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Tarenek Brye Annis lives as a rogue, hidden from everyone but his drako friend Elek and a distant relative, Marana, who owns a tavern in the lower land and keeps him informed of things happening at home and people who may benefit from the type of help he can offer.

 

When Marana begs him to take a job for a friend of hers, a job that requires he interact with people, he reluctantly agrees. Then he meets the woman from his nightmares, a woman his clairvoyant mind has shown in torment because of his curse.

 

Circumstances pull him into the job and make it impossible for him to avoid the beautiful and unaware woman. As the journey passes, Tarenek realizes Fate is being so very cruel but he is determined to avoid the events his dream has shown him. Yet, each thing he does to avoid the terrible outcome seems to take him ever closer.

 

 

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Chapter One

 

The moment Tarenek sensed energy in the storm that had nothing at all to do with drumming thunder or slashing lightning, he knew his nightmares weren’t only dreams. No, this energy linked to a soul, the soul he killed every night moments before waking breathless in a sticky sweat.

Tarenek peered out at the soggy, gray surroundings from under his wide hood, moving only his eyes to view the expanse of fields circling the small village on the hill. Thunder hammered the clouds and growled along their hidden peaks. Everything on the surface was a shade of brown or gray with hints of wilting greens under the constant slaps of rain. Daylight waned as somewhere beyond the thick cloud deck the sun sank ever closer to the horizon, promising a silent and concealing night. Finding nothing in the fields, he focused on the town just beyond a low stone wall.

Then he saw her. She stood behind the livestock stables with her arms out, face to the sky, as the drops fell like crystal shards and melted onto everything they touched. They glossed her long dark hair, her delicate face, her sleek neck, her hands, and her fingers, causing her to shimmer like a jewel, though his eyes saw much more than anyone else could. He saw her essence, the life energy that coursed through her, gorgeous and vibrant to the extent of intoxicating. He closed his eyes at once, not able to inhale from the intensity of her, reaching even this far, surging through the storm to wash over him more powerfully than the rain. He shook from her essence mixed with the storm and from sheer terror. Then he had to look again.

She danced in the downpour, not flinching from the booming thunder, her long, thin coat swaying around her waist to her ankles. Didn’t she know the dangers of dancing with lightning? Even as the question formed in his thoughts, he somehow knew she didn’t care about danger. Somehow he knew she lived her life not in fear, but in unbridled enjoyment of every simple thing. She reached up to the sky then, sliding one hand over her other arm, pushing her coat sleeves to her elbows. Oh so seductive was her simple act of enjoying the rain.

He never saw her before, not outside his dreams, and he had to be sure he would never see her again. For her sake. He glanced back to the hilltops where he left Elek, his one true friend. People of the villages on this equator continent didn’t know of the Drako Wars from nearly four hundred years ago. Seeing a drako wasn’t a common occurrence for them now, so he always had Elek deliver him out of sight from the village either at night or during torrential rainstorms such as this. He took some comfort in knowing all he had to do was call out and Elek would be there to whisk him away for everyone else’s safety. He wouldn’t care if seeing the great flying beast would terrify them then. If it happened, he and Elek would never be back to hear about it.

Work had called him into the settlement now, a request from his aunts’ granddaughter three hundred and fifty years descended. Tarenek didn’t know exactly what all those years made Marana to him, only that her ancestor had been his father’s youngest sister.

He was a ranger in these lands, helping to keep order among the people as civilization spread out to continents reemerging from the ocean as ice sheets grew at the poles and lowered sea levels. Rangering was easy for him. Being a rogue, no one bothered to notice or ask why he did not age or why he always kept himself concealed even in the warm climate. No one needed to know what a threat he was to every living thing he neared.

Thunder cracked and hammered, drawing his attention to the sky. The worst hadn’t begun yet, not even close, and he couldn’t help feeling his passing thought came from much more than the storm.

He shrugged out from under the plaguing notion, glanced at the magnificent woman in her glowing beauty again, and headed west away from her. He planned to enter at the far side of town and keep to the alleyways to meet with Marana. Hopefully she would be quick with the details of the job and he could be on his way again before morning’s rise.

The slosh of rain muffled his passage onto the muddy streets. A yellow, brown-spotted lizard slithered across his path and under a rock as he moved over the threshold where the stone wall allowed entry from the outer lands. It was all made with stone hauled in from the quarries of his homeland hundreds of miles over sea waters away. No one remembered how it got here, not the work the Annunakar gods did, or the lifting and flight the drakos had done. Those details were lost in time to all but those like him. Those cursed to live on and on while others around them aged and passed into the spirit world.

He had tried to join that spirit world on several occasions, but the inability to become or stay badly injured long enough for life to drain from his shell was another curse of being what he was. The thought sickened him now, but he shoved it aside as brutally as he did the door to Marana’s tavern.

The crowd inside the single story drink-house was the usual town’s folk at the far left tables, farmers and ranchers to the right, and a few outlanders settled into the darkest alcoves to each side of the exterior door.

Setanian slaved over the open grill centered inside the chest high bar, his bulk hinting to his absolute love for food, cooking it and consuming it. He shouted orders and tossed plates to the servers waiting to take them to the customers. Tarenek slid into one of the tall stools farthest away from everyone else and laced his gloved fingers together on the counter, waiting and watching. He took note of everyone in the room, seeing the glowing hues of their life forces easily enough to know all were peaceful. Even the outlanders tucked inside their shadows held no ill feelings toward anyone near. He alone was the danger in the room.

Marana turned after pouring a drink for an older lady. She raised her brows in surprise, then blinked as if to clear her vision in exaggerated teasing. She smiled at him, asked for a moment, and continued to arrange the ale bottles into their correct places. When she finished she strode to him. He pulled his hands back safely from her reach.

“Why Taren, that was fast,” she said.

“Wasn’t too far away.”

Marana smiled. “It seems you never are these days, a good sign I hope. Can I get you anything?”

Tarenek shook his head. “Not a social visit. Your message said you had an urgent job you needed me for.”

She sighed. “Yes, well, a girl can try, can’t she?  Come on to the back room where we can talk.”

Tarenek gritted his teeth. “Rather it be said here.”

“Not an option. Not with this.” She slipped around the counter and strode to the door across the room into the only separate private space in the building. Tarenek hesitated then slowly followed. He cringed when she closed the door behind him, sealing off the sounds of clanging dishes, Setanian’s bold voice, and the hum of conversations. He side-stepped away from her as she moved past him too closely. She seemed to disregard the risk all together when she handed him a towel.

“Dry yourself before you soak my floors.”

“Why do you insist on playing with flames?” he asked.

Marana scowled at him. “I suppose you consider yourself the flames?  I’ve been burned often in my life, boy, so don’t worry your pretty little head over it?”

“Boy?” He cocked one brow.

“No nevermind your age, you still look young, so give me that right.”

Tarenek sighed and rubbed the towel over his leather gloves and drako-hide jacket, doing his best to at least stop the dripping. He remembered his aunt Janni, Marana’s ancestor clearly enough to know the spry attitude was genetic. There was no arguing about it or changing it. “The job, Marana.”

“Tsk, tsk, enjoy a bit will you? Relax.” She gestured one heavily worked hand to a nearby chair, wide and upholstered.

“I don’t relax,” he said. “Who are you? Or has someone stolen your memory?”

Marana sat leisurely in a matching chair across from him and peered up at him, her bright eyes framed with just a touch of wrinkling, a result of four dozen years on a human and a hard life. She ruffled her mid-length curls and sighed.

“My memory is just fine, I’m not that old yet. I was just hoping we could talk a bit. This job is a little different, a little more personal, I guess you could say. And I do worry about you. You may be my elder many times over, but it’s not healthy, living like you do, always out there alone.”

“Not alone.”

“No humans,” she amended.

Tarenek eyed her but refused to respond. She knew why he lived the way he did. She still had contact with his parents and had the knowledge passed down to her from her ancestors. She knew what he was.

She waved her hand in the air, and kicked her shoes off, tucking one leg up under her as she made herself more comfortable. Tarenek stood where he was.

“I will say no more until you sit,” she said. “You’ll give me a crick in the neck if you don’t.”

“Are you deliberately trying to annoy me?”

Marana smiled. “Oh how tempting, but no. Please, this is serious.”

Tarenek rolled his eyes but relented and lowered to the very edge of the seat.

“Thank you,” she said. “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat or drink?”

Tarenek stared at her.

“You could humor me,” she said.

“If it’s so important, get on with it.”

Marana scowled. “Social skills are really something you need to work on.”

“Social skills concerning me will get people killed. Start speaking or I’ll be on my way.”

“So you believe. Have you talked to your parents lately? Your dad asked about you the other day when I called up. I hate having to lie to him. Why can’t I tell him you’re down here?”

“Marana.”

“Fine, fine. Relax. I do have a bonafide job for you. I need you to be the ranger, help a rancher take a hundred head of cattle through Pirist and out to Markson Shore.”

“Cattle?” Tarenek frowned at the simplistic thought.

“Yes.”

“They take cattle up the gorge through the forest to the shore all the time, what’s so different here?”

Rain pattered the roof and walls and thunder growled. Marana lowered her feet to the floor and leaned toward him with elbows on her knees. She raked her fingers through her curly hair before looking up at him. “I think there’s a bigger threat with this one. You ever hear of a man named Falkrany?”

“Falkrany? Owns most of Markson Shore, runs supplies over the seas. Why?”

“Do you know anything more of him other than the pleasant biography?”

Tarenek grinned then. “You have to ask? There’s a reason I steer clear of him—to keep from accidentally on purpose turning him into dust.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Marana said, then smiled sadly. “A friend of mine, her son-in-law made a deal with him. A hundred head of cattle and he could keep his ranch, a few hundred leagues west from here, not too near the shore. Jerridan apparently had borrowed a bit of money from Falkrany several years ago, before he wed. He paid it back, but Falkrany wouldn’t let him fully remove the debt. So Jerridan had this contract of sorts drawn up and had it notarized by Monarch himself. If Jerridan delivered to Falkrany a hundred healthy head of cattle, the debt would then be cancelled.”

Tarenek straightened in his seat. “Sounds fair enough. I’m sure {Monarch} made certain the contract was seamless.” [Paragraph Removed to not act as Spoiler to earlier book]

“Until Jerridan turned up dead,” Marana said, her voice thick with emotion. “I talked with {Monarch} about it, but they’re powerless at this point to do anything from this angle. There’s no proof of any wrong doing on Falkrany’s end. They’re trying to uncover his unsavory side from other angles but it’s taking too long.”

“So where is my part in all this?”

“I want you to see that these hundred cattle make it to Falkrany and make sure no one else ends up dead. You can do that, Taren, I know you can, no matter what that man throws at you. And if you see fit to obliterate him, so be it.”

Tarenek wrestled with a shiver at how casually she referred to his curse. He didn’t like being reminded of what happened to people who were unlucky enough to upset him or to simply come across him at the wrong time. He worked diligently all the time, even now, to keep his energies under control and tightly held within his flesh.

“It’s not so far outside your usual clients,” Marana continued. “Just with a hundred animals added to it, but you shouldn’t have any problem with those. And there will be ranch hands to help with the herd. I simply want to make sure Falkrany doesn’t take anything more from my friend. Her daughter, Alie, is left to honor Jerridan’s debt, if she has any hope of keeping her home. Please, Taren. They’ve really been dealt a rotten hand here. You can help.”

Tarenek wiped his face, hating the cold rough feel of the leather on his cheeks. He peered at Marana’s pleading eyes, a desperate look. He’d never seen her like she was now. “Fine,” he said.

Marana smiled instantly, her brows rising just a bit. “Wow, that’s a huge relief. I wasn’t expecting it to feel this good.” She took a deep breath and blew out. “You really can’t know how much I appreciate this.”

Tarenek shrugged, but decided against reminding her that he did know. He felt her emotions in the air just as clearly as if she hugged him. “I’ll need a horse and some supplies,” he said.

“Horse?” Marana raised one brow.

“If you want all hundred to make it through, I best not tempt Elek into a feast, don’t you think?”

Marana sat back in her chair. “A horse it is then. Eat cows…” she shuddered and rubbed her arms.

“What did you think he ate?”

“Not an entire cow.”

“He’s a big drako.”

“What—What do you do, go stealing cattle when he’s hungry?”

Tarenek frowned at her. “Of course not. When he’s hungry he takes a little hunting trip into the mountains, helps keep the predator populations under control. And he only needs to eat once a month or so.”

“Is it his time of the month then?” She chuckled.

“Very funny. No, but I wouldn’t want to torture him with temptation. Besides, he might spook the herd.”

Marana nodded and gazed down at the floor. “Good point. They’ll be safe enough just having you along.”

“Gee, thanks. Now it seems you want me only for my drako.”

Marana smiled at him. “See, I knew you were fun in there somewhere. Come on, let me get you something to eat. Alie won’t arrive for a few hours. You can meet her then and start preparing for the trip out.”

“I’d rather stay in here to wait.”

Marana finished slipping her shoes on. She shook her head at him. “You’re not as much of a danger as you think you are.”

“You have no idea.”

“Oh, I think I do. You are your own worst enemy. Besides, I refuse to bring food in here. If you want to hide again after you’re through eating, so be it, but until then you’ll sit at a table like normal people.”

 

~*~

 

Alie dashed from her cozy little inn room and down the street to Marana’s tavern under a thin cover of her knit wrap. She hadn’t packed for being in public and wore her only non-work clothes now, a pair of dark slacks beneath a long, flowing blouse of pale and loosely spun cotton. Despite her best efforts, the rain soaked her shoulders and spine. She shoved through the door to the warm and crowded tavern just as thunder boiled across the dark sky. She hated to leave the sound she found enrapturing for the boisterous voices of men inside the tavern. Some obviously had too much ale, and others shouted above each other in an ever growing list of great accomplishments bigger than the next man’s.

She shook her head to keep from scowling at the manly competitions. It was none of her concern. Her only concern was handling the task ahead, regaining full control of her ranch, and moving forward with her life. Only forward. She carefully and purposefully folded her dripping wrap into a neat square on her arm and looked about for Marana.

The woman bounced around behind the bar, serving drinks and smiles. Alie sidled through the crowd to the bar, and pulled herself up into a stool. She watched Marana, inspired by her energy and never ending charm. She was older, at least as old as Alie’s mother, but she wore the age well and was still a very beautiful woman. She smiled at Alie and motioned for her to wait. Alie nodded her agreement.

She glanced around the room, shaking her wet hair down her back, glad for the heat in the space. Even damp, she didn’t feel any shivers growing, not like they had after her dance in the rain a few hours earlier. She quickly directed her attention away from John Largon’s longing stare, not at all comfortable with the man’s expression. He had asked her to join him for a meal the day before. She refused, of course, and asked Marana to let her patrons know she was not looking for a companion. She had just buried a husband and tradition dictated she mourn him for a dozen years.

She wrapped her arms around herself and safely directed her attention down at the bar, focusing then on the small scratches from years of use. From across the counter, someone called for Marana, a strong and strained voice. Alie glanced up, feeling the weight of someone’s attention press on her. When her gaze met the gleam of a stormy blue glare, she shivered. The man narrowed his eyes, and she suddenly felt caught, as if snagged in a net and ready to be fed to some wild beast. Thunder exploded, and she startled despite it being muffled by the building.

The man looked away, still speaking in hushed tones with Marana. He was tall, taller than any other man in the room. Strange violet highlights danced in the dark tossed waves of his hair. The angles of his face, perfectly proportioned, chiseled but not harsh, hardened as he spoke, his words obviously heated. He leaned forward, his hands pressed tightly to the edge of the bar. Gloved hands. In fact, every inch of him was covered in black except for the pale gray skin of his face. The collar of the jacket he wore wrapped around his neck, ruffling the back ends of his hair. There was something decidedly wild about his appearance, brooding, but also alluring.

“Ah, ya spotted Marana’s nephew,” a woman said.

Alie startled and turned to a short lady with fuzzy brown hair who now stood next to her.

“Not a-one of us here who hasn’t lusted after Tarenek.”

“Excuse me,” Alie said.

“I kin tell that look, honey. Don’t waste yer time. He’ll be gone ‘fore sun’s up. Not int’rested in any of us lowly folk. I hear rumors he’za prince from the upper lands.” She waved her hand in the air as if swatting away a bad smell. “Or some such thing. Has to be something like that for a man ta act like he does. Or is that does not?” She lifted a mug from the bar and tilted dangerously to the side. “Woopsie.” She laughed as she turned, sloshing ale out over the side of her mug. Alie leaned away from her to avoid being perfumed with liquor.

“That’ll be your last, Ms. Margrel,” Marana shouted at the woman. Alie looked up at her, prepared to smile at her friend, but the cold, angry gaze that greeted her from the nephew, kept her silent.

He pushed back from the bar, as if wanting to shove it and her away, then turned his glower to Marana. Marana said something further to him and he whirled, vanishing too quickly behind a door in the far corner. Alie blinked against disbelief and focused on taking a breath, realizing now she’d been holding it. The oddness of the situation startled her. He had looked at her as if she was his worst enemy, but she was sure she had never seen him before. What he could have against her, she couldn’t fathom. She toyed with the idea that she had imagined it all but realized that thought was crazy. She wasn’t so delusional to imagine a look like that and she felt his animosity.

“Hi Honey,” Marana gripped her hand. “Sorry, this place is crazier tonight than it’s been all month. Must be the storm bringing them in. Are you all right? What’s wrong?”

Alie shook the odd sensation off and smiled for her friend. “I’m fine, just fine. It is a bit crazy in here, but that’s good for business.”

“I suppose so. Let me get you something to eat, you’re usual?”

“Sure.” Hot stew was perfect for a night like this and she hoped it would dull some of the chill caused by the nephew’s glare.

Marana bustled about, quickly dishing up the steaming stew and adding two slices of fresh baked bread to a plate. She served it with the speed and confidence only she could master then folded her arms on the edge of the bar. “Are you sure you’re all right? You look a little pale.”

Alie shook her head and blew steam from a spoonful of the hot meal. “Perfectly fine. Just, well, I was wondering who you were talking to. I’ve never seen him before.”

“Ah,” Marana sighed. “That would be Tarenek, my brother’s temperamental son.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother.”

Marana waved the thought away. “Cedrik’s a great deal older than I am and he lives with his wife in the upper lands. Tarenek, though, he…he resides down here, wherever his whim takes him. He’s actually the ranger I promised to help you.”

Alie nearly choked on the swallow of stew. She quickly took a bite of bread to hide the cough.

“Watch, it’s really hot,” Marana gestured to the bowl. “It’s going so fast tonight I haven’t been able to keep the pot full so it was just boiling.”

Alie nodded and decided to wait until it cooled more. “He—was he upset about something?”

“That boy’s upset about one thing or another all the time, I swear. But he’s excellent at what he does. I guess it’s probably all his solemnity that makes him as good as he is. He will get you and all the cattle through, get that contract honored, I promise you.”

Alie smiled despite the uncertainties rushing her thoughts. Her mouth went dry at the idea of Tarenek, alone with her in the forests with nothing but a hundred cows and seven ranch hands for miles around. If not for the angry look in his eyes, she could have enjoyed the fantasy. In fact, she almost could still.

“After you finish, we’ll go in and discuss details. He’s promised to wait so don’t feel you have to rush.”

“Thank you,” Alie said but her stomach tightened so much the delicious meal in front of her suddenly seemed more like a chore. She nursed it down as best she could, taking a lot longer than she wanted, then very reluctantly followed Marana through the door into the secluded room.

Tarenek stood in the shadows of the office, a dark hidden form except for his eyes. She felt as if lightning somehow broke through the roof and zapped her with a bolt of heat and nervous energy. He turned directly to Marana.

“I said I wanted to talk to you. Only you. Not her.” He stabbed one gloved finger through the air, aimed at her.

“Tarenek,” Marana gasped.

“Now,” he said, his deep voice viciously harsh through clenched teeth, Alie couldn’t force herself to stand still. She mumbled something about waiting outside, stumbled over the threshold and shut the door a little too loudly. Thankfully, the layer of voices in conversation muffled the sound.  

If her only other choice was taking the herd north alone, she would rather do so than put her life in the hands of Marana’s nephew.

 

 

 

 

Tarenek Brye Annis at 392 years old