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

 

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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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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

 

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The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 4

 

viking and the witch serial coverAsmund woke up naked and alone. He opened his eyes to a patch of blue sky through a hole in the roof of a tiny hut. He could hear the roar of the sea and the screams of gulls and ravens. He felt hot but not feverish; someone had covered him with blankets he didn’t need. But he felt fine, whole, healed. He shoved off the blankets and sat up. He was stiff and sore like he’d slept too long and deeply after a hard battle. But the burning pain in his back was gone.

He found his clothes outside hanging over a rack near a banked fire built on the sand. They were still bloodstained and a little stiff with salt, but they smelled clean enough. As he dressed, he smelled something else—food. He was starving. He tore open a packet of leaves and seaweed smoking by the fire and found a long, fat salmon, cleaned and almost cooked. He devoured it down to white bone and silver skin, washing it down with fresh water from a leather bucket hanging nearby. While he ate, he looked around, assessing his surroundings.

The hut was built a stone’s throw back from a deep inlet, a gash in the sand that was slowly filling with the tide, and there was a sort of raft bobbing on the shallow water. Other than the hut and the raft, he saw no other sign of men, no dock, no village. But he had heard tell of men and women living in caves and sheltering in the trees along this wild coastline. He thought of the woman who had come to him in his dreams, but he didn’t expect to see her. He was still certain she hadn’t really been a woman at all but a fire spirit sent by the gods to save him.

When he finished the fish, he gave thanks to Odin and Freya for his deliverance and added another brief prayer to the wild goddess of this place, thanking her for taking pity on a stranger. “I am in your debt, lady,” he finished. “I will leave these lands and trouble your people no more.”

Of course, how he would leave was the next challenge. Even if his brother and the rest of his crew had survived the storm and the traitor among them, they would be miles from here—and he didn’t even know where here was. They had been raiding up and down the coastline for more than a month and were meant to meet up with a party from one of his father’s retainer’s lands to trade and make repairs before sailing back north. He wasn’t sure how long he had been unconscious, but the appointed day for meeting was soon, no more than a few days away. Somehow he had to learn where he was then take possession of a vessel he could sail to meet up with the others. Then he’d find the man who had betrayed him and see his head mounted on a pike.

But first he had to find a boat.

He started walking inland along the bank of the inlet, headed toward the forest. The hut was too well equipped to be completely isolated. If there was no village on the beach itself, they must surely be somewhere in the woods. The inlet turned slightly as it widened, and suddenly he saw the woman wading in the water.

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Maeve had thought the Viking would sleep for days, that she would have time to decide what to do with him when he woke up, whether she would try to talk to him or just hide until he went away. So when she saw him on his feet running toward her, she was so shocked, her first instinct was to run. Stop being stupid, she scolded herself. You saved his life. And besides, you’d never be able to outrun him anyway. Gathering her courage and as much dignity as she could manage when soaked to the thighs and dragging a chain of fish traps, she climbed up the bank of the inlet to meet him.

Shocking her again, he fell to his knees at her feet. “Asynia,” he said, the same strange word he had called out in his delirium. “I am your slave.” He was speaking his own language, and she understood most of it very well. But it didn’t seem prudent to let him know that. “I pay you homage, giver of life,” he said. But this was blasphemy; this wouldn’t do at all.

“Stop,” she said, putting her hands on his shoulders. “Stop it. I am no queen.” She spoke the pidgin of the traders who came in the summer, a simple, childish sort of code made from bits of Latin and Greek and Gaelic. She raised his chin to make him look into her eyes, though he was so tall, with him on his knees their eyes were nearly level already. “Maeve.” She touched her own chest. “I am Maeve.” She saw comprehension in his eyes, definite intelligence. He was fully awake now, and he understood her. “And you are a big, scary Viking I should have just brained with a rock when I had the chance,” she added in her own tongue.

Asmund bit his cheek to keep from laughing. His father had taken enough slaves from these islands for him to be well-schooled in their language; he understood every word. But it seemed wisest to keep that to himself while she was still considering braining him with a rock. “Maeve,” he repeated. He took her little hand and kissed it. “Maeve.”

“Yes.” She was standing straight as a mast, and her eyes were clear, gazing directly into his own. But she was trembling.

“Asmund.” He put her hand on his chest. “I am Asmund.” He used the same pidgin she had; his people knew the southern traders, too.

“Asmund,” she repeated. She was beautiful, a perfect prize. Even in his present predicament, he couldn’t fail to notice. She tried to pull her hand away, but he held it trapped in his as he stood back up. She was a tiny thing, really, barely as tall as his chest. He barely remembered the night before, but what he did remember of her was sweet. She took a step back from him, and he hooked his other arm around her waist. He pulled her close, his eyes locked to hers, and bent to kiss her.

She twined a leg around his then jerked, knocking him off balance on the shifting sand. Jumping and pushing against his chest with her full weight, she threw him on his back and landed on top of him, and he lost his wind in a rush. Before he could recover, she had drawn her knife from her belt and held it to his throat.

“Listen,” Maeve said, panting slightly and trying to stop shaking so much with fear. “You sick. Just last night, you ready to die. Remember?” She let her head loll back and her tongue fall out, pantomiming death, and to her relief, he laughed. “You want me kill you now?” She suddenly noticed she was straddling his hips now very much the same way she had the night before, and she felt her cheeks go red and a pleasant little shiver run up her thighs. She pressed her knife tighter to his throat. “You want death?”

“No.” Now Asmund wanted her more than ever, and he had no doubt he could disarm her and take control if he wanted. But she had treated him honorably; he wouldn’t repay her or her goddess with such an insult. He smiled at her again in what he hoped was a friendly, harmless-looking way. “No death, thanks.”

“Then be good.” The grimace on his face could have frightened a bear up a tree, but she thought he was trying to make friends. She climbed off of him slowly, still holding the knife out in front of her. He climbed to his feet, holding his hands up. “Good,” she repeated. She sheathed her knife and smiled.

“Good,” he repeated. He let his hands drop but made no more move to touch her.

“You can pillage me later when you’re feeling more yourself,” she added in her own tongue, turning away so she didn’t see him smile.

The girl went about the rest of her day seemingly the way she always would have, and Asmund followed, feeling like a very large and very restless puppy. He tried repeatedly to ask her about nearby settlements or other people she knew, but she just shook her head as if she didn’t understand.

Finally he gave up asking and plopped down in a sulk. “You sleep,” she suggested, pointing toward the hut. “Still sick. Rest good.” He glowered at her and turned away. There was a whetstone on a rock near the hut, and he picked it up and started sharpening his own knife. “Suit yourself,” she said in her own tongue, going back to fixing one of her traps.

By mid-afternoon as she was pounding some sort of grain into a paste, the tide was coming in, a storm tide that began to spill over the banks of the inlet. It snatched her little raft from its moorings and sucked it toward the sea. The girl jumped up to retrieve it, but Asmund was faster. He ran past her and dove into the inlet that was now a few feet deeper than he was tall, then surfaced under the raft. He steered it back to the bank then climbed out, carrying it over his head. “Thanks,” she said as he dropped it out of harm’s way.

“You’re welcome,” he answered, plopping back down by the fire.

Maeve thought he looked so much like a naughty little boy denied a treat, she could almost forget he was dangerous. “Come,” she said, holding out her hand. “Come with me.” He got up and took it, covering her hand completely with his. She shivered but smiled. “Help,” she promised. “I can help.”

She led him down the beach and around the rocky point that sheltered it. “There,” she said, pointing down a gentle cliff to another tiny cove. A sailboat was lying on its side at the edge of the water, rising and falling with the surf. Even from this distance, it was easy to see the hole the rocks had torn in its side, but otherwise it was intact, even the sail. “Fix that,” she said.

Asmund could hardly believe his eyes. He lifted her straight up in the air and kissed her squarely on the lips, but before she could react, he had set her back on her feet and sprinted and slid down the cliffside.

The boat was crude by Viking standards, a flat-bottomed fisherman’s skiff. But that would make it easier to repair with the materials at hand. He would never take it on the open sea, but if he could pinpoint his position he might be able to sail it around the coastline to the beach where he was meant to meet the others. He looked up at the woman still watching from the clifftop, and his heart swelled with affection. First she had somehow given him back his life. Now she had given him hope.

Maeve picked her way down the cliff. Asmund was already dragging the boat further up the beach out of the ocean’s reach. She was amazed again by how strong he was. A month before when the wreck had first washed up, she had watched three men from her own village try to move it and give it up as a loss. But this Viking barely seemed to be straining. He unfastened the sail from the mast then spread it to dry with the corners weighted down with rocks. She had no doubt he would fix it, and something like relief came over her for the first time since she’d found him. He would sail this boat away from her to a fate she would never see. As she watched him work, tears welled in her eyes. But she and her village would be safe.

End of Chapter 4

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

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 3

viking and the witch serial coverMaeve had walked the path from her home village to the place on the beach where she had built her hut at least a hundred times. She couldn’t possibly get lost. But this time, she seemed to be walking for hours, and she was still in the woods. She couldn’t even hear the ocean in the distance. The sky was getting dark, and a full moon was rising even though the night before it had been barely a sliver.

She stopped when the air turned cold and fat, white snowflakes started to fall. Somehow she had passed out of the mortal plane and into the realm of the Lady. This could be the past or the future; these woods could be anywhere on earth or no place on earth at all. All that was certain was that the Lady had brought her here for a purpose. She wouldn’t be able to go back to her own world until she learned what it was.

“Lady, I am here,” she called. “Show me what I must see.” She turned in a circle as the snow fell faster. It was almost up to the tops of her boots. Just as she was about to turn around again, she saw a silver vixen sitting in the path ahead of her as if she were waiting to be noticed. “Go then,” Maeve said. “I will follow.”

She followed the fox through the wintry wood of bare black trees and massive evergreens until they came to a clearing. In the distance, she could see a village built high on a hill. She could hear bells ringing in alarm. She watched as two dark figures swathed in so many clothes they looked like bears came running down the hill from the town—a woman and a child. Behind them she saw half a dozen lower, darker shapes—a pack of wolves.

The woman and child started running across the snow-covered plain toward Maeve, but they were still too far away for her to see their faces. And the wolves were gaining. The child stumbled, and the woman picked it up and tried to keep running, struggling in the deep snow. The wolves were almost on top of them now, and other wolves were flanking them, coming out of the woods from either side. They would be ripped to pieces, and all Maeve could do was watch.

Suddenly the woman stopped. She set the child on the ground and turned to face the wolves. She raised her arms up to the sky, and snatches of her words came over the plain on the wind. Maeve could almost but not quite understand them. The dark gray sky cracked open with lightning, so bright it burned her eyes.

Then the vision faded away. She was standing in her own woods in late summer. She could hear the ravens and the seagulls and the whisper of the tide. Her hut was only a few steps away.

“As you will, Lady,” she said. Without being told, she knew this vision was connected to the Viking she had found, and she knew what she was meant to do. “I am yours to command.”

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Asmund had been drifting in and out of consciousness for hours. One moment he was in a small, dark space sweltering under a blanket, the next he was barefoot and freezing in the enchanted wood. In the warm dark, he felt the pain of his wounds; that was his living world. Someone had pulled him from the sea, and he was dying. But the frozen woods were worse. The pain faded there, but if he stayed, the cold, empty night would last forever. He saw no further sign of the strange goddess who had come to him before, but he didn’t doubt her word. If he died now, Valhalla would never receive him. So he fought for the pain, closing his eyes and focusing all of his will on it, willing himself to live.

With his eyes closed, he felt the cold wind curling around him again and the kiss of snowflakes on his cheek. But in the distance, he could hear music.

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On the beach, Maeve was singing as she gathered dry brush and arranged it in a circle on the hard, flat plain of sand created by the tide. She lay driftwood over the brush in a crisscross pattern like a crown of thorns, leaving a gap facing her hut. She took a stick and drew out the shape of the Endless Serpent inside the circle, all but the head where it would swallow the tail, leaving a gap there as well.

As the sun turned bloody red and touched the treetops in the west, she dragged the Viking on his pallet out of the hut and to the center of the circle. She stripped the blanket off of him, and he shuddered as if he were cold in spite of the soft summer heat. His body was so pale she could hardly believe he lived; he was like a beautiful thing carved from some white stone. But when she touched him, his skin was burning hot.

She finished the wooden circle and lit it, the fire racing around the brush and catching the driftwood. Then she finished the drawing, sealing the two of them inside. Green fire shimmered over the red, the breath of the Lady’s dragon, her eternal lover.

She stripped out of her boots and shift and knelt between the Viking’s powerful thighs, now as naked as he was. With her little silver knife, she cut open her own wrist. With her blood, she painted the shapes of the spell on his burning skin, down each arm and across his chest, down each leg and across his belly, a final scarlet spiral down his sex. He was rising, responding to her touch, but the rest of his body was still as death. Arching over him, she drew the last circles around his eyes and down across his mouth.

“Be as my flesh, beloved,” she sang, the Lady’s own song to the dragon. “I claim you with my blood.” If he should die now, some small part of her would die as well.

She licked the last drops of her own blood from the blade to clean it. They couldn’t be mingled too soon. Then she cut his wrist as well. With his blood, she painted the sacred patterns on her own skin, down each leg and over her belly, down each arm to the tattoos on the back of her hands that marked her as the Lady’s own child. Desire like a burning echo of the Viking’s fever raced through her as she traced the patterns down her breasts and over her heart, then up her throat to her mouth. She painted her lips with his blood.

“I take your soul inside me,” she sang, tasting the blood on her tongue. “I take your heart.” She clasped his strong hand between her own, pressing her cut wrist to his, and she felt the mingling of their blood as a shudder all through her. “I take your strength.” She straddled his hips, and she felt her heartbeat slowing to match his, felt his fever burning her up. “I take your pain.”

 

 

Asmund felt a strange new power rushing through him, a heartbeat like a bird’s delicately throbbing in his chest. He opened his eyes on a face from a dream, eyes that reflected green fire. The little spirit clasped one of his hands between her own. With the other, he reached up for her, drawing her down to kiss her mouth. His fist closed in hair like silk, black as a raven’s wing, and he tasted blood on her lips. But when she sighed, the sound was tender and sweet.

 

 

Maeve felt the demon fever taking hold of her, a burning on her skin, but she barely noticed, she was so lost in the Viking’s kiss. She let herself fall slowly to lie full-length on top of him, their wrists still pressed together, her legs sliding over his. He was so much bigger than she was, her feet barely reached his calves, and the hand that held her in the kiss cradled her skull like an egg. He truly is the dragon, she thought.

Asmund felt the little spirit writhing over him, all soft, hot skin and sweet breath, and he tried to sit up and capture her in his arms. But the pain at his center twisted deeper, making him cry out, and a wave of dizziness swept over him, threatening to suck him back down into the cold dark. The spirit reared up, her little hands braced on his shoulders as she spoke words his fever-addled brain couldn’t understand.

“Give it to me, beloved,” Maeve said, steeling her courage as she felt the dull ache of the Viking’s wound in her own belly. She had never taken a lover before and had certainly never thought the Lady would send her such a one as this. Even with him wounded and dying of fever, she could feel such power in him, she trembled. “Let me help you fight.” She rubbed her sex delicately over his, urging him inside. Bending down, she nuzzled his cheek and brought her wounded wrist back into contact with his, scrubbing the wounds together to break them open again and freshen the mingling of their blood. The Viking lurched beneath her with a roar, and she felt him inside her, filling her up.

Suddenly she wasn’t just feverish; she was burning up. The fever demon had her in its teeth. But even as she weakened, the Viking grew stronger. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her to him as their bodies moved as one. When she moaned and drooped against him, he cradled her close and rolled them over, bracing himself above her, murmuring comfort.

“Peace, little one,” Asmund soothed, kissing the beautiful spirit’s sweet face. “Don’t be afraid.” She was a life spirit, a healer of some kind. He could feel the pain draining from him as he made love to her, feel his strength returning. Some friendly god had sent her to save him. She arched her hips upward, gasping in pleasure, and he thought perhaps nothing had sent her at all, that the power was all her own. Her eyes locked to his, and he felt a great heat pass between them like flames consuming them both.

“Fight,” Maeve commanded him, her legs wrapped around his hips, clenching tight. “Break the demon.” He smiled, a wicked gleam coming into his eyes that made her heart skip a beat. Nothing else mattered but this moment, this joining, this fight.

Suddenly she felt a shudder begin at their joining, a climax that threatened to tear her soul apart. She clutched his hair and screamed, and the fever rose up from them, a burning, scarlet ghost that only a witch could see. She heard the demon scream in agony as she screamed out in pleasure, and the Viking roared. As she felt his life force spill inside her, the demon dissolved into smoke.

Alive, Asmund thought as the last tremors of his climax left him. I am alive. I will live. He rolled onto his back, still cradling his mystical lover to his chest, and sank into a deep, healing sleep.

Live, Maeve thought, curling up with her ear pressed to his heart. He will live. He was a Viking, a raider, an enemy of her people. His life could mean their destruction. But she had done the Lady’s bidding. She could do no more.

End of Chapter 3

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

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 2

viking and the witch serial coverAs promised, the next installment of a good, old-fashioned magical historical romance:

Chapter Two

 

Maeve spent the whole long night conjuring cures for the fallen Viking. She built up the fire then stripped off all his blood-stained and seawater-soaked clothes. She washed him all over, first with clean water from the ocean, then fresh water drawn from the well. As the moon rose, she opened the trap in the roof of the hut so the light shone down on him, then put a milky white crystal in the bottom of a copper bowl. She poured more fresh well water over this, singing a chant to the Lady as she did it. With this she cleaned the deep wound in his back and the bloody gash in the back of his head. She coated the head gash with a paste of healing herbs and clay and stitched the back wound with her last clean length of woolen thread. The Viking cried out fearsome oaths in his own language as she did this, but she sat on him to hold him still, and he was too weak to fight back.

When she was done, he was shivering. She bound his wound and rolled him over on his back then covered him with all her blankets and furs. Then she went outside.

The moon was now a silver crescent among the stars. She lay down on the sandy ground and watched it sail across the sky, first a sickle, then a boat. Perhaps the Lady meant to harvest the soul of this Viking after all. If Maeve should save him, would another be taken in his place? The Lady dealt in balance, her mother always said. If this man was marked for death, only the death of another would save him. That was the old way, the way of her mother, Asha, and her mother’s mother before her—blood for blood. But Maeve believed the world was full of souls, too many for one witch to keep a true accounting of them all. If the Lady chose to spare this man and take another in his place, Maeve could not dispute her. But she couldn’t choose her victim either. She fell asleep gazing up at the moon and thinking these strange thoughts as the Viking groaned and fought for breath inside the hut behind her.

She awoke at dawn to ravens calling overhead. Inside the hut, the Viking was so still and quiet, she thought he must have died. But when she touched him, he was burning hot, not cold. His skin was dry, and his parted lips were cracked.

“Here,” she said, filling a cup with clean water. “You must drink.” She lifted his head and held the cup to his lips, but he was like a statue or a corpse. He didn’t respond even when she poured the water into his open mouth.

She lay him back down and pressed an ear to his chest, listening to his heart, and his flesh was like a sun-baked stone. His heartbeat was steady but slow and weak for an animal his size.

“The fever has taken you, love,” she said, wetting his parched lips. “There’s nothing I can do.” There was a remedy she knew that sometimes worked, a tree bark that could be brewed in a tea and drunk to bring down the fever. But she had none in the hut, and the nearest such tree was miles and miles away, too far to walk in a week, much less the day and night this Viking might have left to live. She soaked a rag in water and bathed his burning brow.

Suddenly his eyes snapped open, so blue they glowed in the dim light of the hut. He grabbed her wrist in a grip of burning iron. “Asynja,” he said, a word she didn’t know. Then, “Help me.”

“I will,” she answered in his own language. “I will try.” Her mother had the fever cure in her stores in the village. Surely she would not deny such magic to her only daughter. “Sleep now.” She wriggled her wrist free from his grip but pressed a light kiss to his forehead then pulled the covers back up to his chin. “I’ll be back soon.”

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Her village was just as she remembered it with neat, thatched cottages and open sheds along a narrow, winding street. Most of the villagers stared at her or looked quickly away as she passed. But many like Luna, the blacksmith’s wife, smiled and waved, and she waved back. Her grandmother’s sister, Vivian, had brought her loom out into the late summer sun and was working a red and black cloth. “Well met, niece,” she called out. “It’s time you came home.”

“Well met, auntie,” Maeve said, kissing her wrinkled cheek. “Where is the queen?”

“Where do you think?” the old woman said, looking up the hill.

“Of course.” Queen Asha had once been in the thick of all work and life in the village, thinking it no shame to milk a goat or bake a loaf or lead a hunting party. But since she had taken the harper, Baird, as her consort, she thought it better to sit idle and let others work for her.

Maeve heard Baird singing as she approached her mother’s house. He had a fine voice and a great talent for the harp, but she took no pleasure in his music. She slipped into the hall that had been her childhood home and found the women Asha now called her ladies gathered there, sewing or spinning as the harper played. Asha was sitting on her high, carved throne doing nothing at all but listen to her lover. She had a doting, stupefied smile on her face that made Maeve want to slap her.

Baird finished his song, and the women all applauded, none more vigorously than the queen. “But look, my goddess,” Baird said, pointing to Maeve. “A little lost sparrow has flown into the house.”

“More like a raven, harper,” Maeve said. “Best beware.” Maeve had been born of the Lady’s rites just like her mother had, and she had shown signs of magic just as strong. By their law, she could challenge Asha for her fine throne, and there were some who whispered that she should. But Maeve had no wish to vanquish her own mother even if she had thought she could. “Mother, I would speak with you alone,” she said. “I need to ask a favor.”

“Address me as your queen. You are not my daughter any more,” Asha said. “Your words must be heard by all. And why should I grant you any favors?”

Maeve swallowed back the angry words that tried to come out of her mouth. “I need a cure for fever, lady queen,” she said. “If you are not my mother, are you still the Lady’s healer?”

“For the village,” Baird said. “Not for you.”

“You dare to speak in my mother’s place?” Maeve said, too furious to hold her tongue.

“Baird, be quiet,” Asha said. “Maeve, are you ill?”

“I need the bark to cure a fever,” Maeve said, telling the careful truth. “Will you deny me?”

“If she has fallen sick, perhaps your Lady means to punish her,” Baird said. He was not of their village or their faith. He had come as a stranger, a traveler; by all rights, he could have been killed on sight or made a sacrifice. But Asha had taken him to bed instead. “Perhaps a fever will soften her heart to her queen and bring her to her senses.”

Maeve expected her mother to rebuke him again for speaking out of turn, but as always, she was disappointed. “Perhaps,” Asha said. “Maeve, are you ready to do as I commanded you? Will you beg Baird’s pardon for the lies you told?”

Maeve fixed the harper with a witch’s stare to chill his blood. “I will not,” she said. “I have told no lies.”

Her mother’s pale face flushed pink. “Then go,” she said. “Leave this village and do not return until you are ready to beg pardon.” Some of the women murmured amongst themselves at this, obviously shocked, and Asha rose to her feet. “Go before I have you killed myself.”

Maeve bent her head, blinking back tears. “Farewell, lady.” Without looking back or making eye contact with any of the others, she turned and left the hall.

Vivian was waiting for her outside. “Where are you going?” she demanded, clumping along with her stick, trying to keep up.

“Back to the beach,” Maeve said, refusing to slow down. “I’m not wanted here.”

“Not true, and you know it,” the old woman said. “Now stop before you kill me.”

Maeve considered just running away. But that seemed cowardly. “I can’t stay here,” she said, stopping. “I’ve been exiled, remember?”

Vivian snorted. “If you meant to give up this easily, why did you come back at all?”

“I needed something my mother has,” Maeve said. Villagers were gathering in clumps up and down the street to stare at her. “I should have known better than to think she’d give it to me.”

“What is it you need?” Vivian said.

“It doesn’t matter.” One group of men was deep in conversation, taking turns looking back at her. “I have to go.”

“None here will do you harm,” Vivian said. “One word from you, and there are many who would see that outsider trussed up and dropped from the cliffs.”

“And what of the queen?” Maeve demanded. “How would we truss up her magic? Would we drop her off the cliffs as well?” The old woman had no answer. “I needed the cure for a fever,” Maeve explained. “Not for myself, for a man I pulled from the sea.”

“A man?” Vivian said, her silver eyebrows shooting up. “Have you taken a consort?”

“I have not,” Maeve said. “I just wanted to save his life if it could be saved, just for mercy.”

“The Lady smiles,” Vivian said.

“Aye, perhaps, but he’s dying,” Maeve said. “I stitched his wounds and stopped the bleeding, but he is burning up.”

“Then ‘tis no great sorrow your mother refused you,” Vivian said. “Tree bark simples have no power over such a fever. Your man is being devoured by a demon from the inside out.”

“I told you, he isn’t my man,” Maeve said.

“And ‘tis pity he is not,” Vivian said. “If he were your man, you could join with him and drive the demon out.”

“What nonsense is this?” Maeve said.

“The oldest magic,” Vivian said. “As old as the Lady herself. Man and woman joined as one to make a single spirit. No fever can stand against that.”

“You speak of lovers’ madness,” Maeve said. “Has our queen not brought us enough of that already?”

“Asha is a fool,” Vivian said. “She lets an unworthy weakling suck away her power like a leech and calls it love. But if a witch can find a true man, a worthy man, he will give as much as he gets. The old magic will bind them forever and make them both strong.”

“The man is dying, Vivian,” Maeve said. “I can’t tell if he’s worthy or not.”

“A gift from the Lady,” Vivian said. “A gift from the sea.”

Maeve had heard Viking raiders called many things but never a gift. “He isn’t conscious,” she said. “He can’t be joined to anyone. His spirit is leaving him.”

“A witch could call it back,” Vivian said. “If she were strong enough.”

So that was what the old crone wanted, a proof of her power she could hold up to the others. “Leave me out of your schemes, old auntie,” Maeve said, kissing her cheek. “I will not make war on my own mother.”

“As you will,” Vivian said, but her eyes looked troubled. “Who is this dying man?” she called as Maeve walked away.

“I told you,” Maeve said. “He is no one.”

End of chapter 2.

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 1

viking and the witch serial coverSo here lately, most of what I’ve been writing and publishing has not been historical romance. But y’all know me; I can’t just give it up. So I’ve been working sporadically on an old school paranormal just for my own amusement, and it occurs to me that y’all might want to see it, too. All the cool kids I know have started serializing stuff on their blogs and elsewhere to bring in more traffic, and that seemed like a good idea, and a good fit for this story. I’m not promising anything, but I’m going to try to put up a new chapter at least every couple of weeks. It’s a work-in-progress; the finished, published product might turn out very different. So by all means, let me know what you think.

xoxo Lucy

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Chapter One

The late summer raids had gone well. Asmund and his brother, Hagen, had seized much spoil and lost only one man in a month of sailing up and down the British coasts. But now a sudden squall with high waves and deadly lightning seemed determined to kill them all. Asmund leaned all his weight against the tiller, willing the longboat to come about to face the waves head on.

“We must turn back!” Hagen shouted over the roar of the wind. “We must try to find the shore!”

“Help the others bail!” Asmund shouted back. If his little brother wouldn’t keep his peace, he’d kick him overboard, prince or not. The shoreline was the last thing he wanted to see now. The storm would break them like twigs against the rocks and suck them down to oblivion under the cliffs. All that could save them now was the open sea where the water was deep enough to absorb the force of this storm. Hagen was young; this was his first long voyage. He didn’t understand. But Asmund had no time now to educate him.

“Row, you dogs!” he shouted as another great swell rose before them. “Faster! Faster!” The rowers obeyed, leaning into their oars, some of them with eyes closed in prayer or concentration as they trusted him and the gods to steer them through the tempest. Even Hagen had fallen to his task, scooping water in a leather bucket with his back to the storm. Only Asmund saw the dragon’s head prow silhouetted by a flash of lightning against the solid black wall of the sea. “Row!” he roared, holding the tiller with all his strength, muscles screaming with pain. Only when he felt the wood begin to bend under his hands did he let the tiller go. The ship lurched forward, and the dragon’s head broke through a crown of foam, cresting the wave and gliding down the other side.

In the sky ahead, he could see light through the clouds, the soft white glow of the moon. The worst was behind them. They were almost free. The storm would have blown them off course. They would have to wait for the clouds to clear in the open sea and use the stars to guide them. But they would be safe. He put his hands back on the tiller and turned his back on his men for just a moment to look back the way they’d come.

Suddenly the ship lurched forward again as he felt something strike him hard from behind. Sharp, burning pain stabbed through him as he was struck again. Before he could turn, he was swept over the side. The sea rose up to swallow him, sucking him down into the dark. He fought his way to the surface, then dove deep again to dodge the great black shape of the ship. He heard Hagen screaming his name as he went under. Then one of the oars struck the back of his head, and he sank and knew no more.

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Last night’s storm had washed all kinds of debris into the narrow inlet that ran beside Maeve’s hut. Two of her traps had been completely destroyed. But the third was still intact and held a fat, silver salmon. She slapped the fish against a rock, killing it quickly. She scooped out the smaller fish and tiny crabs that had gotten caught in the trap and set them free, then wrapped the salmon in wet ferns and tucked it into the pouch at her waist. Then she waded back into the water. She had three more traps to empty, and the tide was rising fast.  After three months alone on this beach, she had learned its rhythms well.

Half-buried in the sand near the next trap, she found an oiled leather sack. Inside were some eggs, a skin of fresh goat’s milk, and a haunch of salted meat—supplies left for her by someone from her village. Maeve had been exiled by her own mother, the queen of their tribe. But not everyone had agreed with Queen Asha’s decision. Maeve was magic born; the Lady was not likely to smile on a people who left her to starve. A tiny scrap of sheepskin inside the pouch was marked with the symbol of a half-moon—Luna, the blacksmith’s wife. She closed the bundle and tucked the scrap into her pocket, making a note to say a special blessing for the kindly woman and her house.

The tide in the inlet had risen to her thighs and begun to show tiny breakers of foam by the time she emptied her last trap. She was just about to head back to her hut when she noticed the ravens. Half a dozen of the black birds were circling over the beach in the distance, and as she watched, two more joined the circle. Either some dark magic was afoot, or something on the beach was dying. Shouldering the bundle of her broken traps, she headed for the water’s edge.

When she saw the man lying facedown in the sand, she broke into a run. But when she saw him more closely, she almost wished she’d never noticed him at all. From his weapons and the thick bronze bracelet on his wrist, she knew he was a Viking. His kind came every summer to raid up and down this coast, burning villages, slaughtering men and boys, carrying off women and girls and whatever treasure they could find. Only her mother’s magic had kept their own village safe so long by hiding them behind a glamour that made it look deserted and burned out already.

This one’s ship must have gone down in the storm. His skin was deathly white, and he had a nasty wound in his back. His blood had soaked the sand underneath him and stained the ripples of the incoming tide. Surely he was almost dead already. She put down her traps and picked up a rock, whispering a prayer to the Lady for his spirit. One hard, swift blow to the back of his head, and his travels in this realm would end.

Then he moved. He let out an angry-sounding groan, and his hands clutched at the sand, digging deep as if he were trying to push himself up or crawl forward. Without thinking, Maeve dropped the rock and helped him, rolling him over on his back so he could breathe.

He moaned again in pain. He looked younger than she would have expected, smooth-skinned under his beard, and his brow was high and fine, the brow of a sorcerer or poet, not a brute. But he was huge and obviously strong. On his feet, he would have towered head and shoulders over any man she had ever known. Broken or not, he was dangerous. If he recovered, she had no doubt he would bring destruction. It was the Viking way.

But he is only one man, a voice seemed to whisper in her head. What can one man do? Viking warriors had come to her people before, the wounded or deserters or outcasts left behind when the longboats sailed away. Grateful for sanctuary, they had married into the tribe and had fathered children and taught the people enough of their customs and language to help them defend themselves. But this man was no deserter. If he survived, she didn’t think he would be content to be some village woman’s husband.

“Lady, you must decide,” she prayed aloud. She walked back to her hut at a pace neither hurried nor slow to fetch her little raft. If the Lady wished the Viking to survive, he would. If not, it was not for her to question. She floated the raft back down the inlet to the beach, half-expecting to find he had died. But he was still alive.

She rolled him onto the raft, ignoring his groans, and dragged it back to the inlet. Treading water, she floated it back toward her hut. His weight made the raft bob and list in the breakers, and she told herself that if he rolled off into the water, she would let him drown. But he didn’t.

She dragged the raft into her hut and rolled him off it beside her fire. “As you will, Lady,” she sighed, setting about the magic that could make him well.

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Asmund wandered barefoot through a snowy forest. The ice burned his feet, and the wind cut through him like a thousand knives. Tall, black trees rose all around him, and the mist was thick as blood. The long winter’s night had fallen, but he saw no stars to guide him and no shimmering rainbow from the northern lights. He was abandoned and alone.

After what felt like hours, he emerged from the trees onto a broad, flat plain of pure ice—a frozen lake. But in the distance, he could see the glow of fires. Steeling himself against the pain, he started across the ice, leaving bloody footprints with every step. He walked on and on for what felt like miles, but the far shore seemed no closer. When he looked back, he saw no sign of the forest he had left, only a long trail of his own gleaming, black blood.

He fell to his knees. “All-Father!” he shouted in fury and pain. “Why have you forsaken me?”

“He cannot hear you.” A woman stood before him. She was as tall as any man with smooth, brown skin and long, straight, honey-colored hair. Her brow was crowned with silver, and she wore a long, white robe. “You did not fall in combat, warrior,” she said. “Your god of battle knows you not.”

“Who are you?” he demanded. “What is this place?”

“You were betrayed, Asmund,” she said. “One who held your trust struck you down as you saved him and the others from the storm.” A warm breeze swirled around the strange goddess, and he smelled summer flowers. “By the laws of your gods, he has stolen not only your life but your honor.”

“Who?” he said. “Who has done this?”

She smiled and touched his cheek with a hand that was soft and blissfully warm. “That is not the comfort I have brought you,” she said. “Your only hope is to survive. You must return to the living and take vengeance on the traitor. That is the way of your gods.” She stepped back from him, and the cold winds captured him again, crueler than before. “If you do not, you will wander this wasteland forever.”

“Help me, lady!” he beseeched her as she backed away from him. “Let me live!”

“I have sent you help, Asmund.” Even her voice was fading. “But there will be a price.”