Blackmark is getting a facelift!!

Hey lovely fans!

At the beginning of August, I decided Blackmark (The Kingsmen Chronicles #1) needed a serious facelift.

Since it was my first major publication back in 2016, it needed some re-editing attention for the language and pacing to be more in line with the other books in the saga now.

Please enjoy a sneak peek below of the fully re-edited first chapter.

I hope to have the rest of the book re-released on all major retailers by early September.

Onward to Glory!

Jean

*************

PROLOGUE – ELOHL

Elohl den’Alrahel darted through the night, his black cowl raised against the windswept silence of the city. Doubling his pace as he slipped through the darkness, his doeskin boots whispered over the cobblestones as choked alleys loomed around him; hushed streets in the King’s City of Lintesh. The plaque of an alehouse creaked in a snowmelt wind, the rim of the sky lightening against the glacier-shrouded mountains. Dawn was coming, and Elohl’s stomach clenched in a bilious knot as his tense heartbeat filled his ears.

He was running out of time.

His people were running out of time.

Elohl moved on, faster, blending into the shadows as he absorbed the night. With the wyrric senses that were his birthright, a spectral imprint of the city formed in a vast sphere around him as he moved. Scents of piss-pot and jasoune marked a whorehouse; the banging of a shutter spoke of an abandoned home. Dodging a barrel by a tingle to his feet, he avoided a low roofline by pressure near his face. A void at the end of the alley loomed ahead and Elohl had a sensate picture of towering stone – his destination. Approaching, his heart raced as the outer wall of Roushenn Palace coalesced before him.

The palace of the King of Alrou-Mendera.

Elohl’s fingertips touched the wall’s darkness, hacked out of the southern face of the Kingsmount. Coarse, Roushenn’s blue byrunstone granite had been carved by wind and rain, snow and ice over eons, leaving plenty of holds. Climbing by the same instinct that allowed him grace in the darkness, Elohl’s fingers and resinous tips of his boots found purchase. His fingers tingled as he ascended; an image of cracked bones lanced his consciousness and Elohl passed that hold by. His foot throbbed as he stepped to a lip – urging him toward a ledge strong enough to support his weight.

The byrunstone wall yielded its secrets until Elohl was soon up and over. Sensing no sentries inside its reaches, Elohl dropped the last length, landing in thick vegetation. The nighttime gardens were drowned in the whisper of ferns, and Elohl soon found the palace gardener’s entrance, just as Olea had prepared him. Sidling into the shadows of the stone arch, Elohl removed Elsthemi-steel picks from a pouch in his leathers. His touch was softer than featherwisp as he eased his tension tool and pick into the door’s iron lock. He was nearly done when a pair of Palace Guardsmen crunched by upon the gravel walk. Their eyes swept the darkness and Elohl froze in the shadows, fear lancing his gut.

Discovery would mean a stint in the dungeons for invading the King’s fortress tonight.

But Elohl’s charcoal garb was meant for the night, and the guards passed on. The lock clicked and Elohl sighed in through the door like a shroud, his insides tight as tripwire. Torches guttered in iron sconces, licked by ghastly currents in the hall. His breath echoed in the vaulted gables, his hands trembling as if the nightwind blew through him rather than through the vaulted hall.

Inhaling, Elohl took a measured breath to control his emotions. Only his success could halt the march that his people, the Alrashemni Kingsmen, had begun this day. For centuries, the Kingsmen had sworn loyalty to Alrou-Mendera. Elite warriors and peacekeepers for the King, they were the strength and heart of the nation. But in a few hours they would arrive here at the palace, clad for battle to show their outrage at an unfounded accusation. A King’s Summons that demanded each and every one of them re-swear fealty at Roushenn Palace.

Or get charged with High Treason and be put to death.

Received three days ago, the Summons accused the Kingsmen of unspecified crimes. It was an unprecedented edict from an untrusting King – though King Uhlas den’Ildrian had previously trusted the Kingsmen his entire reign. Charging the Kingsmen with treason was insanity, and Elohl tried not to think about what would happen if his people arrived here in a few hours, clad for war as they demanded explanation.

Or if the King ordered his Palace Guard to arrest his nation’s peacekeepers.

Bloodshed could be the only result – bloodshed that Elohl hoped to prevent by his actions tonight. As he moved down the byrunstone hall, he steadied his purpose. Down a corkscrewing stair, he twisted through the labyrinthine bowels of the palace, orchestrated to hopelessly confuse invaders. It was this part of his task his sister Olea had quizzed him on ruthlessly in the past three days, and Elohl moved swiftly through the torch-lit shadows, every turn committed to memory.

At last, he arrived at a pair of massive ironwood doors deep inside the mountain. Taking in their imposing height, he absorbed their carved tableau illuminated by a nearby torch. A stylized wolf and dragon curled around each other, locked in battle and ringed in fire. Snarling with hackles raised, the wolf’s fangs were sunk into the dragon’s neck, while the serpentine dragon pierced the wolf’s belly with its talons. Though both tore at each other, the tableau’s circle was perfectly balanced – as if neither were winning. Awed, Elohl stood a moment, his skin tingling strangely. No one knew what the wolf and dragon signified, nor why certain places in Alrou-Mendera were inscribed with the image.

An ancient sigil from a people long lost.

With a shiver, Elohl roused himself. Setting his attention to the iron lock, it clicked open to his picks, revealing a looming black maw. The Deephouse was a taproom for servants and guards, and Elohl’s nostrils caught the acrid spice of hopt-ale and the syrupy scent of mellon-blume wine as he stepped inside. But the darkness of the stone cavern wasn’t absolute. Elohl froze in the shadows, and setting his back against a stand of kegs, he peered toward the byrunstone bar. The glow of a lantern confirmed his suspicions.

Someone else was here tonight – and they shouldn’t have been.

Four figures stood around the lantern upon the polished bar, their leathers roughshod in the way of mercenaries. Cowled with their heads down, they conversed in murmurs, the edge of a knife catching the light as one gestured at a vellum spread upon the bar. Elohl cursed internally. His destination, the highwall in the furthest depths of the cavern, could only be accessed by the natural stone arch behind the bar. To get to the stair-access, he had to maneuver past the nighttime agitators. Determination snarled through him and Elohl edged along the kegs, his senses tingling. Moving out of the deepest shadows, he kept low – creeping towards the stone stairs.

“Ho, there! Halt!”

A war-roughened voice ripped the darkness and Elohl froze, his pulse thundering in his ears as heads turned. A burly man cursed and pulled a knife as a slender weasel of a fellow hurried to roll up the vellum. But the laughter of a woman came then, blonde hair shining from beneath her thieves’ hood as her leather-buckled figure rounded the bar. The dry-sour scent of cider reeked from her as she sidled close, along with a cloying jasoune perfume as she reached up and uncowled Elohl – her smile lecherous.

“Yurgas! You’ve scared the poor Penitent half to death!” Her blue eyes glimmered as she put a black glove to Elohl’s face, then slid her hand down his neck, stroking his jerkin’s high collar. “You’re built like a heron, lad! So slender and tall. And with such lovely storm-grey eyes. What a waste in a Jenner!”

Elohl blinked, realizing she thought he was of the priesthood, the Jenner Penitents that brewed the concoctions which filled the alehouse. He adopted the ruse, placing one foot behind the other and dropping into a bow, two fingers to his lips in the manner of a Jenner. “My Lords. My Lady. Blessings upon you in this late hour.”

He felt the agitators ease. But if they had ever truly looked at a Penitent, they would have known the young man before them wore no Jenner garb. Elohl’s long charcoal leather jerkin was quadrant-split for fighting, with blackened steel buckles etched with the Kingsmount and Stars. His hood was oiled leather rather than cloth, flowing seamlessly into his jerkin to keep off rain. Even though he’d not worn his sword across his back tonight, only dual longknives on his harness, to politicos his Alrashemni Kingsman garb would have been unmistakable. But Kingsmen were a rare enough sight across the nation that meeting one never happened for some folk. So these brigands believed as they wanted to believe, and saw a Jenner Penitent walking his Mercy in the early hours.

“Here lad.” The swarthy man behind the bar growled. “Have a pull and go. Bar’s closed.”

A thick glass tumbler slid across the polished stone of the bar, straight to Elohl’s fingertips. His nostrils caught the tang of distilled cider and he knew his best option was to play the ruse. With a nervous chuckle, Elohl picked up the tumbler just like a Penitent might if discovered coming down for a drink in the dead of night. “Just a taste, I suppose.”

“Not so pure after all!” The woman laughed, urging the tumbler to his lips. “Have a sip, lad.”

Elohl gazed at the amber liquid, wondering if it would be his last drink this side of Aeon’s Oblivion; or if it would be a mourning for his kin who might see oblivion today. Either way, a drink would ease his nerves. Tossing it back, Elohl clapped the tumbler to the bar with a grimace. Jeers greeted his buzzing ears as he fought to not cough from fumes screaming up his throat.

“Three whole pulls! He drinks like the High Brigade!” The man behind the bar laughed. “Jenner sure can keep his liquor.”

“Ain’t no Jenner.”

A battle-rough voice spoke again from the darkness, and the place in Elohl’s gullet where the cider had passed cooled in terror as he realized his ruse was forfeit. His gaze flicked to the shadows; to the man who had marked him. Elohl’s skin tingled, feeling the man’s predatory gaze like a war commander, and he forced himself to pin the mercenary-commander with a gaze as stern as his father’s. It was a Kingsman’s stare, and the man hesitated in the darkness. But though Elohl had his father’s strong, sinewed build, at twenty years old he was only a Seventh Seal – unfinished. He hadn’t the experience of commanding men to war; he hadn’t matched his skills against a hundred enemies yet.

The mercenary-commander saw it. Stalking into the light, the man’s bear-thick bulk tensed, roped scars upon his left cheek twisting up into a malicious snarl. “If he’s a Jenner, he won’t fight me. If he’s a Kingsman, he will.”

“Now, Yurgas! The lad couldn’t be a Kingsman!” The blonde spoke as her gaze flicked uncertainly between them.

“Oh, he’s a Kingsman.” The brute’s blue eyes were cold as iron upon Elohl. “See that pride in his gaze, that ramrod spine? Pride and training. And Kingsman Greys, even tooled with the right sigils.”

“They’s on to us?” The skinny fellow rasped urgently. “You said they got no clue what’s in for ‘em tomorrow night—!”

“Still your tongue or lose it!” The commander barked.

“I only thought—”

“You didn’t think, so shut your hole. This one’s barely of age, ain’t you boy? Just shy of your Blackmark, scared and pissing yourself.” A cruel smile twisted the commander’s lip as his iron-blue gaze perused Elohl. “Your kin would be here carving out our hearts right now if they knew you were caught in a devil’s lair listening to privileged information. But you’re alone, aren’t you? The Kingsmen don’t know what’s in store for them tomorrow. And so they’ll come to the palace in a few hours, just as you’ve come tonight, without backup. Meaning that your presence here is happenstance. And no one will ever know what happened to you.”

Suddenly, the mercenary-commander lunged – a dagger in his meaty hand. A ripping sensation seared Elohl’s neck and he twisted, the slash cutting only air where his neck had been. Launching to the wall behind the bar, Elohl scurried up as the marauders cursed. A tingle of instinct rippled Elohl and he dropped his right hand just before a knife hit the stone where his hand had been. Regaining his grip, he climbed like the eloi lizards for which he was named – as more knives went whirring upwards.

“Skewer him, dammit!” The commander rasped. “The Lothren will send us to Halsos if tomorrow’s events play wrong because of a single lad!”

Below, two mercenaries began climbing, their scrabbling peppered with grunts and oaths. Though the commander’s words chilled Elohl’s veins with ice, he missed no holds as he angled up the highwall. Cursing himself for missing critical information about the Kingsmen’s fate this day, sparks caught his attention far below and Elohl scrabbled faster, realizing what was about to happen.

“Heave! Hit him, dammit!”

With roars of glee, the mercenaries sent liquor-bottles with flaming spouts whizzing through the air. Smashing upon the highwall, blazing spirits doused the stone to Elohl’s right. Gouts of fire surged as another bottle smashed to his left. Elohl’s only option was up as a third bottle smashed below his foot. His lungs pumped air as smoke choked him, but he was above their throws now. Opening his sensate sphere, Elohl felt for the high corner where the item he’d come for was supposed to be, the item Ghrenna had seen in her vision.

A talisman that had the power to save the Kingsmen from whatever was coming.

Moving with his senses, Elohl found the gap in the wall Ghrenna had described, just below a rift that led out to the night. Anchoring with fingers and toes, Elohl tucked his nose to his shoulder so he could breathe as he reached a hand into the gap. Touching a wooden box, he fished it to the edge. Coughing as smoke burned his eyes, Elohl snugged a finger under the metal clasp and flicked the lid open. His fingers touched a moth-eaten velvet lining, then a filigreed object. Retrieving the item, he squinted at it in the cavern’s red light. An ornate metal clockwork the size of a medallion gleamed in his palm – layered with precious metals like a puzzle, with thirteen spokes like the Jenner Sun.

Elohl’s gut dropped as his chest compressed. The box was just as Ghrenna had described it, but the object was all wrong. Look for a ring of star-metal, of a dragon fighting a wolf around a drop of blood, Ghrenna had told him three days ago, her voice hollow from her trance. But this wasn’t a star-metal ring at all. And as Elohl held it, a sensation suddenly speared him like the clockwork was burning. Lancing up his arm like fire ants, it drove through his body, knifing his heart. Elohl gave a violent tremor, nearly losing his grip upon the wall as his heart clenched. His hand spasmed into a fist around the clockwork as a blistering rage surged through him. But as quickly as the feeling overpowered him, it fled.

And then, the clockwork broke.

A cry escaped Elohl, the despair of a man with all the gods against him. Quickly, he opened his hand but the damage was done; the item was in pieces. Smoke was thick and Elohl choked, his throat burning, his limbs weak from whatever the clockwork had done to him. A mercenary scrabbled for purchase beyond the flames and stuffing the clockwork into his belt pouch, Elohl lifted his chin, smelling the sweet night breeze beyond the smoke. Muscles of his torso and thighs bunching, Elohl hurried up through the rift in the top of the cavern, and emerged upon the roof of the palace.

Doubling over in the grey-opal dawn, Elohl coughed hard, eyes watering from burning vapors as his limbs trembled. Curses pursued him and Elohl hurried across the palace roof, vaulting boulders tumbled from the mountainside. Suppressing his anguish, he coughed hard as he ran. He had to return the item he’d found to Ghrenna; perhaps her vision had changed in the hours he’d been away.

Perhaps a new one had come to explain this unexpected turn.

That thought was all he had to spur him as he ran. Next to a grand dome, Elohl backed over toes first, finding rough handholds where the carving-out of the palace met the Kingsmount. It was hundreds of lengths to the ground from the Upper Tiers, but he made his way steadily down as he managed his breath and fatigue. A tingle in his foot led him left, a pulse in his other foot led him right, until he found a crevasse that got him down to the paving stones behind a weaver’s shop. Dawn blushed the eastern peaks of the Kingsmountains rose and gold.

But the lightening sky could not brighten Elohl’s despairing heart.

Picking up his feet, Elohl ran. A dark shadow melted to his side as he streaked through the dawn city, his twin sister Olea keeping easy pace. His twin was a soothing balm to his torpid emotions, entering his wyrric sphere like sunlight upon a frozen lake. Darting through alleys, Olea’s shadowy form leaped benches and ducked awnings with serenity, longknives flashing in her hands as she ran.

Elohl’s twin was as fine as her blades, her slender height honed into effortless grace as she spoke with unruffled breath, “Did you get it, Elohl? Was it there?”

“No.” Elohl didn’t break stride though his breath was ragged. “The box was there, but not the star-metal ring. This was there instead.”

Ducking into an alley that seeped with the acrid tang of a tannery, Elohl halted, unbuckling his leather pouch. Opening it quickly, Olea’s pale opal eyes narrowed upon the item, her straight dark brows forming a line. Setting her jaw, she looked up, then buckled the pouch to her own belt with fast fingers.

“We’ll discuss this later. I can hear five men following. And – something else.”

“Five? There were only two following me out the top of the cavern—” Elohl glanced back down the alley. But Olea’s wyrric hearing was keener than a wolfhound and Elohl knew better than to gainsay her. They ducked down the alley, back the way they had come tonight as rough stone workshops and taverns now abandoned their spectral nighttime forms. Elohl’s heart sank as he skimmed over the paving stones. Unbuckling his jerkin, he tugged his shirt lacings open as he ran, baring the Inking upon his chest, the black Kingsmount crowned with five stars. He rubbed the still-tender marking, illegally Inked by Ghrenna just three days ago.

Elohl didn’t deserve it; he hadn’t earned it yet.

But they might be the last marks Inked upon any Kingsman now that their task had failed.

Racing under the Watercourse Gate, Elohl found the guards still sleeping from the pith-crest Olea had slipped into their ale earlier. Speeding out into the chatter of the Elhambrian Forest, they streaked to the mossy grotto from whence they’d come. In a group of boulders burbling with a natural spring, a man-sized Alranstone stood, covered in arcane glyphs with three eyes carven into it – the Stone they had come through hours ago. The eye at the top began to open as they approached, some ancient wyrria transforming the gray-blue byrunstone to a gleaming inset of lapis. Splaying his hand towards its blue iris, Elohl called out his name and lineage as he ran.

“Elohl den’Alrahel, den’Urloel, den’Alrashesh! Blessings to the Kingsmen! Blessings to the Alrashemni—”

But before he could finish the words that would activate the Stone, Elohl felt something slide into his mind. Not the rush and tingle of the Stone, this was a smooth current of wyrria, arresting his mind like a tide’s flow takes a ship. Causing the incantation to fall from his lips as it caught him, he stumbled to a halt beside the Stone. Pulling at him, it made him turn like a nightmare; gazing toward the edge of the clearing.

There, in the grey hues of dawn, a behemoth stalked them down. Beside Elohl, Olea was captive also – held by the approaching presence. The black monstrosity chittered as it came, its massive claws clacking like language, segmented legs punching the moss. In the growing light, the scorpion’s chitinous plates glittered like stars, black with a horrible allure. Arching over its broad back, the behemoth’s tail was ready to strike, its high barb shining with a drop of poison in the sun’s first rays.

A man rode upon its back. Dressed in a herringbone-weave leather jerkin so black it ate the sun’s rays except for shining silver studs, the man’s face was hidden inside his deep hood. Maneuvering with only a touch of his hand, he rode the scorpion without a saddle, an enormous longsword with a black-wrapped handle strapped to his back. The man’s dark eyes stared Elohl down from the shadows of his hood – and a quicksilver sensation swept Elohl, rolling him. He collapsed, one knee driving into the earth, his hand upon the Alranstone the only thing keeping him upright as Olea gave a sharp cry and fell to her knees also. Horror swept Elohl as the man smiled deep within his hood – and the quicksilver sensation inside Elohl’s mind formed speech.

I can’t let you leave, boy. Not with what you have witnessed tonight. Open for me. Open your mind. Spill for me what you saw, what you heard…

Vast weaves of silver light slammed into Elohl like a tidal wave hitting a jetty. Terror gripped him as he felt his mind break, shredded open for the scorpion-rider. But suddenly, from his hand upon the Alranstone, a presence went humming through him like a thousand bees. A warming glow filled Elohl as the Stone’s massive eye came fully open, flooding the glade with blue light – and the final words of the Stone’s incantation were thrust into Elohl’s mind.

Trapping Olea’s hand beneath his, Elohl screamed out, “Open Stone of Alran, pass me free!”

Blue light dimming, the Alranstone acquiesced to his command. The black rider’s face contorted in fury as he vaulted from his scorpion, drawing his massive sword with a roar, swiping down to sever Elohl from the Stone.

But he was too late. In a flash and a clap of thunder, Elohl and Olea were threaded into the Alranstone’s core. Elohl screamed in agony as his innards contorted with a searing wrench, his body twisted into a mobius. Sunbursts flared before his eyes as emptiness filled his lungs like being rolled beneath ocean waves. But before he could focus upon any of these things, he and Olea were spat out upon the other side.

Stumbling to their knees in a clearing far from the grotto, breathless and retching.

Copyright Jean Lowe Carlson LLC 2016. No part of this content may be reproduced or shared without the author’s written permission.

NEW EXCERPT! After the Kingsmen Chronicles...

SPOILER ALERT!! READ NO FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE FOLLOW-UP SERIES TO THE KINGSMEN CHRONICLES YET!!!

Hi lovely fans!

I know it’s been a while since I checked in, and it’s been a busy spring! I’m bringing to life a brand-new pen name for fantasy romance, which has been occupying most of my time to get three books out this summer.

You can check all that out below if you’re interested :)

https://www.avawardromance.com/

But as ever, my heart constantly turns back to the Kingsmen Chronicles, my mind waking me up at 3am wondering “how is Elohl’s story going to go now that he’s got some space”?

Well, I’m happy to give you the start of that story today. :)

I wrote this passage right after I finished Goldenmark, thinking about how it might be if Elohl and Eleshen ever met up again. How would they feel about each other? What would they say?

Who would Eleshen be riding with, and can Elohl see her as the new, powerful person she’s become? And what would she notice about him now that he’s done being a hero?

Well, he’s not done. :)

Like a good tragic hero, Elohl will be called into the fight once more as the follow-up series takes off to fight the big, bad evil for the entire epic. And no, that wasn’t Lhaurent…

So here it is. Enjoy the first part of Elohl’s story post-Goldenmark, and I’ll check back later in the summer with more!

***********

CHAPTER 2 – ELOHL

Silence settled around Elohl den’Alrahel, blanketed by snow. Sipping a mug of elder-bloom and cinnamon tea, he sat in his chair by the open kitchen door, watching the morning. Bright with promise, sunlight glinted off every smooth mound of snow beyond the porch. A fire burned in the hearth of the small inn, another gave heat to the cheery kitchen from the cast-iron ovens, the good smell of rosemary bread wafting through the crisp morning air. Smoke eased up from the inn’s chimneys, skirling off into a cloudless blue morning.

Company had come yesterday, a trio of Elsthemi hunters passing through to the Elsee. A bawdy bunch, they’d brought Klippas-ale and sung late into the night. But they’d departed on their sledge at dawn, pulled by six stout hounds with wired-haired coats, before the sky had settled from rose into cerulean. They were on their way to the Elsee now. Elohl had gotten the latest gossip; that King Therel Alramir and Queen Elyasin den’Ildrian Alramir had commissioned a week of winter sport at the border as further celebration of their nations’ unity. 

Celebrations that had lasted – in one way or another – all winter.

Ever since Elohl had sent the Rennkavi’s Dawn through every heart on the continent.

The hunters and their sledge-mutts were the first of what Elohl expected to be a busy week for his inn. But now, the morning was calm and bright, steam curling off fresh snow as the sun lit it with diamonds. A red-crested driller fluttered to a cendarie branch above the eaves, digging in with claws and hammering the stout bark with its long beak. A chorus of peeping rose, and Elohl watched an ululi-wren flutter to her brood in a niche upon the riverstone chimney. Depositing her meal into little beaks, she fluttered off with a flash of crimson wings.

A smile touched Elohl’s lips as he sipped his tea. He rose from his porch-chair, one he’d joined together during the long months since Darkwinter, and moved in through the open kitchen door. Taking up a rag, he opened the cast-iron ovens and fetched out his morning bread with a long ashwood paddle, sliding the round loaves to the kitchen’s long trestle-table. Sprinkling the loaves with coarse salt, he moved to a stew-pot upon the stove, stirring his venison mitlass. The rest of the six-point buck he’d brought down with his yew bow yesterday was now salted and hanging in the pantry. Ready to weather the rest of the winter – or however long it would last through this week as revelers passed through.

Moving back to the porch, Elohl resumed his seat, watching the Elsee road curling with steam, the limbs of cendarie over the road bending with wet spring snow. Once, the sight of thick, draping branches like that would have made him cold inside. Back in the High Brigade, snow like that meant winter was ending and the spring thaw had come – thaws that could shift glaciers and kill men by the thousands. But only a vague darkness passed through Elohl today, watching the beauty of the white-on-white glimmer rather than a shadow of death. 

His Goldenmarks lit with a slow flare at the open collar of his shirt as Elohl allowed himself to sink into the peace of the morning. His rooms were cleaned, the laundry freshened, and food was ready. He needed to chop firewood and check that spot up under the barn’s eaves that had begun to drip, but unless company came today, he’d only need to go out hunting for snowhare or grouse today.

Even the copious ale he’d imbibed last night with his rowdy guests could not break his ease today. A plop came as a cendarie-frond shed wet snow near the porch. Elohl blew on his tea, watching the steam form patterns in the air. His Goldenmarks moved with his breath and Elohl watched them where they whispered upon the backs of his hands. Sometimes he thought he could read their curling script and flowing glyphs. But then the moment was gone – ephemeral as the steam swirling up into the chill air. 

Suddenly, his sensate sphere began to tingle. Far off, he could feel movement through the morning – a party approaching along the Elsee road. Elohl closed his eyes, expanding his senses upon the tide of his breath. His gift had become like a second set of eyes, expanded a hundredfold since he’d gone through the Rennkavi’s Ritual. Power breathed through Elohl now; a power he could never stop. In the crowd of a city it was madness, feeling every beating heart for leagues. The claustrophobia he’d experienced at Roushenn Palace during Darkwinter Fest had been overwhelming – the tingle and lance of the Goldenmarks among thousands of people deafening. But out here in the mountains it was a blessing, showing him where the buck browsed, where the doe bedded down for the day. Where the snowhares burrowed, and when sleek wild keshar-cats slid through the trees. 

And when company approached – friendly or foul.

Elohl watched ten riders moving through the early day with his gift now, his eyes closed as he breathed quietly in the sunlight. Feeling them out as they approached, he noted each person rode upon the liquid grace of keshar-cats. War bristled about them, though the party was calm. The smooth sensation of leather armor, the sharp, deadly edge of cold steel; battle-axes, polearms, and longswords. 

Elohl’s brows knit as he opened his eyes. They were Elsthemi – keshari riders, still a half-league off. Probably some of High General Merra Alramir’s riders passing through, using the Elsee road as access between their wedded nations of Alrou-Mendera and Elsthemen. He could hear them around the snowy bend now, joking with bawdy laughter and ribald songs. The keshar-cats made no sound as they padded through the fresh powder, though the Elsthemi made plenty of it. 

They rounded the bend and Elohl finally saw their motley leathers and shaggy furs. Silver pins glinted at their collars, and the sight brought Elohl to his feet. Something inside him darkened, watching that silver catch the sun. Elohl’s nerves wound tight as they approached. 

Until he heard the booming barrel-laugh of one of King Therel’s Highswords. A man he knew – Lhesher Khoum. 

Riding at the front of the column, he saw Lhesher’s lion-mane of braided red hair and his cascading braided red beard as he roared a laugh to a slighter, tall fellow with good shoulders beside him. A fellow with a half-shaved head and curling Elsthemi dragon-tattoos on his scalp, Rhennon Uhlki, a man Elohl also knew as one of General Merra’s elite war-Captains. 

A strong, beautiful alto joined their laughter. That voice curled around Elohl, jangling him, making his Goldenmarks flare under his loose shirt and laced leather breeches like the morning had caught in blue-white fire. Riding behind Lhesher upon a dappled grey keshar-cat, a slender yet curvaceous woman flicked her long sable braid back over her snowhare pelt as she laughed in charcoal battle-leathers. Her gaze found the smoke curling up from the inn’s chimneys and her laughter ceased. And then her eyes, luminous as violets in the rain, found Elohl standing on the kitchen porch. She cocked her head as an amazed smile touched her full lips, her cheekbones still high and fierce, even though her new appearance was shocking. 

Eleshen den’Fenrir.

Talk ceased. The Elsthemi halted their cats, watching Eleshen amble hers over the snow to the porch. With an incredulous smile she halted before Elohl, gazing down from her cat’s shouldered height. Her eyes roved Elohl’s Goldenmarks, watching them flare in the morning. And then she gave a throaty laugh and vaulted to the porch with her natural feistiness and a new, uncanny grace.

“Elohl den’Alrahel! I should have known you’d be here.”

“Eleshen,” Elohl breathed, amazed. 

He didn’t know what to say. All thought left him as he stared at her. Eleshen had been lovely before, but she was a dagger in the morning now, incredible. Some part of Elohl cursed himself – knowing he’d had her in his hands once and let her go. She was gone now; Ghrenna was gone, and Olea too. And though Eleshen stood before him, she was another woman now – a Kingswoman and keshari rider, wearing the silver mountain-and-stars pins of Merra’s elite forces.

Not to mention Dhepan of Quelsis, the most powerful city in the eastern reaches.

“Did you know that absolutely everyone’s been looking for you these past months, Elohl?” Eleshen laughed, pinning him with her eyes, accusatory and amused. “And here you are! Right smack under our noses, keeping my old inn like a common bartender. Or were you just pining away, waiting for me to come visit you?”

That last was said with a grin, but it held bite. Elohl didn’t think Eleshen would ever forgive him for abandoning her in Lintesh last Highsummer, even though it had been to save Queen Elyasin from assassination. Even though she’d been launched upon her journey to becoming a Kingswoman and reclaiming her birthright in Quelsis because of it.

“I wanted someplace quiet, someplace out of the way.” Elohl stated truthfully. “I’m no-one’s sword now, Eleshen. The intrigue and politics of Lintesh isn’t where I belong.” 

“And the only place you could think of to call home was my old inn.” Eleshen’s gaze softened, something sad in it as she gazed upon him. “Oh, Elohl!”

And then she was flowing forward, seizing him in her arms, hugging him fiercely. His hands went around her waist. His nose was in her hair, breathing in her honey-lavender scent. Something warming filled Elohl to be in her arms again; to be welcomed back despite what an idiot he’d been chasing after destiny. They breathed together a long moment and then she pulled back, catching his face in her hands and planting a brisk kiss upon his lips. 

You! I could just throttle you!” Eleshen shook him like a wayward puppy. Elohl laughed. Something bright rushed through him, flaring his Goldenmarks. He growled, hauling her up around the waist in his hands. His strength was far more than it had been, hefting her high off the snowy porch as Eleshen gave a breathless laugh and kicked her legs, slapping his shoulders. “Put me down, Elohl, put me down! Aeon’s stars…!”

He did, though he crushed her in his arms again before letting her go. “It’s good to see you,” he breathed into her hair. 

You have been too long in the woods alone.” Eleshen huffed, slapping his shirt, though she smiled as she gazed at him. Reaching out, she stroked his short winter beard with her gloved fingers, admiration in her eyes. Something still shone there for him and it twisted Elohl’s heart, feeling her love. Even though he’d broken it, ruined it, and she’d fallen in love with another man because of him, there was something good inside Eleshen that could never be broken. It showed in that moment as she smiled at him, unabashed and kind.

A throat cleared behind her, the big, booming sound of Lhesher Khoum. “If you’re done accostin’ the lad, step back and let the rest of us have a go, woman!”

Eleshen’s violet eyes widened, and she stepped back with a flush of embarrassment. Lhesher Khoum vaulted from his cat-saddle, barreling up the snowy steps to crush Elohl in a massive embrace. “Ho, lad! Never thought ta see ye here! But glad I am!”

“Get any fuckin’ out here worth a damn?” The purring alto of Jhonen Rebaldi came next as she vaulted off her big tawny cat. Fierce with a mane of bright orange hair done back in a crest of braids, Jhonen had an eagle’s talon pierced through one ear, raven’s feathers braided through her bright mane in the renegade Highlander way. Her corseted fighting leathers featured shaggy wolf-pelt chaps, a black wolf-pelt buckled around her broad shoulders and a massive broadsword slung across her back. The tallest, strongest woman Elohl had ever seen, she moved in, fondling Elohl’s crotch with a lurid grin. “I hear yer a free man now, lowlander, released from service to Queen and country. Enjoy it while ye can. ‘Till yer trapped between my thighs.”

Elohl laughed at her sassy bravado, so very Jhonen. He seized her in an embrace, undoing the flirtation. She laughed, slapping him on the back, then grabbed his butt. He chuckled, but they both knew it was not to be as she stepped back with a wide grin. 

Rhennon Uhlki had left his cat now and vaulted to the porch. He gripped arms with Elohl, his red-brown eyes pleased beneath his half-tattooed head, a ready smile on his lips. “Elohl. Good ta see you.”

“Rhennon,” Elohl murmured with a smile. “May Highland nights keep you warm.”

“Depends on how well a swordsman keeps an inn,” Rhennon chuckled, glancing up at the riverstone building with its stout cendarie timbers. “Not too bad, from the smell of it.”

“Breakfast?” Elohl asked, glancing around the group. 

“I smell mitlass and rosemary bread,” Eleshen gave a teasing pout. “Stealing my recipes, are we?”

“Improving them.” Elohl gave a smile, gesturing inside. “I’ve beds enough for eight, if you’d like to stay a night or two. The rest can sleep with the cats in the barn.”

“Eight beds will do for all of us. You forget that Elsthemi bunk up when it’s cold.” Eleshen shouldered past Elohl into the cheery kitchen as she flashed a teasing smile back over her shoulder. Moving to the stove, she fetched polished wooden trenchers from the shelves as if she’d never left. Elohl had kept her intuitive system, and Eleshen moved around her old kitchen with ease. 

“Aye, lads!” Lhesher gave a whistle back toward the rest of the group. “Lead the cats around ta the barn, then come in fer some breakfast!”

The keshari riders whistled their approval, then began stalking the cats off the road. Elohl turned, inviting the commanders into the kitchen with a beckon. The Elsthemi stomped their snowy boots off at the threshold and tromped inside, casting off furs as they flopped to a seat at the long trestle-table. Flasks came out and were passed around with eager sighs. 

Throwing up her boots on the table and drawing on a silver flask, Jhonen extended it to Elohl. “Whiskey?”

“What kind?” Elohl reached for the flask as Lhesher kicked Jhonen’s boots off the table. 

She glowered at Lhesher, a hot, sexy look, before answering Elohl. “Me own kind; piss an’ vinegar an’ not much else. I think ye might like it, lowlander.”

“I just might.” Elohl took a swig and the liquor burned down his throat in a searing wave, seven times stronger than the concoctions he brewed. He coughed, his eyes watering as he handed it back. “It’s good.”

“It’s just awful!” Eleshen quipped as she moved in with full trenchers of stew and butter from the crock, setting everything down. “How you drink that swill, Jhonen Rebaldi, I’ll never know! Now I have a distillery out back and some herbs—”

I have a distillery out back and some herbs,” Elohl smiled. 

You never purchased this place,” Eleshen shot back with a teasing pout.

“You didn’t either.”

I fixed it up. It was falling apart when I came here.” She spat back. “In any case, if you’ve put those long, lean muscles to use Elohl, and the few brains in your head, I hope you’ve made something nice from my carefully-kept liquor-works?”

“Indeed.” Elohl rose with a smile, fetching the glass decanter containing his best elder-bloom liquor off the top shelf. When Elohl had come here after Darkwinter, he’d discovered Eleshen’s brew-house behind the barn, full of buckets of honey chilled among piled sacks of wheat. Elohl had cleaned her fermentation barrels and distillery, and his first batch of elder-bloom honey liquor had been a drunken hit with guests. Though the Elsthemi would probably drink him out of hearth and home tonight. Taking down five crystal glasses, he filled them with honey-golden beverage. Passing them around, he lifted his glass. “To old friends.”

“And new memories.” Eleshen spoke. Elohl caught her glance, feeling everything that had passed between them this last tumultuous year. His Goldenmarks flared in a slow wave of rippling blue-white fire. Elohl felt their burn, smooth like the liquor about to go down his throat. His gaze connected to Eleshen’s and he saw her return it, fierce and sad. He could see her bad memories in that gaze; bad memories that would never die. Torture and transformation; love and loss. Elohl could feel her heart in that moment, blazing like a star in the darkness – a light that would never quit, no matter how bad things got.

“And new memories,” Elohl murmured quietly.

A rousing cheer went up from the group as all clinked glasses. The Elsthemi drank, draining their glasses and slamming them to the table with roars. 

Copyright 2019 Jean Lowe Carlson LLC. All Rights Reserved. No part of this content may be reproduced or distributed without permission from the author.

GOLDENMARK is out!

IT'S HERE!

GOLDENMARK (The Kingsmen Chronicles #3) is now available on all major retailers!

Get GOLDENMARK on Amazon

Get GOLDENMARK on iBooks, Kobo, and B&N

What a ride! I have been working like a demon on this book – every day, most nights, and through meals, so I can bring you the best Kingsmen Chronicles novel EVER!

Seriously, I'm so proud of this one, and I really hope you enjoy it. :)

Favorite characters return, the enemy you love to hate wrecks havoc, and Elohl and company battle back in this heart-pounding conclusion to the first trilogy!

What Readers Are Saying: 

"An awesome sit on the edge of your seat ending to an amazing series! This book is full of all the twists and turns you expect from this award winning author. Descriptions are so realistic you want to hiss (and sometimes I did) at the villains and cheer when the tale twists the good characters way. Totally enthralled with this series. Highly recommend!" – Lady Lightning, Amazon Review

"A fantastic book! heart-pounding and emotionally satisfying. The author has created a unique magic with incredible characters and a thrilling plot. Full of unpredictable twists and turns. You will find in this book everything a fantasy lover enjoys. I highly recommend this book!" – G. Walden, Amazon Review

But wait – there's more!

The Kingsmen Chronicles doesn't end here. The story will continue in a prequel series about Leith Alodwine and the Scions of Khehem, and the entire saga will end with a future trilogy that brings back all the current characters for the truly epic conclusion! 

And hey, if you enjoy the book or the series, please leave a review on your favorite retailer! Every review helps us get the best exposure for this series and drive it up the charts to reach more people who love epic fantasy!

Thanks for all your support, and for helping make this series a reality. I couldn't do it without you all – and I look forward to weaving this magic for years to come!

Onward to glory!

Jean

Goldenmark Release Date is Set – Pre-Order Now!

Ok, all you Kingsmen Chronicles fans, the release date for GOLDENMARK is set for Sunday, August 12th, 2018, so "mark" your calendar!

Pre-order is now available on Amazon, you can find that here

I'm so excited! Are you excited? Let me know if the comments below! :)

Onward, Jean