Friday, March 25, 2016

Interview With Author Timothy Scott Bennett

   I had the pleasure of interviewing Timothy Scott Bennett, author of All of the Above and the soon to be released sequel, Rumi's Field.  In this interview he talks about his books, his love of science fiction, and his support of indy authors.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Author Timothy Scott Bennett
   I'm married, with grown children. Living on the East Coast, in Maine and North Carolina. I made a feature-length documentary. I've done broken-tile mosaics and stained glass and watercolors. I've lived in two "intentional communities," acted in local theater, and performed stage-combat in Pirate Festivals. I play the drums and sing. I've studied anthropology, religion, science, filmmaking, and philosophy. These days, my focus is almost entirely on my writing career. My stories and characters call to me to write them, and I'm fascinated by the process by which an author finds his or her readers.

What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?
   My current project is called Rumi's Field, due out this summer. It's the second book of a planned trilogy I call None So Blind. It picks up the story I began in Book One, All of the Above, after three years have passed. I had a good idea where Book Three would go, but needed first to bring my characters to some vital choice points, the results of which would set up the conditions for the rest of the story. I also had a character who was demanding to be heard.

Coming Summer of 2016
How would you categorize your book?
   For the purpose of marketing, it goes into the broad category of Science Fiction. Subcategories would include Adventure, Alien Invasion, and Dystopian Future or Post-Apocalyptic. But while there is truth in all of these labels, they feel inadequate as descriptors. The story is an adventure, to be sure, with kidnappings and chases and confrontations. There are aliens present in human affairs, but their "invasion" is not the sort we've been taught to think of, with fierce battles, exotic weapons, and nasty creatures. And while the slow unraveling of present social structures serves as the background against which my characters move and act, my books don't use a grim, post-collapse landscape as a character unto itself.  To my mind, the books are also a philosophical romp, of sorts, and an attempt to ask deep questions about our present collective situation, about who we shall be in this time, and about the rising of a new paradigm through which we might view the nature of reality itself.  Above all, my first responsibility is to tell "a rollicking good tale" filled with a "cool cast of characters" that people can love and relate to.

Introduce us to your series characters.  What is it about these characters that appeal to you as a writer?
   The trilogy follows the American President, Linda Travis, as she learns about, and then confronts, the deep human-alien conspiracy hidden in the unseen folds of the fabric of world government and power. Along the way, she meets Cole Thomas, a widower with three children, who aids her in her task and eventually becomes her husband. In All of the Above, they must confront Agent Theodore Rice, a rather entertaining but very dangerous sociopath. In Rumi's Field, their opponent is known as the Fisherman, a "kinder, gentler" member of the hidden elite ruling class. While there are lots of secondary characters, these four stand out as primary.
   In terms of appeal, all four of these characters fascinate me. They're exploring options of who and how to be in the face of extreme circumstances, finding inside themselves qualities, limitations, motivations, and talents that they didn't know they had. I was especially interested in seeing how a really "good" President - smart, open-minded, unburdened by special interests - might respond to the present world situation.

How did your books come to be titled and how do the titles relate to the stories?
Available at Amazon or Smashwords
   The title All of the Above is a way of speaking of the presence of many and varied "non-terrestrial intelligences" active in the Cosmos, and some in human affairs. It's also a way of speaking of the complex, paradoxical, multifaceted, and often seemingly contradictory nature of experience and truth.
   The title Rumi's Field comes from a famous poem by the Persian poet Rumi, which begins "Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I'll meet you there." The main conversation between Linda Travis and the Fisherman centers around the future of the human species, and the many "rights" and "wrongs" we assign to certain ideas, words, and possibilities.

Tell us more about the cover design.  How involved were you with creating the cover?
   Pretty involved. Both my wife and I are visual artists with lots of design experience. Sally's especially good with fonts. For All of the Above, we had her daughter helping as well. I'm happy with the cover for Book One, as it looks great as a tiny thumbnail. I've only got a mocked-up rough draft of the cover for the new book, but really like the colors.

Tell us something about your book that isn't mentioned in the synopsis.
   All of the Above has copious amounts of f-bombs, to the point that one reader did a count and wrote to tell me about it. As a personal challenge, I've written Rumi's Field without a single f-word. It was instructive, and quite fun, to do so. And I think that that difference in language mirrors the difference between the major protagonists of these two books. Agent Rice is a walking f-bomb of a man. The Fisherman is much more measured and calm.

Give us a summary of your book in a tweet.
That's a fun challenge!
All of the Above: President Linda Travis confronts an alien-human conspiracy, an unraveling global infrastructure, and the nature of reality itself.
Rumi's Field: As the world unravels, President Travis meets with a member of the secret elite to discuss the reduction of the global human population.

How much of your experience is in your book series?
   I can find parts of myself in all of my  characters, and they're all experiencing challenges and exploring situations and ideas which have long been of interest to me. And I've drawn on people and details of my life as I've written. I have, for example, like Cole Thomas, lived in an intentional community. I've been a primary caregiver to three children. Cole's brother Obie was inspired, in part, by a good friend who has since passed on. Linda Travis has more than a little of my second wife in her. And I have my own nasty yet witty impulses, like Agent Rice.
Describe your writing process.
   I've likened it to remote viewing, that so-called "paranormal" art of viewing other parts of time and space from the vantage point of a non-localized consciousness. I tend to get ideas and hear voices and see situations and notice characters, as if they are downloading into my mind, and then I follow my characters around and watch what they do. Lots of writers have described a similar process.  I don't start with much. I gather some notes. Jot down a few ideas about where I think it's going. Then I close my eyes, tune in, and watch it unfold, doing my best to write down what I see and hear and experience. And then I do it again and again as I edit, trying to see and hear with ever-greater clarity, and to express it in a way that the reader can share the experience. It's a very fun way for me to go. Lots of surprises.

Describe your writing environment.
   I wrote the first draft in Mac's word-processing app Pages on my iPad while lying on my stomach on the floor, to preserve my back from long bouts in a chair. I'm doing my editing and marketing from a loveseat in the sunroom, with two monitors, for lots of space to edit, research, design, etc.  Always, I have headphones on, and music playing. What I don't have is a cat, to cuddle against my legs and get in my way. I need one. Except I don't.

How much research did you put into your series?
   I use research mostly as a way of getting clear about, or confirming, what I "saw" while "remote viewing."  As an example, in All of the Above, I watched my characters flee to Canada, get on a train, and travel to Ottawa, all of which came as a surprise to me. On the first draft, I just wrote what I saw as best I could. But I knew very little about Canadian border crossings, the Canadian railway system, or the streets and buildings of their capital city. So I did enough research to allow me to add useful and particular details to the tale. I felt like I was winging it, but one Ottawa resident told me that it all sounded right to him. All praise to the mighty Internet.

What are your hobbies, interests outside of writing?  Do any of these activities find their way into your books?
   I think my writing springs directly from my lifelong fascinations with the world environmental situation, the UFO enigma and other "fringe" topics, and the psychology of humans and human groups and institutions. When I finally started drumming rock beats on a kit a few years ago, I was served by a lifetime of listening. As I write science fiction, I am similarly served by a lifetime of reading and study. As I like to say, and as I've named my blog, "everything is research." Anything I might learn or encounter or practice or be fascinated by can show up in my stories.

What is the best advice and harshest criticism you have received as an author?
Best advice: keep going, said to me in a variety of ways by many people over the years.
Harshest Criticism: I should go back to doing what I was doing before, said by an Amazon reviewer of All of the Above, who did not care for my abrupt right turn from serious documentary to science fiction, or at least my science fiction, which was termed a "blarney of fairy tales."
What I have learned: I can't please everyone.

What advice might you give aspiring authors?
   Don't change who you are or what you write in an attempt to please, placate, entice, or satisfy your fantasized audience. Write as you must write, as fully yourself, and trust that there are others out there who will resonate and align with your words, and who will find you only if you are true to yourself.

What kinds of books did you read as a child?  Did the genre you read most influence your decision to become an author of the kind of books you write today?
   While I've read widely in many genres, my first and truest love is for science fiction and fantasy. These are the realms, to my mind, in which the most compelling examinations of human psychology and culture unfold, and in which the deep spiritual questions of meaning and purpose, future and past, and the nature of reality itself, are being asked. That's the realm I wanted to live in, so naturally I've written myself right into it!

What specific authors or books influenced how and/or what you write today?
   Hmmm... who pops to mind right now? Stephen R. Donaldson. Kurt Vonnegut. Larry Niven. Arthur C. Clarke.  Orson Scott Card.  Douglas Adams. I love how Daniel Quinn put compelling conversations in the mouths of fictional characters, and try to do the same. Card does this as well. I love Vonnegut and Adams for their humor, and may try my hand at something more akin to Vonnegut's spare, funny, yet tragic and richly-nuanced style in some future work. I can be pretty wry in person, but haven't really tried to make that happen on the page, though I must admit that there's a cat in Rumi's Field, Mihos, who quite cracks me up. I love Donaldson's rich world-building and Niven's pacing and adventure. There are so many to love. I just soak them in, and trust that they are changing me somehow, making me ever better at my craft.

What types of books do you read now for pleasure?
   Right now I'm reading and very much enjoying a couple of Indy sci-fi novels: LifeformThree by Roz Morris and The Journal of Dr.Colwyn Rhys-Myers by Iain Walsh.  I plan on writing full reviews of both when I finish with them, and publishing them on Amazon, Smashwords, and on my blog. I feel like it's important, as I work to find my own "Indy" audience, that I be familiar with, and supportive of, my fellow Indy authors. Let's help raise the tide of quality and lift all the boats, bringing the acknowledgement and respect due to those self-published authors who really deserve it.

What is next for you?
   Publish Rumi's Field this summer. Continue working on the first draft of Book Three: Imbolc. Continue to school myself in the "entrepreneur" side of the self-publishing gig. I'll continue to write my almost-daily blog, Everythingis Research, in which I'm exploring not only my novel writing, but my experience of Asperger's Syndrome, with the long term goal of writing a non-fiction book on the subject. 
   Beyond that, I have my "compelling vision" of getting the None So Blind series of novels turned into series television. I've already written a pilot episode for that, to help me explore the possibility, though I'd really rather not write the translation from book to video myself. And I'm working on the pilot episode for a totally different series idea I have, something more in the Parenthood/ Transparent vein. Somewhere bouncing around out there, waiting to be "remote viewed," is a second series of science-fiction novels, loosely connected to None So Blind. And there are other books, like the above-mentioned novel inspired by Vonnegut.

You can reach Tim at the following places:


Blog: Everything is Research

Twitter:  @TimothySBennett
Publishing Company: Blue Hag Books 

All of the Above is available now at Smashwords  or  Amazon

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Summoning - Chapter 5

The Summoning (working title)
Chapter 5
      Erick awoke and saw Ryan was gone, but he didn’t worry. He knew he woke Ryan earlier with his returning nightmare and hoped he hadn’t bothered him too much. He’d fallen asleep feeling quite safe, trusting these people would protect them if the Drahuillin showed up, but it still wasn’t enough to keep the black images out of his dreams.
      He got up, mulling over the brief conversation from last night and trying to figure out the source of his curiosity. As he wandered over to the edge of the clearing to get a drink from a water skin hanging on a low branch of a bordering tree, he thought maybe he was just being nosey. He admitted that was partly the reason, but there was something more, something not making sense about Ryan.
      After taking a drink, he heard someone approaching and glanced over his shoulder. His curiosity turned to unease when he saw the cold glare on Ryan’s face and the stiffness in his posture. He ran through things he might have done to piss Ryan off. All he could think of was he woke him up too early this morning.
      Ryan walked right up to the water skin next to Erick, glaring at him the whole time. Erick decided to pretend not to notice his mood. “Have you seen Shayla this morning?”
      Ryan gave a snort. “You’re so pathetic.”
      Erick felt the sharp jab of the words. “What?”
      “I can’t believe you like that thing!” Ryan’s eyes stayed focused on his face.
      Erick felt himself flush, whether out of anger or embarrassment, and he saw Ryan’s smirk grow. “She’s nice,” he muttered.
      “You need to wake up and realize why she’s being nice to you. We were brought here for some reason. They need us, and she’ll do anything it takes to make you willing.” Ryan paused. “It won’t take much. We’ve already seen you in action. All you need is a tail to go with your panting tongue.”
     Erick’s mouth began to open even though he had no words ready. It didn’t matter because Ryan wasn’t going to let him say anything.
      “Don’t fool yourself into thinking she actually likes you.” He smirked while shaking his head. “Look at yourself. You’re just someone she can easily manipulate and you were eating it up. Even if she was seriously interested, you wouldn't know the first thing to do with a girl even if you were given a map. Just give it up and stop embarrassing yourself. It's painful even for me to watch.”
      Erick trembled, fists clenching. He never felt like hitting anything in his life, but now he wanted to feel his fist colliding with the side of Ryan’s face. Before he could act on the impulse, he whirled around and stalked off to get as far from Ryan as he could.
      What an asshole! The farther Erick got away from Ryan, the less he felt like hitting him, although he was still angry. Just when things appeared to be alright between them, Ryan had to blow it up. Shaking his head, Erick realized something was seriously wrong with this guy, but maybe there was something wrong with himself as well. He found himself too easily sucked into Ryan’s mood swings. The smart thing to do would be to write him off and ignore him, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Maybe he was pathetic.
      Erick wandered through the camp and found himself being drawn to the strange animals they rode in on. They were loosely grouped at the far edge of the clearing, staring silently at him with their large dark eyes as he approached.
      He held out his hand to the closest one and stopped. The tan creature brought its narrow head forward, the nostrils widening and narrowing as the animal took in Erick’s scent. Erick moved forward and reached out to stroke the long graceful neck. He began to relax while moving his hand along the length of the neck, letting his fingers sink into the soft hair.
      “They’re called ranallas.”
      Erick didn’t look at Shayla, but gave a quick lift of his chin to indicate he heard her. “What are you called?” he asked at length.
      “We’re Nahuil. I guess you could tell we’re not human, although we seem to be closely related.”
      Shayla came over and began stroking a ranalla next to the one Erick was petting. “Does it bother you I’m not human?”
      He thought about her question for a moment. “No.” He could tell she was watching him, but he wasn’t brave enough to face her. The words Ryan said were still in the forefront of his thoughts, overriding the urge to be polite. He kept his focus on the ranalla. “Does it bother you that I’m human?”
      “No,” Shayla said. The bit of a lilt in her one syllable answer suggested a laugh.
      Curiosity got the better of Erick and he turned his head to look at her. The soft curl of her lips and the brightness of those lavender eyes told Erick she found humor in his question. As much as the unusual color invited his attention, he shifted his eyes back to the silent animal in front of him.
      “Are you alright?”
      Now it was his turn to find the humor in her question. There were so many things not right, including himself. “No.” He gave a dry chuckle.
      Erick was going to leave it at that. Trying to explain how he felt about making sense of everything happening recently would lead him into unknown emotional territory. Silence was the safer option but he didn’t want Shayla to leave.
      He let out a deep breath. “It’s Ryan.” He was still rather pissed which would make the topic safe enough.
      “What?” She sounded confused.
      “The person I came here with … that’s his name.”
      “He doesn’t like me.”
      “I don’t think he wants to like me.”
      “Do you like him?”
      “No.” Then Erick winced and shook his head. “I don’t know. He just makes it hard.”
      “But you’re trying anyway … to like him.”
      Erick shrugged. “He’s the only thing I’ve got from my world.” He decided to take another step. “Why are we here?”
      The question caused her to bite her lower lip, but then she gave him a quick smile. “I’m already going to be in enough trouble for talking to you. By today’s end your question will be answered. You’re safe with us, Erick.”
      It was the first time she had said his name, dividing and stressing the syllables in a unique way, making his ordinary name sound foreign and exotic. He replayed the sound in his mind a few times and it left him trusting everything she said. It left him trusting her.
      Suddenly many of the Nahuil came to get the ranallas ready for riding. Shayla handed Erick two small sacks. “This is some food for our journey today. One for you and one for Ryan.”
      Erick instantly tried to give the sack back to her. “I don’t think he wants to see me now.”
      “I didn’t say you had to give it to him now. You decide when.” Then she smiled. “I know you won’t let him go too long without.” Walking away, she glanced over her shoulder, gauging his reaction.
      Erick watched her for a moment, then surveyed the clearing. Ryan sat on top of a large boulder, staring into the forest. His first instinct was to deal with this later, confrontation not being something he normally engaged in, but he found his feet taking him to the boulder. When he got within a couple yards, he saw Ryan sit up a little more, obviously aware someone was approaching.
      Erick worked to keep his tone even. “Hey, Ryan. Here’s some food for our trip today.”
      Ryan turned his head, and Erick saw a look of confusion trying to override the hard glare.
      He lobbed the small sack toward Ryan and tried to look at ease despite concentrating on his aim. It wasn’t half bad, and Ryan easily caught the bundle. “They’re getting the ranallas ready, so I think we’re going to be leaving soon.”
      Before turning to leave, Erick saw Ryan's eyes narrow. He smiled while walking away, savoring the unsettled state he had put Ryan in, even if only briefly. Take that, Ryan Warner. Take that.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Interview With Author Naomi Burke

   I had the wonderful opportunity to interview author Naomi Burke and learn more about her new release, Owned. This novella is a prelude to her upcoming novel, Walls of Jericho, which will be released later this year.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Author Naomi Burke
    My first attempt at a story was at about the same time I knew how to string compound sentences together. I wrote my first novel when I was twelve and got stuck halfway because I didn’t plan. Now that I’m all grown up I’ve spent the past four years honing my craft by doing ghostwriting, and it’s finally time to branch out and be the published author I’ve always wanted to be.
   I believe that writing is who you are, so I put everything I am into it. Even if it’s not always perfect. Even it’s quirky at times. Even if I know that I can still do better. There’s some meme I keep seeing that says you know you’re a writer when you get anxious when you don’t write. That’s me.
What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?
    My latest book is called Owned. It’s the story of a vampire’s human slave and how he fell into the life of serving the undead, how he wanted to get out of it, and what persuaded him to eventually stay. I was inspired to write it because the waiting that long for a book release was torture. I was too excited. It’s a teaser for my upcoming novel Walls of Jericho (to be released later this year) and the idea was to introduce some secondary characters and the world that I’d created for the real deal.

How would you categorize your book?
    Young Adult, Paranormal Fiction
Introduce us to your series characters.
      As I’ve mentioned before, Owned is a teaser or an introduction to the world and the characters in Walls of Jericho. Even though the main character is really just a servant, we get to know Julian the vampire who plays a huge role in the preternatural community. The human servant offers us a lot of insight into the world and the rules of the paranormal world, as well as the structures and the species that we’ll run into more and more.
What is it about these characters that appeal to you as a writer?
    What I like about all my characters is that they step over that barrier of limitations. The characters can do more, feel more, show more, than humans can, and that makes the writing and the reading fantastic.
Naomi Burke's New Release
How did the book come to be titled and how does the title relate to the story?

   Initially I meant to title the book Earned, but when I asked some of my friends to tell me what they thought they couldn’t see how it fit in. It didn’t make sense with the cover. It was supposed to be a play on owned, showing the end result. I ended up titling it Owned because it made more sense, and the cover is after all about first impressions.
    Owned works because it’s not just about the human servant being owned, but also about the fact that he came to a point where he managed to win back his own freedom, and make his own decision, so in a way he owns his own life in the end. It’s multi-dimensional.

Tell us more about the cover design.
    I design all my own covers. I have a handful of free image websites that require no attributes, and I use the images that fit. I use to get the right dimensions and the layouts.
Tell us something about your book that isn't mentioned in the synopsis.
    In the book we already meet Jericho, one of the main characters of Walls of Jericho, and the First Mate, the alpha werewolf’s female, who stars in the book that will be released after Walls of Jericho (Flightless Bird, keep an eye out). There are small clues that you’ll realize as soon as you read the full novel. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.
Give us a summary of your book in a tweet.
    When Robert is made a vampire’s human servant he needs to decide if his new life is worth living, or worth dying for #paranormal #YA
How much of your experience is in your series?
Naomi Burke's Upcoming Novel
    Everything I learned as a ghostwriter, and everything I’ve learned from my extensive reading. I made my mistakes while I sold off copyright to other people who were going to edit anyway, and now I’m ready to take on self-publishing with confidence.
Describe your writing process.
    I plan everything before I start - plot outline, characters, crises, climaxes, and setting. Then I put it all aside and start writing, sticking to it just enough so that I don’t get stuck, but letting the story do what it needs to. If I need to revise my planning I do, but mostly I just write and the characters work it out for me. Writing is, after all, what I’m here for.
How much research did you put into your series?
    Because it’s a world I created from scratch I rely mostly on what I know the paranormal and YA audiences want, and what I’ve learned from the books that I’ve read. Reading has always been my greatest research. To be great I study the greats. 
What is the best advice received as an author?
    The best advice I’ve received as an author was to reach out and not be afraid to ask for help or for likes or for reviews or advice. People aren’t not talking to me because I’m not good enough, they’re just not talking to me because they don’t know about me. The moment I started reaching out, others reached out to me, too.
What is the harshest criticism you have received?
    My harshest criticism was that my writing sounded nothing like my portfolio and that it was a disappointment. What can I say, I have different voices. Self-publishing is a much kinder playing field. 
    What kinds of books did you read as a child?  Did the genre you read most influence your decision to become an author of the kind of books you write today?
    As a child I was obsessed with horses. My writing now has nothing to do with my reading then. I only started reading paranormal about six years ago, and that’s where all my writing inspiration comes from. Not just the actual genre, but the writing itself. The paranormal authors I read have taught me everything about writing as a talent and a craft.
What specific authors or books influenced how and/or what you write today?
    Laurel K. Hamilton has taught me the beautiful braid of evil creatures and dry humor in her Anita Blake series. Richelle Mead taught me character development and the ability to create subspecies in Vampire Academy. JR Ward taught me all about action and passion and beautiful descriptions where love and lust were involved in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Patricia Briggs taught me how to create characters that don’t fit in with the norm and make them stand out anyway in her Mercy Thompson series. My writing is the product of all those great writers. They shaped me.
What types of genres do you read now for pleasure?
    I always read a lot of paranormal because that’s my favorite, but I also read authors like Jodi Picoult for her take on the law and her fresh writing, Jojo Moyes for Romance, and Meg Cabot for tongue in cheek humor. I can never just read for pleasure, though. As a writer I’m always analyzing the technicalities behind the craft, and a great book is not just a good story, but a well written one.
What is next for you?
    I would like to become independent as an author, so that I can put all my time into my own work and not the work of others. That’s my goal this year. As soon as that happens, the rest of my life can happen. More kids, a bigger house, a life with my family because we have room to breathe.

You can reach Naomi Burke at the following places:

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Summoning - Chapter Four

The Summoning (working title)
Chapter Four

      Well … It seemed like a good idea at the time, Erick thought ruefully, looking down at his bound hands. Only a matter of seconds had passed from his jumping on Ryan until the strange people converged on them with sharp pointed swords. He and Ryan weren’t asked any questions; in fact, their captors said nothing at all as they were quickly bound and hoisted onto the back of the animals the strangers rode in on.
      The unusual creatures mirrored the people they belonged to, thin and fragile. Narrow heads held large dark eyes and no manes softened their long necks. They reminded Erick of llamas with their short, thick light-colored hair, their silent nature, and their smooth gliding gait. They were a comfortable means of travel.
      He thought he’d done the right thing, but now they were captured, and Ryan was beyond furious with him. Ryan hadn’t looked his way even once since being pulled off him in the clearing. Only now did Erick understand his actions nearly got them both killed.
      Erick peered over his shoulder. Riding quite a few yards back, he spied the female he stopped Ryan from clubbing. He turned back before she noticed his staring. After his brief glance, he decided he’d done the right thing no matter what their present situation. He wasn’t sure if Ryan would ever agree. Thinking of Ryan caused a knot to form in the pit of his stomach.
      He slumped over to rest his head against the soft neck of his mount, lulled by the smooth gliding motion of the animal. He closed his eyes, the changing scenery no longer held his interest. But finally, oppressive gloom gave way to a new lightness. The trees were younger, not as massive, and sunlight broke through the thinning canopy in wispy golden shafts. Every now and then a faint breath of a breeze touched his face, but the forest still seemed never ending.
      “You look like you need to eat."
      Erick’s eyes snapped open at the sound of the gentle voice. He raised his head and looked cautiously to the left. Riding next to him was the small black-haired female.
      Startled by the abruptness of her approach and the surprise of hearing her speak English played havoc on Erick’s brain. He was already slow to process the things which were happening, but seeing her close up only made it worse. He couldn’t remember what she just said.
      Her brows furrowed as she studied him, then her attention turned to opening a large flap on what appeared to be a saddle pack. She reached in the large brown cloth sack and withdrew a cream-colored item that resembled a biscuit.
      Erick blinked, trying to focus his thoughts. Something about her eyes caught his attention, but his brain was in a fog, and he didn’t know what it was.
      She looked back to him and held out the food. “You need to eat.”
      Erick blinked again. Lavender. Her eyes were lavender. He never was a fan of purple nor any shade close to it, but this color was an intriguing mix of grey and blue with hints of violet he’d never seen before. He continued to stare at her eyes, still studying the unusual hue until it won him over completely.
      She smiled, a small one that brought a tender curl to her lips, apparently mistaking his blank expression for apprehension.
      “It’s safe. See?” She brought the biscuit up to her mouth and took a small bite. She swallowed and offered the item back to him, encouragingly.
      Still staring, he reached out with his bound hands. She scowled at the cords wrapped around his wrists, and her free hand went to her belt, drawing forth a small dagger. Before the sharp object could register in his thoughts, she passed the blade between his hands. The thin ropes fell from his wrists to land silently on the forest floor. While she sheathed her dagger, his eyes glanced to her nearest companion and saw the unmistakable look of disapproval.
      He looked back to see her smiling once again, and he took the biscuit from her. Erick took a bite and found it to be rather soft, but not airy like bread. It melted in his mouth as he chewed, and he enjoyed the flavors which reminded him of honey, nuts, and butter. He finished it in three more bites, feeling the fog lift from his brain.
      His eyes drifted, and he found her watching him with those lavender eyes. He knew his face held an expectant look because she laughed and asked, “Would you like another?”
      He nodded back, so she reached into her bag, withdrew another biscuit, and held it out to him. As he reached forward, she pulled the offering back out of his reach. Stunned, he glanced at her face and saw a playful grin.
      “Do you want me to take a bite of this one, too?” she teased.
      Erick smiled shyly back at her. “No, I trust you.”
      She considered his response while handing him the biscuit. “You should be careful in trusting so easily.” She grinned, but Erick could sense the truth in what she said.
      She continued to study him while he ate, and he became very self-conscious. He’d never been comfortable around girls, the necessary thing called conversation always tripping him up. He felt like a babbling idiot if he tried to talk to anyone he liked. Talking as little as possible seemed to be the best alternative, but it always would come across as disinterest to any girl he tried it on.
      To distract himself from her staring, he shifted his focus and caught the many glaring looks being given to her by her companions. “Your friends don’t seem happy you’re talking to me.”
      She surprised him by giving a short laugh. “They’re displeased I’ve chosen to trust you. They feel it unwise given the circumstances. Although, it might be safer if I knew your name.”
      “Erick,” he responded with a little more confidence.
      “Mine’s Shayla.” She paused as her eyes glanced over to Ryan. “Your friend doesn’t seem too pleased with you.”
      “He’s not my friend.”
      Her expression became puzzled. She asked a question different from the one Erick expected. “Why did you stop him from hurting me?”
      Erick felt his ears and cheeks warm, and he didn’t look at her when answering. “It was the right thing to do.”
      “But you didn’t know us nor our purpose. We could’ve killed you.”
      Erick shrugged. He couldn’t tell her the real reason, although what he told her was true. At the time all he could think of was she was female and pretty.
      “Your companion isn’t like you. I get the feeling he doesn’t trust anyone.”
      The source of the knot revealed itself upon hearing her words. Erick realized he violated whatever minute amount of trust Ryan had in him. His guilt spurred him into coming to Ryan’s defense. “He’s been cautious since we saw the others.”
      Her eyes narrowed. “What others?”
      The image of the dark riders entered his mind. He paled as the fear of them renewed itself. “They were … black.”
      “Drahuillin!” she whispered. Her voice stayed low, and she seemed to be talking more to herself than to Erick. “We came as soon as we could. Could they know?”
      Erick stared at her questioningly.
      She smiled at him with the same light curl of her lips, but it didn’t distract him from noticing traces of fear in her face and eyes. “I’m glad we found you, and we hope you’ll agree.”
      “I’m glad you found me,” the words tumbled out, and Erick turned pink, convinced he put too much emphasis on the word “you” and wasn’t sure what she would make of it.
      Her expression became unreadable, but her eyes went to his, and Erick knew she picked up on his inflection, causing his flush to deepen. He tried to drop his eyes from hers, but he couldn’t break away from the unusual color.
      “I need to speak with the others about what you told me,” Shayla said.
      Erick felt a pang of disappointment in hearing she’d be leaving. She was the nicest thing he experienced since coming here.
      Shayla must have noticed the expression and responded quickly, “I’ll see you again soon. Promise.”
      He nodded, and she left to join the riders near the front. He watched her go, then remembered parts of their conversation. Something she said puzzled him. We came as soon as we could. Were they looking for him and Ryan? Still staring after her, he began to get the feeling they hadn’t come here by accident.


      After a long day of riding, darkness began to settle on the quiet group. They stopped at a large clearing in the thinning forest. Erick clumsily dismounted, his legs wobbly from the many hours of riding. He looked to see someone cut through the cords binding Ryan’s hands before he slid off the back of his mount.
      One of the strangers came up to Erick and handed him a couple of blankets. The tan fabric was heavy, but soft to the touch. The male motioned for Erick to go over to Ryan. Erick cringed. He knew Ryan was still pissed and felt it too soon to approach him, but he also knew he’d have to be the one to try and set things right between them at some point. The male motioned again for him to move, leaving him no choice.
      He walked toward Ryan, who already took a seat on the ground, and when he got within arm’s length of him, Erick held out one of the blankets. Ryan stared at Erick, his eyes still smoldering with the heat of his anger.
      Erick took a deep breath while still holding the blanket out to him. This is going to be hard. “I’m sorry for earlier today. You know, getting us caught and —”
      Ryan’s hand came down on the blanket, pulling it roughly out of Erick’s grasp and causing him to stumble forward. “Just forget it, Porter.”
      Erick retreated and found a spot on the ground quite a few feet from him. He knew “forget it” was directed toward his attempted apology, not about the incident. Ryan wasn’t likely to forget anytime soon. Maybe if Ryan had punched him things would be better now.
      Staring out into the clearing, Erick watched the rest of the group working to set up a makeshift camp. A small cooking fire was built, and soon the smell of food came drifting over, causing his stomach to grumble in response.
      Soon food arrived in small wooden bowls with wooden spoons. It was a type of stew, although he couldn’t distinguish any recognizable vegetables. The steaming light brown mush tasted good. Very good. They wolfed it down, plus the seconds that followed, along with some of the light colored biscuits.
      After they finished eating, Ryan broke the silence. “What was she telling you?”
      Erick turned toward him. He noticed Ryan’s face had lost its anger, leaving him looking tired. Erick figured he could safely shift his position to face him. “Her name is Shayla. The black riders — I think she called them Drahuillin — don’t seem to be liked by these people either.” He paused to see Ryan’s reaction. He still seemed to be listening, so Erick continued. “She said something interesting. She said they were looking for us. I think they had something to do with us coming here.”
      Ryan’s brows furrowed. “Why are we here?”
      “I don’t know. I didn’t get to ask.”
      Ryan was silent while he unfolded his blanket, preparing to spread it on the ground closer to Erick.
      Erick followed suit, spreading his blanket out so it was only a couple of feet away from Ryan’s. He glanced over to read his expression, but Ryan didn’t seem to be bothered by the close proximity.
      The blankets were wide enough so they could be folded in half and used like a sleeping bag. Both boys lay on their backs and peered up through the thinning canopy at the evening sky. Stars sparkled and appeared brilliant set against the deep black of the night. Ryan seemed to be studying the stars, but Erick couldn’t find any familiar patterns.
      “Is this our sky?” Erick asked Ryan timidly.
      Erick was rather surprised. No snickering. No sarcasm. No annoyance. Just a straight answer. He felt brave enough to ask another question. “Do you think we’ll go home?”
      Ryan let out a low humorless chuckle. “I don’t have a home, so I guess I don’t really give a shit if we get back or not.”
      Erick couldn’t help but turn his head to look at Ryan. “Won’t your parents worry if you don’t come home?”
      Ryan still stared at the sky. “I don’t have parents.”
      Erick continued to study him, curiosity starting to burn. He wanted to ask Ryan what happened to his parents, but didn’t. Instead, he asked a different question. “Isn’t someone going to be worried about you? Miss you?”
      Ryan finally turned to look at Erick, his face hard and voice mocking. “Do you really think anyone would be worried about what happens to me?”
      Erick knew Ryan made liking him nearly impossible. With his limited experience with Ryan, it was almost believable no one cared about him. Almost believable.
      “Although,” Ryan continued while looking back up at the sky, “they’ll probably miss the checks.”
      Erick’s eyes widened as understanding slowly sank in. Foster care! He didn’t say anything more and returned to gaze at the stars.
      “Your parents are going to be worried.”
      Erick shifted uncomfortably in response to the statement. “Yeah. Really worried. They always know where I’m at.”
      “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
      “No, I’m an only child, which probably makes it worse for them.” Then Erick looked back to Ryan. “What about you?”
      “I’m the only one.” His tone gave Erick the impression this subject was coming to a close. Erick said no more.
      “Maybe tomorrow, if they decide to talk to us, we can find out why the hell we’re here.” Ryan rolled over with his back to Erick and promptly settled in to sleep.
      Erick’s eyes stayed focused on Ryan’s back for awhile. His last words relieved Erick’s unspoken fear that he’d take off during the night. Escaping these people wasn’t in his immediate plans and he’d still be here in the morning.
     He thought about their brief conversation. He knew he didn’t like Ryan, but after recent events, he honestly couldn’t say he hated him. It was more like a building curiosity with the numerous unasked questions circulating in his head.
      Yawning, he peered back up at the twinkling lights. The mention of his parents brought on a wave of homesickness. Unlike Ryan, he wanted to get back home. If they were brought here by these people, then they could send Ryan and him back home, maybe as soon as tomorrow, but Erick doubted it. There had to be a reason these people needed them, and they probably couldn’t go home until the need was fulfilled. Erick started to drift off to sleep. As his last thoughts faded, he hoped what they had to do wouldn’t be difficult.