Welcome author Helen C. Johannes for this week’s Tell Tale Tuesday!
Don’t you love it when entirely disparate bits come together and spin themselves into a whole book?
This scene from my fantasy romance BLOODSTONE began as a scene for a graduate class in creative writing. I don’t remember the exact prompt, maybe someone doing something in nature, but I called on an experience my father had recently related.
In midlife, my father was recruited to join a 2-week expedition to Alaska to work a gold claim. Being a midwestern high school geography teacher and retired military officer, roughing it to pan for gold was catnip to him. Over the years he made several return trips to the Alaskan bush. His tales of working the dredge and panning the residue to find garnets and gold flakes, accompanied by a slide show and tiny sample vials, were the topic of many family get-togethers.
Ah-ha, I thought. I can write about that. But I didn’t want to deal with the dredge; I wanted something more historical, solitary, and focused on the act of panning. A scene with a man panning isn’t much of a scene without some sense of conflict and resolution, so I added a mountain lion. Ah, danger! Then I drew on my own experiences in the mountains of Colorado and Montana (I hadn’t yet been to Alaska.) and created the setting. Done. Handed it in, plus other work, and aced the class.
Then…I couldn’t stop thinking about that scene, that man and lion, that idea of gem-hunting. In a wilderness. A strange and unfriendly wilderness, filled with danger. And magic. And a gem that wasn’t merely a gem. A man, haunted by a memory, in search of redemption. And thus, BLOODSTONE was born.
What if looking at the face of the man you loved meant death?
Years ago, warrior Durren Drakkonwehr was cursed by a mage. Now feared and reviled as the Shadow Man, he keeps to himself, only going to town to trade rare bloodstones—petrified dragon’s blood—for supplies. Though he hides his face, he can’t hide his heart from the woman who haunts his dreams…
Needing bloodstones for a jewelry commission, Mirianna and her father journey across the dreaded Wehrland where the beast-men roam. When their party is attacked, only the Shadow Man can save them. Strangely drawn to him, Mirianna offers herself in return for her father’s rescue.
Living in the ruined fortress with the Shadow Man, Mirianna slowly realizes that a flesh-and-blood man—not a fiend—hides there in hoods and darkness. But are love and courage enough to lift the curse and restore the man?
The stone glinted, a red-black clot amid the usual sand-and-pebble slurry in the panning dish. The man peering at it through the eyeholes of his face-covering sucked in a breath.
At least fifty-five grains, said the Voice in his head. Enough to be quit of this place.
Only if it proves true. He closed his eyes, mastering his breathing, until his hands steadied and his concentration focused. Then, with deliberate care, he tilted the dish. Water dribbled out, leaving only quartz chips, flecked granite, and sand particles clustered around the thumbnail-size stone.
With a gloved fingertip, he nudged the stone from its sandy nest and rolled it into the center of the dish. Perfectly oval. He blew out a breath, fluttering his face covering. Color and shape—good. There was but one more test. His gut knew the stone was true, but his gut had fallen for an illusion before, and he had to be sure.
Pinching the stone between thumb and forefinger, the man picked it up. Blood hummed in his ears, but his hands were steady as he set the dish aside on a flat rock. He placed the stone in the center of his gloved palm and pushed out of his mind all thoughts of what a find like this could mean. This was the Wehrland after all; nothing was ever as it seemed. With another breath, he stretched out his arm and opened his hand and its contents to the sun.
When only the black glove warmed, his muscles tensed. This is taking far too long. It’s not—
The stone flared into translucence, transforming his palm into a pool of deep, glossy red. “Bloodstone,” he breathed.
“Let Ulerroth find the flaw in this,” he announced to the gray horse grazing on the opposite bank. The animal’s ears flicked, but it did not raise its head.
Before he could close his fingers, could tuck the stone safely away, spears of scarlet light burst from the bloodstone, slashing red across the solid black of his tunic and sleeves. Without thinking, he stared at it. Into it. And the world shifted, wrenched itself inside out, and went dark…
He saw himself crouched, as always, in a rock-hewn tunnel lit by a distant torch while smoke oozed from crevices around a massive oaken door. Tendrils spiraled upward, feeding a thick yellow haze overhead. He coughed. Sweat dripped from his hair, stinging his eyes. The sound of rushing footsteps brought him swiveling to his feet, shield up, heart pounding. His fingers gripped the hilt of the ancient double-edged Sword of Drakkonwehr, where the large bloodstone embedded in the intersection of hand guard, blade, and hilt glowed softly, a dark, deep red…
In the meadow, in the late afternoon sun and fresh mountain air, the man snapped shut his fist, sealing the stone inside, quenching its fire, stopping the nightmare before it began. Again. If only he’d moved faster to secure the gem.
He inhaled a cleansing breath, clearing lightheaded specks from his vision, before he focused his thoughts on the stone, hot in his gloved palm. “Some fool will pay a pretty price to dangle this between his whore’s breasts.” His fingers tightened at the image, but he forced them to relax. He would trade with Ulerroth, as usual. Nothing else.
I’m beyond such needs. He stared at the trampled moss between his boots. I have to be…by now.
Your dream woman would disagree, said the Voice in his head. Or don’t you remember her in the daylight?
He did, all too vividly. She was not the form of woman that usually filled his dreams when this body—this cloaked and hooded shell—grew hungry, but one particular woman whose face had begun taking form a scant two months ago—as soon as he entered the Wehrland. That his mind had conjured a complete stranger disturbed him as much as the vision itself.
All the more reason to leave as soon as possible, said the Voice in his head.
On the bank above, his horse shook its bridle and huffed.
“Steady, Ghost.” Rising from his crouch, he followed the animal’s pricked-ear gaze. At the edge of the upland clearing, a stone’s throw away, a large, yellow-gray shape slipped through mottled shadows. “It’s only that she-lion again.”
He dropped the gem into a pouch at his waist. Climbing to the top of the bank, he watched faint movements of foliage as a Wehrland lion traversed part way around the clearing’s edge. When it reached a spot upstream of the man, it paused in a pool of sunlight and stood, black-tipped tail twitching, and rubbed its cheek against a sapling.
The man snorted. “Don’t think you’re fooling me, she-cat. I’ve been watching your every move, too.” Two mornings ago he’d first noticed the huge feline lying on a sun-drenched outcrop overlooking the stream he was panning. It had done nothing then, nothing but watch him collect garnets, gold dust, and jet. He’d seen it in the afternoon, too, a flash of yellow-gray glimpsed between bushes. And at night, the scream and the sudden flare of cat’s eyes—too close—while Ghost plunged at the end of his tether. He’d brought the horse nearer and slept with his knife beside his hand. Today, the animal had followed him here.
Being stalked irritated him. Almost as much as traveling this far into the Wehrland for a handful of gems.
“Go fill your belly elsewhere,” the man said, stooping for a rock to throw.
The big cat dropped into a crouch. Flattening its ears, it stared.
The man froze in mid-reach. His mind told him something else had startled the lion. His senses, reporting over the sudden roar of his blood, told him the animal’s gaze was fixed on something beyond him. Under his hood and face-covering, the back of his neck prickled and he listened.
Bees still hummed in the clover near his boots, but the meadowlarks had ceased their calling. His hand moved stealthily toward the knife at his belt.
At the scrape of gravel, he spun. The Krad was on him in a split second, a dark blur of matted fur. The man had only enough time to dodge the down-swing of the creature’s flint blade, to pivot sideways and thrust his own knife upwards. His knuckles hit ribs, and he jerked the weapon back. The beast-man crashed into the panning dish, flipping it into the stream. A few stones followed the dish down the bank to the water’s edge.
The man whirled, but the mountain meadow behind him was empty of anything more threatening than a quail flushed from a blackberry bush. He spun back to the creature lying in a heap on the stream bank. Its mouth was open and spittle clung to the furred chin. Under heavy brows, deep-set black eyes stared at nothing. The flint knife had broken, but the man still kicked the pieces away from fingers caked with dirt. One scratch, one nick from even a fragment of the poison-smeared blade was enough to kill, and even though the creature looked dead—
The stench hit him full in the face. “Filthy, stinking Krad!” Leaping to the stream, he plunged his gloved hand and knife into it and scrubbed away every trace of the beast-man’s blood. He had been lucky. This was the first Krad he’d encountered since entering the Wehrland, and this one was alone. Grabbing his panning dish and gear, he mounted his horse. Where there was one Krad, there was sure to be a pack.
Helen C. Johannes writes award-winning fantasy romance inspired by the fairy tales she grew up reading and the amazing historical places she’s visited in England, Ireland, Scotland and Germany. She writes tales of adventure and romance in fully realized worlds sprung from pure imagination and a lifelong interest in history, culture, and literature. Warriors on horseback, women who refuse to sit idly at home, and passion that cannot be denied or outrun—that’s what readers will find in her books.
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Author Central: https://www.amazon.com/Helen-C-Johannes/e/B003JJDQWS
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