Posted in Books, Fairy Tale Romance, Free Reads, historical romance, Medieval Romance, Paranormal romance, Witch Romance, Works-in-Progress

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter Seven

Two days into the voyage, the girl fell ill from her wounds. By late afternoon, she had fallen into a delirious stupor, and by nightfall, she was completely unconscious. Asmund’s men said nothing, but he caught them exchanging glances. He knew they hadn’t forgotten Stian’s warning that Maeve was a witch. If she had been any ordinary captive, he would have tossed her overboard before her death attracted evil spirits. But she had saved him. Even if he hadn’t developed a fondness for her, he couldn’t let her die.

Most of the women and children they had taken from the village were on a separate cargo ship, but a few had asked to stay close to Maeve, and he had allowed it. “You,” he said, pointing to the one who had told him where to find the hidden village children. “What is your name?”

“I am Luna.” She had two small sons, strong boys who met his eyes without fear.

“Come here.” He motioned her over to where Maeve lay glassy-eyed and still under a heavy fur. “Do you know how to help her?”

“Lady Maeve is the healer,” Luna said. “Better than her stupid mother ever was.” She looked at him shrewdly. “Didn’t she heal you?”

“Do something,” he said. “Why won’t she wake?”

“She burns.” She pulled back the fur and pulled up Maeve’s tunic to expose the shallow slash on her belly. He expected to find it red and festering with pus, but it was clean and looked nearly healed.

“Where else is she hurt?” he asked.

“Nowhere else, great prince,” the woman said. “I dressed her wounds myself.”

“Then why has she fallen into such a fever?” he demanded. “Why is she dying?”

“Because she has chosen to die.” Luna pulled the fur back over Maeve and made a sign of blessing or worship over her heart, folding her hands as if in prayer. “She is a child of the goddess.”

“She is a woman, just like you,” Asmund said. “Her mother was nothing more than a savage slut who doomed her own people for a trickster’s kisses.”

“Aye, she was that,” Luna said with a wry smile. “She was also the most powerful sorceress in seven generations.” She bathed Maeve’s face with cold water from the sea, and the girl stirred, but she didn’t wake. “She made this one in the spring ritual in consort with the dragon god.” She laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “I should know. My husband was her dragon.”

“Your rituals mean nothing,” Asmund said. He refused to believe that Maeve would simply decide to die and do it or that she even could. “Superstition.”

“Is it?” Luna said. “Then how is it you live?” He had no answer, and she smiled. “My husband loved Lady Maeve like a daughter, though he could never say it, not even to her.” She folded one of Maeve’s hands between her own. “He was one of you, you know—a Viking. He fell ill on his first raid when he was still just a boy. His people—your people—left him behind, and the dead queen’s mother took him in.”

“So Maeve is of Viking blood?” Asmund said.

“Yes, if that means anything to you,” Luna said. “Maybe that’s why she saved you.”

“So wake her,” Asmund said.

“I cannot,” Luna said. “If she has chosen to join the goddess, no soul on earth can compel her to return.” He saw pity in the woman’s eyes. “Let her go, great prince. She has saved you. What else can you want with her now?”

He yanked her to her feet. “Take her to the cargo ship; take all of them,” he said, shoving her at his brother. “She knows nothing.”

“Asmund, let them take the girl with them,” Hagen said, dropping his voice so the others might not hear. “Let her die with her own people.”

“She isn’t going to die,” Asmund said. “Just take the others away.”

The sea was calm, an endless plain of green glass all around them. He carried Maeve to the dragon’s head prow of the longship and settled himself there with the girl in his arms. For the rest of the day and into the night, his men avoided him, and he understood why. They thought he was reliving the terrible days after his wife had died. He had locked himself away in an empty house with her corpse until the king himself had come and ordered him to come out. But this was different. When Astrid had died, he had blamed the gods for taking her from him before her time. He had stood over her body and demanded that her soul be allowed to return, not so much for his sake but for the infant son who needed her. But of course the gods had said no, and in time, he had come to accept their wisdom.

But this was his fault. Maeve had saved him not just from death but from an eternity of wandering in a frozen hell. Tiny and fragile as she was, she had fought a fire demon for his life and won. And he had repaid her kindness by abandoning her and her people to a pig like Stian.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. She was tucked against him like a child with her face cradled against his throat. Her skin was burning hot, and her breathing was shallow and slow. He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’m so sorry, little Maeve,” he repeated in her own language. “Please come back.”

******

In her fever dream, Maeve wandered in a forest. The trees were taller than any she had ever seen with thick, black trunks and deep green needles. It was spring, and the air smelled clean and sweet. Fallen needles made a soft carpet under her bare feet, and a warm breeze ruffled her hair. Tiny blue and white flowers peeped out from the bracken like the memory of snow. She felt peaceful but not contented. She was sad because she was alone.

The white vixen she had seen in her vision before slipped out of a thicket and crossed her path. “Wait,” she said, hurrying to follow. The fox was running through the underbrush, and Maeve stumbled and almost fell as she tried to keep up. “Wait for me.” In her heart she knew the vixen was the Goddess and that she would lead her to her mother, lead her home.

Suddenly the trees opened up on a vast green plain. She recognized this place. In her first vision, she had stood on the cliffs above it and seen it white with snow. She had seen the little village in the distance and a woman and child being chased by a pack of wolves. But now the scene was warm and peaceful, a lush green field covered with wildflowers that nodded in the wind. The vixen had stopped in the shadows of the forest and sat back on her haunches, waiting.

“What is this place?” Maeve asked her. “Why have you brought me here?”

Suddenly she heard a man’s voice calling her name like an echo on the wind. Turning, she could just make out a figure on the far side of the field. It was the Viking, Asmund, and he was looking for her. Tears stung her eyes, and her fists clenched with rage. But something in his voice touched her, angry as she was. “I’m sorry,” she heard him calling. “Please come back.”

The vixen stood up and turned back toward the forest. “Wait,” Maeve said. The Goddess paused and looked back at her, one foot poised. The choice being offered was clear. She could go back into the forest and follow the vixen to her realm. She would see her mother again and Vivian; she would grow in power and prepare for rebirth. Or she could go to Asmund.

“Why do I have to decide? You’re the Goddess; show me what I must do.” One the wind she heard Asmund calling again and a sigh like a woman’s laughter. But the vixen didn’t move.

She turned away from the forest shadows and ran out into the light.

******

Asmund had dozed off, and he woke when he felt Maeve stir in his arms. She opened her eyes and smiled at him. Her cheeks and lips were pink again, and her eyes were clear. “Maeve?” He cradled her cheek in his hand and bent as if to kiss her.

“No.” She pushed his hand away.

“All right.” If she would live, he could wait. He settled her back to the pallet beside him. “Just rest then.” She closed her eyes and slept.

 

 

**********

 

 

Days later, Maeve stood at the bow of the cargo ship as it navigated between sharp, icy cliffs. In front of them, the dragon’s head carved into the prow of Asmund’s longship sliced through the swells, a sleek, black wyrm darting over the cold, green sea. Even at this distance, she could hear the Vikings singing and laughing as they rowed, and the sailors on the cargo ship were the same. They were almost home.

Luna’s two sons raced around her, chasing one another around the deck, and one of the Vikings laughed as he called to them to be careful. These men had treated their captives well, she had to admit, much better than she had expected. Some of the women of her village were already forming attachments, young ones and widows who hadn’t had any lovers to lose in the raid. In time she had no doubt that the people of the Goddess would be absorbed into this new tribe, and that was as it should be. If the Goddess had not willed it so, Asmund would not have saved them. But cold the Goddess even see them in this freezing, far-off place?

Luna brought a cloak and wrapped it around Maeve’s shoulders. “The men say we are almost there,” she said. “They already sing praises to their gods for delivering them safely.”

“They are brave men,” Maeve said. “Can you imagine having the courage to set sail across all that empty water with nothing but the stars and a needle in a bucket to guide you?”

Luna laughed. “I can’t imagine doing anything men do, my queen.”

“Don’t call me that,” Maeve said.

“If not you, then who?” Luna said.

“No one. You have a king now. We all do—Asmund’s father.” She could see the Viking’s silhouette in the blinding white sunlight. He was standing at the rudder of the longship, steering their course, fearless and certain. “He will do what he likes with us.”

“You saved your people, Lady Maeve,” Luna said. “If Prince Asmund didn’t care for you, he would have let the other dog have us, and we would all be dead. That was the old queen’s legacy.”

“Mind your tongue,” Maeve said. “She was my mother.”

“Aye, and she was a fool.” She put a hand to Maeve’s cheek, making tears come to her eyes. “Sing for us, my lady,” she said. “Remember us to the Goddess.”

Maeve had abandoned her prayers back in Britain, her prayers and her life and her hope. But she had changed her mind about living. And if she lived, she belonged to the Goddess.

“Sing with me.” She reached toward all the women on the deck, gathering them into a circle. They were so few compared to the tribe they had been, her heart ached to see it, but they would be enough. “We will sing a requiem for our dead,” she said. “And a prayer of thanks for this new homecoming.”

*****

On the longship, Asmund heard Maeve’s voice singing just as he had so many times back on the beach in Britain. He had grown to love the sound of it. But this song was so sad, he felt a lump rise in his throat. The other women raised their own voices to join hers, and even on the longship, all his men went quiet.

“Odin save us, brother,” Hagen said, smiling but turning pale. “What magic have we brought home?”

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Posted in Food Glorious Food, Uncategorized

Macaroni Pie

macaroni pie

Our family’s ultimate side dish, a baked mac & cheese casserole, insanely simple but insanely satisfying, too. My Grandmama Wylie taught the recipe to Mama when she and Daddy got married back in 1963, and Mama taught it to me when I was about eight years old. My sister, Sarah, has made refinements, and I put more cheese in than anybody else in the history of the recipe, endearing me for all time to Sarah’s daughter, my gorgeous niece, Katie. And I know all my aunts and cousins have their own versions—I would happily pile my plate with any of them. We make this at all occasions of import, especially holidays. (Once we establish who’s doing the turkey at Thanksgiving, the next order of business is the macaroni pie.) I’ve got one in the oven right now because it’s Labor Day and because this would have been Mama’s 76th birthday. We’re eating takeout chicken and birthday sheet cake and macaroni pie and missing her very, very much.

Ingredients:
1.5 pounds of macaroni, cooked al dente

1.5 pounds of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

2 eggs

1.5 cups of milk (whole is best, but 2 percent works just fine)

Half a teaspoon of salt

Half a teaspoon of black pepper

A quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper

About three tablespoons of butter, cut into eight small pats

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Spray a big casserole dish with cooking spray.  Put in a layer of cooked macaroni. Cover with a thick layer of cheese. Put in another layer of macaroni, then another layer of cheese.

Whisk together the eggs, milk, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Pour it over the macaroni and cheese as evenly as possible. Scatter the dabs of butter over the top.  (I do mine like rolling two fives on a set of dice.)

Bake for 30-45 minutes until it’s cooked through and starting to brown on top. Let it stand for about five minutes to set, warding off with a wooden spoon any men or children who have smelled it from the living room and want to eat it NOW.

This also makes pretty good leftovers out of fridge – just cut off a brick and heat it in the microwave.

Posted in Current events, Personal Real Life Stuff, Politics

White People Baking Cupcakes

Y’all please pardon my metaphor, but the past day or so, I’ve seen a lot of people getting their feelings hurt when they really shouldn’t, and I’m hoping this will help.

Imagine you find out that your church is holding an all-night vigil for the families of children who have been murdered. You think this is a fantastic idea; you want to help. You’ve read about some of these sweet kids and how they died, and your heart genuinely breaks for them. Your tears are real; you feel for these people so much. You know you can’t possibly ever really understand what they’re going through, but you want to do something, contribute something, let them know that you stand beside them. So you volunteer to help host the event and even bake a bunch of cupcakes–your best cupcakes, the ones you’re famous for.

You show up at the event, and it’s packed–you had no idea so many people had been touched by this kind of tragedy. It moves you more than you can say; you wish you could do more than just offer cupcakes but cupcakes is what you’ve got. So you put them on the buffet.

Now the people who are attending, they are all very different from one another with different personalities, different experiences, different histories, different ways of coping with their loss. Some of them actually know you–you’ve met before, they know what a kind, empathetic person you are, they know cupcakes are what you make when you don’t know what else to say, and they will accept and appreciate your effort as part of the on-going relationship the two of you already have. They might not give a tinker’s dam about your cupcakes; they might not taste a single one; they might even feel pressured and irritated to have to engage you about cupcakes when their minds are so much elsewhere. But they will notice, and on some level, it will mean something to them.

But most of them don’t know you from Adam’s housecat; to them, you’re just the stranger who brought the cupcakes. Some of them, because of their personalities or coping mechanisms or upbringing, will be able to muster up enough social politeness to notice your cupcakes and say thank you even as their hearts are shattered. Some of them are so raw they won’t even see your cupcakes, wouldn’t recognize a ten foot cupcake if it fell on their car on the way home. Some of them might even be furious with you for thinking a fucking cupcake could make the slightest bit of difference to someone who has lost a child–how dare you,  you person who hasn’t felt the pain I feel, show up here with a damned box of cupcakes? What do you want, a medal? But even those people will know you made the effort, that at least one person who doesn’t really understand cares enough to at least make a batch of cupcakes.

And here’s the thing. You don’t get to be mad at any of those people. You don’t get to get your feelings hurt. You don’t get to think they’re ungrateful or that you wasted your time or that next time they can eat store-bought cookies or starve as far as you’re concerned. Because it’s not about you. Did you make cupcakes so people would say, ‘oh how awesome is she? She made cupcakes!’ Or did you make them so people who are dying of grief at least have something good to eat?

Fellow white folks (and cis folks and straight folks and Christian folks and whatever folks who don’t have to worry about getting dragged out of their cars and shot for who they are), on days like today, we just brought the cupcakes. We see the Nazis marching in Charlottesville, and we feel sick to our stomachs. We want our friends and neighbors whose lives are threatened by these assholes to know we stand with them–we HAVE to let them know we stand with them. But on some level, we don’t know shit, and we HAVE to acknowledge that, too. Until we can turn aside this tide of hate for good, until the people who are practicing this hate are no longer using their color or their gender or their sexuality or their religion as an excuse to label other people as un-people, those of us who share the traits they value have to not only get past our raising and stand against them, we have to understand how hard it is for the people they’re hurting to trust us. It’s not about us. We’ve just got to keep on bringing the cupcakes.

Posted in Books, Medieval Romance, Paranormal romance, Witch Romance, Works-in-Progress

The Viking and the Witch: Chapter 6

viking and the witch serial coverOnce again, Asmund woke up alone. He had dreamed he was with his father, walking through a lush, green wood in spring. He couldn’t remember what they had talked about, but he woke with a deep sense of relief, as if some great conflict between them had been settled at last.

But he was alone. This wasn’t unusual; the girl rose to greet the dawning sun every morning then went straight to her traps. But after the night before, he had thought she might wake him or wait for him or at least come back to him after her morning prayers. If he had been the kind of man to fret over a woman and her ways, he might have been disappointed.

He went outside and replenished the fire, expecting her to come back soon with breakfast. But she didn’t come. He made his own meal of cold bread from the night before, facing the inlet as he swallowed every bite, leaving none for Maeve and assuring himself that he wasn’t punishing her for staying gone so long, that he couldn’t have cared less. But still she didn’t come.

Finally he gave up his pose and went to look for her. But she wasn’t anywhere along the inlet. The traps were empty, bobbing on the high tide, but the girl was nowhere to be seen. “Maeve!” he shouted. Could she have lost her balance as she walked in the rising waters, hit her head on a rock below the surface? “Maeve!” he bellowed louder, a most unmanly knot of panic forming in his chest. If she had drowned in the inlet, she would have floated to the surface by now or washed back out to the beach. “Answer me!” he yelled, running toward the surf. “Right now!”

But she didn’t answer, and there was no sign of her on the beach.

He ran to the cove where the boat was tied, promising himself all the way that he would find her there. But the boat was empty just as he had left it the night before, its sail neatly furled, ready for him. It bobbed like a dancer in the breakers, beckoning him aboard. If he didn’t sail soon, all hope he had of rejoining his companions would be lost.

He leaned back and shouted into the wind at the top of his lungs. “Maeve!”

From her hiding place inside a tiny cave in the cliffs, Maeve could hear the Viking shouting. She put her hands over her ears and closed her eyes tight. If she went to him, he would take her away with him; he had said as much. All the rest of that day and night, she stayed hidden, waiting. She knew he was making ready, packing supplies, preparing his boat, but she didn’t dare peek out. If she saw him, she wasn’t sure she could stop herself from running to join him.

“Your will, Lady,” she prayed as the sun was setting and she heard his voice again. He was moving up and down the beach, calling and calling until he was hoarse. She put her fingers in her ears. “Your will, not mine.”

At some point she must have slept because suddenly sunlight streamed through the cracks the rock. She didn’t hear Asmund calling any more.

She climbed out of the cave into a thicket of vines that would hide her if he happened to be looking that way. But he wasn’t looking. From where she stood at the top of the cliffs, she could see the whole rocky beach from her inlet to the cove. The sky was pink with dawning light, and the Viking’s boat was gone.

She tore through the vines to reach the cliff’s edge and looked out to sea. His sail was bobbing on the horizon, sailing west. “Protect him, sweet Lady,” she prayed aloud as tears streamed down her cheeks. “See him safely home.”

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Asmund sailed around the coastline by day and followed the stars by night, following the charts he had carried in his head since he was a boy. But he was still grateful and a little shocked when he rounded a point on his second day at sea and saw his own long ship anchored in the cove.

His brother, Hagen, was the first to spot his sail and the first to recognize him. “Thank the gods,” he said as Asmund climbed aboard. “Thanks be to Allfather and his lady, Frigg.” He embraced his brother without hesitation, and after a moment, Asmund hugged him back. “We thought you were dead,” his younger brother said in a voice thick with tears.

“I was,” Asmund said. “But we’ll talk later.” The others were crowding around him, smiling, slapping him on the back, and he was glad to greet them. But one of these men he had always trusted was a traitor. One of them had stabbed him in the back and thrown him in the sea.

“Are we early?” he asked when they had all assured themselves that he was really alive. “Where is Stian’s ship?”

“They were here,” one of his men, Torvald, said. “But we would not sail without you yet, so he and his men went after more treasure.”

“He said he knew of a village no man has ever raided, a place protected by magic,” Hagen said. “He said he had a plan to get inside.”

“Where is this magic village?” Asmund said, remembering the crone’s prophecy and feeling sick to his stomach.

“On the coast to the south of here,” Torvald said. “But he meant to anchor his ship a ways away and attack them from the land.”

“Raise the anchor,” Asmund said, and they rushed to obey him—at least that hadn’t changed. “We have to catch them.”

“But my prince, we don’t know where they meant to land,” Torvald said.

“Maybe not,” he said. “But I know where they’re going.”

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Maeve was repairing a tear in one of her tunics when she felt a wave of darkness wash over her so powerful it made her feel faint. She dropped her sewing and stood up, and she felt it again—terrible fear that drove her to her knees then terrible pain that made her scream. “Mama!” she cried out, reaching blindly into darkness the color of blood. Then suddenly the pain was gone, and the light came back in a dazzling rush, and in her mind was only silence. “Mama,” she repeated, scrambling to her feet.

She ran all the way to the village and found it under attack, just as Vivian had foreseen. Viking raiders under a wolfshead banner were swarming up and down the crooked street, setting fire to huts, dragging women by the hair, hacking men in half like saplings with their swords. If Asha were alive, this wouldn’t be happening. For all her faults and weakness, her mother’s magic was strong; she would have hidden the village or driven the raiders mad with visions of the Dragon. Maeve reached out for her own power, crying out to the Goddess for her help, but all she felt was fear and pain and the blood red cloud of death that seemed to smother her. Dodging the bloody grasp of a bearded behemoth as he grabbed for her, she stumbled then sprinted up the hill.

Asha’s women were fleeing the queen’s house in wailing terror. “Dead!” one of them sobbed as she grabbed hold of Maeve. “The queen is dead! He killed her!”

“Let me go!” She shoved the woman away and ran inside.

Baird the harper was standing over Asha’s body, holding a bloody knife. “They were going to find you anyway,” he said, his eyes wild. “I couldn’t have stopped it.”

“You did this.” She pulled her own knife from her belt.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, stepping over her mother’s body. “You don’t have to be hurt, little Maeve.” He was trying to circle her, his knife held much too loosely in his hand. “I am their ally. If you are my woman, you will be safe.”

She launched herself at him, stabbing him first in the eye. He screamed, and she barely felt the slash of his blade across her stomach as she stabbed him again, over and over as he fell, following him to the floor. When he stopped moving, she collapsed on top of him, sobbing and exhausted. Once again, she reached out for her witch’s power, but no power came, only the darkness.

She heard the door crash open behind her and the voices of Viking men. At first she couldn’t understand them; her mind was too addled. Then one of them laughed and said, “Well done, little one. The traitor got what he deserved.”

She tried to find the strength to fight, but two of them grabbed her, and one of them snatched the knife from her hand. The one who had laughed was standing over her as they pulled her to her feet. He was almost as tall as Asmund, but not nearly as handsome. He had close-cropped blond hair and a long, dirty beard down to his belt. “Bring her,” he said. “She might be worth keeping under all that blood.” He caught her chin with a bloody hand. “If she can behave herself.”

She wanted to fight back, but she was so tired and sick, she could barely stand. He was right; she was covered in Baird’s blood, an abomination before the Goddess. One of the Vikings picked her up, and she let herself go limp over his shoulder.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Asmund was too late. The village was already burned. “This?” Hagen said as they surveyed the carnage with the rest of their crew. “This was Stian’s great prize?”

“Apparently,” Asmund said. His brother was right; there was no treasure here. Only people dead and dying and the burning ruins of their homes. The old woman who had come to find Maeve on the beach was lying dead in the muddy street, her ancient head caved in, the broom she’d been holding still clutched in her fist. Asmund had raided these lands every summer since he was old enough to sail, and he’d never felt a moment’s remorse. But this had been no raid; there was no prize here. This was slaughter. “Where is he now, do you think?”

“Up there, if I were to guess,” Hagen said, pointing. At the top of the hill stood a round house that was bigger and a little more grand than the others. “Shall we go congratulate him on his victory?”

Asmund laughed. Hagen had loathed Stian since he was a small boy. “Absolutely.” Maeve will have been on the beach, he promised himself as they climbed the hill. She won’t even know this has happened.

But he was wrong. A small group of young women and girls were huddled weeping in the yard in front of the round house. Maeve was among them, sitting on the ground, staring at nothing. She was so covered in blood, he barely recognized her, and he had to stop himself from running to her.

Stian was looming over one of the other women, making an impressively terrible figure as he roared at her in a language she wouldn’t understand. “Where are the rest of them?” he shouted. “The children! The boys!” He raised the cudgel he carried as if to bash in her skull.

Asmund grabbed his arm. “Well met, Captain,” he said.

Stian turned as if to cudgel him instead, then froze. “My prince!” He couldn’t have looked more shocked or less pleased if he had practiced first. “You are alive.” If this dog had been on his own crew, he would have known exactly who the traitor was. But he had been on his own ship miles away when Asmund was attacked.

“So it seems.” He tightened his grip on the captain’s arm until he dropped his cudgel. “What is all this?”

“Slaves, my prince,” Stian said. “There may be more. We have found no more than half a dozen children.”

“I’m surprised they can feed so many as that,” Asmund said. He touched the cheek of the woman Stian had been threatening, looking her over. “And why should we want them if they could?”

His voice brought Maeve out of her stupor. He was with them. He was their leader—the ugly blond one had called him his prince. Had he brought them here? Had he ordered the raid? I did this, she thought, sick with horror. I should have let him die. Suddenly her strength came back in a rush, and she launched herself at Asmund, her hands like claws.

“Devil!” she screamed at him in his own language. “Blasphemer! She saved you—the goddess! I saved you!” When she had attacked him before on the beach, he had been weak and willing to surrender. Now he grabbed her and crushed her back against him, holding both her wrists in one hand.

“I like this one,” he said, making the others laugh. “My father will enjoy her very much.”

“These slaves are mine!” the blond one said.

“No,” Asmund said. He was holding her still, but he wasn’t hurting her. “We will take these slaves as your tribute from the voyage.” He looked around at their village with contempt. “If this is what your raids have been this season, you can’t have taken much else.”

“My hold is full of treasure!” the blond one said.

“Then keep it,” Asmund said. “Sail home and be content.”

Even the men who had arrived with Asmund looked surprised at this and not entirely pleased. A young one who looked like a smaller, less confident copy of Asmund looked as if he were bursting to speak.

“The king will hear of this,” the blond one said.

“Aye, Stian, he will,” Asmund said. From where he held her, Maeve couldn’t see his face, but she could imagine it from the fury in his tone. “He will hear how you left his son and heir to die while you burned pig farms to build yourself a harem.”

“You were dead already, drowned!” Stian protested, his face turning from red to sickly white. “Your own brother thought as much.”

“And yet here I stand.” He shoved Maeve at the younger one, who caught her, startled but quick. “Be careful,” Asmund warned. “She bites.” She made a token effort to struggle, but this young one was strong, too. “Will you challenge me, Stian?” Asmund asked the captain. “Will you fight me for these peasant women? Will you break faith with my father?”

For a moment, Maeve thought he would, and from the tension she felt in his grip, she thought Asmund’s brother thought it, too. Then Stian laughed.

“Take them, then,” he said. “That one is a murderer.” He turned and motioned to his men. “To the ship!” The raiders didn’t look any happier than their captain, but they obeyed.

When they had gone, Asmund turned back to Maeve. “That is my brother, Hagen,” he said. “Will you kill him if he lets you go?” She tried to look away, but he caught her chin gently and made her look at him. “I know now you can understand me.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, I do.”

“Are there more children?” he asked. “Where are they?”

“As if I would tell you!”

“If we leave them behind, they will die,” he said. “Your men are dead; your crops and livestock are destroyed.” From behind him, she heard the women of the village crying. “I will take you all with me.”

“As slaves.”

“As people with food to eat and a roof over their heads come winter,” he said. “As people who will live.”

One of the other village women stepped forward—Luna, the blacksmith’s wife. “I will show you where they are,” she said. She had two sons, neither of whom had seen five summers yet. “We will go with you.”

“Go then,” Maeve said. She had been alone on the beach; she could manage alone now. “I will stay.”

Asmund laughed. “Hush, little flame,” he said. “You will stay with me.”

End of Chapter Six

Posted in Books, Horror, Sneak peeks at the new stuff, Works-in-Progress

WIP: The Devil Makes Three

Just to prove I am still writing things – a snippet from the work-in-progress, a Southern gothic horror novel. Who likes a haunted house? The “he” is Jacob McGuinness, a rich and famous Irish horror writer. The place is an abandoned plantation house that’s been abandoned since a mass murder took place there in the 1840s. Jacob, poor soul, is thinking that he might buy it.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

Half a mile in, the drive curved sharply to the left and broke free of the taller trees. He stopped the car and took his first long look at Rosewood.

The house stood at the top of a hill with what must once have been a magnificent sloping lawn laid out before it. Now it was covered with the same kind of scrub pine and underbrush as lined the driveway, but the effect was still quite striking, like something out of a movie. The house itself seemed remarkably intact. From his vantage point at the foot of the hill, he could almost believe it was still habitable. The white paint was worn gray, but the lines of the structure seemed solid.

It was much bigger than he had expected, a Greek revival rival for the massive country estates rich Englishmen had been building in Ireland at about the same time Rosewood was built, the early Victorian age. With its massive columns and round east wing, it looked more like a public building than a family home, some great parliament or temple more than a farmhouse. Looking up at it, he had to remind himself to breathe, and his heart was pounding. Imagine the labor that went into that, he thought. Slave labor, like the pyramids, no doubt. But he didn’t feel righteously indignant; he felt sad, almost angry. How dare anyone abandon such a beauty, whatever might have happened there? How could they have left her to die and disintegrate alone?

The drive forked at the top of the hill. The branch leading to the back of the house was completely overgrown, and a rusted farm gate hung on newer, shiny chains across it. The other branch looked fresher, as if the brush might have been cleared from it once or twice in the past decade. Jacob drove slowly around to the front of the house, the V8 engine in his rented beast rumbling like a dragon’s snore. He parked in front of the steps and got out.

The dry grass was as tall as his hips and brittle with autumn frost where it was shaded by the shadow of the house. Up close, Rosewood was no less grand but much more obviously deserted. There was no path worn through the grass, no footprints in the thick, mossy mud caked on the steps. He could have been the first human to approach the house in centuries—the first living thing, for that matter. The high grass and scrub should have been a haven for mice, rabbits, even quail, but he didn’t hear a sound or see a single stir of movement. The whole place was as dead still as an empty tomb.

So why was the front door standing open?

He stood at the foot of the steps, leaning forward to peer through the shadows. The clouds had thickened; it was as dim as twilight on the porch. “Hello?” he called. No answer. He was half an hour early for his appointment with the real estate agent, and there were no other cars parked out front. Anyone inside would have had to either fight the gate and brush to pull around back yet leave no sign of their passing or else hike in from the road on foot.

He walked up two steps, his own work boots leaving clearly discernible footprints in the mud. “Is someone here?” Between fluted Corinthian columns, the open doorway yawned at him in silence.

He crossed the porch with purpose, boots clomping. The thick wooden door was massive, at least eight feet tall. It seemed to be intact, and the lock was unbroken. No one had forced it open. He touched it lightly, and it swung back further, hinges squealing like a cheesy sound effect.

He stepped into the vast empty cavern of the front hall. Directly in front of him was a grand, curving staircase, and more columns were set in perfectly straight lines leading up to it. Floor to ceiling windows lined the front wall. They were shuttered from the outside, but gray light filtered in between the slats. Turning to look at them, he didn’t see a single pane of glass that was broken or even cracked; every window was perfectly intact. Each was hung with great velvet drapes, sagging and blackened with age and dirt, but also still intact and still tied open as if to let in the sun. The floor was bare wood and strewn with dead, crumbled leaves over a thick coating of dust—again, no footprints.

Double doors stood open to his left as he turned back to the staircase. In the shadows beyond, he could make out a long dining table still covered with a cloth. Moving closer, he saw a massive sideboard still set with an elaborate silver service, black with tarnish but otherwise untouched. Who would just abandon such a thing? Looking at it, he realized his mood had turned. A feeling of dark oppression seemed to have gathered around him like the clouds outside, pressing down on his psyche like a moldering pillow might be pressed over his face.

He had felt this way before. On their honeymoon, he and Gloria had gone to Spain. Touring the dungeon of a castle where heretics had been walled up to die, he had lost himself completely, sobbing uncontrollably and fighting off anyone who tried to touch him. Poor Gloria had been covered in scratches and bruises by the time she’d managed to drag him back outside into the light.

What could have possessed him to come here now?

He had decided to go back outside and wait for the real estate agent when he noticed the footprints on the stairs. Someone had tracked some dark liquid on the pale wood, something dark brown, almost black, like paint . . . like blood. Moving closer, he kicked away a thicker scattering of rotten leaf matter and saw the prints led away from a larger, darker stain on the floor of the hall just at the foot of the steps . . . blood soaked deep into the wood.

“Bollocks,” he muttered aloud, but the hair on the back of his neck prickled, and his flesh turned cold. Surely it was a fake, a prank, something staged for a camera or to frighten some dupe in the recent past. No real bloodstain could have lasted so long. But then if the story he had read of Rosewood’s abandonment was true, who would have been left to clean it up?

Without stopping to think any further, he followed the prints up the staircase, trying not to notice how perfectly his boots matched them as he walked. As he climbed, the prints faded out from full shoe shapes to smears to mere smudges at the top that led a few steps down the hall to the right. The man with bloody feet had climbed the stairs for a reason.

His heart was aching in his chest, and tears stung his eyes. Wallpaper hung in tattered ribbons on the walls, and the floor was scarred in two straight lines down the middle where a carpet runner had been ripped up. The smell of dust and rot was closing in on him and making him feel sick. He imagined he could smell the blood; surely he must be imagining it.

He followed the smudges to the right then around the corner; he seemed to know exactly where he was going. He turned a glass doorknob at the end of the hall and went into a small room at the front of the house. The drapes in here were silk, some pastel color gone gray, and the shutters were open. Going to the window, he looked out over the second floor gallery and down on his own rental car parked below. It looked so solidly vulgar, so real, it made him smile. Gloria had been right. He’d been crazy to come here, mad to think of buying such a place. When the real estate agent showed up, he’d tell her he had changed his mind. Just as he was deciding, he heard the sound of motors coming closer, two cars coming up the drive. It was fate.

He was just about to turn away from the window and head back downstairs when he smelled something else. When he smelled her. Over the damp, ancient rot of the dim, cold house, he smelled the cleanest white cotton being warmed by the summer sun. He smelled soap and the lightest hint of lavender, and clean, sweet skin underneath. He felt the warmth of a woman’s presence, soft hands touching his back. He braced his hands on the window frame, holding himself up. His knees had gone weak. The feeling of oppression dissolved like a mist in morning sunlight, and wild joy seized his heart. There was life in Rosewood, not just death. He wasn’t mad to come here. He belonged here. She had called him to come.

End of snippet

Posted in Book Reviews, Other People's Awesome, Uncategorized

A Review of Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor

In this meticulously researched and exquisitely deconstructed narrative, novelist and historian Stephen O’Connor views the life and work of the great American architect of personal liberty through the prism of his relationship with Sally Hemings, a woman he considered his rightful possession. This paradox strikes at the heart of our national identity, and while he doesn’t make it make sense, O’Connor does manage to define it in a way that seems plausible, empathetic, and almost but not quite complete.

The author fractures his story into a spectrum of different tales intertwined. A third person limited telling of the facts as we know them from the point of view of an intelligently-imagined Jefferson and a first person confession of identity and shame from Hemings are familiar devices of historical fiction done well. But what about the Jefferson who’s sitting in a contemporary movie theater with Dolly and James Madison, being driven mad by a lushly romantic biopic of his life and love for Sally? Or the Jefferson-like prisoner being tortured by a furious black female guard? Or the New York Jefferson on the subway pining for the Sally who’s ignoring him across the way? Or, strangest of all, the nameless narrator exploring a weird hellscape that seems to be the inside of a colossal Jefferson–the haunted house of the great man’s reputation? He finds another Jefferson and another Hemings here, two survivors of some unnamed apocalypse, clinging and traveling together.

I love this stuff–my favorite work in grad school was on the fractured narratives of writers like A.S. Byatt and Thomas Pynchon, and I’d rank this novel with the best of that style. It gets at a truth of Jefferson and, less successfully, of Hemings that no straightforward telling could.

But is it enough? As a work of literary art, I found this book really satisfying. As a story about people, not so much. O’Connor doesn’t solve the puzzle of Jefferson; that he can’t is kind of the point. But he does a great job of finding all the pieces.

Posted in Books, Free Reads, historical romance, Medieval Romance, Paranormal romance, Witch Romance

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 5

Over the next few days, Asmund put all of his returning strength to repairing the broken boat. At first the barbarian girl, Maeve, just watched him from the cliff when she wasn’t busy with her own work. But at midday on the second day, she brought him food and stayed, still watching at first, then helping. She obviously knew nothing about boats, but she was strong for her size and very clever, he soon discovered. Even with him speaking in broken pidgin and gestures, she was able to understand and follow his instructions better than most of his own men.

He also couldn’t help noticing how beautiful she was. His late wife had been his ideal of feminine beauty, tall and fair, an icy Valkyrie. Maeve was just the opposite, small and dark, his little fire goddess with flashing green eyes. Watching her sleep in the tiny hut at night, he ached for her, memories of his fever dream driving him mad. But he was a man, not an animal, and wiser than his desire. He would not risk offending her goddess.

On the morning of the fourth day, the boat was almost done. Maeve was repairing rips in the sail, and Asmund was making pitch and coating the fresh wood he’d put over the hole to seal it. He was just starting a fresh batch when he saw an old woman coming toward them from the woods.

Maeve saw Asmund stand up. She looked back and saw Vivian bearing down on them like an angry crow. “This brute?” she said, waving her stick at Asmund. “This is what you dragged out of the sea?”

“Quiet yourself, auntie,” Maeve said, going to meet her. “What are you doing here?”

“You used your sacred art to heal a Viking?” the old woman said. “You are mad, as mad as your mother!”

“I said hush!” Asmund was watching them with a curious look on his face, almost as if he understood what the bothersome crone was screeching. But when he saw Maeve watching him, he went back to his work. “It doesn’t matter,” she went on to Vivian. “He knows how to fix this boat, and when he’s done, he’ll go.” She went back to her seat and picked up her needle. “What business is it of yours, anyway?”

“Listen to me, girl,” Vivian said. “For three nights running, I have had a vision.”

“You always have visions,” Maeve said, sewing the sail. “You eat too much cheese at night.”

“A terrible vision, always the same,” the crone went on undaunted. “Raiders like this one under the banner of a wolf. They have broken Asha’s magic; they’re destroying our village, slaughtering our men. It is a warning from the goddess!”

“If the goddess is speaking to you in your dreams, tell your queen,” Maeve said. “Asha is your priestess, not me.”

“You think I have not told her?” Vivian said. “She calls me a crazy, deceitful old woman and tells me to keep my peace. But she is afraid.” She grabbed Maeve’s arm in a grip like talons. “I can see it in her eyes. She has seen these visions, too.”

“You see what you want to see,” Maeve said, pulling free, but she was troubled. Vivian was a scold and a troublemaker, but she did not lie.

“So you have seen nothing?” she said.

“Nothing,” Maeve said. “But I have no gift for prophecy.”

“You are stronger than you know,” Vivian said. “Did you not bring this Viking back from death?”

Asmund kept his expression blank as he listened. Some of the old woman’s words were new to him, but he caught the gist, and it worried him. The leader of the other party, his father’s retainer, Stian, sailed beneath a wolf’s head banner. If the old witch was truly a seer, she might have seen him.

“That was the goddess,” Maeve said. “I only did what she told me to do.” So she did remember the fever dream, Asmund thought. He had to fight to hide a smile, but he was troubled, too. His little one was truly a witch.

“Come home,” Vivian said to her now. “Your people need you.”

“They are Asha’s people,” Maeve said. “And she has turned me out.” She stood up, dragging the sail behind her as she went to Asmund. “It is finished,” she said to him in pidgin.

“It’s good,” he answered. “Can you put it on the mast?”

“I can do it,” she said.

“So you will not heed my warning either?” Vivian said. “You will send me back alone and unheard?”

“I have heard you!” She took a deep breath, pulling in her fury like holding back a vicious dog. “Go or stay as it pleases you, auntie,” she said more calmly. “It is nothing to me.”

She went back to work, and eventually the old woman went back into the woods the way she’d come. Painting on pitch and watching her attaching the sail to the newly-fitted mast, Asmund could tell Maeve was on the verge of tears, but she was holding them back—his brave little flame. The boat was almost finished. If the weather stayed dry, the pitch would cure enough in a day or so to risk sailing away. In the back of his mind, a plan began to form.

That night as every night, she performed prayers to her goddess under the rising moon. Asmund watched from the door of the hut, and he could hear the unshed tears in her voice. The old woman had spoken of a village and a queen. What evil harpy would exile a beauty like Maeve? But that would be the reason; this old queen must have been jealous. Maybe she and her people deserved to be raided.

When she was done, she came in and lay down on her pallet like always. But this time instead of making his own bed on the far side of the hut, he lay down close behind her. When she didn’t move or protest, he put his arm around her and pulled her close.

“You’re sweet, Viking,” she said in her own language, obviously not meaning for him to understand. “Don’t worry; I won’t tell anybody.” He kissed the top of her head, and she pulled his arm tighter around her, nestling back into his embrace. “That was Vivian, my grandmother’s sister,” she explained, still speaking Gaelic. “She lives in my village—my mother’s village. I don’t live there any more.” She was crying now; he could hear it. He turned her over to face him and framed her face in his hands, searching her eyes with his in the moonlight.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I know you don’t understand.” He brushed a tear from her cheek with the pad of this thumb, and she curled against his chest. “My mother sent me away,” she explained. “She’s the queen of our tribe, the high priestess. She was always very wise and good, but…she took this harper to her bed. Baird is his name, and he’s no one, much less than you. He was a lost traveler, he said. But he has bewitched her somehow.”

He rested his chin on the top of her head, glad that she couldn’t see his face. He doubted he could have kept his feelings hidden. “He tried to seduce me,” she went on. “And when I said no, he tried to force himself on me. I told Asha, my mother, but…she didn’t believe me.” He could hear her choking on the injustice of it even now, and he struggled not to let his own arms go tense with anger around her. “Baird denied it, of course, and she believed him instead. I am her daughter, another daughter of the goddess, hers in blood and spirit. But she believed him.” She sounded calmer now, as if telling her tale was a comfort of its own, even if he couldn’t understand her. But he did understand, probably better than she did herself. There was a reason Odin turned his face against any woman ruling in the North. “She commanded me to admit that I was lying and beg the dog’s pardon. And when I said I wouldn’t, she exiled me from our home.” Her tears were hot on his bare chest, and he cradled her close, kissing her hair. “So I came here.”

“My little logi,” he said in his own language “Little flame.” He turned her face up to his and looked into her eyes, sparkles of life in the moonlight. Moving very slowly, giving her time to pull back, he kissed her.

Maeve had already decided she’d have no more such games with this Viking, that she would help him mend his boat and send him on his way. But she was so lonely and still so angry and hurt, and he was so warm and strong. She couldn’t resist the comfort he offered even if he was just a brute who didn’t understand a word she said. The look in his eyes was so tender, it melted her heart, and she felt so safe crushed in his arms, she wanted to stay there forever. When he kissed her, she opened her mouth to his, surrendering completely, and when his tongue touched hers, she shivered all over.

He rolled on top of her, still kissing her, and she lifted her skirt over her thighs, ready for him. But he propped up on his arm and looked down at her, his body a pale shadow in the moonlight. He untied the bindings on her short tunic and opened it, exposing her breasts to the cool night air. She raked her fingertips along the hard, curved muscles of his arm as he cupped her breast in his warm hand, teasing the nipple with a slow, gentle thumb until it hardened to a nub. She arched her back and sighed with pleasure as he put his mouth over the nipple and gently sucked, still moving so slowly. His hand moved to the other breast as he suckled her, warming it, teasing it, and she moaned, her hips twisting on the pallet of their own accord. When his mouth moved to the other breast, she whimpered, clutching a handful of his hair. But he didn’t stop; his tongue drew  her tortured little nipple to a peak so hard it hurt, an exquisite little pain. He took her hand and guided it to her own sex, schooling her to touch for a relief that was no relief at all.

At last he raised his head, and she ran her hands up his arms to his shoulders. “Do it,” she urged in her own tongue, the movements of her body making her meaning clear. “Put it inside me.” He kissed her mouth as if he were as desperate and hungry as she felt, and she wrapped her arms and legs around him. But after a kiss that made her shudder to the marrow of her bones, he pulled back again, ignoring her protests and holding off her efforts to hold him fast.

He kissed her throat then pinned her down as he kissed his way down her stomach, pushing and ripping her clothes aside until she was naked. She clutched at his hair and writhed as his mouth moved to her inner thigh, then screamed as his tongue slipped inside her. The goddess herself must have surely felt her climax as it rocked her to her soul, but the Viking wouldn’t stop, teasing and tormenting her sex with his tongue, making the waves come over and over. Only when she screamed his name and begged him did he flip her over on her stomach and take her from behind, filling her up, driving her on until she felt him shoot so hot inside her that she screamed again, trusting him to hold her as the whole world went away.

She came back to herself curled up on his chest with her cheek pressed to his heart. He was caressing her back and speaking to her softly in his own language as if he thought she was asleep. “You’re mine now, little flame,” he said. “I will take you with me when I go.” She closed her eyes on burning tears and fell asleep to the beating of his heart.

End of Chapter 5