Wednesday, February 3, 2016

New Short Story -- A Harvest Tale (Part 1)

When I first got the idea to write a fairy tale, I was envisioning something short—4 or 5 pages at the most. But when I started writing this story, it just kept getting longer. So, I'm going to post this story in parts. Without further ado, here is Part 1 of A Harvest Tale.




A Harvest Tale

By Catherine Mesick

Young Marta lived in the wilderness on the other side of the forest with her mother and her younger brother. Marta's father had died several years before in November, just after the harvest, and it was at harvest time that the little family missed him the most.
The family had little money, and the cottage they lived in was small and very far from other houses. To maintain their household, Marta’s mother took in sewing from the village on the more settled side of the forest. And in the summer, Marta had begun to earn a few coins doing odd jobs for the housewives in the more prosperous village.
But even the village began to feel the pinch as the cold of winter approached, and Marta was dismayed to find that that steady stream of coins she had earned had slowed to a trickle. Work became scarcer and scarcer.
One night in late November, the self-same night on which her father had died, Marta was finishing up her work for that evening, and she feared for the rest of the season. Her odd jobs had dried up until there was only this last house left—a big, old house all the way at the edge of the village right next to the forest. The work was tiring—at the moment Marta was scrubbing up the dishes after the evening meal—and the housewife Marta took her orders from was strange. The wife seemed distracted and distant, and she seldom spoke more than a few words to Marta. And Marta had never seen any other member of the household apart from the wife, though there were always sounds of other people, and there was never any shortage of cooking and cleaning to be done. Despite the oddness of the place, Marta was happy to have the work, and she felt a sharp pang of regret when the housewife told her his night would be the last night she was required.
Marta knew she was unlikely to find further work until the spring.
"Are you almost finished, Marta?" The housewife turned her fine head, and her burnished hair shone in the light from the fire in the kitchen.
"Yes, ma'am," Marta said. "All I have to do is throw the dishwater out and then tidy up a bit."
"Be quick about it," the housewife said. "Night is coming fast."
"Yes, ma'am."
Marta hurried outside with the basin full of dishwater and threw it into the yard. Then she hurried back in and began to straighten up the kitchen. As Marta placed the dried dishes back in the cupboard, she thought she heard quick footsteps followed by muffled laughter in the room overhead. Though Marta was used to the odd noises in the house, she couldn't help but stop and glance up involuntarily at the suddenness of the sound. But she caught the eye of the housewife and quickly returned to work.
When Marta had returned the kitchen to its proper gleaming state, she approached the housewife, who was sitting at the long wooden table where Marta did much of her baking. In the center of the table was a covered basket that Marta could have sworn wasn’t there a moment ago.
"I believe I'm finished for the night," Marta said.
"And for the rest of the year," the housewife replied. "Thank you, Marta. Though I do not say it often, you have done good work. You have been a great help to me here in this house. And you have some common sense. That is rarer than you might think."
The housewife rose from the table and came toward Marta with the basket. But first she held out one slender hand.
"Here are your wages for the week, child."
The housewife pressed a handful of coins into Marta's palm.
"Thank you, ma'am," Marta said, slipping the coins into the pocket of her apron.
"I have one further thing for you," the housewife said. "A gift."
She lifted the cover on the basket to reveal three apples—each one half red, half green.
"The apples," the housewife said. "Are for your mother. I wish to thank her for sending her daughter to me. And she will know what to do with them."
The housewife placed the handle of the basket into Marta's hands.
"Thank you, ma'am."
"What will you do now?" the housewife asked. "Will you go to a new house to work?"
"I have no more work," Marta replied. "I will most likely go home until spring."
"I wish you a pleasant winter, then. Good luck."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Be careful how you go on a night like this,” the housewife said. “There are dangers—and not just human ones."
“Do you mean animals?” Marta asked.
“No.”
Marta had lived near the woods all of her life, and she had heard stories.
"Do you mean the fair folk?" she asked.
"Yes,” the housewife replied, “and the not-so-fair folk."
Marta gathered up her things and paused to light her lantern.
The housewife walked Marta to the back door, and as she stepped outside, the housewife called her back.
"The apples are for your mother, Marta. Remember that."
With that, she closed the door.
Marta hurried across the yard to the back gate and then stepped out into the dusty lane that led to the forest. The day was fading fast, and she would have to move quickly if she wanted to make the other side of the forest before night fell.
Marta plunged into the woods.
It was much darker in amongst the trees than it had been in the open lane, and Marta hurried on with only the well-worn path beneath her feet and her lantern to guide her. She was just beginning to feel swallowed up by the dark forest when she heard a rustling in the trees nearby, and she stopped suddenly and turned toward it.
"Who is it?" Marta said, holding her lantern high. "Who's there?"
There was no reply, and Marta relaxed—she figured the sound had just been an animal.
But then the rustling came again, and this time there was a voice.
"Help me, my child."
Marta strained her eyes into the gloom, and at first she saw nothing. Then the rustling grew louder, and she could see a man's form. He was struggling toward her, crawling on the ground.
Marta quickly set her lantern and basket down and hurried over to the man. She helped him to crawl up onto the path, and he sat down, leaning his back against a tree.
"Are you hurt?" Marta asked, looking the man over. His hair and beard were the color of snow, and he had clearly seen many winters. As he leaned against the tree, he closed his eyes.
"No, my child," the man said, his voice a hoarse whisper, "I am not hurt. But I have traveled many days on foot, and I am dying of thirst. Give me, I pray you, a drink of water."
"I'm sorry, Grandfather," Marta said, for a grandfather the man must be, "but I have no water. But we are not far from the village. I will help you along the path, and we can get water there."
The man opened his eyes. "You have no water?"
"No, Grandfather."
"None at all?"
"No."
The man's eyes shifted to the path, and he raised a trembling hand. "What is that over there?"
"That is my lantern and my basket."
"Pray tell me what is in the basket."
"Only apples, Grandfather."
"Then give me an apple. There is water in an apple."
"I cannot give you an apple, Grandfather," Marta said. "There is not enough water in an apple to do you any good. There is only a little bit, and you need much more."
"Give me an apple!" the man cried.
"I cannot," Marta said.
"You will not give me an apple?" the man said, raising his hands pleadingly.
"No, Grandfather."
"Why not?" the man cried. "Why will you not give me an apple for my thirst?"
"One apple would not be enough."
"Then give them all to me!"
"I cannot, Grandfather."
"Why?"
"The apples are for my mother," Marta said.
The man closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree.
"You will not help me."
"I didn't say that, Grandfather,” Marta said. “I will help you to walk to the village where you can get buckets and buckets full of water from the well."
The man shook his head. "I cannot walk another step."
Marta stood. "Then I will fetch water and bring it back to you."
She turned to pick up her lantern and her basket.
"Do not leave me!" the man cried piteously.
"I will only be gone a short while, Grandfather," Marta said.
She began to hurry back the way she had come, but then a brief cry made her stop and turn around.
She held her lantern high.
The man had disappeared.
Marta took a step forward. "Grandfather?"
But there was no answer, and she hurried back to the spot where he had sat, leaning against the tree. Though Marta searched the trees nearby, she could find no sign of the man or of his passage. The old man had simply vanished.
*****************************************************************
This is the end of Part 1, and I'll post Part 2 next week :)
In the meantime, you can check out my books here.
And stop by some time and say hi on Facebook.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Friday, January 22, 2016

Pure Blog Tour!

Cup of Coffee with Author Catherine Mesick on @bloglovin! Join in here :)


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Read Chapter 1 of PURE

I'll be posting a new short story titled A Harvest Tale very soon. And you can read Chapter 1 of Book 1, Pure, right here...


Chapter 1.

I leaned my forehead against the dark window, welcoming the feel of the cool glass against my feverish skin.

I could feel the night calling to me, though I didn't exactly know what I meant by that. It had been happening more often lately—it was a strange tugging on my mind.

Something was pulling me out into the dark.

In an unguarded moment, GM had told me that my mother had had visions. The way the night called to me, I wondered if this feeling was the beginning of a vision.

I wished I could talk to my mother. I'd been wishing for that more and more often lately.

I turned away from the window, trying to shake off the feeling that tugged on my mind, and I picked up the framed photograph that always sat next to my bed. In the photo, a man with curly brown hair and a pale, blond woman smiled as they kneeled on either side of a laughing, fair-haired girl of five. The inscription on the back was hidden by the frame, but I knew well what it said. In GM's busy scrawl were the words Daniel, Katie, Nadya.

My father, me, my mother.

Though the memories were faint, I did remember those early days in Russia. I remembered the big apple tree and the roses that grew at our house. I remembered playing with my red-haired cousin, Odette.

I remembered, too, the day GM had taken the picture. Little had she known then that her son-in-law and her daughter would be dead soon afterward.

My father had died first in an accident in the mountains. My mother died just a few weeks later of a fever, and GM had moved us to the United States shortly after that. We'd been here for eleven years now, and my old life was beyond my reach for good.

I set the picture down.

The darkness continued to call to me, and I tried to force my mind back to reality—back to what was normal and safe and unrelated to the unknown out in the dark.

I thought of my friends—and school—but even as I did so, I felt a sudden, sharp tug on my mind, and I was seized by an irrational desire to run out into the night—and to keep running until I found the source of the summons.

I closed my eyes and willed the feeling away.

After a moment, the night calling began to subside. I concentrated harder, pushing it further away from me. In another few minutes, the feeling was gone entirely. Relief flooded through me.

I was free.

I stood for a moment, breathing hard and looking around at all the familiar objects in my room, as if to reassure myself. Then I climbed back into bed and turned out the light.

I was just drifting off to sleep when I was jolted wide-awake by the sound of a car tearing down our street. The car screeched to a halt somewhere below my window, and then turned sharply into our driveway.

I sat up. I heard the muffled slam of two car doors outside, and I heard GM, who usually kept late hours, hurrying toward the door.

I got out of bed and fumbled in the dark to find a robe. I was puzzled—who could possibly have come to see us in the middle of the night?

As I hurried out of my room, I heard a heavy pounding on the front door, followed by a woman's cry.

"Anna! Anna Rost! Annushka! Open the door!"

I froze in the hallway. Only GM's oldest friends called her Annushka—and there were precious few of those.

I heard GM quickly unbolt the door and open it.

"Galina!" GM shouted in shock. Her voice rose even higher. "Aleksandr? Is that you, Aleksandr? How tall you are! I scarcely would have recognized you."

I wished I could see who was at the door, but I knew that if I went downstairs, GM would just order me back to my room. She clearly recognized her visitors, and they were clearly people she had known back in Russia.

And GM never allowed me to get involved in anything that had to do with the past.

I crept to the top of the stairs but remained in the shadows—the better to hear without being seen.

"Annushka!" Galina cried. She had a heavy Russian accent—much heavier than GM's. "Annushka! I had scarcely allowed myself to believe that we'd actually found you! Oh, Annushka! After all these years!"

"Hush, Galina, hush," GM hissed. "You'll wake my granddaughter. Come in. Quickly, now."

I could hear the clack of a woman's footsteps in the hall, followed by a man's heavier tread. The door was closed and the bolt reset.

GM led her visitors down the hall to the kitchen.

I tiptoed down the stairs and sat on the bottom step. I wouldn't be able to see into the kitchen from my perch without leaning over the banister, but I knew from experience that I would be able to hear.

GM's voice floated down the hall to me. "Since you're here, Galina," she said, "you and Aleksandr may as well have a seat."

I heard chairs scraping on the kitchen floor.

"You're not entirely happy to see us, are you, Annushka?" Galina asked.

"I am happy to see you," GM said stiffly. "I am not happy about what it is that you bring with you."

"And what is that?" Galina asked sharply.

"Superstition," GM said wearily. "I have a feeling that this conversation is going to be difficult. However, we may as well try to be civilized. May I offer you both a cup of tea?"

"Yes, thank you," Galina said.

I heard water running as a kettle was filled.

A moment later, I heard GM sit down at the table. "I suppose you have a good reason for storming my house in the middle of the night?"

"Annushka, we need your help," Galina said urgently.

"Then why didn't you just call?" GM snapped. "Why fly all the way here from Russia? You did come from Russia, didn't you?"

"Yes, we did."

GM snorted. "Ridiculous. Again, I say, why didn't you just call?"

I figured that everyone in the kitchen was too absorbed in the conversation to notice me, so I risked a look over the banister. GM was sitting with her back to me, and I could see that she had pulled her long silver hair into a ponytail that flowed like silk down her back. She was resting her elbows on the kitchen table as she regarded her visitors.

Facing GM was a woman who was young enough to be her daughter. She was blond, and she wore a nondescript beige coat with brightly colored mittens. Next to her was a young man who seemed to be in his early twenties. He was wearing an olive-green military-style coat, and his hair was an odd shade of brown—sort of a cinnamon color. There was a strong family resemblance between the two of them, and I guessed that Galina and Aleksandr were mother and son.

Aleksandr must have felt my eyes on him, for he transferred his gaze from GM to me.

I felt a flash of panic as Aleksandr's eyes met mine, and for just an instant, a feeling of strangeness—something wildly foreign—washed over me. I quickly pulled my head back behind the banister.

I froze, waiting to hear if Aleksandr would tell GM that he had seen me.

But Aleksandr didn't say a word, and silence settled on the kitchen. I relaxed.

"Why didn't I just call you?" Galina said at last, breaking the silence. "I feared you would not listen. I feared you would hang up on me. Was I wrong about that?"

GM did not reply.

"I tried to keep in contact with you," Galina said mournfully. "You didn't answer any of my letters or phone calls."

"I didn't answer you," GM said, "because you wanted to involve my granddaughter in your nonsense. You wanted to make her believe that nightmares are real."

"I wanted to teach her," Galina replied angrily.

"So that's what this is all about, then?" GM snapped. "You, in your great wisdom, have decided that the time has come for you to drag my granddaughter into your world of darkness and ignorance?"

"I did not choose the time, Annushka," Galina said. "It was chosen for me. I feared something like this would happen, and if I'd been working with Ekaterina all the time, maybe we could have prevented this."

I was startled to hear Galina call me by my Russian name—no one ever did that—it was almost as if the name weren't even mine. To my family I had always been Katie—my English father had been responsible for that.

"I don't want to hear your nonsense, Galina," GM said curtly.

"Annushka, you have to listen!" Galina cried. "He's free! You know whom I mean—"

"You will not speak that name in my house!" GM shouted.

Just then the kettle began to whistle, and I jumped.

I heard GM get up, and the whistling soon stopped. There were other noises as GM clattered around, getting the tea ready.

No one spoke.

"I am sorry," Galina said softly, after some time had passed.

I heard GM's chair scrape as she sat down again.

"I will not discuss this if it upsets you," Galina added.

"You don't believe in the supernatural, do you, Mrs. Rost?" Aleksandr asked.

GM snorted. "The mischievous spirits and the vampires? No, I do not. Those are just stories designed to scare people—tales about the supernatural are nothing more than a way to spread fear."

"They aren't all mischievous spirits," Aleksandr said lightly. "They say the Leshi, for example, is actually quite a good fellow. Though you make an excellent point about fear—there are darker things than vampires in Krov."

"You are too young to believe in such foolishness," GM said wearily. "Why can't any of you from the old village have a normal conversation? Look at me. I started over here. I lead a safe, comfortable life now. Can't you do the same?"

"I heard you are a graphic designer," Galina said.

"Yes, I am," GM replied.

"I don't even know what that is," Galina said, and there was a note of wistfulness in her voice.

"There's so much that you miss," GM replied quickly. "How are you doing, Galina? How are you really? Are you happy? You know that in my heart I miss you. And don't you want good things for your son? How about you, Aleksandr? How are you?"

"Still unmarried. Ask my mother," Aleksandr said in amusement.

"Shut your mouth, Aleksandr," Galina snapped, her tone unexpectedly sharp. "Don't be a fool."

"Galina, why don't the two of you move somewhere else?" GM asked.

"We can't leave—"

GM broke in hurriedly. "I don't mean leave Russia. I mean leave the village—leave tiny little Krov. Move to Moscow. Or another big city. Russia is such a beautiful country. You don't have to stay in that dark, tiny corner of it. Move some place where there is life—where there are new things."

"Though you will not admit it," Galina said, "you know why I can't leave."

Silence settled on the kitchen once again.

"Annushka, there are lights on at the Mstislav mansion," Galina said after a time, her voice low and edged with fear. "The house has been deserted for a long time. You know when that house was last occupied—it was eleven years ago."

"Perhaps his son has decided to take over the place," GM said evenly. "It would be nice for someone to sweep out the cobwebs. It was a grand old mansion, and it should be restored to its former beauty. The house itself certainly never did anything wrong."

"They opened the old airfield two weeks ago and began fitting up a plane," Galina said. "That's what made us decide to come here."

GM was unimpressed. "So? It would be nice for everyone in the area to have a proper airfield. It might encourage good things."

"Annushka," Galina said urgently, "his house is lit up again. And it was his plane they were working on. You know the one I mean—he bought it when he first amassed his fortune."

"I saw his plane myself," Aleksandr interjected. "I believe he reached the U.S. ahead of us—it took us time to get our travel documents in order."

"Quiet, Aleksandr!" Galina snapped. "Annushka, please. It's him. He is free. And he will seek out—"

"Galina, I warned you not to bring this up." GM's tone was sharp.

"Annushka!" Galina cried.

"He's dead, Galina," GM said sternly. "Enough!"

"He's returned!"

"Nonsense!"

"Annushka! How can you say that? He killed your daughter!"

A chair scraped back violently.

"Superstition killed my daughter!" GM shouted.

"Annushka! You must listen!" Galina wailed.

"Get out of my house!" GM cried.

I heard porcelain shattering against a wall, and two more chairs scraped back.

I got to my feet.

I watched in shock as Galina and Aleksandr ran down the hall to the front door. GM came running after them.

Galina fumbled with the locks, and then she and Aleksandr escaped out into the night. GM ran after them.

I quickly followed.

The cold night air cut through my thin nightclothes as I hurried down the concrete driveway in front of the house.

GM was standing in the middle of the driveway, breathing hard. Strands of silver had worked their way free of her ponytail and settled in scattered array around her head, glinting softly in the moonlight.

Galina and Aleksandr jumped into a car that sat just behind GM's own. The engine roared to life, and the car took off, tires screeching.

I watched the car's red taillights disappear into the night, and then I glanced over at GM—I had never seen her so angry.

"GM, what's going on?" I asked.

GM whirled around. She stared hard at me for a moment and then looked down at the silver cross she always wore. She wrapped her fingers around it and gripped it tightly.

"I'm sorry," GM said quietly. "I wanted to spare you all of that. I never should have let them in."

"Are you all right?" I asked. "Who were those people? Why did the woman—Galina?—why did she say a man killed my mother? I thought she died of a fever."

Anger blazed in GM's eyes. "Your mother did die of a fever. Galina doesn't know what she's talking about."

GM's expression softened as she continued to look at me. "Come back into the house, Katie. It's too cold out here."

GM put her arm around my shoulders and guided me back toward the gold rectangle of light that streamed out of the still-open door.

I stopped suddenly. I'd thought for just a moment that I had seen a tall figure standing in the shadows near the house. I blinked and looked again.

The figure was gone.

"Is something wrong?" GM asked, looking around as if she feared that Galina and Aleksandr had returned.

"No, it's nothing. I thought I saw something, but it's gone now."

GM steered me firmly into the house and locked the door behind us. Then she guided me into the kitchen. "How about a hot drink?"

I looked around the room. Three of the kitchen chairs were standing awkwardly askew. On the kitchen table were two of GM's blue-and-white china cups. One of the cups lay on its side, its contents spilled on the table—a brown puddle on the white surface. I could see shards of a third cup littering the floor, and a brown stain ran down the far wall.

"Did you throw a cup of tea at those people?" I asked.

GM simply made a derisive sound and waved her hand. Then she went over and kneeled down to examine the broken teacup. I knew that she was very fond of that tea set, and she wasn't the type to lose her temper easily.

"GM, what made you so angry?" I asked.

She ignored my question. "It occurs to me now that it was a bad idea to bring you in here. I'm sorry you had to see this."

She straightened up and calmly retied her ponytail. Then she put her hands on her hips and looked over at me.

"I think this will all keep till morning. Never mind about that drink now. We've had enough excitement tonight. It's up to bed for both of us."

"GM!" I cried as frustration welled up within me. "You're acting like nothing happened!"

GM gave me a puzzled, slightly wounded look, and I felt a wave of contrition wash over me—I wasn't used to shouting at her.

I went on more quietly. "Why won't you answer any of my questions?"

"I did answer one—about your mother," GM replied, averting her eyes.

I wasn't going to let her get away so easily. "No, you told me something I already knew—my mother died of a fever. You didn't tell me why anyone would believe she'd been murdered. That is what Galina was saying wasn't it? That a man from your old village had killed her? And why wouldn't you allow Galina to say his name?"

GM looked at me, and I could see a distant flicker of pain in her eyes.

She held out her hand. "If you will go upstairs with me, I will tell you a story. It will help to explain."

I hesitated. Too often, GM had distracted me when I had asked questions like these—she had diverted my attention from the past and sidestepped my questions without ever refusing to answer them outright. I feared she would talk around me again.

My questions would evaporate the way they always did.

"Please, Katie, come with me," GM said, her voice low and pleading. "You know the past is difficult for me."

I resigned myself and took GM's hand.

We went up to my room.

GM switched on the light. The lamp by my bed had a faded shade with yellow sunbursts on it. I'd kept it for years, refusing a new one when GM had wanted to redecorate. My mother and I had painted the shade together one summer long ago.

GM smoothed back the quilt on my bed. "Let me tuck you in." She sounded sad and tired.

After I had settled under the covers, GM sat down beside me.

"I will tell you something I have never told you before, Katie. The night your mother died—"

GM's voice quavered, and she stopped.

She composed herself, and then went on.

"The night your mother died was the worst of all—for the fever, I mean. It had raged through her body, and she had reached a point at which she could no longer find comfort of any kind. She couldn't eat or drink; she couldn't sleep. She couldn't even close her eyes for more than a few moments to rest—she said closing them made the burning behind them worse. On that last night, she kept calling for your father, and of course, your poor father was already gone—dead in that terrible accident. She was crying out for him to protect you. Even in her delirium, she knew she wouldn't last long."

GM paused again. Her chin had begun to tremble.

She composed herself once more and went on in a low voice. "When I could make her understand who I was—when I could make her understand that I was her mother—she begged me to protect you. She said, 'Swear to me that you will always protect Katie.' She need hardly have asked for that—the desire to protect you had been in my heart since the day you were born. But I swore it to her then, and I swear it to you now. On my life, I will always protect you."

GM stared at me steadily as she said the words, and I felt tears stinging my eyes. Soon they began to fall.

"After I made my promise," GM said, "Nadya seemed to grow calmer. She asked to see you. I brought you in, and she kissed you on the forehead. You were sleeping and didn't wake. Then she sang her favorite piece of music—no words, just a hum. Do you remember it?"

I nodded. When I was a child, my mother had often sung the same melody to me. It was from a piece of music by Mussorgsky.

GM went on. "Not long after she finished singing, Nadya was gone. I swore to her that I would protect you, and I have. And I will. That's why I moved you out of the old village. That's why I moved you out of Russia right after your mother died. I had to get you as far away as I could from people like Galina. She is a good woman, but her thinking is trapped in the Dark Ages. She would warp your mind as she warped your mother's. She has nothing for you but superstition and shadows."

GM rose. "I love you, Katie. Believe me when I say there is nothing out there. There is nothing in the dark."

She pressed a kiss to my forehead, as she'd said my mother had once done, and then left the room, closing the door behind her. And I was left feeling less comforted, rather than more so.

I was grateful to hear a story about my mother, even though it was painful—I could feel her love reaching out to me across the years. But as I had feared, GM hadn't actually answered any of my questions—instead she'd left me with more.

Why had she said there was nothing in the dark?

What was she was afraid of?

****************

You can check out my books here.

And stop by some time and hi on Facebook.



Winners of the Winter Wonderland of Books Giveaway

We have two winners in my section of the Winter Wonderland of Books Giveaway! Congratulations to Robin and Fiona, who won all three books in the Pure series and an Amazon Gift Card :)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Shannara Chronicles—My Review

In a bit of a departure from its usual programming, MTV (Teen Mom, Ridiculousness) presents us with a new scripted series, The Shannara Chronicles, based on the books of the Shannara series by Terry Brooks. I saw the first two episodes, which were aired in an hour and thirty minute block, so I'm not entirely sure where episode 1 ended and episode 2 began. I'm just going to review the two together as one piece.

(image copyright MTV)

The series begins by introducing us to Amberle (Poppy Drayton)—an Elf princess who has slipped past her royal guards in order to participate in the Gauntlet, a grueling race in which the contestants must run through a forest blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. The purpose of the race is to determine who will become the next members of an elite group known as the Chosen—the first seven to reach the finish line will be able to join. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that the princess completes the Gauntlet in time and takes her place among the Chosen.

The purpose of the Chosen is to protect a sacred tree known as the Ellcrys, which, according to legend, is part of a magical barrier that keeps an army of Demons imprisoned in a place known as the Forbidding. These days, however, no one believes in magic or Demons, and the position of the Chosen, while highly prestigious, is largely ceremonial.

Soon, we also meet the Half-Elf Wil (Austin Butler), who yearns to become a healer, and who comes into possession of three Elfstones upon the death of his mother. We see him set on horseback to journey to a bigger village where he can better learn the healing arts. We also learn that our story takes place in the Four Lands—apparently, our own Earth centuries after our present civilization has crumbled, leaving hulking ruins of our once great cities.

As Wil sets out, Amberle begins having troubling visions that are sent to her by the Ellcrys, and she flees her home, fearing what she has seen herself do in her visions. On the road, both Wil and Amberle in succession run afoul of Eretria (Ivana Baquero)—a Human Rover who tries with varying degrees of success to rob them. And as Wil and Amberle struggle on the road, the leaves of the Ellcrys begin to fall—releasing one by one the Demons that everyone believed to be apocryphal.

Overall, the production design of the series is quite good—the sets are well rendered, and the landscapes, a mixture of CGI and real locations, are often impressive. I was particularly struck by a scene of Amberle crossing a vast field dotted with derelict satellite dishes. The acting is decent—with veteran character actor John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as King Eventine providing extra vigor and spark. I found the basic setup to be intriguing with each leaf on the sacred tree representing a Demon that could be freed to form an army, and the combined episode ended on an effective cliffhanger. Some of the dialog, however, was a little too expository in tone, and sometimes events were a little too convenient—Wil set out with his new mentor, a druid, to find a book of magic, and not only do they find it, but the book also tells them what to do next. The music, costumes, and characters types were all very reminiscent of the 80s, which I suppose makes sense considering when the book series began, but I would've liked to see a little bit of an update—at least in the first two categories. In terms of atmosphere, something about The Shannara Chronicles felt just a little bit flat, which I suppose only serves to point out just how challenging it is to develop a top-notch fantasy TV series—the pieces all appear to be here, but it's missing something in spirit. But there is potential here—Wil, Amberle, and Eretria are destined to be our main characters, and they haven't even begun to cohere yet. It will be interesting to see how things develop and if MTV can pull off the teenage Game of Thrones-style hit it is reportedly trying to create. If I had to give The Shannara Chronicles a grade, I would go with a B-. It's certainly not terrible, but it's also not spectacular.
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Saturday, January 9, 2016

Valentine's Day Giveaway! And Read Chapter 1 of PURE

Enter to win a copy of Pure in the Lovestruck Authors 2016 Valentine Giveaway!




Use this link to get to the Rafflecopter: http://bit.ly/1PP9cAv. Just scroll through to get to my giveaway :)

And you can read Chapter 1 of Book 1, Pure, right here...


I leaned my forehead against the dark window, welcoming the feel of the cool glass against my feverish skin.

I could feel the night calling to me, though I didn't exactly know what I meant by that. It had been happening more often lately—it was a strange tugging on my mind.

Something was pulling me out into the dark.

In an unguarded moment, GM had told me that my mother had had visions. The way the night called to me, I wondered if this feeling was the beginning of a vision.

I wished I could talk to my mother. I'd been wishing for that more and more often lately.

I turned away from the window, trying to shake off the feeling that tugged on my mind, and I picked up the framed photograph that always sat next to my bed. In the photo, a man with curly brown hair and a pale, blond woman smiled as they kneeled on either side of a laughing, fair-haired girl of five. The inscription on the back was hidden by the frame, but I knew well what it said. In GM's busy scrawl were the words Daniel, Katie, Nadya.

My father, me, my mother.

Though the memories were faint, I did remember those early days in Russia. I remembered the big apple tree and the roses that grew at our house. I remembered playing with my red-haired cousin, Odette.

I remembered, too, the day GM had taken the picture. Little had she known then that her son-in-law and her daughter would be dead soon afterward.

My father had died first in an accident in the mountains. My mother died just a few weeks later of a fever, and GM had moved us to the United States shortly after that. We'd been here for eleven years now, and my old life was beyond my reach for good.

I set the picture down.

The darkness continued to call to me, and I tried to force my mind back to reality—back to what was normal and safe and unrelated to the unknown out in the dark.

I thought of my friends—and school—but even as I did so, I felt a sudden, sharp tug on my mind, and I was seized by an irrational desire to run out into the night—and to keep running until I found the source of the summons.

I closed my eyes and willed the feeling away.

After a moment, the night calling began to subside. I concentrated harder, pushing it further away from me. In another few minutes, the feeling was gone entirely. Relief flooded through me.

I was free.

I stood for a moment, breathing hard and looking around at all the familiar objects in my room, as if to reassure myself. Then I climbed back into bed and turned out the light.

I was just drifting off to sleep when I was jolted wide-awake by the sound of a car tearing down our street. The car screeched to a halt somewhere below my window, and then turned sharply into our driveway.

I sat up. I heard the muffled slam of two car doors outside, and I heard GM, who usually kept late hours, hurrying toward the door.

I got out of bed and fumbled in the dark to find a robe. I was puzzled—who could possibly have come to see us in the middle of the night?

As I hurried out of my room, I heard a heavy pounding on the front door, followed by a woman's cry.

"Anna! Anna Rost! Annushka! Open the door!"

I froze in the hallway. Only GM's oldest friends called her Annushka—and there were precious few of those.

I heard GM quickly unbolt the door and open it.

"Galina!" GM shouted in shock. Her voice rose even higher. "Aleksandr? Is that you, Aleksandr? How tall you are! I scarcely would have recognized you."

I wished I could see who was at the door, but I knew that if I went downstairs, GM would just order me back to my room. She clearly recognized her visitors, and they were clearly people she had known back in Russia.

And GM never allowed me to get involved in anything that had to do with the past.

I crept to the top of the stairs but remained in the shadows—the better to hear without being seen.

"Annushka!" Galina cried. She had a heavy Russian accent—much heavier than GM's. "Annushka! I had scarcely allowed myself to believe that we'd actually found you! Oh, Annushka! After all these years!"

"Hush, Galina, hush," GM hissed. "You'll wake my granddaughter. Come in. Quickly, now."

I could hear the clack of a woman's footsteps in the hall, followed by a man's heavier tread. The door was closed and the bolt reset.

GM led her visitors down the hall to the kitchen.

I tiptoed down the stairs and sat on the bottom step. I wouldn't be able to see into the kitchen from my perch without leaning over the banister, but I knew from experience that I would be able to hear.

GM's voice floated down the hall to me. "Since you're here, Galina," she said, "you and Aleksandr may as well have a seat."

I heard chairs scraping on the kitchen floor.

"You're not entirely happy to see us, are you, Annushka?" Galina asked.

"I am happy to see you," GM said stiffly. "I am not happy about what it is that you bring with you."

"And what is that?" Galina asked sharply.

"Superstition," GM said wearily. "I have a feeling that this conversation is going to be difficult. However, we may as well try to be civilized. May I offer you both a cup of tea?"

"Yes, thank you," Galina said.

I heard water running as a kettle was filled.

A moment later, I heard GM sit down at the table. "I suppose you have a good reason for storming my house in the middle of the night?"

"Annushka, we need your help," Galina said urgently.

"Then why didn't you just call?" GM snapped. "Why fly all the way here from Russia? You did come from Russia, didn't you?"

"Yes, we did."

GM snorted. "Ridiculous. Again, I say, why didn't you just call?"

I figured that everyone in the kitchen was too absorbed in the conversation to notice me, so I risked a look over the banister. GM was sitting with her back to me, and I could see that she had pulled her long silver hair into a ponytail that flowed like silk down her back. She was resting her elbows on the kitchen table as she regarded her visitors.

Facing GM was a woman who was young enough to be her daughter. She was blond, and she wore a nondescript beige coat with brightly colored mittens. Next to her was a young man who seemed to be in his early twenties. He was wearing an olive-green military-style coat, and his hair was an odd shade of brown—sort of a cinnamon color. There was a strong family resemblance between the two of them, and I guessed that Galina and Aleksandr were mother and son.

Aleksandr must have felt my eyes on him, for he transferred his gaze from GM to me.

I felt a flash of panic as Aleksandr's eyes met mine, and for just an instant, a feeling of strangeness—something wildly foreign—washed over me. I quickly pulled my head back behind the banister.

I froze, waiting to hear if Aleksandr would tell GM that he had seen me.

But Aleksandr didn't say a word, and silence settled on the kitchen. I relaxed.

"Why didn't I just call you?" Galina said at last, breaking the silence. "I feared you would not listen. I feared you would hang up on me. Was I wrong about that?"

GM did not reply.

"I tried to keep in contact with you," Galina said mournfully. "You didn't answer any of my letters or phone calls."

"I didn't answer you," GM said, "because you wanted to involve my granddaughter in your nonsense. You wanted to make her believe that nightmares are real."

"I wanted to teach her," Galina replied angrily.

"So that's what this is all about, then?" GM snapped. "You, in your great wisdom, have decided that the time has come for you to drag my granddaughter into your world of darkness and ignorance?"

"I did not choose the time, Annushka," Galina said. "It was chosen for me. I feared something like this would happen, and if I'd been working with Ekaterina all the time, maybe we could have prevented this."

I was startled to hear Galina call me by my Russian name—no one ever did that—it was almost as if the name weren't even mine. To my family I had always been Katie—my English father had been responsible for that.

"I don't want to hear your nonsense, Galina," GM said curtly.

"Annushka, you have to listen!" Galina cried. "He's free! You know whom I mean—"

"You will not speak that name in my house!" GM shouted.

Just then the kettle began to whistle, and I jumped.

I heard GM get up, and the whistling soon stopped. There were other noises as GM clattered around, getting the tea ready.

No one spoke.

"I am sorry," Galina said softly, after some time had passed.

I heard GM's chair scrape as she sat down again.

"I will not discuss this if it upsets you," Galina added.

"You don't believe in the supernatural, do you, Mrs. Rost?" Aleksandr asked.

GM snorted. "The mischievous spirits and the vampires? No, I do not. Those are just stories designed to scare people—tales about the supernatural are nothing more than a way to spread fear."

"They aren't all mischievous spirits," Aleksandr said lightly. "They say the Leshi, for example, is actually quite a good fellow. Though you make an excellent point about fear—there are darker things than vampires in Krov."

"You are too young to believe in such foolishness," GM said wearily. "Why can't any of you from the old village have a normal conversation? Look at me. I started over here. I lead a safe, comfortable life now. Can't you do the same?"

"I heard you are a graphic designer," Galina said.

"Yes, I am," GM replied.

"I don't even know what that is," Galina said, and there was a note of wistfulness in her voice.

"There's so much that you miss," GM replied quickly. "How are you doing, Galina? How are you really? Are you happy? You know that in my heart I miss you. And don't you want good things for your son? How about you, Aleksandr? How are you?"

"Still unmarried. Ask my mother," Aleksandr said in amusement.

"Shut your mouth, Aleksandr," Galina snapped, her tone unexpectedly sharp. "Don't be a fool."

"Galina, why don't the two of you move somewhere else?" GM asked.

"We can't leave—"

GM broke in hurriedly. "I don't mean leave Russia. I mean leave the village—leave tiny little Krov. Move to Moscow. Or another big city. Russia is such a beautiful country. You don't have to stay in that dark, tiny corner of it. Move some place where there is life—where there are new things."

"Though you will not admit it," Galina said, "you know why I can't leave."

Silence settled on the kitchen once again.

"Annushka, there are lights on at the Mstislav mansion," Galina said after a time, her voice low and edged with fear. "The house has been deserted for a long time. You know when that house was last occupied—it was eleven years ago."

"Perhaps his son has decided to take over the place," GM said evenly. "It would be nice for someone to sweep out the cobwebs. It was a grand old mansion, and it should be restored to its former beauty. The house itself certainly never did anything wrong."

"They opened the old airfield two weeks ago and began fitting up a plane," Galina said. "That's what made us decide to come here."

GM was unimpressed. "So? It would be nice for everyone in the area to have a proper airfield. It might encourage good things."

"Annushka," Galina said urgently, "his house is lit up again. And it was his plane they were working on. You know the one I mean—he bought it when he first amassed his fortune."

"I saw his plane myself," Aleksandr interjected. "I believe he reached the U.S. ahead of us—it took us time to get our travel documents in order."

"Quiet, Aleksandr!" Galina snapped. "Annushka, please. It's him. He is free. And he will seek out—"

"Galina, I warned you not to bring this up." GM's tone was sharp.

"Annushka!" Galina cried.

"He's dead, Galina," GM said sternly. "Enough!"

"He's returned!"

"Nonsense!"

"Annushka! How can you say that? He killed your daughter!"

A chair scraped back violently.

"Superstition killed my daughter!" GM shouted.

"Annushka! You must listen!" Galina wailed.

"Get out of my house!" GM cried.

I heard porcelain shattering against a wall, and two more chairs scraped back.

I got to my feet.

I watched in shock as Galina and Aleksandr ran down the hall to the front door. GM came running after them.

Galina fumbled with the locks, and then she and Aleksandr escaped out into the night. GM ran after them.

I quickly followed.

The cold night air cut through my thin nightclothes as I hurried down the concrete driveway in front of the house.

GM was standing in the middle of the driveway, breathing hard. Strands of silver had worked their way free of her ponytail and settled in scattered array around her head, glinting softly in the moonlight.

Galina and Aleksandr jumped into a car that sat just behind GM's own. The engine roared to life, and the car took off, tires screeching.

I watched the car's red taillights disappear into the night, and then I glanced over at GM—I had never seen her so angry.

"GM, what's going on?" I asked.

GM whirled around. She stared hard at me for a moment and then looked down at the silver cross she always wore. She wrapped her fingers around it and gripped it tightly.

"I'm sorry," GM said quietly. "I wanted to spare you all of that. I never should have let them in."

"Are you all right?" I asked. "Who were those people? Why did the woman—Galina?—why did she say a man killed my mother? I thought she died of a fever."

Anger blazed in GM's eyes. "Your mother did die of a fever. Galina doesn't know what she's talking about."

GM's expression softened as she continued to look at me. "Come back into the house, Katie. It's too cold out here."

GM put her arm around my shoulders and guided me back toward the gold rectangle of light that streamed out of the still-open door.

I stopped suddenly. I'd thought for just a moment that I had seen a tall figure standing in the shadows near the house. I blinked and looked again.

The figure was gone.

"Is something wrong?" GM asked, looking around as if she feared that Galina and Aleksandr had returned.

"No, it's nothing. I thought I saw something, but it's gone now."

GM steered me firmly into the house and locked the door behind us. Then she guided me into the kitchen. "How about a hot drink?"

I looked around the room. Three of the kitchen chairs were standing awkwardly askew. On the kitchen table were two of GM's blue-and-white china cups. One of the cups lay on its side, its contents spilled on the table—a brown puddle on the white surface. I could see shards of a third cup littering the floor, and a brown stain ran down the far wall.

"Did you throw a cup of tea at those people?" I asked.

GM simply made a derisive sound and waved her hand. Then she went over and kneeled down to examine the broken teacup. I knew that she was very fond of that tea set, and she wasn't the type to lose her temper easily.

"GM, what made you so angry?" I asked.

She ignored my question. "It occurs to me now that it was a bad idea to bring you in here. I'm sorry you had to see this."

She straightened up and calmly retied her ponytail. Then she put her hands on her hips and looked over at me.

"I think this will all keep till morning. Never mind about that drink now. We've had enough excitement tonight. It's up to bed for both of us."

"GM!" I cried as frustration welled up within me. "You're acting like nothing happened!"

GM gave me a puzzled, slightly wounded look, and I felt a wave of contrition wash over me—I wasn't used to shouting at her.

I went on more quietly. "Why won't you answer any of my questions?"

"I did answer one—about your mother," GM replied, averting her eyes.

I wasn't going to let her get away so easily. "No, you told me something I already knew—my mother died of a fever. You didn't tell me why anyone would believe she'd been murdered. That is what Galina was saying wasn't it? That a man from your old village had killed her? And why wouldn't you allow Galina to say his name?"

GM looked at me, and I could see a distant flicker of pain in her eyes.

She held out her hand. "If you will go upstairs with me, I will tell you a story. It will help to explain."

I hesitated. Too often, GM had distracted me when I had asked questions like these—she had diverted my attention from the past and sidestepped my questions without ever refusing to answer them outright. I feared she would talk around me again.

My questions would evaporate the way they always did.

"Please, Katie, come with me," GM said, her voice low and pleading. "You know the past is difficult for me."

I resigned myself and took GM's hand.

We went up to my room.

GM switched on the light. The lamp by my bed had a faded shade with yellow sunbursts on it. I'd kept it for years, refusing a new one when GM had wanted to redecorate. My mother and I had painted the shade together one summer long ago.

GM smoothed back the quilt on my bed. "Let me tuck you in." She sounded sad and tired.

After I had settled under the covers, GM sat down beside me.

"I will tell you something I have never told you before, Katie. The night your mother died—"

GM's voice quavered, and she stopped.

She composed herself, and then went on.

"The night your mother died was the worst of all—for the fever, I mean. It had raged through her body, and she had reached a point at which she could no longer find comfort of any kind. She couldn't eat or drink; she couldn't sleep. She couldn't even close her eyes for more than a few moments to rest—she said closing them made the burning behind them worse. On that last night, she kept calling for your father, and of course, your poor father was already gone—dead in that terrible accident. She was crying out for him to protect you. Even in her delirium, she knew she wouldn't last long."

GM paused again. Her chin had begun to tremble.

She composed herself once more and went on in a low voice. "When I could make her understand who I was—when I could make her understand that I was her mother—she begged me to protect you. She said, 'Swear to me that you will always protect Katie.' She need hardly have asked for that—the desire to protect you had been in my heart since the day you were born. But I swore it to her then, and I swear it to you now. On my life, I will always protect you."

GM stared at me steadily as she said the words, and I felt tears stinging my eyes. Soon they began to fall.

"After I made my promise," GM said, "Nadya seemed to grow calmer. She asked to see you. I brought you in, and she kissed you on the forehead. You were sleeping and didn't wake. Then she sang her favorite piece of music—no words, just a hum. Do you remember it?"

I nodded. When I was a child, my mother had often sung the same melody to me. It was from a piece of music by Mussorgsky.

GM went on. "Not long after she finished singing, Nadya was gone. I swore to her that I would protect you, and I have. And I will. That's why I moved you out of the old village. That's why I moved you out of Russia right after your mother died. I had to get you as far away as I could from people like Galina. She is a good woman, but her thinking is trapped in the Dark Ages. She would warp your mind as she warped your mother's. She has nothing for you but superstition and shadows."

GM rose. "I love you, Katie. Believe me when I say there is nothing out there. There is nothing in the dark."

She pressed a kiss to my forehead, as she'd said my mother had once done, and then left the room, closing the door behind her. And I was left feeling less comforted, rather than more so.

I was grateful to hear a story about my mother, even though it was painful—I could feel her love reaching out to me across the years. But as I had feared, GM hadn't actually answered any of my questions—instead she'd left me with more.

Why had she said there was nothing in the dark?

What was she was afraid of?

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