‘Latina Authors and Their Muses,’ edited by Mayra Calvani


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Official paperback release date: December 15, 2015

Editor’s Preface

“To be an artist includes much; one must possess many gifts-absolute gifts-which have not been acquired by one’s own effort. And, moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul.”

“What do you mean by the courageous soul?”

“Courageous, ma foi! The brave soul. The soul that dares and defies.”

from The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

In 2005 Carmen Dolores Hernández, book review editor at El Nuevo Día newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, came to visit Brussels. She’d published some of my short stories and novel excerpts in Revista Domingo in the past, and I deeply admired her wisdom as a writer and woman of letters.

I invited her and her husband to my home for dinner, and over wine and various Turkish dishes (my husband is Turkish, and Carmen had expressed her love for this cuisine), we chatted late into the night about writing, books, and authors. She mentioned the anthology she had put together back in 1997, Puerto Rican Voices in English, a vibrant collection of interviews with fourteen of the most prominent Puerto Rican writers living in the United States-including, by the way, Esmeralda Santiago, who so graciously agreed to take part in this project.

Soon after Carmen returned to Puerto Rico, I ordered a copy of Puerto Rican Voices, and became absorbed by the candor and insight of the authors as they talked about their backgrounds, books, and writing. More than fascinated, I became fixated. I asked myself, wouldn’t it be cool to put together a similar anthology showcasing Latina authors writing in English in the United States? An inspirational, entertaining, and informative tome focusing on the craft of writing andthe practical business of publishing, one that would provide aspiring authors with the nuts and bolts of the business. A book that would not only showcase prominent figures but emerging voices as well, writers working on a wide range of genres from the literary to the commercial. After all, there’s valuable wisdom at every stage of a writer’s career, and the different genres would provide a wider spectrum to the reader.

By this time I had already started interviewing authors for a variety of online sites and publications. I enjoyed probing into the minds of these authors, and was always able to take away something from them.

But I wasn’t ready for Latina Authors and Their Muses yet. A couple of years passed. The idea simmered as I worked on other projects.

Then, in 2009, I started writing a column focused on Hispanic literature for Examiner.com: National Latino Books Examiner. Over the next few years I had the great fortune of becoming acquainted with a remarkable group of talented Latina authors from various backgrounds writing in different genres, ranging from sweet children’s picture books to darkly sensual vampire novels to fun, humorous chick lit. Talent and a high respect for the craft characterized these ladies, but also a strong connection to their roots and a desire to encourage and support other Latina writers.

In February 2011, I decided to take the plunge and write a proposal. But before I began, I realized I had to contact authors to see if they would be interested in participating. So I began researching and embarked on the painstaking process of emailing the authors individually, describing the project to them. I was thrilled with their initial response:

“Sounds like a wonderfully creative project!”

“I would love to participate in a book that would encourage aspiring Latina writers.”

“What a great idea!”

“I’d be honored!”

Did I mention how much Latina writers like to encourage and support other Latina writers?

Infused with their enthusiasm, I put together a proposal that I eventually sent to fifteen literary agents who had a history of working with Hispanic authors. Within a week I had multiple requests. Eventually, I signed with Leticia Gomez at Savvy Literary. She began the pitching process right away. Unfortunately, although many of the editors loved the concept and deemed it worthy, they were concerned about the marketing aspect of it. How would they market the book? The audience was too niche, too narrow. After a year of waiting and rejections, Leticia kindly let me know she had exhausted her efforts with the top editors.

I wasn’t ready to give up.

In February 2013, I submitted the proposal to my publisher, Lida Quillen of Twilight Times Books, a small traditional press in Kingsport, Tennessee. Soon after, I was offered a contract.

Of course, I was elated. But my work had just begun.

Until then, I had only written the proposal, which included two sample interviews. I still had research to do, and I needed to prepare questionnaires for each author. That was the fun part. The challenging part was keeping myself organized and keeping track of emails, interviews, contributor agreements, photos, etc. I set up a system, which included various lists and logs.

Latina Authors and Their Muses has been a labor of love in every aspect. It has also been a completely selfish project. I wanted to hear what these authors had to say, hoping I wasn’t alone. I wanted to relate to them and learn from them-and learn I have, so very much! In a way, they’ve all become my mentors. For readers, some of the questions may sound repetitive. However, this isn’t from lack of imagination as much as sheer selfishness: I wanted answers to questions that had obsessed me and that I felt inquisitive about (e.g. How does one define success? What does the term “professional author” mean?). I had many a-ha moments from their thoughtful, perceptive responses-exactly what I was after.

In spite of their different backgrounds, education levels, and jobs, two factors more than any others bind these writers together: their passion and commitment to their craft and to sharing their stories with the world in spite of the odds.

Latina Authors and Their Muses is a celebration of creativity, the writer’s life, the passionate quest for spiritual and artistic freedom. I invite you to peek into the courageous souls of these forty women. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey as much as I have.


Interviews with 40 multi-talented Latina Authors

Marta Acosta
Lisa Alvarado
Julia Amante
Margo Candela
Kathy Cano-Murillo
Mary Castillo
Jennifer Cervantes
Leila Cobo
Zoraida Córdova
Lucha Corpi
Sarah Cortez
Angie Cruz
Liz DeJesus
Anjanette Delgado
Carolina De Robertis
Lyn Di Iorio
Teresa Dovalpage
Carolina Garcia-Aguilera
Iris Gomez
Reyna Grande
Rose Guilbault
Graciela Limón
Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa
Diana López
Josefina López
Dora Machado
Maria Gabriela Madrid
Michele Martinez
Sandra Ramos O’Briant
Melinda Palacio
Caridad Piñeiro
Berta Platas
Toni Margarita Plummer
Thelma T. Reyna
Lupe Ruiz-Flores
Esmeralda Santiago
Eleanor Parker Sapia
Alisa Lynn Valdes
Diana Rodriguez Wallach
Gwendolyn Zepeda

ramses and I

About the Editor

Award-winning author Mayra Calvani has penned more than ten books for children and adults in genres ranging from picture books to nonfiction to paranormal fantasy novels. She’s had over 300 articles, short stories, interviews and reviews published in magazines such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal and Bloomsbury Review, among others. A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, she now resides in Brussels, Belgium.

Categories: Inspirational Nonfiction, Non-Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: The Cavalier Spy, by S.W. O’Connelly

thecavalierspy_medTitle: The Cavalier Spy

Genre: Historical

Author: S. W. O’Connell

Website: www.yankeedoodlespies.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Purchase link: http://www.twilighttimesbooks.com/TheCavalierSpy_ch1.html

Amazon / OmniLit 

About the Book:

1776: His army clinging to New York by a thread, a desperate General George Washington sends Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed behind British lines once more. But even the audacity of Creed and his band of spies cannot stop the British juggernaut from driving the Americans from New York, and chasing them across New Jersey in a blitzkrieg fashion. Realizing the imminent loss of one of the new nation’s most important states to the enemy, Washington sends Creed into the war-torn Hackensack Valley. His mission: recruit and train a gang of rogues to work behind British lines.

However, his mission takes a strange twist when the British high command plots to kidnap a senior American officer and a mysterious young woman comes between Creed and his plans. The British drive Washington’s army across the Delaware. The new nation faces its darkest moment. But Washington plans a surprise return led by young Creed, who must strike into hostile land so that Washington can rally his army for an audacious gamble that could win, or lose, the war.

“More than a great spy story… it is about leadership and courage in the face of adversity…The Cavalier Spy is the story of America’s first army and the few… those officers and soldiers who gave their all to a cause that was seemingly lost…”

~ Les Brownlee, former Acting Secretary of the Army and retired Army Colonel

“Secret meetings, skirmishes and scorching battles… The Cavalier Spy takes the reader through America’s darkest times and greatest triumphs thanks to its powerful array of fictional and historical characters… this book shows that courage, leadership and audacity are the key elements in war…”

~ F. William Smullen, Director of National Security Studies at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and Author of Ways and Means for Managing UP


Despite its narrow defeat at the battle of Harlem Heights on September 16th, 1776, Lord William Howe’s army of British and German professionals consolidated its stranglehold on General George Washington’s Continental Army, now firmly entrenched on the high ground at the northern extreme of the Island of New York (Manhattan). As soon as the wind and tide at the treacherous Hellegat (Hell Gate) channel provided an opportunity, Howe, the British general commanding in North America, launched a series of amphibious landings along the coast of the Bronx. His goal was to threaten the American line of supply from Westchester to New England. An initial thrust at The Frog’s (Throg’s) Neck on October 12th was stopped by a few regiments of expertly positioned American riflemen. This forced the British re-embark and land farther north, at a place called Pell’s Point.

Washington maneuvered his forces a few miles north to block Howe. However, Howe’s maneuver forced Washington to withdraw. He moved his army north along the Bronx River positioning it in the central Westchester hills to protect his line of supply to New England and New Jersey.

On the 28th of October, Howe launched a surprise attack on the Americans, whom he caught before they could properly position themselves near the village of White Plains. Despite the small tactical victory achieved against the Americans, Howe once again failed to exploit his success. Instead, he turned south and moved to invest Fort Washington, a powerful defensive position at the northern end of the Island of New York, otherwise known as Manhattan.

Washington realized that he would have to abandon the Island of New York before the British could trap the American defenders there. However, his most capable officer, Brigadier General Nathaniel Greene, convinced him that Fort Washington could still be defended with a few thousand men, allowing the rebels to maintain a foothold on the island. Although conflicted, Washington finally acceded to Greene’s suggestion. He left the small garrison to fend for itself and moved the remainder of the army across the North River to the highlands of New Jersey.

Howe now had the initiative and all the advantages of eighteenth century warfare: interior lines; control of the waters; and overwhelming force. Washington’s strategy now was to avoid defeat, keep his army intact, and continue to threaten the British while maintaining communications between New England and the Middle Atlantic states. The erstwhile “war of posts” had also become a war of waiting… but waiting for what?

Chapter 1 

Harlem Heights, New York, September 1776

Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed slept fitfully. It was that sleep which comes when one is far past being overtired, and one’s best efforts result in a certain numbness of both mind and body. The young officer’s bed was a makeshift pile of pine needles with a piece of canvas tenting spread across them. The canopy of orange and red leaves from a tall oak tree provided protection from the heat of the morning sun, this being a particularly warm Indian summer. Creed rested his head on his saddle, which, covered by a worn gray woolen blanket, formed his pillow. Not far away, his horse, a light brown gelding named Finn, nibbled at the sweet autumn grass on the gentle hillside. While Creed slept, Privates Jonathan Beall and Elias Parker, Creed’s companions and members of his very small command, had cooked a batch of dough balls in a small pan of used bacon grease. To them, the smell and crackle of the meager repast had the makings of a great feast. For the last three days, they had nothing to eat but hard tack biscuits and deer jerky purchased from one of the many suttlers that supplemented the Continental Army’s woeful commissariat. During that time, Creed and his men had been constantly on patrol or in combat. Their ordeal ended with the burial of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, leader of the elite ranger unit to which they had been attached during the battle for Harlem Heights.

After Knowlton’s simple burial, a saddened Creed had a confrontation with Colonel Robert Fitzgerald, the commander-in-chief’s intelligence advisor. Officially just another of Washington’s many staff officers, Fitzgerald assisted Washington in one of the most critical of matters facing the army: figuring out what the British would do while also cloaking American actions from the British. This was no easy feat, as there was no American intelligence service to speak of. Washington took a personal interest in such things, both for reasons of security and practicality. However, the commander-in-chief had many other issues facing him and relied on his advisor to attend to all but the most sensitive matters. Fitzgerald worked tirelessly to establish a system of intelligence and counterintelligence that was less dependent on leadership from the headquarters. But when young Lieutenant Jeremiah Creed asked to return to normal service with his regiment, the First Maryland Continental Line, the outcome was never in doubt. Fitzgerald, over a strange combination of whiskey and chess, convinced Creed to become the first official intelligence officer in the Continental Army.

“So, Elias, do we have any salt left? We should really try to add some flavor,” Jonathan Beall spoke sarcastically.

Meager and humble as the concoction was, the smell of the dough balls crackling in the bacon fat was driving him wild.

“I added the last crumbs of burnt bacon to the mix so there will be flavor enough for the likes of you, but I will gladly take your portion if it is too bland for your mountain boy’s taste!” Elias Parker laughingly replied.

After weeks of campaigning and more than a few life and death experiences, the two were closer than brothers. But like brothers, they chided each other mercilessly when not covering each other’s back. Both men were in their mid-twenties and sturdily built. Beall came from a small farm town in the Maryland piedmont, a place called Frederick, situated at the edge of the verdant Catoctin Mountains. Parker, partly of Indian extraction, was a waterman from fishing stock in Maryland’s tidewater region.

“Should we wake Lieutenant Creed yet?” Beall asked, although he already knew the answer.

“Seeing as every time we wake him it leads to a patrol or some other comfortless duty I would say no,” Parker retorted, only half joking.

Unlike Beall, Parker was not an original member of Creed’s former unit, the Light Company, First Maryland Continental Line. During the Battle for Long Island, First Maryland’s acting commander, Major Mordecai Gist, transferred Parker from a line unit along with several other stalwart Marylanders. Since that day in August 1776, his life became one of constant fatigue and danger. During the ensuing weeks of patrolling and skirmishing, most of the original command of more than thirty men had been killed or wounded. Parker and Beall were the only active members left and now they were permanently reassigned from the First Maryland to the commander-in-chief’s Escort, also called his Life Guard.

“Wonder when we’ll get a chance to escort His Excellency now that we are escorts,” Beall said.

Parker suspected their future would not involve much escort work. “I don’t care where we serve, or what we do, so long as it helps end the war. I want to get home to my family. I miss my wife Marie and our newborn, little Meg.” Parker held a small charcoal sketch his sister had drawn. “Have you seen anyone more beautiful?”

Marie, like Parker, was part Indian and little Meg showed it, as well.

“Must take after her mama,” Beall said.

Parker smiled. “Sure does. My Marie has the same copper skin. And just look at that head of shiny dark hair. Hoped to have a miniature of them made before I departed with the regiment, but there was no time. Thank God this charcoal sketch came with my last letter before the fight on Long Island.”

Despite the longing for home, Parker was proud to be working with Creed and to be on “the Escort,” as they sometimes referred to it. And he was proud to be serving His Excellency. This was heady stuff for a humble sailor and fisherman from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

When Creed had returned from his last meeting with Colonel Robert Fitzgerald, he seemed a changed man. There had been a new intensity added to his normal Irish good humor. And there was something odd in his comment to them before turning in to sleep.

“Well boys, Colonel Fitzgerald has convinced me that the only way to checkmate a king is to keep him in check until he has no options. And the best tool for that is the knight—in this case a ‘White Knight.’ Ah, but we shall talk of all that later.”

The bacon grease sizzled and a piece of burned bacon rind and dough splattered and seared Beall’s wrist in one of those intense but fleeting burns. “Damn! Damnation!”

Beall had taken to swearing since he joined the army back in the spring. His exposure to toughs from the backwoods, Chesapeake watermen, Baltimore laborers and Annapolis stevedores provided exposure to a wide assortment of expression and habits—some good, but most bad. He had promised himself he would break this one habit before he returned home.

The sounds of the sizzling fat and Beall’s loud expletive stirred Creed. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. The pain in his head and the rawness on his tongue were not strangers, but a just few cups of whisky never had this effect before. Creed reckoned he was getting old. He was barely twenty-two.

“Cannot let a man sleep in peace for long, can ye? Just as well, but you will now pay the price and share those victuals with your victim.”

Creed grinned despite the stiffness he felt in every joint and the dull pain in his head. He stood up, pulled on his boots, and excused himself to perform his morning ablutions. Creed’s routine, whenever possible, included a plunge into the closest body of water and a shave. In this case, he took advantage of a nearby well in the garden of the Morris Mansion, General Washington’s headquarters. The garden, once a picturesque combination of flowers and fruit trees, was now part of the commander-in-chief’s headquarters, replete with the tents and equipment of his personal Life Guard, aides de camp, couriers and an array of cooks, servants, and transient officers. He returned fifteen minutes later and dug into his share of the repast: a half dozen of the “belly sinkers,” a mug of black coffee, and a couple of large, freshly plucked pears.

“Quite good stuff, lads.”

“How is the coffee, sir?” Beall asked

Creed replied. “As you well know, I favor tea, but I have accustomed myself to the American and Dutch penchant for the Arabica bean. It often proves more bracing, if not more refreshing than tea.”

Parker snickered. “Even after a third time boiling! I swear we live lower than field hands.”

Creed smiled and nodded. “Too true, but often a necessity in this army of ever dwindling supplies.”

He finished eating and helped himself to a second tin full of the bitter black brew. “Now, in a bit, lads, I shall have to meet again with the good Colonel. Before I do, we must talk. When I am finished I will ask you to either join with me or return to the First Maryland and forget our discussion and everything we have done in the past several weeks. Fair enough?”

Beall and Parker both nodded, almost mindlessly. Neither could tell whether Creed’s comments were a form of trust, distrust, or humor, but since neither of them had any intention of leaving his command after all they had been through with him, they heard him out patiently.

Creed looked intently at them as he spoke, his eyes narrowed and his voice lowered both for security and for effect. He needed for them to understand the gravity of the situation.

“My discussions last evening with the good Colonel were sobering, although they took place with no insignificant amount of whisky.”

Beall thought he saw the mildest trace of the Creed smile form for a fleeting second, then disappear as his eyes narrowed again. “We played a game of chess. Somewhere in my kit I have a set. Does either of you lads play? Well, never mind that now. The point is this: both he and I are agreed that this war will be long and difficult. We face a brutal and stubborn monarch who commands the greatest forces in the world and commands its commerce through a powerful navy. This king can march or sail his army at will, at least wherever there is sufficient water.”

Beall thought he saw Creed’s eyes lighten for a fleeting moment.

“So, ye see, the initiative belongs to ‘His Majesty.’ General Washington cannot likely hope for a great victory to end this conflict quickly and to our advantage. So his strategy has got to be one of avoiding defeat. Nibble away at the British until they are worn down and are forced to concede our freedom and independence. However, to do this the Continental Army needs to survive and it must present a threat to the British until… well…”

“Until what, sir?” Beall interrupted like a school boy.

Creed glanced left and right. “Well, there is considerable speculation that Congress can perhaps gain us allies to force the British hand. This is as much a political fight as a military one. In that sense we have some advantages.”

“Now what might those be, Lieutenant?” Parker asked skeptically. Parker was a simple fisherman and seaman but a shrewd and practical man in his own right. He for one could find no advantages in the army’s, or the nation’s, situation.

“Well, the cause itself, of course. And the people as well. Certainly, there are many Americans who are loyal Tories, but most are not. Many are still undecided. However, so long as there remains a General Washington and a Continental Army there remains hope. Where the British Army does not occupy, the patriot cause, the American cause, lives. We are closer to our people and to their sentiments. And where we are not, strong measures need be taken. We know the land and can draw people and sustenance from it. Many in England, Scotland, and Ireland are favorably disposed to the colonies and their grievances, so perhaps we shall have a political solution over the objections of King George. But there is one ingredient essential to the successful outcome of this enterprise.”

“Good food and dry powder!” Parker said sarcastically.

“Yes, indeed!” Creed answered reflexively. “No, what I meant was information. That is, intelligence. This war will turn on that to a great deal. Colonel Fitzgerald has asked me to take part in that aspect of the enterprise. With no small amount of reluctance, I have agreed. I am not yet fully sure what that means, but gather he wants to form a unit to collect information on the British and Loyalists, to assist General Washington.”

“Are we to be spies?” Beall asked.

“In a manner of speaking, yes. And we must detect spies, too. The way the good Colonel and His Excellency see it, failure to collect intelligence could lose a battle, but failure to detect a spy could lose the war, and thus the nation. So, if you follow me, when, not if, we are caught it shall be a swift journey to the gallows… if we are lucky. Do ye lads understand what I am saying?”

Beall and Parker looked at each other. They did not fully grasp everything Creed had said.

“Not everything, sir. But it makes no matter to us. You are our leader and we trust your judgment.” As Parker spoke the words a sickening feeling told him he would not see his family again.

After a pause, Beall spoke. “Sir, I joined the regiment to support the cause and to be with Simon. If he were here, he would stand with you sir, so now I fight for two!”

Creed fought to hold back the tears welling in his eyes. “Good lads! You are most honorable. I am proud to be among you.”

* * *

Creed arrived at Fitzgerald’s office in the Morris Mansion. It was a clean, bright room, not large. But it contained a nice bed and had a large desk covered with Fitzgerald’s many papers and a map. In the corner there stood a small chest of drawers. On it sat a small wash basin of elegant but not elaborate white porcelain. For the first time, Creed noticed the room was decorated with fine wallpaper instead of paint. This must have been a lady’s room, he thought, perhaps a daughter.

Fitzgerald offered Creed a glass of port. Creed declined as he still felt some of the effects of the previous night. Fitzgerald pushed away stray strands of his hair, which he had tied back in a queue and strangely enough, powdered white.

“Well, Jeremiah, His Excellency has need of your services once more. Your task is both complex and dangerous.”

“Not unlike previous engagements, sir.” Creed smirked.

Fitzgerald ignored the witticism. “Worse, I am afraid. He would like you to find our lost spy.”

“Beg your pardon, sir?” Creed thought he had misunderstood him.

“Find our lost spy. As you know, we sent a young captain of the unfortunate Colonel Knowlton’s battalion to spy behind British lines on Long Island. But now he may well be in New York. His name, I can finally reveal, is Nathan Hale. From Connecticut. A place called Coventry, I believe. Seems so many of our bravest lads come from Connecticut.”

As a Marylander, Creed bristled at the remark but Fitzgerald went on. “Hale was to advance across Long Island and find the rear of the British Army. To obtain information on unit strength from patriots and unsuspecting Tories. Also to report on their morale, supply, and if possible, British plans.”

Creed winced. “Perhaps you should have asked him to capture Lord Howe to boot.”

Fitzgerald nodded. “I know. It seems foolish now and it was, urumph, is. Truth be told, I advised against it. Nor am I in favor of sending you after him. But His Excellency insists we try. However, I am adding to your woes with a secondary mission, although between us it is, in actuality, your primary mission.”

Creed cocked his head slightly and placed his index finger against his cheek. “My God, sir, just two missions behind British lines? Hardly worth the trip, should I say?

Creed’s feigned English accent had the desired effect of annoying Fitzgerald.

“Please refrain from sarcasm, my dear boy. These are desperate times. The curtain is closing on the city of New York, and perhaps the entire island. We may not have another opportunity to infiltrate someone there for many months. Once the British consolidate their gains and establish forces loyal to them, access to the city may well be hopeless, and it most certainly will be dangerous. What I want is for you to contact one of the men given up to our late departed British spy, Jan Braaf.”

Jan Braaf, a lawyer and active Whig politico in Brooklyn, had spied for the British and betrayed the American army, helping cause its defeat on Long Island. He died from a wound received while trying to get to New York under Creed’s protection. Dying, he had confessed his treason to Creed and Fitzgerald, who obtained the valise provided by his British spymaster, Major Sandy Drummond. The valise contained “spy paraphernalia” which included codes, special chemicals for secret writing, and the names of contacts, one of whom had access to a bank account for Braaf. Posing as the escaped murderer of British soldiers, Braaf was supposed to obtain a civilian post near or with the rebel army, and report on its activity.

“We were fortunate Braaf took a bullet on that boat ride with you, Jeremiah. And a British bullet at that.”

“I daresay, sir, we were more fortunate that he had some semblance of a conscience and confessed his sin before he died.”

“I believe it was more from good questioning and his eternal connivance. I believe he wanted to keep his family out of future trouble. Well, it worked to our advantage, but now we must follow up.”

Creed frowned. “What do you mean, sir?”

Fitzgerald swirled the remaining port in his glass. Its ruby color reflected the sunlight that radiated through the open window. They were on the second floor so nobody could eavesdrop, at least not very easily.

“I mean, the ‘spy Braaf’ must try to contact the British of course. Since you deftly hid his body there is no corpus delecti, so we can assume they do not suspect his demise. But they must surely expect contact from him.”

“So soon?”

“Of course, young man, we are at war. But the contact will be perfunctory. Just enough so they know he is active and has successfully placed himself near the American camp. By doing so I hope to buy us some time until I decide how best to pursue this case. And in any event, we may delay them sending another in his place.”

“And I suppose I should find this Captain Hale while I am at it?”

Fitzgerald grinned complacently. “That is correct. His Excellency would be most pleased with the return of his spy. Captain Hale by all accounts seemed a very decent and honorable officer, not really spy material at all.”

Creed once again ignored the barb. With a coy wink, Fitzgerald downed the last drop of port and smacked the glass on the desk. He then removed some papers from the “treasure trove” of codes and contacts taken from Braaf. It provided the name of two men established by the British as Braaf’s contacts in the city.

The older officer pulled another wisp of his white hair away from his pale Irish face and looked intently at Creed. “Now here is what I propose…”

* * *

When Creed returned from his meeting with Colonel Fitzgerald the concern on his face was obvious. He removed his tri-cornered hat and ran his fingers through his dark hair. He then took a deep breath and sat under one of the pines.

“Why so glum, sir?” Beall asked.

“Not glum, Jonathan, concerned. We have a hard task ahead… get through British lines, find a lost spy, and convince the British that our friend Braaf is alive and well. Oh yes, and return alive of course.”

Creed went over the plan in detail. When he finished, his men questioned him. “Do we rehearse this one, Lieutenant?” Parker asked.

Creed shook his head. “Not this time, much as it disturbs me to say. We have no time. We depart immediately.”

“Right now?” Beall asked.

Creed nodded. “We must gain entry to the city before the British restore order and tighten security.”

Parker looked incredulous. “You mean they haven’t, sir?”

Creed replied, “Not fully. I hope to exploit the chaos that always ensues when one army supplants another in an area of occupation. Many Whigs and Patriots have already fled the Island of New York.”

“So most of the Americans who stayed in New York will be hostile to the patriot cause,” Beall said.

Creed nodded. “Or neutral and indifferent. We shall have to rely on our guile and the occupation’s initial confusion to get through.”

Beall knew there was something else. “Sir, we have done more than this before. You seem disturbed by something. Something more than this.

Creed lowered his head. “Our orders, the part that disturbs me, are stark. Should one of Braaf’s contacts become suspicious, I am to kill him.”

Beall’s eyes widened. “Just like that?”

Creed nodded. “His Excellency was staking much on deceiving the British, and Fitzgerald wants nothing to frustrate the effort. We are also authorized to reveal the existence of the other spy, Hale, to help establish Braaf’s credibility, proof of his validity as an agent.”

Parker interjected, “Now let me get this straight, sir. We are to save this spy, Captain… Hale? While using knowledge of his existence to convince the British that Braaf operates in the American camp. Makes no sense at all, sir!”

“Precisely my initial thought.” Creed grinned and scratched himself on the lobe of his ear.

“However, after some reflection, I realized there is a devilish madness to this. General Washington wants his man back, but he also wants to use Braaf against the British. He sees this war now as an intelligence struggle as much as a military struggle. And he may well be correct. Our forces need time to bring themselves to where they can face the British on equal terms. That day will come, he is convinced, but until then he must preserve the army and keep the British off balance. Intelligence will be indispensable to the success of this strategy. We are merely pawns in all this.”

Beall corrected him. “You mean knights, sir, do you not? White Knights, to be exact.”

Creed laughed and grabbed Beall firmly by the shoulder. “Yes indeed, Private Beall. Thank-you so much for remembering that for me; tis the White Knights we are now.

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Chapter reveal: Adrenaline, by John Benedict

adrenalineTitle: ADRENALINE



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About the Book: A sensational, skillful and highly suspenseful tale, Adrenaline introduces anesthesiologist protagonist Doug Landry. About Adrenaline: When patients start dying unexpectedly in the O.R. at Mercy Hospital, Doug Landry finds himself the focus of the blame. Is he really incompetent or is there something more sinister going on? As Doug struggles to clear his name and untangle the secrets surrounding these mysterious deaths, it becomes exceedingly clear that someone is serious—dead serious—about keeping the devastating truth from ever seeing the light of day. As he launches a pulse-quickening race against time to prevent more deaths, Doug soon finds that the lives of his patients aren’t the only lives at stake.  Seems that someone will stop at nothing to keep Doug from revealing the truth. Could it be that murder is the ultimate rush?


“Shit!  Don’t give me any bullshit!” said Dr. Mike Carlucci under his breath, as his gaze locked on the unusual rhythm displayed on the EKG monitor.  His warning was meant mostly for his patient, Mr. Rakovic, who was scheduled to undergo an arthroscopy of his right knee.  Mike’s plea was also directed at God, just in case he was listening, and at the monitor itself to cover all bases.  Mike didn’t expect a reply from any of them.  Mr. Rakovic was deeply unconscious with an endotracheal tube sprouting from his mouth.  Mike had just induced general anesthesia and was preparing to fill out his chart when the trouble began.

Mike stared grimly at the potentially lethal dysrhythmia known as ventricular tachycardia, or V-tach, and felt the first raw edge of fear scrape lightly across his nerves.  It occurred to him that he had never actually seen V-tach during a routine induction in his six years at Mercy Hospital, or during any induction for that matter.  It was something that happened in the case reports, not in real life.  He wondered if Doug Landry, his best friend and colleague, had ever seen it.

His first instinct was to doubt the EKG.  Frequently movement of the patient or electrical interference caused the EKG to register falsely.  He rapidly scanned his array of other monitors.  Modern anesthetic workstations had upwards of ten sophisticated computer-driven monitors.  Substantial redundancy of these instruments allowed him to check one machine’s errors against another.  The pulse oximeter, a small finger-clip sensor, beeped at a heart rate exactly the same as the EKG.  This unfortunately ruled out the possibility of EKG artifact; there was no false reading this time.

Mike absently fingered the gold crucifix dangling from his neck.  Grandma Carlucci had brought it back from Lourdes, and had given it to him when he had graduated from med school.  The medallion always comforted him.  He punched his Dinamap, the automatic blood pressure machine, for a stat reading.  The mass spectrometer system, which continually monitored the gasses going in and out of Mr. Rakovic’s lungs via the endotracheal tube, registered normal carbon dioxide levels.  Mike breathed a sigh of relief; it meant the breathing tube was properly positioned in his patient’s trachea and not in the esophagus.  He quickly checked breath sounds with his stethoscope to ensure both lungs were being ventilated normally.  They were.  The pulse oximeter showed a ninety-eight percent oxygen saturation level, confirming beyond doubt that his patient was being adequately oxygenated.  Again good.  However, nothing to explain the sudden appearance of V-tach.

The blood pressure reading would be key for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, Mike knew he must treat the offending rhythm; its cause was of secondary importance at the moment.  A normal blood pressure reading would mean Mr. Rakovic would still have adequate blood flow to his vital organs—brain most importantly—in spite of the rhythm disturbance.  Mike knew that as V-tach accelerates, the heart can beat so fast it doesn’t have time to fill and fails as a reliable pump.  The blood pressure can fall drastically or disappear altogether.

“C’mon you piece of shit!  Read, damn it!”  Mike hissed under his breath to his Dinamap.  Fifteen seconds never seemed so long.  While waiting for the blood pressure, he opened the top drawer of his anesthesia cart and pulled out two boxes of premixed Lidocaine, a first-line emergency antidysrhythmic drug.  He ripped open the boxes and assembled the syringes.  He glanced up at Diane, the circulating nurse.  She was busily filling out her paperwork, oblivious to any problem.

“Diane,” Mike called out, “I got trouble here.  Get the crash cart!”

“Jesus, Mike!  Are you kidding?” asked Diane, eyes bugging wide, pen frozen in mid-task.

“Serious badness,” Mike said, trying to keep the dread he felt out of his voice.  “Looks like V-tach.”  His voice sounded a little higher than he had intended.

“Oh shit!” she said as she hurried out of the room, almost tripping over the trash bucket.  Mike was thankful that Dr. Sanders, the orthopedic surgeon, was still out of the room scrubbing his hands.  No time to tell him just yet; he wouldn’t take it well.  If the blood pressure were unacceptably low, Mike would need to shock the patient back into a normal rhythm.  He injected one of the syringes of Lidocaine into the intravenous line and simultaneously felt Mr. Rakovic’s carotid pulse.  It was bounding, arguing against a low blood pressure.

250/120!  “Holy shit!  Where’d that come from?”  Mike asked the leering LED face of the Dinamap.  Accusatory alarms screeched from the Dinamap in response.  Mike truly had not expected such a high blood pressure and was momentarily confused.  The temperature in the OR seemed to have jumped twenty degrees, and he felt rivulets of sweat coursing down his arms.  The fear was back and not so easily dismissed this time.  Think, damn it, think!  What would Doug do?

He quickly reviewed what he knew of Mr. Rakovic’s medical history and his own induction sequence.  Mr. Rakovic was a sixty-two-year-old hypertensive with a history of coronary disease and a prior heart attack.  But, his hypertension was well controlled on his current regimen of beta and calcium-channel blockers.  Mike knew his patient had a bad heart, and had taken care to do a smooth induction along with all the usual precautions to avoid stressing the heart.  A blood pressure of 250/120 and V-tach at 160 beats-per-minute were about the worst stresses any heart could undergo.  Mike knew this, but was still baffled.  Be cool, Mike.  Be cool.

He had been stumped before; medicine was by no means an exact science, and anesthesia was one of the frontiers.  Mike also knew better than to waste precious time pondering this.  As long as he had reviewed it sufficiently to make sure he hadn’t overlooked something, it was time to move on to the immediate treatment.  He could replay the case to search for subtle clues when Mr. Rakovic was safely tucked in the recovery room.

What lurked in the back of Mike’s mind during these first few minutes, prodding him along, was the specter of ventricular fibrillation or V-fib.  V-tach was reversible with rapid proper treatment.  V-fib, on the other hand, was often refractory to treatment, leading to death.   The problem was that V-tach had a nasty habit of degenerating into the dreaded V-fib without warning.  The longer V-tach hung around, the more likely V-fib would appear.  So Mike knew time was of the essence.

“Gotta bring that pressure down,” Mike mumbled to himself.  He reached back into his drawer for Esmolol, a rapidly acting, short duration beta-blocker designed to lower blood pressure.  He drew up 30 mg and pumped it into the IV port.  He also punched in the second syringe of Lidocaine.  Mike tried hard not to take his eyes off the EKG monitor for long as he drew up and administered the drugs.  He wanted to see if the V-tach broke into a normal rhythm or converted into V-fib.  Irrationally, he felt that if he continued to watch the rhythm it wouldn’t convert to V-fib; if he took his eyes off it for too long, the demon might appear.

His Dinamap on STAT mode continued to pour forth BP readings every 45 seconds.  290/140.

“What the hell!”  Mike said.  Alarms were now singing wildly in the background, adding to the confusion.

Just then, Dr. Sanders charged into the room demanding answers.  “What’s going on here, Carlucci?” roared Sanders.

Mike didn’t have time to deal with the irate surgeon.  A wave of nausea swept over him as he felt events slipping out of control.  Things were moving so goddamned fast.  Fear threatened to engulf him.  “Hypertensive crisis!” he managed to blurt out while he grabbed for some Nipride, his strongest antihypertensive.  Unfortunately, it had to be mixed and given as an intravenous infusion rather than straight from the ampule.  This would take a minute Mike and his patient could ill-afford.  Diane returned with the crash cart and several other nurses.  She looked at Mike and said, “Do you need help?”  It certainly sounded like she thought he did.

“Get Landry in here stat!” Mike yelled in response.  He took his eyes off the monitor as he worked on the Nipride drip.  Just as he got the Nipride plugged into the IV port, he heard an ominous silence.

The pulse oximeter had become quiet.  Usually the pulse ox signaled trouble, such as a falling oxygen saturation, by a gradual lowering of the pitch, not an abrupt silence.  Mike could think of only three possible causes, and two of them were disasters—V-fib or cardiac standstill.  The third reason could be as simple as the probe slipping off the finger.  Although this third possibility was enormously more likely, Mike doubted it.  As he turned his head toward the EKG monitor, he knew with eerie prescience what awaited him.

V-fib greeted him from the monitor.  He had failed to get the blood pressure down fast enough.  The V-tach had degenerated into V-fib as the strain on the heart had become too much.  His Nipride was now useless; in fact, it was harmful.  He immediately shut it off.  Mike knew that in V-fib, the heart muscle doesn’t contract at all; it just sits there and quivers like a bowl full of jello.  No blood was being pumped.  High blood pressure had ceased to become a problem; now there was no blood pressure.  Brain damage would ensue in two minutes, death in four to five minutes.

Doug Landry, the anesthesiologist on call that day, burst through the OR door.  “What d’ya got Mike?” he asked, slightly out of breath.  Doug glanced at the EKG monitor and said, “Oh shit!  Fib!”

“Paddles!” shouted Mike, comforted by Doug’s presence.  “He went into V-tach, then shortly into fib,” said Mike, nodding at the monitor.

“Yeah, I see,” Doug said.  His large sinewy frame looked like it was coiled for action.  Diane handed Mike the defibrillator paddles.

“400 joules, asynchronous!”  Mike barked.

Diane stabbed some buttons on the defib unit and it emitted some hi-pitched electronic whines.  “Set,” Diane said shrilly.

“Clear!”  Mike shouted.

Mike fired the paddles, and a burst of high-energy electricity pulsed through Mr. Rakovic’s heart and body.  The EKG monitor first showed electrical interference from the high dose of electricity, then quickly coalesced into more V-fib.

“Shit!”  Mike said.  “No good.”  He had never appreciated how ugly those little spiky waves of V-fib were.

“Hit em again, Mike,” Doug said.

“OK.  Recharge paddles.”  The paddles took several seconds for the high amperage capacitors to charge between countershocks.  “Better start CPR,” Mike said as he began pumping on Mr. Rakovic’s chest.  His hands soon became slimed from the electrolyte gel left by the paddles on Mr. Rakovic’s chest.  God, he hated chest compressions.

“Paddles are ready, Doctor!” said Diane.  Her eyes were wider than before, and her mask ballooned in and out, as she gulped air.

‘Boom’ went the paddles again, and Mr. Rakovic’s body convulsed a second time.  Mike stared at Mr. Rakovic’s face as it contorted, reminding him of a medieval exorcism.  Mike held his breath and waited for the monitor to clear, pleading with it to show him some good news.

“Still fib!”  Mike growled.  He resumed chest compressions as he nodded to the circulator to recharge the paddles yet again.

“Epinephrine?  Bicarb?” asked Doug.

“Doug, I don’t think he needs epi,” Mike replied quickly.  Mike wondered if Doug was also feeling the pressure.  His voice was too damn even, though.  “His pressure went through the roof on induction.  I don’t know why, but I just can’t believe he needs epi.”

“Okay,” Doug said.  “The paddles are ready.”  Doug’s forehead creased momentarily, then he added, “V-fib in an elective case.  Unusual.  Any history, Mike?”

Mike stopped compressions long enough to fire the paddles a third time.  He smelled the ozone coming off the arcing paddles.  The V-fib continued.  Gimme a break, Mr. Rakovic!

“Shit!  Charge the paddles again,” Mike said to Diane.  He turned to Doug.  “Yeah, prior MI, stable angina, hypertension.  Doug, I think we better try Breytillium.  I already gave him two doses of Lidocaine.”  Sweat was now soaking through his scrub top, pants and surgical cap, and running down his face.

“Yeah, sounds like a good idea,” said Doug.  “I’ll take care of it.”

Mike glanced over at Doug and cursed his calm efficiency.  He knew ‘the Iceman’ was a veteran of the OR wars.  Doug had worked at Mercy for twelve years.  He had been on the front lines before and had always performed well.  Doug reminded Mike of his mentor in residency days, Dr. Hawkins.  Mike thought he could hear Dr. Hawkins now: “Retaining control and being cool are critical in these situations.  Split second decisions need to be made.  Panic is a luxury you can’t afford.”  The advice sounded hollow.

“Any allergies, Mike?” Doug asked.  “Malignant hyperthermia?  Breytillium’s ready.”

“No allergies.”  Mike was breathing hard now and had to space his words with short gasps.  “Doesn’t look like MH—no temp.  Hurry Doug.  Run that shit.  He’s been in fib for a while.  We’re running out of time.  He may never come out.”

“I’m bolusing now,” Doug said as he injected a large quantity, “and here goes the drip.”

Mike clung to Doug’s steady voice like a lifeline.  Mike realized that he was in danger of losing control.  He could see it in the trembling of his own hands and hear it in the huskiness of his own voice.  He wondered if Doug noticed.  Deal with it, Mike.  Deal with it. 

Hawkin’s words floated back to him again.  “It’s just like being in combat.  Soldiers can train and drill all they want, but they never really knew how they’ll react until the bullets are real and start to shriek by their heads.  Will they turn tail and run, or fight back?”  Leave me alone, Hawkins!

Mike looked around the room.  He felt they were all staring at him; he could read the expressions in their eyes:  “It’s your fault!  You screwed up!”

“Try it now, Mike,” Doug said, jolting him back to reality.

Mike grasped the paddles tightly to prevent them from slipping from his slick hands and applied them to Mr. Rakovic’s hairy chest for the fourth time.  He pushed the red trigger buttons on each paddle simultaneously to release the pent-up electricity.  All 280 pounds of Mr. Rakovic’s body heaved off the OR table again and crashed down, sending ripples through the fat of his protuberant abdomen.  Mike now smelled an acrid, ammoniacal odor and realized it was coming from the singed hairs on Mr. Rakovic’s chest.  He frantically wiped the burning sweat out of his eyes so he could see the monitor.  The V-fib continued stubbornly and had begun to degrade into fine fibrillations.  “Damn you!”  Mike yelled at the monitor.

“I’ll give you some bicarb,” Doug said.  Out of the corner of his eye, Mike thought he could see Doug shaking his head slightly.

The next fifteen minutes were a blur to Mike.  More chest compressions, more emergency last line drugs, many more countershocks were tried.  Nothing worked.  Mr. Rakovic continued to deteriorate, his pupils widening until at last they became fixed and dilated.  His skin was a gruesome, dusky purple-gray.  He was dead.  Doug finally called the code after fifty-three minutes and gently persuaded Mike to stop chest compressions.  Dr. Sanders walked out of the room without saying a word.

Mike was numb as he stared at the corpse in front of him.  One portion of his brain, however, continued to function all too well.  It kept replaying his initial encounter with Mr. Rakovic in the holding area.  He could see Mr. Rakovic in vivid color and hear him plainly, as the rest of the OR faded to silent gray.  They had joked about the Phillies’ pitching staff.  They wondered whether Barry Bonds would break Big Mac’s homerun record.  God, he wanted this to stop, to get his laughing, living face out of his mind.  But he couldn’t.  His mind was a demonic film projector playing it over and over.  He felt very sick to his stomach and had an overwhelming need to get out of the room and get out of the hospital with all its stinking smells.  Just go, anywhere but here.

God, this was what he hated about anesthesia.  One minute you’re having a casual conversation with a living, breathing, laughing, for God’s sakes, human being and the next you’re pumping on his chest.  He becomes subhuman before your eyes as his face turns all purple and mottled.  He cursed his decision to ever become an anesthesiologist.  What in God’s name was I thinking?  Frail human beings were not meant to hold someone’s life in their hands.  The responsibility was just too awesome.

“Mike.  Hey, Mike.  You OK?”  Doug put his hand on Mike’s slumped shoulders.  Mike came out of his trance enough to nod his head.  Several tears rolled down his cheeks.  “Mike, there’s nothing else you could’ve done,” Doug continued.  “We were all here too.  He must’ve had a massive MI on induction.  Not your fault.  Some of those guys just don’t turn around no matter what you do.  Don’t blame yourself.  We tried everything.”

“Yeah, I know Doug.  But I just can’t get his face out of my mind.  We were talking, joking just an hour ago.  Now he’s dead.”

“C’mon, let’s get out of here.”  Doug led Mike out of OR#2.  “I know you might not be up to this, but Mike, you’ve got to talk to the family.  Did he have any relatives here with him?”

Mike didn’t answer immediately.  As the adrenaline haze faded, he struggled to regain control.  He felt completely drained with an enormous sense of loss, but coaxed sanity back into place.  “Yeah, he came in with his wife.  Nice lady.”  Mike paused, feeling his vision blur again, this time with tears.  “What do you say, Doug?”

“Listen, I’ll go with you.  Just tell her what happened.  Everything was going fine.  He went to sleep and then bam, out of the blue, he had a massive heart attack.  Nothing in the world was going to save him.  We worked on him for almost an hour and tried everything.  Tell her we’re really sorry.”

“OK.  Help me, Doug.”  He would’ve rather stuck nails in his eyes than face Mrs. Rakovic at that moment.

The two men walked through the electronic entrance doors toward the OR waiting room.  Mike swallowed hard and entered the small windowless room.  Doug was right beside him.  Mike searched the faces until he found Mrs. Rakovic.  It wasn’t hard.  As soon as she saw him, she immediately leapt out of the chair with a quickness that belied her bulk.  Her frantic gestures revealed the depth of her hysteria.  Mike walked over and she collapsed into his arms.  “Tell me is not so!” she wailed in her thick, Slavic accent.  “Tell me Doctor Sanders made mistake.  Not my Joey!”  She cried convulsively.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Rakovic,” Mike said, blinking fast.  “He had a massive heart attack.  We tried everything.”  He felt her tears burn into his shoulder and then felt his own tears stream down his face.  “I’m sorry.”  Her wracking sobs shook them both.

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Chapter reveal: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, by Joan Schweighardt

JS_TLWATH_cover_thumb-1Title: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction with a Legendary Component

Author: Joan Schweighardt

Website: www.joanschwweighardt.com

Publisher: Booktrope Editions

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About the Book:

Two threads are woven together in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second reveals the unimaginable events that have driven her to this mission. Based in part on the true history of the times and in part on the same Nordic legends that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle and other great works of art, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun offers readers a thrilling story of love, betrayal, passion and revenge, all set against an ancient backdrop itself gushing with intrigue. Lovers of history and fantasy alike will find realism and legend at work in this tale.


by Joan Schweighardt


When I was a young girl living at Worms, there was nothing I delighted in more than song. And of all those who lifted their voices in our great hall, there was none who did so as beautifully as my brother Gunner. Were he beside me now, he would rebuke me for the method that I have chosen to relate my story to you. He would insist, instead, on fashioning a melody for my words and singing them to you from beginning to end. He would begin modestly, singing, as he always did, that he had no talent for melodies, but entreating you, nevertheless, to remember his words. And, friend, as there is no bird, no summer breeze, no sweet stream lapping or soft rain falling that could compete with Gunner for one’s attention, have no doubt that you would have remembered them. He would have looked into your eyes while he sang and touched you in a deeper place than he ever touched a man or a woman when he went without his harp.

Though I can never hope to emulate his elegance, let me begin likewise, telling you first that I have no talent either. This thing, this process of setting down one word after the next on parchment, is new to me, and, as a friend once stated, tedious. And in spite of all the pains that I have taken to learn it, I find that I am apprehensive now because I cannot look into your eyes as my brother would have, because I cannot hope to touch you in that holy place where the hearts of all folk are joined together. Still, I would have you remember my words. 

The City of Attila 


I fell to my knees at the stream, so eager to drink that I did not think to offer a prayer until afterward, when I was satisfied and my flask was full. I was exhausted. My skin was parched and I was filthy; but according to the map my brothers had given me, I was very near my destination. I continued on foot, pulling my tired horse behind me.

I had not had a full night’s rest since the terrain had changed. The land was flat here. There were no caves or rocky ledges where I could shelter myself. The forests, so sacred to my people, had long since been replaced by endless grasslands. As I trudged through them, I felt that I had left more than my loved ones behind.

When the sky darkened, I used the single live coal I carried from the previous night’s fire to light my torch. I was sure that the light could be seen from some distance. I expected at every moment to hear the thunder of hooves beating on the arid earth. But on and on I walked, seeing no sight other than my own shadow in the gleam of the torch light and hearing no sound but that of my horse plodding along beside me.

When the sun began to rise, I saw that there was a sandy hill ahead, and hoping to see the City of Attila from its summit, I dragged myself on. But the hill was much farther away than it had seemed, and it took most of the day to reach it. And then it was much higher too, the highest ground that I had seen in days. My horse, who was content to graze on grassy clumps and to watch the marmots who dared to peek out of their holes, made it clear that he had no desire to climb. I had to coax him along, and myself as well, for now I was afraid that I would reach the summit and see nothing but more grass stretching out to the far horizon. I imagined myself wandering endlessly, seeing no one, coughing and sneezing in response to the invisible blowing dust, until my food ran out and my horse gave way.

I crawled to the top of the hill and looked down in amazement at the camp of make-shift tents below. In front of one of them a fire burned, and the carcass of an antelope was roasting over it. There were many men about, perhaps two hundred, all on horseback except for the few tending the fire.

It was not until I heard the war cry that I knew for certain that the scene was real and not some trick of my mind. I had been sighted. The entire company was suddenly galloping in my direction, a cloud of dust rising up around them. I forced myself to my feet and spread my arms to show that I carried no weapon. When I saw that the men were making their bows ready, I dropped my head and lifted my arms higher yet, to the heavens, where, I hoped, the gods were watching carefully.

Part of the company surrounded me. The others rode past, over the summit. When they were satisfied that no one was riding behind me, they joined the first group. Upon the command of one of them, they all lowered their bows. I began to breathe again. A murmur went up, and while I waited for it to subside, I studied their horses. Of the two that I could see without moving my head, one looked like the ones the Romans rode—a fine, tall, light-colored steed. The other looked like no animal I had ever seen before. Its legs were short and its head was large and somehow misshapen. Its matted mane hung down over its stout body. Its nose was snubbed and its eyes bulged like a fish’s. Its back was curved, as if by the weight of its rider. Yet its thick neck and large chest suggested great strength.

The murmur abated, and the Hun on the horse I’d been scrutinizing cried out a command in his harsh, foreign tongue. I looked up and noted that he resembled his horse. He was short and stout, large-chested, his head overly large, his neck short and thick, his nose snubbed. The only difference was that while the horse had a long mane and a bushy tail, the Hun’s hair was thin, and his beard, if one could call it that, was thinner yet. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I stared at the identical scars that ran down the sides of his face, wide, deep mutations that began beneath his deeply set eyes and ended at his mouth. “I’ve come to seek Attila,” I said.

The Hun, who appeared slightly amused, looked to his companions. A murmur went up again. While they debated, I took the opportunity to scan the other Hun faces, all hideous replicas of the one who had spoken to me. Of course, I had known the Huns were strange to look upon. Although I’d been hidden away during the siege, I’d had a description from those who had seen the Huns and survived to tell about them. In fact, there were some among my people who mutilated their own faces after the siege, believing this would make them as fierce as their attackers. Still, none of this had prepared me sufficiently to look upon them with my own eyes. Some wore tunics and breeches, not unlike the ones my own people wore. Others wore garments made entirely of marmot skins. With some on Roman horses and others on Hunnish ones, some dressed like Thuets and others in skins, they looked like no army I had ever seen before. Their confusion over how to respond to me only heightened the impression of disorder.

“Attila!” I cried. My brothers were sure I was mad, and when I heard my shout I thought they must be right.

The startled Huns stared for a moment, then they took up their debate again, their voices louder and more urgent than before. Finally the leader nodded, and the man whose argument he had come to agree with rode to my side and took my horse’s reins from my hand. While he started down the hill with the horse, another Hun poked me from behind with his riding whip to indicate that I should follow. Half of the men began the descent with me. The other half stayed on the summit, looking off in the direction from which I had come.

I was brought to the fire, where I reiterated my desire to see Attila. One of the Huns pointed beyond the tents. I followed his finger. There were a few dark clouds converging on the eastern horizon. “Can we ride?” I asked, pointing to my horse. The Hun gestured for me to sit. The meat had been removed from the fire and torn into pieces. The horseless Huns were distributing it among the riders. One of them brought a piece to me, and another brought me a flask of what smelled like Roman wine. I ate the meat—which was tough and bland—and kept my eyes fastened on my horse and the sack that hung from his side. I tasted the wine and, to the amusement of the Huns who were watching, quickly spat it out—for this is what I imagined a woman who had grown up alone in the forest would do.

After the meal, I stood and pointed east. “Take me to the City of Attila,” I demanded. Again, my words caused a stir.

Then one of the Huns said something which quieted the others. He gave a series of commands, and one of the listeners slid off his horse and reluctantly offered me the reins.

I hesitated, unsure what to do about the sack. Gathering courage, I led the Hunnish horse past my guards and over to my own horse. I reached for the sack, but a stout Hunnish arm cut me off. “For Attila,” I said. The man who had stopped me looked to his fellows. Again there was discussion, and after a moment, a decision. The arm withdrew. I swallowed and removed the sack from one beast and secured it onto the other. Then I mounted the Hunnish horse and settled myself as best I could on its hard wooden saddle. The Hun who was to be my escort came forward. Someone furnished him with a torch, and, also, what sounded like a lecture.

Riding at his side, I considered how easily it had gone. The Huns might have insisted that I stay the night in their camp. Or, they might have made me leave the sack behind. And there was much worse that I could think of, too. If I had felt bold before, I felt even bolder now, and, indeed, quite mad. I was already imagining the expressions that would appear on my brothers’ faces when I was home again relating the story.

The comical-looking beast beneath me was as fast as he was strong. He galloped along as if riderless, keeping pace with the Hun’s horse and seemingly oblivious to my touch on his reins. I lowered my head onto his thick dirty mane, and keeping my arms tight around his neck, closed my burning eyes. After a while, the horse’s steps became shorter, choppier, so that I knew the terrain had changed. The grasses were higher now, like the ones I had ridden through some days earlier when the trees had first begun to thin. I relaxed and gave way to the muffled sound of the horses’ hooves. When I opened my eyes again, I thought to find myself riding beneath the stars with the moon on the rise to the south. To my astonishment, the sky was pink, and it was the sun that was rising. My arms, which were stiff and badly cramped, had kept their vigil all through the night.

My companion laughed heartily when I lifted my head. And thinking that my riding and sleeping on horseback would make a fine story for Attila’s ears, I laughed as well. I imagined myself explaining that valkyrias did this all the time. I had trained my mind on the powers I would feign to have for so long that my uncanny slumber made me feel I had actually come to possess them.

Soon enough, the City of Attila appeared on the horizon—a vast tract surrounded by a high wooden palisade. My escort stopped to point it out, and I checked myself for panic. When I was satisfied that I felt none, I nodded, and we began to ride again. Before long we reached the city gates and the men who guarded them. My escort stayed at my side only long enough to deliver his message to the guard who rode to meet us. Then he turned and rode off, taking with him the story which I had hoped to hear repeated to Attila. The gates were pulled open. My new escort led me in.

Activity was everywhere. Clusters of men on horseback were engaged in conversations. Women walked among them carrying baskets or vessels on their heads. They were trailed by small children while older children sat in circles on the ground laughing and teasing one another. Most were Huns, but there were others who were clearly Thuets. And there were some, especially among the children, who appeared to be half and half. The Hun women, like their men, were short and stout. Many were quite fat. Only their lack of facial scars distinguished them from their male counterparts.

Mud and straw huts dotted the landscape. Beyond them, in the distance, was a second wooden palisade, its circumference so great that it appeared to take up half the city. As we approached it, the gates opened. We entered a long tunnel from which I could hear the pounding of feet overhead. There were other smaller tunnels leading off to the left and right, but their doors concealed the chambers they led to.

When we came back out into the daylight, I saw yet another palisade—this one set back on a high grassy mound. Like the city walls and the first inner palisade, it was circular, with wooden towers protruding at intervals. From each tower, guards looked down. “Attila’s palace?” I asked my escort, though I knew the answer even before he nodded.

There was as much activity here as there had been within the first palisade, but my gaze fell on the group of men who tarried on their horses nearest Attila’s gate. This group was more richly dressed than others I had seen. Many wore arm rings and finger rings. Some even had precious stones sewn into their shoes. It was the most heavily jeweled among them that my escort seemed to be eyeing as we approached. Thinking this man must be Attila, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to speak the words I had so thoroughly rehearsed. But when he turned toward me, I saw immediately that he could not possibly be Attila. He was not even a Hun. Though his face was as deeply scarred as those of his companions, he was clearly a Thuet. I had felt no emotion seeing the other Thuets in the village, because I took them to be prisoners, men who had been forced into Attila’s service. But the jewels and dress on this one indicated that he was pleased to live among the Huns, that he had earned Attila’s favor. He glanced at me. If he saw the involuntary look of disdain that crossed my face, his expression did not reflect it. He listened to the words of my escort, then jerked his head to indicate that I should come with him.

To my disappointment, he led me away from Attila’s gates, off to the southwest of his palisade, past a good many more huts and through a large open field and very nearly to the far wall of the inner palisade. There were only a few huts ahead of us now, and unlike the others that I had seen, they were spread apart and faced west rather than east. The one the Thuet took me to was the most isolated of all. But it was built up on a small knoll, and I could see the vast stretches of grassland beyond the tops of the inner palisade and the city walls just behind it—a boon for a woman who had never before found herself enclosed within so many fortifications.

The Thuet motioned for me to dismount. My legs were weak, and I had to hold on to the Hunnish beast to get my balance. When I was able, I made a move toward the sheepskin curtain that covered the doorway of the hut, but I hesitated when I heard voices inside. The Thuet heard them, too, and in what seemed one motion, he jumped from his horse and threw back the curtain, exposing a young couple. In the Hunnish tongue, he admonished them harshly, his riding crop held threateningly over his head. Holding their garments in front of them, the couple backed out of the hut and bolted. The Thuet lowered his whip and laughed as he watched them flee bare-assed across the open field. Then he turned back to me, his expression fierce again. “Get yourself inside now,” he shouted.

I stepped into the hut, and holding the curtain open, watched anxiously as he cut down the sack from the side of my horse. I told myself that I should be pleased to be in the company of one who spoke my language, but my hatred persisted. He threw the sack in carelessly, so that it fell just short of my feet. Then he entered, drawing the sheepskin curtain behind him so that only a little daylight streamed in.

I looked around in the dim light. There was no window, no hearth. A pile of skins were thrown into one corner, and more skins lined the four walls. “I have come to seek an audience with Attila,” I said.

He laughed.

“I must see Attila,” I reiterated. “I’ve come a long way—”

His hand sliced through the air. “You are not to leave your hut,” he said in a voice that was unnecessarily loud in the tiny space. “A guard will be posted at your door day and night. You are not to attempt to speak to him. You are not to speak to anyone. If you try to escape, you will be killed. Do you understand?”

I did not. His declaration was a contradiction to the ease that had brought me this far. I took a step toward him. “What is your connection to Attila?”

He laughed, then sobered abruptly. “I am Edeco, second in command,” he boasted.

“Then let me speak to the man who is first in command,” I hissed.

Edeco drew his lips back, exposing his teeth. His hand came up from his side slowly, and I lifted my head, bracing for the impact. But his hand faltered and hung in the space between us, quivering for a moment. Then it dropped. He turned and went out.

I stood where I was, considering our exchange. At first it seemed to me that things had changed now, that my run of fortune had come to an end. But then I realized how tired I was; my slumber on the racing horse had done little to relieve my fatigue. Perhaps it was best that my audience with Attila be delayed.

I took the sack from the earthen floor and hid it beneath the pile of skins. Then I took a skin from the top and spread it out and lay down. I fell asleep almost immediately—and found myself in the forest behind my brothers’ hall, walking among the birches.

Someone called out my name, and when I turned, Sigurd was coming up behind me, leading his steed. I ran to him. When I was safe in his embrace, I cried, “Oh, Sigurd, I have been so afraid! I am so glad to have found you. Things will go well enough now. You will not let me face Attila alone, will you?”

He smiled. “I will not,” he said. “I’ll be at your side every moment, as I have been all along, whether you knew it or not.”

I clung to him, my heart almost breaking with emotion. “I have the war sword,” I whispered. “I plan to give it to Attila.”

“Let him have the cursed thing,” Sigurd answered. “For all that it shines like the sun, it brought me nothing but trouble.” There was a warm honey-like scent in the air; it seemed to emanate from Sigurd.

“But if the thing is truly cursed,” I asked, “how is it that it had no effect on me in all the days that I carried it at my side?”

Sigurd only smiled. “Have you thought by what name you will call yourself here?” he asked.

“Brunhild,” I answered.

“It will bring you bad luck to call yourself after someone who loved you so little,” Sigurd replied. “Why not call yourself Ildico?”

“Ildico,” I repeated, and I recalled that Ildico had been the name of the valkyria who had befriended my mother many years ago, the same woman who had brought my eldest brother into the world.

            “Ildico,” I said again, but this time I spoke aloud as well as in my dream, and the sound of my voice awakened me.

I remained motionless for a long time. I had dreamed of Sigurd many times since I had regained my health, but always he was at some distance, riding among other men. Or, if he was close, he was silent and oblivious to my presence.

I gave up the notion of falling asleep again and sat up. He was with me; he had said so. No matter what dangers lay ahead, I would be satisfied if sleep would sometimes bring me the sight of Sigurd’s face and the feel of his embrace, from which my skin was still tingling. But the dream puzzled me, too. Ildico: I had never thought to call myself that. And why had I told Sigurd that I was afraid when I felt no fear? When my madness lingered and made me bold?

The curtain was drawn aside. A Hun woman entered carrying a bowl of meats and breads, a cup, and a large wooden vessel of wine. She set everything down and left without once looking at me. I got up and rushed to the curtain, but she had already turned the corner of the hut. I saw only the guard who had been posted outside, and the sun, which was low in the western sky. I had slept for some time.

I ate with vigor, in a manner that I would have once scolded my brothers for. I was determined not to touch the wine, but as I had no water left in my flask, I took a sip. It did not taste nearly as bad as it had the last time I had tried it on Burgundian lands. I drank more.

When the curtain opened again not long afterward, it was the Thuet, Edeco. He left the curtain open behind him and sat down across from me. I studied his face and sipped at the wine, which made me feel light-headed and even more impudent. “Have you come to hear me speak?” I asked.

Edeco laughed. “I did not come to clear away your crumbs.”

I ignored his sarcasm. “Then I will tell you what I tried to tell you before. I have come a long way, riding for days, to see the face of Attila. I have eaten, I have drunk, I have rested. I would be pleased to be brought to him now.”

Edeco threw his head back and laughed so heartily that I was forced to think of Gunner, who also threw his head back when he laughed. Then Edeco’s face changed. “Why should he see you?”

“I carry a gift for Attila,” I said.

“Attila receives many gifts, most so large that they must be carried in carts pulled by oxen and guarded over by many men.”

“Mine is greater.”

“Show it to me.”

“I’ve told you about it. I will show it only to Attila.”

Edeco jumped to his feet, his blue eyes flashing. As there was only one place in the tiny hut where a person might hide a thing, he went directly to the skins and cast them aside one by one until he had uncovered the sack. Then he turned it upside down and shook it so that its contents—my cloak, the wooden bowl that Guthorm, my dead brother, had once played with, and the straw concealing the war sword—tumbled out. Edeco fell to his knees and tore at the straw until some part of the blade was revealed. Even in the dimming light it blazed, as if excited by his agitation. He swept the rest of the straw aside hastily. Then, with his eyes swimming in their sockets, he ran his fingers over the hilt, tracing its intricate engravings. He turned to me and saw, no doubt, my self-satisfied smile, and he immediately lifted his hand from the thing. He cocked his head as if considering something. Then he came back to sit in front of me, though his eyes continued to stray toward the sword.

I got up slowly and placed the war sword back in the sack. I gathered up the straw and shoved it in after it. Then I put the sack in the corner and covered it over with some of the skins. As I went to sit again, I found, to my disgust, that Edeco was just replacing my wine cup. His hand was quaking. “A thing of great beauty, is it not?” I asked.

He looked away. In profile, the deep scar across his cheek looked even more hideous. I seemed again to smell the warm honey scent that had come to me earlier in my dream. Sigurd had to be there, invisible but beside me, just as he had said. The notion made me giddy. Edeco turned back so sharply that I wondered if I had unwittingly laughed aloud. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“Ildico.” The power of transformation seemed to lie within the word itself. I was glad Sigurd had suggested it.

“Who are your people?”

I looked aside. “I have none.”

He took my chin and jerked my head toward him. I was pleased to see my composure reflected in his eyes. “I’m a Thuet!” I sneered.

“I can see that for myself.”

“I was separated from my people when I was a child,” I went on. “A band of Romans cut us down while we were traveling. They killed my parents and my brothers and would have killed me, too, had I been older. But I suppose they did not feel it necessary to redden their swords with a small child’s blood when she would likely starve or be killed by some beast anyway. But as you can see, no beast crossed my path. And I did not starve, either.”

Edeco laughed and let go of my chin roughly. “You look half-starved to me.”

“Aye, half. I ate roots and berries. I grew. I learned to steal from the Thuet tribes I came across in my travels. I learned to hunt. There was no excess, but there was enough. And so you see me as I am.”

Edeco searched my eyes. “If there were other Thuets about, why didn’t you show yourself and beg for mercy?”

“When I was younger, I did not because I was afraid. Having seen my people put to death before my eyes, I had no notion of mercy, and I would not have known how to ask for it anyway since I had no language skills then. As I grew older, I did show myself to other Thuets. I stayed with various tribes from time to time. I learned my language and more. But I longed for the way of life I had become accustomed to.”

“How did you come by the sword?”

I sighed and glanced at my wine cup, contaminated now by this Thuet who was a Hun. “It is no ordinary sword. You have seen that. It was fashioned by Wodan himself, back in the days when the gods roamed the Earth as freely as people do now.”

Edeco’s eyes widened. “How can you be certain?”

“The man it once belonged to told me so.”

“And what man is that?”

“He was called Sigurd, a Frankish noble. Perhaps you have heard of—”

“I have not. Tell me how you came by the thing.”

I stared at him. These matters I had planned to save for Attila’s ears. Now I feared that if I told too much to Edeco, Attila would be satisfied to have the story second-hand. But as it was clear that Edeco would not retreat until I answered him, I explained that long ago the gods had lost the sword to a family of dwarves, and that one of these dwarves, wanting the sword for himself, killed his father. To keep his brothers from confronting him, he changed himself into a dragon and took the sword off into the high mountains. Then, years later, one of the dwarf-dragon’s brothers, Regan, promised the sword to Sigurd if Sigurd would accompany him into the high mountains and help him to avenge his father’s death. I made no mention of the rest of the gold. Nor did I mention the curse.

Edeco heard my words with interest, taking his eyes from mine only long enough to raise the wine cup to his lips now and again. Once, when I hesitated in my discourse to catch my breath, he passed the cup to me. I put my hand up to renounce it but then thought better of it and drank, the shared cup being an emblem of camaraderie. Edeco smiled then, and I was satisfied to think that I might easily deceive him into believing that I had come to the City of Attila as a friend. “And how did you come to steal the sword from the Frank?” Edeco asked.

“I did not steal the sword from Sigurd,” I answered. “After he was dead, I stole it from the man who had gotten it from him. Sigurd loved me. He would have wanted me to have it.”

Edeco squinted. I sighed. “You see,” I explained, spurred by his disbelief to give more details than I might have otherwise, “Sigurd returned from the high mountains with only his horse, the sword, and the heart of the dragon. His companion, the dwarf, changed his mind about giving Sigurd the sword when he saw again what a glorious thing it was. And since the dwarf had bought Sigurd’s assistance with the promise of the sword, Sigurd had no choice but to slay Regan.

“I found Sigurd, forlorn because he’d had to kill an old friend, at the foot of the high mountains, not far from the cave where I lived at the time. He was tired, and confused about what he should say to the Franks concerning Regan’s death. Although Regan was not a Frank, he had lived among them for many years, and the Franks loved him. Sigurd was afraid that they would demand the war sword as his man-price when they learned that Regan was dead. Thus he was only too glad to return to my cave with me until he had settled his mind on the matter. He lingered, and I wrote a rune outside the cave to keep the Franks at bay in case they should be looking for him. This rune-wisdom was taught to me by a peasant woman with whom I stayed for a time and made potent by the gods themselves when they determined that I should become a valkyria.”

I hesitated, but Edeco made no comment on my avowed enlightenment. It occurred to me that perhaps being a Thuet who was not a Thuet, he knew nothing of such matters. “We were well matched,” I continued, “me a valkyria with the power to alter events and Sigurd the man who slayed the dragon. And thus it happened that our admiration for each other grew into something more. But before Sigurd and the dwarf set off on their quest, Sigurd had betrothed himself to a Burgundian woman for whom he no longer cared. Still, being a Thuet, he did not like to defile his betrothal vows. And so it was that our intimacy only served to confuse him further. Thus he stayed on with me, vacillating, making himself ill with worry.

“At length, he reached the decision which a man of his word must. He would return to the Burgundian woman, to let her know that he was safe, and then he would ride to the Franks and tell them the truth about the dwarf. But until he had the Franks’ reaction to this news, his desire was to keep the sword hidden. He decided to leave it with the Burgundians, for safe-keeping. Even then I felt that his decision was less than wise, but I was so in love with Sigurd that I mistook my premonition for envy and made no attempt to stop him from doing what he felt he must.

“He’d been safe enough with me, but my powers are mine, and once he was away from me, I had no means to lay them on him. He saw the Burgundian woman, left the sword with her brothers, and then he went home to inform the Franks of Regan’s death. Later he returned, as he felt he had to, to marry the Burgundian. But shortly after their wedding, her brothers began to behave toward him in a manner which was insulting. The elder of the two complained that Sigurd should have offered the war sword to him as part of his sister’s bride-price. Sigurd’s wife likewise became greedy. It was not enough for her to be married to so great a man, a dragon-slayer. She once heard him call out my name in his sleep. And when he reddened the next morning when she asked, ‘Who is Ildico?’ she became enraged. She conspired with her brothers against him. But he grew wise to their conspiracy, and one day he rode out to see me, to tell me all of this and to ask my advice. I looked into the fire that was burning at the mouth of my cave, and I saw that Sigurd’s wife and her brothers were set on killing him, that his life-blood would be spilt as soon as he returned to them. I told him he must never return. But Sigurd’s wife was already heavy with their child, and though he had every right now to break his vows to her, he had no mind to give up the child. He wanted to go back, to offer the sword to his wife’s brothers in return for his life, and then, once his wife had delivered the child, which he hoped would be a son, to steal the child and the sword and return to me. I begged him to see that it was more than the sword these folk wanted. They wanted the glory that Sigurd would have attained, had he lived, in retrieving it. They wanted Sigurd dead so that they could say that they were the ones who had gone off into the high mountains…

“When I told him this, he shook with rage. He could get used to the idea of giving up the war sword, but to know that the brothers would bask in the glory of his acquisition was too much for him. He was set on returning, now to kill the brothers who would do this to him. I begged him not to go. He went. He was killed.”

I hung my head and waited. At length, Edeco spoke, “How did you come to learn of his death?”

I lifted my face so that he could see the tears that had sprung to my eyes. “I knew because I knew. I had foreseen the event in the fire, and I saw it again later, on the walls of my cave as I lay thinking of Sigurd and wishing him back by my side. I knew, but I was numb with sorrow, and for a long time I did nothing. Then, more recently, I came across a tribe of Thuets, Alans, who were traveling to the Western Empire. They spent one night in my cave, and the one who had a harp sang the song of the war sword as he had learned it from the Burgundian brothers.

“I set them right of course, and they promised they would sing the true version thereafter. And when they were gone, I made my plan. I found my way to Burgundian lands, and, at night, when I felt certain that all within were sleeping, I entered the hall of the brothers and found the sword—no difficult task. You saw yourself how the thing catches light in a way which only an enchanted thing may do. The proud brothers had not even thought to hide it. It was there on the wall above the high seat. I took it down noiselessly, and as soon as it was in my hands, I felt how it was thirsty for blood, how it was made to be sated. You know this, too! I saw your face when you touched the thing! It was all I could do to hold myself back from taking it up against the brothers and the woman as well. But I understood also that this sword, Wodan’s war sword, was meant to cut down armies, not a few insignificant Thuets who would suffer a greater loss than life when they learned the thing was gone. I stole a horse. I rode feverishly. You know the rest.”

I sat back on my heels and drained the rest of the wine from my cup. I could feel Edeco’s eyes on me, burning with wonder. I was burning, too, with pride and something more. I had imparted my tale with vigor. It differed from the one that I had rehearsed with my brothers before my departure, yes, but it was no less a marvel. I had not meant to mention the Burgundians by name, and I could not think why I had done so, but I did not see how it would matter one way or another. And most of all, in spite of all my fabrications, I had managed to be true, or nearly so, to Sigurd. His name and his glory were secure, even here, in the City of Attila.

I set down the wine cup and glanced at the doorway, graced now by the lower edge of the descending sun. The light pouring in was golden.

“Why Attila?” Edeco asked softly.

I was prepared for the question. “Have you heard nothing?” I exclaimed, falling forward and planting my palm on Edeco’s knee. “I grew up in the forest alone, living on what I could steal! I stayed here and there, yes, but only for short periods of time, and not one of those I stayed with ever loved me or considered me one of his own. And, in truth, I preferred my aloneness, until I met Sigurd. Only then did I come to learn what it means to walk in the shadow of a great man, to be called friend by someone whose powers are equal to my own!

“Sigurd is dead, and I will never love a man that way again. But I have come here to seek the company of another great man, to lend my powers to a man who is, perhaps, in his own way, even greater than Sigurd. And I have brought with me the thing which only a great man may possess, the likes of which would cause chaos in the hands of a lesser man.”

I jumped to my feet and tossed aside the skins as carelessly as Edeco had earlier. I reached into the sack, and spilling straw everywhere, pulled forth the war sword and held it up by the hilt. When I turned with it, the hot red orb of the sun was lower yet, filling the space now between the top of the doorway and the high palisade beyond it. And thus the sword became a torch in my hand, a wild, flashing thing which put the sun’s light to shame. Edeco, who had bounded to his feet as well, abandoned his pretense of indifference now and let his mouth drop open. He drew back and shielded his eyes from the sword’s fierce glare. Was it an accident, I wondered in my boldness, that the sun had chosen this moment to set? I had seen that it was setting, but I had made nothing of it; I had not planned to retrieve the sword. Again the warm honey scent permeated the little hut, and I fancied that it was Sigurd who had compelled me to take up the sword at just that instant.

My triumph made me giddy. I heard myself laughing wickedly, as the valkyria Brunhild might have done. In response, Edeco’s expression became even more bewildered, his bright blue eyes darting feverishly from me to the sword to the sun and around again. I felt his fear, his awe. I watched, amused, as he struggled to strike an attitude. His eyes still dancing, he brought his hand up from his side and growled, “Give it to me.”

I drew back. “I will give it only to Attila.”

“I will give it to him for you. You have my word,” he said more gently. “Give it to me. I do not want to have to hurt you.”

I laughed in his face, for as I had the sword, the notion was absurd. But the guard, who had halted his horse to learn the cause of the commotion, had seen the thing now, too. I lowered the sword and handed it to Edeco. He took it up as if it were a fragile thing. The guard saw the exchange and began, reluctantly it seemed, to pace again.

“Attila returns tomorrow,” Edeco said, his gaze sweeping along the length of the sword. “I will keep the sword until then. I will tell him all that you have told me. I have no doubt that he will send for you.” He gestured for the sack.

As soon as he was gone, I spread out the skin I had slept on earlier. I was anxious to see Sigurd again, to discuss with him what I had said and done, if only in a dream. His scent was still heavy in the hut; I had no doubt that his phantom would still be available to me. I lay down and closed my eyes, but my mind was racing, and I could not fall asleep. In spite of my efforts to empty my mind, it bustled with my image, with the way I had spoken, the way I had planted my hand on the Thuet-Hun’s knee, the way I had pulled forth the sword and held it up, as if to silence the setting sun.

I saw myself over and over again as I imagined I had looked to Edeco, a small, thin woman laughing sardonically and holding light itself in her grasp. My only regret was that my audience had not been Attila. I marveled at how evil I had become, at how much I had enjoyed my wicked charade.

But the evening progressed, and, gradually, my conceit was shaded by another perspective. I had drunk from the same cup as my enemy. I had laid my hand on him as if he were a brother. I had despised the Huns all my life, and yet I had spent a time conversing with one—for he was a Hun in mind if not in blood—and it had never once entered my thoughts that this Hun, this Thuet who was a Hun, might well have been in Worms when the blood of my people flowed like a river. When I had held the sword up to the sun, I had felt an impulse to strike Edeco with it, but not because he was my enemy. The truth was more that in holding the thing, I had felt myself an extension of it—and thus had been overcome with an urge to experience its power.

The night was slipping by. I could sense the sun yearning to rise again, and still sleep evaded me. The honey scent was gone now, and I wondered whether I had only imagined it earlier. What force had caused me to mention the Burgundians like that? Would it really make no difference? I had taken some pleasure in marking my brothers as villains. How was that possible? I had even taken pleasure in tainting myself.

Perhaps it was not madness after all that had made me feel so emboldened, so oblivious, so giddy—all feelings that eluded me now as cunningly as sleep. Perhaps, I thought, the curse had found a way to reach me. Since the time I had first received the sword from Gunner’s hand, I had amused myself by thinking that I was too good, too much a true Burgundian, to be contaminated. Now I wondered. Now I was ashamed.

I crawled into the corner and trembled with humiliation. I felt alone, afraid, as if I were a marmot without a tunnel on hand, separated from its colony by time and space and allegiance. I was sick with longing for Sigurd, and I tried with all my being to conjure up his presence again, to detect once more his honey scent. But I smelled nothing but my own fear. And soon I came to suspect that the illusion of Sigurd’s presence, like the illusion of my valor, which had been building for days and days, had been yet another trick of the sword. I was sick with fear and self-loathing. I gagged but could not vomit. And when I had spent myself and finally fell asleep, I dreamed of nothing.


Categories: Historical Fiction, literary fiction | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: ‘I Should Have Stayed in Morocco’ by Stephen Caputi

Morocco_medTitle: I Should Have Stayed in Morocco

Genre: Memoir

Author: Stephen Caputi

Website: http://www.stevecaputi.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Read the First Chapter

Purchase from Amazon / OmniLit

About the Book: 

Stephen Caputi’s memoir, I Should Have Stayed in Morocco, is not just another forensic account of billionaire Ponzi-schemer Scott Rothstein’s life. Caputi opens his heart and soul as he takes the reader on a journey through two decades rife with personal experiences, misadventures and wild escapades with Rothstein, climaxing with their now-infamous ramble in Casablanca. It’s a frighteningly true story of how friendship and loyalty was dedicatedly served to a master-manipulator, just to be rewarded with deceitful betrayal and a prison sentence.


Amtrak Station, Deerfield Beach, FL

February 5, 2012 – Super Bowl Sunday        

“You fucking idiot, you should have stayed in Morocco,” I muttered under my breath to nobody in particular as I collapsed my forehead onto the headrest of the empty seat in front of me. I’d boarded the train at 7:04 a.m. yet still had my foot wedged intentionally in front of the door-closing mechanism to prevent the door from shutting—a feeble attempt to prolong an already excruciating goodbye scene. It had turned into a real-life enactment of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes from Casablanca. Only it was playing in reverse.

It was me, the nightclub owner who was departing on a train, not Ingrid Bergman boarding a plane. It was my girl Elizabeth who was being left behind, not Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick. She was crumpled up on a wooden bench just outside the train door, shedding the tears that can only be caused by the separation or death of a loved one. A distinct, sickening anguish shared by both of us.

It was like being conscious during a nightmare, only in this case the nightmare was real. Watching it unfold as if it were on the big screen added a surreal element to what was already a disjointed, fragmented scene, like a living 3D Picasso. My actions felt animated and somehow rehearsed, but the pain was real. I withdrew my foot and watched her from the window. The reflection staring back at me in the dual-paned glass presented another distorted Picasso-like image. The final minutes on that platform dragged on in slow motion, yet my heart was racing. A lifelong movie aficionado, I could only hang my head in recognition of the ironic, film-noir quality that my departure—and my life—had taken.

The horn sounded and the train began its slow roll, creeping up the track. The last thing I recognized before my eyes glazed over completely was a blurry wave and a futile kiss goodbye blown in my direction. I was going directly to jail, without passing GO or collecting $200. As a matter of fact, my entire net worth couldn’t even equal that figure. The $173 in my wallet and the shirt on my back were the only things I had left.

To make matters worse, I had manifested a blinding headache from fighting back the tears, resisting the urge to break down. I’d promised myself beforehand that I would stay strong and not crack. I was en route to FSC (Federal Satellite Camp) in Jesup, Georgia, a federal prison camp where I would self-surrender. After not working for three years, courtesy of the U.S. Marshals, my resources had dwindled, forcing me to sell my beautiful home in Forest Lake Estates to pay my huge legal fees. It had been my dream to gift my daughter the house where she’d been happily raised during her childhood. I was crushed. My destruction was now complete.

“I… I should have stayed… should have stayed… in Morocco,” I whispered again in staccato, my voice fading as I began to choke on my own words. Not long ago I’d been lounging in a suite at the Golf Palace in Marrakesh, staring at $16 million in cash and over $4 million worth of designer watches sitting on the floor at my feet. When I left Morocco, my bank account at the Banco Popular held a cool one million U.S. dollars. But no… I had to do the right thing… my father’s mantra ringing in my ears… and at least try to help recover the money stolen by my crooked partner, Scott Rothstein. People had been hurt, and I had been used and manipulated like a puppet in one of his colossal schemes. I was disgusted with myself. How could I have let that happen?

At the beginning of the government’s inquisition, I was optimistic that they would uncover the truth; I had never stolen anything from anyone, EVER, and this incident was no exception. I planned and expected to be grilled by men of intelligence that cared about the truth, men who would understand that I’d been duped. I’d been tricked by a master manipulator, fooled into believing him the same way everyone else did — including high-ranking people in government: 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain, Senator Arlen Specter, Governor Charlie Crist, Sheriff Nick Navarro, and even one of the most seasoned, intelligent and calculated businessmen on Earth: The Don.

They trusted him, as I had. Most of the “big shots” that Rothstein associated with took money from him in some way, shape or form… but I didn’t. Why was I held to a higher standard? I considered myself to be nothing more than an inadvertent participant. Little did I know that my lack of “knowledge and intent” to commit a crime was not a relevant defense. Only law enforcement was allowed the luxury of having the defense of non-intention when it came to committing a crime. The powerbrokers in their ivory towers protected their backsides when they changed the laws to facilitate more, quicker and easier convictions. In my case, the prosecutors’ hands were tied by laws that precluded them from applying more than a cursory dose of discretion, intelligence and common sense. I knew they were just doing their jobs within the framework they’d been given, feeding a steady stream of bodies into the insatiable Perpetual Prisoner Money Machine. They were blindly carrying out the orders of the taskmasters, the sociopathic Suits on Top (“SOTs”), regardless of the inhumanity of it. Wasn’t that what I did with Rothstein — follow his orders? The scary truth was that they had the power to punish me even more than they did. They could have destroyed me completely, but to their credit, they chose not to. Thank God! But in the moment, it provided no solace. The system was a beast.

This robotic process seemed to be no more than an unfortunate series of consequences resulting in the conscienceless destruction of people and families… by the millions. In practice, bona fide justice had been diminished, now relegated to being a random, inadvertent and often incidental byproduct of a perverse and calculated criminal justice system. Enforcement of written law had somehow become more important than the concept of law, and the concept of “equal application of justice” had been downgraded to a buzzword. I didn’t have $300 million dollars to stroke a check to the Feds to get them off my back like others did. In other words, I was totally fucked.

In retrospect, I was incredibly stupid for having given the remotest consideration to the possibility that the government would care even one iota about anything other than my conviction. That’s what I should have been convicted of, being naïve enough to think that doing the right thing would save me. Dumb-ass! I deserved a 60-month sentence just for that alone. By the end of eighteen-months of legal “processing,” my frustration level had crescendoed to an all-time high—with myself, the system, and of course my ex-partner Rothstein.

         Regardless, the unthinkable had just happened; my last day had finally arrived. Every day for the past two years I’d wake up thanking God for giving me one more day of freedom. Now it was over.

My nightmare had inauspiciously begun on Halloween night a little over two years ago in 2009, when Liz and I boarded the Air Marac flight to North Africa. I became numb just thinking about that day. My ears started ringing… tinnitus on steroids. My mind began to race, flitting from one thought to another every few seconds. My heart palpitating, I wondered if I was about to have a heart attack. The coffee had turned to acid in my empty stomach and I needed to throw up.


* * *

Two hours down the tracks I began to calm down. The train was approaching Orlando, which conjured up images of countless road trips that flickered like a slideshow in my mind’s eye. Vivid recollections of dozens of softball tournaments, celebrations and award ceremonies, deep laughter that turned to tears, cheap motel rooms and lumpy beds. I envisioned a virtual collage of theme park adventures flashing before me. Sounds of children screaming on the thunderous rides, and the smell of cotton candy that had to be eaten quickly before it melted in the torrid, sopping central Florida heat. Every one of them a memorable clip in a long-running highlight film of experiences with the crown jewel of my life, my little girl Lucy.

For a few fleeting moments I was freed from my ragged emotional body, floating with her through Disney’s magical It’s a Small World Fantasyland boat ride. It was the ultimate kids’ dream to see in real life what had previously only been imagined; to see the animated munchkins, toy soldiers drumming, talking lollipops and flowers, singing puppets and other characters come to life. She looked up at me in what may have been the first wave of realization of her young life and blurted, “Daddy, it’s my birfday and we’re at Disney World! Thank you, thank you, Daddy!”

She’d gazed up at me with her big, brown, loving eyes, a look that could only come from a three-year-old who adored her father, hugging me tight before beaming herself back into that Small World. Life had awarded me with a perfect moment. For fifteen seconds, everything had synchronized into a pure consciousness of love, appreciation and contentment shared between two connected souls. It was as close to perfection in this world as I’d ever felt, before or after, and I lived it again as if it had happened just earlier that morning.

As my reverie melded itself into the background of ambient train noises, I was pulled back into the real world. My solar plexus reflexively tightened as I unwillingly began to re-live the gut-wrenching departure scene that I suffered just a few hours ago. Wasn’t once enough?

It was no wonder that countless men had been driven to madness over the ages. History taught us that every man, no matter how stalwart, had his own personal breaking point. I didn’t want to think about it but couldn’t stop replaying the morning’s episode. As my old buddy Murph used to say, it was all over me like an eighty-pound fire ant. A scant few minutes ago I had been relishing moments from the highlight reel of my life, but I had become queasy again. Was there some kind of cosmic law governing the balance of energy that required a corresponding moment of negativity to countersink every moment of elation?

The pendulum was swinging heavily in the wrong direction. I wasn’t cut out for this; this was not my life, it couldn’t be! I’d been so happy for so long. Happiness was my natural condition, the default. How could that all be over for me now? What a wretched state; how could anything get any worse?

Oddly enough, a little voice inside my head whispered right back. “That’s what you think!” What I’d said to myself was the cosmic equivalent of sticking one’s tongue out at Satan himself, hissing, “I dare you!” Although I had no idea what powers governed forces like this, I did know that they were for real. Words do have power when they’re linked to emotions, and I proved it the hard way. A lesson learned: never tempt fate.

* * *

Self-pity is an exasperating, exhausting activity. My mind was shot after a few hours of thrashing myself, second-guessing every choice I’d ever made—especially the ones that created the conditions that lead to my current predicament. The incalculable complexity of the intricacies and dynamics at play combined with my legal woes and huge personal issues, such as losing my home and going broke, were throwing me into another mind-spin; more self-recrimination, guilt, trauma and pain.

I hated being miserable—more than most people. I forced myself to draw the line right then and there, and to stop thinking, at least for the time being. I collected myself, giving myself assurance that I was indeed okay for that exact moment. I’d have to forget the past and the future and force myself to stay in the moment. I understood the concept, but convincing myself of it was another story.

Focus. I was taking a nice ride through rural Florida and everything was fine. I was safe, warm and comfortable. I forced myself to relax and appreciate my immediate conditions. Nothing else was relevant. Perhaps things would stabilize for me now that I’d already sunk to the bottom of life’s apple barrel. I was just convicted of a white-collar felony, not as scathing as a convicted drug dealer or child molester. But, yes they were felons, too! Once inside we were all the same.

Perhaps I could actually survive this experience and someday emerge to join the normal rank and file of the community. Reality clawed back; it was too soon to begin plotting my comeback. I hadn’t even arrived in prison yet. I silently mouthed my favorite all-time managerial quote: “One disaster at a time.”

The soothing smell of comfort food wafted down from the dining car, so I jumped out of my seat and headed for the bar. I figured I could use a couple of Grey Goose Bloody Mary’s right about then. Ordinarily, setting the Goose loose this early in the day would have been unthinkable. As a businessman I needed to be lucid during the day, but under the present circumstances, it would be forgivable… and just might help right the ship. At least for now.

One of my three lifelong college buddies from Cornell University would be picking me up at the train station in Jesup in seven hours. He insisted on treating me to one last supper before depositing me at Hell’s doorstep. Certainly he wouldn’t judge me for drinking all day, especially since he would have polished off at least a twelve-pack on his way from Atlanta. He was from an athletic fraternity whose primary focus was drinking and I belonged to a drinking fraternity whose primary focus was athletics. The perfect match both on the field and off.

I felt extremely fortunate to have a few real friends left in this world. I’d pretty much been abandoned by everyone I’d ever known as soon as I lost the ability to do something for them. I was suddenly persona non grata after I lost my business and my status as a nightclub owner. As soon as I was considered to be “in trouble with the law,” my phone went dark—right when I needed support the most. On the bright side, at least I could tell who my friends were. My mind went temporarily blank as I threw back the first vodka.

I wondered what Elizabeth was doing and allowed my thoughts to revisit our last moments together once again… in more detail and even more emotion than before. Then twin daggers seared through my temples as my thoughts turned to my Lucy. Goddamn it!

Categories: Memoir | Tags: | 1 Comment

Excerpt reveal: ‘Bach, Casals and the Six Suites for ’Cello’ by Steven Hancoff

Bach ibook vol 1_0504.pdfTitle: Bach, Casals and the Six Suites for Cello Solo

Author: Steven Hancoff

Genre: multimedia 4-volume CD

Purchase on iTunes.

Website: www.stevenhancoff.com

I have transcribed and recorded the thirty-six masterpieces that comprise J. S. Bach’s Cello Suites on acoustic guitar—almost three hours of music. 

I have also written a four-volume, highly interactive e-book: Bach, Casals and The Six Suites for ‘Cello Solo — biographies of Bach and of Pablo Casals, the man who rescued the Suites from oblivion. This work is anecdotal rather than technical, describing the lives of these great men in the context of their times as I have come to fathom them—as fascinating, illuminating, and inspiring artists, and as human beings challenged, like all of us, by the demands life. 

In addition to the storytelling, the book is highly illustrated, with about 1,000 period pictures – portraits, oils, watercolors, stained glass, photographs, etchings and engravings, documents, sculptures, statues and monuments. These pictures illustrate the text, and make the e-book very colorful and accessible.         

In addition, more than 300 contemporary artists have contributed hundreds of works of contemporary art, all of which is inspired by J. S. Bach and Pablo Casals. This is the most comprehensive art book devoted to Bach and Casals that has ever been compiled. 

To tell the story of the Cello Suites, I have also created and embedded 25 beautiful and compelling videos. 

Not only that but the written transcriptions — the scores – will be made available for free so that guitarists who wish to learn these pieces can try their hands at them. 

Here we have a set of music by Bach never before performed on acoustic guitar, accompanied by entertaining, easy-to-read, stunning and informative biographies in the form of a visually bountiful, highly interactive e-book.


To me, the mystery and the greatness of Bach’s music lie in his unerring mastery, his ability to unify the expression of breathtaking beauty, primal emotion, vast power, and intel-lectual rigor, and to do so on a giant canvas. The confluence of these elements evokes the feeling of flow, the feeling that each note inevitably follows the preceding one, such that there is never a wrong” note, only “right” ones – never a random note, only meaningful ones.  The music of Bach has no trace of negativity, only exaltation and upliftedness – the permissible delights of the soul, as Bach himself put it.  He seems to have created music from a state of reverence, awe, and wonder at Creation itself, as an act of gratitude for having been created to witness and participate in it, and with an innate feeling of personal proximity to eternity itself.  One feels exposed to unveiled cosmic truth by means of transparent musical purity.”

It is almost as though rather than having been composed, the music emanated from some exalted plane to which Bach was somehow attuned, perhaps something like The Music of the Spheres, the Keplerian notion contemporaneous with Bach, that ultimately music is the sound of Universal relationship – “the movements of the planets are modulated according to harmonic proportions… as God, the Creator Himself, has expressed it in harmonizing the heavenly motions.”  [Harmonices Mundi, Johannes Kepler, 1619]  Or as the great Casals most elegantly and succinctly put it, “Music is the Divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.”  Like some bodhisattva, Bach seemed born to translate and transmit this music to us all.  The more I play the Suites, the more certain I am that the Six Suites for Cello Solo is one piece of music that becomes majestic, more beautiful, more powerful, and more profound as one journeys from the first notes of the First Prelude through the last ones of the Sixth Gigue.”

“Not only are there six Cello Suites, but there are also six movements that comprise each Suite.  So many of the masterpieces Bach composed during his time in Cöthen – Six Solo and Double Violin Concertos, Six English Suites for Harpsichord, Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord, Six Partitas and Sonatas for Violin Solo – are likewise constructed of six parts.

So, I began to wonder whether the number six in and of itself May have held specific and important meaning for Bach, an Extraordinarily devout man who spent much of his life engaged In the study of texts, both orthodox and mystical, sacred to him, for use as libretto for his hundreds of cantatas and the Passions, as well as for inspired instruction as to how to conduct a just and balanced life.  Did he compose so regularly in six movements because of purely aesthetic considerations, or were there also “metaphysical underpinnings?  For as Marcel Proust rightly wrote, “Art is a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgments. An artist recreates those aspects of reality which represent his Fundamental view of man’s nature.”

Categories: Non-Fiction | Tags: | Leave a comment

Chapter Reveal: Kings or Pawns (Steps of Power, The Kings: Book I), by J.J. Sherwood

KingsorPawnscoverSMmTitle: Kings or Pawns (Steps of Power, The Kings: Book I)

Genre: Fantasy

Author: J.J. Sherwood

Website: www.StepsofPower.com

Publisher: Silver Helm

Purchase at Amazon

Kings or Pawns is the first novel in the Steps of Power series. It takes place after two very significant events in the world—the continental division between the human and elven races after the betrayal and death of Aersadore’s hero, Eraydon, and the recent Royal Schism that has left the elven nation’s politics even more corrupted than was prior. The new elven king, Hairem, is determined to overcome the council’s corruption and restore the elven lands, but he has far more to contend with than just the politics within the capital: an assassin has begun killing those loyal to him, a rebelling warlord threatens the city from without, and an unknown beast devastates the king’s forces at every turn. There are multiple points of view—the youthful and naïve king Hairem; the mute and spunky servant girl, Alvena; the mysterious and arrogant foreigner, Sellemar; and the cynical, dry-humored General Jikun.

Chapter One

Seven hundred forty-five hard fought days and seven hundred forty-four miserable nights they had borne to return to this place. Now the sun that arose from the horizon was more vivid and welcoming than any sunrise Jikun had seen on any day before. The sky was golden, radiating a warmth of color that cut through the cold spring morning fog like a blade. The ancient trees that lined the wide dirt road and covered the surrounding landscape shook off little drops of water as a fragrant breeze gently wove toward the elves’ greatest city on Sevrigel: Elvorium, the seat of the Council of Elves.

“Forgive my cliché, but isn’t that a sight for sore eyes?” grinned his captain. “The gods certainly know how to remind you of what you are fighting for, do they not, General?”

“That they do, Navon,” Jikun inhaled deeply. Even the stench of blood and rotting leather from one hundred fifty thousand soldiers could not conceal the pleasant aromas twisting their way toward him from across the canyon: at long last, through the final trees skirting the edge of the forest behind him, Jikun’s eyes could see the breadth of the Sel’varian city, plainly visible in the center of the cliff side that jutted out into a “V” shape over the canyon. At the end of the precipice, settled between two rivers that cascaded over the edge of the cliff, was the palace of the king.

A roar of relief and excitement arose from behind the general and his captain. Several helmets dared sail past the two, ringing as they bounced off the stone bridge before them to drop like stones into the canyon below.

“Hold onto your possessions!” General Jikun roared, turning in his saddle. “The next elf who acts like a god damn human will be stripped naked and paraded through the streets with the horses!”

The clamor quieted and Jikun turned back to Navon with a thin smile etched across his lips.

Although it was a far cry from home, he had to admit that he too was glad to return to the capital.

“Don’t make indecent threats lightly; the troops take you quite seriously,” his captain rebuked him with all the airs of a typical Sel’ven. Jikun considered it ill-suiting, as the captain had not a drop of Sel’varian blood in his body. Which was a relief for him amongst his troops.

“I was entirely serious, Navon.”

Jikun nudged his horse forward across the stone bridge that stretched over the vast ravine. The structure was a marvel of Sel’varian engineering, architecture, and magic, hardly comparable to the other elven races’ ability to design. Extending at a great expanse, the bridge was held in place by curved stone pillars mounted to the cliff side and supported by magic. The columned archway and railing across the bridge were intricately detailed, but more than being merely an adornment, they helped to shield travelers from the sudden canyon gusts that could catch a passerby off-guard.

Jikun had, on more than one occasion, imagined himself lurching over the side to an inescapable death and now found himself wondering if the archway and railing had been part of the original concept, or if they had been added later after some visiting merchant had met his doom. But of course, the Sel’vi would never admit to such a design mistake. Perhaps this was why a score of houses still spotted the canyon face below the palace where they would one day, inevitably, fall away beneath the erosion of the stone and send their poor, but foolish, inhabitants several leagues downward. During which they would hopefully have sufficient time to contemplate their poor life choices.

Jikun stiffened and edged his horse to the center of the bridge. This bridge, like the one on the opposite end of the canyon, led into the south and north ends of the city respectively. With the east end of the city banked by an enormous lake, the bridges were the primary entry points into the city. And all the elven magic in Aersadore could not comfort him when marching several hundred thousand bodies across its lengthy structure.

The horses whinnied faintly as though sharing mutually in Jikun’s dislike for this final stretch of their journey. He reached forward, patting his mare softly on the neck. Perhaps even she recognized the sight up ahead. At the bend in the bridge just before them, he could see the city’s gateway swung open wide and hear a roar of triumph and praise erupt from the guards at their posts. The salutary trumpet blasts seemed to have already been announced and Jikun imagined the waiting elves had let them loose when the watch had first seen his army rising across the west bank’s hillsides. Jikun pulled to the center of the bridge as Navon respectfully withdrew behind him.

‘What I wouldn’t give to skip this drivel of politics and charades and take a damn hot bath,’ Jikun muttered to himself as the bridge seemed to lengthen around the bend. He glanced once over the marble side—it had been over two years since he had last seen its depths; it still made his stomach drop like a stone. Far below them was a large forest, heavily shrouded in the center by the thick rolls of mist running off from the waterfalls pouring toward a lake below. From this lake, a thin river, banked on either side by a narrow field, wound its way into the distance, away to the Noc’olari or Ruljen ethnicities in the northeast.

Jikun’s head snapped back up in unease and he directed his attention instead to the first male at the gate.

“Congratulations, General, on yet another victory!” the captain of the city guard greeted as Jikun passed underneath the archway and onto the safety of the cobbled streets of the city. “His Majesty awaits you at the palace.”

Jikun nodded his head once toward the guard and pressed onward, eyes sweeping the streets of Elvorium. The gold-slated rooftops glimmered in the light of dawn and the long shadows across Mehuim Way crept up the cream faces of the buildings tinted with an orange glow. All along the street sides and hanging from windows were countless elves tossing flowers, shouting praise, and glowing with smiles. Despite having been awoken before the dawn by the welcoming trumpet calls that had saluted his troops’ approach, the Sel’vi were beaming with neatly braided hair and broadening smiles, as though they had long been awaiting this day.

But Jikun imagined they didn’t even remember what he was fighting for. It was simply the “victory” itself that had driven them to patriotism.

The street curved gently toward the entrance of the palace. Even as Jikun was lavished with shouts of praise and welcome, it seemed but a short march down its way before he and his soldiers passed beneath a flower-laden archway and stepped into the presence of several scores of elves.

Here, the mood shifted palpably. The elves waiting before the palace were taciturn and silent, bestowing no salute or praise onto the defenders of Sevrigel. Their lack of response was contagious, spreading like the Cadorian Plague through the troops and into the city beyond. Jikun’s face grew stoic, the joyous welcome forgotten. Even the naivety of praise and victory was preferred over the stiff bastards that delayed his hot bath now.

These males before him were guards, council members, and a large portion of the nobility. However, despite the conspicuous splendor of the surrounding elves, the most prominent figure stood at the forefront: Hairem, Prince of Elvorium and the Sel’vi, second of non-royal blood since the Royal Schism.

As the army fanned out behind Jikun, the crowd before him, with the exception of the prince, went down to one knee.

This gesture was a long-established practice, and Jikun doubted that he and his army would have been shown the same respect were not the Sel’vi pedants for tradition. Pedant was, without a doubt, the most accurate and all-encompassing word he could ascribe to that breed of elves. The council members were pridefully stiff in their bows, eyes never fully lowering to the earth. Their guards, though more sincere in their respect, were nonetheless all too quick to their feet.

‘I’d like to see you leave your homes to lead a war. Then we’d see how your respect rises,’ Jikun reflected sourly in response, though his expression remained carefully detached.

He was not a Sel’ven and it was perhaps this fact that led him to regard their actions with an extra tinge of cynicism. He was from the far north—the frozen lands of Darival, land of the Lithri and Darivalians. Though his army was diverse in the race of elves it had deployed, now in Elvorium he felt out of place, as his appearance clearly spoke that he was a foreigner. His hair was a blue tinted silver, like the mountains that framed Darival. His skin was a grey-white, like shadows banking the snow. And although he was tall and slender like his Sel’varian brethren, his facial features were stronger and sharper—like a sculpture chiseled from ice.

Jikun knew there was one other of his kind amongst the group before him, but he could not spot the council member’s presence amongst the crowd. He wove his hand once into the air and heard his fellow riders obediently dismount to the smooth cobbled stones. He swung himself lightly from the saddle and dropped the reins at his side.

There was a sudden eruption of murmuring from the council members. When he twisted from his horse to look, surprise rooted him in place. Hairem, prince of the Sel’vi, knelt on one knee before the army, his symbolic sword scraping carelessly across the ground beside him as though he was blind to all but the triumphant troops.

Non-royal blood or not, the gesture caught Jikun by surprise as well. Though he had not lived amongst the Sel’vi for long, he imagined that in the history of their proud nation, no ruler had gone on bended knee before any male or female of lower rank. And for all purposes of tradition, as far as the elves were concerned, Hairem was as royal as the True Bloods of The Royal Schism three centuries before. Attesting to this were the wide-eyed council members, mouths agape between murmurs as they stared in shock toward the scandalous behavior.

‘Now what am I supposed to do?’ Jikun regarded Hairem with a knit brow and slightly parted lips, then glanced in the direction of his Helvarian captain, hoping Navon would have a notion of the most appropriate response.

His captain responded with an equally bewildered look and glanced about himself, seeming to hope the answer would materialize from the crowd.

‘He has no idea…’

      Yet Navon’s eyes flicked back to the prince and he seemed to gather himself enough to move; he slowly went down to a knee before the male. In a wave, the army followed.

Jikun placed a hand to his breast and bowed low, eyes never leaving Hairem. He had been on his knees for the prince’s father for two and a half years: a bow was more than sufficient.

It was only when the army had returned the gesture of respect did the prince stand, raising his head sharply and drawing himself up before the army. He was young, but his blue eyes were cold and hard. His long, golden hair was loosely braided back and thin strands buffeted his face in the sharp gusts of wind coming in from the east. Raising his hands in welcome, Prince Hairem spoke formally, “Sevrigel owes you her gratitude for yet another successful war against Saebellus. Without doubt, you and your army are road weary, but I must detain you for a moment longer. Come, General, we have matters to discuss.” And with that, he turned in a sweeping motion, his golden cape billowing out and catching the wind, and stepped away to the palace beyond the crowd.

Jikun heaved an inward sigh, though a report to the king was expected. ‘Gods I just want a damn bath.’ He handed the reins of his horse to Navon and his captain passed him as subtle a rebuke as he could manage.

Was his impatience that apparent?

No, Navon just knew him too well.

Jikun left his army behind as he followed Hairem through the parting cluster of council members and guards. He could see their lips move slightly as they leaned in to one another, losing no time to gossip about what had taken place. Jikun focused back ahead in time to catch the end of the prince’s cape vanishing around the corner. He quickened his pace and strode free of the crowd, mindfully aware of the seething mass of hypocritical politicians he had just stepped through. At least it was to King Liadeltris that he reported.

“Keep up, General Taemrin,” the prince beckoned as he swept around another bend and stepped in through a side door of the palace.

Jikun glanced once behind him and his brow knit. Was this the usual way toward the king? It had been a few years since he had set foot inside the palace. They moved down a steeply sloped, mildly ornate hallway to a large, arched doorway.

Here the prince stopped, propping the door open with his foot, and leaned in toward a nearby shelf.

It took Jikun a moment to gather his surroundings: soft blue light from the orb bobbing near the ceiling, gleaming rows of mildly dusty glass, wooden racks that tucked their contents snuggly in carefully carved bowels. He looked about the cellar in bewilderment. Surely the prince was not above calling upon servants to do these tasks.

“Your Highness, would you like—” Jikun began.

“No, almost have it,” the prince grunted. “Ah, there we go. Is Eastern Glades a satisfactory vintage? Well, I certainly hope so as it appears to be the best bottle in here.” He patted the dust from the side with a cough.

Jikun held the door open as the prince tucked the bottle beneath his arm in order to pick up and examine two glasses. Appearing satisfied, he passed the Darivalian without so much as a glance and staunchly strode back up the way they had come. And further still, up a staircase divided by many levels of open rooms, all of which were empty and lit only for the sake of appearance. Here, the palace’s grandeur reached the obscene—it was as though all the gold and jewels of the kingdom had been inlaid into every facet of every surface. The highest room, and one of two private council chambers of the king, was their final destination.

This room, unlike many of the others, was designed to give the appearance of a vast and heavily used study, but the dust about the room was almost tangible—as though the place had not been touched since the Royal Schism.

Prince Hairem set the glasses and bottle casually in the center of the desk, striding toward the king’s chair.

“Will His Majesty be joining us this morning?” Jikun inquired as he gave the lavish room a quick, distasteful glance. He heard the guards outside close the door softly behind them. Jikun’s brow knit as he eyed the wine that the prince uncorked.

“Your failure to receive our dove makes me wonder who did.” Hairem paused a moment, staring briefly—blankly—at the glass bottle. “My father passed away thirteen days ago of an illness.”

Jikun’s eyes met those of the prince in shock. His lips parted, but he knew not what words he sought. ‘Liadeltris is dead…?’

As though reading his mind, the prince waved a slight hand as he pulled his heavy chair back with his free hand. “I need no words of your deepest sorrows to remind me of mine. I have seen one elf die in the last century and you have undoubtedly seen the passing of thousands in the last few weeks alone. To which of us goes the greater sorrow, I have no doubt. I have had the consolation of my city. I instead offer you my deepest condolences on your recent battles.” As he waited for Jikun to sit, the general could feel the king’s eyes searching his face for emotion.

He gave him none: neither for the late king nor his soldiers. He had indeed seen thousands die in the last weeks alone. And thousands before that. There was a certain numbness that was necessary to survive in times of war—Jikun had long since acquired it. “Thank you for your condolences. I shall pass your words along to my army.”

“And how are your soldiers?” the king inquired, taking a glass and filling it. He leaned forward and offered it to the general.

“…Thank you.” Jikun accepted it, swirling it with a gentle twist of his wrist. “My army is gratified to be serving its king,” he replied, trying to infuse some semblance of emotion into his voice. But that too had gotten lost beneath his mask.

The corners of Hairem’s lips twitched. “Jikun, I am not—may the gods grant him safe passage—my father. I intend to run this kingdom differently. First and foremost, I would request that, in matters of conversation, you treat me as your equal. It benefits neither of us to bear your polite cynicism.”

Jikun leaned back, taking a long sip of wine. He had to admit—he was intrigued by Hairem’s approach. That was twice today that the king had suggested that he was not like other nobility. “As you wish, Your Majesty,” he spoke after a moment’s hesitation, noting that Hairem shifted slightly at the retained title. “We are fatigued, but their spirits are high. Saebellus is a fierce opponent; his army fights with conviction and skill. Our victories have been hard fought and we have paid steeply. I return home with fifty thousand fewer soldiers than I set out with. Saebellus’ forces are wounded, but hardly defeated. And while we spill our blood for the sake of the kingdom, we hear rumors of unrest amongst the politicians… Some say that a peace treaty draws near.”

Hairem tilted his fair head back and laughed once, loudly and almost mockingly at the content of Jikun’s words. “A peace treaty? Let those that suggest it be branded as traitors. I assure you that the kingdom will never settle terms with Saebellus, General. You do not bleed in vain.” He stroked the corner of the desk, eyes hardening as though reflecting on his resolve.

Jikun wondered how strong it was. “Every battle we’ve engaged in has been in Saebellus’ favor. He knows we have the upper hand in numbers and so territory has been his strategy. He never allows us to engage him unless he has a way to flee after a defeat—and when he flees, he and his army simply vanish. And it’s not teleportation magic—no portals at all. Such magic leaves behind a distinct residue and none of my mages have ever found such a trace. Neither, would it seem, is Saebellus capable of using the magic to appear—I would imagine such an ability would have been used countless times for surprise attacks or motions to surround us in. We’re simply grabbing the lizard’s tail for now. But let me assure you, Your Majesty, that Saebellus will be defeated. Even the advantage of territory has won him no battles.”

Hairem nodded his admiration and gave a faint smile. With a slight raise of his glass, he spoke as though still attempting to reassure Jikun of the city’s tenacity. “You are an excellent general, Jikun. No doubt you and your army shall put an end to this war soon enough. Many in the city other than myself believe this as well.”

Jikun nodded his head, knowing it was with overconfidence that the elves placed their trust in Elvorium’s army. Yes, Saebellus had won no battles, but he was by no means defeated.  “Saebellus still retains control of the Beast…” he trailed off, grimacing at the shadow that loomed just outside his mind. These were the hardest words yet. Simply in speaking them, he felt he trod on the darker matters, taunting them to reveal themselves. Even after so many battles, its shape felt faint and distant—surreal in the midst of war. But how real it was. “We have had several battles with the creature and no magic or weapon seems capable of taking its life.”

Jikun saw Hairem’s lips purse into a hard, thin line as his fingers interlocked, but his eyes wavered. Perhaps it was fear that moved them.

As it should.

“Is there anything I can offer you that my father had not already given?” Hairem spoke after a moment’s deliberation.

Jikun exhaled. “Nothing that myself, my captain, or my lieutenants cannot conjure up on our own. I will let you know if matters change. We intend to stay in the city until we hear of Saebellus’ movement again. Those that have homes within the city shall go to them. The rest shall make an encampment outside the city to the north. The soldiers need to refresh their bodies as well as their minds. As for myself,” Jikun continued, leaning back into his chair, “I intend to return to Darival.”

Jikun could see Hairem’s lips part in hesitation, and then his eyes softened. He nodded his head once toward him. “I imagine it is about time you see your home again.”

“It’s been three years,” Jikun replied with a faint smile. “I would imagine so.”

Hairem set his glass down and absentmindedly straightened a stack of unruly papers beside his elbow. Jikun could judge, by the dates smudged along the upper corners, that they were far past their creators’ expected response time. “I was not privy to the extensive military campaign you have led against the rebel warlord. Your last battle was…?”

“Fifteen leagues north of Widows’ Peak. Saebellus fled into the mountains. He has several sorcerers in his ranks—one of which sent an avalanche behind him. We spent two weeks digging out our dead. I do not know where he plans to go from there. …I’m afraid there is little to tell. No cities have been conquered or besieged. Just dead elves and dead horses.” He raised his glass and again swirled the wine inside, ignoring the piece of dust floating at the top. He took a sip. “I assume under your reign my campaign against Saebellus may continue unchanged?”

Hairem nodded. “Yes, General. With, I hope, more fortune in the future.” He paused briefly. “What is your goal, General?”

Jikun blinked, his rigid composure thrown by the question. “My goal…? To fight the war. To win the war, of course.”

Hairem shook his head. “No, I meant after the war, when Saebellus is defeated—what is your ambition?”

Jikun felt the barriers inside himself rise; his face returned to its frigid countenance as memories of disconnected battles scattered the edges of his vision. He scowled inwardly, finding Hairem’s presumption offensively naïve. “You are assuming I live through it.”

Hairem opened his mouth and closed it, clearly discomforted by Jikun’s straightforward, if pessimistic, approach. “I am certain Sel’ari shall protect you for your loyalty and devotion to her people.”

Jikun raised his glass. “Indeed,” was the only monotonous response he could trust himself to offer. He took another sip before transitioning to the next “necessary” words in their political game. “What has taken place in the city while we were gone?” The words rolled off his tongue rather forcefully. It was difficult to put whatever bickering or vices the city suffered at any level of concern in his mind when placed in the perspective of his wars. But he nevertheless lowered his glass and met the eyes of the king with respectful attention.

“At home the council is scattering. When my father assumed kingship after the Royal Schism, it was due to his previous position as El’adorium that granted him the power and hold over the council. I, of course, have had no such experience. My father’s death has left them grasping for new loyalties and I’m afraid I will not be keeping all of them. I may need your help in the coming months.”

Jikun’s expression blanked for a moment even as his gut unsettled. “Help with what…?”

“I need to know that I have the support and protection of our military. It is not easy to pick up where my father left off and not expect things to change. I will have to upset the balance.”

Jikun felt uneasy at the suggestion, but he replied with no semblance of hesitation. “Of course, Your Majesty. The military’s first duty is to the king.”

“Thank you, General.” Hairem paused for a moment, face growing grim. “One of my most loyal council… Just three days before your arrival, the assassin struck within the city again…”

“Who was taken?” Jikun asked, leaning forward with unfiltered intrigue, his leather armor creaking softly in the heavy silence that had suddenly settled over the room.

“Lord Leisum Na’Hemel of Nostoran. Stabbed repeatedly in his bed while he slept. Only the maggots knew for the first two days.”

Jikun’s stomach lurched. Both hands tightened on the arms of his chair. Not at the thought of the mangled body or the feast of insects upon it, but at the thought of the Beast that reawakened at the back of his mind. Hairem had seen nothing of death. Of true slaughter. “How is this assassin being dealt with?” Jikun forced his mind back to the topic at hand. “City Guard? Night’s Watch? Mercenaries?”

“All of the above,” Hairem heaved a sigh. “It is the same killer—he leaves his victims’ arms crossed across their chests, like the worshipers of Asmodius do. Perhaps they are cultist killings…” He trailed off and Jikun scoffed to himself.

Cultist killings that only targeted council members? No. And he had no doubt the king knew better.

“But let us put this matter aside,” Hairem’s voice rose forcefully, snapping his attention to Jikun. “A great victory has been won against the rebel. You are a hero yet again, Jikun Taemrin. May Sel’ari and all the gods bless you in all of your future battles. For now, drink and rest.”

Jikun raised his glass in a due gesture of formality. “All glory and honor to your greatness.”


“Navon, my reins,” Jikun demanded as he neared his captain, the last figure that lingered by the palace’s side gates. He grabbed the saddle of his mare and hoisted himself up, jerking his horse around stiffly. “The king is dead, Navon.”

He knew the words would unsettle Navon as much as they unsettled himself and he could see the flicker of concern cross his captain’s face. “How?”

Jikun hesitated. Hairem had said it had been an illness, but in light of the recent string of assassinations he was not as ready to sentence the king to such a swift and sudden conclusion. And yet he buried his suspicions and replied, “Illness. It must have come rather suddenly.” His voice was stoic, but he knew Navon could read beneath his apathy.

Liadeltris had been a fierce king and opponent to Saebellus. It was common knowledge that Saebellus had been dishonorably discharged while serving as captain in the last war with the sirens, but no one knew why. Jikun had long since let the prodding curiosity subside when even Liadeltris had refused to shed light on the matter. But whatever the reason, it hardly mattered now. Saebellus had taken those loyal to him and turned on the elves’ empire.

Navon seemed to share his concern, but his tone revealed little else. “And the prince… king… what are your thoughts on him?”

“What?” Jikun looked up, still managing to catch the skepticism across the male’s face through his distraction. “I believe what he said. There will be no peace terms with Saebellus. In fact, I believe his eyes are open to the corruption of the council. And I think he has the stupidity to oppose it.”

“…but you are still concerned.”

Jikun’s brow knit. “Hairem is young. For all Liadeltris’—”

“May the gods grant him peace—”

“—experience, he still bent to the council’s pressure. Three hundred years as king, a dozen centuries as the El’adorium before that, and Liadeltris could not resist them. Once Hairem learns how the damn politics in this country go, I wonder just how strong he will remain.”

Navon gave a nod of reluctant agreement, eyes staring stoically ahead.

“Here is more news from home whilst we were away—”

“Something in your tone brings me to believe that I am not going to like what you are about to say…” Navon frowned, eyes flicking toward the general attentively.

“You remember the murders before we left? Another council member was assassinated.”

Navon’s eyes flashed in recognition, but the rest of his face remained apathetic. “He struck again?” He gave a heavy sigh, as though the capital should have done better to prevent such an atrocity. “No doubt the Night’s Watch will be far more numerous for some time now. It is unprecedented that an assassin has committed so many murders on high officials—within an elven capital, especially.” He paused to give a slight smile, churning out optimism from the news as he usually did. “I suppose there are some benefits to being out of the comfort of this city.” His eyes shifted across the nearest alley as he spoke, almost with a certain daring curiosity.

Jikun watched Navon for a moment and then cleared his throat loudly. “Gods, I could use a drink!” he barked. “How about a good drink and a fine woman to share it with?”

The darkness in Navon’s eyes faded and he surveyed his general in a reprimanding fashion. “General.” He pulled his horse to a stop, interrupting Jikun before he could continue. “Let us pause this conversation. Sel’ari’s temple. We should stop and thank the gods before we retire for the evening.”

In Jikun’s absorption with his news, he had somehow missed the building’s slithering approach. His eyes lifted to the golden dome rising up toward the heavens, the white doves nestled at her base, and the pillars that made the elves below seem small and insignificant—as they undoubtedly were. He could hear the echoes of soft singing in the distant marble halls and the pure chime of bells, calling the elves to worship. He turned his head and laughed. “I’ll thank the gods when I see the gods at work. When we are in the right and Saebellus in the wrong, I can only spit on their names every time they let one of my soldiers die for Saebellus’ damn cause. We sleep in shit and spill our blood so some damn elf can rise in the morning to sing praise to their righteous asses. We are just their pawns. No. No, gods for me today, Navon. Give me a good drink and a fine woman—those are all the gods I need.”

Navon gave Jikun another distasteful and reprimanding glare before he stiffly dismounted, the offense apparently affecting his gait. “Then can you keep a hold of these for me, General?” he asked tartly, tossing Jikun the reins to his bay horse. “Someone has to give Sel’ari thanks that you are still breathing.”

Jikun leaned to the side sharply in order to the catch the reins. His horse whinnied in protest and the general quickly righted himself. “When I was a boy in Darival, a priest of Sel’ari came through. A group of youths beat him dead for the single coin in his pocket. I don’t think Sel’ari cares about any of us, Navon, more than she’d care about one of her priests. And if she did not see fit to save him, then we’re all going to the grave, god or no god.”

Navon leaned forward, squinting in a reflective manner. “They are not absent from us, Jikun. And I have a story to counter your own. Years ago on my way to Sevrigel, I saw a stowaway cry out in Sel’ari’s name for protection. Everyone who tried to lay a hand on him perished in an instant. Sel’ari always has her reasons, Jikun,” Navon replied with a simple smile. “Sometimes they just do not fit into our expectations. Religion is a virtue …and one of the only reasons Sel’ari hasn’t sent this country to Ramul.” He turned toward the temple, as though his words were a monument of inspiration and the general should immediately reflect upon their wisdom.

Jikun shook his head distastefully. “While you are in there, put in a good word for me for lovely company tonight,” he called after with a smirk. “The more ‘virtuous,’ the better. I’d take a cleric!”

Navon gave only a dismissive wave of resigned acknowledgement.

Jikun’s smirk broadened in amusement and he leaned back idly in the saddle. He watched the lean, dark male vanish through one of the double golden doors. For just a moment he glimpsed the white marble interior, gleaming from the countless candles within. And the face of Sel’ari. He felt himself recoil slightly, perhaps more out of shame than disgust. Even in the form of a statue, the goddess’ eyes were coldly perceptive, piercing through his veil of disbelief like a dagger. He nudged his horse lightly in the flank, urging it away from the doors and further along the street until he came to the shade of a low balcony.

Away from the temple, he found himself once more at ease. He leaned an arm against his horse’s neck, watching the bustle of elves moving about through the sunny street. They acknowledged him with polite nods of their heads or wide smiles, but Jikun found little reason to smile in return. Why should he? What had they done today to equal his last two years of warring for their sake? Ate and danced and pleasured themselves. He knew not all males could serve in the army. And yet, that did not stop his resentment at every able bodied male he saw enjoying himself in the comfort of the city’s walls while Saebellus waged war outside.

Perhaps his inner thoughts had revealed themselves on his expression as he noted several responding elves regard him with unease and confusion. He wiped his face of expression and instead let his eyes trail up along the towering buildings with their many windows, pillars, and gleaming rooftops, still further up the hill of the street and into the distance. Elvorium was not his home, but even so, it was better than any place he had been since he had left Darival.

Except, perhaps, for the whore houses of Roshenhyde.

“That was pleasant to see her again,” Navon’s voice came from behind him.

Jikun straightened and turned, eyeing the peaceful smile stamped across his captain’s lips. He tossed him the reins, watching Navon leap with some faint form of grace onto his horse.

“So, where to, General?” Navon queried. His voice had livened from his perceived notion of Sel’ari’s mewling praise, afforded to him by his recent prayers. “To the camp?”

Jikun laughed, pulling his horse away from the egress of the city. “No, let the soldiers relax without your reprimanding eyes. They deserve a little freedom and rashness. To my estate, Navon. And we will stop along the way to pick up some gods of my own.”

Categories: Fantasy | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Butterfly Waltz, by Jane Tesh

Butterfly_C1_2Title:  BUTTERFLY WALTZ

Genre:  Fantasy

Author:  Jane Tesh


Publisher:  Silver Leaf Books

Purchase at Amazon

When he helps his friend Jake Brenner, a tabloid writer on the hunt for a big supernatural story, Des Fairweather is swept up in a world of mystery and intrigue.  Despite his skepticism of the validity of the stories Jake is seeking, Des reluctantly accompanies Jake on his latest adventure—all with the promise that Jake can help Des secure an audition with the city symphony, a break Des desperately needs.

When Jake’s search takes the two out to the country to investigate an unusual phenomenon at the Snowden estate, Des encounters a startlingly beautiful young woman who claims to be magical.  That young woman is Kalida, a mysterious creature who has escaped from the people of the Caverns and renounced their evil ways.  But when Kalida is discovered, her people will stop at no end to get her to return to their world. Will Des be able to cast aside his fears in order to save Kalida….before it’s too late?

A mesmerizing tale that blends music, mystery and magic, Butterfly Waltz charms with its enchanting storyline and compelling characters. Resplendent with adventure, intrigue, and the allure of the supernatural, Butterfly Waltz is delightful.


The music was clearer.  It had been the faintest whisper, the tune barely discernible.  The theme grew familiar, a soft, beckoning tune, a waltz of lilting melancholy.

Kalida woke, smiling.  Traces of the dream music hung about the dark room, brightly colored ribbons of sound.  For several moments, she savored the melody, but her smile faded with the music.  She would have to decide soon.

She folded back the rose-colored sheets, removed her bedclothes, and slipped into her gown.  Her long black hair glittered as she ran her comb down its length.  Faint sunlight picked its way delicately through the forest and bathed the small room in pearly light.  Another beautiful day waited outside.

Kalida took an apple from the blue glass bowl on her small table and sat down on the little bench outside the doorway of her home.  She gazed at the silent wood.  Small birds flickered from tree to tree.  A few butterflies danced above the wildflowers that grew in the grove.  Bright colors, sunshine, butterflies—these things were alien to her nature, but she had grown to love them.  Alone with time to think, she had decided her people, the people of the Caverns, had been wrong about so many things it was impossible to count them.

The Caverns.  To think of them was to be back within the dark hallways of cold stone, the only sound the rustling of her gown on the smooth floor, while all around, silver eyes and ruby eyes cast secretive glances full of malice as they studied the rules, the dark etiquette that bound all to the Legion.  Conquer and destroy.  That was the only way.  How many worlds had she seen blown to ashes, how many beings had she heard crying out in despair?

She had been part of the destruction.  She had flown with her people, but always reluctantly, as if there were something else just beyond her reach, something different.  She could trace her discontent to the Leader’s celebration, the night she first heard music.

As a small child, she had watched in awe as the veterans of the Legion received honors at victory celebrations.  The leader she first remembered was a dark-eyed man as rough and sharp as a stalactite, who called the young ones up for a better look.  With their transforming skill, members of the Legion re-enacted the battle.  Young Kalida, thrilled by the sights and sounds, longed to be a part of it all.  Everyone clapped until sparks flew from their hands.  But one celebration night had been different.

That night, a great whispering filled the tunnels.  Kalida heard a man say, “Some new entertainment.  The Lady has brought an Andrean man to the celebration.  We’ll have some fun.”

The Lady was the title of their Leader, a harsh, demanding woman who rarely held celebrations.  Kalida followed the others to the Hall.  The Andrean man stood in the center.  He didn’t seem worried or afraid.  He wore tattered clothes and boots.  An odd-looking instrument was slung over his back.

More whispers.

“They say his brother joined the Legion.”

“How would The Lady allow that?”

“What is that thing on his back?”

“Is he going to sing?”

“Sing?” Kalida said.  “What do you mean?”

Her companion grimaced.  “You’ll see.”

Kalida stared at the man.  “But isn’t The Lady mounting a massive campaign against the Three Worlds, Trieal, Andrea, and Fey East?  What’s this Andrean man doing here?”

“I told you.  You’ll see.”

At last, The Lady appeared, accompanied by her latest creation, a creature in the shape of an eerily beautiful child.  She sat down in her stone chair with the child beside her and introduced the man. “This is Raven.  Don’t stare, child.  He’s here to sing for you.  He is always welcome.”

“But isn’t he an enemy?” the child asked.

“Under usual conditions, yes, but his brother enjoyed a brilliant if rather brief career with us, and therefore we admit Raven to our social gathering out of pity, shall we say?”

The man looked at her without expression.  “My brother’s choice to join you shamed my family, but his music will live long after you are gone.”

The Lady gave a short laugh.  “Very good.  Sing now.  I want my people to hear what you call music.  It will give them another reason to eradicate your race.”

“Whatever you wish.”

Kalida listened, fascinated, as the melody pierced the darkness of the Hall.  The members of the Legion groaned and cursed at the sound.  Her companion gave her a curious glance, so she winced, as if the sound hurt her ears as well, but it didn’t.  It intrigued her.  It made pictures in her mind of things she had never imagined.

“Love will find me,” the man sang.  “Love green and golden.  I’ll not turn from you, nor change all the while.  Safe in the magic of your smile.”

She wanted to hear more.

But there was no more music from the Andrean man.  After the celebration, he was taken away.  She never saw him again, which made her moody, not an unusual emotion among the Cavern-born, so no one suspected she had changed.  Over the years, she saw Leaders come and go, but never wanted to be one.  Her acquaintances were puzzled by her lack of ambition, but Kalida hid her growing unease.  She could not forget the alien man or his song.  Quite unexpectedly, she found a way out.

In one wild moment of rebellion, she fled the Caverns to Andrea, hoping to find the man.  She flew to the woods near Traditional City, planning to take animal form to avoid detection.  In the woods, she fell through a blaze of light, fell to this world.


That first morning, when the golden sun touched the lush green grass, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the color.  What was it?  Light she knew, and shadow, but this deep rich hue that colored the grass and the moss and the leaves intrigued her.  She knew red and black and white, silver and gray, colors of the Caverns.  Yellow and gold were rare, but she had golden eyes, or so everyone said.  This alien shade, though, calm and deeply satisfying, she had seen only once, on the tattered clothing of the man who played music so many years before.


She could sit in the grass for hours, reveling in new colors, even the rich browns of the earth and trees.  Everything spoke of life and growth and energy.  Exploring beyond the new forest, she discovered a large white house and watched the people who lived there.  She learned the names of colors from Mister Snowden as he taught his children in the garden.  She learned that the world was called Earth, and there was no magic here.

For a while, she didn’t need magic, just sunlight and birdsong and new colors.  Then disturbing dreams began, dreams of night flying, her hair streaming behind in the cold wind as she swooped down on cities like a bird of prey, touching the tallest towers and watching them burst into flame.  She would wake, trembling with fear and desire.  She thought her people would be unable to track her to this world, yet she saw misshapen shadows in the trees and heard harsh sounds haunting the night.  Had her people found her?

She thought of the bottle in the back of her cabinet and a shiver went through her.  No, don’t back down now, she told herself.  But how much longer can you live like this, lonely,  friendless, purposeless?  She shivered again.  She knew exactly how much longer.

She couldn’t eat.  She spent the day sitting in the doorway.  Light shone through the little bottles of potions on the window ledge: pale lavender, rich violet, amber, blue, and red.  The day itself was green and gold, so unlike the days of her childhood, which had been filled with fierce red light and the cold dark silence of the Caverns.

I am not like that now, she thought, as the sunlight faded and the colors died.  Night was the time she liked best, but this night, the darkness closed in around her.

Do I really want to do this?  Why put it off?  Drink the potion and be done with it.  The music was a dream, nothing more.  Drink the potion.  Who knows what other worlds lie beyond death?


*                      *                      *

“Tomorrow?”  Desmond Fairweather stared at his friend Jake Banner in astonishment.  “I can’t go anywhere tomorrow.”

Jake beamed, undaunted, hands outspread as if he’d caught a record-sized fish.  “This is it, Des, the big story.  Actual reports of talking flowers.  You know you can’t pass this up.  I know you can’t, and I’m staying here till you agree.”

A grand piano dominated Des’s sparsely furnished apartment room.  Jake perched on the piano bench, slicked back his hair, and gave the impression of settling in for the day.  His neon green shirt and pink tie created a jarring combination that made Des’s eyes ache as he glared at his friend.  His last student, Melissa, a giggly seventeen-year-old, had just left, after a thorough and determined massacre of her Scarlatti lesson, and he was still waiting for his head to clear.  With an impatient gesture, he pushed his dark hair out of his eyes.

“Not another of your harebrained stories for the Galaxy.” He moved a stack of sheet music out of the way before Jake’s elbow toppled it over.  “It’ll be a fake like all the others.”

“A fake?” Jake’s blue eyes widened.  “None of the others were fake.”

“I’m not going to argue with you,” Des said, “and I’m certainly not going to go chase talking flowers.”

“Aw, come on.  It’ll be fun.”

“Fun for you, you mean.”

“The owner happens to be a beautiful young lady,” Jake said in his most wheedling tone.

Des motioned wildly to the crumpled balls of paper littering the floor around the piano.  “Do you see all this?  I’m trying to compose.  I’ve told you I don’t want to travel all over the country tracking down old magic.  I don’t believe in old magic.  I don’t believe in new magic.  I don’t believe in magic of any sort.”

Jake kept his grin.  He twiddled a few piano keys and fiddled with the metronome.

Des snatched it out of his hands.  “Will you go away?”

Jake leaned back against the piano as if he found it the most comfortable spot in town.  “How’s the cash flow at Chez Fairweather?  Paid this month’s rent yet?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Talked to Sylvia yesterday.  She says she’ll recommend you for that symphony thing.”  He glanced up, eyes crinkling with amusement.

Des found it hard to speak.  “Are you talking about symphony auditions?”


“She can do that?”

“Just call her up.”

Des took a deep breath to steady himself.  Jake’s reliability was questionable, but his sister Sylvia had important connections with Parkland’s music community.  “Did she get on the Arts Council Board?”

Jake swung around on the bench.  “Get on?  Pal, she’s the new president.  She’ll be happy to set things up for you, chum.  That is, when we get back from our little day trip.”

“Day trip?”

“To the land of talking flowers.”

Des gave Jake a narrow-eyed glare.  “Damn it, Jake, that’s blackmail.”

Jake shrugged.  “Hey, you do me a favor, I do you a favor.”

“I won’t do it.”

“Okay.  I guess you like living in such splendor.”  He played a loud version of “Chopsticks.”  “This thing needs a tune-up.”

Des closed the piano, sorry he missed Jake’s fingers.  “I’ll just call Sylvia and ask for her help.”

“Uh-uh, doesn’t work that way.  This is a package deal.  You help me get a story, and Sylvia will smooth the way for you, get you a good time slot or whatever.  Sounds pretty reasonable to me.  You want as many things going in your favor as possible, right?”

Des sighed.  Dealing with Jake always gave him a headache. “If I go watch you make a fool of yourself, will you leave me alone?”

“Of course.  Won’t take a minute.  We ride out, hear the flowers, record them.  I get definite proof of magic, old Basil down at the Galaxy is happy, I’m happy, and you get your audition and leave this lovely roach condo you call home.”

Des slumped in his one chair and regarded his friend, wondering how Jake managed to be so damned cheerful all the time.  He was right, though.  The apartment was dismal: a tiny grubby kitchen, an even smaller bathroom, and this room, full of piano.  Giving piano lessons wasn’t the most lucrative of careers, but he had made the decision to move out, to try his luck.  A successful audition with the prestigious city symphony could be the break he was looking for.  What he wasn’t looking for was talking flowers.  “I still don’t see why I have to go.”

“Why, pal, you’re the best,” Jake said.  “Critters just flock to you.  Haven’t you noticed?  You have a definite affinity with the Other World.”

“I do not.”

“Must be those big soulful green eyes.”

Des heaved himself out of the chair and gathered the papers off the floor.  “Will you get out of here?  I have work to do.  Real work.”

Jake reached the door.  “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at six.”

“Six?  Why so early?”

“I wanna be there when the dew dries.”

Des made a lunge, but Jake eluded him, laughing, and was out the door and gone.  Muttering under his breath about unwanted guests, Des bent to pick up more papers and caught sight of his reflection in the one small window.  Soulful green eyes, indeed.  Did Jake think he’d fall for that line?  Yes, his eyes were green, his hair dark and unruly, and his expression serious, just like his father’s, in fact, so much like his father’s he was afraid he might meet the same tragic fate.  Now there was a story Jake could appreciate, a story full of magic.


What if—no, he dared not try.  He had made his decision.  He had given up the family home and the family fortune, so he had given up the family curse, as well.  He prayed he had.

Wouldn’t a little magic make things easier, though?  A better place to live, a better job, even that symphony position?

He shuddered and tried to suppress the memories.  Make things easier. Isn’t that what his father wanted?  Look what happened to him.

No, don’t look.

Categories: Fantasy, Mystery | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Hidden Shadows, by Linda Lucretia Shuler

HiddenShadows_medTitle: Hidden Shadows

Genre: Literary

Author: Linda Lucretia Shuler

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Amazon OmniLit B&N / Twilight Times Books

Hidden Shadows is a story of connection: to the land, to our ancestors, to others, to ourselves – and to the redemptive power of love:

Cassie Brighton, devastated by the accidental death of her husband, flees to a remote homestead deep in the rugged Texas Hill Country. Alone in a ramshackle farmhouse steeped in family secrets, Cassie wages a battle of mind and heart as she struggles to overcome the sorrows of her past, begin anew, and confront the possibility of finding love again.

Mountain Waltz

Summer, 1996        

Death waited to dance for her through the eye of the camera. It would be a slow dance, graceful as a waltz against a slate blue sky.

She gazed at the view framed in the lens, unaware of danger: Colorado mountains rising all around, glowing pink and purple in the morning sun. Her husband Thomas grinning on the precipice of a sheer cliff, the canyon wide and deep behind him. A golden eagle hovering above, drifting silent in the winds, wings outspread like a dark angel descending.

All she had to do was press her finger, one small click, and the photo would be taken. Yet she hesitated, wanting this moment to last.

Thomas pulled a cap from his jeans pocket and rammed it on his head. “Going to take all day?” he teased. “C’mon, Cassie girl. Everybody’s waiting.”

The air smelled of fecund earth and crushed leaves and coffee warming over a campfire. Cassie glanced toward the scattered tents and the handful of friends who had traveled with them. No one seemed in a hurry. After a long week of roughing it, they likely welcomed the last few hours of leisure before heading separate ways, as did she.

There was something magical about this mountain, this breeze warm upon her skin, the shifting colors and glowing sky, the soaring eagle. And Thomas, standing like a young oak that had sprouted from the rock, a natural part of the elements with wildness in his blood.

The camera was an old Nikon with a bulky zoom, and hung from a strap around her neck. “On the count of three,” she warned Thomas. “One, two…”

She snapped the photo, the sound swallowed by the eagle’s cry. The bird dived into the canyon, the shadow of its great wings sweeping across the precipice. Cassie saw it through the camera’s eye, saw Thomas and his startled response, his head jerking upward, his foot stepping back, the rocks beneath crumbling away.

Time and motion slowed as if in a dream.

Thomas stretched out his arms as though he, too, were about to lift from the ground and fly. Then he seemed to float backward, softly slipping from the cliff edge. His cap lifted away, light as a fallen leaf carried by the wind. He looked directly at her, mouth agape as if wanting to speak, and dropped from sight.

Cassie ran toward the empty space where he once stood, the camera whacking her chest, seeing everything, seeing nothing, a scream ripping her throat. Her red hiking boots flashed forward and back as her feet propelled her on and on. Red boots, red as blood, red as the fear roaring in her heart.

She teetered on the precipice. There, far below, sprawled face upward on a jagged outcropping as if sleeping in the sun, was Thomas, still as the stone he lay upon. Wind touched his wheat-gold hair, lifted the hem of his shirt, tasted the blood spreading from the back of his head like the bloom of an exotic flower. Ruby tendrils reached for the edge and dripped into the canyon depths.

“Thomas!” Her cry echoed among the mountains, Thomas! Thomas! Thomas! “I’m coming down!”Coming down! Coming down! Coming down!

She stumbled along the rim in a frantic search for access. The mountains yawned as if cloven with a knife, the sides shimmering, the floor sinking into shadows. Afraid of tumbling into the vast emptiness, she dropped to her knees and crawled along the precipice, pebbles and debris raining down from her scrabbling hands.

God help me!

A root thrust a gnarled arm from the wall some ten feet below. If she could somehow manage to get to it, then to the narrow shelf below that, and then…

How far down had Thomas fallen? Her mind couldn’t calculate. He looked so small from where she knelt, so abandoned, like an unwanted doll.

Oh, God! Oh, God!

She lay flat, the rock-strewn earth digging into her stomach and legs, and stuck her feet over the lip. She could feel the tug of the wind as she inched downward, fingers grabbing at the dirt, her boots seeking a hold. Grit caked her teeth. She was sobbing, unaware of the sound, thinking somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind that she heard the anguished cries of a wounded animal.

Then she was airborne, lifted by a half-dozen hands and hauled onto level ground. She struggled against the arms that held her fast, the clamor of voices, the contorted faces. They dragged her to safety, the precipice receding through her tears.

She couldn’t breathe. Her body shook and turned cold. They laid her on a sleeping bag and wrapped her in blankets, constraining her like a mummy while the sun slid across the sky and the eagle returned to its flight, wings glittering.

Thomas. Her lips formed his name. She looked up and imagined it was he who soared across the blue, gliding in the winds as if his spirit had risen free and now gazed down upon her. The bird dropped closer and closer still, transforming into metal and roaring as it dipped into the canyon and disappeared. Dust whirled in torrents from the blast of its wings.

She tore the blankets aside and lurched upright, clinging to the hands she had once fought. She had no sense of minutes or hours, only of an icy numbness that settled into her bones.

Whap-whap-whap! Propellers rose from the abyss, lifting the helicopter, lifting the basket that swung from its belly and carried her love. Even from this distance she could see the gold of his hair, the silken texture. The helicopter hovered like a giant prehistoric bird, then began its journey. She stumbled after it, the shadow slithering along the rugged mountain, until it vanished into the horizon.

The Ghosts Are Singing

Summer, 1999

Three years had passed since death danced on the Colorado mountain – one thousand eighty-odd long days of grieving.

Cassie drove with the window down, squinting into the glare as miles slowly passed and the Texas sun blazed hot in the noon sky. Gnarled oak, honey mesquite and cedar crowded for room in the rocky Hill Country soil, crawled up outcroppings and plateaus,   and butted against prickly pear cactus, purple-stemmed grass, and the occasional cow or goat. Willow City Loop, the road was called. An odd name, since there was no city. Just a couple of buildings missed in the blink of an eye. And the loop straggled with dozens of turnoffs, gravel-tossed and rutted and often identical, rambling to pastures or buildings unseen from the road. Fortunately, the one she sought was marked by boulders tumbled in disarray like the ruins of an ancient castle, setting it apart from the rest.

She longed to be thirteen again, worry-free and anticipating the summer ahead in her grandmother’s home among the hills. But here she was, old enough to be mother to the girl she barely remembered, driving under that same sun toward the same home, now holding only echoes of long-ago days.

The renovated Thunderbird jounced across cattle guards, through gray-weathered wooden gates, and past split-rail cedar fences. Little had changed since she was a girl traveling this dusty road in her grandmother’s creaking Studebaker. She could almost smell the bitter scent of torn leather and hear the rattling complaints uttered by the car they had christened Methuselah since it seemed destined to live forever. Mimi would drive it like a madwoman, stomping on the gas and grinding the clutch as if in a battle of human against machine.

Oh, Mimi, how I miss you!

Thoughts of her beloved grandmother often came unbidden, and with them the memory of Mimi’s hands clutching hers for the last time.

“Promise me!” Mimi had sighed, pale and shrunken amid the rumpled bed sheets. “Promise!”

“I’d like to, but…”

“Live there one year, that’s all I ask. You’ll make the right decision after that.”

“But how?” Something clattered in the hall beyond the door, followed by a spurt of laughter. Cassie paused, startled. Gaiety seemed out of place in this dreary nursing home. She squeezed Mimi’s fingers, surprised at how spindly her bones had become. “Thomas and I just opened a boutique, remember? Spirit of the Southwest. I may be an old lady before I have time to spare.”

“Go when you can. The land will wait.”

Cassie nodded, “All right, I promise,” loving this worn-out old woman who bore little resemblance to the vibrant soul she remembered. When had her grandmother withered into a husk? She leaned in close, her breath stirring wisps of the silver-streaked hair. “Why me? Why not Mother?”

“She can’t… hear them.”

“Hear what?”

Mimi closed her eyes, her voice a mere shadow. “The ghosts are singing.”

“There are no ghosts here, Mimi. Just me.” Cassie laughed quietly.

“They sing for you,” she murmured, and said no more. She never opened her eyes again, nor spoke.

There, finally! The marker she was looking for: a jumble of boulders under an arching mesquite, a wooden plank nailed to the trunk. A sun-bleached arrow pointed toward the hill beyond with the words,Spring Creek. She turned and winced. Gravel pinged and splattered under her treasured Thunderbird and exploded from the wheels as she bounced along rutted dirt hard as concrete, winding upward until Willow City Loop became a ribbon curling far below.

There was something in the road, small, gray-brown, unmoving. An armadillo, she realized, her hands already tugging at the wheel to swerve away. Cassie yelped and swerved, bumped over jagged rocks, crashed through prickly pear, then nose-dived into a shallow ravine. The motor sputtered and died.

She sat with hands clenching the wheel and foot pressing the brake. After a moment, she opened the door, almost afraid to look. Briars scratched her bare ankles as she walked up the incline and down again, bracing her hand against the car, eyes sweeping every inch of metal and chrome. Other than tilting thirty degrees and settling on the rim of a flat rear tire, the Thunderbird seemed miraculously untouched, a fine layer of dust powdering the pastel yellow finish.

“Now what?” She groaned. No way could she change a tire at this crazy angle. There wasn’t a soul around to help, nor a house in view. Just the armadillo lumbering along unscathed and a couple of distant goats.

She pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket. On it she had written the name Justin Grumm, followed by his telephone number. Although Mr. Grumm was the caretaker of Mimi’s property and had exchanged letters with Cassie about the estate, she had yet to meet him in person. He and his wife lived about a half mile ahead in a white cottage on cinder blocks that had been there ever since Cassie could remember, the time-warped porch supported by pillars hacked from mesquite. Mr. Grumm had been delighted to hear from her several weeks ago. “Excellent!” he declared after Cassie explained that she was planning to move into Mimi’s home and would need a key. She had liked his voice, warmed by the trace of a German accent.

“Good lord, you’re going to live there a year before putting it up for sale? Why bother?” her mother asked from somewhere in Paris with husband number four or five, Pierre something. Tuff, or Taft. Maybe Tift. In the long-run it wouldn’t matter since Lillian seemed intent upon changing husbands along with the seasons. “Mama’s dead, God rest her soul, and won’t know one way or another. Just clean the place up, throw away all that junk, and put it on the market. You could be in and out of there in a couple of weeks.”

“I promised…”

“Promises don’t count when the ears that heard them are buried six feet under.”

“How can you say such an awful thing?”

“You’re throwing a year of your life away! Let the past stay in the past and get on with living. Why isolate yourself in the sticks? What are you running from?”

Cassie couldn’t answer, then or now. Maybe she was running. Maybe she just wanted some peace. Maybe she didn’t know where else to go.

Maybe she was hoping to pull the raveled threads of her life together.

She had tossed luggage in the trunk and back seat, topped helter-skelter with odd items. Her potted rosebush sat alone in the front, belted and secured, crimson blossoms glowing. Long buried amid its roots were two treasures, one already turned to ash and the other rendered so by time. The rose and its roots had traveled with her from one city apartment to another, and now would be experiencing a much different life in the country – as would she.

Telling herself to hurry and do something, she reached into the car for her cell phone, pausing with a start when she caught her reflection in the side-view mirror: raven hair windblown, cheeks flushed, eyes murky as coffee brewed too long in the pot. Tiny wrinkles creased the corners. “Crow’s feet tapping at my door,” she groused. She’d be forty-five soon. Forty-five! Where had the time gone?

She dialed the phone and was met with silence. Disgusted, she flung it onto the dashboard; it skittered off, bounced against the gear shift, and plopped to the floor. No cell, no call to Mr. Grumm, no rescue. She would have to walk.

The rosebush presented a problem; she couldn’t risk leaving it in the blistering heat of a locked car. She hoisted the heavy clay pot into her arms, struggled up the road toward a wild black cherry tree, and dragged it the last few yards into the shade. “Take care, my loves,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”

One more trek to the car for her purse and keys, and she was on her way. The sky gleamed colorless, with a scattering of clouds to break the bleached monotony. Blackbirds spiraled overhead, satin feathers glinting. Cassie imagined what they saw from their avian drafts, looking down – a lone woman, soft summer skirt brushing her legs as she trudged uphill along a rock-strewn roadway. A bare wind breathed upon her face as the earth fell away behind her, and when she looked over her shoulder she could see an eruption of vegetation-furred plateaus on the horizon, their tops so flat and defined it looked as though God had skimmed them with a buzz saw, while up ahead the hills leaped from the earth rounded and full.

The dry air tasted like scorched weeds. Her feet moved on, their beaded sandals soon swallowed by dust. “Idiotic,” she grumbled. Why hadn’t she worn something more practical, such as… what? Her hiking boots came to mind, red with black laces wide as ribbons, boxed somewhere among her other belongings stored in Houston. Although she had worn the boots only briefly, she was loath to do so again and equally loath to throw them away. So she hid them from sight and from the memories they evoked.

Those memories tugged at her now, pulling her heart along with them.

She had met Thomas Brighton at an outdoor music festival in Colorado. Tall and blond and wide-shouldered, he sat on the sun-warmed Vail slope, eyes closed while the sound of fiddles shimmered among the aspen. As she approached, his eyes opened, vivid blue, and she felt as though she had come face to face with a Viking from ages past somehow hurled into the present. He smiled and motioned for her to join him, offering his hand. She settled next to him, trusting the inner voice that whispered, “Yes.”

Ten years later, while celebrating their wedding anniversary among those very same mountains, it all came to an abrupt, horrifying end.

She buried his ashes in the roots of the rosebush he had planted beneath the bedroom window. When she could stand to live there no longer, when phantoms prowled among the darkened corners and empty rooms, she dug up the bush, put it in a clay pot with as much of the dirt and ashes as it could contain, and left. The roses were the only constant in her life as the years passed, the one thing she treasured above all else, protecting the dust of her youth.

Stop thinking about it! she scolded herself. That was another time, another world, another self.“Don’t dwell on sadness,” Mimi had often told her. “Lift your eyes to the heavens and your spirit will follow.” As much as she loved her grandmother, Cassie knew from experience that the only thing you got from looking upward was a stiff neck.

I’m like a dog with a chewed-up bone, gnawing on old grief.

A train whistle shrieked faintly across the miles. She turned and looked back at the slope she had climbed, the massive stretch of sky. A splotch of yellow marked the presence of her car below, tipped and waiting on three solid wheels. The whistle echoed once again, as if lonely and weeping for something lost.

She shook the dust from her sandals and continued onward, one step following another, the air glistening with heat mirages. Her mind quieted and she fell into an easy rhythm, feet moving steadily, arms swinging. It was almost a surprise when she saw the caretaker’s cottage standing as she remembered – except for one thing.

Or many things. Perched on the fence and crowding the yard were multitudes of angels in all sizes and shapes, constructed out of metal scrap – wings of rusty tractor seats, halos of wagon wheels, billowing skirts of chicken wire, trumpets and harps from shovels or hoes, scissors or hedge clippers. Mobiles of angel forks and spoons dangled from the porch overhang, and several angelic giants with bodies made of barrel hoops appeared ready to launch themselves from the rooftop.

She walked up the steps onto the porch and peered through the screen door. The room beyond, bright with splatters of blues and yellows, resonated with the sound of clocks. “Hello?” she called over the barrage of tick-tocks. A fat white cat, face round as a stuffed pillow, appeared from inside and looked up at her with cobalt eyes. “Hi,” Cassie said. “Is your mommy or daddy home?” She knocked on the door, the frame rattling under her knuckles.

Ja, I’m coming!” A woman approached, almost a perfect match to the cat – small and plump and silver-haired, with lively hazel eyes magnified behind thick, gold-framed glasses. She smiled at Cassie through the screen.

“Mrs. Grumm? I’m Cassie Brighton, and I…”

“Mrs. Brighton, gut, gut! Justin has been expecting you.” She opened the door, its hinges protesting, and glanced at the road. “Where’s your car?”

“Somewhere at the bottom of the hill. I drove into a ditch and got a flat tire. So I walked.”

“In this heat? Oh, my dear girl, sit down this minute. Let me get you something to drink.” She led Cassie toward an overstuffed chair draped with a floral shawl and scurried away.

Before Cassie could protest, Mrs. Grumm had gone and the chair beckoned. She sank into it and rested her feet on a needlepoint stool, the shredded fabric testament to its daily use. A replica of the cat smiled at her through the worn threading along with the name, Strudel. “How did you rate your own portrait?” she asked as the cat brushed against her legs. Perhaps thinking this an invitation, Strudel leaped upon the arm of the chair and stretched its head toward her lips as if wanting a kiss. Cassie had never been fond of cats but didn’t protest when it curled into her lap and began to purr. “Like a miniature lawn mower,” she murmured, and closed her eyes.

Bong! Tweetle-too! Cuckoo-cuckoo!

Cassie jolted out of her chair, tumbling a disgruntled cat to the floor. From every room in the house clocks clanged, sang, or rang the hour. There must have been two dozen – no, surely more. Cassie spun around, delighted. A tall grandfather clock with a huge round head atop a narrow body chimed in a stately fashion, a minuscule sailing ship tick-tick-whistled, and an intricately carved village with costumed folk danced around a well and tinkled “Edelweiss,” each telling her it was four o’clock in the afternoon.

“Are you rested?” This spoken behind her, the voice deep and obviously amused.

Cassie turned to face an impossibly tall man, all bones and joints, with a toothy smile spread in a wrinkle-grooved face.

“Yes, thank you, but I… was I… Did I fall asleep?”

“Thoroughly. Snoring is healthy, by the way. Clears the lungs.”

“I’m so sorry, I…” Cassie stammered.

“Justin!” Mrs. Grumm scolded. “Enough teasing.” She smiled at Cassie. “Pay no mind to this old man. You napped very lady-like. Now come, I have something for you.”

Justin ran a hand through his fluff of sparse hair as Cassie, pulled along by Mrs. Grumm, entered the kitchen. It was a cheerful place, decorated with crisp white curtains and a blue tablecloth. A pottery jar filled with sunflowers graced the windowsill.

Cassie soon found herself sitting at the table, enjoying a glass of iced tea garnished with mint. “Delicious. It’s been years since I tasted fresh mint.”

“It came from my mother’s garden long ago, in Villach. Every spring it sprouts up more, like weeds.”

“Can’t kill the stuff.” Justin pulled out a chair and sat at an angle, long legs half under the table and half out.

Mrs. Grumm opened the refrigerator and reached for an ice tray. “You want to give her the key, or do you expect her to kick the door down?”

“Stop fussing, Schatzi. I didn’t forget.”

“You left it in the freezer, next to the ice cream.”

“Well, hand it over then.” Justin grinned at Cassie. “That house will be happy to see you. It’s been empty too long.”

“Cold as the devil.” Mrs. Grumm wiped the key with a dishtowel and laid it beside Cassie’s plate. “Sometimes this man of mine is so forgetful I wonder he can find his own head,”

Forged from iron and tipped by an ornate heart bound in vines, the key was longer than Cassie’s hand. “How beautiful!” she exclaimed. “I wonder how old it is.”

Justin shrugged. “As far as I can figure, the olden part of your house – the one in the back that the rest was added onto – was built sometime in the mid 1800’s. So close to a hundred sixty years, give or take a few.”

“I didn’t expect a key like this.”

“You’ve not seen it before?”

Cassie shook her head. “Mimi never locked her doors. She said the spirits in the woods would watch over things. I gave up trying to talk sense into her head.”

“Now don’t you worry about bad spooks. Only good ones fly around over there.”

“There you go again, giving the girl a hard time.” Mrs. Grumm patted Cassie’s shoulder. “We’re surely happy to meet you at last.”

Justin nodded. “What took you so long?”

“Well, I…” Cassie floundered. How could she tell them? What could she tell them? Her troubles were hers alone: the emptiness that faced her, the dreams that plagued her.

“Justin, enough for today. Let the girl tell us all about herself later, when she’s rested.”

“All right, all right. I know I’m a nosy buzzard.”

Relieved, Cassie nibbled on a ginger snap. “These are wonderful.”

“Berta isn’t too bad with the sweets. Except for her grebbel.”

“So you’re complaining about my doughnuts now?” Berta smacked him with the dishtowel. “You ate three this morning, silly old fool.”

“Had to force down each bite. Pure torture.”

Cassie watched the Grumms grinning at one another and something twisted inside – a longing, a regret. She drained her glass and set it aside. “Thanks for your hospitality, but I really must be going. Do you know who I could call to upright my car and fix the flat? Is there a gas station nearby?”

“I reckon so, if by ‘nearby’ you mean within twenty miles or thereabouts,” Justin said with a chuckle. “Guy’s Auto is closer in, but he doesn’t work on Thursdays. Today is Thursday, isn’t it?”

“Yesterday was Wednesday and tomorrow’s Friday,” Berta said, “so unless the world has turned upside down, yes.”

“That settles that, then.”

Cassie’s heart plummeted. “Surely there’s someone around who could help. I’d hate to leave my car and everything in it until tomorrow.”

“Guy may not work on Thursdays, but this man does.” Justin stood and adjusted the pants at his narrow waist. “Come on, then. Let’s get the job done.”

“Stay and have dinner with us afterward,” Berta said. “There’s not enough in your refrigerator for a good meal tonight – just eggs and such. We didn’t know what you might need.”

“How kind of you. I didn’t expect anything at all.”

“Drive straight here once the tire is fixed and I should have something nice and hot for you both.”

“Oh, but I couldn’t. I mean I shouldn’t. I have too much to do. You’ve both been so lovely to me, but I haven’t been to the house yet and…” Several clocks chimed the quarter hour. “And it’s already four-fifteen.”

“It doesn’t get dark until after eight. Please, we’d love to have you.” Berta nudged Justin. “Isn’t that right?”

“Right as blueberry pie – which we’ll have a good portion of tonight, fresh-made.”

Cassie was tempted, but she still had a long day ahead of her, a car to upright and a tire to change, luggage to unload, a house to inspect. “May I have a rain check?”

“Of course! How about tomorrow at lunch?”

“That sounds delightful.”

“Good! I’ll see you at noon. Fix that car good, Justin. And try not getting your shirt dirty. I just washed it.”

“Stop fussing, Schatzi. You’ve scrubbed this shirt so much there’s hardly a thread left.” He leaned to Cassie and muttered, “Berta goes into fits when she sees dirt anywhere except on the ground, and even then it better be clean dirt.”

The roses, secured once again in the passenger seat, filled the car with their heady scent as Cassie followed Justin’s blue pickup truck. A sign with red and white letters was painted neatly on its door:Grumm Clockworks and below, J. Grumm, Master Clocksmith. They parted at the cottage; Justin stuck his long-boned arm out the truck window and waved as Cassie passed by. She continued along the high-rising hill before turning into a rough weed-choked drive. Following its wanderings, she arrived at a wooden gate so old the earth had swallowed part of the supporting frame. Scattered posts leaned into each other, vague remnants of the proud fence that might have been built by her great-great grandfather.

She had always been curious as a child about her ancestors, but Lillian refused to speak about them, saying, “They’re all dead and gone. Let them stay there.” Mimi, who normally talked a blue streak, remained strangely mute – with a single exception. One evening, while the two of them were swapping tales on the porch swing, Mimi let slip that their ancestors had come from Germany long years ago, sailing over a troublesome sea then traveling in an ox cart along the Guadalupe River and upland until they arrived at this very place. “Someday I’ll tell more,” she had promised.

But the day never came.

Cassie got out of the car and pushed the gate. It opened easily enough, although the bottom edge dragged along the ground. The hinges made a low creaking sound, a three-syllable whine, as if saying,come on innnnnn. She gripped the dry wood, suddenly transported to the past, a girl in shorts with her hair in a ponytail opening the gate so Mimi could drive through. Turning, she half-expected to see a ghostly Studebaker swimming in the heat behind her.

She returned to the car and sat, looking through the windshield at the hills humped beyond the fence, the slope on her right shadowed by trees, the driveway snaking around the juniper on her left, and the great spread of land between them. The house, windmill, and barn waited for her around the bend and out of sight, their images hovering behind her eyes, dim and quiet as old photographs in a family album.

“Oh, Mimi,” she whispered, and drove through the gate.

Categories: literary fiction | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chapter Reveal: Under Strange Suns, by Ken Lizzi

UnderStrangeSuns_medTitle: Under Strange Suns

Genre: SF

Author: Ken Lizzi

Website: http://www.kenlizzi.net

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Amazon / B&N / OmniLit / Twilight Times Books

About the Book:

In the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars,Under Strange Suns brings the sword-and-planet novel to the twenty-first century. War is a constant, and marooned on a distant world, former Special Forces soldier Aidan Carson learns there is nothing new Under Strange Suns.


            This was going to change the world.

The realization was stunning, almost blinding. Doctor Brennan Yuschenkov stared vacantly at his vanity wall. He did not register the BS from Stanford, or the Master’s and PhD from M.I.T. The award certificates and the grip-and-grin photographs of his smiling mug matching the formulaic toothy expression of whatever politician or astronaut or CEO he was posing with were so much static. He didn’t realize it, but the grin now stretching his leonine features out-classed every framed example he was failing to notice.

When he snapped out of his fugue he finger-stabbed a speed dial button on his desktop telephone. “Azziz, got a minute? If not, make one. Bring your notebook, this is big.”

Yuschenkov rose from his chair, surprised at how stiff his body was. He paced his office, waiting for his graduate assistant, Mehmet Azziz, to reach the faculty offices. Yuschenkov had to share this, and immediately. He could feel a creeping fear that he’d forget a piece of the puzzle. Or that he was wrong about some aspect. And who better to ask than Azziz, the man with the best grasp of particle physics on campus? Next to his own, of course. Yuschenkov muttered to himself, gesticulating, pausing on occasion to allow the Cheshire Cat grin to reoccupy his face as the beauty of the idea reasserted itself over the fear.

“Doctor Yuschenkov?” Azziz said, having stood unnoticed in Yuschenkov’s office for several seconds.

“Azziz, didn’t hear you there. Damn, you’re a sneaky one.” Yuschenkov wrapped his research assistant in a bear hug, his face pressed against the narrow chest of Azziz’s lanky frame, the young man’s beard bushing atop the physicist’s head. They broke apart, Azziz stepping back with evident discomfort. “Sit, sit.” He dropped back into his desk chair while Azziz took one of the guest chairs.

“I won’t say it turned out to be surprisingly simple, because it’s not,” Yuschenkov said. “It’s complex, very complex, as you’d expect. But I think it will be surprisingly inexpensive. And that…well, that is going to make a difference.”

“Yes, sir,” Azziz said. “If you don’t mind my asking, Doctor Yuschenkov, what is very complex, surprisingly inexpensive, and going to make a difference?”

“What? Oh, of course. FTL, Azziz. FTL. Faster. Than. Light. A propulsion system. A spaceship drive. FT-fucking-L.”

“Sir? Is this another prank? It took me a week to get my car disassembled and out of my apartment last time.”

“No joke, Azziz. I’ve cracked it. Now take down some notes. I don’t want to lose this. See, we weren’t considering quantum entanglement as it pertains to gravitons…”

Azziz wrote as Doctor Yuschenkov spilled out the pieces of his theory in a disjointed, haphazard fashion: the controlled entanglement of gravitons, the directed acceleration of one half of the pair, the attraction/feedback reaction shifting phase to the tachyonic at just faster than light, the pulsing incremental increases beyond. Theoretical upper limits. Imaginary mass. Relativistic effects. The impressive size of the quantum-field bubble the drive was likely to generate. Azziz took it all down, assembling the jumbled pieces into a coherent picture as he did so, his handwriting growing sketchier as increasing comprehension burgeoned into excitement.

Later, notebook pages scattered across Yuschenkov’s desk, the whiteboard opposite the vanity wall inked near black with scrawled calculations, the two men slumped again in their respective chairs.

“This will change everything,” Azziz said.

“Bet your ass it will. How things will change, that’s the question. I mean, this would be big even if building a drive was so monstrously expensive and difficult that it would require the combined gross national product of half the First World. But it’s going to be cheap. Relatively. Corporation level cheap, and not only multi-nationals. Think about that.”

“Yes, sir. The prospect raises any number of possibilities.”

Azziz’s words held a positive ring, but a frown briefly marred Azziz’s forehead. He considered Azziz, wondering if this was the man to assist in the birth of this brave new wonder. The man was acquiescent to a fault. Always “yes sir” and “glad to help sir.” He wasn’t precisely obsequious, not an ass-kisser, but nonetheless quick to comply. Very much the opposite of Yuschenkov’s demeanor back during his own sentence as a graduate assistant – “Hotheaded” he discarded as hyperbole, but “willful” perhaps captured it. Funny, so much of his work was solitary. Lonely contemplation. The “eureka” moment a completely individual achievement. Yet to proceed beyond that was going to require interaction with others, each step of development creating a widening circle of involvement. So if he wanted his work to expand beyond the confines of his own skull he’d have to start making allowances for individual differences.

The FTL was important, more so than he could comprehend at the moment. Shouldn’t he ensure a smooth working relationship with his assistant? Still, the nagging doubt lingered. Would he jeopardize the theoretical and developmental work by yoking himself to such a diametrically opposite personality? On the other hand, maybe that is precisely what he needed to do. Yin and yang and all that.

“What sort of possibilities hit you first, Azziz?” he asked, reclining his chair and interlocking his fingers behind his head.

“Well, broadly: mining, exploration. Colonization.”

“Colonization? That assumes exploration locates a habitable rock. Can you imagine that? ‘Homestead Planet X, new headquarters of the Nabisco Corporation.’”

“Yes, sir, though I presume state actors would be preeminent. Perhaps easing population pressure might ease geopolitical tensions?”

“What, convince North Korea to emigrate en masse, settle Planet North Korea? Or a moon. People always seem to ignore the habitable possibilities of satellites. The twin Marxist-Maoist Moons of Mu Cephei?”

“Planet Kim, Worker’s Paradise, Antares Local 501.”

Yuschenkov laughed. Azziz essaying a joke was so unexpected that the surprise elicited laughter even though the joke hardly deserved it. “Well, why not. I think the drive is going to be cheap enough for even a starving gangster regime to slap together a ship. And the Norks do have basic heavy lift capabilities. Even if they didn’t, the rest of the world would probably be happy to chip in, buy ‘em a one-way ticket. But I don’t know. Geopolitical tension, as you put it, is chronic. You can’t just alleviate a symptom. Reduce the population by half, the remainder are still going to be at each other’s throats.”

Azziz didn’t reply. Yuschenkov eyed him, momentarily considering letting the subject drop, but tact as a virtue adhered only lightly to him. “And what about your – what’s the polite way to phrase it now – co-religionists? The misconstruers of the Religion of Peace as the doctrine is properly understood by wiser heads such as yours. Will they be founding New Mecca, facing east five times a day – toward Betelgeuse?”

Azziz flushed, seeming to shrink within his buttoned-up Oxford shirt and ill-fitting blue blazer. “Did you miss the sensitivity seminar again this year, Doctor Yuschenkov?” He cleared his throat. “I cannot speak for every member of a vast, scattered, and divided community, sir. Still, I would hazard a guess that those more violently zealous in their beliefs would be unlikely to leave.”

“Sorry, Azziz. Wrong of me to put you on the spot like that. I don’t always weigh my words before I let them drop. Right. Shall we pick this up in the morning, or shall we start sketching in how to mount the drive to a spaceship?”

“I’ll order some pizza, sir. No pepperoni, sorry.”

* * *

“It’s astonishing. How can it be cheaper and easier to construct a revolutionary FTL drive from scratch than it is to build a spaceship using proven technology and existing components?” Yuschenkov didn’t bother hiding his disgust, even allowing a trace of bitterness to season his words.

His office looked largely the same, though the vanity wall had gathered a few more photographs during the year that had elapsed since his discovery. Azziz sat in the same chair, looking uncomfortable even though he was not the target of Yuschenkov’s ire. Next to Azziz, in the second guest chair, lounged a trim, middle-aged figure in a smart suit. Fredrick Lincoln, the Thomas Coutts University treasurer, was smooth, oozing competence, and always ready with an answer. A computer tablet on his lap held several open files which he viewed frequently during the conversation.

“I understand your frustration, Doctor Yuschenkov, and I and the Board of Regents share it. Constructing this test vessel and proving your theory will be the gaudiest, largest feather in Thomas Coutts’ cap. But reality is reality.” Lincoln consulted one of his files. “And the FTL is not, as you suggest, an insignificant expense. The amount of rare-earth minerals required alone is staggeringly expensive.”

“Why? Hardly that rare. I consulted with the geology department and they assured me the minerals are relatively plentiful.”

“Plentiful in the ground, maybe. But scarce in usable, for-sale, quantities. The Chinese imposed an embargo on export of rare-earth minerals to the U.S. two years ago. And domestic supplies are locked down. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get twenty federal agencies and fifteen state and local agencies to sign off on any mining venture? And even when that miracle occurs there’s still five years of litigation with every environmental organization in the book. If you’d just agree to cut the Feds in…”

“No. True, we’re proceeding slowly now, but let the government take control – and make no mistake, you let that camel’s nose under the tent, that’s what’ll happen – and we’ll have a working ship about a day before they shovel dirt over my grave. You’re a miracle worker, Lincoln. I’ve got faith in you. There must be some stockpiles of the stuff already scooped out. I don’t need much of it. I’ll need a fair amount of scandium and at least a kilo of yttrium. I’m not trying to corner the market. While you’re at it, a bit more palladium would actually be welcome while we’re still in the testing phase.”


“Yes. It’s not critical, but on rare occasions – say once every twenty to one hundred test runs – there is a wave surge in the graviton splitter that renders the drive inoperable. Azziz discovered that a bath in a weak solution of palladium and acid resets the splitter. Just one of those anomalous lab results. Anyway, we require more than just the raw materials for fabricating our own FTL drive mount and linkage. What about the airframe – or spaceframe, I guess. What about existing components? Can we get that off the shelf? Russian hardware? Private industry?”

“We’re looking at acquiring obsolete equipment. If we want new, our supplier is going to want to be our ‘partner’ and demand we share the technology. I realize you aren’t quite ready to relinquish control yet. So far the university is backing you, but the pressure from Washington is increasing. Say the word and we can partner with NASA.”

“Not until we have enough momentum to steamroller a bureaucracy. Stick with the obsolete hardware. At least we know it works. Do we have any leads?”

Lincoln consulted his tablet. “We have a line on a mothballed Dragon capsule. Perhaps you would like to inspect it with me, help me with an idea of its condition and value.” When Yuschenkov nodded, Lincoln continued, “I’ve also put out a request for bids for launch vehicles. The Russians and three private, heavy-lift companies have indicated interest. So it’s not all bad news. But – and I hate to harp on this – I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stonewall the government. The rumors are growing that we’re sitting on something very big, hence the pressure. Our patent lawyers are filing applications as piecemeal as possible, but eventually someone is going to put this all together and then…”

“Look, I’m not trying to hide anything. This is very big, yes, and I want to share it. But, and I repeat, not until we’re past the point where a dozen agencies and meddling congressional subcommittees can strangle this baby in the cradle.”

“Be careful what you want to share, Professor. The University fully intends to capitalize on its half of the patent licensing.”

Yuschenkov laughed. “Of course. By the time the patents expire, Thomas Coutts will have an endowment to rival Harvard. But more immediately, nice work tracking down hardware, Lincoln. Keep me informed. And get an extra ticket for Azziz; he’s more current on aerospace than I am. Been brushing up during thesis writing breaks. Slacker.”

* * *

New Mexico’s Spaceport America hadn’t hosted such a crowd in years. Spaceport authorities had opened shuttered warehouses and hangers to accommodate the assembled journalists, politicians, celebrities, and the just plain curious.

A young girl holding her mother’s hand stood in an advantageous location with assorted VIPs. She had an unobstructed view to a gantry supporting a Falcon Heavy rocket, atop which perched a gumdrop-shaped capsule. It was quite some distance away but using her pink binoculars, adorned with her favorite cartoon space pony, she could just make out a bulky-suited figure crossing a catwalk from gantry to capsule.

“Is that Uncle Brennan?” she asked her mother.

“Yes, Brooklynn, that’s my impetuous brother. Can’t leave the test flight to a test pilot.” Brooklynn’s mother, Colleen Vance, emitted a resigned sigh.

“What is ‘impetuous?’” Brooklynn asked.

“It is another word for ‘impulsive.’ It means he sometimes acts before he considers all the consequences.”

“Oh. Hey, look, Mom. There is Azziz.” She pointed with her free hand toward the left end of the VIP gallery where Azziz stood in the company of several men who Brooklynn thought looked a lot like Azziz: bearded, skin a few shades darker than hers, which she knew would have started to redden by now if her mother hadn’t liberally slathered her with sunscreen. She waved, then nudged her mother until she started waving as well, the motion sufficient to draw Azziz’s attention. He waved back, but it seemed hesitant and it seemed to bring disapproval from his friends. She saw some of them gesturing and white teeth gleaming through their beards as they spoke. Azziz dropped his hand.

“Should we go say hello?”

“No, Brooklynn. I think Azziz has a lot on his mind today, and it doesn’t look as if his guests would approve of us visiting.”

A countdown broadcast from loudspeakers mounted throughout the spaceport terminated further conversation. Fire burst from beneath the rocket, curling and breaking like a heavy sea hitting a rocky shore. The rocket seemed to gather itself, then lifted sedately into the sky. Brooklynn felt her mother’s hand squeezing hers almost painfully.

The countdown voice broke out from the loudspeakers again. “And we have liftoff of theEureka for the first test of the Yuschenkov Graviton Faster-than-Light Drive.”

After the rocket disappeared from sight, Brooklynn followed her mother into a VIP lounge where television monitors displayed telemetry and a computer simulation of what was happening aboard the FTL test flight. Brooklynn sipped a cup of a mango and orange juice blend as the capsule separated from the last stage of the rocket. A quiet, uninflected voice provided one side of a conversation and occasional commentary, describing the checklist Uncle Brennan and his co-pilot, a Colonel Memphis Brown Jr., were running through prior to testing the drive. By this point, the calm voice was abbreviating the title of the Yuschenkov Graviton FTL drive as the “Y-Drive.”

Brooklynn was sucking on ice cubes and her mother was on a second glass of chardonnay when the capsule’s attitude adjusters fired, pointing the nose of the Eureka at a spot a couple hundred miles east of the moon.

“Roger, Eureka,” the quiet voice announced, “you are a go to engage the Y-Drive.” The voice added, “Good luck.”

The telemetry spasmed and the computer simulation froze. The voice said, “Y-Drive engaged, single pulse. Y-Drive bubble intact. Eureka beyond the light cone. Reacquiring.” There was a pause, then, as the numbers and charts on the telemetry screens resumed accustomed patterns, “Eurekareacquired, reverse thrusters engaged.” The computer simulation showed a curving edge of the moon, and beyond it a flaring, receding dot.

“Where are they going?” Brooklynn asked.

“Nowhere, sweetheart. They are trying to slow down. I don’t really understand it, but Uncle Brennan told me that once the – the Y-Drive was disengaged the Eureka would drop to below light speed. But it would have a lot of momentum, it would keep going in a straight line very fast, so they have to put on the brakes.”

“Can’t he just turn around and use the Y-Drive again?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to stop before hitting the Earth. Or maybe it can be done, sort of canceling out the momentum. You’ll have to ask him. Besides, this is the test flight. He’s only supposed to turn on the Y-Drive once.”

Eureka, telemetry indicates an attitude shift. Please check angle of yaw,” the quiet voice spoke. Brooklynn looked at the screens again, noticing the numbers on one of the charts steadily increasing. She watched for several seconds before the voice spoke again. “Negative Eureka, you are not cleared to engage the Y-Drive. Ground control is aware that braking maneuvers and the return trip will consume some time, but ground control would like to emphasize that it does not care if you are bored.”

Brooklynn’s mother sighed. “Ground control is wasting his breath,” she said just before the telemetry spasmed again.

* * *

When Brooklynn saw Uncle Brennan trot down the ladder from the Eureka, she broke into a run. She heard her mother call her name and begin to sprint after her, but with her mother in high heels, Brooklynn felt comfortable outracing her.

People in uniform, firemen, people in white lab coats, people in business suits with cameras, all joined in the race. She couldn’t keep up and got caught up in the crowd. But then she heard her Uncle’s voice say, “One side, make a hole. Pioneer coming through.” And there he was, dropping to his knees in front of her, arms open to embrace her.

“You did it, Uncle Brennan,” she said into his chest.

“Damn right, I did, little Brooklyn.”

* * *

“Damn it, Azziz, I know Alpha Centauri is the closest. But it hardly makes a difference for the first interstellar test. If something goes wrong, it really doesn’t matter if we’re going five light-years away or fifty. We’re hosed either way. We can’t stop at the nearest service station for repairs. It’s either going to work, or it isn’t.”

Doctor Yuschenkov’s ebullient glow had ebbed over the year that had elapsed since his historic test flight. He wanted to push on, stretch the envelope, move from a walk to a run. But success, instead of opening the path, seemed to have erected barriers. More scientists, more engineers, more organizations accreted to the program and each successive test became less of a stride than a baby step of decreasing length. To Yuschenkov, every advance was frustratingly glacial. Even the impending – at long last – flight to Alpha Centauri, the first manned interstellar voyage, seemed paltry and unimaginative, not the bold leap it should have been.

“But there is a planet, sir. And it’s hardly larger than Earth.” Azziz said. He looked harried, as well he should, nearing the appointed time to submit his doctoral thesis and yet still spending the lion’s share of his working hours on the Y-Drive project.

“Not in the habitable zone, Azziz. It’s a rock. No, they’re all so goddamned cautious. No progress is unattended by risk. And I’m the one taking it. Well, I and the rest of the crew. Sure you don’t want to come along? I can swing it for you. I’ve still got a little pull on this project. We’re talking making history here. You can get another chance to argue your thesis. The first trip to another star, well that’s unique.”

“No, sir. I’ll keep my feet on this planet, thank you.” Azziz patted the grass next to the concrete bench where the two of them were sitting in the quad, eating sandwiches in the creeping afternoon shade cast by the towering brick edifice of the library.

“It is a nice planet, Azziz, I’ll give you that. I do intend on coming back, you know.” It was a nice planet, and Thomas Coutts a nice campus. Across from the two men the gables and chimneys rose and fell along the roofline of the administration building. Students crossed between the classical facade of the music hall to the left and the Victorian plinths fronting the natural history exhibition to the right, while others sat on the lawn in the center; eating, studying, chatting up, sleeping. “The thing is, I want to get off this rock immediately every time I hear ‘we still need to test the cosmic ray warning sensors’ or ‘we need to determine acceptable redundancy of shielding within the redoubt’ or ‘we haven’t determined optimal nutritional requirements to compensate for bone loss.’ Something out there might kill me, but if we wait until we’ve perfected every precaution, I’ll already be dead by the time we launch.”

* * *

Doctor Yuschenkov was, however, very much alive on the bright, clear desert morning in early March when he craned back, looking up the gantry at the capsule that was to deliver him to Eureka II, waiting in orbit for him and the rest of the crew.

Brooklynn Vance gazed up at him. Her uncle appeared heroic, framed against the rocket, staring up at the heavens. Her mother was there, as were Azziz and the Eureka II crew, but at that moment only Uncle Brennan existed.

He brought his regard earthward, down to her, and she thought she saw the entire universe shining for a moment in his eyes. He squatted to eye-level, which was only a couple of pencil marks on the kitchen wall taller than last time he had gone into space. “Big day, right Brooklynn? Wish I could bring back a present for you, but I don’t think I’m going to find a mall out there.”

“I can come help you look. I wouldn’t take up much room.” Her voice held the same teasing tone his did, but there was an earnest appeal in her widened eyes and lifted brow.

“You’ll be up there soon. We’re going to open the stars for business. You might open the first toy store on another planet. Or a moon; people always forget the satellites. Someday a traveler like memight buy a teddy bear from you for his niece in your shop on the moon of a gas giant 50 light-years from Earth.”

She giggled at his sing-song vision even while he hugged her. Then she watched him hug her mom, shake hands with Azziz, and walk away with the rest of the crew to a building at the base of the gantry.

She watched the launch again from the VIP section, though it wasn’t as full this time; the real action wouldn’t happen until after the capsule dropped off its passengers at the Eureka II. But it was still exciting to watch the rocket lift itself skyward on its tail of fire.

She watched television in the hotel the next day, lying on the bed next to her mother and eating pizza from the box. A camera mounted on the capsule that had delivered the Eureka II crew was beaming Earthward the image of the first starship as it squirted attitude jets, adjusting itself to point in the direction of Alpha Centauri. The starship looked like a flattened tube of girders with a blockish engine cluster at one end and a slowly spinning ring at the other. A voice was explaining the mission while scrolling text along the bottom of the screen provided essentially the same information.

“Doctor Yuschenkov and the other three crew members of the Eureka II – Colonel Brown, Doctor Abrams, and Doctor Chandra – have completed the final checks for initiating humanity’s historic first interstellar voyage. Ground Control reports that attitude corrections are complete and final countdown is underway for initiating the Y-Drive, as Doctor Yuschenkov’s Graviton Drive has come to be called. Plans call for a four-week outward trip to what some have begun calling Planet Best Bet, orbiting Alpha Centauri. The crew will remain in orbit for a month of study, then will return to Earth, arrival scheduled for approximately three months from today.”

Another voice replaced the first, sounding distant. It was counting down. When it reached zero Brooklynn saw the central portion of the engine cluster strobe red. The Eureka II disappeared and the blackness where it had been appeared to ripple momentarily, then subside.

* * *

Three months later Brooklynn was again eating pizza with her mother and watching television, this time at home. Reporters in various locations consumed airtime, repeating variations of the same basic message: “We expect them anytime.”

“Don’t get anxious, Brooklynn,” her mother said for the third, or maybe fourth, time. “They aren’t coming on a train. There is no timetable. Today is just the earliest they are expected. Remember, Uncle Brennan is in charge. He might have decided to stay a day or two longer to look around.”

Brooklynn spent the rest of the day flipping through the news channels, waiting. Her mother let her stay up an extra half-hour before putting her to bed.

It took Brooklynn a week before her excitement turned to worry. And it took three months for her mother to sit her down and say, “I’m sorry, baby. I don’t think he’s coming back.”

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