Curran didn’t win in the poll, but I got to have an email conversation with Karen M. Moning, who is a terrific person. I may have completely embarrassed myself by having a bit of fangirly squee.
Anyhow, as we were chatting, (look at me all casual: I was chatting with KMM, squeee, ok I will stop now) I realized that I completely forgot to post the consolation prize for all of your votes. Honestly guys, did you see the number of votes we got? It was crazy! Thank you so much for your support and awesomeness. I think the readers made out like bandits: so far we released two snippets and I predict we all will get to enjoy the Barrons’ scene.
This snippet doesn’t have Curran in it, sadly. It’s coming from the e-novella we’re hoping to release later this year. Some of you might have seen this snippet before, but we hope you’ll laugh anyway.
This is in an ARC stage, so some spelling and punctuation errors are present. (I’ve got four emails about misspelling on Marigold’s name inside ten minutes. :D People, pace yourselves. LOL.)
The horses clopped down the dirt path. Bareback Stables specialized in Tennessee Walkers. They were smart, calm horses, with high endurance and comfortable to ride. I’d ended up with a blue roan mare. She struck me as relatively unflappable. Andrea picked a red roan of such pale, gentle shade, she leaned into pink territory.
She saw me looking. “What?”
“Your horse looks pink.”
“If you paste some stars on her butt, you’ll be riding my little pony.”
“Bugger off.” Andrea patted the mare’s neck. “Don’t listen to her, Lily. You are the cutest horsie ever. The correct name for the color is strawberry roan, by the way.”
“Strawberry shortcake, more like it. Does Strawberry Shortcake know you stole her horse? She will berry, berry angry with you.”
Andrea glanced at me from under half-lowered eyelids. “I can shoot you right here, on this road, and nobody will ever find your body.”
Behind us Ascanio chortled on the back of his mule. Derek heroically remained stoic.
The road curved, caught between dense dark forest on the left and open field of melting snow and fresh spring green on the right. The Hall of the Norse Heritage sat on the west side of Gainsville, about fifty miles north of Atlanta. The massive spread of the Chattahoochee Forest had long ago swallowed Gainsville, turning it into forest town and if turned off the road into the dense undergrowth in a four or five miles we’d come to the ruins of I-985 and eventually, to the remains of the city.
Ahead the lime-green monstrosity that was Ghastek’s vampire trotted along the road in a jerky, looping gait. Most vampires eventually lost their ability to run upright, reverting to quadruped locomotion as the Immortuus pathogen reshaped its victim’s body into a new nightmare predator. I had come across very old vamps before. They didn’t even resemble human. But the vamp Ghastek piloted was only a few months old. It loped forward, scuttling along the ground, and shambling two thirds upright the next like some grotesque puppet on the strings of a drunken puppeteer.
“Do you miss Marigold?” Andrea asked. “You know, she’s an old mule. You could probably buy her from the Order’s stables for next to nothing.”
“She died. Erra killed her.”
Andrea inhaled sharply. “I’m sorry.”
My aunt had destroyed my life so completely, nothing remained. She killed Marygold, she destroyed my apartment and with it all memories of my deceased guardian, she ripped away my sense of security, what little there was. She made me choose my job or lives of people I cared about. Not much of a choice really. But I was able to save Curran. Or maybe he saved me, I wasn’t sure anymore.
“We should get our own horses at some point,” Andrea said.
“I tell you what, when we’re rolling in dough, you can buy all the pink horses you want.”
“It’s a deal. And just as an aside-” She stopped, her gaze focused on a rock outcropping a few dozen feet to the right. “Is that a troll?”
The top of the rock pile shifted. A thick humanoid body pushed from the crest. Its head was wide, narrowing down to dinosaur jaws armed with narrow crocodile teeth. Grey scales shielded its body, protruding from the flesh as if the creature had rolled in gravel. Long strands of emerald green moss dripped from its back and shoulders. The sun tore through the clouds,. A stray ray caught the creature’s side and the beast sparkled as if dipped in diamond dust.
“That’s a landvættir. They’re land spirits that pop up around neo-Norse settlements. He won’t bother us unless we turn off the path.”
The vampire paused. For a long second the bloodsucker and the monster stared at each other. Ghastek moved on.
“There is a Kodak moment.” Andrea grimaced. “How do you know so much about these Viking guys?”
“A good portion of them are mercs. They’re a rowdy lot and not really what you would call true to tradition. Some are, but most are there because they saw a movie or two in childhood and think viking is a noun. They wear horned helmets, drink beer out of a giant vat, and start fights. As neo-Viking communities go, they are better off financially than most so they can afford to have some fun.”
“Where do they get their money?”
I nodded. “Around that bend.”
A couple of minutes later we cleared the curve. Andrea stopped. I did too.
A vast lake spread on our left. Blue-green water stretched into the distance, tinted with bluish haze. Here and there green islands ringed with sand thrust through the water. To the right, an enormous mead hall built with hug timbers rose from the crest of a low hill like the armored back of some sea serpent. As we stood there, two karves slid from behind the nearest island, their carved dragon heads rising high above the lake’s surface.
Andrea raised her hand to shield her eyes.
“Lake Lanier,” I told her. “The Norse Heritage has built a river fleet of Dragon Ships and now they train fresh crews for shallow water sailing. Charge other wannabe raiders an arm and a leg for it, too. They also give vacationers a ride for the right price. They’re kind of touchy about it, so I wouldn’t ask if they do children parties.”
Andrea cracked a smile. “Or what, they’ll try to drown us in their beer vat?”
“Try being the operative word.”
We started toward the mead hall. Midway up the hill, the vampire paused.
A man walked out in the middle of the road from behind a birch. Six and a half feet tall, he stood wrapped in chain mail. A cape of black fur billowed from his shoulders. His war helm, a near perfect replication of Gjermundbu Helmet, shielded the top of his head and half of his face. The stainless steel had been polished until the sun rays slid off of it, as if he wore a mirror on his head. The man carried an enormous single axe on a long wooden handle.
I’d tried to pick up the axe once and it weighed about ten pounds at least. He was slower than molasses in January with it, but it looked impressive.
“Who is that?” Andrea asked.
“That’s Gunnar. He’s the Norse Heritage’s idea of security detail.”
“What, all by himself?”
I nodded. “He’s sufficient.”
Ghastek’s vampire stared the giant Viking, motionless like a statue while the Master of the dead mulled the situation over, scuttled toward us and fell back in line behind my horse. Apparently, Ghastek decided that his bloodsucker was too precious to risk.
We drew close.
Gunnar took a deep breath and roared, “Vestu heill!”
I stuck my finger into my right ear and shook it a little. “Hello, Gunnar.”
He squinted at me through his facemask and dropped his voice down. “Hey, Kate.” He sounded slightly out of breath.
“Good to see you.”
He leaned on his axe, pulled the helmet off and wiped sweat off his forehead, revealing reddish hair braided on his temples. “You heading up to see Ragnvald?”
“All of you?”
“Dagfinn. You’ve seen him around?”
Gunnar took a moment to spit into the dirt, making a big show of it. “Nope. And all the better for it.”
Bullshit. “Too bad.”
“Yeah.” Gunnar waved me on with the helmet. “You’re good to go.”
We rode on.
“He lied,” Andrea said.
“Yep.” Gunnar knew exactly where Dagfinn was. He took his clues from Ragnvald, and since he wasn’t talking, the jarl probably wouldn’t be talking either. This would not go well.
We rode up through the wooden gates to the mead hall. The rest of the settlement set lower down the hill, past the mead hall: solid wooden houses scattered here and there. People walked to and fro, men in cotton tunic and cloaks, women in ankle length gowns and hangerocks, apron-dresses. Some were white, some had darker skin. A couple to our right looked Chinese. Norse Heritage took everyone in. As long as you thought you were a Viking, you had a place at their table.
As we dismounted before the horse rail, I saw a familiar black Shire stallion in the pasture, segregated by himself. Dagfinn’s mount. The huge horse stood almost eighteen and a half hands tall, the white feathers at his huge feet shaking every time he moved. A pale scar snaked its way up the horse’s left shoulder. Hello, Magnus. Where is your owner?
The stallion stared in my direction and bared his teeth. Now horses were giving me crap.
“Mind your manners,” I murmured.
“Best behavior,” Ascanio assured me.
Mentioning that I was talking to a horse who couldn’t hear me would’ve totally cramped my style, so I nodded and stepped inside the mead hall.
A huge room greeted me. Twin rows of evenly spaced out tables ran parallel along the chamber. Originally the Vikings had tried to have the tables joined in two lines, but they couldn’t sweep under them well enough, so they went to plan B. People mulled around the tables. Some ate, some talked, some oiled their weapons. The tables ran into a raised platform at the opposite end of the hall. On the platform a man sat in a large chair carved from driftwood and lined with furs. His shoulders stretched his blue woolen tunic. His face, framed by a glossy black mane of hair, was dark and carved with sharp precision. A narrow gold band sat on his head.
He glanced at us. Dark eyes took our measure and he looked away pretending he didn’t see us. Playing politics. Fine, fine.
“Is that the jarl?” Ascanio whispered behind me.
“But he’s an Indian.”
“Cherokee,” I told him. “The vikings don’t care how you look. They care how well you swing your axe.”
I headed down between the tables with my little parade at my back. This would have been so much easier if I had come by myself.
About ten feet from the platform Ragnvald decided to condescend to notice us. “Kate! Vestu heill! Long time no see.”
Not long enough. “Hello, Ragnvald.”
Ragnvald pushed himself off the chair. Upright he was over six feet tall. He took a step off the platform and nodded to me. “I was just thinking of you.”
“It’s probably because you saw me walk through the door and then pretended I wasn’t here for the last couple of minutes.”
Ragnvald’s face split in a grin. “I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Queen of the shapeshifters popping in unannounced. I’m shocked.”
Oh you sonovabitch. “I’m not here in that capacity.”
Ragnvald tapped his band. “This never come off. Best to remember it now. But come on, we’ll talk business.” He raised his voice, shaking the nearby cups. “Someone bring drinks to our guests.”
He nodded to a side table. “Please.”
He took a seat and I sat across from him. The vampire tried to follow but a large woman in chainmail barred his way.
A girl half my age swept by and slammed two giant tankard filled with beer on the table. Ragnvald held his up. I smashed my tankard against his. Beer splashed. We raised tankard and pretended to take much bigger gulps than we did.
A young woman sashayed over to Andrea and the shapeshifters and led them to a neighboring table. Judging by how hard her hips were working, she thought that either Derek or Ascanio would take her for a spin.
“So, what brings you to our mead hall?”
“I’m looking for Dagfinn.
“What has he done now?”
“I have an artifact with runes on it I need to ask him about.”
Ragnvald spread his arms. “We haven’t seen the man. You should talk to Helga about the runes.”
“We did talk to Helga. Talked to Dorte and old man Rasmus, too. They can’t help us. Dagfinn is my lead for now.”
A huge older man staggered into the hall. Thick through the shoulders and slabbed with hard fat, he moved in that peculiar careful way drunks do when they have trouble putting one foot in front of the other and don’t want to pitch over. His leather vest sat askew on his large frame, his face was ruddy from cold or too much booze, and his long greying hair hung down in two braids, tangling with a mess of a grey beard.
It’s all fun and games until the drunk Viking Santa shows up.
“I don’t know what to tell you.” Ragnvald drank a tiny swallow of his beer. “He isn’t here.”
The intoxicated Santa zeroed in on the vampire sitting on the floor by the table where Andrea, Derek, and Ascanio were looking at their beer. The drunk blinked his bleary eyes and shambled toward the vamp.
“I hear the Guild is having a meeting next week,” Ragnvald said.
“That’s what I’ve been told.”
The older Viking pointed at the vampire. “What is this shit?”
Santa upped his voice a notch. “What is this shit?”
“Settle down, dad,” a younger man said from the corner.
Santa pivoted to the speaker. “Don’t tell me to settle down, you stupid son of a whore.”
“You don’t talk about mom that way.”
“I’ll talk about her… I’ll… what is this shit?”
“I also hear that the Pack has been called in to mediate.” Ragnvald looked at me for a long moment so I’d register that it was important.
“We have fifteen full time members in the Guild,” Ragnvald said.
I nodded. “I know. You put in what, eight years?”
Santa rocked back, took a deep breath and spat on the vamp.
Awesome. “Are you going to do anything about that?”
Ragnvald glanced over his shoulder. “That’s Johan. He’s just having a bit of fun. About the Guild mediation, Kate.”
“What about it?”
The vamp unhinged his maw. “Only a fool fights with drunks and idiots,” Ghastek’s voice said.
“Are you calling me an idiot?” Johan squinted at the vamp.
People at the other tables stopped eating and trickled over to watch closer. They smelled a fight coming and didn’t want to miss the show. This wasn’t going well.
The vampire shrugged, mimicking Ghastek’s gesture. “If a certain drunk spits on my vampire again, he will regret it.”
Johan leaned back, a puzzled expression on his face. Apparently, Ghastek managed to stump him.
“Which way are you leaning on the Guild thing?” Ragnvald said.
Nice try. “Where is Dagfinn, Ragnvald?”
“I’ve told you twice now, he isn’t here.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. His house is here, his mother still lives here, and his stallion is out in the pasture.”
“He gave him to his mother,” Ragnvald said.
“He gave Magnus to his mother?”
“That horse is a bloody beast. Nobody can ride him except Dagfinn. The only reason Magnus hasn’t bitten Dagfinn’s hand off by now is because every time he tries, Dagfinn bites him back. And you’re telling me Dagfinn gave him to his mother? What is she going to do with him?”
Ragnvald spread his arms. “I don’t know, use him for home protection or something. I’m not a psychic. I don’t know what goes through that man’s head.”
“You mean me?” Johan roared. “You mean I’ll regret it?”
Oh no. He finally got it.
“Do you see any other fat old drunks making a spectacle of themselves?” Ascanio asked.
Johan swung over to Derek. “You! Shut up your girlfriend.”
Derek smiled. It was a slow controlled baring of teeth. I fought a shudder. The couple of guys to the left of us grabbed their chairs.
“Derek, we’re guests,” I called out.
“They need a lesson in hospitality,” Ghastek said.
“I’ll show you hospitality.” Johan sucked in some air.
“Don’t do it,” Ghastek warned.
Johan hacked. The gob of spit landed on the vamp’s forehead.
“Suck on that!” Johan pivoted to Derek. “You’re next!”
Andrea shot from her seat in a blur and punched Johan off his feet. Vikings swarmed. Someone screamed. A chair flew above us and crashed into the wall.
Ragnvald heaved an exasperated sigh. “Which way are you leaning, Kate? Veterans or Mark?”
“Are you going to tell me where Dagfinn is?”
Bastard. “Then I guess I don’t know which way I’m leaning.”
A tankard hurtled through the room and crashed against Ragnvald’s back. He surged to his feet roaring. “All right you fuckers, who threw that?”
The second tankard took him straight in the forehead. He staggered and lunged into the full-out brawl raging in the middle of the mead hall. Fists flew, people growled, and above it all, Ghastek’s vamp crawled up the wall to the ceiling, its left paw gripping pissed off Johan by his ankle.
I sighed, jumped on the table, and kicked some Viking in the face.