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Loyal and True by Laura Strickland

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  • Hearts of Caledonia 1

    In defiance of her father, Caledonian tribeswoman Barta leads a daring raid against invading enemy warriors. But the fight goes badly, and her beloved war hound, Loyal, is killed. Unable to imagine existing without her dearest companion, she nevertheless must return home and accept blame for her terrible blunder.

    For the first time in his life, Loyal is unable to rise and follow his mistress. When he appeals to the Goddess for mercy, she grants him leave to return on one condition: it must be in the form of a man. And only if Barta recognizes him for who he truly is will he be permitted to stay.

    Loyal never suspects that, as a man, his connection with Barta will deepen, becoming passionate enough to transcend nearly any change. Will Barta recognize him before he’s lost to her forever?

    Rating: Spicy
    Page Count: 288
    Word Count: 68512  
    978-1-5092-1856-1 Paperback
    978-1-5092-1857-8 Digital   

    Excerpt

    It had been easy to choose. Eight pups had Bright whelped, all brindle-gray like her. They’d played, climbed, and tumbled over each other in the way of pups everywhere—all but one who focused on Barta with bright hazel eyes and tottered after her whenever she took a step.

    Father had laughed. “That’s the one, Daughter. A male, and he’s going to be big and strong, judging by the size of those paws. You could do worse.”

    Barta already knew that. The pup had chosen her rather than the other way round.

    She’d taken days to decide on a name for him. Even that had come naturally when folk saw him trotting after her around the settlement, each of them saying with a smile, “Well, Barta, he looks to prove loyal.”

    Loyal he’d been for every day of the four years since. They’d walked together, trained and played together, eaten their meals and slept together. Inseparable.

    Until now.

    Tears streamed down her face, making the hound’s body blur before her eyes. “Oh, Loyal, how can I leave you when you’ve never, ever left me?”

    Yet he’d given his life in her defense. Could she turn around and throw that gift away by letting the Gaels return and catch her here?

    She must go. And she could not take him with her.

    Again she kissed him, her tears mingling with his blood, again got to her feet, moving like an old woman. She found her knife—half under Loyal’s body—and rifled the corpses of her friends for their weapons. Weaponry was scarce and too valuable to lose.

    Just like these lives, her heart whispered to her.

    The Gaels had already stolen enough. Still it took many long moments before she turned her back and slipped away into the consuming darkness.

    ****

    Loyal!

    He lay enfolded in darkness, floating like a bark on a vast ocean, peaceful enough until he heard that cry of agony and—as he had all his life—strove to respond. He must go to her when she called him. His very existence revolved around that truth. His mistress was his sun, his moon, his reason for drawing breath. No thought for himself could ever intrude ahead of a thought of her.

    And she called him. More, she needed him. He must respond.

    Why could he not rise?

    He remembered the battle—he could see it all now in patterns of black and white. Violence had its own aura, as did so many things in the world, a combination of sight and smell. People smelled different when angry or afraid.

    He’d fought at Barta’s side as he always had and always would, and taken a number of wounds. They didn’t matter, only her welfare mattered, and his presence at her side.

    For him, battle felt like a game, a violent one. So long as Barta remained with him and protected, he cared little what else happened, even to him. He existed to be with her, to protect her—nothing more.

    But now she arose from the place where they’d both gone down—where he’d thrown his body in defense of hers—and he could not follow.

    For the first time in his life he could not follow.

    Oh, unbearable agony. For, faintly, he could still feel her, smell her tears, sense her touch. He could feel her starting to move away from him, feel her spirit tug at his. They were bound together, always had been, by a silver cord stronger than leather and more potent than magic.

    Love.

    Do not leave me here, Mistress. I cannot rise. I cannot follow you.

    Like hers, his spirit howled at the sky.

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Loyal and True

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