I promised you fiction…I bring you fiction! Complete with introduction! I anticipate posting twice a week, which should take five weeks to finish this story. Starting with this wee introduction:
While I was finishing work on my final Sentinels book, I was invited to write this daily Featured Read for the Harlequin site–relationship-oriented as all the Nocturnes are. And yes, with a bit of explicit spice because all Nocturnes have that, too.
It had to be under a certain number of words, divided into equal chapters, and complete unto itself. Also, because it ran the entire month of October, culminating on Halloween, it needed to touch on the season.
In the end (to maintain my own sanity) I wrote the story to the targeted word count, divided it, and created transitions as necessary.
The story itself was as magical in the writing as I could have hoped for–it had its own character and epic fantasy tone, and flowed readily from my brain. It’s one of my favorites now, and I won’t be surprised if it always is.
When Arlie Parker sang to the earth that winter solstice day, she didn’t expect it to shout back at her.
The shout was masculine, deep and harsh and full of promise, and Arlie stopped mid-note as two brawny bodies burst out of the rugged arroyo bank opposite her singing tree.
Burst out of the arroyo bank.
There was no mistaking it. The arroyo was a thing of steep sides and scant growth, with piñons jutting at precarious angles, junipers gnarling along the slopes, and ice clinging along the otherwise dry channels at the bottom.
But the rocky banks were otherwise largely devoid of brush, both due to the season and due to the nature of the harsh southwest environment. If Arlie’s acreage hadn’t been in the Sandia Mountain foothills where the altitude made for four seasons and snow pack, there’d have been less of it yet.
As it was, there was just enough of a stunted juniper to cushion the landing of the two men who burst out of the arroyo bank. No fuss, no muss, no explosion of dirt. They weren’t, and then they were.
Arlie stopped singing, gloved hands curling up in surprise.
Not only bursting out from nowhere, but half clothed, their bodies glistening with sweat and blood.
They meant to kill one another, that much was clear. There was no mistaking their ferocity, their grim focus on the battle in spite of the fact that they were, quite suddenly…
Arlie sank back into the bower of her singing tree—a clump of trees, actually, a juniper with arching limbs now outgrown by the piñon it once sheltered—and gave thanks for the faded brown of her chore coat and the muted colors of her scarf and gear bag.
They hadn’t noticed their this can’t be real change of scenery—just maybe they wouldn’t notice her existence, either.
Can’t. Be. Happening.
But it was. And the men moved like nothing she’d ever seen, dodging and dealing blows she couldn’t imagine even surviving. One stood taller and brawnier, his skin glinting brown in the sharp winter sun, his scalp-tight hair springing out in clumps from a cloth tie. He dealt the hardest blows, grunting with effort.
The other wasn’t quite as tall, not quite as brawny, more tightly cut. His skin shone a smooth cinnamon and shaded slightly darker at his eyes, shoulders, and collarbones; it paled on his defined abdomen. His hair brushed below his shoulders with a forelock that fell everywhere and the sides drawn back into a high tail.
Somewhere along the way he’d taken hard hits—blood streaming down the side of his face, a gash on one arm. But he was still the faster of the two, the more precise with his blows. They clashed, they tumbled, they battered—and then suddenly it was over, as the brawnier man stumbled heavily back, arms flailing, eyes rolling upward.
He would have fallen heavily in the dirt had he not disappeared in much the same way he’d arrived.
The victor stood alone, his shoulders briefly sagging, his head tipped back. Just breathing, each exhalation only briefly fogging the cold, dry air. Now Arlie could see the row of studs in one ear and the small, detailed tattoos placed inconspicuously on his collarbone and temple. His pants—his only item of clothing—were loose enough for the movement he’d needed, tailored enough to highlight the beauty of his form.
When he took a final deep breath and opened his eyes, he looked straight at her.
Arlie forgot how to breathe, stunned at herself for forgetting to be afraid.
“Your singing,” he said, startling Arlie anew. She hadn’t expected the rich sound of his voice beneath the lingering strain of recent effort, and she definitely hadn’t expected the man who’d burst into her arroyo from nowhere to speak plain vanilla English.
She tried to convince herself that she could run if she had to. She knew this rugged land so much better than he. She should have stayed quiet anyway, but she didn’t. She said, quite nonsensically, “Aren’t you cold?”
She had no idea why he laughed so wryly, or why the sound of it warmed her. He rotated the shoulder that looked to have taken some damage, gave her a look that said he knew exactly where she was, and walked back into the side of the arroyo.
“Hold on,” she said to the thin, crisp air and the trees and the craggy sides of the arroyo looming around her. “What about my singing?”
Arlie had always made music. She had always walked the land and always treasured her solitude. Not that she didn’t enjoy an evening with friends, but she’d constructed her life to make those times into moments of choice. A small house, a small medical billing business, quiet days. Three cats inside, chickens and goats and a carefully nurtured vertical garden, and just enough activity on the Internet to keep touch with her brother in California and her sister in Tennessee.
Add to that the food shelf volunteer days, casual dates, and bird watching hikes in the nearby Manzanos—not to mention visits to the singing tree throughout the seasons—and she wasn’t looking for change.
She certainly wasn’t looking for a man to come charging out of the sandy New Mexico soil, wage battle, and so matter-of-factly leave the same way he’d come.
She wasn’t expecting to be intrigued by him, either. More than his beauty, more than his presence or his prowess.
Even more than the bizarre circumstances of his presence in the first place.
She thought perhaps it had been the look in his eye. The one that said he’d known she was there all along and that he had an appreciation of her ability to hunker in silence instead of shrieking away.
In her mind, she didn’t tell him what a close thing it had been.
In real life, she didn’t expect to ever see either man again. She waited a few days, and then simply returned to routine—taking an instrument when the weather allowed, humming to herself along the way when it didn’t, and sitting a while beneath the singing tree when the weather and time and inclination all aligned.
Then came a late afternoon in early February when Arlie bundled herself up and went out to sing, and a man tumbled out the side of her arroyo. He rolled all the way down to the narrow bottom where the summer monsoon rain would wash through.
Arlie very nearly leaped up to greet him—and then she thought it might not be him at all. Foolish to assume—especially when this figure, rather than being half-clad, tumbled away in a flapping array of dark robes, flowing sleeves and long graceful panels gone awry.
So she waited, but when the man sprawled to an awkward stop in the dried grasses of the sandy arroyo wash, he didn’t spring back to his feet. Instead he exhaled a faint groan that only seemed to make him lie more heavily over the ground.
Arlie waited an eternity of a moment. Would another man come bursting through? Was this one truly insensible and safe to approach?
Twice she started to rise, her heart beating a fast tattoo in her chest. The third time, she crept out from beneath the singing tree, hands quite suddenly cold inside her gloves as she grabbed for purchase on low deadwood.
He didn’t move. No one else arrived. Your singing, the man had said, so Arlie clamped her mouth shut just in case.
She wasn’t a slight woman. She was lean and strong and more angular than she preferred. An active person who thought of herself, generally speaking, as being able to take care of herself.
But either of the men she’d seen two months earlier could have done as they’d wished, to her or with her, here in this remote back acreage.
Surely not the one who’d spoken to her. Not with the laugh he’d given her.
How such a singular, abbreviated sound could linger so strongly, making such an impression—leaving her with the absurd belief that she knew him…
She crept from the cover of the singing tree and down to the swirl of graceful robes and awkward limbs. From ten feet away she caught a glimpse of a strong nose and cheekbone to match, and that tiny tattoo where cheek disappeared into hair.
She covered the remaining distance in flurried movement, dropping to ease the fold of his robe from his face—and then reached out to the mat of blood and hair at the side of his head, not quite touching it. “Must you fight?”
His eyelids fluttered. To her utter astonishment, a ghost of a laugh sounded in his chest—that same dry amusement, evoking that same ridiculous flutter of warmth.
As if she knew him. As if she cared.
She, who interacted with the rest of the world on her own reserved terms.
He said, just barely, “Fighting is what I am.”
“Why?” she demanded, as if she had the right. And in second thought, “Who? And where did you come from? How did you get here? Are you even really here at all?”
“Your singing,” he said. He stirred, clearly a preparation to rising.
She kept him down with a press of her hand. “Give it a moment. Something hit you pretty hard.”
That ghost of a laugh again. “Something did.”