Have you voted for Zoraida Grey and the Family Stones? My book baby is in the running for a RONE award and your vote could make a huge difference. Voting ends April 30.
In addition to voting for Zoraida Grey in the Long Paranormal category, consider a vote for a fellow Wild Rose author– Abigail Owen’s Home for the Holidays is up for the Anthology category.
Mayebelle finishes her midwifery duties with precision and skill. A few minutes later, I am warm and dry and contented though I can barely raise my hand above the coverlet.
“What a lot of noise and bother for such a little thing.” Maddock holds the baby in both arms, careful to support her head, careful to keep the blanket snug around her.
“Impressive how well you do that right out of the gate.”
“I’ve held babies before.” He plants a soft kiss on our child’s forehead. “Never one as beautiful as this one, of course.”
“Where have you been, Maddock. I’ll go mad if you don’t tell me what happened.”
Stirred from his reverie, he scans the valley, the forest, the sky. He hands the baby to Mayebelle. “First, we must be on our way back to the others. No one should be alone. Can you walk?”
As it turns out, I can’t. The long journey, not to mention eight months of fear and longing have taken their toll. “I’m afraid I can’t even stand up.”
“Never mind, then. “Maddock lifts me into his arms. My head fits perfectly into the spot just below his collar bone and I decide this is infinitely preferable to walking.
“Don’t bother gathering these thing, Mayebelle. We’ve already lingered too long on our own.” Maddock strides surely down the slope. Mayebelle brings up the rear with the baby and our hastily gathered kit.
The sun, well above the mountains by now, beams between still-bare branches of oak and sycamore but beneath the pines dappled shadows play across our path. A fresh cool breeze ruffles my hair. Not a cloud darkens the cobalt blue sky, but a dark foreboding gnaws.
“If you don’t tell me what happened, I’m going to explode. Where have you been? Where is Lucia?” A rumble in my stomach reminds me I haven’t eaten anything in uncounted hours. A delicious odor wafts up the hill. I lift my head from its resting place on Maddock’s chest. “And what is that delectable smell?”
Spirals of smoke rise from the ruined castle in the center of Highmoor Valley. Smaller fires kindled by Darkmore and La Croix wedding guests burn along the river bank. The smell of food lifts on the spring breeze along with the murmur of conversation and the occasional shrill laugh.
“It seems our wedding guests are making the best of a difficult situation.” I sniff the air again. Roast beef. I definitely smell roast beef. After days of eating nothing but oatmeal scones, my mouth waters and my stomach gurgles.
“They’re a hardy lot. Never let attempted murder and a burned castle ruin a good party. That’s the La Croix motto.” He slows his pace a fraction. “Before we join the throng, I’d best tell you the entire story. It’s brief. I used a time crystal.”
Mayebelle walks close behind us. I peek at her over Maddock’s shoulder. Her scarred face pales and she gasps at Maddock’s revelation. “No one understands how those crystals work. They are infinitely more dangerous than Lucia.”
Maddock grunts in agreement. “I know but when Lucia set the castle alight, I didn’t know what else to do. No time to measure, you see, to say the proper words. Allium pulled all that energy for her bloody death spell and I had to be quick before she scourged the entire valley.”
“I was cornered. Don’t try to blame all this on me.”
“Do all Darkmores have such a penchant for drama?” He squeezes me fondly.
“How did you get your grimy La Croix paws on the Darkmore’s treasured time crystals?”
“I wonder the same thing.” Mayebelle limps more quickly and Maddock slows so she can walk beside us. “The Darkmores and the La Croixs have fought wars over those tiny crystals.”
“Aunt Clarissa gave me a vial of the stuff when we announced our marriage. She said if I was foolish enough to marry a Darkmore, I’d better share the responsibility of guarding the past and the future. She takes it quite seriously.”
“And you wondered if she likes you.” I snuggle against his chest.
“So you see, time warped around us. To those of us in the castle, only a few minutes passed. The time crystal shimmered above the table like a star. Lucia knew what it was at once and she skewered me with the nastiest scowl you’ve ever seen. She disappeared in a puff of what looked suspiciously like sulphuric smoke. You Darkmores do love your little embellishments. Once the others realized what had happened, they streamed out the doors. The castle was lost, but they saved what they could.”
“So Lucia is on the loose after all. I’d hoped . . .”
“Never fear. It seems each and every one of our refined and sophisticated guests came to our wedding armed to the teeth. You’ve never seen the like of such handily draw spells. Such conveniently available amulets and charms. Such accessible hexes and potions. It’s a miracle no one was vaporized accidentally.”
“What did you expect?” Maybelle sniffs. “You two were the only ones who believed in peace and harmony.”
“When Lucia vanished, I expected to find you just beyond the castle walls. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I heard you cry out.” He tightens his arms around me. “I’ve told you mine, now tell me yours.”
The terror of the night Maddock disappeared, the long months of hopeless waiting as our baby grew inside, the cold forbidding winter, and the despair I felt when I looked down on this valley only last night fade with the morning mist.
“It doesn’t bear repeating.” A little tremble along my spine is all that remains. “Someone is cooking roast beef. I can smell it.”
I’ve dreamt of returning to this valley many times in the past months––imagined a thousand ways the reunion might go. War and death and fear seemed likely results of Lucia’s most recent atrocity.
It becomes clear as we approach the group of Darkmores and La Croixs none of my imaginings came close to reality.