Thursday, 29 October 2020

The Viking and the Pictish Princess. New Romance Novel. Details & Opening Excerpt

 


THE VIKING AND THE PICTISH PRINCESS https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08LTGYTHV/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i20

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Excerpt

The lone figure rose silently from the loch. Emerging from the grey shimmer of a winter morning with water sheeting off his body, he glided over the submerged boulders onto the shore of her island. Bindweed scrambled into a holly tree and dropped to the parched ground. She gritted her teeth against the shout surging up her dry throat, old fears from the past made real.

Viking!

He was big, this invader, big as a king stag of the forest, tanned, barrel chested and with arms thicker than her legs. His black hair, dark as December pine cones, matted itself to his skull in long streamers of shadow and eyes, the colour of storm clouds, were quick and piercing.

“Black Norse,” Bindweed muttered, not daring to stir as that fierce grey gaze swept over her hiding place. His thick gold collar and armlets flashed when he strode by, arrogant as a lord. He moved with the swift, quiet grace of a warrior, the low winter sun illuminating his leather tunic and trews, the long dagger strapped to one thigh, his sword on the other.

Spy or assassin, Bindweed wondered, watching his retreating back. He made for her cave-house as if he had walked the path a hundred times, though she doubted he sought her skill in herb-lore. Still she did not stir.

The first snare on the trail he avoided with a snort of humour, the second, set below a seeming bed of innocent pine needles, swallowed him whole. Bindweed was out of the holly and sprinting before the Viking had stopped his bellow of surprise. A quick jerk of the rope hidden by ivy had the nets and timber unravelling and the trap closed. She quickly pinned it down, panting hard as she rolled the lock-stone in place.

Thirteen feet below, in the round pit it had taken her three summers to dig and harden with fire, the black Norse prowled, thumping the sheer walls and slamming the mud-churned floor. He would not look at her. Bindweed did not care.

“No one comes here,” she lied—why tell truth to the enemy? “Yell away,” she added, when the stranger’s mighty chest swelled like organ bellows. “None shall hear.”

The Viking lunged up. She stamped his clenching fingers off the timbers and nets and he cursed and spat. “Food later,” she told him, spotting how his eyes narrowed briefly in calculation. He understands me, then.

It did not matter. Tomorrow night she would lace his portion and his ale with enough sleeping draught to fell an ox and then drag him out, to question at her leisure. Thank the stag god and the great mother that I heeded my instincts four summers ago to fashion these traps. Sometimes my senses are not only tuned to women’s healing, but to more brutal matters of survival.

She had no time to celebrate, however. Now she was exhausted, harp-string taut tension replaced by a yawning tiredness. Without troubling to undress, she stumbled into her bed and slept.

She dreamed of her past, an old horrific recollection, that began, as too often, with screaming.

****

She was seven summers old when her father Giric killed her mother. Nothing as quick or kind as a knife, but his selling of Kentigerna bright-hair into slavery, to a Viking, was still murder. Years later, she had never forgiven the old man, nor forgotten her mother’s screams.

She had tried to follow the Viking’s longship, running hard for the track by the loch. Mongfind, her half-sister, older and bigger than her by two summers, had grabbed her. After hearing Mongfind’s shouts, Giric himself had seized and flung the little one, flailing and punching, into the ancient black broch that gave the people their name.

She had hammered on the locked door until her knuckles were bloodied, then sprinted up the winding staircase to the roof of the broch. Seeing a flash of her Ma’s bright red hair in the longship’s bowels, she had clambered right over the thick circular walls of the broch and leapt down.

“Me, too!” she yelled in her later dreams, though she could not remember if she spoke the words. She only knew that if the ship sailed, she would never see her mother again.

Seven years old, I knew this! But then bastards have to grow up fast.       

She landed in a mess of heather, winded and broken. She scrambled to rise and a searing pain in her left foot seized her whole leg. Too shattered to scream, too shocked to move, she watched the Viking longship and her mother sail away.

Irish Maeve, old and wrinkled as a dried out leather flask, prodded her with her walking stick.

“You will do, now get up. There’s work!” Maeve ordered, laughing as she burst into tears. “Get to it, Bindweed.

“She clings,” Maeve told the whispering onlookers, who smirked or shook their heads and turned away.

From that day, the little girl was Maeve’s servant. The name her mother gave her was forgotten and all knew her as Bindweed.

Later, Bindweed learned, a travelling tinker who had a taste for young things had wanted to buy her, but Irish Maeve had refused his offer. But only because I was quick and clever. She never forgot how the old woman had laughed at her hurt and grief, how the others in her father’s fort had turned away.

She never saw her mother again.

 Six years later Irish Maeve died in her sleep. Bindweed buried her mentor on their island home and mourned for three nights, as custom demanded. On the dawn of the fourth day, she poured the ashes of a barley loaf over the new grave and squeezed a final tear from her smarting eyes.

Enough of that, as Maeve would say. I respected her as a healer, but no deeper feeling than that. She took me in for her own convenience and laughed at my grief. Though she did keep the secret of the smaller cave, so there was that.

Bindweed patted the cold earth once, in valediction, and turned back to the small cave where she and the Irish wise-woman had made a dwelling and a home of sorts She was Bindweed Silverhair, wise-woman of the loch, keeper of the island pool, the one maidens and womenfolk turned to so she might heal their hurts. Poultice their beasts. Charm the chickens into laying more eggs. No one now remembered she was the bastard get of Giric the Harsh, a warrior and giver of gold, who had sold his own mistress, her mother Kentigerna, into slavery.

Lightning strike him down for that! Why does Giric thrive? Why do his well-fed, well-dressed legitimate sons and daughters parade through this land like the blessed children of fairy. Not that I wish them ill, but still—

Revenge did not interest her, for that would merely prove she cared about Giric’s ill-nature. She had a home and skills, a name she had made respected. She ate well, even in winter and before harvest-time. No man would want to wed her, with only this scrap of a wooded islet as her land dowry, but she might take a handsome highlander as a lover, someone quick and wick and small as herself.

No boy with light blue eyes, though, no youth with a beard like Giric’s. Send me a sunny lad, nimble with his fingers—

A long, low snore from nearby brought Bindweed stark awake. It was time for her to move.

Time to spar with the Viking again. Even if the brute sleeps.

 

****

Olaf came to with a pounding mead-style headache and a sick stomach. Twitching sore limbs he found himself bound, hand and foot, and blindfolded.

“Drink!”

A pot clashed against his teeth and he guzzled the weak ale, soothing both headache and sore jaws. “Why did you not slit my throat?” he demanded, after the cup was withdrawn.

“I heal, not kill.”

A young female. Another wise woman? Olaf risked a confession. “I was told the witch Irish Maeve was dead, her place empty. I planned to move in for the coming winter.”

“Who told you that? In truth, you cannot. I am her heir.”

“No one mentioned you.”

“No one ever does.”

When the wench said nothing more, he did not deign to respond to her question but asked, “What did you drug me with?”

“Drenched-salted the food, spiked the ale.”

He sensed her smirk and his bound fists clenched. She had admitted nothing new. “My men will find me.” And kill you. The threat went unspoken but hung like a gibbet between them.

A rustle like dry leaves made Olaf turn sharply to his left but the woman was already drawing back, leaving a whiff of lavender and a touch of the soft wool of her skirts.

“You will mend.”

True, since his headache was almost gone, though he tensed in irritation at her ignoring his warning. “And my men will still find me.”

“You have lain in my pit for two days, been sleeping hard for a day and a night, and none have come looking for you. Now there is fog. No ships in or out of the loch, y’ken?”

He breathed in deeply against her mockery, savouring her perfume afresh. “Aye.”

“No men are allowed here on Maiden’s Isle. For despoiling this sacred space I could spell you with ill luck for the rest of your life.” She paused, allowing the silence to grow, then delivered her final threat. “The curse would stick.”

Dread iced up his spine. Has my bad luck tracked me from Byzantium? Fore God, it has been evil since Karl’s death. Grief sleeted through Olaf afresh at the memory of his brother-in-arms, dead these six months and entombed in the white marble of Constantinople.

“What do you want from me?” he demanded. Anything to stop thinking of Karl, cut down in ambush in an arid city street, hundreds of miles away.

“Your name. Why you are on the run. The truth.”

“I am Olaf No-Kin.” He did not ask how the wise woman knew he had neither ship nor men, though he inwardly cursed the loss of that flimsy advantage. How can I do anything if she does not respect me? “I quit my lord Ragnar’s service and took the first passage I could to Alba to offer my sword to a laird of the Picts.”

“A mercenary. Why, if you left his war-band, does this Ragnar pursue you?” 

Published by Prairie Rose Publications, this novel is available for pre-order and will be out on November 5th.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

October - the Halloween Month. Magic of Summer

October is a time of coming winter, of the fall of the leaf. In this excerpt in celebration of Halloween I touch upon magic plants of summer. 



This is taken from my novel "A Summer Bewitchment", the sequel to "The Snow Bride."

Excerpt

 Outside in the warm, still evening they walked arm in arm, both carrying panniers, and Elfrida shared what she knew of the stranger with Magnus. He in turn told her what he had learned of Rowena from the priest. It was, she thought, strangely companionable, but she wished they were speaking of less dark, mysterious matters.

“Valerian is a magic plant,” she explained, skirting carefully around a flowering elder bush. “It has many uses. One is as a lure. To seduce.”

“And the hare’s foot?” Magnus nodded to the elder bush as he stalked by, a grudging acknowledgement. “The rosemary I know from you is a guardian against evil spirits, so is that good?”

“Because he protects himself from demons and the like does not mean he is not evil himself.”

“Well spoken! The stranger’s mention of a Holy Mother?”

“The hare protects him from all danger. It is a creature of magic. The mother he reveres may be the Virgin, but he worships her in older ways.”

Magnus raised his black brows in silent inquiry.

“The wreath he leaves in thanks and sacrifice, of valerian and elder blossom, marigold, wild thyme and daisy, is made of flowers pleasing to the older gods. I have seen such posies left at ancient standing stones and statues, at rock carvings of the horned god.”

Her striding companion crossed himself. “Rowena is very pretty, so Father Jerome tells me.”

Elfrida nodded, unsurprised. “And docile, too?”

“Indeed. The priest claims they had no notion she might be in any way unhappy at being mewed up in a nunnery.” He scowled, his fingers tightening on his pannier.

“I have heard she is a kind, easy child, but I do not like it, either,” Elfrida admitted. “Would you be more sanguine if she was ill-favored?”

“Not a bit!” He glowered at her. “Do not think to test me, elfling, not this evening, at least. Even without your plan to go star-clad, I like these matters less and less. Do you know what family the Lady Astrid and Rowena are part of? The Gifford clan! Mighty and proud and wealthy.”

“So why do they ask us for help? Why wait five days to ask?”

“Indeed! The ride from Warren Bruer is less than a day, but with haste they could have raced here in hours.”

“So why not come sooner and then we can begin a search? Laggardly, then,” Elfrida observed. “Contradictory.”

“Snail slow, and I agree, contrary. And for the rest”—Magnus puffed out his cheeks—“to them I am a middling landowner and you, I am sorry to say, are utterly beneath notice, in their eyes. They should have far stronger allies than us to draw on.”

“Unless they fear those allies.”

“Do they seem frightened to you?”

Elfrida pointed to a vigorous thicket of hazel coppice and considered as they closed on the straight and slender hazel poles. “The lady is irked, certainly, but I sense no dread from her, only displeasure.”

“At the interruption onto her well-ordered life.”

Trailing a hand across the bright green leaves of the nearest hazel, Elfrida felt a raw sadness, a sense of unrequited loss. “Rowena seems an agreeable child, yet for all that unmissed. Were any of these girls missed?”


Blurb for "A Summer Bewitchment."

When a shadowy piper kidnaps seven beautiful girls, can a wounded knight and his witch save them? Will Sir Magnus and Elfrida find them in time, and at what cost to themselves?

Magnus, the battered crusader knight, and his witch-wife, Elfrida, are happily married but in secret turmoil. Elfrida dreads that her difference in rank with Magnus will undermine his love for her. Wounded and scarred, Magnus fears he will not be able to give Elfrida children.

Their fears are sharpened when high-born Lady Astrid appears at their manor and demands their help to find seven missing girls. The lady clearly regards peasant-born Elfrida as beneath her notice, but why has such a woman sought out Magnus, a country knight? Who does she really want to recover so badly?

In a scorching summer, Magnus and Elfrida search for the missing girls. Can they recover them in time? And will their own marriage be the same?

Genre: Fantasy, Historical

Length: 53,272 words

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“I am the troll king of this land and you owe me a forfeit.”

Elfrida glanced behind the shadowed figure who barred her way. He was alone, but then so was she.



Sunday, 18 October 2020

October - the Halloween Month. Medieval Romances Inspired by the Magic of Fairy Stories, with Excerpts

Beauty and the Beast

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“I am the troll king of this land and you owe me a forfeit.”

Elfrida glanced behind the shadowed figure who barred her way. He was alone, but then so was she.


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“I am to marry again,” she whispered, through frozen lips.


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Tuesday, 13 October 2020

October - the Halloween Month. A magical place in Ancient Roman Bath

 The ancient world believed in magic. In my novel "Flavia's Secret", set in ancient Roman Bath, the heroine Flavia takes the hero Marcus to a place that was rumoured to have belonged to a sorcerer. Here is an excerpt of what they found.



Leaving the carter in one of the side alleys close to the Great Bath, Flavia darted ahead through the ever-increasing crowds and took Marcus off in the direction of the small hot spring sacred to the healing god Aesculapius, a part of the city he had rarely been in. She sped past the tall, oval, roofless walls of the small healing spring, her bright hair visible to Marcus even among the throngs of visitors and worshippers who gathered to make offerings and offer prayers to Aesculapius. Coming to a cross-roads, she glanced back to check that he was still following and walked quickly down a narrow, unpaved side street.

‘Not far,’ she said as he caught up. She slowed as they reached the high boundary wall of a private house. The back boundary wall, Marcus registered, as Flavia looked up and down the street.

She stepped close to him and muttered, ‘When no one is close we climb over the wall. The house is deserted,’ she added.

Marcus stifled amazement and questions and waited for Flavia’s tense, ‘Go!’ before launching himself at the high wall.

There were jutting stones and easy hand-holds in the weathered stone and Flavia climbed as swiftly as he did, nimbly reaching the flat top of the wall and rolling over the other side. He did the same, dropping afterwards into the garden of the deserted house.

Flavia came beside him. ‘Will you wait here? Just for a moment. I don’t think there will be any of my people here at this time, not so early in the morning when there are many tasks to be done, but even so I need to make sure we are alone.’ She gave him a considering look. ‘You would alarm them.’

‘I will wait.’ Folding his arms, Marcus leaned back against the boundary wall.

It was hard for him to watch her leave, darting between the bushes and trees of the overgrown garden, but he knew that he must. She had to know that she could trust him.

Her footsteps were soon lost in the clamour of the unseen streets around them and in the fallen leaves and bare earth paths of this strange, deserted place.

The garden was wildly overgrown, full of straggling rose bushes with wizened red hips and unclipped rosemary and lavender bushes. The little of the house he could see through the bushes and the spreading branches of an oak tree growing in the centre of the garden looked very old. He could just make out some sagging timber walls with peeling paint and a broken-tiled roof.

‘What is this place?’ he asked when Flavia returned, skirting round a rosemary almost as tall as she was.

‘It is supposed to be haunted by the last owner, who was rumoured to be a sorcerer,’ she answered calmly. ‘I think that is why it is still deserted. That, or the man’s family cannot agree what to do with it. A slave showed me how to come here many years ago, soon after I had lost my parents and before Lady Valeria bought me. I think he was sorry for me. He said it was a place of safety and peace for slaves, that if the owner did haunt the house and grounds, he gave no trouble to slaves. The slave told me that we could be ourselves here and no one would see.’

She tilted up her chin, the rising sun lighting her red lips and rose complexion, making her look prettier than ever. Marcus forced himself to attend to what she was saying.

‘The slave made me promise never to tell anyone else about this place—except for one person, who must also swear the same.’

‘And that’s me?’ Marcus asked, astonished and amazed afresh, honored and touched by her confidence.

She smiled at him: an old smile, a secretive smile that he had sometimes seen on his mother’s face. ‘It is safe to go on: no one else is here,’ she said. ‘I will show you round.’

 

* * * *

 

Walking quickly, to show that she did not regret her decision to share this place with him, Flavia returned along the twisting beaten-earth path between the rampant rosemary and lavender bushes. One more twist of the path and they reached the heart of the garden and its startling secret—a private outdoor pool, its shimmering waters steaming in the sun.

‘By Mithras, what a place.’ Looking around, Marcus halted beside her, dropping onto his knees to test the waters of the deep, lead-lined pool. ‘It’s hot!’ he exclaimed, shaking moisture from his hand.

Flavia pointed to a large lead pipe leading away from the pool in the direction of the deserted house before it was lost in the luxuriant undergrowth.

‘We think the owner fixed a conduit somewhere off the spring waters of the Aesculapius spring and directed some of the thermal water here,’ she explained. ‘The pool drains somewhere, too, but we do not know where.’

Marcus sat back on his heels. ‘We?’

‘Those of us who come here, when we can.’

‘Your own private bathing place.’ Marcus jumped to his feet again and walked around the marbled perimeter of the pool. ‘I am surprised nobody has tried to make money with it.’

‘We are careful who we tell,’ Flavia said, squashing disappointment at Marcus’ mercenary approach, but he was staring across the sun-gilded water at the leaf-strewn timber portico leading to the deserted house.

‘I am not surprised at that,’ he said quietly. ‘It is beautiful.’

He watched a small breeze tumble a bronze oak leaf along a small marble walkway leading from the semi-derelict portico to the edge of the pool. ‘Mysterious, quite eerie, but also...comforting. As if you are in an entirely different world.’ He turned about, pointing to the sparkling spiders’ webs on the lavender bushes, rimed with heavy dew. ‘Somewhere forgotten by the rest of the city. A place where magical things become possible.’

‘You understand,’ Flavia whispered, breathing out in relief.

He smiled. ‘It is more than likely that the old owner saw an easy chance to grab some free hot water, but what he has made here, what time has made...I am not surprised he was thought to be a sorcerer.’

Marcus held out both hands to her. ‘Thank you for sharing this, and be assured—your secret with be safe in my keeping.’

Flavia walked to the edge of the secret pool and joined him in studying the waters.

‘It has hardly changed,’ she murmured. As if from far off, she caught a faint whiff of incense wafting from the altars close to the spring shrine to Aesculapius. Listening, she could hear nothing of the city outside the high boundary walls, only her own breathing and the creak of the bare-branched oak tree. A raven was perched in its branches, preening itself. She and Marcus were standing away from the shade of the empty house, in a clear patch of warm flagstones where the bushes had not yet encroached. The sun was warm on her skin and Marcus’ hand around hers warmer still.



Flavia's Secret 

Dare Celtic Flavia trust her new Roman Master Marcus? 

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Friday, 9 October 2020

October - the Halloween Month. Encounter with a medieval demon

In this excerpt, Yolande, my medieval exorcist, and her companion Geraint the juggler both strive against a dangerous, seductive demon.


  


Yolande recalled the impossible charisma the incubus had cast over Geraint. He had been perfect. Not daring to close her eyes in case she fell asleep and dreamed what the incubus wanted her to dream, she concentrated on the rank, real scent of the winter cabbages and the hard, dry soil beneath her bottom and legs. The earth God made for us, real and imperfect because we are real and imperfect. Our free choices make us so.

“He escaped you,” she said through tight lips.

“Surprised me, yes, but he was not so much of a challenge, not in his appearance, at least.”

Surface and appearance mattered to demons. Yolande’s left leg twitched as her booted foot went numb. She clung to the discomfort to keep her fixed, to remember she did not float on a great, cushion-strewn bed, surrounded by sweet wax candles and caressed by a loving Geraint. She was sitting in Halme village in a garden plot, beside frost-withered cabbage.

“Human females are earthier than their menfolk, much easier to seduce in the ways of the flesh, but harder to win in the realms of ideas.”

“You like flesh too,” Yolande pointed out.

“Very much, sweet one. Those fresh, pretty things and their randy dreams, and ripe, well-used wives fancying other carnal delights…quite delicious. I want to lose myself in them every night until  the day of judgment.”

Pig. Geraint’s face drifted before her as her mind annoyingly dredged up the mud of their last quarrel. She chewed her lip, fighting the urge to argue with both Geraint and the demon. The demon incubus for sure, since he has admitted how much he enjoys women’s flesh and dreams.

“William liked ideas,” the incubus droned on. “Our dear Father William loved the idea of secret knowledge and for a time he loved the idea of sex. He wanted to know what it was like. I helped him find out. He liked it very much for a time and then he got bored with the same female.”

Hilda had been seduced and discarded by her own priest to satisfy his fleeting curiosity. The pain of such casual cruelty twisted in Yolande’s chest and a raging anger launched her to her feet. She leapt out of the garden patch, screaming at the heavens, “He murdered her! By what he did, he murdered her!”

“And the babe within her, sweet one. Two for one, just for good measure.”

This time, grief almost knocked her off her feet but anger kept her up and moving.

“Remember where you left your bow?” the incubus tongued in her ear, sticky as rancid honey. “Why not pick it up and seek out the priest?”

“I will,” she vowed, running. “I will.”

* * * * *

Geraint followed Father William to the priest’s cottage. The man entered and crashed about inside, smashing pots and overturning the trestle, spoiling all that he and Yolande had done.

Time passed, he grew colder waiting and watching, and still Father William lumbered about indoors. How many places has the fellow left to search? What is he seeking?

“Bertha!” the priest yelled suddenly and the rooks in the stand of rowans took flight in a burst of flapping wings. “Bertha, you slattern, where are you hiding?”

“Anywhere away from you, I should think.” Yolande strode to the cottage and hammered on the door.

“Just ignore me.” Geraint wondered if she had even noticed him, but then she turned and he saw the bow in her clenched fist.

“Come out, you!” she shouted, jerking round again to kick the door with her boot. “Destroyer!” One kick and the door shook. “Rapist!” And again, a hefty kick. “Murderer!”

A piece of wood flew out from the groaning timbers, but Yolande merely swatted it aside. More than that, she had not seen him. In her fury she could see nothing but the closed door, and with that knowledge a worm of fear slithered along Geraint’s spine. In all their time together he had never seen her in such a steaming rage.

“Come out, coward. I am a woman like Hilda, a woman like the blessed Virgin. Open the door!”

“And get an arrow in your groin.” Stealing closer, Geraint picked his way carefully through the stand of rowans. He did not want to be shot by mistake.

“Yolande,” he called, before she kicked and hammered afresh. “Yolande, is he worth this?”

She spun about, her mouth agape, her eyes glittering. Rage and more was in her.

“Geraint, he killed her just as if he had dashed her brains out with a stone.”

“I know, cariad, but if he dies by your arrow now, cui bono?” His question, the Latin, was a tug to her learning and training, a reminder of who and what she was and one, he prayed, that would give her pause. “What will it do to your soul?” he went on softly.

She snorted. “Who benefits? The folk here would get a better priest, at least.”

“But would they?” Geraint stepped out completely from the final, closest rowan, and stood utterly still for a moment, letting Yolande see him. “So many priests have died in the pestilence. Father William in there, with his single error—”

Her bow arm tightened. “One mistake? One?”

He did not flinch as Yolande brought her arm up and her bow quivered at him, its string humming as if alive. He knew she was not quite herself. Somehow that incubus has sneaked through her defenses.

His throat was as dry as a desert, but the performer in him was excited, his mind quick and clear. One wrong step, one poor answer and we all go down, but I have not fallen yet.

“An error of fatal curiosity, leading to sin,” he replied quietly. “But can we judge him? Are we the Almighty, to judge?”

“Always so glib.” Yolande frowned and he crossed his fingers tightly behind his back, sweating a little in case she guessed his lie. The priest could go to the devil for him, but if she killed Father William now, the act would haunt her forever.

One false step… The back of his neck prickled, but he was sure, very sure—almost sure—of what he was doing. Here goes.

“I challenge you to show otherwise,” he answered.

 

Yolande, high and blood-buzzing in her anger, answered without thinking, “Yes, yes, I take your challenge.”

“Good lass.”. Swaying his hips like a streetwalker, he strolled up to her.



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Ghosts, revenants, incubi, vampires and demons haunt medieval England, as Yolande and Geraint must use their love to survive.