Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween!

Many believe the old Celtic festival of Samhain became the inspiration for Halloween. With that in mind, you have to love this quote about Samhain from the opening of Bernard Cornwell’s Enemy of God ...

Today I have been thinking about the dead.
This is the last day of the old year. The bracken on the hill has turned brown, the elms at the valley’s end have lost their leaves and the winter slaughter of our cattle has begun. Tonight is Samain Eve.
Tonight the curtain that separates the dead from the living will quiver, fray, and finally vanish. Tonight the dead will cross the bridge of swords. Tonight the dead will come from the Otherworld to this world, but we shall not see them. They will be shadows in the darkness, mere whispers of wind in a windless night, but they will be here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Devil's Bridge: A Tale of Samhain

For this Halloween, I’m republishing my flash fiction story titled The Devil’s Bridge. It’s based on a Welsh legend about an old woman and her deal with the devil – on the eve of Samhain (Halloween). Hope you enjoy it!

Bryn dreaded the hike to the devil’s bridge, though she dreaded the full moon even more.

Its light bathed the path through the bracken-covered hillside that led to the ravine. Every few yards, Meg jabbed her walking stick into Bryn’s back, goading the ten-year-old forward, while Meg’s old wolfhound, Mister Grim, followed alongside. Mister Grim was as mean as sin, and Meg had threatened to feed Bryn to the dog more times than the girl could recall. Although tonight, Bryn feared the moon and the bridge more than the wolfhound. Yet she wondered if he could smell the hunk of day-old bacon hidden in her fist.

“Keep moving,” Meg hissed. “Of all the orphans the village has brought me, you be the slowest.”

The old woman’s eyes simmered in their sockets, amid a face creased like an autumn leaf. Some said Meg was once the most beautiful woman in the village, but now she was so old that Bryn’s Nana was just a child when Meg was in her prime. Nana believed witchery preserved Meg’s beauty, but even witchery could not defeat the haul of time. 

Ahead loomed the bridge, a crude arch of stone that spanned the ravine where the river plunged three hundred feet in a rushing fall. On the far side, moonlight kissed the headstone of the ancient dolmen encrusted with moss. Nana once told Bryn that dolmens were the tombs of giants, but some believed they were gateways to the Otherworld, where dark faeries lured their prey.

A chill washed through Bryn. “Why do we have to come here tonight?”

“Because it’s Samhain,” Meg replied. “The curtain between the living and the dead is like mist, and the mandrake growing near the dolmen is at its peak. ‘Tis powerful magic in them roots tonight, so time to harvest.”

“But Nana warned about that bridge.”

“’Tis just a bridge.”

“Nana said that when you were young, you tricked the devil into building it.”

Meg’s eyes narrowed. “Your Nana told you that?”

“She said he built it for you for the price of the first soul to cross it. But instead of going first, you pushed your servant across, a sickly girl, blind in one eye. Cheated, the devil howled and screamed. Now, Nana said, at every full moon he takes the life of the first to cross the bridge.”

“Your Nana died a fool!” Meg snapped. “There’s no truth in them myths. Now come on child, there’s harvesting to do.”

From a pouch on her waist, Meg drew a rusty gardening spade and handed it to Bryn. “Now go and get me some mandrake root.”

Bryn’s stomach hardened. “Alone?”

Meg held up her fingers, bent like a spider’s legs and tipped with jagged nails. “My hands are old, too feeble to grip a spade. Now do as you’re told.”

“But Nana said—”

Meg grabbed Bryn by the hair and jerked her head back. “I don’t care what your Nana said,” Meg growled through clenched teeth. “Go dig up some mandrake root, lest I turn you into a toad and feed you to Mister Grim!”

Bryn froze, scared to even breath. When Meg let go, Bryn backed toward the bridge, nearly stumbling due to the weakness in her knees. Her whole body shook as she turned at the bridge’s threshold. The spray of the falls kissed her face. Hundreds of feet below the bridge, the rushing waters seethed into a cauldron-like gorge.

Bryn’s heart felt as if it would beat through her chest. She stopped and looked back.

“Go!” Meg shrieked. 

Bryn shook her head, a thought pounding in her mind. She cheated the devil . . .

“Get on, or I’ll beat you bloody with this stick!”

Bryn sucked in a breath and shook her head again, mouthing her reply. “No.” 

Meg grimaced. “Grim, make her go.” 

The wolfhound stood as tall as Bryn, with a massive head and teeth as long as her thumbs. His eyes gleaming in the moonlight, he padded toward her like a hound closing on a wounded hare. 

Bryn struggled to hold back a cry. Summoning all the courage she could muster, she opened her palm, revealing the hunk of old bacon in her hand. Mister Grim cocked his head, smelling the cured meat. The wolfhound opened his jaws, just as Bryn hurled the meat toward the dolmen.

“No!” Meg screamed as the wolfhound tore across the bridge.

Mister Grim lunged for his prize. Then Bryn gasped. 

A torrent of water blasted from the falls. Arms stretched from the spray, reaching from a ghost-like shape with burning red eyes. As it fell on the wolfhound, the ghostly demon roared like the wind, drowning out the dog’s cries. Water pummeled the stone bridge. When the torrent ceased, the demon and the wolfhound were gone. 

Bryn exhaled—right before Meg eclipsed her view. The old woman’s eyes fumed with rage. With a fierce cry, she cracked her stick upside Bryn’s head. And the girl’s whole world began to spin.

* * *

On the dirt floor of Meg’s hovel, Bryn woke in darkness to a sound at the old wooden door. The scent of stewed mandrake clung to the air as Bryn rubbed the side of her head, swollen like a gourd. She heard the sound again. Something scratched at the door. As she got up and walked to the doorway, a chill rushed up Bryn’s limbs. Hesitating for a moment, she opened the door. At its threshold stood Mister Grim. The hound’s eyes burned like hot coals.

Bryn staggered back. Those eyes, like the demon’s from the falls! 

She feared she might faint, but the beast brushed past her and padded toward Meg, asleep in her bed. As it lunged and Meg screamed, a faint smile crept across Bryn’s lips. For there was one more thing Nana used to say. 

“Remember child, always give the devil his due.” 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Medieval Mysteries: “The Red Hill” by David Penny

Recently, I started reading more medieval mysteries, and I’m truly enjoying them. These are pure mystery tales like the stories of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, except set during the Middle Ages. And this week’s mystery, The Red Hill by David Penny, is among the best I’ve read so far. 

Set in the fifteenth century, the mystery involves a series of murders within the harem of the Alhambra, the massive medieval palace of the sultan of Granada. The few witnesses to the attacks believe the killer to a djinn, a spirit of the air who appears out of nowhere wielding a deadly blade. With the sultan’s wives a potential target, the sultan enlists his private surgeon, Thomas Berrington, to solve the mystery and expose the killer.

Thomas, the Sherlock Holmes of this tale, is an Englishman with a mysterious past who has served the sultan for years. Driven by logic and science instead of superstition, Thomas is reluctant to take on this role, but a sultan’s request cannot be refused. 

The Hill of the Alhambra in Granada
Like most good stories, the novel gives us a host of memorable characters, including Jorge, the strapping eunuch who serves as Watson to Thomas’ Holmes; Olaf Torvaldsson, the sultan’s Scandinavian general; and the sultan’s many sons, all of whom may eventually lay a claim to the throne. Then there’s Olaf’s two daughters, one who is Thomas’ lover, and the other who wishes to become his apprentice. They all aid Thomas in one way or another, but he’s often left guessing whether they are truly friends, or foes. 

Nearly everyone Thomas meets has a motive to commit the crime, and the author does a fine job of disguising the truth, while offering enough subtle clues to make the ending believable. And like all great mystery tales, the puzzle kept me guessing until the novel’s final twist. The book is the first in a series, and you can bet book two, titled Breaker of Bones, is already on my to-read list!

You can read a sample of The Red Hill here.

* Painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, October 5, 2017

“The Flame Bearer”: Uhtred of Bebbanburg Finally Goes Home

It look longer than I had hoped, but I finished reading The Flame Bearer, the latest installment in Bernard Conwell’s excellent Saxon Tales series about the founding of the kingdom of England in the early tenth century. Here’s my review.

For ten novels – that’s right, ten – we’ve been waiting for Uhtred to reclaim his ancestral home of Bebbanburg, and in The Flame Bearer we finally learn how that story ends. Fans of the series will recall that Uhtred’s last attempt to capture the impregnable Northumbrian fortress took place in The Pagan Lord, where we were introduced to his son Uhtred as a young warrior. By The Flame Bearer, Uhtred the father is an old man, and with most of his enemies gone after the events in Warriors of the Storm, reclaiming Bebbanburg seems to be all that is left for Uhtred’s tale.

Uhtred is a man possessed in this book, hell-bent on achieving the one thing he’s longed for ever since his wicked uncle stole Bebbanburg from him in Cornwall’s The Last Kingdom. Fortunately, before Uhtred gets too far along on his quest, Cornwell presents him (and us) with another mystery of the kind featured throughout the series. This time, the West Saxons are threatening Northumbria, in apparent breach of the truce reached at the end of Warriors of the Storm. And like most of the mysteries in this series, there’s more to this move than meets the eye.

Uhtred's adventures also continue in Season 2 of The Last Kingdom on Netflix
Eventually, however, the tale turns back to Bebbanburg, and how Uhtred is going to pull off this improbable siege. Uhtred may be old, but he’s still the greatest warrior in England, and the last third of this novel offers one of the longest battle sequences in the series. Cornwell is a master of writing battles, with all of its violence, carnage, and shield walls, so fans of the series won’t be disappointed. By the end, every open storyline from the prior two novels appears to reach its conclusion. That is, every storyline but one. So, in what looked to be the final book in the series, Cornwell drops a hint there may be more to come. 

Even if Cornwell never goes beyond book ten, The Saxon Tales have been one of the great works of medieval fiction. Set in an important era in English history, its stories are engaging, its characters are memorable, and its hero is unforgettable. Someday, we’re going to miss the narrations of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. But until then, enjoy the ride.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

* Image courtesy of Netflix