Posted in Falstaff Crush, historical romance, Horror, Paranormal romance, romance, Sneak peeks at the new stuff, Works-in-Progress

WIP: The Adventuress and Her Monsters

blur-calligraphy-close-up-51159Heya Kittens!

Since my real life is boring as the summer winds down, I thought y’all might prefer a sneak peek at my current work-in-progress (aka the thing I’m escaping into lately). It’s a a true gothic romance set in late-Victorian England, and the heroine is an American heiress doing the husband-hunting tour. And she meets this dangerous but oh so gorgeous guy …

This bit comes about 10,000 words into the book. I’m hoping to be done by the end of the year, so come 2020, watch this space!

♥♥♥♥♥♥

When Arabella arrived home from the ball a scant hour before dawn, she found a letter waiting on her pillow. “Maisie, what is this?”

“A man brought it around midnight,” the maid said. “The hotel manager brought it up himself and said the man insisted you receive it as soon as you returned.”

“So you didn’t see the man who left it?” The heavy envelope was sealed with an old-fashioned wax seal marked with an elaborate “D.”

“No, miss. But I got the idea he must have been someone very important or else …” She broke off. “No, miss. I didn’t see him.”

“Or else what?”

“You’ve seen the hotel manager,” the girl said. “He’s a right old dragon who thinks himself mighty as Herod. But I would almost say he looked frightened. He made me swear I would give you that before you went to sleep.”

“And so you have.” She set the envelope on the tray with her cocoa. “Thank you, Maisie.”

The gray light of dawn was creeping around the heavy drapes when she settled back on her pillows and slit open the envelope.

“My dear Miss O’Bryan,” it began in a clear, bold hand. “Arabella. I realize it is hardly proper that I should write you such a letter or deliver it in such a fashion. But I will not be easy in my mind until I know I have done all in my power to warn you. Once you have read this, you must proceed as your own conscience, heart, and judgment might lead you. But I will consider myself absolved.

“My cousin is not what he seems. He is as kind and as intelligent, and his wealth and position are all that any man might hope for—or that any woman might desire in a husband. But he has other qualities and other passions beyond the scope of the usual English gentleman. There are aspects to his character and person which are not so generally to be desired nor so easy to explain.

“Reading this, you may believe I consider you a fortune hunter unworthy of my bloodline and that I mean only to frighten you away. I assure you, Arabella, nothing could be further from the truth. As soon as we met this morning, I saw in you a rare spirit and intelligence, a worthy soulmate for any man but particularly suited to Gabriel. I am convinced he has fallen in love with you and with good reason. I wish I could rejoice at this, but I cannot. Impetuous and hot-tempered as he can be, it is not his habit to grind young men of the peerage under his heel as he did this morning. Nor is he known for making himself the object of gossip. He would have done neither of these things if you had not captured his heart and were not worthy of its loss.

“But there’s so much you don’t know.

“I wish I could explain my objection more plainly, if it is even an objection at all. But some secrets are not mine to tell. So I will only caution you thus. Do not take up Gabriel as a lark. Do not mistake his humor for lightness of spirit or his charm for shallow art. He means everything he says, even—especially!—when it seems he does not. He may play the fool, but he is a man of deep purpose. And his quest is all. If he makes you a part of his world, you will not easily escape it. And your reputation is not all you will imperil if you try.

“Tread carefully, Arabella.

“Your servant—Dante Durant.”

She refolded the letter with trembling fingers. Her first animal instinct was to throw it into the fire, burn it to ashes, and pretend she had never received it.

But that was foolishness. She was jumping at shadows because she was so tired. For all his pretty protests to the contrary, Dante obviously found her unsuitable—too American, too vulgar, too much trouble. She resolved to set his letter aside and get some much-needed rest. In the morning, she might well destroy the letter. She might respond to it. She might even keep it to show Gabriel—not immediately, of course, but some sweet future time when it would make him laugh. Who knew? Perhaps the three of them might someday laugh about it together. She tucked the envelope under her book on her bedside table and turned down the lamp.

But she couldn’t sleep. After tossing and turning for half an hour as the sun rose behind the drapes, she got up and went to her writing desk.

“Dear Dr. Durant—Dante,” she began.

“I’m not sure what you meant to accomplish with your letter. If I were really in some kind of danger as you keep hinting, common decency would compel you to tell me precisely what that danger is. If you have the affection for your cousin you pretend and the regard for me you wrote of, what reasonable objection could you have to our forming an attachment?

“But like you, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. You write of love and marriage—good heavens, Dante, I barely know the man! Let us get to know one another, please, before you predict disaster. Or in the alternative, keep your predictions to yourself.

“In short, my very dear sir, write what you mean or kindly leave me and your cousin in peace.

“Yours in friendship—Arabella O’Bryan”

She finished her signature with a flourish. She blew on the ink to dry it, then folded the letter into one of her own monogrammed envelopes. She copied Dante’s address carefully from his own letter, then took the packet out to the parlor, still dressed in nothing but her nightgown.

“Good morning,” she said to the hotel maid who had paused in her dusting to gawp at her. Judith’s morning correspondence was stacked neatly on the sideboard, waiting to be taken down to the hotel post. Arabella slipped her letter to Dante into the middle of the stack. Then she went back to bed and slept soundly until well past noon.

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Posted in Publishing, Works-in-Progress, Writing process

Taming Plot Bunnies and Getting It Done

plot bunnyOne of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 was to be more productive and disciplined in my fiction writing. I’d spent the last three months of 2018 finishing a project that I’d been working on sporadically for years and ignoring everything else, and that had taught me that I actually produce more and better story if I stick to one at a time.  But going into the new year, I knew I had at least three novel-length projects in my pipeline that needed to get written for Falstaff Crush. All three were in sketchy outline, ready to roll, but I felt like I had fallen behind and needed to catch up. Under my old protocol, I would have worked on one until I got tired of it (or got bogged down in a plothole), then switched to another, rotating my way through until I finished something and adding in something new in its place. But again, I had figured out that this methodology was just making me feel tired and stressed all the time—I was constantly juggling, constantly working, but I never felt like I was making any headway.

So I resolved to line them up and work on them one at a time—a paranormal medieval romance with a dragon in it that was my heart’s desire at the moment first, then the second Stella Hart mystery, then a super-smutty gothic horror romance I’d been talking about since ConCarolinas 2018. I would give myself three months for each and try to write in chunks of 1000 words as many days of the week as possible.

And lo and behold, y’all, it’s working. I finished the submission draft of The Wizard’s Daughter around March 15 and Stella 2 by mid-July, and I’m well underway on the gothic. The first two books are about 50,000 words each, and the gothic will be at least that long, maybe a little longer. For me, this is HUGELY productive—I have NEVER been able to finish more than 1.5 full-length novels in a year. That alone would be enough to make me call this method a success. But I’ve noticed a few other benefits, too.

I’m a lot more relaxed when I’m writing. Writing fiction is my major stress-buster in and of itself; when I don’t write, my anxiety explodes through the top of my head like turning off the power grid at Ghostbusters Central. But knowing that I only have to produce actual word count on one story at a time focuses that energy and helps me shut out the static of all the other stories I’m not writing yet. When plot bunnies hop up, I can think about them, even jot down some notes, but then I pat them on the head and send them away because sorry, kid, I’m busy. And I have no guilt about that—I am cloaked in the righteousness of productivity.

I’m a lot more relaxed when I’m not writing. This is a benefit that only really came into play as I finished The Wizard’s Daughter. I have a day job; I have a husband; I’m an editor of other people’s stuff; I have to market the stuff that’s already published; I read other people’s fiction; I have research to do which may or may not ever be a part of my word count; I have episodes of Lucifer and The Great British Baking Show to watch. All best intentions and soul-deep commitment aside, I know there’s no way in the world I’m going to actually write 1000 words a day every single day. It’s just not going to happen. But I still finished a book in a little more than three months. I proved that even with my schedule, when I focus on one story and live in it until it’s done, I can do the work; I can finish. Finishing Stella 2 by the end of June just reinforced that. So going forward, when I miss a day, I don’t freak out or beat myself up or—and this one is the killer—use that momentary setback as proof of inevitable failure and let myself completely off the hook. I know now if I stick with it, I can take a day or a weekend or a week with the flu away from my story and still finish it in a timely fashion.

I don’t get stuck as often, and when I do get stuck, I wriggle out of it a lot faster. When I’m working on the first draft of a story, I’m never NOT working on it. That plotline is running like a background task in my head continuously, day and night, even when I’m sleeping. This is why it takes me an hour to take a bath and can take as long as twenty minutes to put my sneakers on. As soon as I’m holding still and not talking, I get lost in my story. And every fiction writer I know is the same to greater or lesser degree, and don’t let them tell you any different. (I don’t drive, but I suspect a lot of novelists find themselves miles out of their way on the way to the Wal-Marts because that story brain took over.) When I was working on multiple projects simultaneously, that part of my brain was working out all those plots all the time, attacking multiple knots at once. And every time I sat down to actually write, I had to somehow silence everything else to put myself completely into the manuscript in front of me. I wasn’t just tuning out the bills I had to pay and the itch on the back of my knee and the barking of the neighbor’s dog, I was also tuning out those other stories. By keeping that part of my brain focused almost completely on the one story all the time, the knots unravel on their own, and I don’t get paralyzed. I’m not trashing and rewriting nearly as much or nearly as often as I was before. I’m more confident when I put pen to paper, and when something isn’t working, I recognize it a lot faster. So while I still have a bazillion distractions from outside my writing process, the time I do spend physically writing is more efficient and productive.

I can work smarter with my publisher. The question I’ve dreaded the most from publishers since I first started getting paid to make up stuff is, “So when will the book be finished?” Like authors, publishers want to be responsive to the market; they want to release stuff that’s new and fresh and of the moment. But they’re also having to plan their release calendar years in advance. So yeah, they want your newest genius idea, but only if they can have it now—or at least know when they can expect it. (This is why most publishers won’t accept proposals and sample chapters any more from new authors; they want the product in hand before they agree to buy it.) And I’ve always been crap at accommodating that; I think that’s been one of the major things holding me back as a professional fiction writer. Now I know, all things being equal, if I have a reasonable plan mapped out (my outlining process is another whole post) and can stick to a reasonable schedule, I can expect to finish my product and have it ready for editing in three months. The books I’m writing in 2019 will hopefully show up on the Falstaff Crush calendar in 2020—and my publisher can make that determination with confidence because he has the books in hand.

This protocol won’t work for everybody. I know a lot of talented writers whose best defense against writer’s block is working on multiple projects simultaneously. I don’t even know how long it will continue to work for me. Once I run out of outlines, the whole system might fall apart. But for right now, this is how I’m doing it, and I have to say, I’m pleased.

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

The Viking and the Witch – Chapter Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where else is she hurt?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So wake her,” Asmund said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

“No.” She pushed his hand away.

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

 

 

**********

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t call me that,” Maeve said.

“If not you, then who?” Luna said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

The Viking and the Witch: Chapter 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‡‡‡‡‡‡

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‡‡‡‡‡‡

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‡‡‡‡‡‡

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, I do.”

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

“As if I would tell you!”

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

“As slaves.”

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

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

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

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

End of Chapter Six

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

WIP: The Devil Makes Three

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

‡‡‡‡‡‡

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

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

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

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

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

So why was the front door standing open?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could have possessed him to come here now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of snippet

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

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.

******************************************************

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.”

‡‡‡‡‡‡

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.

‡‡‡‡‡‡

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