It’s Peach Season, Y’all

This week’s update from The Bitter Southerner is all about peaches. (Do y’all read The Bitter Southerner? If you don’t, you should – it’s the best overview of the best things about the so-called New South I’ve seen; I like it way better than the Oxford American.) August is prime peach season, and I am very much a fan. The best boyfriend present I ever got from anybody before I met my darling Thunder was a gallon bucket of fresh peaches straight off the tree, still warm from the sunshine. And as anybody who’s ever driven past the Peachoid water tower in Gaffney can tell you, they are an inherently sensuous fruit. Legend has it that Eve gave Adam an apple; historians who speculate about that kind of thing say no, it must have been a pomegranate. Nonsense, says I – no woman would have risked getting herself and her lover kicked out of Eden for the privilege of picking out pomegranate seeds. Me, I’m pretty sure it must have been a peach.

So anyway, feeling as I do, naturally I wrote a story about peaches and sex. It’s the anchor story of my anthology Eat the Peach, and this is an excerpt. The heroine, Susannah, is a filmmaker who has just crashed and burned at a festival and come home to rest and regroup at her Grandmama Ikey’s peach farm.

***

I was at Grandma Ikey’s house for three more days before I met Dylan. Grandma Ikey couldn’t have been more amazing. She was a lot older than I had expected her to be. All my friends’ grandmothers were still holding on to that raw-boned, hair-dyed tightness thing. But Ikey was beautiful. She wore her hair in a long, white braid down her back, and her body was curvy and soft. Any old dude would have counted himself lucky to get a piece of that. And sitting beside her on the back porch shelling peas, I noticed that we had the exact same hands, and for some reason it gave me hope for the first time since I’d gotten on that bus in Colorado.

The next morning when we were making breakfast, we heard a motorcycle pull up in the backyard. “Oh good,” she said. “I want you to meet Dylan.”

She had already told me about Dylan. He owned the land right next to hers. He grew cotton and soy beans on his land, but he leased Grandma Ikey’s land to grow the peaches, and the two of them owned a farm stand and ice cream parlor out on the highway together. The way she had described him and twinkled when she talked about him, I had expected him to be about her age; I thought he must have been her boyfriend. But when we walked out on the back porch, we found a country hunkerrific of no more than thirty-five climbing off the bike.

“Morning, Ikey,” he said. “How are you?” He had messy reddish-blondish hair and a scruffy beard, and he was built to pick up trucks.

“I’m just grand, darling,” Ikey said as he came up the steps. “Just grand.” He put his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek, and she laughed like a girl. “Dylan, meet my granddaughter, Susannah.”

“Granddaughter?” He offered me his hand to shake. “I can’t believe it.” I took it, and a kind of warm, electric current ran through me that made me want to smile and hide at the same time. “You must be tall for your age.”

“Now, now, stop all that,” Ikey scolded, still smiling. “Come on inside; we were just about to have breakfast.”

“Thank you, Ikey, but I couldn’t,” he said. “I figure I’ve got just about enough time this morning to change the plugs on that old truck of yours.”

“Oh, piss on that truck,” Ikey said. “Come eat your breakfast.”

“Now Ikey—”

“I made biscuits.” Eve offering the apple couldn’t have looked slyer.

Dylan looked at me and grinned like we had a secret, and I noticed he had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. “Well, I can’t say no to that.”

I hadn’t seen Ikey make biscuits, but as soon as we walked in, she took a big pan full out of the oven, plump and cushiony and golden brown. “Get the honey out of the cabinet, Susannah,” she said. “And see if you can’t find a jar of those peach preserves in the back.”

“You told me you were out!” Dylan said.

“I might be,” she said, putting the biscuits on a pink willow plate. “Look way in the back.”

“Susannah, your grandmamma makes the best peach preserves in the world,” Dylan said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “We get people stopping at the stand on their way back to Yankeeville from the beach every year just to buy a fresh jar. Last year she didn’t make any, and we just about had to set up a crying pew out front.”

“Stop being so silly,” Ikey said, dishing up the scrambled eggs and bacon. “You want me to slice up a couple of tomatoes?”

“Not on my account,” Dylan said.

“Susannah likes them, though, don’t you, sweetheart?” she said, patting my cheek as she passed.

“I do.” It had been so long since anyone had noticed I liked something without me saying so, I was shocked. But I had eaten a sliced, homegrown tomato from her garden every meal since I’d arrived, so I supposed it wasn’t all that shocking. Still, it was nice. “Grandma Ikey, are these the preserves?” I pulled out a sticky mason jar full of amber goo.

“Oh good,” she said, taking it. “Half a jar left.” She set it on the table in front of Dylan. “Now let me get that tomato.”

“You’ll have to persuade Ikey to teach you her recipe,” Dylan said.

“That might be arranged,” Ikey said, putting down the sliced tomatoes and leading me to the table. She took both our hands and said a brief grace.

“That sounds great,” I said. “Learning the recipe, I mean.” Dylan took four of the biscuits and broke them open on his plate, then slathered each one with preserves. “Is it really that good?”

“Taste.” He popped a piece of biscuit in my mouth.

“Oh my God,” I said, actually moaning with my mouth full, it was so good. Sweet and tangy with an edge of spice, perfect with the hot, flaky biscuit.

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Susannah,” Ikey said, patting my hand. “It’s only a biscuit.”

“So good,” I said. “Grandmamma, that’s amazing.”

“Aren’t you sweet?” she said, but I could see from her eyes she was pleased. “Dylan, eat some eggs and bacon before you give yourself diabetes.”

He grinned that secret grin at me again. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Maybe I will teach you that recipe,” Ikey said.

“I’d love that,” I said. “If I’m here that long. I mean, I don’t know how long I’ll be staying.”

“Are you just here for a visit?” Dylan asked.

“Sort of.” All the way there on the bus, I had tried to imagine what I’d say when people asked me what had happened. It was all so humiliating and silly, and besides, what would people like Ikey and Dylan know or care about stuff like my film career, anyway? But he had asked, so I supposed I had to try. “I’m a filmmaker.”

“Wow,” he said, looking genuinely impressed.

“Oh, you don’t want to hear about all that,” Ikey said. “Besides, I want to talk about you. Did I hear that fiancée of yours tearing out of here after midnight last night?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Dylan looked embarrassed, but I couldn’t tell if it was for me or for him. “I made her pretty mad, I think.”

For the next twenty minutes, the two of them hashed over his engagement to a woman Ikey obviously couldn’t stand—a schoolteacher from the sound of it. But I couldn’t have cared less. I couldn’t believe she had just shut me down that way. I ate the rest of my breakfast in silence, lost in my own thoughts.

“I better get started on those plugs,” Dylan finally said, pushing back from the table. “It was nice to meet you, Susannah.”

“You too.” I shook his hand and was again vaguely aware of how warm he felt. But I was still busy being mad at Ikey.

“I hope to see you again while you’re here.” He kissed my grandmother’s cheek. “I’ll leave the keys on the hook.”

Ikey stood at the back door and watched him go while I got up and cleared the table. “That is one fine specimen of human,” she said. “A woman could do a lot worse than to get herself lost with something like that.”

“He’s cute.” Botox hadn’t made it out here to the sticks yet, but the horny old lady trope apparently had.

“Baby ducks are cute.” She turned back to me. “That’s a man.” She saw what I was doing. “Oh, thank you, sweetheart.”

“You’re welcome.” I put the dishes in the sink. “It’s the least I can do after crashing on you like this.” I squirted in soap and turned on the tap.

“You came home,” she said, putting the butter in the fridge. “Everybody needs to sometimes.” She picked up the jar of peach preserves, now almost empty. “I’m glad you came.” She screwed on the lid and put it back in the cabinet. “You better put some hot in that dishwater, honey, or the germs will carry us off.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t planned to actually wash the dishes, just sort of soak them.

“I’ve been waiting on those elves that come to finish half done housework all my life,” she said. “They haven’t shown up yet.” She handed me a dishtowel. “I’ll wash. You dry.”

“I still cannot understand what Dylan sees in that girl of his,” she said, turning on the hot water and bathing both of our faces with steam. “Why waste your time chasing after somebody who won’t want you until you agree to be somebody else? But she’s got her mind on that piece of land—and that ass, unless she’s dumber than she looks.” She handed over a slippery plate. “You’ll meet her eventually, I’m sure. Then you’ll see.”

“Grandmamma, why wouldn’t you let me talk about my movie?” I could have brooded in silence for several more hours; it’s one of my best things. But I didn’t think Ikey would care. “Are you ashamed of me?”

“I’m very proud of you,” she said without missing a beat, as if this had been our topic of conversation all along. “But you aren’t ready to talk to people about that.”

I wanted to argue with her. But of course she was right.

****

Wanna know how she gets rid of the bitchy fiancee? Get your copy here.

Haunts and Hellions!

Finally, something fun and happy to blog about! I have a story in an amazing new anthology from HorrorAddicts.net press!

Harkening back to the glory days of gothic romance that had us up reading all night, HorrorAddicts.net Press Presents: 

Haunts & Hellions edited by Emerian Rich

13 stories of horror, romance, and that perfect moment when the two worlds collide. Vengeful spirits attacking the living, undead lovers revealing their true nature, and supernatural monsters seeking love, await you. Pull the blinds closed, light your candle, and cuddle up in your reading nook for some chilling—and romantic—tales.

With stories by: Emily Blue, Lucy Blue, Kevin Ground, Rowan Hill, Naching T. Kassa, Emmy Z. Madrigal, R.L. Merrill, N.C. Northcott, Emerian Rich, Daniel R. Robichaud, Daphne Strasert, Tara Vanflower, and B.F. Vega.

**********

An excerpt from Haunts & Hellions

My Ain True Love

Lucy Blue

1776

Boston, Massachusetts

“Jacob McCardle, Miss Smith.” He was one of the young surgeons who’d come for the symposium. She had noticed him at meals and rather liked the look of him, particularly when he’d laughed at Lizzie’s jokes. “Lizzie and I have become fast friends, and she’s asked for my help.” He had beautiful blue eyes that held no hint of guile or evil. “My family is very active in the call for the abolition of slavery in the northern colonies. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to assist you in your escape.”

Part of Rosalie wanted desperately to deny any of it was happening. She was still so much a child herself. Her stepmother couldn’t mean to sell her. Her father couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t have just been a thing to him all this time, a piece of property, but when she looked again at the document in her hands, she had to admit it was true.

“That’s very chivalrous of you, Mr. McCardle, but this is Virginia,” she said. “If we were caught, you’d be arrested and probably hanged. If you help me, you’ll be risking your life.”

He smiled. “I’ll be risking my soul if I don’t. Now hurry, please—bring only what you absolutely must.”

“All right, but…” She looked around the room at a loss. She would need her clothes, of course, and her books. There was so much, all the lovely things her father had given her, a life full of beautiful objects. But never her freedom. “Oh Papa.” She sighed, tears spilling down her cheeks.

“Rosie, hurry!” Lizzie insisted. “She could be back any minute.”

“I fear the child is right,” Jacob said. “I overheard Mrs. Smith already offering you to one of the more affluent men present as a—” He broke off, glancing at Lizzie. “Laboratory assistant.”

“Oh dear God.” It was a nightmare. It must be.

Suddenly there came a clatter from outside. Her window overlooked the front of the house, and looking down, she saw a carriage drive up. When it stopped, four men armed with muskets leapt out.

“We’re out of time,” Jacob said. “Get a wrap and any keepsakes you can carry in a purse. We have to go now.”

“Hurry,” Lizzie said even as she threw herself into Rosalie’s arms. “I love you.”

“I love you, sweet.” Drawing back, she untied the ribbon from her sister’s hair. “To remember you by,” she said, kissing the little girl’s cheek.

“I’ll get her to safety, Lizzie, I promise,” Jacob said. “But we must go now.”

He took her hand in a firm grip as they hurried down the back stairs and out through the serving pantry that led to the covered walkway to the kitchen. They broke into a run as they crossed the backyard and headed into the trees. Under the oaks, it was black as pitch, but Jacob seemed to know where he was going, and Rosalie had always been a good runner, even in a corset. The lights of the house had just disappeared behind them when she saw a single dim lantern glowing just ahead.

Another young man was waiting, holding the bridle of a horse that was hitched to a wagon.

“You’re a madman, Jacob,” he said in the flat accent of the North. “This is robbery, plain and simple.”

“Kidnapping, actually,” Jacob said. “Now, go back to the house and as we are friends, say nothing.”

“Not a word,” the other man said. He made a sheepish bow to Rosalie. “Godspeed, miss.” He walked away fast the way they had come.

“You’ll have to ride in the back, I’m afraid,” Jacob said, leading her around the wagon. “And that’s not the worst of it.” He threw back a tarp from over the cargo, and the ungodly stench made her feel faint.

“What is it?” Three long wooden boxes were laid side by side, and she suddenly realized what they were. “Oh no.”

“Cadavers from your father’s laboratory,” Jacob said. “The third box is empty. Hopefully if we’re stopped, no one will touch it after they’ve opened the first two.”

“Corpses?” Rosalie wasn’t particularly squeamish—she had assisted her father in his laboratory for years—but she had a horror of small, enclosed places. “No.” She backed away. “I can’t. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”

“Miss Smith,” Jacob said, catching her. “Rosalie.” He held her and looked into her eyes. “You can, and you must.”

In the distance, she could hear a man shouting. They’d be after them soon, those men with the muskets, hunting her down like an animal.

“You have nothing to fear from the dead,” Jacob said. He stepped back to show her the coachman’s pistol and sabre he had tucked into his belt. “And I will protect you from the living.”

“All right.” She took a deep breath of the cool night air, trying not to smell her fellow passengers.

He opened the third coffin and helped her up into the wagon.

“The boards at the bottom are loose, and there’s a hole in the wagon underneath,” he said. “If the worst should happen to me, slip out, hide, and run. I have sent my servant on ahead to Boston to an attorney, a Mr. Henderson, who keeps an office on Broad Street. Make your way there. You’ll be expected.”

To read more, read Haunts and Hellions at: Amazon.com

Three Things I Love (About Winter Knight)

winter knightWinter Knight, the book I have coming out on February 11, 2020, is the only romance I’ve ever written just for me. I love all my kissy book stories, all my heroines, all my heroes. But with Winter Knight, I asked myself, if I was on Amazon or at the bookstore looking for a romance to sweep me off my feet, what would that book be? And then I wrote it. Here are three things it has that would make me love it even if it wasn’t mine.

1 – An Enchanted Castle: When I was a sprout, my favorite book was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. If you’ve never read it, it’s the story of a plain, pissy little orphan girl who discovers happiness and friends exploring the dark corners and overgrown gardens of an English manor house. When I got a little older, I fell head over heels for the YA novel Beauty by Robin McKinley. This fairy tale retelling is as much about the castle as it is about the Beast, and if you like the Disney version of this story, you like this book–they ripped off McKinley shamelessly. I’ve toured Biltmore House more times than I can count, and in Ireland, I spent more time wandering through castles than I did drinking Guinness. Something about walking through grand, empty ballrooms and exploring twisting hallways is endlessly fascinating to me.

In Winter Knight, the heroine, Christabel finds herself in a huge, mostly-empty manor house in the mountains of North Carolina in the middle of a blizzard. She is the unexpected guest of a mysterious handsome stranger, Bernard, and his even-more-mysterious staff of servants who anticipate her every need. And she spends an awful lot of the story poking around empty nooks and crannies and discovering magical secrets.

2 – A Beastly Brainiac: Speaking of Beauty and the Beast … Anybody who knows me or my husband knows I’m a sucker for a smartass. Washboard abs and big bank accounts are lovely, but it’s the big brains and snarky quips that really light me up. (Alexandra Christian calls this being a sapiosexual.) From Sherlock in Sherlock to Doc Holliday in Tombstone to Deadpool to Tony Stark to Hamlet to Fox Mulder to Henry V to Harry Dresden to Quincy Harker, I love’em better when they’re smart and damanged and just the slightest bit mean. And if they also happen to be just a little bit crazy, that can only help. (Not for nothing do I call my husband Evil Genius.)

Bernard is a brilliant scientist who works alone in his lab in the bowels of his mansion. He’s equal parts heartthrob (he does have those abs because did I mention this is my fantasy?) and goofball (he wears sweatpants and geeky t-shirts under his lab coat and uses Rick and Morty Band-Aids on his boo-boos). He’s bossy and snarky–at one point, Christabel tells him, “Don’t be an asshole,” and he replies, “Can’t help it. It was a birth defect.” But he’s also kind and protective and fiercely romantic. And magical. And he’s read all of Christabel’s books. And y’all, I just adore him.

3 – A Heroine Like Me: I have a former fan fiction goddess’s horror of writing a Mary Sue, but with Christabel, I decided I didn’t care and went for it. She is a romance novelist. She isn’t a virgin in her early twenties; when the story begins, she’s on her way to get a facelift. She’s successful, capable, smart, sometimes confident, sometimes terrified. She desperately wants true love, but she has a hard time trusting her instincts and an even harder time trusting other people. She’s a hopeful romantic, and when she meets Bernard, she’s thrilled, intrigued, and scared to death. And I just adore her, too.

I wrote this story to distract myself from all the bad stuff in the world, and for me, it worked. I really hope reading it will do the same for y’all.

Good Grief

angel-art-black-and-white-96127I know I’m late, y’all, sorry. My dad is in the hospital. He fell again, and even though we’re still very hopeful that he’s going to be absolutely okay, it’s a whole big thing. Anybody who’s ever had a sick parent knows what I mean. Anybody who’s ever had a sick parent who is former military and a graduate of The Citadel REALLY knows what I mean.

I’m usually a pretty roll-with-the-punches kind of girl, but this has really thrown me off my game. And I know it’s because it’s taken me straight back to when my mom died. Unlike Dad, who has been in near-perfect health my whole life, Mama was in and out of the hospital from the time I was eight years old until she died eleven years ago. One of the underlying themes of my entire life and the lives of my sisters was Mama being sick, and the last few weeks when we knew that this time she wasn’t getting better is as close to hell as I ever want to see. Dad’s situation isn’t nearly as dire, but just being in that setting brings it all back.

At that time, I had just finished up my last contract with Pocket Books and just decided I wasn’t interested in writing what they were interested in publishing next from me. My sister was publishing with Ellora’s Cave at the time and looking to write something a little less sexy. Right after the funeral, she found a submissions call for angel romances, and she shared it with me. I needed a distraction, so I decided to give it a try. And I ended up writing the book that eventually became Misguided Angel. (The title is borrowed from a really lovely Cowboy Junkies song you can listen to here.) And y’all, I’ll be honest. It’s crazy.

The heroine is an artist who has just lost her husband to cancer. Her mother was a suicide who Kelsey believes was delusional because she had visions of angels. Kelsey is seriously considering suicide herself, so her dead husband sends Tristan, the angel who guards souls as they transition from one life to the next, to comfort her and stop her. So Tristan, bless him, tries, and in the process, he falls in love with her. But of course when he tells her the truth about himself, she thinks she’s going crazy, too. Lucifer is the big bad–he wants to use Kelsey as leverage to make Tristan fall.

And some of this book is the best stuff I’ve ever written. And a whole lot of this book is just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. It’s been finished for a while, and I’ve always been conflicted about publishing it just because it’s so raw and weird and so different from everything else I’ve ever done. When I first heard the narrator’s audition for the audiobook version, I bawled my eyes out all over again. Even though it has a sort of happy ending, it’s a sad, sad book. It might well even be a triggering book; there’s a trigger warning on the Amazon page for it. I have often considered asking my publisher to pull it.

But every time I think I will, the same strange thing happens. Some reader will come up to me at a signing or a convention and ask me if I’m the Lucy Blue who wrote Misguided Angel. And when I say I am, they will tell me how my wackadoodle romance novel comforted them when they were completely shattered with grief. I’ve had people tell me my version of faith speaks to them. I’ve had people say it helped just watching my heroine go through the same kind of pain they were feeling and coming out the other side.

For whatever reason, my crazy baby of a book spoke to them in a way that made things better for them in the same way that writing it made things better for me. So while I doubt it will ever sell a lot of copies, I will always consider it a success.

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?”

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

 

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

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.”

‡‡‡‡‡‡

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.

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.”

Furious Angels (Need Love, Too)

wetworkHe is her special angel . . . bless her heart. Wet Work, available free this week from Little Red Hen Romance:

Rosie woke up on a bed with a sombrero-shaped headboard. “Ay carimba.”

“You.” Matthias, the angel she remembered from her first night as a witch, was pacing over her. “It just had to be you.”

She sat up, all her joints still aching from the cold outside. “You recognize me?” The television was on, and a show about a pawn shop was playing—a weird choice for an angel.

“Of course I recognize you.” He was wearing the floppy overcoat she remembered, and his face was exactly the same. “I told you to be good.” A pair of men’s pants with the belt still attached was draped over the chair, and a pair of workboots with the socks stuffed inside was lined up in front of it. “I commanded you to stop using magic for good.”

“You commanded me?” She stood up, but he was still a head taller than she was. “I’ve got to pee.” If she could get out the bathroom window without him hearing, she’d at least have a head start.

“I wouldn’t if I were you.”

She opened the bathroom door and saw a naked dead man lying half in and half out of the tub. “Holy shit!”

“Be nice,” the angel said as she slammed the door. “In his condition, you’d look just as bad.” The corner of his mouth quirked. “Well, maybe not quite.”

“He’s dead!”

“Yeah.” He sounded the way she remembered him, too, dry and sarcastic. “That’s how I knew he wouldn’t get in the way.”

“You knew he was dead?” Suddenly the TV was creeping her out, and she grabbed the remote and switched it off. “How?”

“I’ve got connections.” As if on cue, there was a knock at the door, then another angel in another floppy overcoat walked straight through it without bothering to open it.

“Are you decent?” He was bulkier than Matthias with a full beard and mustache. “Well damn.” He grinned at Rosie. “Hello there.”

“Your guy’s in the tub,” Matthias said.

“You don’t say,” the other one said. “They are looking everywhere for you, by the way.” He grinned again. “Israel is so pissed.”

“He’s got the rest of eternity to get over it,” Matthias said. “You think maybe you could move this along? We could use a little privacy.”

“I’ll bet.” He was looking at Rosie again. “Should I plan to come back?”

“I’ll let you know.” Matthias was looking at her, too, but he wasn’t smiling. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Don’t take too long. He’ll break the shield eventually.” He opened the bathroom door. “Hey buddy. How’s it hanging?” He went in, closing the door behind him, and she heard a muffled conversation. A few seconds later, the door opened, and the dead man and the angel came out. The man was now wearing boxer shorts and a tee-shirt. His color was better; in fact, he seemed to be glowing with health.

“Can I grab my pants?” he asked. He didn’t seem to notice Rosie or Matthias.

“Sure thing, bud,” the other angel said. “Whatever helps. But hustle, you’ve got an appointment.” The man seemed to pick up the pants and put them on, but they were still draped over the chair, too. The other angel gave Matthias a little salute then took his charge by the arm and led him straight through the door.

Rosie looked back in the bathroom. The corpse was still there. “So that was the angel of death?”

“One of them, yeah.” Matthias was lighting a cigarette with an old-fashioned silver lighter.

“So if he comes back, he’ll be coming after me.” He took a long drag and held it like he hadn’t had one in a while. “Because you’re going to kill me.”

He let out the smoke in a cloud. “That would be the protocol. From what I see, I should have done it the first time we met.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.” She knew a lot more now about the standard interaction between angels and witches than she had then, so much that fear dribbled down her spine like ice water. But she was sure she felt an attraction that wasn’t just her, an electricity between them dancing on her skin. The markings from her magic that looked like tattoos were tingling, reacting to his presence. If she could harness that energy and use it, she might still get out of this alive.

“Look at you,” he said, stubbing out the cigarette half-smoked. “You’re covered in Nephilim markings now. You must have done hundreds of spells.”

“Thousands, actually.” There was a spell she had learned but never used, ancient and dangerous. In her mind now, she recited the incantation.

“Black magic,” he said.

“Pretty black.” She’d spent less than an hour with him the night they’d met, and she’d been a scared, freaked out kid in the middle of a crisis. But she had never forgotten a single detail about the way he had looked or sounded. She’d never fallen in love with another human because no human could ever measure up.

“Lovely.” His scowl reminded her of how he’d looked standing over her mother and her stepfather’s bed, making her mom see the truth.

“Would it help if I said I was sorry?” She barely knew what she was saying; her mind was focused almost completely on the spell. But there was one word she had to speak aloud to make it work. “Would it help, Matthias?”

She felt the magic unfurling from her like petals, curling like tendrils of vapor, binding her to him like chains. He was walking around her, studying the markings. He touched her back with one fingertip, and she gasped. The spell was working on her, too. “How long have you had the wings?” he asked.

“Not long.” She had noticed the wing-shaped markings only the day before. She had stepped out of the shower in front of a full-length mirror in another fleabag motel, and there they were. They extended from the tops of her shoulders to the backs of her knees, and they’d shown up sometime after she’d taken possession of the artifact in her pocket now. “Are they special?” She trembled as he traced a line down her back.

“Like you don’t know.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around. “Nephilim,” he snarled, shoving her back against the wall.

“I don’t know anything,” she protested. “You didn’t tell me—“

“Do you think this is smart, Rosie?” His saying her name was as potent as her spell; her knees went weak. “Putting a love spell on an angel?” His face was so close to hers, she could feel his breath, and the fury in his eyes made her shiver. “We live forever, you know.”

“I know.”

“And we have all the same emotions as you and almost unlimited power.” He bent his head, his lips barely brushing her jaw as he spoke, and goose flesh broke out all over her. “And I am deeply, profoundly pissed.” His voice was almost a growl. “Does that sound like the perfect boyfriend?”

She looked up into his eyes. “Honestly?”

“Damn it, Rosie.”