Posted in Free Reads, Weird Wild West Romance

Cowboys & Krampus

cowboys-and-krampusI know as a professional writer chick, I’m not supposed to give it away for free, but sometimes I just can’t resist. Happy Krampusnacht, kittens! 

1

 

Two days before Christmas, we had been on the run from a bank job for a week and a half. I had expected us to head south toward old Mexico, but Cade had led us straight north. The rest of the gang seemed to know what he was doing and trust him, and I had only been riding with them since Halloween, so I kept my mouth shut. But looking up at the sky, I was pretty sure we were headed straight into a blizzard.

Just as it started to snow, we rode up to a two-story hotel in the literal middle of nowhere. The hotel and its stable were the only buildings in sight in the middle of a flat, open plain surrounded by mountains.

The little round innkeeper came out from behind his desk as soon as we walked in the door. “Mr. Cade,” he said as we huffed and stomped and peeled out of the frozen layers of our coats. “Danke Gott! When we received your telegram, I was afraid you’d be lost on the road.”

“Telegram?” I said, raising an eyebrow. As far as I knew, we’d been riding for our lives. When had he stopped and sent a telegram?

“Of course. We couldn’t just show up without a reservation, Daisy.” The smile on his face made him look like a man I’d never met. Elbert Cade was not a smiler. “That would be rude.”

“But who is this?” the innkeeper said as I unbuttoned my duster. “Daisy? You have brought your young lady?”

“Mr. Bhaer, meet Mrs. Cade,” he said. “Daisy, honey, meet our host, Mr. Bhaer.”

To my credit, I didn’t faint from shock. “Pleased to meet you,” I said, giving Cade a slant-eyed look that should have shaved off one of his sideburns. Rule number one of the gang was never dispute our fearless leader in front of decent folks, so I wouldn’t. But I wasn’t no more Mrs. Cade than I was the queen of Sweden.

Mein Gott!” Bhaer said. “Mother, come quickly! Cade has taken a wife!”

“Uh-oh,” Thomas, Cade’s second-in-command, said with a grin. “Now you’ve done it.”

The swinging doors behind the front desk opened, and people came pouring out, a stout little woman with blonde braids wrapped around her head and half a dozen little tow-headed kids. “You don’t mean it!” the woman exclaimed in the same thick German accent as her husband. “Congratulations!” She kissed Cade on both cheeks, leaving flour in his whiskers. “Papa, look!” She took my hands and beamed at me. “Ain’t she lovely?”

“Daisy,” Bhaer said. “Her name is Daisy.”

“Mr. Cade, are you crazy?” one of the kids asked, a freckle-faced little bruiser with mischief dancing off of him like sparks off an anvil. “Whatcha want to get some stupid girl for?”

“Klaus!” his mother cried, scandalized.

“Well, Klaus, to tell you the truth, I didn’t have much of a choice,” Cade said with a bit of mischief in his own eyes. “I fed her one time, and she followed me home.”

“Klaus, you are a very naughty boy,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Krampus carried you away tomorrow night.” She smacked Cade on the arm. “And you, too.”

“I don’t think Krampus will be traveling tomorrow night,” Mr. Bhaer said. “Not in this storm.”

“But Papa, what about Saint Nicholas?” one of the other kids said, this one a girl barely as tall as her papa’s boots. “Ain’t he coming either?”

“Not to worry, poppy seed,” Thomas said, swinging the little girl up in his arms. “Saint Nick can always make it through.”

“Something surely smells good in the kitchen, Mrs. Bhaer,” said Luis, Cade’s other lieutenant. He’d been all but hopping on one foot since we came in.

“I am baking gingerbread, Mr. Gonzales,” she said. “Or did you mean Clara?” Her husband and all the other men but Luis laughed at her joke. Me, I thought I must have fallen off my horse and hit my head at some point without noticing. This had to be a crazy dream. “She’s been waiting for you all day,” Mrs. Bhaer went on. “You’d better come see her. Papa, get everyone else settled into their rooms. I’m sure Mrs. Cade is exhausted.”

“So how long have you two been married?” Bhaer asked.

“Not long at all,” Cade said.

“No kidding,” I muttered.

“We’re still on our honeymoon,” Cade said, stepping on my foot. I bit back a shriek of pain.

Wunderbar,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “The bridal suite it is. Come, children, help me fetch Mrs. Cade a hot bath.”

“Aw, nuts,” Klaus grumbled, making me laugh. That child was a caution and cute as he could be.

“That’s quite enough from you, young Klaus,” his father said. “Go now and help your mother.”

When we got to the top of the stairs, Cade went so far as to carry me over the threshold. But as soon as Bhaer left us alone, he set me down, and the honeymoon was over.

“What in hell has gotten into you?” I said.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer are good Christian folks,” he said. “They’d be mightily offended if they thought I’d brought some…” He let his thought trail off.

“Some what, Elbert Cade?” I said. “And remember, I have a gun.”

“They ain’t like us, Daisy, he said. “They’re good and kind and peaceful, and they don’t understand that the rest of the world ain’t like that.”

The rest of the world like him and me. “Which makes me wonder how they know you,” I said.

“I got shot up real bad a couple of years ago about twenty miles from here,” he said. “The rest of the gang thought I was going to die, and most of them skinned out and left me. But Thomas and Luis loaded me up on a half-busted wagon and tried to get me to help. Just when they figured it was hopeless, they found this hotel.”

“And these folks took you in?” I said. I was shaking just thinking about him getting hurt so bad, but I’d have sooner died than let him know it. “A wanted outlaw?”

“Thomas told them we were scouts,” he said. “He said we’d been set upon by bandits when we were leading a wagon train west, and that I had fought off half a dozen men single-handed to save the rest of the party.”

“Lord God Almighty.”

“Hey, I had—they just happened to have been a lawful posse.” If I hadn’t been so mad, I might have thought his little grin was charming. “Anyhow,” he said, seeing my frown. “The Bhaers got me a doctor, and when I woke up, I was a hero. And we’ve been coming back here every Christmas since. Luis and the cook even have an understanding to wed.”

“And they don’t know you’re outlaws?” I said.

He at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “Like I said, they’re good people.”

“Stupid people, maybe.” When I had taken up with him, I had known I was giving up any hope of ever being respectable, that I wasn’t ever going to be the nice married lady I had always dreamed I’d be. But I had wanted him so much, I had told myself it didn’t matter, that there were things more important than being respectable. But now here we were, and he expected me to pretend.

“Now don’t be like that,” he said. “I didn’t tell you we were coming here because I wanted it to be a surprise. I thought you’d like it.” He took my hand and tugged me closer, and I let him. “Just think, darling. A clean bed.” He kissed me on the forehead, sweet and soft. “A hot bath.” I couldn’t help but smile, slumping against him. “When was the last time you had a hot bath?”

“It has been a while.” The last time had been in Carson City, and a fine time it had been.

“We can stay here and ride the storm out safe and sound, eating Clara and Mrs. Bhaer’s fine cooking.” I twined an arm around his neck, and he kissed my mouth. “Sleeping as late as we like.”

“That does sound nice.” Getting up before the sun was the thing I hated most about being an outlaw.

“No posse breathing down our necks.” He nibbled the back of my neck. “No Thomas or Luis snoring one bedroll away.” He kissed behind my ear. “No biting my shoulder to the bone, trying to keep quiet.” I giggled, and he kissed me on the mouth. I melted against him, and he walked me backward toward the bed. “And I was thinking,” he said, nuzzling my throat.

“Thinking what?” I untied the bandana at his throat.

“When the storm does break and we do ride out…” He kissed me again, cuddling my head in his hand the way he knew I liked. “…you could stay on here a while.”

I broke the kiss. “Beg pardon?”

“Just for a little while.” He put up his hands like I might have been a sheriff with a shotgun. “Just until the weather warms up and things calm down a bit.”

“You want to just dump me?” I said.

“Of course not.”

“Have I ever once whined or told you I was tired?” I demanded. “Did I ever cry when I got shot at or fail to shoot when I had to?”

“No, honey. I just thought–”

“I ride as good as Thomas and better than Luis.” I had never been so mad at anybody in my life. “If you’re sick of me, Cade, all you’ve got to do is say so. If you’re ready for another piece of–”

“Stop right there!” He didn’t holler at me often, but when he did, it was impressive. “I don’t want no other women, damn it! That’s the gawddamn point! I want you to be safe!”

“Then you ought not to have let me come with you in the first place!”

“You think I don’t know that?”

I caught my breath like he had hit me. Truth be told, I wished he had.

Somebody knocked on the door. “Mrs. Cade?” It was Mrs. Bhaer. “We have your bath.”

Cade reached out a hand to me. “Daisy…”

“Get out.” I couldn’t stand for him to see me cry. “Just get out.” I opened the door. “Thank you kindly, Mrs. Bhaer,” I said, putting on a smile. “Elbert was just leaving.”

 

 

2

 

I had a good, long cry while I was having a hot bath. By the time I got out, I was feeling more myself. I put on a full girlish dress with petticoats and high-button shoes for the first time in weeks, and when my hair dried, I pinned it up in waves with bows instead of pulling it back in a braid. In the mirror inside the chifferobe, I looked almost like the dove I’d been when Cade first found me.

Downstairs, Cade and Thomas were playing cards with Bhaer and a fellow who looked local. Luis was helping a pretty girl I hadn’t seen before and a couple of the Bhaer kids decorate a Christmas tree. “Hey Daisy,” he said when I came in. “Meet my intended.” He brought the girl forward. “Miss Clara Henderson.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, shaking her hand. “I’m Daisy.” I glanced over at Cade and narrowed my eyes. “Missus Daisy Cade.”

“It’s nice to meet you finally,” the girl said. “Luis has told me all about you in his letters.” I shuddered to imagine the lies he must have told. This girl looked like she ought to have been packing box lunches for the Sunday school picnic, not keeping company with a wanted killer.

“You look a damned sight better as a girl,” young Klaus said, making me jump and Clara gasp. His swearing didn’t disturb me, but I hadn’t seen him at first. He was sitting by the chimney wall like he was being punished. “I think you look right fine.”

“Klaus!” Bhaer said.

“I know, I know,” he said, turning his back to the room. “Krampus is going to carry me off.”

“Don’t scold him on my account,” I said. “Thank you kindly, Klaus. It’s nice to get a real compliment for a change.” Cade made a noise, and I raised an eyebrow at him. He looked back at his cards.

“Can I get you something, Mrs. Cade?” Clara said. “Supper won’t be for a while yet, but we have tea and cookies.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I can help myself.” I took a handful of cookies and went over to the settee in front of the hearth. “Hey there,” I said, holding out a cookie to Klaus.

“Hey,” he said, taking it. “I’m being punished.”

“So I figured.” We both munched. “These are damned good cookies,” I remarked.

He snickered. “Mama makes them.”

“She’s a damned fine cook.” He giggled fit to bust. “Don’t let anybody tell you different.”

“I won’t,” he promised.

“I think Mrs. Cade must like naughty boys,” Clara said with a smile.

The sugar cookie in my mouth suddenly tasted like sawdust. “That would be the rumor,” I said. I patted the settee beside me, and after a moment, Klaus joined me. “So who is this Krampus everybody keeps saying might carry you off?”

He helped himself to another one of my cookies. “He’s a demon who punishes bad boys and girls,” he said. “He travels with Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas gives the good ones toys, but Krampus puts the bad ones in a sack and hauls them off to Hell.”

“Well, mercy me,” I said. The horror stories nice folks made up to tell their kids could curl your hair, I thought. “Have you ever seen him?”

“No, ma’am,” he said. He was a brave little bruiser, but I saw real fear in his eyes. It made me want to stuff his mama and papa in a devil’s sack of their own. “But Papa said when he was a boy at school, he saw a bad boy carried off.”

“Is that a fact?” I gave Bhaer a hard look, but he just winked.

“It is,” Klaus said. “He’s got a nasty long tongue and horns on his head and hooves on his feet like a goat, and his hands are like claws.” He demonstrated with his own little fingers.

“That does sound scary,” I said. “But I’m not sure Krampus comes after children in America.” Bhaer and his wife could be mad at me if they wanted. “I was as bad as bad could be when I was your age, and he never came after me. How about you, Elbert?” I could count on one hand with spares the number of times I had heard anybody dare call Cade by his first name. But I figured it was my wifely privilege. “Did this Krampus ever try to carry you to Hell?”

“Not that I recall, honey, no,” Cade said. “But I’ve learned there’s many a thing in this world that I just haven’t seen yet. Remember Heart’s Remorse?”

“I do.” As if I could forget. Cade and I had met in the middle of a zombie attack in the town of Heart’s Remorse. “Klaus, he does have a point, I’m afraid.”

“Saint Nicholas has always brought Klaus toys and sweets just like he does his brothers and sisters,” Bhaer said with a smile for his son that made me like him a little better. “I’m sure he can be good enough for a few more hours to keep Krampus away.”

The men went back to their card game, and I stared into the fire. Klaus took my hand. “I don’t believe it,” he said so softly no one else could hear. “I don’t believe you were ever really bad.”

I squeezed his hand and smiled. “I don’t believe you’ve ever been really bad either.”

 

 

 

3

 

By suppertime, the snow was drifted halfway up the windows downstairs, and the hotel was full enough to bust. People had drifted in all afternoon like ghosts in thick coats dusted white—trappers, gamblers, a traveling preacher, even a couple of farm families with kids. Just as Mrs. Bhaer and her daughters were setting the table, the big doors opened again, and two men came inside, one carrying a fiddle case. “Hooray!” the oldest daughter hollered, clapping her hands. “Now we can have dancing!”

They put me next to Cade at the table for supper, of course, and by the time we tucked in to Clara’s special brandy pudding, we were managing to be civil. But when the fiddler and his friend the piano player tuned up, we got as far away from one another in the big main room as we could get.

After a while Thomas came over to where I was loitering by the hearth. “Hey Daisy,” he said, offering me his hand. “Care to take a turn?”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Cade had parted a fellow’s hair with the butt of his rifle in Kansas City for less.

“Aw, it’s Christmas,” he said. “I’ll risk it.”

I looked over at Cade, who was back to playing cards with one of the farmers, the preacher, and a professional gambler who would probably fleece the lot of them. “Yeah, I’m his fake wife now,” I said. “He probably won’t even notice.”

Thomas laughed. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. What’s got you in such a fidget, anyhow? Don’t you like Christmas?”

“Not especially.” Luis and Clara were having a sweet little smooch under the mistletoe. Our Mexican bandito was wearing a clean white shirt and had wet his hair and slicked it down flat until he looked like a bank clerk.

“Don’t be like that. These kids get a real hoot out of Saint Nicholas. I’ve been carrying a toy train for that bad little Klaus in my saddlebag since May just to see the look on his face.”

“That’s real sweet of you, Thomas.” Klaus and one of the farm kids were hiding under a table near Cade and his cronies, plotting mischief. I hoped they gave them all a hot foot. “But Saint Nicholas can kiss my ass.”

“From the mouth of a lady,” Thomas said. “What did poor ol’ Saint Nick do to cross you, Daisy?”

“Nothing, since he ain’t real,” I said. He just kept looking at me, waiting. “It’s a pitiful story.” Still waiting, one eyebrow raised. “When I was nine years old, there was a dolly in the window of the general store,” I said, turning my back on the room to face the fire. “She was the prettiest thing I ever saw, in a white dress, a bride. She had blue eyes and yellow curls like me, and I stood at the window for a while every day for a month just staring at her, wishing she was mine. My daddy got wind of it, and he told me not to worry, that if I was good, he was just positive Saint Nicholas would bring her to me for a Christmas present.”

“Oh hell,” Thomas said.

“Oh hell is right,” I said. “I wanted that dolly so bad, I forgot my daddy was the town drunk and wouldn’t know the truth if he met it in the road. Three days before Christmas, that dolly disappeared from the store window, and I was just sure he had gotten her for me. He kissed me good night on Christmas Eve, and I just knew when I woke up, I would have my doll. I even had a name for her all picked out. I was going to call her Charlotte Russe after a sign I had seen in an eating house.

Thomas was standing beside me, blocking my view of the room. “I’m just guessing it didn’t work out that way.”

“Not quite, no.” I was glad he was hiding me from the others. I had tears in my eyes for a dolly I hadn’t seen for twenty years and had never owned; I felt like God’s own fool. “When I woke up, there wasn’t no doll nor no daddy either. I had to go down to the saloon and scrape him up to keep the sheriff from throwing him in jail for drunk and disorderly. Then as we were walking back, him leaning on my shoulder singing, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ like some damned idiot, I saw this wagon full of folks riding past us on their way to church. They had a girl about my age; I knew her from school.” I wiped the foolish tears away. “She was sitting up front with her daddy, and my Charlotte Russe was sitting on her lap.”

“Damn,” Thomas said, glancing back at something over my shoulder. “That might be the saddest tale I ever heard.”

Before he finished saying it, I looked back and saw Cade right behind me. Before I could say a word, he had picked me up and slung me over his shoulder.

“What do you think you’re doing, you crazy bastard?” I said, kicking and beating on his back as he carried me to the stairs. “Put me down!”

“Nope.” Everybody in the room looked shocked, but nobody made a move to help me. Luis was grinning like a possum.

“Y’all sleep tight now,” Thomas called. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite!”

“You better hope you can sleep with one eye open,” I warned Cade. I was still squirming and fighting, and he was still holding me tight. I knew from experience I could fight all I wanted, but he wouldn’t drop me.

“You know I can.” He kicked open the door to our suite then kicked it shut behind us.

“Don’t even think about,” I said as he set me on my feet. “I’m mad at you.”

“I know it.” He kissed me, and I bit his lip so hard, I tasted blood. He put his arms around me, and I stomped on his foot. He didn’t let go; he kissed my cheek, nuzzling me like a dog with his soft, scratchy beard. I balled up my fist and socked him in the jaw, calling him a name too ugly to repeat, and even though his head snapped back, he held on. I beat the living hell out of him, and he let me, never fighting back and never letting go. When I finally started running out of steam, I slumped against him, bawling like a lost calf. “I know, Daisy,” he said, cradling me close.

He unbuttoned the back of my dress, and I wriggled my arms out of the sleeves before I reached up and grabbed a double handful of his hair to pull him down to kiss me. I tasted the blood on his mouth from my bite as he slid the dress down and untied my petticoat. Still kissing me, he shrugged out of his coat, and I unbuttoned his waistcoat and the shirt underneath.

He pushed me back on the bed and went to work unhooking my corset down the front. “One of these days, I am going to shoot you,” I said as I unbuckled his belt.

“I figure somebody’s bound to eventually.”  He shucked out of his trousers and kicked them off with his boots still inside, making an ungodly thump. “Might as well be you.” He kissed me on the mouth some more, pinning my hands over my head. We banged that headboard against the wall so hard and for so long, there was no chance of anybody in the hotel not hearing or not knowing exactly what we were doing. Then when Cade was done, he peeled off the damp remains of my chemise and pantalets and pulled me back against him. He nuzzled my neck and slipped a hand between my thighs, and before he was done, I was done two more times and crying into my pillow.

“Daisy.” He shifted me to a more comfortable position spooned against him. I wrapped both hands around his wrist, holding his arm around me. “Honey, I’m sorry.” I turned my head to kiss his shoulder. Whenever I heard his voice change like that, so soft and tender and so different from the way he sounded with anybody else, I wanted to hold on to him and never turn loose. “There’s things I just can’t…things I don’t say, and you know that.’ I smiled through crying because I knew he couldn’t see. “But if ever I was to say it, you’re the only one I’d say it to.”

“I know it.” I kissed his strong, scarred, hard man’s hand. “I’m all right.” I fell asleep tucked under his chin, thinking the world was just fine. The wind picked up during the night, flinging snow like little rocks against the windows, but I snuggled closer to Cade and paid it no mind. For once we were indoors and safe.

 

 

 

4

 

In the morning, I woke up by myself, but that didn’t worry me much. Cade was an early riser even when he didn’t have to be. But when I went downstairs, I found the whole gang in a fidget.

“What the hell did you say to him, Daisy?” Thomas said as soon as he saw me coming down the stairs. “Did you put him out?”

“Put who where?” I said. “What are you talking about?”

“Cade,” Luis said. “He’s gone.”

“What do you mean, he’s gone?” I said. “And no, I most certainly did not put him out.” As if I could have put Elbert Cade anywhere he didn’t want to go. “Where has he gone?”

“That’s what we’re trying to tell you,” Thomas said. “We got up this morning, and he wasn’t here, and all of his gear was gone. Miss Clara volunteered to peek in your room, and you were sleeping alone.”

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Cade,” Clara said. “Luis was just so worried.”

The front door opened, and Mr. Bhaer and his oldest son came in with cold wind and snow gusting around them. “His horse is gone,” he said.

“Well, damn him anyhow,” I said. “Let me get changed so we can go find him. He shouldn’t be hard to track in all that snow.”

“Daisy, we couldn’t track a steam train walking on the rails in this storm,” Thomas said. “It’s six feet deep in the valleys and still coming down.”

“We had to hold on to a follow rope just to get to the stable and back,” Mr. Bhaer said.

“Somebody will find him in the spring when the thaw comes,” the gambler drawled from his seat at the poker table. “He’s got to be dead already.”

I stomped across the room, reached down into the gambler’s waistcoat and drew his little hidden, silver pistol. “You take that back,” I said, pressing the barrel to his forehead.

“Now Daisy,” Luis said. “He didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“Then he shouldn’t have said it.” Every gambler I had ever met had carried the same stupid little peashooter in the same spot and had had the same big mouth, and all but one had been a yellow coward. This one was no exception.

“I do beg your pardon, Mrs. Cade,” he stammered, sweating like a whore in church. “I misspoke. I’m sure your husband will be just fine.”

“Like as not, he left before it got too bad,” Thomas said, taking me gently by the wrist and easing the gun from my hand. “He’s probably stuck holed up somewhere, waiting for the storm to break.”

“I’m sure he is,” Luis said. He took the gun from Thomas and popped the bullets out. “He’ll ride back here as soon as it’s safe.”

“Exactly,” the gambler said. Luis handed him back his empty gun, and he tucked it away in his pocket. “I’m sure he’ll be home soon.”

But of course that was a lie. He was sure Cade was dead or dying in the blizzard, and so was everybody else.

I’ve lived through some hellacious Christmas Eves in my time, but that one was by far the worst. I tried at first to stay in my room so I wouldn’t spoil everybody else’s fun, but I couldn’t stand being alone. Every time my eyes lit on the bed, I wanted to go running out into the snow to find him. Plus up on the second floor with no one else around, all I could hear was the horrible, howling wind, and all I could think about was Cade out in it. I couldn’t imagine why he’d gone, but I was sure it had to be my fault. But what had I done?

Finally I gave up and went back downstairs. Mrs. Bhaer had a fair-sized selection of yellow-backed novels on her bookshelf, and I spent the rest of the day on the sofa near the fire, reading and trying not to think. Thomas and Luis seemed almost as bad off as I was, Thomas playing checkers with the kids and Luis following Clara around like a lost puppy. I caught each of them giving me the stink eye more than once. They knew it was my fault, too.

But the only one who looked like he might be more miserable than me was Klaus. That poor child wandered the hotel like a lost soul all afternoon into the evening, peering out the window at the storm and trying so hard to stay out of trouble, it broke my heart. “Papa, what if the storm doesn’t stop?” one of his sisters asked. “Will Saint Nicholas be able to come?” The children had all been told Cade was safe in town; they didn’t know to worry about him. Klaus looked back at his daddy with hope in his eyes.

“Oh, I don’t think a little snow will stop Saint Nicholas,” Mr. Bhaer said. “I wouldn’t worry.” He ruffled Klaus’s hair. “But maybe Old Krampus will stay home warm in bed.”

“I bet you Old Krampus is dead,” I said. “As many bad kids as there are in the world now, I bet his old heart gave out a long time ago.”

“He doesn’t have a heart,” Klaus said. “He’s a demon.”

“Let’s all get washed up for supper,” Mrs. Bhaer said. “Come along, Klaus.” She herded all the children through the swinging doors.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” I told Mr. Bhaer when they were gone. “Scaring that child with a made-up story. You’ve ruined his whole Christmas.”

“You think I lied, Mrs. Cade?” he said. “You think Krampus is a made-up story?” For the first time, I noticed how pale and drawn he looked himself. “I wish that were true.”

“You’re saying there really is a Krampus?” Thomas said.

“Like I told the children, I saw him once,” the innkeeper said. “There was a boy in my school, not such a bad boy, really, just lost and angry. He couldn’t seem to behave himself even when he tried, just like my Klaus.” The card players had gone quiet, and the piano player had stopped picking out a tune. “One year at the Feast of Saint Nicholas, there was a storm, just like this one here tonight, so none of us boys could go home for the holiday. That night in our dormitory, Krampus came for that boy. A monstrous sight, a terrible thing with claws and a tail and feet like hooves. We all wanted to help our friend, but it was as if some magic spell had paralyzed us in our beds.” He looked around at his audience with what looked like real tears in his eyes. “All we could do was watch as the demon snatched him up,” he said. “He stuffed him in a sack and carried him away, and none of us ever saw him again.”

As I listened, only one phrase came to mine, one of Cade’s favorites. “Buffalo shit,” I said. “If something carried off your friend, it was a plain old evil man dressed up to scare you all and make you behave. And you couldn’t help him because you were all just kids scared stiff.”

He smiled. “You have an admirable turn of phrase, Mrs. Cade,” he said. “I only wish you were right.”

 

 

5

 

The rest of the night dragged by. I picked at the delicious supper Mrs. Bhaer and Clara had made just long enough to be polite, then went back to the parlor. To stay out of everybody’s way, I dragged a chair over to one of the windows and set a lit candle on the windowsill. I told myself I was just giving myself light for my book, but that was a lie. Against all good sense, I was hoping Cade would see it. I was hoping it could somehow guide him home.

I stayed there staring out the window while Mr. Bhaer read the story of the Baby Jesus to the children from the family Bible then kept on sitting and staring as all the mamas and papas kissed their children and sent them off to bed. As the clock was striking eleven, I watched them filling all the stockings, including Thomas tucking a toy locomotive into Klaus’ little shoe. I turned away as the clock struck midnight and Luis and Clara kissed again under the mistletoe. Cade was somewhere out there in the dark, dead or alive, and I wondered how I’d ever find out which.

“Miss Daisy?” I turned to find the traveling preacher standing behind me. Everybody else was heading off to bed. “I mean, Mrs. Cade? Would you like me to pray with you?”

“No, thank you, Reverend.” I had caught his act a couple of times in our travels, lots of fire and brimstone in the beginning and a moonshine and snake oil tonic for sale at the end. “I doubt the Good Lord is much interested in what I’d have to say.”

He smiled. “You might be surprised.” He put his hands in his pockets. “They know, you know. The Bhaers? They know you and Cade ain’t married and that Cade and his friends are wanted outlaws. They know I’m a plug nickel hustler and a fraud. They know the truth about all of us and more besides, I reckon. But they don’t care.” He pulled out his pipe and lit it. “This is a special place, Daisy.” The burning tobacco smelled sweet and nice with the piney smell of the Christmas tree and the wood smoke of the fire. “It’s Christmas Eve, and anything can happen.”

He drifted upstairs with everybody else and left me alone in my chair. I knew I should probably go to bed, too, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I couldn’t face that empty bed. I was just nodding off sitting straight up when I heard footsteps. I jerked my head back up and saw Klaus.

“I thought I might have heard something,” he said. In his nightshirt, he looked younger and smaller than he had before, barely more than a baby. “Can I sit up with you?”

“Sure you can.” I motioned him over, and he surprised me by climbing into my lap. I kissed his cheek and put my arms around him, and he settled back against my shoulder. Looking out at the snow, I wondered if Cade had been a bad little boy like Klaus once. Had some woman somewhere held him in her lap when he was scared of demons in the night? I hoped she had.

“Hey Daisy?” Klaus said. “Do you think Cade is dead?”

“No, sir, I do not.” My lover had survived two wars, one on the losing side, the journey west, a hundred heists, a hundred angry posses, two trials for murder, a horde of zombies, and me. I couldn’t see him cashing in his chips to a spell of bad weather. “I think he just left me; that’s all.” I thought about the night before, all the things he’d said to me and the things he couldn’t say. If I’d been paying attention, I would have known he was saying good-bye.

All of a sudden, Klaus went stiff as a board. “Did you hear that?” I hadn’t heard anything until he asked, but now I heard thumping coming from over our heads. He jumped up and grabbed my hand, and as I stood up, I heard what sounded like rats scrabbling in the chimney. I shoved him behind me and grabbed the poker just as something rolled out of the fireplace at our feet, a bag of rags about the size of a pumpkin.

“Stay back!” I hollered at Klaus. “Hey, somebody! Thomas! Help!” A weird, cold wind was rushing around the room, making the candles gutter and the curtains fly around like ghosts. I raised the poker to whack the ball of rags, and it started to unfold. Klaus was clinging to the back of my skirt with both fists, but if he was saying anything, I couldn’t hear him. The wind was too loud.

“You leave this boy alone!” I yelled over the din. Where the hell is everybody? I thought. How are they sleeping through this? I could hear the shutters banging against the hotel outside, and the swinging doors to the hall were dancing like corpses on a hangman’s noose.

The thing on the floor just kept rising and growing, unfolding into the shape of something like a man but twice the size of any man I’d ever seen. It had the hooded robe and long white beard I had seen in pictures of Saint Nicholas, but its skin was scaly gray and white, and its glowing eyes were yellow. And it had the long tongue and claws and hooves I’d been hearing about all day. “Holy shit,” I muttered, tightening my grip on the poker. I had faced down zombies before, but that was with Cade beside me. Now it was all up to me. “Please, Lord, let me be dreaming.”

The thing that I reckoned must be Krampus reached out a clawed, scaly hand. “Come.”

“I told you already, you can’t have him!” I bellowed, waving my poker at him. I had no notion I could kill this monster with a fireplace poker, but I’d be damned if I’d let him take Klaus without one hell of a fight.

Krampus’ laugh was like thunder. “Not him,” he said in that voice like rusted iron chains rattling in the wind. “You.” He curled his talons at me, beckoning me closer. “Come.”

“I don’t think so.”

Cade kicked the swinging doors open and fired both barrels of his shotgun into the demon’s back. Krampus roared with pain and fury as a big, flaming hole opened up in his chest. As he turned to face Cade, I grabbed Klaus and darted around him. I caught the shotgun as Cade tossed it my way and dove into the coat he had dropped behind him, digging in his pocket for the fresh shells I knew he’d have there. As I reloaded the shotgun, Cade unloaded both his hog-leg Colts into the demon’s face. When he grabbed the shotgun back, the thing was reeling, a sort of burning husk, but it was still coming for us. I put my hands over Klaus’ ears as Cade fired both barrels again, so close I felt the burn of the blast. Krampus stretched up tall and thin, a curtain of flame with the face of the devil, and Cade spit in his eye. With a final roar, Krampus collapsed.

Cade kicked the ball of burning rags into the fireplace, and it exploded like a pine knot in the fire.

“Papa!” Klaus yelled, running for the stairs. “Papa, come quick! Mr. Cade killed Krampus!”

“You all right?” Cade said. His hat was dripping snow, and his boots were caked with mud and ice. And his lip was busted, and his eye was black, but I had done all that the night before.

“Yeah, I reckon,” I said.  I had burned my hands grabbing the shotgun, and he took them and kissed the burns. “I guess old Krampus is real after all.”

“I reckon so.” He smiled, and I threw myself into his arms.

“Where the hell did you go?” I said. I could hear voices and footsteps coming down the stairs. “Didn’t you notice all that snow?”

“There was something I had to go to town to get.” He kissed me sweetly then let me go to get his saddlebags. Thomas and Mr. Bhaer came in as he pulled out a package wrapped in brown paper. “Merry Christmas,” he said, handing it to me.

“What did you do?” I unwrapped it and gasped. It was a perfect yellow-haired dolly in a perfect lacy white dress.

“What in the hell is that?” Thomas said.

I could have scolded him for risking his life over something so foolish. I could have been furious with him for scaring me so bad or embarrassed that he’d thought a doll could mean so much to me.

“She’s perfect,” I said, hugging him again. Maybe he couldn’t say it out loud, but I could. “I love you.”

 

 

6

 

The storm finally broke on Christmas night, and the next morning, we packed up to go. I wrapped Charlotte Russe in my prettiest dress and tucked her into my saddlebag. Then I put on my gunslinger togs, tied my hair up in a braid, and strapped on my revolver.

As I was heading outside, the preacher stopped me. “Best of luck to you, Miss Daisy,” he said, tipping his hat. “If you and Cade ever decide to make this thing legally binding, I’m always around.”

I took his offered hand and smiled. “We’ll check the jails if we need you,” I said, kissing his cheek.

Cade was bellowing as I walked out the front door. “Gawddammit, Luis, are you coming or not?” The sun was shining, and the whole world was sparkling blue and white. All the Bhaer’s Christmas company was heading out, and the yard was full of kids, bundled up like bear cubs and throwing snowballs at one another. Klaus balled up a snowball as big as his head and flung it at the back of his big brother’s neck. It hit dead on target, and Klaus laughed like a fiend as the bigger boy chased him away.

One of the other boys had saddled my mare. “Thanks, Dietrich,” I said, taking the reins.

“Ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat and blushing red as a holly berry.

Cade was doing his usual ritual, checking all his laces, positioning his guns. When Dietrich had gone, I put a hand on his back. “That preacher offered to marry you and me for real.”

He kept on retying a strap. “You want him to?”

“Him? I don’t think so.” I didn’t need a ceremony. I knew he was all mine.

He turned around and put his arms around me. “Are you sure you want to come?” he said. “You could stay right here and be safe. Bhaer and his wife have already said you’d be welcome. You could eat regular, sleep in a bed every night.” He touched my cheek. “Rarely if ever get shot at.”

“Well, that just sounds boring as hell.” I slid my arms around him under his coat. “Forget it, bad man.” He kissed me, and I kissed him back. “I’m sticking with you.”

 

The end

 

Advertisements
Posted in Appearances, Books, Other People's Awesome

Charlotte Writers’ Fair 2017

writers fair 1Hey Kittens – guess where I’ll be on Small Business Saturday? Meeting readers and trading witty banter with other writers and hopefully selling lots and lots of awesome print books just in time for Christmas. The Charlotte Writers’ Fair is the bouncing baby brain child of writer and publisher John Hartness, author of the amazing Bubba the Monster Hunter and Quincy Harker, Demon Hunter series (eseses) and chief executive thunder god of Falstaff Books. We’ll be filling the lobby of Theatre Charlotte with Carolina authors and their books, plus art from local artist and author Davey Beauchamp. Come hang out with us and find cool reading gifts for all the people you actually like! Romance, horror, fantasy, science fiction, action adventure, steampunk, mystery, lions, tigers, bears–something perfect for everybody on your list and at least a couple of more-than-perfect somethings just for you.

Other writers scheduled to attend:

Alexandra Christian, Tally Johnson, John Hartness, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Melissa McArthur, Susan Roddey, Misty Massey, Crymsyn Hart, Jason Gilbert, Darin Kennedy, Jim McDonald, Stuart Jaffe, Nancy Northcott, Faith Hunter, Tonia Brown, Edward McKeown, A.J. Hartley, Matthew Saunders, Samantha Bryant

I’ll have spiffy new paperbacks of these two lovelies:

last winter knight for print.jpgUntil Death 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus a limited selection of paperbacks from the Bound in Darkness series. Come see us!

Posted in Books, Editing, Publishing, Writing process

Lucy Blue Edits!

librarianLooking through my bills for last month, it suddenly occurred to me that I really, really missed freelance fiction editing. For anyone who’s interested, here’s what I charge and how I do it and why I think I’m qualified:

Proofreading: $0.005/word ($250 for a 50,000-word novel; $50 for a 10,000-word short story)

I’ll read for typographical errors, spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and minor formatting problems. I won’t correct grammar, word choice, passive voice, continuity errors, or make any suggestions as to content. If I think your manuscript needs more than a proofread, I’ll let you know after the initial read (see below), and you can decide if you want me to go forward and how.

Copy Editing: $0.01/word ($500 for a 50,000-word novel; $100 for a 10,000-word short story)

In addition to proofreading (see above), I will also read for problems with grammar, word choice, and continuity and mark corrections. I won’t make any suggestions as to content such as plot, characterization, pacing, etc. If I think your manuscript needs more than a copy edit, I’ll let you know after the initial read (see below) and tell you why, and you can decide if you want me to go forward and how.

Substantive Editing: $0.02/word ($1000 for a 50,000-word novel; $200 for a 10,000-word short story)

In addition to copy editing your manuscript (see above), I will point out any problems I see with plot, characterization, pacing, etc., and make specific suggestions for rewrites. As part of the substantive edit, I might also engage you in a developmental dialogue to help you refocus or sharpen aspects of your story that don’t grab the reader. I will also read at least one rewrite if you choose to do one at my suggestion at no additional charge. All substantive edits will also come with a full evaluation of the manuscript—what I loved, what I didn’t love, and any thoughts I have about potential markets and your work going forward.

Initial Read: First 10 pages only; no charge

Regardless of what level of editing you want, I will do an initial read of the first ten pages (2500 words) of your manuscript and let you know: 1)if I think I can help you; and 2)what level of editing I think your manuscript needs.  I reserve the right to refuse any job that I think is beyond me, for whatever reason. Manuscript evaluation is subjective; if I don’t think I can help you make your book or story better, I won’t take your money. But if I tell you I think you need a substantive edit and you tell me, um, no thanks, I’m just looking for a proofread, I will absolutely do a proofread.

So what do I know anyway? Credentials:

I’ve been a paid, professional fiction writer since 1998. I’ve published novels with two major publishers (Berkley/Penguin and Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster) and novels and anthologized short stories with three independent publishers (Purple Sword Publications, Mocha Memoirs Press, and Falstaff Books) in addition to running a micro-press, Little Red Hen Romance, with my sister, author Alexandra Christian. In doing so, I have gone through the editorial process as a writer with many different editors with many different styles, and I know just how painful a bad edit can be—and how much a good one can help bring a story to life.

I have an M.A. in English from Winthrop University, and I’ve taught English composition at Winthrop and at York Technical College. I was the fiction editor of Winthrop’s literary magazine my senior year as an undergraduate, and I have been doing freelance editing off and on for the past three years for small presses and self-published authors.

Nuts and Bolts:

Once we decide I can help and what kind of help you want from me, I’ll send you an invoice for the full amount of my fee based on your word count. I’ll need at least half of the fee paid to me through PayPal at lucybluecastle@gmail.com before I start work.

All manuscripts will need to be submitted in Microsoft Word. I hate Microsoft, too, and I’m sure all those other software suites are charming beyond all measure, but I want to spend my time as your editor editing your art, not wrestling with your software. Any manuscripts submitted in anything but Word will be returned unread.

To get started, email me your manuscript as a Word attachment to lucybluecastle@gmail.com. In your cover email, give me your name and your snail mail address and tell me a little bit about your manuscript—genre, etc. This isn’t a query for a publisher; I just want to know what to expect when I read your first 10 pages. I only plan to do a handful of manuscripts every month, so if I’m swamped, I’ll let you know.

Final thought:

I can’t promise that if you hire me, you’ll get published, no matter how much I might love your book. But I do promise to do everything I can to make it the best book it can possibly be.

Posted in Books, Horror, Other People's Awesome

Dusk Warriors – New Vamps from Emerian Rich!

One of the great things about having a network of brilliant author friends is having people to provide brilliant content for your blog. Author and goth culture goddess Emerian Rich is taking over today to give us an excerpt from her new release, Dusk Warriors:

‡‡‡‡‡‡

dwbook3d2Lucy was kind enough to let me share an excerpt from my new book Dusk’s Warriors. What about a good old vampire hunt?

 

Excerpt from Dusk’s Warriors:

“Let me buy you a drink for helping me find my way.”

She considered as he read her mind. I got work in the morning and already dealt with one imbecile who thought he could have his way with me.

Julien looked into her eyes. His intent? Making her say yes. She was a tough one. Just like Jespa.

“All right,” she said. “But only if we go to that place.” She pointed across the street to another bar. It wasn’t as dark and the music wasn’t as hard, but Julien could see possibility.

“As you wish.”

They were the only patrons in the run-down club. Approaching the bar, he placed a crisp bill on the wooden bar top.

“Two glasses of red wine.”

“I can’t break a bill that large.” The bar keep wore a faded black concert T and looked like he hadn’t showered in a week.

“Then give us the bottle.”

“Mister, I still can’t break a bill this large.”

“I don’t want change.” The edge in Julien’s voice told the guy not to question him again. Julien took a deep breath before returning to the girl.

She glanced tentatively at the door and then at him as she fidgeted with her boot lace. He’s hot, but all he sees me as is an easy lay.

Or an easy drink. Julien snickered to himself.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

Julien hadn’t meant to laugh aloud, but it didn’t matter. He would charm his way through it as he always did.

“You remind me of someone.”

“Oh, yeah? Gonna tell me who?”

“Someone I loved.” He looked into her eyes, attempting to wield his hypnotic power over her. He put his hand over hers on the table. Despite her strong will, the girl seemed to melt.

The barman brought over a bottle of cheap wine and two chilled glasses.

“We don’t have an ice bucket or anything.”

“It’s fine,” Julien said through clenched teeth, striving to keep the girl’s attention. Her will bent, but the barman’s voice pulled her out of the trance.

“You all right, hon?” the barkeep asked.

The girl looked unsure, blinking as she looked from the keep to Julien.

“She’s fine.” Julien spoke in controlled anger.

“Look, friend, I’d like to hear it from her,” the keep said.

“I’m fine,” the girl echoed.

“I just thought…”

“Step away from the table,” Julien said through clenched teeth. He rose, barely able to control his anger.

“I don’t want no trouble.”

“Then leave, and you won’t have any.”

The barkeep seemed frozen in his spot.

“Pardon me for a moment,” Julien said to the girl and walked the unwilling barkeep to a store room in the back of the bar.

As soon as the storeroom door closed, Julien’s forearm pressed against the keep’s throat.

“You should learn to mind your own business.”

The keep choked, coughing and panting as Julien pressed on his windpipe. Unable to control his anger or his thirst, Julien sunk his fangs into the keep’s neck before he knew what he was doing. As the blood flowed over his teeth and down his throat, Julien lost all concept of reality. His fangs ripped and tore at the man’s neck, turning him into a worthless corpse. The keep fell to the floor and Julien’s vision cleared.

dwBAR

Dusk’s Warriors by Emerian Rich

 

Heaven has opened up and welcomed the vampires of Night’s Knights into a new reality. As they struggle to find their place in their new world, trouble brews on Earth.

 

Demon servant, Ridge, is causing havoc by gathering up all the souls on Earth that have been touched by immortality. When he injures one of the Night’s Knights crew, he launches a war between the vampires of Heaven, the Big Bad in Hell, and a mortal street gang of vigilante misfits.

 

Will Julien, Markham, and Reidar be able to defeat the evil that’s returned, or will they once again need Jespa’s help?

 

Praise for Dusk’s Warriors:

“All hail, the queen of Night’s Knights has returned! Emerian Rich’s unique take on vampires delights my black little heart.” ~Dan Shaurette, Lilith’s Love

 

“A world of horror with realistic characters in a fast paced thriller you won’t be able to put down.”

~David Watson, The All Night Library

 

Praise for Night’s Knights:

“Fresh, original, and thoroughly entertaining.” ~Mark Eller, Traitor

 

“Emerian brought the Vampire Novel back from the dead.” ~C. E. Dorsett, Shine Like Thunder

 

Available now at Amazon.com in print and eBook

 

https://www.amazon.com/Dusks-Warriors-Nights-Knights-Vampire/dp/1544628803

emz1smallEmerian Rich is an artist, horror host, and author of the vampire series, Night’s Knights. She is the hostess of the internationally acclaimed podcast, HorrorAddicts.net. Under the name Emmy Z. Madrigal, she writes the musical romance series, Sweet Dreams and she’s the Editorial Director for the Bay Area magazine, SEARCH. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son.

 

 

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?”

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.