It's been a loooong time coming, but Shenandoah, book 2 in my futuristic sci-fi flavored Mother Earth series (which kicked off with the short story Dragon's Kiss), is finally here. Yay! I'm excited :D Read on for the blurb and the first chapter. Rated R for violence, blood & guts (a bit), nudity and hawt man-kissing :) Enjoy!
© Copyright 2010 Ally Blue
The weakness he fears could be his lover’s only hope.
(Mother Earth, book 2)
Bear has never regretted leaving his old life behind for his exotically beautiful lover, Dragon. Following his heart, though, has left them in need of a home. There’s only one place he can think of where they can be together and be happy. Shenandoah. A place of myth—until he encounters signs that it’s a real place that lies somewhere to the north.
Dragon doesn’t share his lover’s faith that it even exists, much less that it will live up to Bear’s high expectations. Yet they are Brothers now, bound by love and so much more. No hardship will keep Dragon from Bear’s side. Even if it means nothing but disappointment waits at the end of their journey.
Danger lurks in the wilderness, the ruined cities of the lost Old World, and especially within themselves. As Bear’s quest for a new home becomes a spirit journey of mystical power, Dragon doubts his own strength—an unbearable shame he tries to hide deep within. But when a chance encounter turns into a fight for survival, Bear’s life depends on Dragon’s ability to put his doubts aside…and dare to hope.
(Warning: This book contains knife fights, cannibals, mysterious ruins, and dirty sex between warrior men)
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Dragon’s knife opened the last grime-crusted belly from groin to rib cage. The fevered light died in the big man’s eyes and he crumpled to the ground in a puddle of his own bloody intestines.
Bear eyed the five motionless bodies strewn among the weeds. “That’s the last one, for now.”
“You think there’s more?”
“I know there are. Several times this number, most likely. They always move in groups.” Large groups, generally, to counter the strength of the Packs that protected every tribe. Lifting his arm, Bear mopped sweat from his brow with a relatively clean patch of sleeve. “They scatter during the evening, capture who they can, then gather at some prearranged spot after dark for their fun. I think we were supposed to be part of the night’s entertainment.”
A muscle twitched in Dragon’s jaw. He crouched to clean his gory knife on the back of the dead man’s shirt. “The light’ll be gone in another hour or so. We should find a safe place to spend the night.”
Squatting beside the nearest corpse, Bear wiped the blood off his stone blade as best he could using the man’s pants. The vest the dead man wore looked suspiciously like cured human skin, which did nothing to make Bear feel better about the area where he and Dragon now found themselves. He scanned the silent ruins looming like jagged black teeth against the red-orange of the sunset sky. “There’s no safe place in this part of Char.”
Dragon stood, raking a stray lock of his waist-length braid out of his eyes. “Then we need to find the most secure spot we can.” He looked down at his blood-splattered clothes with a frown. “And we need to bathe, if we can find water. We’ll draw every animal and nightfeeder for miles around if we don’t.”
“Yeah.” Keeping his knife in a loose grip, Bear studied the pattern of crumbling buildings around him. It had been two years since he’d last walked through this section of Char, on the patrol where his Pack had lost Rabbit, but the area ought not to have changed much. “There used to be a cistern nearby where water collected when it rained. We can bathe there.”
“It ought to be full after the storm we had last night.” Something scuttled through the vines climbing the metal skeleton of what had once been a building a stone’s throw away. Dragon tensed, knife whipping up. He relaxed when a rat emerged and raced off into the lengthening shadows. “Can you find it again?”
“I think so. There’s several pretty intact buildings near it where we can spend the night and be as safe as it’s possible to be around here.” Bear eyed the sky. “Which is good, because we’re running out of time.”
Dragon glanced up. His expression didn’t change, but Bear saw the apprehension behind the hardness in his eyes. They’d known each other less than three days, but Bear could already read Dragon better than he’d ever been able to read any of his Pack Brothers, with the possible exception of Lynx. If he tried hard enough, he sometimes felt like he could look straight into Dragon’s mind. And he knew Dragon saw him just as clearly.
The knowledge left him feeling exposed in a way he never had before, a way he couldn’t quite explain even to himself. It was terrifying and exhilarating, and he wouldn’t have traded that feeling for all the wine in the Carwin Tribe Council’s stores.
A quick sniff of the air told Bear the only creatures close by right now were rats, squirrels and a couple of wild cats crouching in the ruins. Throwing caution momentarily to the winds, he strode forward, curled a hand around the back of Dragon’s neck and kissed him hard. Dragon grunted in surprise, but his mouth opened anyway to let Bear’s tongue in. The hand not clutching his knife grabbed Bear’s ass in a bruising grip.
Electricity jolted up Bear’s spine. In spite of the constant danger he and Dragon now faced—danger he knew wouldn’t let up until they were well clear of Char—he didn’t regret leaving the Carwin Tribe and his Pack for Dragon. His heart and his gut told him he’d made the right decision.
“We’ll be okay,” Bear murmured when the kiss broke. “Come on.”
The corners of Dragon’s mouth quirked upward. He slipped out of Bear’s embrace and they moved through the weeds together, Bear scanning for landmarks while Dragon kept an eye out for any signs of people. Carwin Tribe members never strayed this far from their walled city, not even the Pack unless they were on a special patrol. Therefore, any human beings other than the two of them were enemies.
Like the five men lying dead in the dirt behind them. Bear had encountered their type before. Bloodthirsty butchers who’d slice a man open just for the pleasure of watching him die, then skin him and clothe themselves in his flesh. String his teeth together for a necklace.
Bear preferred the nightfeeders. At least they only killed for food.
Not that these nomadic bands were above a little cannibalism. The bodies and bones they left behind showed tooth marks often as not.
The glint of light on water caught the corner of Bear’s eye. He swiveled toward the gap in the buildings to his right at the same time as Dragon. “There. I see it.”
Dragon nodded. “You smell anything?”
Bear sniffed the air. Greenery, damp earth, animal dung, charred wood. People had been here, but not in the last day or two. “Nothing to worry about. I’ll go first. You watch my back.”
They moved through the narrow space together, knives at the ready. The remnants of last night’s rain pattered from the vines overhead onto Bear’s shoulders. After the day’s oppressive, muggy heat, the cool drizzle felt good.
A few seconds later they emerged from the shadows into a wide clearing surrounded by some of the tallest, best preserved structures in the ancient city. Not a breath of breeze stirred the soupy air. In the middle of the clearing, ringed by a tangle of wildflowers, tall grasses and young trees, sat a large, rectangular stone cistern full to its knee-high brim with water. The sunset reflected dazzling orange off the flat liquid expanse. Bear squinted against the glare.
“What’s that thing in the middle?” Dragon asked as they approached the cistern. “It looks like a plant, but it isn’t, is it?”
Bear eyed the piece of stone rising from the center of the water like an enormous petrified blossom. “No, it’s not a plant.” When they reached the edge of the cistern, he motioned to Dragon to skirt the perimeter in one direction while he did the same the other way. “It’s part of the cistern. Made by the people of Char, before the Change. Other than that, I don’t know. Nobody does.”
Dragon turned away and began his circuit of the reservoir without another word, but not before Bear caught the spark of excitement in his eyes.
Bear waited until he’d put his back to Dragon to let the threatening grin tug up the corners of his mouth. He knew exactly what Dragon was thinking, because he was thinking the same thing. Knowing someone besides himself who could be catapulted into old-world daydreams by a mysterious hunk of stone gave him a strange, warm sensation in the pit of his stomach. He liked it.
They met on the far side. Rising on tiptoe, Dragon kissed the corner of Bear’s mouth. “Everything still smell clear?”
Bear nodded. “No nightfeeders hiding nearby. No nomads, either. They’ll be here, though, eventually.”
Dragon’s gaze darted sideways toward the blackened, stone-ringed circle in the grass a few paces away. “Theirs?”
“There’s no way to tell for sure, but I think so. Carwin Tribe Pack doesn’t camp in the open inside Char, and nightfeeders don’t build fires.”
“Maybe we should find another place to hole up for the night.”
“There isn’t anyplace as secure as the buildings in this area. Besides, we don’t really have time to hunt for another spot.”
Dragon’s brow creased with a frown, but he nodded. “You’re right. We’ll just have to hope they won’t sniff us out.”
“We’ll make sure they don’t.” Bear wormed his knife-free hand into the back of Dragon’s pants, one finger sliding into the sweat-slick crease between his buttocks. “What about you? Did you see anything?” He’d learned the previous night—their first night in the Char ruins—that Dragon possessed incredibly keen vision. In fact, his night vision was nearly as good as Lynx’s, and Bear had never known anyone who could see in the dark as well as his former Pack Brother.
Dragon shook his head. “I looked in between all the buildings. Nothing.” He hissed and clutched at Bear’s shoulder when Bear’s finger pressed against his hole. “Great Mother, Bear. Here? Really?”
“No.” Regretfully, Bear pulled his hand out of Dragon’s pants. “But I wish we could. I want you.”
Dragon peered up at Bear with a heat that turned his simmering desire into a sharp, aching need. Unable to help himself, he fisted his hand in Dragon’s hair and took a deep, rough kiss. Even as their tongues curled around each other and Dragon moaned into his mouth, Bear’s senses remained on high alert, and Dragon’s body twitched in his grip, ready to jump at the slightest sign of danger.
After a few searing seconds, Dragon pushed him away. “Let’s get clean and find a good spot to spend the night. Then I’ll suck your cock until you forget your own name.”
Bear’s prick, already half-hard, jerked and swelled. He grinned. Dragon grinned back, gray eyes glittering, and Bear laughed out loud. “I’ll get the soap.”
* * * * *
Later, in the deepest part of the night, Dragon sat staring past their small fire into the yawning blackness while Bear slept. Dragon had only managed a couple of restless hours before the noises woke him. The sounds wound their way in from outside, along the clogged passageways he and Bear had navigated after their bath, down the steps, through the remains of the thick metal door and past the detritus of the centuries to the corner of the huge, high-ceilinged room they’d picked as their hiding place for the night. Yells, whoops, coarse laughter, songs with words Dragon was glad he couldn’t make out.
When the screams started, he’d stopped trying to sleep through it and taken his turn at watch early. With food and water plentiful as they’d been so far, he could stay awake two days at a stretch easily enough. He’d sleep when they got free of this Mother-forsaken city.
He turned to study Bear, who lay curled naked on top of a thick blanket—they’d hung their wet clothes over a hunk of rusted metal near the fire to dry—with one arm folded beneath his head and his other hand curled around the handle of his knife. His face, hard and dangerous when waking, softened in sleep to the point where Dragon had to resist the urge to stroke his cheek. Though no one would ever mistake Bear for anything but a warrior, he looked young and almost sweet with his features slack and eyes closed.
Great Mother, those eyes. Dragon had never seen anything quite like them—amber-gold, with a gaze sharper than the best-honed blade. Sharp enough to cut a man to the bone.
Or make him come without being touched. Dragon smiled, remembering how a single heated look from Bear had him spilling his seed on the forest floor without a hand being laid on him not so long ago. And that look was definitely what had sent him over the edge. Not the big, muscular body, or the strong hands gripping Lynx’s hips while they fucked, or even the cock so long and thick it was just this side of scary. No, the thing that did it for Dragon was those eyes that pierced him straight to his core.
After a lifetime of the twisted games it took to stay alive in the Ashe Tribe, honesty had become his greatest aphrodisiac. Bear radiated honesty like heat from a wildfire.
Something shuffled through the debris in the darkness on the far side of the room. A small, stealthy sound, barely audible through the muffled shrieks from outside. It came from the corner opposite the room’s only exit. Dragon rose to his feet, every nerve on edge. He and Bear had made sure the room was empty and the door barricaded before settling in for the night, but complacency never got you anything but killed.
He picked up the makeshift torch Bear had prepared earlier in case they needed it and lit it in the flames. Moving with a silence born of long practice, he skirted the fire and paced toward the source of the noise, among the cluster of rusted, half-collapsed metal shelves against the far wall. He darted a glance around the periphery of the torchlight as he went. Nothing stirred in the stillness. Behind him, Bear’s breathing remained deep and even.
That, more than anything else, eased some of the tension from Dragon’s shoulders. Char and the surrounding area were Bear’s territory. He’d been here with his Pack often enough to know its dangers well. If the noise Dragon had heard belonged to anything more threatening than a small animal, the sound and smell of it should have woken Bear instantly.
When he reached the edge of the shelves, Dragon heard the sound again. It was clearer this time—the soft skitter of tiny feet on a surface mired in centuries of decay. Keeping his knife at the ready, Dragon leaned around one of the more solid old shelves and peered into the narrow space between it and its neighbor. The firelight caught the frantic kick of pale little paws and the whip of a tail as a blur of dark fur bolted through a crack in the wall.
Dragon let out a near-silent laugh. A rat. Just a rat, scavenging for food. A few hours ago he would’ve wondered what self-respecting rat would look for food here, of all places, but no longer. The remains of campfires dotted the floor of this room and several others in this building. The newest was no more than ten or twelve days old. Evidently a lot of travelers used this place, though he and Bear had both been baffled as to who those travelers might be. Bear swore his Pack had only ever made camp in this building a few times, and not recently.
With no need to stay here, Dragon pivoted to go back to the fire. A pattern of black lines caught the tail of his eye from between the sagging metal racks. Curious, he walked around the corner of the last shelf and thrust the torch forward. Cobwebs draped the space between the shelf and the wall. A large black spider scurried up a piece of metal and out of sight into the shadows. Under the dust and dangling silk threads, the torchlight revealed crooked words scrawled in what looked like charcoal across a fair chunk of the wall.
Writing. Oh, Mother.
Dragon’s pulse picked up. In the Ashe Tribe, only the tribal Mother and the council were allowed to read and write. Anyone else caught doing so got thirty lashes for their trouble. Dragon had almost got caught once himself, sneaking his single, precious book out of the Pack camp and into the forest to read in rare and blessed privacy. He’d hidden the book in its old spot beneath the cupboard in his parents’ house that night. He hadn’t held a book or seen a single written word since.
Heart pounding, Dragon paced closer. He swept the cobwebs out of the way and brushed the film of dust from the stone wall. His eyes watered as he traced the words with his fingertips, sounding them out in his head one by one. Scowling, he scrubbed the moisture from his cheeks. Damn dust.
Outside, a woman’s wail cut off with an abruptness that spoke of a swiftly slit throat. An ominous silence descended. Dragon glanced in the direction of the door just in time to see Bear round the end of the shelves.
“That was the last one,” Bear said unnecessarily. “They’ll settle down and be quiet now, most likely. I’ll take watch, if you want, so you can get some sleep.” He frowned at the wall. “Is that writing?”
“Yes.” Dragon turned his attention back to the smudged and untidy markings. “I’ll stay on watch. I don’t think I could sleep anyway. The more quiet they are up there, the more I’d lie awake waiting for them to come looking for some other way to entertain themselves. We’re good, but we can’t fight off all of them at once. There’s too many.”
Bear shuffled over, wrapped an arm around Dragon’s waist from behind and squeezed. “They’re done for the night. They’ll butcher the bodies for whatever food they want and leave the rest for the scavengers.” Ducking his head, he planted a kiss behind Dragon’s ear. “Come back to the fire. Sleep for a while. I’ll keep watch.”
The warmth of Bear’s body and the low rumble of his voice made Dragon want things other than sleep. But he couldn’t ignore the tale scribbled in charcoal on this ancient wall. It might’ve started with a dream—probably had—but that didn’t change the fact that it had apparently ended with the same journey he and Bear had set for themselves. Ignoring it would be stupid, if only because of the possibility that they might be following the trail of one of Bear’s tribe-mates.
Dragon tilted his head sideways, baring his neck for Bear’s wandering kisses. “The night before last you told me you can’t read, but your Brother Rabbit could. Are the Carwin Tribe members allowed to read and write, then? Or is it just the Pack?”
“No, anyone can. Most people just don’t see the need.” Bear nipped at the spot where Dragon’s neck joined his shoulder, tearing a soft sound from him. “Mmmm. Come back to the fire, and let’s fuck. I bet you’ll sleep after that.”
Dragon’s knees nearly buckled when Bear’s hand slipped between his naked thighs to cup his balls. “So. Oh. Are there many in Carwin like Rabbit?” He leaned back against Bear’s big, solid body, legs planted apart, and rocked his swelling groin against Bear’s palm. Great Mother, it felt good.
“Mother Rose. Most of the council. A few others.” Taking his hand out from between Dragon’s legs, Bear cupped his chin, tipped his head back and peered into his eyes. “Why are you asking all these questions? Is it because of that writing on the wall?”
Dragon nodded. “I was trying to figure out who might’ve put it there. And when. I thought someone from Carwin would be the most likely.”
“Probably. Although no one comes into Char but Pack, and we only ever patrolled this area a few times.” Bear cast a thoughtful glance at the wall. “I don’t think it could’ve been here more than a few weeks. The charcoal wouldn’t’ve lasted much longer than that. What does it say?”
Resting his free hand over Bear’s where it laid on his belly, Dragon read the words aloud. “las nite, The Grate Mother taked my speret on a jurny. we flied over char, way up over the beldins, then over the river an th big grass, an up in the mowtin far off, to an vally hided away. She say its name like Shenandoah, i rite the leters jus like it how She tell me. it wuz so buteful, an all th peepls wuz so happy. im goin ther just lik how The Mother show me. if you is redden this, you go to. north, at the mowtin. ever body ar hapy at Shenandoah.”
In the quiet following the end of the strange passage, Dragon heard Bear’s breath quicken. The arm around Dragon’s waist cinched tighter. He twisted to look up at Bear. The sudden light in his eyes told Dragon his suspicions had been right.
He clutched Bear’s wrist. “Bear?”
“The Great Mother took my Brother Raccoon on a spirit journey once, during a drought. Our main spring had dried up. The next day, he followed Her directions and led us straight to a new water source.”
“So you think this story is real?”
Bear’s eyebrows went up. “Don’t you?”
Dragon didn’t answer. He’d known too many people who’d used supposed “spirit journeys” to talk their way out of tight spots.
He shifted in Bear’s embrace. “What about Shenandoah? What do you think it is?” He thought he knew, but he wanted to hear it anyway.
“That’s the tribe I was telling you about. The northern tribe where anyone who wants to join is welcome, and the only law is that you can’t harm another person.” A tremor ran through the big body pressed against Dragon’s back. “That’s where we’re going. Shenandoah. And now we know how to get there.”