Sunday, January 30, 2011

#SampleSunday - Worth Dying For, Ch. 5

Worth Dying For is on sale on Kindle for just 99 cents on and 71 p on for one more week. Although this is the second book in The Bruce Trilogy, if you haven't yet read the first you should have no trouble jumping right into this one. For those who've asked, I'm preparing the final files for the print version of WDF and it should be out sometime in February. I'll post here when it's available. Thanks, everyone, for being so patient. Meanwhile it's available in e-book form on Amazon and Smashwords.

In the following excerpt, it's still 1306 and Robert the Bruce, self-proclaimed King of Scots, has sailed from Rathlin Island in the Irish Sea up the western coast of Scotland. In order to stand against the English, he needs money, men and ships. Christiana of the Isles has all those things, but there's something she wants, as well, and the task proves to be more difficult for Robert than merely asking for a favor.

It's been frequently reported that Robert was not entirely faithful during his second marriage to Elizabeth Bruce, from whom he was physically separated for many years. We often hear him spoken of in very glowing and noble terms, but like most everyone - especially those with ambition or who wielded power - he, too, had his flaws.

I looked up to see a squat, gray castle hunched above a low cliff on an islet ahead: Castle Tirrim.

The tide being low, we beached the galley on the shingle-littered shore opposite the castle and trudged across a muddy bridge of land to the base of the cliff encircling the islet. Sleet had faded to a spitting mist. Arms wrapped about himself, Torquil led us to a breach in the cliff wall. Stiff with cold, we ascended after him, taking care not to slip on the moss-slickened stones. When Torquil scrambled over the top, he dropped to his knees, small stones crunching with the impact.

Before him stood a noblewoman in a hooded cloak, gloved palms open in welcome, and at her shoulder a glowering lord, his feet braced wide and one hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

Bending at the waist, the lady spread her arms wide, so that her cloak of crimson parted to reveal a green gown embroidered with golden knotwork. As she straightened, a rope of loosely plaited red hair swung from her shoulder, the end of it hanging to the inviting curve of her hip. Tall and imposing in presence, I was one of few men above whom she did not tower. She tilted her head and smiled pleasantly at me, ignoring Torquil and the dozen men huddled close and shivering at the lip of the cliff.

“A thousand welcomes to Tirrim, my lord king,” Lady Christiana greeted. “I have watched for you from my window for weeks now.”

“You couldn’t have known I was coming, my lady.” I took her hand, cold-wet with rain, and kissed her fingers just below the glittering facets of her emerald ring. “I sent no word. I dared not. Scotland is as thick with my enemies as there are pines in the forest. I must keep my comings and goings a secret, as much as I can.”

She laid her other hand over mine. “There are some things a woman knows, even without being told.” With a gentle tug she drew me close, her lips grazing my cheek with a kiss, her breath cupping my ear like a puff of steam as she whispered my name, “Robert.”

With every breath she drew, her bosom swelled against my chest. Fine droplets of rain on my face warmed, like a perspiration that has sprung to the brow with gentle exertion.

“Has it been ten years, truly? Not a day gone, judging by your beauty, I vow.” I bestowed a brief kiss in return. “And you’ve still not found another husband? How can that be?”

When Christiana had barely been of marriageable age, her father, Alan Macruarie, had betrothed her to Duncan of Mar. Perpetually drunk and quarrelsome, she could hardly tolerate him and leapt at any distraction. I had been one of them. It did not matter to her that it was her wedding I had come to attend. But barely in my first full beard then, I was mad for Duncan’s sister, Isabella.

“I’ll not have just any.” She poked a finger at my chest playfully. “You don’t know how despondent I was when I heard you had married again. Did you not think of me? Cruel of you, it was. My heart has yet to mend.”

The black-bearded lord cleared his throat. As I cast a glance at him, he raised his jaw. Finally, he dipped his head in acknowledgment.

“Reginald Crawford of Kyle . . . my lord.” His hand drifted downward from his sword, indicating he would unsheathe it in a breath if given cause.

Christiana snaked a hand beneath my cloak and up my arm to cling seductively to me. “Come, my lord. Let me show you to a warm bed. But first, a fire, a full meal and a flagon of wine to bring you back to life, aye?”

As she led us over the rock-strewn path to the gate, her hip swayed against mine. I had come duly armed with my honor, but already it was proving a challenge. It would have been easier to leave altogether, than to stay and deny such an enchantress.

Feel free to drop into Twitter and search for more #SampleSunday excerpts. I'll be surfing there throughout the day and re-tweeting some of my favorite finds.

Happy reading,

Friday, January 28, 2011

An Analysis of the Short-Term Effects of Creativity Deprivation on a Middle-Aged Individual Exposed to Textbook Overload

I've been noticeably absent from blogdom the past two months, immersing myself in science classes at the local college. For fun, you say? Um, no comment to that effect, but in short I wanted to renew my teaching certificate and the powers-that-be said that I had to pick up 18 quarter credit hours of science or education classes. Silly me, I took the harder route and decided to jump back into technical subjects that I haven't studied for a very, very long time. It's true, your brain does turn to mush with non-use. To the benefit of my future students, this was probably a very good thing, but the short term effect is that I feel like my brain is being crammed so full of factoids that the creativity has been squeezed right out of my ear tubes. This has been augmented by the fact that I'm an overachiever and am convinced I'm not getting my money's worth unless I get an 'A' in every class. This makes for one very stressed (not-so-creative-anymore) writer.

If you could look inside my head right now it would look like those eggs in the frying pan commercial: Your brain on drugs.

My anatomy textbook weighs 8 lbs. and totals 1400 pages. Can you say 'eye strain', 'information overload' and 'weight resistance workout'?

And yet, I find this stuff interesting. Although I prefer to do it in smaller chunks, I hope I never stop learning. Being equipped with knowledge in the sciences has helped me make wiser medical decisions so I could become healthier, know which plants are likely to thrive in my garden (or die, as is often the case) and understand how different types of training benefit the competitive runner.

That's one of the things I LURV about historical fiction - you're learning about the past and the people in it without really being aware of the fact that you're learning. There are few things more mentally painful than having dry facts crammed into your cerebral matter. Learning should be a pleasant side effect of reading fiction. This is where I mention how thankful I am for my crit partners who gave me a good smack whenever I slipped into an infodump.

I also want to thank those readers who have given me a shout-out in the past couple of weeks. Thank you a million times over! A few folks have asked when the third book in The Bruce Trilogy is coming out. It is tentatively entitled The Honor Due A King and will follow James, Robert and Edward II through their final years (with some unexpected twists, I might add). I expect to have it complete by midsummer, the delay of course caused by above mentioned academic reasons.

Only 7 weeks of class left - yay! Halfway there. Meanwhile, I am proofing the final file for the paperback of Worth Dying For (The Bruce Trilogy: Book II). A reader in Scotland is patiently waiting for it.

Happy reading,

Sunday, January 9, 2011

#SampleSunday (Twitter) - Worth Dying For

This week's #SampleSunday is from Ch. 15 of Worth Dying For (The Bruce Trilogy: Book II). [For anyone who's wondering, no, you don't have to read the books in order.]

The year is 1307 and Robert the Bruce and his men are living a transient life in the hills and Highlands of Scotland. If it's not Englishmen they're battling or evading, it's other Scots. Near Slioch the Earl of Buchan's army has trailed them down, but with Robert gravely ill, they can no longer flee and must stand and fight. Robert looks to his younger brother, the impetuous Edward Bruce, to lead his men:

Edward was right. I could not sit my horse. He held my limp, burning body to his chest as he sought to preserve me and gave me his cloak. I cannot say that I slept in such a precarious state, propped up in the saddle semi-conscious with naught but Edward’s cramping arms to save me the fall, but I remembered very little of our flight. When we forded a river and the frozen waters cut across my lower legs I was shocked into temporary mental acuity. But just as fast, my mind, echoing the failing strength in my body, dimmed to darkness. Water brought to my lips invoked endless retching. Food had not passed my lips for a week. I recognized the haunting whisper of Death’s specter as it breathed at my neck. I had seen the spirit’s impending visit on my grandfather’s ashen face in his fleeting days and I knew by other’s reactions that that was how I must have looked. By Christmas Day, I could not rise. My heart told me to listen to my dreams and live. My head told me to listen to my body and just let go.

As the snow tumbled down and deep upon the earth, my men straggled uphill, numb and weary. Boyd carried me in his arms and laid me on a thick piling of furs beneath an outcrop of rock, so that the snow would not bury me. I turned my stiff, aching neck to look. There, far beyond a boggy stretch of turf lay a village, wasted and emptied―though whether our work or Buchan’s or perhaps even Pembroke’s I could not tell. Edward began to array our men on the hillside, archers to the fore. And there in the distance . . . the men of Buchan marching forward, straining to churn their legs through the impeding drifts, their horses snorting clouds of ice.

Gil, who knew Latin better than any among us, sank to his knees at my side and began to utter, “ . . . terra sicut in coelo . . . dimitte nobis . . . nos inducas in tentationem . . .”

He made the sign of the cross above me, glanced quickly over his shoulder, laid his hand on my chest and started again. “Pater noster qui―”

I laid my trembling blue fingers over his. “When did you take vows, Gil? Do I look so near to death?”

He feigned a smile, but it slipped away under the shadow of his beak-like nose. My brother-in-law Neil Campbell, his longsword dangling from one hairy-knuckled hand, hovered grimly over Gil’s shoulder.

“Tomorrow will find you hale, my king,” Neil insisted. “For now―Buchan, he is across the way. Rumors were amuck that you were already dead. That is why they’ve waited so long to come after us. They dared not while they believed you among us. But now, we’ve nowhere left to run. Our legs refuse to carry us any further.”

“Time to use your arms, Neil,” I told him hoarsely. “Time to fight.”

“Aye.” Neil tightened one of the carrying straps of his studded round shield and stood.



“For Mary.”

The name touched on some strength deep and latent within him. He drew breath, raising his shoulders, and nodded. “And Elizabeth.”

Before his sentimental side got the better of him, Neil took off scrambling sideways along the hill. I gestured to Gil to bend nearer to me.

Our archers ran their calloused fingers over their strings for one last test, then jabbed their missiles into the packed snow at their feet. They were well practiced and my faith in them was unfailing. But Buchan had archers, too, and no matter how stray or true the aim on either side, Scots would die this day.

“Edward―bring Edward,” I whispered into Gil’s scarlet-rimmed ear. I tried to raise my head, but the downward pull was too great, my power too little. “Tell him . . . I have a wish.”

Gil left me. It was only a moment and yet more than an eternity when Edward’s hulking shadow appeared above me. He studied me in his callous, cursory manner, half love, half hate, then knelt slowly beside me. There was not a thread of fear abiding in his conscience―only the cool glimmer of ambition at seeing his older sibling, that which stood between him and glory, heartbeats from death.

He bowed his head and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Your wish?” he prompted.

Of all of us this past year, he had fought the hardest and most dangerously, and yet he appeared unscathed, stronger, damn invincible.

I looked him straight in the eye and raised two fingers. Then I lowered one and said, “First, if you must go on without me, that you will finish what I started.”

“That goes without saying, Robert. And?”

My hand began to shake and I let it fall to my chest. “Put me on my horse. Let me lead them one more time.”

He scoffed at me. “And let you fall to an arrow? No.”

“Edward, I am going to die here anyway. You know . . .”

He abandoned me with a surly glance. Ever defiant. Tenfold more so toward me than the rest of humanity. And yet . . .

I watched as Buchan’s archers scurried forth. The call went up:

“Take aim!”

For a moment, there was nothing but silence. Far, far silence resounding of mortality and snow all around, blinding to the sight.


Happy reading,

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why we love bad dogs

Last week, I went to the back door to let the dogs in and two of the three who were out came running in faster than usual. They both gave me those looks that said, "We don't know nuffin'." A muffled bark beckoned from around the corner of the house. Another bad sign.

So, since I already had my coat on because we were on our way to the YMCA, I ventured outside. Turns out our dog Mazda (the dirty, squinty-eyed one above) managed to dig herself a hole under the sidewalk next to our garage, piled up the dirt behind her and was stuck there for two hours while my husband and I tried to claw through the permafrost to rescue her. She was not the first to excavate in that particular spot. A half-sister and a niece have made a nice wide cavern that we keep filling up with rubble. I suppose they like the challenge, because then they just dig around it. (On a side note, this is the dogs' yard. Humans are only allowed in to mow and remove doo-doo.)

We thought about leaving her for awhile to teach her a lesson, but it was about -10 degrees with the windchill and we didn't want any of our neighbors calling the humane society on us. For an hour I scratched at the dirt with a tiny garden tool, but I could only dig deeper, not wider. I lured her with bologna, telling her how 'good' she was for every inch she wiggled out, but she could obviously sense the mounting tension in my voice that said, "I could just strangle you." So after 60 minutes of this, she had actually sucked herself deeper inside. Not what I intended.

My husband finally got a sledgehammer and dislodged one of those concrete blocks next to her. Covered in dirt, she went straight into the kennel while we resumed our plans for the day --- two hours late. In reward for her naughtiness, my daughter gave her a bath the next day. I'm sure she made the connection. Digging = bath = bad. Right?

We tell her she's rotten and she grins back at us, but for some odd reason we still love her.

I'll be checking in only sporadically over the next couple of months here, as I'll be having way too much fun in botany or anatomy class. Then, thank goodness, I'll be done with that and back to a normal life - finally!

Meanwhile, I was over recently at Kindle Author doing an interview.

Happy reading,

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sample Sunday: Isabeau

Following is a scene from Ch. 3 of my book Isabeau, A Novel of Queen Isabella and Sir Roger Mortimer. Isabella has been away on pilgrimage and has been told by her husband, King Edward II, to take lodging at Leeds Castle. But hostilities between Edward and his barons have risen to an inferno. On this particular day, it dawns on Isabella that everything in her life as about to change:

Leeds Castle – October, 1321

Two swans, wing to wing, their bills tucked to their downy breasts, floated across the lake encircling Leeds Castle. The ripples of their wake broke the mirrored surface in a broadening fan. A bank of white rolled across my view, obscuring the limewashed walls beyond and the helmeted figures that watched us from the crenels of the uppermost towers. Even the sun, climbing toward its pinnacle now, had not chased away the morning mist.

While I had gone to Canterbury and knelt before the shrine of Thomas Becket a week past, Edward had ridden out to the Isle of Thanet—where he met Hugh Despenser. I know this not because he admitted it, but because he went with such haste and purpose that it left me no doubt. While he made to return to London, he ordered me to come here to Leeds Castle, “To befriend and forgive,” he had written. And so I came, even though the pretense of my visit was as flaccid as a wet rope. I considered it a diplomatic gesture, if nothing more. This morning, however, I had awoken with my bowels churning. The day, I feared, would not end well. My breath hung trapped in a cloud before me in the damp air. Draping the reins of my gray palfrey across the horn of my saddle, I called my newest squire to me. Arnaud de Mone parted from the rest of my guard, some thirty armed men, and came to stand before me.

“You sent word ahead as soon as we left Canterbury, requesting lodging for us?”

He nodded. Pearlescent beads of moisture shimmered among the golden ringlets of his hair. Although young—and temptingly beautiful—he had, in a very short span, proven himself devoted. “I did, my lady.”

“And just now—you asked that we be permitted entrance?”

“I did.”

“And what was Lord Badlesmere’s reply? They have had ample time to prepare for our arrival. Why have they kept us waiting?”

“Lord Badlesmere is not inside, my queen.”

“Then who refuses us?”

“Lady Badlesmere. She says that her husband gave the fortress into her care with firm orders that no one, for any reason, was to be permitted entrance.”

“But I am not no one!” I protested impulsively. How dare she? Indeed, I traveled with armed guards, but that was only a precaution. I had not come here to take possession of the fortress, but to engender harmony. That had been clear in my message. Why must even the simplest of good intentions be suspect? Edward had given in to strict demands. Pardons had been issued. The peace may have yet been a fragile one, but it was peace. Trust first had to be a matter of practice before it could become belief. This . . . this disobedience threatened that very premise to the core. If she would not do it willingly, then Lady Badlesmere would need to be forced to open up her home. “Go back to the gate. Tell her that her queen demands entrance and lodging.”

Arnaud moved a foot, hesitating. “If . . . if she refuses?”

My mare twitched her ears, as if she, too, awaited my response. “We go back to London. This will be dealt with later.” By Edward—who would not likely find it in him to be lenient this time.

He dipped his head in a nod and trotted away. With a detachment of two dozen soldiers, he rode across the narrow bridge of land connecting the mainland to the island on which Leeds Castle sat and up to the gate. A guard appeared at a crenel atop the gatehouse. Arnaud shouted my orders. I could not make out the guard’s reply, but it had the terse ring of a warning. Arnaud stood his ground and repeated my demands. The guard disappeared.

A moment later, one of my mounted soldiers behind him snapped back in his saddle, an arrow protruding from his chest. Clutching at the shaft, he uprighted himself. Blood poured between his fingers. He swayed, then slumped to the side, his other hand still entwined in the reins. As the wounded man tumbled to the ground, his horse wheeled around, feeling the sudden yank of its bit. Unable to scramble free, the man threw an arm over his head. But too late. An iron-shod hoof circled through the air and cracked squarely against his skull, shattering it like an eggshell beneath the blow of a hammer.

I gaped in horror, barely able to comprehend what I had just seen.

Then, the air hissed. Arrows sailed above the breaking mist, arced downward and plunged into flesh. Two horses went down, pinning their riders. Another man fell from his mount, eyes wide in death. His party trapped on the narrow tongue of land, Arnaud flailed an arm, signaling retreat. But even as they turned to go without ever having put up a fight, another volley of arrows sang their requiem. The causeway was too narrow to allow them to all flee at once. Corpses clogged the way.

I could not move or speak. A dozen dead or wounded lay scattered before the gate and along the land bridge. One man staggered to his feet and took two steps before he was struck through the neck. Another behind him, his way blocked, leapt into the water, desperate to escape. His head bobbed above the surface, then flew back as an arrow pierced his cheek. Blood sprayed around him. With a drawn-out gurgle, he slipped below, crimson bubbles marking the spot where he had last drawn air.

Trumpeting in alarm, the swans beat their wings and arose in a cloud of white above the silver-dark water. Sleek necks stretched out before them, they ascended, going higher, higher. Above the pandemonium unfolding in the mist. Away from the massacre.

The remaining men cleared the causeway and rounded the lake with a rumble of shouts. When Arnaud came to me, he said nothing, but grabbed my reins and led me away.

My heart thudded in my throat. Hooves clattered around me. Taunts rang out from the castle.

The moans of the dying fell away behind me. But I could not look back.

It had begun.

Happy reading,