at her father. He was staring after Penda, hate etched onto every line of his lean face.
With a sinking heart, she realized that despite years of bloodshed, her people’s problems with Mercia were only just beginning.

***

I hope you enjoyed the Prologue to DARKEST BEFORE DAWN. This novel is a real page turner!

You can pre-order your copy on Amazon.

The last book in the series - DAWN OF WOLVES - is due out at the end of April so I'm hard at work on the first draft. More details about that coming soon. :-)


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