The Diamond Hearth

I’ve been having trouble posting a vignette every week as intended, so today I offer something a little more fulfilling. This is a short story I wrote several years ago inspired by my childhood growing up on a farm. I hope you enjoy it.

*

Dark. Cold. Leaking through the cracked window. She shivers and smiles. She reaches for the lamp next to her, warm, yellow, bright. But not enough to drown out the night. Winds surge. Leaves whoosh. Wood creaks. She could be a pirate on a ship sitting out a storm. Storm’s coming no doubt.

“Wish I could enjoy this as much as you.” Mom closes the window. She sounds stern, but her cheeks are rosy. Eyes twinkling. “But I’ve a farm to look after.”

“Cows’ll be fine,” replies Ferry.

“It’s not the cows I’m worried about.” Mom walks around the room pulling out plugs. “Get the TV?”

Ferry’s sad to leave the window, the portal to the storm. But Mom asked, and Mom knows best. Her fingers follow the wire into the shadows. Pop goes the plug. “Then what scares you?”

Mom looks at her, sighs. Ferry knows what she must be thinking: she’s too young. That’s what she said when Dad left a year ago. You’re too young. But she’s not too young. She was eleven then, now she’s twelve. She didn’t understand why Dad left, but neither did Mom, and Mom’s thirty. She stares Mom in the eyes.

Mom breaks. “The goats. I didn’t tell you this last year but … one of our goats froze to death.”

“It ain’t that cold,” says Ferry. She looks around for more plugs to pull. The thought of a frozen goat scares her, but she can keep working, see?

“You’re right, it’s not. Not yet. Got a book?”

Ferry nods. On a shelf of dusty books, her book’s clean. Spine broken. Well loved. It’s a mystery book. Ferry got it almost a year ago, after Dad disappeared. She knew his disappearance was a mystery, and thought she might be able to figure it out. Read it once, couldn’t figure out anything new at all. So she picked it up to read again. Maybe she’ll find more clues.

They sit at the table. Mom puts the lamp back in the middle and sits with her own book. Ferry watches her. Beautiful. Pale sweaty skin, even though it’s cold outside. Mom works so hard. A bandana over her rich black hair, spilling a little onto her face and sticking. Twinkly black eyes, happy one minute, sad the next. They’re not moving. She’s not reading.

“Mom,” says Ferry. “What’s your book about?”

“Mm.” Mom looks at the cover, as if to remember. “It’s a … silly romance.”

Ferry nods. “You miss Dad.”

The twinkle goes out of Mom’s eyes. Eyebrows furrow. “Not everything’s about your Dad. He’s gone. Best forget about him.”

Mom doesn’t want to believe what other people said about Dad: that he was a thief and a criminal. They told Mom she was better off without him, and made her watch the news showing his “Wanted” picture, connecting him to a jewelry store robbery. Mom said to turn it off, and she wouldn’t talk about it. Ferry wanted to know what Mom knew, but Mom wouldn’t say anything. It’s hard to solve a mystery without any clues. Once Ferry even tried to go through Mom’s papers, but there was so much junk, she couldn’t find anything useful.

It seemed true, though–that Mom was better off without Dad. After he disappeared, Mom seemed to have a lot more spending money. She wasn’t a big shopper, but she didn’t hesitate to buy some things she did before, like nice wines and breads.

Mom’s still looking at Ferry. Mom sighs. “Honey, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say. I can’t stay on this farm forever.”

“… What do you mean?”

“I mean, I’ve been looking into other places. I found a very nice house, closer to town. I think you’d love it.”

Ferry can’t believe what she’s hearing. “But … what about the animals?”

Mom shakes her head. “Just … think about it. I wouldn’t do it until next fall, anyway–”

“We don’t have the money for that!” Ferry remembers hearing Mom and Dad argue about money all the time. She knows what she’s saying.

Mom looks away from her. “I have the money, sweetie.” Her voice is quiet, quieter than the wind outside. “I have plenty.”

The outdoors roar–the wind and the trees and everything living. Mom straightens up, nervous. This is their first winter without Dad’s help. Dad helped run the farm, but Ferry remembers that he complained a lot, too. He cursed the animals and called them dumb. Sometimes Mom got tired of his complaints. Ferry remembers, and she thinks Mom does too, even though she pretends not to. She pretends Dad always liked it here.

The first echo of raindrops, metallic, bounce off the barn’s tin roof. Pouring, flooding closer. Ferry huddles in on herself, represses a smile. Waits for the wave to break. Whoosh comes the rain, over the field and onto the tiled roof of the house.

They read. They pretend, anyway. Mom’s probably thinking about Dad, worrying about what might go wrong. Or maybe she’s thinking about a house near the city. Ferry’s listening to the rain, and how it sends a different echo from each part of the farm.

Mom sees her smiling. Frowns. “If it floods, then the chicken coop …” Her eyes widen, filling with fear. “I should check on them. I should stack more sandbags.”

“I’ll do it!” Ferry slips off her chair.

“Don’t be silly!”

Dog starts barking, probably Masters. Ferry hates that the dogs have to stay outside, even when it rains. They need burros, or llamas. Otherwise dogs are the farm’s only protection, and that’s not much when it comes to coyotes. Sometimes the dogs ignore the coyotes altogether.

Mom listens, considers. “I guess you could check on Masters.” By now, more dogs have joined Masters. They sing a storm chorus.

“Can I bring him inside?”

“Only if something’s wrong.”

Rain jacket, rain boots, and a very big grin. She’s ready to go.

The ground pulls at her feet. Mud grabs her heels like hands. So much rain. She can’t see much, but Masters keeps barking, so she follows the sound. Out here, she could disappear like Dad did. There are a hundred ways to disappear. Probably more. She could run off right now and Mom would never find her. But she won’t.

Masters stands on the other side of the field, up against the fence. The other dogs stand further back, sometimes adding a supportive bark. Masters always barks first. He’s a waterside terrier, big, tough.

“Masters!” calls Ferry. Usually he comes to her when she calls. More barks, same place. He’s not coming. “Masters!”

“Bark bark bark bark bark!”

Only thing to do is keep going. She wants back inside already. Wants her mystery novel. A stove. Some hot chocolate. “Masters!”

He stops barking. Roar roar roar goes the rain, drowning everything else away. At least she’s close now, she can see him, not far from the lamppost. His fur looks like the mud, brown and slimy. He stands so still, rigid. Rain drops down her back. She shivers. “Masters?”

Masters barks once more, and then Ferry sees it. The sea monster he tried to warn her about, loping closer, out of the dark woods and into the lamplight.

She screams and runs back to the house.

The corner’s safe. Nothing can crawl out of the wood to surprise her. Warm, bright, tiny corner.

“FERRY!” Mom rushes inside, the wind howling after her. The mist of the rain travels all the way across the room and tickles Ferry’s skin.

“Don’t let him in!” cries Ferry.

The door slams shut. Warmth and light recollects. Relative silence and peace.

“Let who in?” Mom’s voice trembles. “What happened to you?”

“A m-m- …” No, she’s too old to believe in monsters. Right?

Cold wet raincoat against her skin, but that’s okay, Mom’s only trying to hug her. Ferry reaches under the coat to hug her Mom’s sweater, dark but warm.

“Sweetie, what’s gotten into you?”

Clack clack clack. A bony human fist, pounding against the door of the house. Mom’s nails dig into Ferry’s skin, but that’s okay, Mom’s like a shield, fastening tighter.

“That must be him …” says Ferry. She stares Mom in the eyes. She told her so.

Mom takes a deep breath, pulls away. Eyes dart around, land on a cabinet next to the bookshelf. A key in her hand–Ferry doesn’t know where it came from–twisting to open the cabinet. Inside is a rifle. Mom pulls it down, loads it.

Ferry gets behind Mom. Mom holds the rifle pointed down towards the floor, against her leg. She slowly approaches the door. “Who’s there?”

“Don’t mean no harm.” The voice groans through the wood, barely audible over the storm.

“Then what do you want?”

“Shelter. Just shelter.”

Mom looks at Ferry. Ferry shakes her head: don’t trust this man yet. Mom cracks the door open, keeping the rifle just out of the monster’s sight.

Ferry can’t see him yet. Just hear him. “Hey ma’am. Name’s Zack.” (more…)

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Published in: on February 4, 2014 at 7:58 am  Comments (1)  
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Walking with Water

 Another vignette from the galaxy of Quantum Conscience, this time providing a glimpse into Amalek’s background.

***

Amalek Nikat from "Quantum Conscience"

Amalek Nikat from “Quantum Conscience”

The captain’s quarters of the Free Fin rolled and lurched as the oceans of Alqualin surged against its hull.

Amalek clutched the sides of his chair until his dark knuckles turned pale. He had known to expect rough movement on a traditional wooden ship like Captain Yorna’s, but this exceeded all expectations. He felt as if someone trapped him in a box and then threw it down a steep hillside. No matter how he tried, his body could not harmonize with the movement of the vessel. His stomach swayed and dropped while his limbs struggled to follow. Meanwhile his mind raced in many directions at once, wondering why the power of the ramming waves did not smash this wooden ship to pieces.

He heard a chuckle behind him, and fought to keep his gaze steady while he turned to view the observer.

Captain Yorna swaggered past with the graceful gait of a woman weathered by a hundred storms. She half-sat against her desk so she could cross her slender legs and sneer down at Amalek from a comfortable height. She wore a neoprene suit that wrapped her lean body like a big rubber glove, and its black surface bore the bright yellow stripes of an Alqualin captain. A leather cloak also suggested her rank, hugging one shoulder in the typical fashion of a high-sea sailor. She wore her auburn hair in dozens of tiny braids that spilled down her neck and shoulders like a dark waterfall.

As she studied Amalek from her perch, he wondered how he looked to her. He was twenty years old and fresh out of sea school, though people tended to mistake him for older. He had done his best to dress the part for the job. He wore a neoprene suit with the dark blue stripes of an average deck-hand. He had bound his long black hair in two braids that currently swayed against his chest. He tried to sit up and stare back at her with the same intensity she fixed upon him, but failed, because he could not shake the feeling that the whole world was spinning.

She laughed again, a coarse sound that somehow managed to beat back the roar of crashing waves. “Amalek Nikat. Don’t tell me this is your first time on a high-seas ship?”

“Of course… not.” He struggled with the last word amidst the sensation that his gorge was rising. “I just don’t remember it being so… unstable.”

Her amused sneer faded suddenly. “I selected you because I thought you were the best. High test scores, strong muscles, impressive stamina…”

“I am the first in my class,” he confirmed, sitting a little higher. But somehow his voice did not resound with the confidence he needed. “Ask me anything about this ship and I can tell you. It uses spider-thread rigging. I can tie a triple-noose knot in ten seconds. I can climb a—”

“You can’t stand up for ten hacking seconds without falling flat on your face,” Yorna snapped. “Tell me. Have you spent your whole life underwater?”

“Most of it,” he confessed. His stomach was churning violently now. He needed to close his eyes so he could stop feeling dizzy. But he tried to pretend that he was reflecting deeply upon his past. “I grew up in the underwater city of Balka Reef. But I’ve also spent time on submarines. And I’ve been on the surface on several occasions. Just not—”

He couldn’t hold it back any longer. He leaned over the side of his chair and heaved his breakfast upon the lovely red fibers of her carpet.

For a moment, both of them just stared in disgust at his body’s excretion. Then Captain Yorna snorted and shook her head. “I should have known better. Test scores mean nothing if you can’t walk with water. You won’t last a week on these waves.”

“I’ll adjust!” His green eyes were open now, his voice filled with the deep roots of conviction that even sea-sickness failed to eject. Now that he had finally vomited, he actually felt a little better, and met her gaze with fierce intensity. “Captain Yorna. You did not make a mistake. It’s true that I’ve spent most of my life underwater. I have swum the ocean’s darkest depths, and mastered every test that Alqualin Academy can offer. But I still do not know our Mother Okeanos.”

“You want to know the ocean, do you? Want to make her your mistress?” This time Yorna offered a gleeful cackle. “I can save you a lot of trouble, Amalek, and buy you a seaside prostitute. You might have more fun swimming her darkest depths.”

“I speak of Okeanos,” he snarled, “the spirit of Alqualin. I have lived in the ocean’s womb, surrounded by the silence of her dark depths, always within her but never beside her. I want to learn to walk with water as you do. I want to breathe fresh air and feel the sun upon my skin. I have read every book I can about man’s mastery over this planet. But I still feel like its servant. I want to see the true face of Mother Okeanos. And then I’ll decide which one of us truly reigns here.”

“Nice speech. Was that from your graduation essay?”

Captain Yorna still spoke with a note of mockery. But her voice was softer now, her gaze measuring. He gave up impressing her with flowery speech and held her stare with equal weight, ignoring the pitch and roll of the ship around him, forgetting about everything but his unquenchable desire to prove himself on the high seas.

She looked away first, and he felt a slight moment of triumph. But her voice had regained its tone of amusement as she said over her shoulder, “I’ll give you a week.”

Published in: on December 17, 2013 at 1:08 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Shrinking Woman

No vignette today, but instead a short story I wrote several years ago while emotionally lost and unemployed. I’m in a similar state now, once again. So this story really came back and spoke to me.

*

The Shrinking Woman

Every day she felt herself changing, but at first she couldn’t say how. People suddenly had trouble hearing her at work and would ask her, “Why don’t you speak up?” Her fingers started slipping on the keyboard and her typing abilities decreased with every passing day. The phone became awkward against her ear, so that she had to adjust it constantly during conversations and often missed whatever the other person said to her. Along with these discomforts, she became emotionally insecure. No one at work treated her with dignity anymore, so she wondered if they had ever truly respected her at all.

Finally, her boss called her to his office and pronounced, “You’re fired.” As soon as she heard the words, she realized they’d been a long time coming.

Back at her apartment, she began the meticulous process of applying to several jobs a day. But she found that the same irritations first experienced at work followed her to the comfort of her home. The computer keyboard became so awkward to her that she made dozens of typos in each cover letter that took hours for her to clean up. One day she got so fed up with everything she left the apartment on a long, long walk.

After a mile, she realized her shoes felt big and loose over her feet. “That’s funny,” she thought. “I know I’ve been losing weight but that shouldn’t affect my feet.” It was the first time it crossed her mind that her whole body might be shrinking.

She eventually learned to hold comfortable conversations of the phone by setting the device on “speaker” mode. In this way, she spoke to her mother weekly about her emotional predicaments.

“Don’t worry,” said Mom. “Something will work out soon. Besides, remember how unhappy you were at your old job. Everything happened because something even better is on its way, you’ll see.”

“But Mom,” she sighed. And she worked up the nerve to speak the truth. “I think with every passing day, I’m getting smaller.”

The other line was silent for a time. “What do you mean, smaller?”

“I … I don’t know how else to explain it.”

“Nonsense!” Mom laughed warm-heartedly. “Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

She didn’t believe her mother was right this time, but she didn’t have a response, so she thanked Mom for the kind words and said goodbye.

Her contact with the outside world decreased rapidly over the next few months. When she found her frustrations on the computer increasing, and she received no responses to her applications whatsoever, she soon gave up applying to any jobs at all. To her benefit, she found her appetite decreased every day so that she required less and less food to satisfy herself. This saved her money on groceries. She also stopped going out in general, preferring to stay home and watch TV or read a book for hours on end. She ceased exercising, even though it was supposed to reduce her stress, because it often increased her frustrations with her body.

Simple tasks became harder and harder to accomplish. Her clothes became so large, everything but her T-shirts slipped right off. Dishes became harder to wash because she had trouble reaching over the sink. Taking out the trash became impossible because she didn’t have the strength to lift the trash bag.

Despite the unpleasantries, she did find that getting smaller had some benefits. The apartment, which once felt cramped and cheap to her, felt bigger and more luxurious all the time. She found items in small nooks and crannies she had long ago forgotten or dismissed as lost. Certain objects which once appeared ugly became beautiful and grandiose from her new perspective. Even so, these minor amenities were not enough to beautify her situation. She became so small that she could not reach her sink or wear her shoes. She developed painful sensitivity to light and sound and spent hours tossing and turning at night. When she was so small she could not even climb into bed, she crawled into a dresser drawer and slept amongst her own clothes. She ripped off small pieces of cloth to wrap around her nakedness, which concerned her less and less all the time, as there was no one around to see her. She stacked books around the house so she could continue to reach certain fixtures and devices.

One day her landlord came calling because she had neither paid her rent nor stepped from her room for some time. Not sure what to do, she ran and hid in the drawer. Naturally, he did not look for her there, and soon gave up searching. He left some sort of document behind for her but she could not reach it, and did not care to read it anyway. After all, what could she do?

The incident caused her great anxiety, and as she continued to find herself shrinking yet more, she grew increasingly terrified. She saw bugs all around her, which appeared to her as large as dogs once did. She wondered how long her shrinking would continue, until perhaps one day, she stopped existing altogether. One day she did not come out of her drawer at all, she was so scared of the dangers and humiliations awaiting her outside.

The day finally came when she was forced to come out, for the authorities were clearing out her apartment. Voices thundered in her ears from the other room, and she thought she heard her own mother speaking to a policeman. She knew it was only a matter of time before they searched the dresser and found her, but she felt it would be better to die than to face such embarrassment.

With great effort, she climbed out of the drawer. Clinging to the edge, she saw that she had become even smaller overnight. She had trouble climbing down the stack of books to reach the floor. She looked all around herself, amidst dustballs and a floor so full of indentations that it seemed to her a hilly landscape, and did not know where to go other than a small hole in the far wall. She had noticed it a long time ago, but had always been too afraid to go near it, certain it would be full of bugs or rodents. At this moment in time, however, she did not see any better option available. She started the long run across her bedroom floor.

The ground quaked as a man approached from the other room. She knew it would be too disheartening for her to look back at him, so she ignored the giant. The hole loomed larger and larger before her. Wouldn’t be long now.

A flameless explosion erupted beside her, sending a gush of air that knocked her from her feet. She looked back to see that the man had tried to stomp on her but missed by a centimeter.

“What was that?” someone asked.

“A weird-looking bug,” replied the giant.

“Did you get it?”

“I think so.”

She fought back her tears as she pushed herself to her feet and ran the last stretch towards the hole. Once upon a time, she worked a decent job and even possessed a fledgling career. Now, she was as lowly and pathetic as a bug to be squashed.

Her fear clouded by her misery, she crawled weeping into the hole in the wall. She kept walking into the darkness, even when she could not see where she was going, because she no longer cared. Finally, when she could not even see where she had come from, she collapsed into the dust and resolved to die.

Her tears dried on her face and exhaustion overcame her. She fell in and out of a soft, peaceful sleep. In her dreams, she heard a strange and beautiful music playing in the distance. The music consisted mostly of soft, childlike voices, accompanied by a strange rhythm like tinkering glass.

Sharp hunger eventually roused her from sleep, but by then she felt as if she might have lost her mind, for she continued to hear the music. Not sure what else to do, she followed the sounds through the thick blackness.

After a time she saw the glow of lights before her. The illumination was soft and colorful, like Christmas lights. Finally she stepped through the other side of the hole into a new world.

The music stopped. The band, a group of people her size holding instruments of broken debris, turned and looked at her with surprise. They stood in what seemed like a grand hallway, though it was only a crack between walls, lit by sparkling Christmas lights and decorated with an assortment of small household objects. Cheap jewelry garnished the walls, yet glittered like the most valuable of treasures. Plastic earrings glowed in the light like an element from another planet. Food crumbs were stacked on glistening coins of nickel and copper, appearing to her now as an incredible feast.

“Newcomer!” cried the little people. “Welcome!”

“W-what is this place?” she asked, fear and doubt creeping back into her mind.

“Welcome to the world of the shrunken people!” said the band leader. “We are so happy to see you. Please don’t be frightened, we know this takes a long time to adjust to. But I assure you that in time, you’ll come to love this land more than you ever loved your old one. You’ll find that plain things appear wondrous, and the greatest excitements can be found wherever you wish to look. The necessities of life will come more easily to you, and you will learn the truest contentment you have ever known. Please, come in and enjoy yourself.”

Her rational mind told her these little people must be depraved and pathetic beyond redemption. But deep in her heart, she dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, they were right.

Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 8:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Doomed Proposal

This vignette is from an unfinished urban fantasy of mine that, if I ever return to, I will probably rewrite completely. The plot of the novel was ridiculously complicated, but this scene should speak for itself…

*

It was a clear night in Las Vegas, and the Strip lay like a tangle of stars under their hotel balcony. Tourists bustled through the streets in colorful streams, entering one casino drunk and then coming out moreso. Cars gleamed with the flashing lights of the signs and showcases all around them. Girls giggled and men chuckled. The echoes of soft jazz and a bombastic symphony battled in the air. The spotlight of the Luxor pyramid shot into heaven like a laser zapping the moon.

Carmen laughed softly, pulling away from the railing and out of the lashing breeze. Her dark brown curls settled against the curves of her evening gown. Her black eyes twinkled as she turned them on Joel. “I forgot how magical it feels out here on the Strip,” she sighed. “Thanks for bringing me here, Joel. I guess I needed a vacation more than I thought.”

“I knew it would do you some good.” He reached up and brushed a stray curl from her cheek. His hand lingered on the curve of her jaw.

She laughed again, her voice a crystalline chime in the night air. “Oh, but you hate it here, don’t you? What was that you called the Strip one time? ‘The street of the walking dead?’”

Joel grimaced. “I’m not great with words.” He gripped her neck gently. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter what I think right now.” He brushed her lips with a kiss.

She became stiff in his grasp. Her eyes searched his desperately. “Why’d you bring me here, Joel?”

“I … I, uh …” He forced a gulp down his throat. “I needed a vacation, too, I guess.”

“Maybe.” She laughed nervously. “Not here, though. Being here feels more like work to you, doesn’t it?”

“Maybe, but I wanted it to feel magical. For you, anyway.”

He leaned away from her, but continued to grip her hand. His heart thudded painfully in his chest. His palm became slippery against hers. Fear burned up from his belly, clenching his throat. What he was about to do terrified him. But he couldn’t back down. Not now. Not this time. He had to stay strong.

“Joel?”

“Carmen … I love you very much.”

“I love you too, Joel.”

Then why did she sound so anxious? “The last few years with you have been a … blur. A good blur, I mean. A blend of great times and bad ones.”

She frowned.

He cursed under his breath. His speech wasn’t coming out the way he imagined it, but there was no going back now. He forged onwards. “What I’m trying to say is, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important in life. Both of us lead very busy lives. We care a lot about our jobs. And our jobs are important. But being with you has reminded me that some things are, well, more important.”

His tongue felt like a block in his mouth. God, he really was terrible at speeches! He decided to stop now before he embarrassed himself further.

He began to lower to one knee.

Within the hotel room, Carmen’s cell phone rang.

Joel froze, his knee still hovering above the balcony floor. Carmen’s fingers tightened around his.

The phone rang again.

“I, uh … I better get that,” said Carmen. “That ring tone means Lucy.”

“Carmen …”

“Sorry, Joel.”

Her fingers slipped from his sweaty palms. She hurried through the sliding doors and into the cool air of their hotel room. She grabbed her cell phone at the last ring and swept it up to her ear. “Hello? Carmen here. Hello? Oh, Lucy! Thank God it’s you.”

Joel finished sinking to his knee, now for a much different reason.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s going well … Romantic? I guess so … I’m not really sure why, to tell you the truth.”

Joel twisted his head to glare at her, but Carmen turned her back to him. She lowered her voice into the cell phone.

“Come on, just tell me how Josephine is doing … Oh my God, who the hell switched her medication? … Damn that Harriet, I knew I couldn’t trust her! … No, you were right to call me, you were right. I can’t thank you enough, really. Put Josephine back on the meds I subscribed. Increase the dosage to 500 milligrams. If Harriet doesn’t cooperate tell her I haven’t finished her evaluation yet. You just tell her that. Thanks, Lucy. I know, I know. See you Monday.”

Carmen hung up and flung the phone onto the bed with a growl.

Joel got up and walked into the hotel room. They regarded each other a moment, silently.

“That was Lucy,” said Carmen.

“No kidding?”

“That stupid Harriet is screwing everything up, like I knew she would.”

“Hm.”

Another silence.

Carmen wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “It’s cold in here, huh? Let’s go on a walk. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Magical, maybe.”

He gnashed his teeth together.

“Yeah. Sure.”

Published in: on October 15, 2013 at 9:37 am  Comments (2)  
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The King and the Killer

In celebration of the release of the “Serafina’s Saga” animation and visual novel, this week’s vignette shows King Kallias and Xavier Wolven meeting for the first time. People have been requesting to see more Kallias and Xavier–so here you go! 🙂

This scene would take place in the time after the novella Grand Traitor and before the start of Serafina’s Saga.

*

A wiry young man sat alone in large room of stone next to a table piled with gold. He was sixteen years old, and the bejeweled crown upon his head had been so recently placed that his mop of short, candy yellow hair still struggled to hold it upright.

Kallias tapped his fingers upon the table, causing the gold coins on top of it to jingle incessantly. He didn’t mind the sound. In fact, he found it reassuring, and he needed all the reassurance he could get right now. He liked every physical indication of the gold piled in front of him, especially the bright golden glow it cast throughout the dull room of stone, or the sparkles that ignited where beams of sunlight from the window struck the coins directly. He formed a rhythm with the tapping of his fingers and the jingle of the coins, then started to hum a little melody with it.

When the door of his room opened, the melody died in Kallias’s throat with a whimper. His fingers stopped tapping and his body stiffened like a block of stone. His big amber eyes stared at the swinging entrance until the pupils widened into gaping black holes. He watched and waited, his tense body unable to move except to tremble, as a dark figure slipped through the opening.

The man before Kallias was tall and slender, and he seemed to move more gracefully than his own shadow. A long hooded cloak hung from his shoulders, covering most of his body in undulating swaths of black fabric. His soft leather boots barely whispered as he walked across the stones, and as his cloak billowed around him like wings unfolding, Kallias wondered if the stranger secretly flew. Then, just as quietly, he came to a stop in the middle of the room. His hands reached up—two appendages of pale, skeletal white flesh against the dark clothing—and grabbed the edge of his hood.

Kallias struggled to keep breathing as he watched the hood fall back. The shadows retreated to reveal a long, gaunt face with an ashy white complexion. Most startling against his pale skin was his deep black hair which flowed past his shoulders, and eye sockets so dark that Kallias suspected the use of powder to accentuate their sunken appearance. Little emphasis needed to be added to such eyes, however, the irises of which peered forward with sizzling red brilliance.

Just as Kallias began to wonder if he would ever overcome his awe in time to welcome his guest, the Wolven flinched and recoiled, reaching up to cover his eyes.

“Belazar’s blazes,” hissed the stranger. The god of wrath’s name, when spoken aloud, sent chills down Kallias’s body. “That gold is going to blind me.”

“Oh… you don’t like gold?” Kallias’s heart fell to his stomach. Goldons were his only leverage with a man like this. If the Wolven did not want them…

“I like goldons well enough,” grumbled the assassin. “But I prefer them in storage.”

“Ah, yes, of course.” At long last, Kallias found the strength to rise from his seat. He rushed to a window and grabbed the curtains, yanking them across the aperture. Darkness poured over the gold, extinguishing the lustrous glow from the room. Kallias sighed at the loss. But when he saw the Wolven relax, he decided the gesture had been worth it.

“So… you’re Xavier?” asked Kallias at last. “A Wolven assassin?”

The Wolven answered with a nod, so small it was almost imperceptible. But then he tilted his head and narrowed his red eyes at Kallias. “And you’re the new king?”

Kallias puffed up a little, feeling a surge of pride feed his confidence. In this Wolven’s presence, he had almost forgotten his own authority. When he lifted his head, the weight of his golden crown seemed to increase. “Obviously.”

Xavier should have bowed before him—but he did not. “How old are you?”

Kallias’s chest deflated again. “Sixteen.”

“I thought monarchs had to be seventeen years of age in this country.”

“Usually, yes. But Father’s death…” His throat constricted and his breath faltered. Then he planted his fists on his hips, glowering with all the strength of his thin golden eyes. “No matter. I am special enough to be an exception. One way or another I am the king, and you are in no place to question that.”

Xavier grew very still. Then the edges of his thin lips pulled up with a smirk. “You’re very brave to summon me in this fashion, with no guards to protect you. You must want me to kill someone quite important, yes?”

Kallias forced a swallow down his throat. “I don’t need you to kill anyone… at present.”

The Wolven’s smile quickly turned downward. His red eyes narrowed until Kallias thought he felt heat emanating from them. He moved forward ever so slightly, just one foot shifting while his body started to lean, yet Kallias fought the urge to turn and flee the room. “Then why am I here?”

“To… to… establish our friendship.”

Xavier’s eyes blinked and opened wide again. He drew back and studied the young king in silence for a short while. At long last he said, “Friendship?” and his tongue seemed to struggle with the word.

“Naturally.” Kallias didn’t know whether to feel better or worse about the fact he had caught the Wolven off guard. “I understand who and what you are. I know that you’ve killed monarchs before. I know that for the right price, you’ll kill anyone. And though most people around here are happy with me on the throne because I keep the treasury overrunning, I suspect there are those who might tire of me anyway, or become so greedy they want the throne regardless.”

Xavier’s face contorted, and then he began to chuckle. A genuine smile looked strange on the Wolven’s face, as if his muscles were not accustomed to moving in such directions.

“What’s so funny?” asked Kallias, purely curious.

“Only a Jeridar would be so greedy, and you’re the only left in Castle Krondolee. Isn’t that so?”

The words struck Kallias like a bucket of icy water. He bristled and turned away, hoping to hide his pain and discomfort.

He could still feel Xavier’s hot red eyes crawling over him. “I’ve upset you. I didn’t expect to. I thought Jeridars liked being on their own. Less competition that way.”

Kallias remained silent, his heart a frustrating lump in his chest that ached with every beat.

After another long silence, Xavier sighed. “Just tell me what you what you want from me. I didn’t mean to… prattle on. I haven’t talked this much in awhile, so I’m out of practice. Let’s just get to business.”

For one small moment, Kallias sensed something in Xavier that he had not expected from a Wolven, either. Something that no one else might have noticed, but Kallias saw it as pure as golden daylight, for he knew the emotion all too well. Loneliness.

The revelation finally gave Kallias the strength to straighten back up and look at the Wolven once more. This time, Xavier was the one who avoided his gaze. “Right: business. I summoned you here to give you this gold.”

The Wolven shifted uncomfortably. “Payment to a Wolven should only be given upon a job’s completion. And if you don’t want anyone dead, you have nothing to pay me for, anyway. My services are quite… limited.”

“I understand that. This gold is to ensure my own safety. If anyone else tries to hire you to kill me, then you can refuse them, because I’ve already paid you more. And if by Mallion’s miracles they can pay you more than I’m offering now—then I’ll pay you the difference.”

Xavier did not move or speak for a while. Kallias tried to read the Wolven’s face, but failed. Perhaps the Wolven himself did not know how to feel about this.

“I can’t accept it,” said Xavier at last. “It is not the Wolven way.”

Panic fluttered through Kallias’s stomach. “But… but… it seems like it should be. If someone can pay you for death, shouldn’t someone also be able to pay you for life?”

Once again Xavier blinked and stared at the king with wide open eyes. Then even his mouth started to gape open. “I… that’s…”

Seeing the Wolven so taken aback made Kallias hopeful. “Perhaps I can pay you to make an oath to Belazar? One ensuring my safety?”

Xavier bristled. His face twisted, his lips pulling back into a snarl. “Out of the question. Belazar barters in blood, and blood only.”

Kallias considered this. He reached up and twiddled his fingers against his chin as his mind raced for a solution. “Ah, I have it!” he cried out, face beaming with a smile. “I’ll hire you with this money to kill anyone who ever asks you to kill me.”

Xavier’s scowl dissipated. His red eyes flicked from Kallias, to the money, and back to Kallias again. Finally, a smile wound back up his face. “Now that… I can work with.”

 *

Novella prequel to "Serafina's Saga"

Novella prequel to “Serafina’s Saga”

The animated Episode 1 of Serafina’s Saga is now released on Youtube:

charactercollagesmaller

St Clare’s Valentine

Okay, so Valentine’s Day is over. So I thought it would be safe now to release a short story of mine that I wrote a few years ago that happens to be about Valentine’s Day and also happens to be very bitter (though not specifically bitter *about* Valentine’s Day). It’s bitter about Hollywood.

I don’t normally write stories from real life, it’s just not my style. However, this story comes largely from experiences I had while working in Los Angeles. And that’s all I will say about that. Any similarities to real people/events are, er, coincidental =D

So here it is…

* St Clare’s Valentine *

Seven hours down, four to go. Four to go. Four hours, seven minutes … seven minutes … six minutes …

The little black numbers got blurrier the longer Charlie stared at them. He stared into a computer screen all day, slowly growing blind. 3:24. Twenty-four minutes meant almost half an hour. Which meant almost past the halfway point to 4:00. But of course, he wasn’t past the halfway point yet, he hadn’t even reached it yet. It was only 3:25. The fucking twenties were so deceptive.

During his seven hours of work, he had answered a few phone calls and copied a script. That was all.
Seven hours of nothing.

He should be grateful, right? He had a job most people would give a rib for. He worked on a TV show. He hoped to be a screenwriter, eventually. He expected that to require about eight more years of jobs like this, jobs that were hard to get because everyone else wanted them. Sure, it was hard now, but one day he’d rake in the dough, he’d see his name in big lights … or at least in the credits of a blockbuster film.

The days here varied extremely. About seventy percent of the time, he sat at his desk and did nothing. The rest of the time, he drove around the congested city of Los Angeles picking up food and groceries. He hated doing that. So he should be glad it was a slow day.

Right?

For some reason, he couldn’t stop thinking about his dog. His dog was a white mutt named Spirit. Charlie picked her up from the humane society just a few days before he landed this job. It was a foolish thing to do–getting a dog before he had a job–but he just wanted one so badly. Spirit was the only thing that kept Charlie sane, made him look forward to going home. But she was also the reason it was so hard to stay at work. Because of Charlie’s horrible hours, Spirit had to stay at home all day, sleeping, holding her bladder until Charlie got home and could take her outside. Was that really so much better than the humane society? Charlie hoped so, but sometimes he wasn’t so sure. The humane society had a little yard. Charlie could only walk her down a street of dead lawns and dirty cement.

He wanted to see Spirit. He wanted to have the energy to play with her, to take her outside, let her free, and watch her run around. Instead, he was stuck here. Doing nothing.

“Would you shut the hell up?”

The request came from his co-worker, Travis, who sat at a little desk across from Charlie. Charlie realized he was tapping his pen on the desk and making a lot of noise. “Oh, sorry.”

Travis rolled his eyes and went back to work. Work for Travis meant either trying to date girls online or write movie reviews. As if either of the two pastimes would get him anywhere.

“Hey.”

Both Charlie and Travis turned to look at the speaker, then jumped to attention. Charlie’s heart thundered in his chest. At the doorway to their office stood the showrunner, Kane Gibsy. As far as Charlie and Travis were concerned, Kane was just a step down from God. He had complete control of the show, even if some of the executive producers tried to say otherwise. He usually stayed in his office so he could write scripts or review dailies without disturbance. His assistant did everything else for him: reminded him when he had meetings, called his inferiors, carried his orders down to the writers, editors, and producers. Why was Kane standing here, in person, in the production assistants’ office? Had they done something wrong? Were they getting fired?

No. The assistant would have fired them.

Kane liked to carry around a really big stick. It was probably some sort of weapon, Charlie didn’t know. Kane was a karate master of some type. He could probably kill everyone in the office with a flick of his finger, and he liked to remind them by carrying around the big stick and spinning it. “Today’s fucking Valentine’s Day, isn’t it?”

Charlie’s eyes shot back to his computer. His trembling hand grabbed the mouse and dragged it over the clock so the date showed–

“Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day,” said Travis. No, no, no! Travis got to it first! He had a smirk on his face, the bastard.

“Fuck!” cried Kane. He slammed the stick against the door frame, making both the assistants jump in their chairs. “Jane didn’t remind me!” Jane was Kane’s assistant. Man would she be in trouble.

“You need something for the lady?” suggested Charlie, giving a manly grin like he understood Kane’s dilemma and was on the same page.

“Yeah. Um …” Kane ran his muscular hand through his hair, the hoary kind of hair that was fashionable and intimidating on a Hollywood executive. “Um … how about a flower? A fucking flower.”

“What kind?” Charlie already had a pen and notepad in hand, ready to write down his instructions down to the number of leaves.

“What do you think?” said Kane.

Charlie wasn’t sure if that was some sort of reproach, or if he genuinely wanted Charlie’s opinion.

“White orchid,” said Travis. “It’s exotic. It’s romantic. It’s expensive.”

“See,” said Kane, shaking his stick toward Charlie’s coworker, “he gets it.”

Charlie thought fast. “Where would you like me to pick it up?” He could see the disappointment in Travis’s eyes. Score! He had the job now.

“The most expensive place,” said Kane. He pulled out his wallet, drew a credit card, and flicked it onto Charlie’s desk.

“The Perfect Petal on La Brea,” offered Travis.

“Sure,” said Kane. He turned the stick on Charlie, leaning close as if to stab out Charlie’s eye. “You’re a writer, right?”

The question was music to Charlie’s ears. “Yes, sir!”

“Then write her a fucking good letter.”

“Sure,” said Charlie, waiting to gulp until Kane leaned back and walked out.

Both the assistants blew a sigh of relief.

“Well then,” said Charlie, “I’m off.”

Bitterness dripped into Travis’s voice. “Shouldn’t you call first? It’s Valentine’s Day. They’ll be packed.”

“And what, have them prepare the flower for me? Calling will only waste more time.” Feeling proud of himself, Charlie grabbed his jacket, his keys, his badge that let him swipe in and out of the studio, and he was off.

#

Stuck in the heat and pollution of Los Angeles traffic, Charlie wished he hadn’t been so quick to take the errand. Too late now.

Sweat poured down his face and onto the collar of his shirt. The weather outside wasn’t bad, but Charlie didn’t have air conditioning in his car, and no matter how far he rolled down the windows, the inner heat kept rising. He hated rolling down his windows, anyway. At almost every stop light he’d see homeless people on the street and pray they wouldn’t walk up and harass him. He also knew that the term “fresh air” didn’t exist in LA. The more air he breathed outside, the more pollution he let into his lungs.

When he first moved to LA five years ago, he didn’t notice the pollution so much. He figured he’d be sensitive to the air at first, then get used to it. The opposite phenomenon occurred instead. The longer he lived here, the more he smelled the stink in the air. Maybe the pollution accumulated in his lungs, and eventually stacked all the way up to his nostrils, which was why he now smelled it all the time.

God. He hated this city.

His heart thundered in his chest and new beads of sweat dripped from his brow. “The address,” he gasped aloud. He’d been so quick to rush out of the office, he forgot to check the directions to Kane’s house.

No problem, right? Charlie typed up so many address forms he should know it by heart.  730 … Oceanic … no, 731 … damn!

A minor problem. He could call and ask, of course, but that would be admitting his mistake. First he had to get the flower. Then he would drive to the approximate area, and he would figure it out. He would figure it out!

It took him half an hour to drive the five miles to La Brea. It took him another fifteen to park. He circled the block twice, which meant breaking the law twice, because one intersection didn’t allow left turns. Then he saw a spot.

No! Yellow paint!

Too late. He had his blinkers on and the car was in reverse. The cars behind him honked as he parallel parked into the yellow spot.

He crawled over the passenger seat to get onto the pavement. He locked the car up and stood a moment, tapping his foot on the dirty cement. He didn’t see any cops or meter maids. Maybe he’d be okay.

Once he made up his mind to take the risk, he rushed into the Perfect Petal. His momentum came to an abrupt halt as he ran smack into a wall of people. The store was packed. Naturally. It was one of the most prestigious flower stores in Hollywood, and today was Valentine’s Day.

He pushed through the crowd, ignoring their groans and curses, and made his way through the rows of flowers. Fortunately for him, the orchards were easy to find. Tall, elegant, beautiful, white–expensive. From here on out it should be easy. Pick the most expensive flower, get in line, think of a letter to write while standing in line, write it, check out, leave. Bam. Done.

One little hiccup. There were two kinds of white orchards: cut, and potted. God, which one did Kane want him to buy? Cut was the traditional gift, right? But this wasn’t a bouquet. It was a single flower.

Potted, then. Besides, potted was more expensive.

He made his pick. He stood in line. He racked his mind for an appropriate letter. After all, he was a writer, wasn’t he? “Dear …” Oh God, he didn’t even know her name! “To the love of my life, May this flower remind you of my love for you, always growing. Yours, Kane.” Too cheesy? He couldn’t picture Kane saying those words. But he couldn’t picture Kane saying “I love you” either, and surely he occasionally said that. It would have to do.

He had to wait fifteen minutes for his turn. Once there, his palms got sweaty and his heart thundered. This happened every time he had to use someone else’s credit card, and this time it was Kane’s. He always worried that A, he’d be arrested for a false signature, or B, he’d lose the credit card. He’d lost his own credit card once. Who could say it wouldn’t happen again?

Fortunately, the cashier was in such a hurry to work through the line, she didn’t ask for an ID and didn’t give him hell about his signature. Charlie orated the letter he came up with and she attached it to the pot. He took his receipt of $115 and carefully placed it, and the credit card, into his wallet.

So far so good.

When Charlie returned to his car, he had a neon parking ticket under the wiper blades. He let out the inevitable exclamation “Shit!” and threw the ticket into his car.  Under normal conditions he was such a responsible, careful person. But he couldn’t afford to be in this job. Fortunately, the show or studio would pay his ticket for him. He hated the situation all the same.

The drive to Santa Monica went smoothly except for the five minutes or so on the highway. He had the plant situated carefully behind the passenger seat while both front windows were down and the sunroof rolled back. He didn’t realize what a problem this was until traffic forced him to slow down and he glanced back at it. The orchid’s delicate little petals fluttered in the wind and looked ready to rip straight off the stem. Panting and cursing, he rolled all the windows back up. In a matter of seconds he felt fresh sweat pouring down his brow, but at least the plant was safe.

Charlie almost had victory in his grasp. He parked on Oceanic Ave. All he had to do was figure out which house belonged to Kane Gibsy, deliver the flower, and his mission would be accomplished.

He tried 731 first, if only because it was on the same side he parked his car. Beautiful red bricks made up the walls, satin spar framed the door and windows, and flowers of every sort blossomed everywhere. He opened the gate to step onto the cobblestone path to the doorway, and the flowery foliage practically formed walls on either side of him. Hell, would this woman notice another flower in her garden?

Only a few feet remained between him and the doorway when it swung open of its own accord. Behind the door stood a woman Charlie’s height, maybe a dozen years his senior, her build muscular but elegant, her face square and pronounced with the most intense green eyes he had ever seen. Thick, black hair spilled over her shoulders in voluptuous curls, but something about it didn’t seem to match her skin and eyes. It was beautiful, but it was fake. Dyed. He couldn’t help but notice her chest was small enough to be real, however. It’s the sort of thing one develops a second sense for in Hollywood. She wore sweats and a baggy white T-shirt like she hadn’t left the house all day.

“What do you want?” She had a sharp Irish accent. Intimidating, but gorgeous.

“Are you Mrs. Gibsy?”

“I’m Hannah.”

“Uh, yes, but are you Kane Gibsy’s wife?”

She sighed. “Yes, I’m Hannah Gibsy. Who wants to know?”

Charlie blew out a sigh of relief. “I work for Kane. I have a delivery for you. Just hold on a second, I’ll go get it–”

“Oh really?”

Something in her voice made him stop and turn back around. “Is that okay?”

She sighed, her wave of anger fading. “Sure, fine. Let’s see what he got me this year.”

Charlie forced a smile and jogged back to his car. He couldn’t explain why, but something about this situation was … wrong. Tension stiffened all his muscles and clenched his throat, as if he could hear a bomb ticking, ready to go off.

He carefully picked up the orchid and made his way back to the wild Gibsy garden. He had trouble holding the pot in one hand while he unlatched the gate with the other, but Hannah didn’t help him. She just watched him, unmoving, as if the same tension seized her own muscles. As he approached, he did his best to keep a smile on his face, but the smile got heavier with every step he took. He stopped just a foot away from her, holding the orchid between them, clearing his throat and saying, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

She hardly wore an expression, but such a fire burned in her eyes he wondered why the orchid didn’t wither into dust.

“Set it down,” she said. When he hesitated, she raised her voice. “Set it down!”

He put the plant down on the ground.

“Haaaaiiii-YAH!” Hannah lifted her foot, swung it an arch above the plant, and sent her heel crashing into the side of the pot. Charlie yelped aloud, his mouth hanging open and every drop of blood draining from his skin. In his head he thought, “There just went my job.”

“What … what … what the hell was that?” he finally gasped.

She was out of breath, a rosy hue flushing both her cheeks. But her eyes sparkled as she returned her gaze to his. “Fifteen fucking years of fucking flowers.”

“What?”

“Every birthday. Every anniversary. Every Valentine’s Day. Every fucking chance, he gives me flowers.” She swept her arm around her body in an elegant indication of her garden. “Do you think I bought any of these on my own? Do you?”

“Um … no?”

“That’s right. No. Do you want to know the truth? Do you?”

No, he didn’t. But he said “Yes.”

“I hate flowers. I hate watching them die. The first time he bought me flowers, I thought it was sweet. I pretended to like them. I put them in a garden and I took care of them because I didn’t want to watch them wither away. He thought I loved them. So the next time, he bought me more. And the next, and the next, and the next.”

As much as Charlie feared her wrath, he wanted his job even more, so he stayed on Kane’s side. “You probably should have told him, you know. That you … that you didn’t like flowers.”

“Tell him my ass. Do you know what I used to do for a living? I was a stuntwoman, in films. That’s how we met. We melted all over each other, we married. Then one day, I broke my leg. Kane sold a script. He said I didn’t need to do stunts anymore, we had plenty of money, why risk myself, right? Right?”

Charlie shrugged helplessly.

“Wrong.” Tears fragmented the green of her bright eyes. Her nose crinkled and she put a hand over her trembling mouth. “God. You have to get back on the horse once you fall off, you know? I waited too long. I got soft. I got scared. Now all I do is stay at home and tend fucking flowers that I fucking HATE!”
She walked up to the orchid, still sprawled across the cobblestones in one piece. She lifted her foot directly above the ovule …

“NO–!”

Too late. Her foot smashed down into the heart of the blossom, first flattening it, then grinding it into pieces. She continued to smash and grind as she talked. “You drive back to Kane,” she grunted. “You tell him that’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m sick of fame and fortune. I’m sick of flowers. I’m sick of how he has made us both forget who I really am. You tell him that. Because I won’t be here anymore when he gets home.”

She stopped stomping. She turned around. She went limp, like the fight had gone out of her, like she had nothing else left. She began to ascend her porch steps.

Charlie felt light-headed. Adrenaline burned in his stomach. His own hands curled into fists and forced the muscles of his forearms to bulge. It couldn’t end this way. It just couldn’t. Because this would be the end. If Kane didn’t kill him on sight, he would fire him, then see to it that Charlie never got a job in Hollywood again. That’s how it worked. That’s what would happen. And none of it would be his fault, but that didn’t matter. He would just be one of the losers, one of the guys who “didn’t make it.”

“STOP!” he cried.

She was already reaching for the doorknob. But she stopped.

“Listen,” he gasped. “This is … this is my fault. This isn’t Kane’s.” He had to lie. He had to lie to stay alive.

Inch by inch, she turned her head, looked at him again. “How is this your fault?”

“Kane, uh … Kane left me a note, on my desk, telling me what to get you for Valentine’s Day. I was in such a hurry to leave the office, I forgot to bring the note with me. Then I … I called the other production assistant. He told me what was really on the note, but I didn’t believe him. It sounded … it sounded like a silly gift. The other production assistant, see, he wants to see me fail so if either of us ever gets promoted, it will be him and not me. See what I mean?”

She hesitated a long time, but finally said, “Sure … yeah, I know how it is.”

“Exactly. So I thought he was lying. I thought he wanted me to screw up and get you a stupid gift. But after hearing what you said … I think I’m the one who got it wrong. What I thought seemed stupid was actually a sign that Kane understands you. Let me fix this. Let me go get what Kane really wanted you to have. Don’t let my mistake be the last straw of your relationship. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I should have talked to Jane, I should have confirmed the contents of the note myself. You’ll see. Let me fix this.”

She stared at him, skeptical, but desperate. She wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe in Kane.

“Fine,” she said finally. “Fine. I’ll wait an hour. But if you’re telling the truth … you’re a horrible PA.”

Charlie laughed sheepishly and shrugged. Whatever worked. Whatever let him keep his job.

He would fix this. He would make it right. He had to.

He had to get her the perfect gift.

#

On this errand, the errand that would decide whether he ever had an errand again, he remained cool and collected. He felt like he had a rock in his gut, but his hands didn’t tremble, his feet didn’t trip. He knew what he had to do, even if he couldn’t rationalize it, even if it sounded stupid.

He found it in a store less crowded. He found it on sale, cheap, unwanted by most. He bought it anyway.

He paid for it with his own card.

And he wrote her a long, long letter.

Dear Hannah,
    I watched one of your old movies yesterday. I remembered how things used to be, how you used to be. I remembered the life and excitement I’d see in your eyes after a dangerous shoot. I realized I hadn’t seen the same light in your eyes for a long, long time.
    I’m not telling you to pick up your old career. I still want you to be safe. What I am saying is that I never should have told you to stop. It should have been your decision then, and it should be your decision now. I want you to find that excitement again.
    Love shouldn’t require as much care as you’ve had to provide. It should be strong enough to stand on its own, to exist for its own sake. It should only need nourishment every once and awhile. That’s why this year, I’m giving you something different.
    Tell me when you’ve made up your mind.
Yours, Kane.

The gift was a cactus. Charlie left it on the porch of the Gibsy house with the note firmly attached. Along with the note supposedly from Kane, Charlie scribbled another one of his own.

This is what Kane really wanted to give you, he wrote. Don’t let my mistake be the end. Give it another chance.

He got in his car and drove back to the studio.

#

When he returned, Jane berated him for being gone so long. Charlie didn’t say much. He sat in his chair, resigned to whatever fate would bring him, and he said, “Tell Kane they were out of orchids.”

“Out of orchids?” Jane was particularly upset because Kane had already reprimanded her for not writing

“Valentine’s Day” on his white board. She looked down at the receipt Charlie had given her along with Kane’s credit card. Lady Luck had been kind enough to omit the specification of “orchid” on the receipt. Instead, it read “Miscellaneous.” “Then what the hell did you spend a hundred and fifteen dollars on?”

“A cactus.”

Jane’s face turned beet red. “A cactus?! You idiot, how am I supposed to tell him you bought his wife a fucking–”

“Tell Kane whatever you want,” Charlie sighed. “Tell him I had to buy something else. However …” His eyes met Jane’s, so confident, so unwavering, that she waited to hear what he had to say. “However, I wrote a very, very good letter.”

Jane just stared at him a moment, perplexed. She mumbled, “Well if there’s heat for this, you’re getting it, not me. You need to learn to communicate, to use your cell phone. To tell me when there’s a problem, so we can work it out together … fuck, I’ve had a really bad day.”

She wandered back out. Charlie leaned back in his chair and sighed.

Kane never visited the production assistants’ office again. He never thanked Charlie for the really good letter.

But one day, they passed each other in the hallway, and Kane did a double-take. He stopped for a moment, staring at Charlie, squinting.

“Hm,” he said, and then walked off.

Charlie knew then he had saved Kane’s marriage. He had saved Kane’s marriage, but he wouldn’t get a promotion for it. He wouldn’t even get a “thank you.”

That’s what it means to be a production assistant. You do what you have to do, period. You pay your dues. You climb the thorny, neverending ladder.

It might not be a good job. But it’s the stuff of screenplays, that’s for sure.

***

Published in: on February 15, 2013 at 10:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Last Tales of Mercia 6: Hereward the Outlaw

Young Hereward (later known as “the Wake”) finds out that a Norman castle is being built in Shrewsbury and rides with a group of rowdy boys to cause trouble.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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Download Epub, PDF, or Mobi for Kindle

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The ten Last Tales of Mercia are stand-alone short stories featuring real historical figures and characters from the Sons of Mercia series. You may read them independently as quick glimpses into an ancient world, or as a preface to the novel, Edric the Wild. For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.

**

So when young, and as he grew older, [Hereward] advanced in boldness day by day, and while still a youth excelled in manly deeds. In the meantime he spared nobody whom he thought to be in any way a rival in courage or in fighting. In consequence he often caused strife among the populace and commotion among the common people. As a result of this he made his parents hostile towards him; for because of his deeds of courage and boldness they found themselves quarreling with their friends and neighbors every day, and almost daily having to protect their son with drawn swords and weapons when he returned from sport or from fighting, from the local inhabitants who acted like enemies and tyrants because of him.

Gesta Herwadi, Chapter II

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BOURNE, LINCOLNSHIRE

1054 A.D.

After washing his face, Hereward studied his reflection in the water of the stream. His face pleased him, the jaw broad and sturdy, the lips thick, the nose gently curved, and his pale eyes sparkling with slightly different shades of blue and gray. His sandy hair fell in a sleek swoop to his shoulders. Though only eighteen, he already stood as tall as most older men and his bare shoulders spread thickly with muscle. He had an appearance to make women swoon and men run in terror. He grinned with satisfaction.

Then he recalled that lately, people had been calling him the terror of the city of Bourne, and maybe all of Lincolnshire. They tired of his pranks and brawling. Hereward believed that such complaints arose out of envy. They feared that one day he would grow up to become more powerful than his father. And perhaps his parents feared this, too. For rather than reward him for his victories, they only punished him—which made Hereward even more determined to act out against them.

His reflection shattered as the water splashed. Hereward glanced around for the culprit. Further down the stream, some members of Hereward’s gang played in the water, but they were not close enough to be the source of the disturbance. Altogether, about twenty young men languished with Hereward by the babbling stream. Ash and elm trees spotted the surrounding fields, yielding swathes of shadow across the bright green grass. A few of the boys had taken off their tunics to bask in the warm summer sunshine. Others cooled their skin in the waters of the stream. The rest tried to find naps in the shade of the trees. Like Hereward, many of their heads still ached from drinking too much the night before, so they covered their eyes and searched for oblivion.

Hereward could now discern a thrown rock sinking to the bottom of the riverbed; someone had thrown it at him, thus causing the splash. Suspecting one of his comrades of foul play, Hereward turned to identify an unexpected visitor, Martin, as the culprit. The tall, lanky fellow already had another rock poised for throwing.

Hereward stood and roared with anger. “Martin!”

Martin “Lightfoot,” a man whose long legs were both fast and silent, must have sneaked past the wine-sick boys easily. He shouldn’t be here. Eager to atone for their negligence, a few of the fellows pounced on Martin, grabbing his fancy tunic of red linen and tugging at his dagger-laden belt.

Martin probably could have run away from the boys if he wished. Instead he endured their rough handling, meeting Hereward’s scowl with a shameless smile. The expression came out looking like an uncomfortable distortion of his long, gangly features.

“Go home, Martin,” snarled Hereward. “I’ve no need of my parent’s spy.”

“And I’ve no need of a pompous bully,” said the fleet-footed gentleman. “Nonetheless, Lord Leofric wanted me to come here and give you a warning. He heard about your fight last night with poor Eadwig. Apparently, you bashed the man’s face so brutally both his eyes are swollen shut and he hasn’t climbed out of his bed this morning.”

“It was a fair fight,” said Hereward, though he could hardly remember it. In truth, he had probably been the one at a disadvantage, for he was so besotted with drink at the time. A few of his comrades echoed their agreement.

“In any case, if you piss on the pride of a single more Bourne-man, your father will ensure you can never do it again. For now, Lord Leofric commands that you and all of your companions go home, not to reconvene until further notice.”

“Not to reconvene, eh?” Hereward swaggered closer, balling up one fist and considering where to place it on Martin’s body. Unfortunately, his knuckles still hurt from last night.

“Peace, Master Hereward.” Martin maintained his smug smile. “I am only the messenger. And if you wish to give your father a message in return, I will gladly carry it for you.”

Hereward considered this, his fingers unwinding. He glanced around at his comrades. They all looked uneasy, for a threat from Lord Leofric—normally a cool-tempered man—was no laughing matter. “In that case, tell Father we have followed his wishes. We will not cause trouble here again any time soon.”

“If that’s true, then God bless you, my lord. However, I require convincing. I must bear the blame if my message is false. You understand.” His smile spread wider, revealing some yellowed teeth.

Hereward sighed and searched for his belt, discarded by the river with his tunic. On it, he found an unfamiliar pouch—no doubt taken from Eadwig the night before. He weighed its contents, took a few coins for himself, then threw the rest to Martin. Martin deftly freed one of his arms to catch it, revealing he might have escaped at any moment if he chose.

“And how will I explain your absence?” asked Martin, dropping the purse into his tunic.

“Tell him I went hunting and I want to be alone for awhile.”

“Very well. Happy hunting, then.” Without further ado, Martin slipped from his captors and ran off, his long legs a blur across the grass.

Martin’s message should have left Hereward furious, but in fact he felt liberated. For a long time he had suffered his mother’s and father’s wavering disapproval and insufficient reprimands. Now that they gave him no other choice, he would show them he could break free of their yanking leash.

Hereward looked over his gang and his heart stirred with pride. These boys would follow him anywhere and do whatever he asked of them. They were not yet housecarls in title, but someday they would be, and when that day came, Hereward would indeed surpass his father in the possession of men’s loyalty.

“Listen up, boys!” His robust voice swept forcefully across the field. “I have an idea.” (more…)

Last Tales of Mercia 5: Osgifu the Sister

Osgifu finds out that her sister, Elwyna, may soon be hanged for murder. She faces a hard decision of whether to leave matters to fate or oppose the Normans.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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The ten Last Tales of Mercia are stand-alone short stories featuring real historical figures and characters from the Sons of Mercia series. You may read them independently as quick glimpses into an ancient world, or as a preface to the novel, Edric the Wild. For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.

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SHREWSBURY, SHROPSHIRE

1053 A.D.

Two warm, sturdy arms seemed to reach from Osgifu’s dreams before closing gently around her. A smile lit her face as her body stirred to wakefulness. She felt the warm rays of sunshine beaming through the window shutters. The musky aroma of her husband, Godric, washed over her as he pulled her close and kissed her neck. The coarse stubble around his lips brushed her tender skin. She laughed and squirmed in his grip. “That tickles!”

In response, he kissed her again and tightened his hold on her. She struggled playfully, lashing him with her long red hair, then using her predicament as an excuse to turn around and face him.

At first glance, Godric looked almost boyish in the gentle light of the sun rise. His blue eye glittered mischievously. Short golden hairs shone upon his chin, a pleasant contrast to the dark roots of hair from his forehead. His long brown hair paled easily in the sunlight, which explained why it had almost been blond when she first saw him return from the land of Jomsvikings. The memory made her heart pound and her blood warm; she remembered how handsome he had been that day when she saw him in a Lundenburg church, still in his teen years but already a man in every conceivable way. She had been taken with him ever since, despite the fact he had cursed and grumbled in the house of God, and even voiced his intention to murder someone.

Now forty-five, Godric was still as handsome as ever, though many years of war and hardship had certainly taken their toll. Osgifu reached up and ran her hands through his hair, which had always been a blend of browns and yellows; now it also carried streaks of gray. Next her fingers brushed over his shoulder and torso, jagged with scars. Then her touch trailed back up his chest, over the jut of his throat, towards the knot of scars on one side of his face that had once been his right eye.

He reached up and grabbed her hand, stopping its ascent. “Osgifu,” he said simply. Then he pushed her down and rolled on top of her.

He smothered her laughter with a kiss, quickly transforming her mirth into a new sensation entirely. The weight of his body enveloped her, pinning her, so that her every attempt to escape only increased her contact with him and made her a more willing captive. She sighed with release as he pushed his hips against hers, making his urgency evident, and trailed kisses down her neck. He propped himself with one arm, his muscles rippling down its girth, as he reached to free himself with the other.

“Mother … ?”

Godric froze, making them all too aware of the sound of the door as it swung open, then the pitter-patter of a boy’s little feet.

“EDRIC!” Godric’s cry of rage seemed to shatter the rest of the world into silence. Osgifu caught only a glimpse of Edric’s red curls trailing behind him as he turned and ran. Then Godric jumped up, pulling on a pair of trousers with incredible speed. “So much for building our own room!” he snarled, and lunged after his fleeing son.

Osgifu sighed, trying to replace her own disappointment with sympathy for nine-year-old Edric. She listened to the echoes of Godric’s yelling through the door as she hastened to pull on her own dress. “Best go easy on him, Godric!” she called. “I’m getting too old to conceive another child!”

Any further jests died on her tongue as soon as she stepped into the main hall and saw why Edric had interrupted them in the first place.

A strange man cowered near the door of the hall. He had scraggly hair and raggedy clothes, and Osgifu doubted he had bathed or eaten a good meal in months. The stranger stared at Godric with terrified eyes, yet refused to budge from his spot.

The expression on Godric’s face was far more terrifying. Shirtless and bristling with muscle, Godric looked prepared to murder the man with his bare hands. Without a doubt, the two men knew one another.

“Edric.” Osgifu crouched and reached for her son, whom Godric had forgotten in the presence of the intruder. Edric gladly ran to his mother’s arms. His face was red from the effort of not crying and he trembled in her grasp.

“I’m sorry!” he wailed. “But that man came in and I didn’t know what to do!”

“You did the right thing, Edric.” Osgifu held him close, shielding him as she walked towards her husband.

“Go back to our room, Osgifu.” Godric spoke without looking at her, his voice a low growl.

“I will not,” she said, even as her legs quaked beneath her. Then she fixed her gaze on the stranger. “Please, tell us who you are and what you want.”

Godric snorted. “You won’t get a response from him. He doesn’t talk.”

Only Edric’s weight against Osgifu’s arms gave her the strength to stay standing. Her head spun dizzily. Years ago, when Osgifu left a nunnery and agreed to marry Godric, she did so with the understanding that he would be honest and true to her in all things. For that reason he had told her everything about his first marriage with Osgifu’s sister, Elwyna. He had described a slave that didn’t speak yet somehow managed to start an affair with Elwyna while Godric was away from home. “So this is Dumbun,” she gasped.

Godric finally turned and looked at her. His one eye gleamed dangerously even as his face pleaded with her. “Please, Osgifu. Leave us alone.”

“I can’t do that.”

Godric had tried to adopt a peaceful way of life once he married her, but Osgifu knew certain urges would never go away. It was a miracle Dumbun had survived Godric’s original discovery of the affair in the first place. Her instincts assured her that if she left the room now, she would return to find a dead body.

She turned her attention back to Dumbun. “Is this about my sister?” she asked. “Is Elwyna all right?”

Dumbun bowed his head and shook it slowly.

“Oh God.” Overwhelmed, Osgifu released Edric. “Go outside now,” she bade him. “Do your chores.”

Edric seemed all too happy to obey, for by doing so he could flee his father’s wrath as well as the strange man standing near the doorway. He scurried outside and vanished.

“You look nearly starved,” said Osgifu to Dumbun. “Why don’t you take a seat and I’ll get you some bread.”

Dumbun made a slight movement toward the table, his desperation apparent. Then Godric pounced. He grabbed Dumbun’s shoulders while jabbing upwards with his knee. He struck Dumbun deep in the belly, then shoved him to the floor. A little groan escaped the slave’s throat as he dropped, his body as limp as a puppet with its strings cut.

“This man does not get to eat at my table,” snarled Godric. Then his hand curled into a fist. He crouched to land another blow.

“Godric, no! This is about my sister!” Osgifu’s hands on Godric’s back were the only successful deterrent from further violence. He stopped and turned to look at her, eyes blazing with rage he could not restrain. But the longer he stared at Osgifu, the more his anger faded. “If he can’t eat at the table,” she said, “then he will eat outside.”

Godric’s tension unwound beneath her touch. His hand uncurled and fell to his side. He closed his eyes, as if to stop himself from looking at Dumbun, while he stood and turned away.

“I want him gone before noon.” Godric’s voice was weak with defeat. “Or I’ll get rid of him myself.”

*

After several attempts to communicate with Dumbun, Osgifu sympathized with Godric’s urge to bludgeon the man to death. She knew that Dumbun could make sounds with his throat, so why didn’t he speak? She prayed that God would give her patience as she fed Dumbun bread, gave him a warm seat near the outdoor kitchens, and tried to pull information from him.

Osgifu regretted agreeing to take Dumbun outside. The winter chill hung heavily in the air, and to make matters worse, a fog had rolled in to choke the sunshine. Frost remained glittering on the grass well into mid-morning. Even when Osgifu lit a fire, Dumbun kept trembling as if the cold had settled deep in his bones. She gave him a blanket and tried to think of some new way to learn his message.

Finally, she worked up the courage to ask him the most pertinent question. “Is Elwyna alive?”

Dumbun nodded.

A small surge of relief rewarded Osgifu, though her stomach remained knotted with fear. “Is she ill?”

He shook his head.

“So … she is in some sort of trouble?”

Nod.

“Do the two of you need money?”

He hesitated. Without affirming or denying this, he looked pointedly to the heavens, then clasped his hands together as if praying. Then he brushed his forehead, rippling his fingers like water.

“She needs the mercy of God.”

Dumbun nodded fervently.

Elwyna felt ridiculous, but at least this method of questioning had begun to yield results. “Has she done something? Has she committed a crime?”

He lowered his head sorrowfully, then nodded.

“How bad is this crime? Theft? Cheating?” No response. “Murder?

Another nod.

“Dear God.” Osgifu made the sign of the cross. “Whom did she kill?”

Dumbun considered how to respond. Then he grabbed his scraggly locks of hair and pulled them upward. He scraped his other hand up the back of his skull, as if shaving the hair from it.

“A Norman!” It seemed too horrible to be true. But why else would Dumbun come all this way and dare showing his face to Godric? “Do they have her? Will they kill her?”

Nod.

Her mind raced and she paced across the frosty grass as she considered what to do. She certainly did not have the money to pay the werigald of a Norman. Nor would she risk her own neck in some desperate attempt to save her wayward sister. The two of them had not spoken in years. Usually, Osgifu tried her best not to think about Elwyna. But now, knowing that her blood-kin faced death, Osgifu knew that at the very least, she must face her sister once more.

The distant thunder of horse-hooves forced her to make a decision. She looked through the fog and discerned the the shape of two riders approaching; that would be Godric returning with his Danish housecarl, Faran. Faran liked to act and dress like a Viking, even though he had never been one. The two men had gone on an errand while waiting for Osgifu and Dumbun to conclude business.

“You must go.” Osgifu stood and nudged Dumbun frantically. “Meet me at Ethelbert’s church. It’s on the road south of here. I will try go there as soon as I can. Now go!”

Godric surely spotted Dumbun’s figure as it ran off the opposite direction, but he graciously pretended not to. Perhaps a ride through his lands had helped to cool his temper. Godric put his horse in the stables and then made his way towards her. Anxiety wrung Osgifu’s nerves like a dish rag. How much should she tell Godric, if anything? She would have to explain her trip somewhat. But should she tell him about Elwyna? Godric had never been in love with Elwyna; nonetheless, they had been married for about eight years. Surely he deserved to know about her misfortune.

And if he cared about Elwyna’s well-being, then what? Osgifu had resolved to visit her sister. But what lengths might Godric go to if he chose to interfere? Her stomach flipped while considering the responsibilities. Godric had murdered three kings and an archbishop in his time, all without consequence. If he made up his mind to help Elwyna, who knew what he might do?

He seemed to share her anxiety as he approached. Perhaps he feared what she might say as greatly as she feared saying it. They stood at a distance for awhile, letting a silence stretch between them.

“I have to go see my sister,” blurted Osgifu at last. “She’s in trouble. One more visit with her might be my last.”

Godric avoided his wife’s gaze, perhaps to hide his own emotions. “I see.” He ground his teeth. They both waited, for what she didn’t know. A lone bird cawed in the distance. Godric stepped closer, though he still would not look at her. Finally he reached out and gripped her shoulder. “Do you want my help?”

“No.”

He gave one curt nod. She thanked him silently for accepting her decision without debate. “When will you leave?”

“Now, I suppose. Though I suspect I won’t be back until tomorrow.”

“Where will you go?”

She hesitated.

A new edge sharpened his voice. “Will you be in danger?”

“No,” she said quickly, hoping that God forgave her if such a statement was a lie. Walking amongst Normans who held her sister captive for murder would certainly not be “safe.” But if Godric knew that, he would find some way of watching her from afar.

She remembered that Richard’s son, Osbern, had once met Edric at a shire’s court. Both of them young boys at the time, they had played together and enjoyed each other’s company. Perhaps she could change the tone of the situation entirely. “In fact, I’d like to bring Edric with me.”

Edric?

“Yes.” She took a deep breath, determining not to deceive Godric any more than necessary. “I will be going to the castle of Lord Richard FitzScrob.”

“The Norman!

Osgifu nodded calmly. “You have always said he is our ally, as he is King Edward’s. And you may recall that his son Osbern met Edric at the shire court not so long ago. They got along well together.”

“They battered each other with sticks,” Godric growled. Then he sighed with defeat. “But they did seem to enjoy it.”

Osgifu reached up and brushed Godric’s cheek with her fingers. “Trust me, Godric. I can handle this situation.”

She felt Godric’s jaw clenching under her touch. “I don’t want Edric to meet Elwyna.”

“If he does, he’ll know only that she’s my sister.” She realized her hands were trembling and she worried that Godric would notice. She fell forward into the warmth of her husband’s arms. “I love you,” she whispered.

His lips brushed her hair. “I love you, too.” His hands gripped her firmly.

*

Edric was very excited to travel to Richard’s castle and see young Lord Osbern again. However, he sensed the graveness of his task when Osgifu explained Elwyna’s predicament, and he proved a quiet riding companion.

At Ethelbert’s church, Osgifu spoke once more to Dumbun and verified Elwyna’s location. By then the courage she had shown to Godric was fading, and her dread nearly overwhelmed her. She felt as if she would walk straight into the enemy’s nest by visiting Richard’s castle. But she nodded with resolve and asked the priest to pray for Elwyna. Dumbun would stay at the church, for Osgifu suspected his presence would only bring trouble. Osgifu and Edric would make haste to Richard’s castle, if only so Osgifu could say her goodbyes. What she might do after that, she didn’t know.

Before she left the church, she knelt by the altar and prayed.

She had asked little of God over the last few years. Ever since she broke her vows at the abbey and ran off to marry Godric, she felt as if she did not deserve to request God’s help. Sometimes, she consoled herself with the possibility that God had always intended for her to marry Godric. At the time, she believed with complete certainty that she made a righteous decision. She felt that if God had given her this life to save anyone, that person was Godric, who needed her love more than anyone on earth. And Godric was undoubtedly a man of significance. His blade had shaped the fates of several countries, though many people would never learn his name. And if not for her, he might have shaped them further. She wanted to believe that because of her union with Godric, he had learned the power of forgiveness and put away his axe forever.

She didn’t always convince herself of her own righteousness, however. So while she continued to show her devotion to God whenever she got the chance, she rarely dared to impose upon Him. Now, for the sake of her sister, she did so.

“Dear Holy Father, who saved Daniel from the lion’s den, please show compassion for Elwyna, who is in dire need of forgiveness. Please free her from the Normans and end the cycle of hate if you can find it in your will to do so. Amen.”

Once she finished, Osgifu and Edric rode for Richard’s castle.

When Osgifu first glimpsed the walls of the structure, she thought it may not be so different from any other Anglo-Saxon stronghold. Then she saw the large mound of earth rising up from the middle of the monstrosity. She watched slaves carrying rocks and glimpsed the breadth of the space within the walls, like its own little town. She wondered how all of this would look once set with stones, especially the man-made hill that seemed like the foundation of something gigantic. She feared that when all the pieces came together, the castle would truly be a sight to behold.

“So this is a castle?” Edric’s blue eyes glittered with wonder.

“It certainly will be,” Osgifu murmured.

She crossed a wooden bridge over a deep, gaping ditch. Her horse stirred anxiously beneath her. They approached a large gatehouse, and though unfinished, it looked quite imposing. Stones and white mortar comprised the bottom walls and led up to a second floor towering over the walls.

A Norman guard stepped forward to bar their passage.

Osgifu dismounted and motioned for Edric to do the same, hoping this would make them look less intrusive. She pet her horse’s neck with calming strokes. “Good day to you. I am Osgifu, daughter of the deceased thegn Lindsey, wife of Thegn Godric Eadricson. I am here to see my sister, Elwyna.”

The Norman did not seem to recognize any of the names she threw at him, but he must have determined that she was a woman of some significance. He scratched his head, then said, “Un moment.

He left and came back with another Norman, perhaps of higher rank. The man had short brown hair, but Elwyna suspected it was longer than most Normans’, who usually trimmed the back of the skull as close to the skin as possible. Soft brown locks fell long enough to frame this man’s eyes, which looked at her with the smallest hint of friendliness.

“I am Sir Ralph,” he said. “You say you’re here to see Elwyna?”

“Yes.”

Ralph looked down at her companion. “And this is …?”

“My son, Edric. He’s acquainted with Osbern FitzRichard.”

“Oh is he?” Ralph nodded. “You’ll have to leave any weapons here at the gate. Then you may follow me.”

“Thank you.”

After all the rumors she’d heard about Normans, Osgifu could not help but worry that she would never again see the weapons they handed over. Nonetheless, Ralph’s request was reasonable, so she complied and convinced Edric to give up his little seax. They followed Ralph through the gates.

The inner grounds looked especially desolate to Osgifu. Due to all the construction, the earth was lifeless and uneven, prodding her sharply through her thin leather boots. Filthy Anglo-Saxons looked over at her from their work on the walls, their shoulders hunched from the back-breaking labor. She wondered what they had done to deserve this fate, if anything.

She wondered if it had been a mistake to bring Edric when she saw the look on his face. The state of the laborers seem to shock and even frighten him.

She did not yet see her sister, but she realized with a mixture of joy and dismay that she recognized some of the workers. Several of them had worked the lands around the Abbey of Saint Mary’s which she briefly supervised as abbess. They were kind and honest folk, and it warmed her heart to see them again, though she regretted the circumstances. She had not bothered to visit many of her old friends and acquaintances after she left the abbey, for she had felt too ashamed for breaking her vows. Her guilt would only deepen if she ignored them now.

“Excuse me,” she said to the knight leading her. “May I say hello to someone briefly?”

“Eh?” Ralph didn’t look very pleased with the fact that she knew some of the slaves. But she gave him an innocent smile, and after a moment, he nodded.

Osgifu made her way to a section of the walls where men and women were scooping shale from the ditches and then carrying it to the motte.

“Alfwaru?”

The woman looked up with eyes that feared some sort of reprimand or bad news. She was younger than Osgifu, but her back sagged with exhaustion, and harsh conditions had made her skin splotched and weathered. Osgifu stared back at her in silence, trying to hide a reaction of disgust.

“Abbess Osgifu?”

To Osgifu’s profound relief, Alfwaru said her name not with dismay, but happiness. A smile pulled at her cheeks and made her dark eyes sparkle. She stepped forward to embrace Osgifu. Then she remembered herself, and her fleeting joyfulness faded away.

“Alfwaru, it is so good to see you again,” said Osgifu hastily. “Though I wonder how you ended up here, working on the Norman’s castle? Do you still live in that little cabin next to the brook?” She tried to phrase the question gently, but she could not ignore the truth.

Alfwaru bowed her head grimly. “St Mary’s Abbey was never the same after you left. The next abbess was incompetent. We had sick livestock and bad crops. The abbess lost money and sold some of her lands back to the king—including the cabin where my husband and I lived. We were already in a poor state, and once we had to start paying taxes …”

The woman lost her will to say the rest. Osgifu reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Alfwaru. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Of course, Abbess. You can pray for me.”

Osgifu’s throat tightened. “I’m not an abbess anymore, Alfwaru.”

“Maybe not. But you’re still Osgifu, the woman with the purest heart I’ve ever known.

Osgifu could hardly explain the sensation of solace that washed suddenly over her, as if a burden lifted from her shoulders she hadn’t even known was there. Today, she had finally worked up the courage to ask for something from God. Now, another person requested her voice of entreaty. God seemed to be telling her, ever so gently, that he would listen to Osgifu’s prayers, and Elwyna wasn’t the only person that needed them.

“I will pray for you,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper at first. Then she looked up and saw that several more Anglo-Saxons were looking at her. “I’ll pray for all of you!”

“God bless Lady Osgifu of Saint Mary’s!” cried Alfwaru.

“God bless you, Lady.”

“God bless you.”

Osgifu did not know how to react to the people suddenly smiling and bowing their heads to her, or looking to her with hope. She hoped her face did not betray the fear she felt—fear that she might somehow let them down.

She became all too aware of the presence of Ralph looming nearby, his boots creaking in the dirt as he shifted his weight, the shadow of his sword casting a line across the rocks. When she turned to look at him, he had his arms crossed over his chest and a heavy frown on his face.

“Finished?” he asked.

“Yes. Thank you.”

She fell in step next to Ralph and Edric once more. Edric was as quiet as Osgifu had ever seen him and she wondered what thoughts ran through his mind. His reaction to the castle seemed a combination of admiration and disgust. Ralph led them to a dining hall near the large hill of dirt, then showed them inside.

She expected to come face to face with Richard FitzScrob, lord of the castle. She knew he was a very tall man that walked on crooked feet. But instead she saw young Osbern, perhaps only twelve or thirteen years old, sitting proudly at the head of the table. Next to him sat an older gentleman wearing a long tunic and sword. On the table, candles flickered amongst fresh bowls of steaming pottage. “I am Osbern FitzRichard,” said the boy, even as he wiped his greasy mouth. Osgifu struggled to interpret his accented English. “My father is busy. Can I help you with something?”

“Hello Osbern. It is nice to meet you formally. Perhaps you remember my son, Edric?”

Osbern stared curiously at the nine-year-old beside her. Edric blinked back with wide, gaping eyes.

“Oh yes.” Osbern sneered. “I remember besting you in a stick-fight.”

Edric’s fists clenched, and at last he found his voice. “You were a lot bigger than me!” Osgifu smiled. She could still sense a boyish camaraderie between the two of them. But Osbern was still a lot bigger than Edric.

“Perhaps you should have accounted for that before challenging me to a game,” retorted Osbern. Then he sat up in his chair, eager to prove himself further.

Osgifu bowed her head. “Thank you for seeing us, Osbern. As you may recall, I am Osgifu, wife of Thegn Godric Eadricson. Unfortunately, the woman accused of murder, Elwyna, is my sister. I wish to see her.”

“No,” said Osbern. “You may go now.” He returned to eating his stew, the slightest leer of triumph on his lips.

Osgifu fought against a rising wave of despair. Perhaps bringing Edric had been a bad idea. Osbern wished to show off in front of him. Desperately, she caught the gaze of the man sitting next to Osbern. He stared back with an expression of fear and surprise.

“Thegn Godric?” asked the older man. “Son of Eadric Streona?”

“Eadric Streona?” echoed Ralph.

Osgifu nodded.

Qui?” said Osbern.

Ignoring him, the man gulped and rose unsteadily to his feet. “I am Sir Fulbert. The man your sister killed was my squire, Drogo. But I did not think the girl had any family other than her dumb brother.”

Dumb brother? Osgifu wondered just how many lies her sister was telling these days. “I imagine she did not want myself or my husband involved.” She sensed Fulbert’s anxiety and wondered how deeply it ran. Godric had gotten away with his crimes because they remained secret until they no longer mattered. Once Edward became king, a few people suspected Earl Goodwin’s involvement in the death of Harald Harefoot. The son of Canute had been found in a river with his head severed from the neck. From there, one could easily draw the connection to Godric, whom Goodwin had hired for the job. One might also connect Eadric Streona’s murder of Edmund Ironside with a trap to the little boy he had brought with him to Oxford—once again, Godric. Osgifu suspected that anyone who bothered to speculate on the deaths of several recent kings might suspect Godric’s involvement.

To further mystify Godric’s identity, he had once claimed to be the son of Thorkell the Tall before confessing that he was the bastard son of Eadric Streona. Eadric Streona was quickly becoming the most notorious traitor in recent history. Thorkell the Tall was remembered as one of the mightiest Jomsvikings the world had ever seen. No matter which version of Godric’s story one believed, the name of either father sent fear straight to people’s hearts.

Osgifu wished that she could make Godric’s past disappear. She certainly didn’t want to go stirring it up again. She resisted the urge to push these men’s fear of Godric further to her advantage. But she did not bother dispelling it. “I see no reason to involve my husband, either,” she said. “Unless there has been some sort of misunderstanding here. Can you explain to me how you came to suspect Elwyna of a crime?”

“I left her alone with Drogo in that little cabin of hers around sunset,” said Fulbert hoarsely. “She came out after nightfall and said that he had gone into a fit, collapsed, and died. But I’ve known Drogo for years. He was a healthy young man.”

“What reason would Elwyna have to kill him?” asked Osgifu.

Fulbert turned pale and didn’t answer.

The young lord Osbern looked around the room in puzzlement. “This is not court,” said Osbern. Then, to Sir Fulbert, “Is it?”

Sir Fulbert sank into his chair and stared grimly into the table.

“In that case, when will she get a trial?” Osgifu demanded.

Ralph stepped forward. “Soon enough. Lord Richard has been very busy. But he has shown considerable mercy to Elwyna by giving her work on the castle and feeding her in the meantime.”

“For that, I am grateful.” She also felt increasingly suspicious. “Now may I speak to her?”

“I said no!” snapped Osbern. “What if this one can do sorcery like her sister?”

“I assure you that’s not true,” said Osgifu. “In fact, I used to be an abbess.”

Fulbert and Ralph exchanged wary glances. Sir Fulbert said something to the young lord in Norman. Then the three of them argued briefly in their native tongue.

Osgifu waited anxiously. The discussion grew more heated, but she took comfort in the fact that Osbern seemed to be losing the fight. Finally, he declared in English, “Let them talk if you’re so determined. But if anything goes wrong, it’s your fault!”

He stood up, snorted loudly, and then stormed towards the door. For a young teenager, the thud of his boots—especially the one that dragged with a limp—sounded successfully intimidating. Nonetheless, Osgifu inwardly rejoiced. “Thank you, my lord.” She glanced curiously at Edric. “Perhaps the two of you would like to catch up in the meantime?”

Osbern scoffed, though Osgifu detected a flare of temptation in his gaze. “I have no time for child’s games.”

“Then perhaps you could show Edric around the castle?” She looked to her son. “Would you like that?”

Edric’s face lit up at the thought. “I would very much like that.”

“Very well,” said Osbern. He failed to hide the excitement in his own face. “Come with me, then.”

Osgifu turned to Ralph.

“This way,” said the knight with a sigh.

*

The Normans kept Elwyna tied up outside the stables when she was not hard at work on their castle. But even as Ralph led Osgifu closer, she did not immediately recognize the mud-sodden woman crouching on the dirt, her wrists worn bloody from ropes. So much dirt caked the prisoner’s hair that only upon close study did Osgifu see the golden-red strands winding down her shoulders. Her dress was ripped and unraveling, baring an unseemly amount of skin to any curious bystander. The gaps in her clothing also revealed the boniness of her frame, flesh practically sunken onto bone.

Osgifu stared deeply into the down-turned face, the little bumped nose, and the long red lashes. Only then did her mind connect this dirty shell of a woman to the spirited girl who had once been her sister. Without warning, sobs rose up to choke her throat. Tears pricked her eyes and she fell to her knees beside her sister.

“Oh, Elwyna!”

She wrapped her arms around the bony form and cried helplessly. Never would she have expected this sort of reaction from herself. Over the last few years, she had convinced herself that Elwyna deserved her fate as an adulteress living in exile. She had also forced herself to believe that Elwyna might have found some sort of peace living beyond the normal boundaries of society. Now she realized that had all been a daydream she indulged in order to deal with her own crushing guilt. It had been Osgifu’s fault that Godric had committed to marrying one of Lindsey’s daughters. And it had been Osgifu’s fault that Godric married Elwyna instead of Osgifu, the woman he loved, because Osgifu had run off to a nunnery. At the time, it had seem like a righteous and self-less decision. But in truth, she had never stopped to think how she would affect the lives of people who cared about her before making such a significant choice.

As if aware of the same truths, Elwyna did not respond for awhile, merely endured the weight of her sister’s sorrow. Then at last she leaned against Osgifu, returning the embrace in the only way possible with her arms bound behind her.

Osgifu pulled back and looked Elwyna in the eyes. Despite the condition of her body, Elwyna’s eyes blazed with vigor. “Why have you come here, Osgifu?”

“I needed to see you!” For a moment Osgifu was embarrassed by her own tears, by her own need validate that Elwyna’s situation was not entirely Osgifu’s fault. Perhaps her hidden guilt had largely contributed to this venture. She wanted to believe that Elwyna experienced some joy at the sight of her older sister. But perhaps Osgifu’s presence only brought her pain.

She heard the sound of Ralph shuffling in the dirt behind her, and she wished desperately that the Norman knight would leave her alone so she could speak to her sister in privacy. Perhaps it was too late for that. Too late for Osgifu to apologize for everything that had gone wrong.

So Osgifu took a breath and tried to contain her emotions. She attempted to focus only on how to move forward, rather than how to evaluate the past. She should not try to obtain privacy with Elwyna for the sake of having a heart-felt discussion. As Godric himself would say, what was done was done. But perhaps she should try to be alone with Elwyna for another reason.

“I need to speak privately with my sister.” Osgifu turned her tearful eyes toward Ralph.

“I can’t let you do that.” He looked aside to help harden his resolve.

“I understand that you must keep watch over us,” said Osgifu. “I only ask that you get far enough away that you cannot hear us. I want to hear my sister’s version of what happened, and I worry that she will not tell me everything if you stand listening.”

Ralph sighed. “Very well.” He made his way across the grounds. Osgifu watched all the while, and when she was satisfied, she nodded. The knight stopped far beyond the stables, where he could see but not hear her.

Osgifu turned back around and spoke before Elwyna had the chance. “If you really killed this man Drogo, I don’t want you to tell me. I don’t want that on my conscience. But I want you to tell me everything else.”

Elwyna scowled at her. “Why does it matter to you what I’ve been through?”

Osgifu tried to ignore the sting of that question. “I think I might be able to help.”

“It’s a bit late for you to be helping me, now isn’t it?”

Osgifu did not back down. She glared back at Elwyna and waited stubbornly until the younger woman gave in.

Elwyna sighed and sank back against the wall. “Dumbun and I built a cabin in the woods not too far from here. No one knew we were there until the two Normans came along. They ate our food, used our home like it belonged to them, and Drogo …” Her breath caught. Then she pursed her lips and spat contemptuously, “Drogo seemed to believe he could use me as his own, also.”

Osgifu’s stomach turned cold. “Did he … ?”

Elwyna gave a terse shake of her head. “No. I k—” She realized her mistake and reconsidered her words. “He died before he could go through with it.”

Osgifu shuddered as her own memories threatened to rise to the surface—memories of pain she had endured long ago, but could still sting as if she experienced it only yesterday. She had spent years burying the pain under layers of self-confidence and fortitude. Love and forgiveness had mostly healed the old wound. But never would she forget the feelings of humiliation, futility, and worthlessness that crippled her during and after the moments of her abuse.

“I understand why you might have … wanted to kill him,” said Osgifu. “Though I hope, for the sake of your own soul, that you leave punishment to our Holy Father. Realize that God wants us to forgive our enemies, not strike them back.”

“Or perhaps that’s what you tell yourself,” hissed Elwyna, “in order to deal with what happened to you.”

Osgifu did not reply, did not react. After a long stretch of silence, she wiped the last of her tears and looked away, contemplating the lack of emotions within her. Either Elwyna’s words struck too deeply to acknowledge, or Osgifu had made peace with this possibility long ago, without even realizing it. Whether her ideals of God’s will had been the reason she joined a nunnery after the incident or not, she had come to believe them, and Elwyna’s jab could not touch her.

Watching Osgifu’s calm face, Elwyna wilted. “I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that.”

“Never mind. I still ask that you think about what I’ve said. If I am to to help you, I need to know that your heart is in the right place, first.”

Elywna’s lashes fluttered, afraid to hope. “You still mean to help me? But how …?”

“Elwyna. Do you ask God to forgive you for all your sins? Will you do so every day henceforth?”

The last of Elwyna’s defiance wore away. She sagged in her bonds, staring gloomily into the mud. “I do wish it had all happened differently. When he died, that look on his face … I wonder if he really deserved it.”

This admonition was enough for Osgifu. She reached out and clasped her sister’s arm. “But he died, and in the end, his death was God’s will.”

Elwyna looked back up uncertainly.

“Is it true that Drogo suffered no visible injury? Merely collapsed and died?”

“No visible injury at all. It is why they accused me of sorcery.”

“But I can vouch for you that you’re no sorceress. And as for his death, I think it’s quite clear that God struck him down because of the sin in his heart.”

Elwyna blinked back at her sister in surprise.

*

“How would you know?”

Ralph stood scratching his head, struggling to form a response to Osgifu’s bold proclamation. After speaking to Elwyna, she had walked straight up to him and announced that Drogo had not died at Elwyna’s hands, but God’s. They still stood in the middle of the castle courtyard, far from Ralph’s superiors. Osgifu almost felt guilty that she must take advantage of his kindness by putting him in such an awkward position. But she also knew that God might have placed him in her path for a reason.

“I know my sister,” Osgifu said firmly. “She would never harm another person without cause. And I think one can easily surmise, from the full description of what occurred that day, that she did not harm anyone at all.”

“Drogo’s dead!” Ralph declared, so loudly that he drew the attention of a few laborers nearby. As the sun fell and the sky darkened, most of them put down their tools and sat down to enjoy the last warm rays of sunshine. Now their attention meandered curiously to the red-headed Saxon woman arguing with a Norman knight.

“So he is. But he only has himself to blame.”

“Himself?

“Ask the man with him that day. Ask Sir Fulbert.” Hoping that her arm did not reveal the trembling of her body, Osgifu reached out and pointed. The older knight was walking out of the main hall. At the sight of her, he stopped and stared uncertainly.

Osgifu stood her ground. She remembered how Fulbert had been wary of her. Some of his anxiety came from recognizing the name of her husband. But Osgifu suspected that some fear might have come from his own uncertainty of what had happened the night Drogo died. Perhaps the two factors would combine to form a solution.

Reluctantly, Ralph waved to Sir Fulbert, who promptly walked over and fixed Osgifu with a guarded stare. “Is something wrong?”

“The lady wants to know why Drogo might be blamed for his own death,” said Ralph through gritted teeth.

Quoi?” Fulbert scowled at Osgifu, then launched suddenly into an angry torrent of Norman to his younger companion.

Osgifu did not let it last long. “English!” she yelled. “Unless you have something to hide from the rest of us?”

Her heart was hammering in her chest. She hadn’t planned any of this. Why had she said “us”? She glanced around and saw that many Anglo-Saxons were watching her. Some of them came closer to listen. Some of them whispered to each other, spreading her name. She felt as if power flowed through her, though she couldn’t explain where it came from, or whether she had carried it within herself all along. Either way, she felt as if she swam in a stream with a building current, growing stronger and stronger, and she had little choice but to trust where it led her.

Ralph gulped, noting the tension that had started to gather around them. “Fulbert was telling me that your sister had no right to live in that cabin. She was on Lord Richard’s land without his knowledge. She was lucky that they did not arrest her right away for not paying rent.”

“And I’m sure she lived there before Lord Richard came here.” Osgifu struggled to rein in a surge of anger. She was starting to understand why so many people spoke angrily of the Normans. They behaved as if all Anglo-Saxons were “lucky” the Normans let them do anything at all. “In any case, it seems to me that you have neglected giving her a trial and used her situation to add another laborer to your castle. Let’s not put it off any longer. Let us decide her fate, here and now.”

Sir Fulbert turned very red in the face, but could only make a weak retort. “Lord Richard is absent.”

“Then fetch his son, Osbern.”

Fulbert scoffed. “If it will get you red-headed girls out of my sight, then I will!

As Fulbert stormed away to get the young boy, Osgifu’s stomach turned. She wondered if she had not just done something foolish. The boy had not taken kindly to her and seemed very temperamental. But she trusted her instincts and waited as patiently as she could.

The teenaged lord looked irritated indeed as Fulbert practically dragged him into the courtyard. Edric trailed behind them, scowling. Both he and Osbern seemed agitated. Had the two of them fought together?

“What is going on here?” cried Osbern. Then, to Ralph, “I told you this was your problem!”

Edric hurried over to his mother, then stood next to her with his arms crossed over his chest. Edric and Osbern glared back at each other.

“Yes, my lord.” A wave of red crept up Ralph’s neck. “But we have delayed Elwyna’s trial, and perhaps we should get it over with.”

“In that case, go on and hang her. We already know she killed Drogo.”

A wave of dismay rolled through the gathering crowd. Osgifu felt its strength almost tangibly, and she knew then she had made the right decision by calling for Osbern. His ostentation would be his demise.

“We know nothing of the sort,” she declared. “We know that Sir Fulbert left Drogo and Elwyna alone in a room together. And we know that Drogo died without any visible wounds.”

“Sorcery,” said Osbern.

“I swear to our Lord in heaven that my sister is no sorceress.”

Alfwaru’s voice rose suddenly from the crowd. “And I believe her! Osgifu was once the abbess of Saint Mary’s! She was the most God-blessed woman I ever knew!”

A few voices rose to echo Alfwaru’s.

Osbern glared at them all irritably. “Is this what you call a trial?”

“In Engla-lond, we judge a person based on the merit of those who speak for her.”

“Then you have the word of a Norman knight against the word of a … you.” Osbern waved his hand at her helplessly. Osgifu smothered a flicker of sympathy for the boy. He seemed as if he did not really know what he was doing here, handing out judgment, and he resented his role entirely. Never mind. Osgifu did not particularly want to be here either. But she would do what she must for her sister.

Once again, Osbern’s words worked against him. The voices in favor of Osgifu rose louder. Sir Fulbert glowered darkly, all too aware of his own lack of popularity.

Osgifu knew this was her moment. “And why would Sir Fulbert wish to admit the truth? He left Drogo with Elwyna so that Drogo could force her into bed. He doesn’t want to admit that his companion’s heart had spoiled with sin. For Elwyna had no need to lay a hand upon Drogo. God smote him down as punishment for the greed and lust already poisoning his body!”

The crowd of Anglo-Saxons roared in agreement. Some of them picked up their daily tools and held them high. Anger simmered in their air even as the sun’s warm sunshine faded with its fall.

Osbern shifted nervously. For a moment, his big brown eyes widened with fear. Then his hand twitched at the sword on his hip. His energy shifted from fear to anger. “I’ll tell you how we hold trials in Normandy,” he yelled, loud enough to silence everyone, though his voice screeched slightly. “We judge a person by those who will fight for him!”

Osgifu could not hold back a smile. He had laid a trap for himself even better than any she might have invented. “Do you really want me to bring forth my champion?”

Silence fell over the mud-ridden camp. Osgifu stared calmly back at the Normans while she watched the blood drain from their faces—except for Osbern, who only seemed to grow more puzzled.

“Well then? Who?”

“Don’t do it, my lord.” Fulbert’s voice was hoarse, his shoulders sagging with defeat.

Osbern clearly hated the fact everyone seemed to know something he didn’t, and he only grew angrier. “That’s for me to decide! Who is this champion?”

Ralph gave Osbern an imploring look. He walked closer to the young lord and lowered his voice, though Osgifu could still hear him. “My lord, her husband is Lord Godric Eadricson. He is a dear ally to King Edward, and might have been responsible for his rise to the throne. We should not make him an enemy.”

Osbern’s fingers clenched and unclenched at his sides, his dark eyes glaring at Osgifu until they seemed to bore a hole. But he was running out of arguments.

“It’s not worth it,” added Sir Fulbert. Then, more loudly, “This wench has been of little help to us in building our castle, anyway. She is mostly a drain on our resources.”

This point seemed to sway Osbern more than any other. “Damn right she’s not worth it!” He spat forcefully into the dirt, no doubt as he had seen many older men do to greater effect. “We’ve wasted enough time on this already. The skinny woman’s no use to us. And I doubt she ever could have killed a strong squire such as Drogo, anyway. If God simply chose that moment to take Drogo to heaven, then so be it. Get her out of here, Saxon, if she’s so important to you. But never let her set foot in Father’s lands again, or she will hang!”

Osgifu did not realize how long she had been holding her breath until she finally let it out. There was no resounding applause, no joyous celebration—only a few murmurs of relief. But she knew that she had finally done it. She had helped her sister get another chance. In the meantime, she felt as if she had acquired one of her own.

**

Releasing NEXT (July 24, 2012)—

Young Hereward (later known as “the Wake”) finds out that a Norman castle is being built in Shrewsbury and rides with a group of rowdy boys to cause trouble.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, as compiled by various monks until the year 1140, were my primary sources of information. So, too, were the Chronicles of Florence of Worcester and the Chronicles of the Kings of England as written by William of Malmesbury. Without the devotion of these men to chronicle the chaotic events of their time, so little of the Dark Ages would be known. A full list of sources can be found on the right column of this blog.

Last Tales of Mercia 4: Ralph the Knight

When a fight between a Norman and a Saxon gets out of hand, Sir Ralph must employ the help of a knight named Geoffrey to cover up the unfortunate incident.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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Download Epub, PDF, or Mobi for Kindle

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The ten Last Tales of Mercia are stand-alone short stories featuring real historical figures and characters from the Sons of Mercia series. You may read them independently as quick glimpses into an ancient world, or as a preface to the novel, Edric the Wild. For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.

**

And [the king’s council] declared Archbishop Robert utterly an outlaw, and all the Frenchmen, because they had made most of the difference between Godwin, the earl, and the king.”

—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry For Year 1052

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SHROPSHIRE

1052 A.D.

“To Sir Ralph, the newest knight of Engla-lond!”

A few cheers resounded through the smoky Saxon tavern. Most of the occupants remained quiet, choosing to send sullen looks in Ralph’s direction rather than celebrate. Anglo-Saxons outnumbered Normans here, and Anglo-Saxons did not enjoy watching another Norman gain power. Ralph knew this and even tried to respect the fact. That did not stop him from feeling as if all the world should share in his glory.

He had always hoped to become a knight one day, but today’s promotion had caught him by surprise. Ralph had accompanied Lord Richard FitzScrob and a few other men to confront an Anglo-Saxon family for disobedience. Their son owed Richard labor on the castle, but he had repeatedly fled from his duties—presumably with his parents’ help. Richard FitzScrob and his men had been prepared to punish the family severely. But Ralph surprised everyone by talking with the young fellow, whom he knew from a previous occasion, and convincing him to submit peacefully to Richard’s will. After that, the family had also complied.

Truly enough, Ralph befriended Anglo-Saxons whenever he had the chance, because he saw no reason not to. He liked Engla-lond. He liked meeting men who had once been Vikings; after all, the Normans’ own ancestors were Vikings. He liked the air of independence and freedom that so many English inhabitants exuded, perhaps due to so many years of warfare. The men and women here seemed to serve their lords because they chose freely to do so—or at least they liked to pretend as much. And Ralph liked that about them. He was already starting to grow his hair out like most Saxons and was even considering a beard. He could speak fluid English and only spoke Norman if the occasion demanded.

Lord Richard had been so pleased by Ralph’s negotiations that on the way home, he announced his intention to knight Ralph the next time they visited King Edward—which would be in a fortnight.

“I am happy for you, Ralph.” This from Sir Fulbert, who sat across from Ralph and sipped slowly at some wine. The older man’s eyes wandered suspiciously to the nearby Saxons, as if expecting one of them to jump out and kill him at any moment. Ralph could not blame him. Barely a week ago, Sir Fulbert’s squire, Drogo, had died mysteriously on a scouting trip through the woods. Fulbert claimed that a wild red-headed wench had killed the squire, perhaps by some means of sorcery. The accused woman, Elwyna, had been shackled and put to work at Richard’s castle while awaiting trial. Ralph had caught glimpses of her a couple times and didn’t doubt her guilt. “But don’t grow too accustomed to leniency,” said Fulbert. “It can get you in trouble with these people.”

Ralph shrugged. “I don’t think I’m lenient,” he said. “I’ve just made a lot more friends than the rest of you bastards.”

Some of the men laughed; even Fulbert gave a little smile. The only one who made no response at all was Geoffrey, a knight who had said nothing all evening. Ralph wondered why the man had come out to celebrate in the first place. He rarely spoke, barely drank, and in most ways was Ralph’s opposite. If Lord Richard thought of Ralph as a friend to the Saxons, he probably saw Geoffrey as their most feared enemy. Geoffrey got nearly complete obedience from all of his tenants, purportedly because he terrified them.

Geoffrey’s silence tended to make Ralph uneasy. He wondered how often he would work with this man from now on. The land Ralph would acquire as part of his knighthood lay just next to Geoffrey’s. Ralph decided he should make some attempt to befriend Geoffrey, rather than risk becoming his enemy. “Maybe Geoffrey and I should team up,” he suggested jovially. “Between my charms and Geoffrey’s brutality, we’d be unstoppable.”

Geoffrey looked up from his ale—mostly untouched—and stared back at Ralph with flat golden eyes. Then he gave Ralph a very fake smile.

A few of the men laughed uncertainly.

“I think Richard picked you because you make him look compassionate.” A grumpy squire, no doubt jealous of Ralph’s promotion, managed to break the growing tension. “I hear King Edward will send some Normans home during the next council, never to return. Too many of the king’s Saxon subjects have complained about our presence here.”

“Surely they’re not complaining about Lord FitzScrob.” Ralph said this to assure himself as much as anyone. He also downed a few more gulps of ale to help wash away his fears. He wanted to stay here in Engla-lond, especially now that he would get his own horse and tenants.

“Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be too sure about your knighthood if I were you,” mumbled the jealous squire. “King Edward might not let us stay here, much less put another Norman in a position of power.”

Ralph stared into his horn of ale and tried to think of a new topic of discussion.

Sir Fulbert came to his rescue. “Have you looked for a wife yet? A proper Saxon woman might secure your place here.”

“That’s true.” This subject brought a smile back to Ralph’s face. He looked beyond the circle of Normans and surveyed his nearest options. “Might as well get started, eh?”

The men cheered him on appreciatively as he rose to leave the table.

He breathed a sigh of relief once away from his Norman companions. He liked them well enough, but more and more often he preferred English company to theirs. And he certainly didn’t mind the prospect of beginning the search for a woman—though he had no intention of choosing a wife yet.

A few seated women looked lonely enough for him to attempt entertaining, but a serving wench grabbed his attention, for she seemed in need of a hero. A large man had hold of the woman’s hand and did not appear willing to release it. The woman tugged a few times; she carried a pitcher of wine with her other hand and this limited her movement. But the large Saxon kept hold of her, leering and talking while she tried not to listen.

“Excuse me,” said Ralph. “I think the lady wants you to let go of her.”

Both the woman and the man blinked at him in surprise. Ralph hoped his Norman accent did not make him too difficult to understand. He gave his warmest smile to the woman, though she looked a little older and less attractive this close than she had from afar. A quick study of her curvy body assured him that she would still be worth the effort.

“And who are you to say?” The Saxon man’s sneer appeared as a streak of brown teeth amidst his thick beard.

“Merely a concerned citizen.”

“No you’re not. You’re a fucking Norman.” The Saxon worked up a mouthful of spit, then flung it upon the floor.

Ralph stared in disgust at the blob for a moment, struggling to contain his temper. Then he altered his stance slightly so that his hand draped almost casually over the pommel of his sword, making the weapon the most prominent trait of his figure. “I am a knight in the service of Lord Richard FitzScrob.”

“Well then, knight.” The Saxon’s grip on the woman tightened. “Maida and I know each other.”

Ralph looked to the woman, Maida, for confirmation. Her big brown eyes sparked with anger as she scowled at the Saxon. “I may know Seaver,” she hissed, “but that doesn’t mean I like him.”

Maida looked even prettier when she was angry. Ralph grinned and turned back to Seaver. “Looks like you should let go of her now.”

“You can’t tell me what to do!” Then Seaver twisted in his chair and kicked Ralph in the shin.

The strike caught Ralph by such surprise that for a moment he did nothing but hiss and absorb the pain. When he realized what the Saxon scoundrel had done, he reacted without thinking. He reached out, grabbed Seaver’s hair, and slammed his face into the table. (more…)

Last Tales of Mercia 2: Richard the Norman

When King Edward calls on his allies for military support, the Norman lord Richard FitzScrob must take drastic measures to make his Saxon subjects obedient.

Written by Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

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Download Epub, PDF, or Mobi for Kindle

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The ten Last Tales of Mercia are stand-alone short stories featuring real historical figures and characters from the Sons of Mercia series. You may read them independently as quick glimpses into an ancient world, or as a preface to the novel, Edric the Wild. For more news and updates on the Sons of Mercia series, visit www.jaydenwoods.com.

**

Whereupon [Goodwin] began to gather forces over all his earldom, and Earl Sweyne, his son, over his; and Harold, his other son, over his earldom: and they assembled all in Gloucestershire, at Langtree, a large and innumerable army, all ready for battle against the king; unless Eustace and his men were delivered to them handcuffed, and also the Frenchmen that were in the castle.

—The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry For Year 1051

LUDLOW, SHROPSHIRE

September 1051 A.D.

“I am very sorry, my lord,” mumbled the vassal. “But I’ll have the rent for you next week, once we have finished storing the harvest.”

Richard FitzScrob twisted his gloves with his large hands, finding the fabric more useful as a casualty of his anger than protection from the autumn chill. He would have much preferred venting some of his rage upon this hapless churl who most deserved it. Dougal was a so-called “free-man,” according to the Anglo-Saxon custom, which meant he could own land and entertain his own life beyond the limited duties he owed his landlord. But again and again the tenant had fallen short of his responsibilities to Lord Richard, such as maintaining the fences for Richard’s livestock or giving alms to the church on Richard’s estate. Now, for the first time, Dougal had failed to fulfill his single-most important liberty as a churl: paying rent.

Richard shifted in his chair, thinking it would be nice to stand and loom over the kneeling Saxon. Then he remembered that his crooked feet ached quite acutely today. He glanced at one of his squires, Ralph, to step forward and loom in his place. The young Norman was a promising warrior who wore chainmail on a regular basis and had a way of standing that thrust out the pommel of his sword and made it the most noticeable trait of his figure. The squire walked forward, making his feet thunder on the floorboards even though he was not a particularly large man, and assumed the proper pose. Ralph even rested his hand on the hilt of his weapon in a way that made him look both casual and battle-ready at once.

The Saxon churl gulped and grew a notch paler. This response satisfied Richard, who overcame his rage enough to speak with a low, calm candor. “I feel I have been rather lenient with you,” said the landlord, “in an attempt to make up for my ignorance as a foreigner.” Dougal frowned a little, straining to listen, and Richard realized this must be due to the thickness of Richard’s Norman accent. Richard gritted his teeth with frustration, then raised his voice a few notches, even though this did nothing to solve the problem. “But now I think I understand your English customs well enough to say that you have abused the privileges of your freedom and therefore we should change our arrangement.”

“Please, my lord—!”

Ralph shifted slightly, just enough to remind the Saxon of his presence, which effectively shut Dougal’s mouth. But a flare of anger lit the Saxon’s eyes, and Richard recognized it immediately for its true nature. What Dougal hated more than anything was not his personal misfortune. He hated that he paid his dues to a Norman lord who had only lived in Engla-lond for a few years. He silently believed the Normans were common bullies who did not deserve their high station—just as all of Richard’s native tenants assumed.

Richard sighed, regretting the tone that this conversation had so quickly adopted. “Listen, Dougal. I want to be fair to you. Here is what I propose. You are what is known as a geneat—do I say that correctly?”

Dougal nodded glumly.

“To take care of your rent, we can change your status to a kotsetla.” Richard desperately searched his brain for all the legalities tied to this position. “You will no longer pay rent. Instead you will work for me whenever I require you. Right now, as there is still some work left to do from the harvest, I will want you here three days a week. I will either have you work in the field, or the stables; I will even let you choose which you prefer. Throughout the year, you will always work for me at least one day a week. And this service will replace your rent.”

The look of shock on the Saxon’s face pleased Richard. Surely Dougal was astounded by Richard’s kindness. Surely he would thank Richard for overlooking his past mistakes and giving him work to do, even though he had demonstrated poor skills in the past. In truth, working on Richard’s estate would give him a chance to improve his own skills, especially if he worked in the stables. The Anglo-Saxons were far behind the Normans in most crafts, but especially the training of horse-flesh.

Richard thought with certainty that these were the thoughts going through Dougal’s mind. But then he got a shock of his own. The Saxon stood up and yelled, “My land will be my own one day! You won’t take it away from me!”

Before the rage struck, Richard reeled in a state of bewilderment. “Quoi?

Tears actually glittered in Dougal’s eyes. “I will work my own land. I will nurture it and I will buy it someday. I will become a thegn like my father before me and—”

“For God’s sake!” Richard wanted to stand and knock this churl’s teeth out. Dougal wanted to work his “own” land? Land that belonged to Richard? Land that had been granted to him from King Edward himself? His hands raked the table so harshly he felt a splinter thrust into his palm. Sensing his mood, Ralph grabbed the hilt of his sword. This was just enough to help Richard stay his temper a little bit longer. He clenched his jaws so hard his head ached, but he managed to hiss through his teeth, “I will give you one more week to pay your rent, plus a little extra for being late. Work it out with my reeve, Bartholomew, before you go home. But if you can’t pay, I expect you to be here, working in my fucking stables!

“Yes, my lord. Yes, yes. I’ll pay you next week. I will.” At last, a cloud of humility softened Dougal’s gaze, though it was not enough to abate Richard’s wrath. He only sent Dougal to work out the details with Bartholomew because if he looked at Dougal’s filthy face much longer, he might pummel it into the floorboards. Dougal must have sensed this, for he finally bowed low and shuffled out of the hall.

Richard sat there a long while, breathing heavily through his nose, clenching the wooden table with his fingers. Ralph waited quietly by, fidgeting a little, for as long as he could endure the silence.

“Well, my lord,” quipped the squire, “I think you handled that surprisingly well. Soon they’ll be calling you Richard the merciful!”

Ralph’s attempts at optimism did not always work on Richard; sometimes, they stoked his anger to the blazing point. But unexpectedly, Richard found himself nodding with agreement, the ball of anxiety in his stomach uncoiling. “I hope that is the case,” he replied. “I hope they will see that I am not the tyrant they imagine me to be.”

“Sure, as long as this Dougal fellow doesn’t fuck up his chance at redemption.” (more…)