Archive for January, 2014

The Bard’s Gift officially launches tomorrow (but you can really get it now, almost everywhere).


The mead of poetry was a real element in Norse mythology. It was made by dwarves who mixed the blood of the murdered go Kvasir with honey. The dwarves gave it to a giant in payment of a blood debt. Odin stole it for the gods by tricking the giant’s daughter into letting him have three sips. In three sips, he drained the mead, turned himself into an eagle, and flew back to Asgard with the treasure.

This excerpt is all about how Astrid comes by her gift. Braggi is the Norse god of eloquence and poetry.


Astrid made her way down the long center aisle of the longhouse to her place on the wide bench. She pulled her straw pallet, blankets, and the white bear pelt out from the storage space beneath the bench, and wrapped herself up to sleep.

Warm and full, Astrid drifted quickly into sleep and into a dream. In her dream she stood on a headland, the wind off the ocean blowing her hair back from her face. But this wind was cool, not icy. She turned landward to see a broad grassy land. Hilly, but much less steep than anything she’d seen in Greenland. There were even a few clusters of trees. It certainly wasn’t any place she knew, although she could see the long hummocks of several longhouses down below. A strange bird with a long naked tail and colorful wings circled high above.

A young man walked up the slope toward her, carrying a drinking horn. Torolf? Her heart did a little flip in her chest.

Astrid started to look down out of sheer habit, but realized to her delight that her dream self wasn’t blushing. The thought of talking to Torolf didn’t scare her, either. If only she could feel this way when she wasn’t dreaming.

Her eyes narrowed as she watched the young man approach. Yes, he looked like Torolf, but also not. His face wasn’t end-of-winter pale and gaunt. His cheeks were full and ruddy and his eyes sparkled in a way she’d never seen Torolf’s do. Not that she’d met Torolf’s eyes that often. There was something else about him, though. It took her a moment to recognize it. The way he held his body, his gait as he strode forward, were not at all like Torolf. Neither was the smile he gave her as he stopped just a few feet away.

“You’re not Torolf,” she said.

The man smiled. “No. Though this form seems pleasing to you.”

“Who are you?”

“I am called Braggi.”

The name was familiar, but Astrid couldn’t quite place where she’d heard it before.

He pressed the cup into Astrid’s hands. “Drink.”

The sweet smell of fermented mead rose to her nostrils. Astrid shook her head. “I don’t drink mead.”

“This is a very special brew. Drink it, Astrid.”

Astrid wrinkled her nose. She didn’t like mead, or, more properly, she didn’t like how mead made her feel. “No, thank you.”

Braggi’s eyes almost seemed to glow. “I insist.”

She tried to push the cup back toward Braggi, but found that her arms wouldn’t move in that direction. Every attempt to push the cup away from her only resulted in bringing it closer to her lips. Braggi’s eyes seemed to bore into her.

Her arm trembled, but the liquid didn’t spill. Astrid tried to turn her head away, but that didn’t work either. Instead, her face lowered to the cup until her lips touched the rim. Her heart hammered in her chest. There was no way she was going to escape drinking this, whatever it was.

“Don’t fight it so hard, Astrid,” Braggi said. “You’ve wanted this. It will give you the ability to speak–yes, even to Torolf. It’s also for the good of your people. You must trust me on this.”

Trust was about the last thing Astrid felt. Everything she tried to do ended up as something else, as the very thing she was fighting against. She could feel sweat popping out on her upper lip. She clenched her jaw, but none of her muscles seemed to be obeying her. Instead of locking her mouth shut, the effort caused her lips to part.

The sweet smell of the mead filled her nose. She could feel the liquid against her teeth. Braggi put a hand to the bottom of the cup and tipped it upward, so the liquid filled her mouth. She would not swallow. She wouldn’t. She tried to spit the mead back out and once again her body did the opposite of what she intended. She swallowed and felt the liquid burn as it slid down her throat.

All at once, the spell or whatever it had been was broken. Astrid’s legs folded beneath her and she crumpled to the ground. She threw the cup away from her, but Braggi caught it, holding it reverently.

“Careful, Astrid. There’ll be no more of this brew until the end of the world. It wouldn’t do to spill it.” He raised the cup above his head and another hand reached down from somewhere else to take it from him.

Whatever the drink was, it was different than anything she’d tasted before. Unlike mead, this seemed to make her mind clearer, not muddled. Her body, now that it was hers again, seemed to pulse with life. “What was that?”

Braggi smiled and offered her a hand to help her stand up. “That, Astrid, was the mead of poetry. And now you will become the bard of your people. Their guide to a new and better life.”

“Me? I’m no bard.” The thought of trying to sing or speak or tell a story in front of anyone made her feel slightly queasy, even in her dream.

“You are now. When the time is right, you will know the stories your people need to hear.”

She was still shaking, but she pulled her chin up in an attempt at defiance. “And what if I don’t want to tell these stories?”

Braggi shook his head. “Oh, Astrid. There’s more of your father in you than I allowed for. You may fight us, but you can’t expect to win. In time, you’ll realize that what we do here is for your good and the good of your people. Then, maybe, you’ll accept the gift we offer with better grace.”

Although the sky was clear and there was no hint of recent rain, a rainbow appeared behind Braggi. He turned and stepped onto it as if it were a bridge to another world.

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Just a bit of fun. Me, reading the first scene of The Bard’s Gift (slightly edited to take out the worst flubs.)


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Where do story ideas come from? Many of the seeds of my stories go so far back that I can’t put a finger on just how they started. THE BARD’S GIFT is not one of those stories. I can trace its development very clearly. Here’s how it happened.


Back in February of 2010, a writing challenge was issued on one of the writers’ forums to which I belong (Hatrack River). This isn’t uncommon. We have several challenges a year. I’ve only entered a few because they’re all for short fiction–often very short–and, well, I don’t write short well. The last thing I started that was intended to be a short story or maybe a novella is now almost 90,000 words long. However, if an idea comes to me, I will give one of these challenges a try, mostly just to stretch myself.

Some of these challenges have a trigger or writing prompt. The trigger for this one was “Slave to the flame” and I came up with a story about the first dragon to learn to breathe fire, initially titled “First Flame.” It was written as a fable.

My story didn’t do very well in the challenge, partly because I killed off the main character (a dragon). There was nothing else I could do in the word-count allowed for the challenge (3,000 words). The voters also didn’t think he was really a slave to the flame.

Freed from the constraints of the challenge, I added some more to the ending which allowed the main character to survive, although badly wounded. But, it was still a fable. So, I created a framing story, about a girl with the gift of telling the exactly right story at the exactly right time. I put her in a desperate situation and let her tell the fable. This version was 5,000 words long, 4,600 of which was the fable.

But, it left me with a lot of questions. How had the girl come by this ability? How had they gotten into this desperate situation? And, of course, what would happen next?

Some of the things in that framing story made me think it was meant to be in a Norse setting, but not in the Norse homeland. So, I did some research and eventually, in 2012, I wrote it as a young adult novel. That original story is still there. It makes up Chapter 36. Here’s a taste:

 Astrid drew a deep breath. “Some dragons can breathe fire. Did you know that? They couldn’t always breathe fire, though. And while some dragons, like Fafnir, are known to be smart, they weren’t at one time.

“It all goes back to the time of Wyreth the Wise. Now Wyreth was small for a dragon. He could do well enough on his own, but he only survived the dragons’ mating season because he was quick and because he was smarter than the other dragons. And maybe because he was stubborn, too.

“When there were many dragons together he was always last for everything. Dragon society is built entirely on who can bully everybody else. If you’re bigger or stronger than the others, you eat first, you get the best and sunniest sleeping spots, and, if you’re a male, you get most of the females come mating season.” She stole a quick look at Torolf under her lashes, here. “Wyreth was the smallest dragon. So he always ate last, had the worst and coldest sleeping spot, and none of the females even looked at him.”

“Whenever Wyreth killed a deer or a pig–cattle were entirely too big for him–one of the other dragons swooped in and stole it from him. The worst offender was Zilthss, Wyreth’s egg brother and the bane of his existence. Zilthss was big and strong, more than strong enough to kill his own prey, but he preferred stealing Wyreth’s whenever he could.

Because he was big and well-fed, Zilthss slept in one of the best spots and his scales were a beautiful burnished copper. All the females turned their heads when Zilthss flew by, even out of mating season. Wyreth’s scales were an unremarkable dull metallic red.”

Several of the children stole a glance at the shiny red scales behind Astrid.

“Because he was quick and smart, Wyreth usually dragged his kill into the dense brush, where the other dragons wouldn’t easily fit and gulped down as much as he could before they powered their way through to steal his meat. Bolting his food like that gave Wyreth indigestion, but it was better than starving.

“Now, at the time of this story, Wyreth had had a particularly bad week. Mating season was about to begin and the male dragons were more than usually belligerent. Zilthss had trailed Wyreth around like a hound on a scent and stolen everything he killed–even the pitiful little rabbit–before Wyreth could get so much as a bite.

“After losing the rabbit, Wyreth flapped off feeling sorry for himself. He had learned long ago that if he flew up the steep slopes of the cone-shaped mountain, the others wouldn’t follow him. There was nothing of interest there, certainly no game to hunt.

These dragons were creatures of mountain forests and no trees grew on the glassy slopes of that mountain, but at the top there was a round, rocky valley where the stones themselves were warm, even at night. Since Wyreth couldn’t get any of the warm, sunny sleeping spots in the rookery, he’d taken to coming up here. The sun was strong, but the heat from the ground was stronger still and comforting.

“That is, it was usually comforting, but not today, because Wyreth’s stomach was so empty. Even the warm rocks and the sun on his spread-out wings couldn’t ease Wyreth to sleep when his stomach growled so loudly. In desperation, Wyreth chewed on the yellow rocks. The yellow ones were much softer than the shiny black ones; a dragon could break his teeth on those. Some pieces of the yellow rock were small enough to swallow. Not exactly nourishing, but at least it filled up that hollow feeling inside for a while, though Wyreth suspected that they would be the very devil to pass. Well, that was tomorrow’s problem. Wyreth stretched himself out on the heated rocks and slept.

“He woke with a mighty belch. That wasn’t unusual for Wyreth. What was unusual was the gout of blue flame that leapt from his mouth along with the burp. Wyreth back-winged in surprise.”

Several of the older boys laughed at this. The younger ones giggled uncertainly. The oldest boy essayed a burp of his own and that sent the little ones into gales of laughter. Astrid glanced up from the children. Several of the men had looked over at the sound of laughter. Torolf was watching her. Astrid smiled and went on with her story.

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THE BARD’S GIFT is about a girl who must change her world just by telling stories.


By the nature of the story, THE BARD’S GIFT contains several stories told by Astrid. Where possible, I used stories from the sagas or actual Icelandic tales, like those of the water horse and the laughing merman. Sometimes, to find a story that would fit what I needed, I had to go further afield–to Grimm (Jorinda and Joringel), or Aesop, among others.

In two places, I used stories of my own. Here’s one from Chapter 13 of THE BARD’S GIFT. Astrid and Torolf are about to separated, for a while at least.

A wedge of snow geese flew over. A stray feather drifted past Astrid’s nose and a story drifted into her brain as if the feather had carried it.

She pointed upward. “See the snow geese?”

Torolf looked where she pointed. “Of course.”

“Snow geese mate for life. They pair off in their second year, but don’t mate until the third. And in winter they fly west to Markland or Vinland.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Not long ago, maybe only last year, there was a young snow goose, Eisa, in her second year. Like most young geese, she stayed with her family during that nesting season. As the season progressed, Eisa molted, coming into her adult plumage. When she had lost her flight feathers and was confined to the ground, an arctic fox found its way onto the nesting ground. Birds that could still fly burst into the air in all directions, but Eisa was forced to run for her life. She was a strong runner and kept running until she came to a boulder on which a snowy owl had her nest.

“Eisa was wise enough to know that the owls would defend their nest against the fox and so she hunkered down to rest. As she caught her breath, she realized that there were more snow goose nests in the vicinity of the owls’ nest and near one of these another young snow goose, Alf, was watching her.

“Eisa watched Alf right back. He was an exceptionally large and handsome young goose.”

Torolf smiled. “I think I like this story.”

“Before long he waddled over to talk to her. And soon they were fast friends. Through that nesting season, they spent a great deal of time together and when it was time for them to fly to their wintering grounds, they had bonded as mates and they promised that next year they would build a nest of their own together.”

Torolf’s smile widened to a grin and his eyes glowed. “I know I like this story.”

Astrid suppressed a smile, trying hard not to blush. “Eisa’s family flew off first, and Alf watched, sorry to see her go but eager to be reunited with her at the wintering grounds. But when Alf’s family flew off, a gale came up and blew them off course to the east. Alf and his family ended up wintering in a strange place, mixed in with a flock of strange gray geese with black heads. And every day, Alf thought of Eisa and wondered what she thought when he didn’t arrive at the wintering grounds.

“Eisa looked for Alf in every flock that arrived at the wintering grounds. When it was too late and too cold for any more flocks to turn up, she worried about the things that might have happened to him. A full-grown snow goose, able to fly, doesn’t have to worry about many predators, but eagles and bears take a few every season. It made her unhappy to think of that and Eisa grew thin. So thin that her parents worried that she wouldn’t be able to fly back to Greenland in the spring.

“Alf worried, too. Not that anything had happened to Eisa, but that she would think he was dead and some other gander would catch her eye and she would form a new pair bond. He ate only to keep his strength up so that he could fight off any rival for his Eisa.

“When spring finally came, Alf and his family flew back to Greenland and Alf waited for Eisa by the snowy owls’ nest. Flock after flock arrived at the nesting ground and many of the best nesting sites were taken. Still Eisa didn’t arrive and Alf began to worry in his turn about the kinds of things that could have happened to her.

“Finally, a small flock–just Eisa’s family–flew in to the nesting grounds last of all. They had been forced to fly more slowly than the others so Eisa, in her weakened condition, could keep up. When Alf saw her, his heart leaped and he flew up to meet her before she even reached the ground, flying in joyous circles around her.

“Eisa honked in delight at seeing Alf safe after all the dire things she had imagined happening to him. They built their nest right beside the snowy owls’ nest, where Alf had stood and waited for Eisa. Alf flew far and brought back all the best grasses for her so that Eisa grew strong again. And they were never separated again.” Astrid bowed her head, blushing furiously.

Torolf brushed a strand of hair back from her face. “I will be like Alf and stay strong so I can return to you in Markland.”

Astrid looked up into his eyes. “Like Eisa, I’ll watch for you on every tide.”

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THE BARD’S GIFT officially launches on January 30th. (Actually, you can get it now on Amazon, though.)


Here’s another fun fact and excerpt.

You never know what your research will turn up–or how you’ll end up using it. In this case, I was looking for fish that one of my characters might reasonably be fishing for–and found the Greenland shark. It’s a real creature.

The Greenland shark lives farther north than any other shark species. They are comparable in size to the great white shark, averaging ten to sixteen feet in length and up to 900 pounds. They can grow as large as 21 feet and over 2,000 pounds. Usually only found near the surface only during the winter, they are otherwise denizens of the deep. They have been found with parts of polar bears in their stomachs.

The flesh of the Greenland shark is poisonous, but the hardy Icelanders (and presumably the Greenlanders), had a way of leaching the poison out. Of course, it still smelled overpoweringly of ammonia, even then.

This was too good not to include in the story, especially the bit about possibly eating polar bears. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 7 of THE BARD’S GIFT (a faering is a small fishing boat with both oars and sail) This excerpt also happens to include their first kiss:

Torolf pushed the skiff down the strand and into the water and jumped aboard. The faering had four oars, meant for two men, but Torolf had changed the rigging of the sail to make it easier for one man alone to manage the steering oar and the sail. He hadn’t had a chance to try that innovation out yet. The wind was in the wrong direction right now, but maybe he’d get a chance to test it on the way back to shore.

It didn’t take long to row out to where he judged the water was deep enough. He threw a half dozen lines over the side and began casting a net for whatever fish might be nearer the surface, stopping after each cast to watch the shore for Astrid.

He’d pulled in several nets full of herring when one of his lines jerked sharply. Torolf dropped the net into the bottom of the skiff to pull in the line. Whatever he’d caught was heavy. He didn’t think he was far enough out for halibut this large, but he couldn’t think of many other fish in these waters that would be so heavy. He continued to pull, muscles straining. Abruptly, the pressure on the line ceased and the fish–or what was left of it–flipped into the boat practically on top of Torolf. It had been a halibut all right, and a big one. Two thirds of it was missing, now, though.

Torolf stared at the ragged bite mark. Only one predator could have made that–a Greenland shark. And it’d have to be a big one to take most of a fish that size in one bite. He looked over the side of the boat and just glimpsed the sleek form below, almost half again as long as the boat. Not the biggest, but more than big enough. Unusual for it to be in this part of the fjord at this time of the year.

Torolf made a face at the thought of shark meat. The flesh of a Greenland shark was poisonous. It had to be fermented and pressed and then hung to dry for several months before it could be eaten. Even then, it smelled strongly of ammonia. Still, kaestur hakarl made in that way would be food for midwinter. By then everyone would probably be willing to overlook the smell and taste just to have a full belly. Looked at that way, the shark represented a lot of meat.

Torolf looked over the side again. No. This was a disadvantage of fishing alone; the shark was much too big for one man in a small boat to bring in. With that one swimming below his skiff, he wasn’t likely to bring in anything on any of his lines, either, so he began to haul them in. Better to go in, now, anyway. He’d heard stories of large Greenland sharks attacking small boats. With his faering half full of herring, there was no need to risk it. The wind was favorable. Now might be a good time to see how the skiff handled under sail.

He’d just gotten the sail up when he heard a shriek. Torolf turned toward the sound and saw Astrid pelting down the rocky beach, her white bear pelt cape flapping behind her. A huge ice bear galloped after her, fifty paces behind Astrid and closing fast. Torolf turned the tiller and set the faering racing toward Astrid.

The skiff was fast under sail, but no human could outrun a bear for long. Torolf shouted, “Astrid! Over here!”

Astrid looked up without breaking stride. She turned, almost slipping on the slick rocks and dove into the fjord. Her woolen dress and the heavy bear pelt immediately started to drag her down. The look on her face was even more panicked. She couldn’t swim? Of course she couldn’t. Few enough of the men could do more than tread water if they fell overboard. And that not for long in water as cold as this. Torolf steered the faering as close into shore as he dared and leaned far over to grab Astrid and pull her in.

The bear leaped into the water, too, with a splash that rocked the small boat. Torolf turned the sail and grabbed the steering oar to drive the faering back out into deep water. Not that that would be much help. He had no weapon aboard that he could hope to kill a bear with. An ice bear could swim the width of the fjord without difficulty, but an idea came to Torolf to pit one predator against another. He pulled the steering oar over a little farther to steer back to the same place where he had been fishing a moment ago.

Astrid struggled off the pile of slippery herring she’d landed on and took up a pair of oars. Her strokes were nowhere near as expert or powerful as Torolf’s, but they added to the skiff’s speed, nonetheless. As she got the rhythm, she started to pull for the home shore, where the larger boats were still pulled up on the sand.

“No,” Torolf shouted, pointing to the course he wanted. “That way. Trust me.”

Astrid paused just an instant, then she started rowing in the direction Torolf indicated.

Torolf looked back. The bear was persistent. Though the skiff was racing ahead of it, the beast still swam after them. Torolf looked ahead. They’d almost made it to the spot where he’d last seen the shark. He turned again at a furious roar close behind. The bear struggled and the water around it turned from green to red. Then the bear disappeared beneath the waves and didn’t come up again.

Astrid looked around as if she expected the bear to surface right beside them. “What happened?”

“Greenland shark. About the only thing big enough to eat an ice bear.” Torolf turned the sail and let the faering skim toward home.

The ripples of the bear’s submersion subsided. After a moment, Astrid smiled and they both erupted into gales of relieved laughter.

“What did you do to that bear?” Torolf asked when he could draw enough breath. “Walk up and tweak it’s nose.”

Astrid giggled. “No. I found a seal carcass back there. I was just going to cut off as much as I could carry with me when that bear charged down the slope and chased me off.” She plucked at the sodden bear pelt. “I think he thought I was a rival.”

“Maybe he did.” Torolf slowed the faering. “Maybe we should go back and bring in as much of that seal meat as we can. The skiff can hold quite a bit more.”

“Maybe we should.” Astrid shivered.

Torolf set the faering back toward home. “No. First you need to get warm and dry. Pa and I can go back for the seal meat. Can’t have you getting sick before we set sail for Iceland.”

Astrid ducked her head, her smile disappearing. “I guess that would be best.” She looked out over the side at the water slipping away beneath them.

Torolf watched her for a long moment. “Astrid . . . I was going to wait until we reach Iceland. Where the distance between us–poor farmer’s son and chieftain’s daughter–won’t be as great. Until I can find work and a place of my own to live. But that might take me a while and you’re so beautiful and brave. By then someone else may start to court you.” He was babbling. He paused, drew in a deep breath, and resolved to just blurt it out. “Astrid, will you be my . . . uh . . . sweetheart?”

Her eyes widened and her breath caught. Astrid stared back at Torolf. He decided that the look on her face was definitely not displeased, though. Greatly daring, he leaned forward and kissed her briefly.

When he pulled back, Astrid put her hand up to her mouth.

By her eyes, though, he could tell she was smiling. “Should I take that as a yes?”

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My regularly schedule blog posts leading up to the launch of THE BARD’S GIFT will be interrupted today to remember Mom.


Mom, YoungThis is when she was young, obviously.

Mom and DadAnd with Dad, where she is again, now.

Fiftieth AnniversaryThe three of us.

DaycareAt the Adult Day Care, where they used to be visited by a friend’s therapy dogs.

Digital CameraA recent Christmas.

Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2000, shortly after Dad died. (Though, in truth, she’d been showing symptoms for some time before that.) Now her memories are restored and she’s with Dad again. They were married for almost 60 years.

Phyllis K. Mansfield 8-20-18 to 1/13/14.

Miss you.

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Here’s another excerpt from Chapter 20 of THE BARD’S GIFT.


Torolf has attempted to sail alone in a small fishing boat (a faering) from Iceland to Greenland in order to get back to Astrid. He’s made a few alterations to the typical faering, like a hide covering over the prow of the boat, copying the idea from the Inuit boats he’s seen.

 The wind whipped his wet hair into his face. He had no idea how long he’d been alternately bailing and trying to keep the faering running before the waves. Every muscle and bone in his body ached with cold and exhaustion. He shivered violently. That was a very bad sign. Cold could kill as surely as drowning.

He thought longingly of the dry clothes in the waterproof sack up under that hide covering. There was no way to stop long enough to change. Even if he did, the fresh clothes would be soaked through much too soon in this storm. The only way to stay even a little warm was to keep moving. Fortunately, the need to bail forced him to do that or let the boat become swamped.

Was it his wishful thinking, or had the sound of the waves changed? He focused his attention. No, not his imagination. That was the boom of rollers breaking on the shore. Even a barren skerry would be a welcome relief now–always supposing he could get the skiff ashore without tearing her bottom out.

He looked around through the rain gloom for the tell-tale white of the breakers. He blinked the rain from his eyes. There was too much white, rising much too high. For an instant he thought he was about to be drowned by a towering wave, but no wave was that tall, even in his worst nightmares. He blinked again. That was no wave. Surely that was the massive bulk of Hvitserk. Could he really be that close to Greenland, to home?

He stared for a moment, shivering harder. He was too cold and exhausted to think. The only thing that kept running through his mind was land . . . land . . . land. The risk receded to nothing compared to that siren call. He had to make a run for it.

Torolf dropped the auskjer and reached his shaking arms for the sail. The wind was driving for the shore and the sail would get him there faster. Solid ground, the promise of a fire, any kind of shelter. It was all he could think of.

With the sail up, the faering skimmed over the rising wave like a skate over ice. Torolf clung grimly to the steering oar, ignoring the water that began to slosh in the bottom again. He peered forward through the curtains of rain, trying to spot any hazard in time. He had to fight against exhaustion to keep his mind focused. He was getting stupid with the cold.

His attention narrowed to the rocky shore ahead. Not far, now. Torolf failed to notice the waves breaking off to his right until too late. That had to be a submerged rock. He pushed the steering oar over hard, trying to turn away. He felt it catch on something.

The faering swung toward the rock, pulled around by the oar. He should release the steering oar, let it turn and free itself, but his senses were numbed by the cold. He didn’t react fast enough. With a loud crack the blade of the steering oar tore free–of the rock and the tiller both. There was a crunching sound and a rush of icy water. The faering had hit the submerged rock and bounced off. Torolf stared dumbly at the hole, just at the waterline. He put his hands against the damaged hull as if that could hold the water back.

His brain was as numbed as his hands. He had to force himself to think, to react, or he’d die out here, yards from the safety of the shore. His mind refused to respond. More than that, his mind or his eyes must be playing tricks on him. For a moment, Torolf could have sworn he saw two figures in the towering storm clouds–one massive, red-haired and red-bearded, the other smaller and lighter. The smaller figure pointed down at Torolf. The red-head raised what looked like a war hammer and then the skiff spun, shifting Torolf’s view away from the impossible scene.

A wave, larger than the rest, picked up the little skiff. Torolf screamed in fear. Panic finally penetrated the haze of his thoughts. He held on with white knuckles to the sides of the skiff as the wave carried the boat up onto the beach.

Legs shaking in reaction, Torolf jumped out and pulled the boat up past the line of debris deposited by the waves. With the last of his strength, he turned it over, so that it was propped up by the mast, by some miracle still intact, and the hull was to the wind. There was nothing more he could do, no better shelter he could contrive for the moment. He crawled into the space under the hull. Some instinct drove him to crawl farther, into the greater shelter of the hide-covered bow. Up off the wet beach, the enclosed space held what was left of his body heat. That was as much warmth as he was likely to get.

THE BARD’S GIFT is now available on Amazon and for preorder on Barnes and Noble. You can also find it on Goodreads.

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In researching the Greenlanders for THE BARD’S GIFT,

TheBardsGiftCoverSmallof course I ran across their legends about sea monsters. One of those monsters was hafgufa.

Translated as “sea mist” or “sea reek”, hafgufa was a sea monster of the Greenland Sea between Greenland and Iceland. Hafgufa was supposed to lie on the surface to feed. The stench of its belch drew in fish, which the hafgufa would then consume, along with anything else in the vicinity, including ships. Only Orvar-Odd had ever escaped, because he knew the beast rose and submerged with the turn of the tides and was able to get his ship out of range just in time.

Hafgufa was usually seen as only a pair of rocks said to be the beast’s nose. Sometimes hafgufa was equated with the kraken. Others attribute the stories of hafgufa to underwater volcanic activity and the release of methane gas.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 20 of THE BARD’S GIFT. To set the scene: it’s foggy and Torolf is alone in a small boat (a faering, 0r small fishing boat). A few strange phenomena (attributable entirely to deep ocean volcanism, not sea monsters) start his imagination running wild.

Torolf paused, lifting the oars out of the water. He was closely tuned, now, to the background noises of the sea around him. He’d swear he’d heard a sound that didn’t fit. There it was again. A sort of gurgling noise that wasn’t like anything he’d heard at sea before. A whale diving? No, he’d heard that before and it didn’t sound like this. In fact, more than anything else in his experience, this sound reminded him of a kettle on the boil–which made no sense at all.

The skiff rocked as a wave struck its side. That was wrong, too. The waves should be following from behind the skiff. It wasn’t a storm wave; there was still no wind to speak of. The wave came from the same direction as the strange sound.

The air moved slowly in this fog, slower than sound, so the stench reminiscent of rotten eggs reached Torolf last. Magni’s wild stories about hafgufa came back to him at the same instant. They didn’t seem so wild right now.

Sweat ran down his face despite the clammy fog and his pulse raced. What now? The only thing he could think of was that the monster only surfaced at the turn of the tide and stayed on the surface until it turned again. Orvar-Odd had sailed through safely because hafgufa had just surfaced and he had time to get out before it submerged again, sucking everything in the vicinity down with it. It wasn’t so easy to determine the turn of the tide out here in the open ocean. When had it turned?

He clutched the oars hard. Did it matter? He could hope at least that the splash he’d heard was the creature surfacing. Well, obviously. Otherwise, he’d already have been sucked down with the monster. So, his only hope was to get as far away as he could before hafgufa submerged.

Torolf drove the oars into the water so hard he almost lost control of them. He drew a deep breath and set up a steadier rhythm as fast as he thought he could maintain.

After what felt like hours, but was probably little more than one hour, he had to stop to rest a little and eat something, especially to drink water. He flinched at every sound or slightest movement. The fog seemed a little thinner and he thought he felt a breath of air. He hoped that wasn’t only wishful thinking. Being able to raise the sail was his only hope of making real distance. The faering could almost fly over the water with enough wind to fill its sails.

Another gurgle sounded off to his left and Torolf grabbed up the oars again, pulling for all he was worth. He rowed until he thought his heart would burst. When he couldn’t row another stroke, he shipped the oars and sagged against the gunwale, breathing heavily. His throat felt like he’d tried to swallow sand and his shoulders burned. He fumbled for one of his precious water skins and drank deeply.

He wasn’t far enough. Not nearly far enough. He was sure of that, but he couldn’t row anymore. Not to save his own life. A breeze ruffled his hair and cooled his sweaty face. Torolf looked up. The fog had lifted and he’d been too intent on rowing to even notice. The breeze ruffled his hair again. He lifted the little pendant that had been his mother’s, halfway between a cross and a Thor’s hammer, to his lips. It wasn’t a strong wind, but it was enough to put up the sail. He could rest for a while and still keep moving.

Torolf raised the sail, forcing his aching arms to the task. Then he collapsed in the bottom of the boat, too tired to move another muscle.

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TheBardsGiftCoverSmallwas a different experience for me. I write fantasy. Usually, I just get to make things up (as long as it makes sense, anyway). That’s why they call it world building. But THE BARD’S GIFT is historical fantasy, so I couldn’t just make up anything I wanted. I had to do research to find out what kind of houses my characters would live in and what kind of clothes they’d wear and a bunch of other things.  Sometimes, interesting things turned up in this research. Some made it into the story, some didn’t.

Now, since my Norse characters go to set up a new colony in North America (in what the Greenlanders would have called Markland, around the Saint Lawrence River) I also included some things specific to North America–especially the thunderbird.

Many North American Indian tribes had stories about Thunderbird. For some, it was a singular, somewhat irascible, creature and a sometimes guardian. In the Pacific Northwest, there were said to be many thunderbirds, who could remove their feathers like a cloak and tilt their beaks up like a mask and so take human form. Those things made it into the story.

What didn’t get in was the real-life (prehistoric) birds that might have been inspiration for the Thunderbird. These teratorns, something like a cross between a condor and an eagle, actually once flew over the skies of North (and South) America.

Merriam’s Teratorn is well known from the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits. It would have weighed about 30 pounds and had a wingspan of about 10 to 11 feet. That’s a big bird.

But it’s nothing compared with it’s cousin Aiolornis Incredibilis, which weighed in at 50 pounds and had a wingspan of 16 to 18 feet. Yikes! How’d you like to see one of these fly overhead?

And both of these birds would have been in the skies when people first arrived in the New World.

The biggest of all is only known from South America. Argentavis Magnificens was the largest known flight-capable bird (though it probably soared much more than it flew). It had a 25-foot wingspan and would have weighed about 170 pounds! One of its flight feathers would have been 59 inches long (that’s almost six feet!).  (Sorry, five feet, not six. I shouldn’t try to do arithmetic in my head before breakfast.) Now that’s a Thunderbird.

I’m not making this up. Just take a look at the first chart on this site.

More fun and interesting things to come as we lead up to the launch of THE BARD’S GIFT on January 30th.

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