Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spring's Renewal - Chapter 1

Spring's Renewal

Avon Inspire (April 2010)
Shelley Shepherd Gray

Chapter 1

“Children, it is time to clean up,” Clara Slabaugh said. “We must wash off the blackboards and set our room to rights. Now, who would like to sweep the floor today?”

As expected, a chorus of twenty-four voices groaned loudly in reply. As she looked from one imploring face to the next, Clara fought to keep a stern expression. Sometime near the beginning of the school year, the children had started this game. Each afternoon, they did their best to delay the inevitable.

But she knew better. Clapping her hands together, she lifted her chin a bit. “Come now, it is necessary to keep our schoolhouse neat and tidy, jah? One cannot learn if the room is as tangled as a bird’s nest.”

After another few seconds of protest, ten-year-old Anson Graber raised his hand. “I’ll sweep today, Miss Slabaugh.”

“Thank you, Anson. Then perhaps Peter would care to help you water the crocuses when you’re done?”

“I’d like that, yes,” he said, his smile revealing a new tooth gone missing. Peter, too, looked pleased to have the special job of watering the patch of dirt right next to the doorway.

After assigning jobs to some of the oldest students, the rest of the children gathered their things together and pulled on coats. Not a one of them took time to button.

Clara understood why. It was March first, and what a pleasant March first it was! As the saying went, it had come in like a lamb. Outside, the weather was in the forties, and the sky was clear and sun shone bright.

Just as Clara had all but Anson and Peter in line to be dismissed, little Maggie Graber had a question. Clara bent down to her level. “Yes, Maggie?”

“Teacher, how come Anson must water the crocuses? Nothing’s coming up.”

“You are right, but we must have faith that the flowers will one day come and bloom brightly, just like they do every year.”

One of the seven-year-old boys broke from the line to peer out the open doorway. “It’s still just dirt.”

“There’s beauty just underneath,” Clara promised. “Under the ground, as under our skin, beautiful things are just waiting to be discovered.”

“Even for you?” Maggie asked.

Maggie’s sister Carrie gasped. The others were stunned to silence.

Clara’s hand flew up to her scarred cheek. The innocent question startled a lump in her throat. “Yes, even me, Maggie. My scars are only skin deep. Inside, I’m just like every other person you know.”

Around her, the other children’s eyes widened. Clara knew Maggie’s question and her answer had embarrassed them. Well, it had embarrassed her as well, to her shame.

She sought to set everyone at ease by ringing the dismissal bell a full minute early. “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, then, children. Do be careful going home.”

Ten hugs later, she watched the last of her scholars wander off to their homes, the littlest ones carefully watched over by their older siblings.

When she was finally alone, Clara leaned against the doorframe and breathed deeply. Another day, done.

Her second year of teaching was almost done, too. In a mere two months, classes would end and the joy of her existence would be taking a three-month break.

Clara tried not to care so much about that.

But still, she couldn’t deny how hard it was not to feel melancholy some days when there seemed to be so little else to look forward to. At twenty-two, she was well on her way to being an old maid. She had no sweetheart to call her own.

In fact, she’d never been courted.

No, all she had was her job and her mother, who relied on her almost to the exclusion of all others.

Of course, Clara had her dreams, too.

In her dreams, she wasn’t bound by a bossy parent’s needs. In her dreams, parts of her face were no longer marked by scars. Neither was her right hand. Nor the rest of her body. No, in her dreams, she was beautiful.

Of course, she shouldn’t care about such things. Feeling shamed, Clara got to work on grading the children’s papers. It wouldn’t do to stand around and wish for things that could never be. No, she should be counting her blessings—and she had many, she knew.

She had a job she enjoyed. She loved teaching, and for the most part, her students were respectful and enjoyable. She had a bright mind, and a wonderful-gut library from which she could check out as many books as she wanted.

And she did have a mother who loved her, no matter what she looked like.

It was only sometimes, in the late afternoon—in the time between her time with students and the work at home—that she wished for something more. For someone to see beyond her imperfections and reckon that she’d make a fine wife.

But here in Sugarcreek, Ohio, all anyone ever seemed to notice were her scars. They’d never taken the time to see what kind of person she was underneath.

Wishing for something different would surely be a mistake.

“Cousin Tim, you’re still here!” Anson called out the moment the young boy spied him next to the barn.

Tim grinned at the ten-year-old who was running toward him at breakneck speed. Oh, but that boy always ran like his feet were on fire. “Where else did you think I’d be?”

“Don’t know.” Anson shrugged as he approached. “Guess I ain’t used to ya being here yet.”

“Sometimes I can say the same thing.” Though Tim had been living in his uncle’s home for two weeks, there were times that he still felt taken by surprise.

Anson scampered closer to Tim, his blond hair every which way, and dropped his books on the ground. “Whatcha working on?”

“Oh, this and that. Your father asked me to do some mending and fixing up around the house and barn for a bit. Today I decided that his fence here needed repairing.”

Looking at Tim’s hammer, Anson wrinkled his nose. “You might be needin’ more than that hammer.” The fence did look like it had taken its last breath of air. “Perhaps I should build a new one. Ah, well. I’ve got time to do that, jah?”

Anson nodded sagely. “Mamm says your being here is a real blessing. Daed can’t be in two places at a time.” Picking up a piece of discarded rotten wood, he added, “Plus, Joshua ain’t no help at the moment. Right now, he seems to be more interested in Gretta than anything else.”

It took an effort, but Tim kept his expression sober. It wouldn’t do for Anson to think he was being laughed at. “Joshua and Gretta are newlyweds. They’re supposed to only be thinking about each other.”

“Well, I hope Joshua starts thinking about the store more so Caleb won’t have to work as much. Then he could be around here more.”

“Is that what you say or what Caleb says?”

Anson shrugged. “Both, I guess. Caleb doesn’t like working at the store so it puts everyone in a sour mood.”

“I imagine things will settle down soon.”

“I hope things don’t settle so much that you leave. I like you here,” Anson replied, just as he tore off to the house, leaving a cloud of dust in his place.

Tim chuckled as he turned back to the fence he’d been repairing. Anson was right, the fence certainly was in a bad way. The slats were mostly rotten, and it had taken some careful considering to decide whether he should simply repair a few chosen boards or replace the whole fence around the corral altogether.

He’d leaned toward saving Frank a few dollars, but now he wasn’t so sure if that had been the wisest decision.

In the distance, he heard Aunt Elsa’s merry voice, followed by the three youngest children clambering for attention.

After something crashed and the youngest—Toby it was—started crying, Tim winced. Noise at his uncle’s home was never far away.

Most times, it was a constant companion.

It was taking some getting used to as well. Back home in Indiana, he was used to the opposite way of life. After his birth, his mother’s doctor had warned against any further pregnancies. So he was an only child.

He’d never minded that.

Actually, most days, he’d enjoyed it just being the three of them. At the end of every day, after his father had read a passage from the Bible, Tim and his parents would read together in their family room. Little by little, the worries of the day would dissipate and he’d be filled with the certainty of God’s love. It had been nice.

In addition, over the last year, he’d been seeing Ruby Lynn Kropf. Though he still wasn’t sure she was the right one for him, he’d enjoyed the idea of thinking that she might be. Tim had looked forward to one day taking over his father’s land and farming it by Ruby Lynn’s side. Together, they would raise a houseful of kinner and visit with his folks often.

But then one day his parents showed him a letter that had come in the day’s mail.

In the letter, his uncle had asked him to come live, for the spring and summer, at his home. With Joshua so recently married and the youngest kinner terribly young, they were stretched thin. Uncle Frank wanted his help with the farm, until Caleb, his fifteen-year-old cousin, could take on more responsibility.

Tim’s first inclination had been to decline. His parents needed him, and he knew his uncle was well-situated in the community. Surely there was someone else who could help?

When both his parents encouraged him to go, he’d stared at them in shock. “But I can’t leave you two alone.”

“You’ll hardly be leaving us alone, Tim,” his mother chided. “We’ve got many friends here.”

“But that’s not the same as family.”

“We’ve your father’s sisters and brothers, too.”

“What about Ruby Lynn? She won’t take it too kindly that I’ll be leaving her for a few months.”

His parents exchanged glances. “She’s special to you, we know,” his mother said slowly. “But I think that maybe Ruby needs to grow a bit. She’s two years younger than you. Perhaps you each could get to know some other people.”

He’d been shocked. “I don’t want to get to know any other girls.”

“Perhaps she might want to meet some other young men? At least she needs to opportunity, jah? This separation will give her some time.”

In the end, Tim knew he’d really had no choice after all. His parents had wanted him to move to Sugarcreek for a spell, and so he did.

But he was finding it to be a trying experience. At twenty-two, he figured he was a bit old to be helping out like he was.

“You about done for the day?”

Startled from his ruminations, Tim turned to his uncle. “Uncle Frank, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you approach.”

“I guess not. Your eyes had a look about them that said you were far away.”

He smiled at the description. “Not so far. Just in Indiana.”

“Ah. You missing home?”

Missing his parents and home sounded too babyish. “No . . . I’m missing Ruby Lynn. My sweetheart. What else can I do for you today?”

Uncle Frank’s eyes twinkled with merriment. “Not a thing. It’s time you relaxed. Go on in the house for a while.”

Just thinking about the many kinner running around made Tim shiver. “Danke, but I think I’ll stay out here for a bit.”

“You know, sometimes, when I’m eager to get away, I go for a walk.” His uncle pointed to the faintest of trails that started just a few yards away. “If you take that path, it will eventually lead you down to the creek. It’s not a river or anything, but sometimes it’s running.”

Walking to an empty creek didn’t sound terribly adventuresome, but Tim was grateful for the reprieve. Anything would be better than weaving his way through the maze of children in the house. “Maybe I’ll go on down there now.”

“Take your time, nephew. Elsa will hold supper for ya if you aren’t back by the time we eat.”

That sounded like too much to ask. During his short time with his aunt and uncle, Tim had been made aware of just how much effort it took Elsa to run such a big household smoothly. “I’ll try to be back before supper.”

Understanding creased the lines around his uncle’s eyes. “I know you will. You’re a good man, Tim. But I don’t want to impose on you too much. Everyone needs some time to himself every now and then. Sometimes it’s a gut idea to take a look at the scenery, too. Take what’s offered.”

With some surprise, Tim understood what his uncle wasn’t saying. His dissatisfaction had been noticed, but not necessarily found fault with. “Danke, Uncle.”

After putting away the tools, he set off on his walk.

The landscape was beautiful. Rolling hills surrounded him and trees dotted the landscape. Most fields were plowed, their rich soil black and vibrant. Every so often he’d spy a jaunty red cardinal flying toward its mate or a ground squirrel scurrying with purpose.

His own path snaked its way through a vivid green meadow dotted with tiny purple flowers just aching for a glimpse of the sky. Caught by the beauty of it all, Tim breathed deep. The land around Sugarcreek was truly one of the Lord’s most perfect treasures.

After almost a mile, the ground sloped a bit and grew rockier. And then finally, like an unexpected rainbow, Tim spied the creek.

As waterways went, it wasn’t much of one. Only a few yards wide, the creek held only a few feet of water. Underneath the current, the bed was a mixture of rocks, pebbles, and sand. But the water ran clear and the gentle noise of the stream was as inviting as a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day.

He’d never been one to resist a treat.

Bending down, Tim removed his straw hat and ran his hands in the icy cool water. Unable to stop himself, he cupped his hands to have a little taste.

And then he saw her.

“I wouldn’t risk tasting that water, if you don’t mind me saying so,” a girl called out.

Tim straightened, keeping his eyes on her approach. Her skirt was violet, and the black apron she wore over it was in stark contrast to her white kapp. A small tremor rushed through him as he realized she was Plain, too. “It’s polluted, then?” he asked when she was only a few yards away.

“I’m not sure how dirty it is, but I will say that the Millers’ cows have enjoyed the waters enough to make me wary.” She smiled.

He flinched in surprise. At first, he’d only been thinking about her eyes. They were light brown and tilted up a bit at the sides, like she was about to break out laughing. But when his gaze flickered to her lips, he noticed only one side of her mouth rose perfectly. The other stopped in a maze of puckered red skin that decorated her cheek. “I think I’ll pass on that drink, then. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

She stopped. Suddenly looking uncertain.

And it was no wonder. He, too, had heard the strain in his voice. Tim was reminded of a deer in the glade, her stance was so timid, her posture ready to make a quick escape if need be.

Struggling to not stare at the scars on her face, he spoke again. “I’m Tim Graber. Frank Graber’s nephew.”

Her posture eased. Eyes, brown and expressive, looked him over. “And I am Clara Slabaugh.”

“Do you live nearby?”

She pointed to a white house in the distance. “Close enough. I walked to school today. Going home on the road takes longer, so I thought I’d cut through here.”


“Yes. I’m the area’s teacher.” She paused. “Sometimes I enjoy walking home this way. It’s a lot quicker to take a turn by the creek than to keep to the road.”

She said the words almost like an apology. As if she was the one intruding on his time. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was the one who didn’t belong.

Or, perhaps he was trespassing? “Clara, am I on your land?”

“Heavens, no. I’m not certain who exactly owns this piece of property, if you want to know the truth. For as long as I can remember, all of us in the area have used it. And we all enjoy the creek. Even the Allens. They’re your English neighbors, you know.”

“I . . . I met them.” Even as he uttered the words, he winced. Oh, could any man sound more feeble?

For a moment, her eyes held his. Then, as a faint red flush appeared in her cheek—the cheek that looked as soft and perfect as the petals of a May rose, she turned away. “I’d better be going.”

He didn’t want her to leave. There was something about Clara that calmed him. He appreciated her serene demeanor. So much so, he yearned to keep her close. “Would you like me to walk you the rest of the way home?”

“There’s no need. I walk by myself all the time.”

“Ah.” Now he was embarrassed. But not enough to not risk getting to know her better. “Are you married, Clara?”

Her eyes narrowed in surprise—and with a bit of distrust. “No.”

“Courting anyone?” Oh, but it was a forward question. What had possessed him to ever ask such a thing?

Hurt filled her gaze. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

She was right. It was not. He’d been unforgivably rude.

“I must be going.” Before even waiting for a reply, she turned her back to him and started walking briskly toward the small white house in the distance.

Too affected by his impertinence, Tim simply stood silently and watched her walk away. Within minutes, she’d gone up and down a hill, then faded from view. “Goodbye, Clara,” he whispered.

Then wondered why he was so overcome.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Anonymous Bride - Chapter 1

The Anonymous Bride
Barbour Publishing, Inc. (April 1, 2010)

Vickie McDonough

Lookout, Texas

April 1886

Sometimes God asked difficult things of a man, and for Luke Davis, what he was fixing to do was the hardest task ever.

Luke reined his horse to a halt atop the ridge and gazed down at the town half a mile away. Lookout, Texas—the place where his dreams had been birthed and later had died. He wasn’t ready to return, to face the two people he’d tried so hard to forget.

“I’d rather face a band of Sioux warriors, Lord, than to ride into that town again.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.

Alamo, his black gelding, snorted, as if sensing they’d reached the end of their long journey. Luke directed his horse down the path to the small river that ran south and west of the town. A healthy dose of spring rains had filled the crater dug out by past floods where the river made a sharp turn. Local kids used it for a swimming hole, and a new rope had been added for them to swing on. Memories of afternoons spent there were some of Luke’s favorite, but those carefree days were over.

He glanced heavenward at the brilliant blue sky, halfway hoping God would give him leave to ride away. When no such reprieve came, he dismounted at the water’s edge and allowed his horse to drink while he rinsed three days’ worth of dust off his face.

Alamo suddenly jerked his head up and flicked his ears forward. The horse backed away from the bank and turned, looking off to the right. Luke scooped up a handful of water and sipped it, watching to see what had stirred up his horse. Tall trees lined the life-giving river, and thigh-high grasses and shrubs made good hiding places. He knew that for a fact. How many times as a boy had he and his two cousins hidden there, watching the older kids swimming and sometimes spooning?

“Must have been some critter, ’Mo.” He stood and patted his horse, finally ready to ride into Lookout and see up close how much the town had changed. How she’d changed.

Three heads popped up from behind a nearby bush. “Hey, mister,” a skinny kid yelled, “that’s our swimming hole, not a horse trough.”

Rocks flew toward Luke, and he ducked, turning his back to the kids. Alamo squealed and sidestepped into Luke, sending him flying straight into the river. Hoots of laughter rose up behind him as cool water gushed into his boots and soaked his clothing. His soles slipped on the moss-covered rocks as he scrambled for a foothold.

“Foolish kids.” He trudged out of the river, dripping from every inch of his clothing. His socks sloshed in his water-logged boots. Dropping to the bank, he yanked them off and dumped the water and wrung out his socks. With his boots back on, he checked Alamo, making sure the horse wasn’t injured; then he mounted, determined to find those kids and teach them a lesson. Playing childish pranks was one thing. He’d done his share of them. But throwing rocks at an animal was something else altogether.

“Heyah!” Alamo lurched forward. Luke hunkered low against the horse’s neck until he cleared the tree line. He sat up, scanning the rolling hills. He didn’t see any movement at first, but when he topped the closest hill, he found the rowdy trio racing for the edge of town. Luke hunched down and let his horse out in a full canter, quickly closing the distance between him and the kids.

All three glanced back, no longer ornery but scared. He’d never harm a child, but instilling a little fear for the law couldn’t hurt anything.

The two tallest boys veered off to the left, outpacing the smaller kid. The boy stumbled and fell, bounced up, and shot for town. Luke aimed for that one as the older boys dashed behind the nearest house. The youngster pressed down his big floppy hat and pumped his short legs as fast as he could. The gap narrowed. Slowing Alamo, Luke leaned sideways and reached down, grabbing the youth by his overall straps. The child kicked his feet and flailed his arms, but Luke was stronger, quicker. He slung the kid across his lap.

“Let me go! I ain’t done nothin’.” The boy held his hat on with one hand and pushed against Luke’s leg with the other hand. “You’re gettin’ me wet.”

“Just lie still. And I wouldn’t be wet if you hadn’t thrown rocks at my horse.” Luke held a firm hand on the kid’s backside, but the boy still squirmed, trying to get free. “Don’t make me tie you up.”

Suddenly, he stilled. “You wouldn’t.”

“Whoa, Mo.” Luke calmed his horse, fidgety from the child’s activity. Alamo had carried him through all kinds of weather, fights with Indians in the Dakotas, and chasing down train robbers, but one skinny kid had him all riled up.

“My ma ain’t gonna like you doin’ this to me, mister.”

Luke grunted, knowing the kid was probably right, but then his mama should have taught him not to throw rocks at strangers. The next man might shoot back.

Being sopping wet with a cocky kid tossed across his lap certainly wasn’t the homecoming he’d planned.

Luke scanned Main Street as he rode in, noting the changes made over the past decade. Most of the buildings on this end of town, with the exception of the saloon, sported fresh coats of paint. The town hadn’t grown nearly as much as he’d expected it would in the eleven years he’d been gone. With the new street that had been added after he left, the town roughly resembled a capital E: Bluebonnet Lane was the spine, and Main, Apple, and the new street served as the three arms.

Almost against his will, Luke’s gaze turned toward the three-story Hamilton House that filled the end of Main Street. The house, no longer white with black accents, had been painted a soft green and trimmed with white. Rachel’s influence, no doubt. If he kept going, he’d ride right up to her front door.

How much had she changed? Did she and James have a passel of children? A sharp pain stabbed his chest. They should have been his and Rachel’s children, but the woman he’d loved had betrayed him. Married someone else—the town’s wealthiest bachelor.

He shook his head. Stop! You’re here to put the past behind you. Once and for all.
He couldn’t allow himself to think about how Rachel had hurt him. He had to find a way to forgive her so he could move on, find a wife he could love, and start a family. Pushing thirty, he wasn’t getting any younger. And why did returning home make him more nervous than he’d been the day he joined the cavalry a decade ago?

The boy he’d captured found new strength and bucked several more times. “My ma will take her broomstick to you, and I’m gonna laugh when she does.”

Luke chuckled and shook his head. This kid needed his rear end tanned good, or maybe, beings as Luke was soon to be the town marshal, he should just lock the boy in jail for a few hours. That ought to scare him straight for a day or two.

A man exited the saloon, drawing Luke’s attention to his right. The Wet Your Whistle had been enlarged and sported a fancy new sign in bright colors, which looked out of place against the weathered wood of the building. To his left, the livery looked to be well-cared for. Was Sam still the owner? Or had his son taken over?

He rode past Polly’s Café. The fragrant scents emanating out the open door reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since his skimpy breakfast of coffee and a dried biscuit, leftover from dinner the night before. Maybe his cousins would join him for their noontime meal if they hadn’t already eaten. Course, he had an issue of business to attend to before he could think of food.

Dolly, twin sister to Polly, evidently still owned the dressmaker’s shop directly across from the café. The spinster had painted the small structure a ghastly pinkish-purple more suited to a saloon gal’s dress. He almost felt sorry for the old building until he remembered that it sat next door to his cousins’ freight office and they’d have to stare at it every day. He grinned. Served those rascals right.

He hauled the youngster up, slung him over his shoulder then dismounted and tied Alamo to the hitching post outside of the Corbett Freight Office. A man and woman he didn’t recognize approached on the boardwalk in front of the building. They gave him a quick glance, eying the child on his shoulder and his wet clothing. The man grinned and nodded, and they passed by, but the woman puckered up as if she’d sucked a lemon too long.

“Where do you live, kid?”

“None of your business.” The boy kicked again and pounded on Luke’s back. “Let me down, mister, ’fore I spew my breakfast all over your backside.”

Luke chuckled and resisted smacking the boy’s rear end. The kid had spunk; he’d give him that much.

“Ma! Ma! Help me!” The boy started bucking like a mule in a nest of rattlers.

A woman across the street halted and looked up, eyes wide. Her hand flew to her chest. She hiked her skirts and bounded down the boardwalk steps like a she-bear on attack. She quickly marched across the dirt street and stomped up the steps toward Luke. Her bonnet shielded her face, but for a woman with a child, she had a pleasing figure with curves in all the right places.

Luke lowered the kid but held onto the twisting boy’s shoulders.

“Ma, he tried to kidnap me. Help me!”

Luke shook his head. “That’s not the way of things, ma’am.”

“Please let go of my daughter.” The woman lifted her headed and glared at him from under her sunbonnet.

Daughter? How had he missed that?

He glanced down at the kid again. The floppy hat hid the kid’s hair and covered half her face. He yanked it off, and a matching set of auburn braids fell down against the girl’s chest.

“Hey! That’s my hat.” She grabbed at it, but he held it high out of her reach.

What decent woman let her daughter run around dressed like a boy and playing pranks with older kids?

He clenched his jaw and stared at the woman again. Something inside him quickened.

The woman’s irritated expression changed. Pale blue eyes widened, and her mouth gaped like a fish, opening and closing several times before anything spilled out. “Luke?”

A wagonload of gunpowder exploding right beside him couldn’t have blindsided him more. “Rachel?”

She was older, but still beautiful—still the woman he’d loved for so long. Luke straightened. No, he wouldn’t give the thought a foothold. He’d known he would see Rachel when he’d decided to return to town, but this sure wasn’t the meeting he’d expected. He’d faced all manner of dangers in his years in the cavalry, but as he stood there soaking wet in front of the woman who’d stolen his heart and then stomped on it, his brain plumb refused to send words to his mouth.

“You know this fellow, Ma? Make him give me my hat. ” The kid—the girl—stood as bold as you please with her hands on her hips, not looking the least bit repentant.

Luke captured Rachel’s gaze, her light blue eyes looking big in the shadows of her navy calico bonnet. He forced himself to speak. “You should. . .uh, keep your daughter away from rocks.”

Rachel’s brows puckered. “What?”

Realizing how ridiculous that sounded, he tossed the hat at the girl, spun around, and stormed toward his horse. For years, he’d thought about what he’d say to Rachel if he ever saw her again, but he’d never envisioned it being something about naughty kids or rocks. He groaned and shook his head. She probably thought he’d gone plumb loco. And maybe he had.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Blood Ranson - Prologue and Chapter 1

Blood Ransom
Zondervan (April 1, 2010)

Lisa Harris


A narrow shaft of sunlight broke through the thick canopy of leaves above Joseph Komboli’s short frame and pierced through to the layers of vines that crawled along the forest floor. He trudged past a spiny tree trunk — one of hundreds whose flat crowns reached toward the heavens before disappearing into the cloudless African sky — and smiled as the familiar hum of the forest welcomed him home.

A trickle of moisture dripped down the back of his neck, and he reached up to brush it away, then flicked at a mosquito. The musty smell of rotting leaves and sweet flowers encircled him, a sharp con- trast to the stale exhaust fumes of the capital’s countless taxis or the stench of hundreds of humans pressed together on the dilapidated cargo boat he’d left at the edge of the river this morning.

Another flying insect buzzed in his ears, its insistent drone drowned out only by the birds chattering in the treetops. He slapped the insect away and dug into the pocket of his worn trousers for a handful of fire-roasted peanuts, still managing to balance the bag that rested atop his head. His mother’s sister had packed it for him, ensur- ing that the journey — by taxi, boat, and now foot — wouldn’t leave his belly empty. Once, not too long ago, he had believed no one living in the mountain forests surrounding his village, or perhaps even in all of Africa, could cook goza and fish sauce like his mother. But now, hav- ing ventured from the dense and sheltering rainforest, he knew she was only one of thousands of women who tirelessly pounded cassava and prepared the thick stew for their families day after day.

Still, his mouth watered at the thought of his mother’s cooking. The capital of Bogama might offer running water and electricity for those willing to forfeit a percentage of their minimal salaries, but even the new shirt and camera his uncle had given him as parting gifts weren’t enough to lessen his longings for home. He wrapped the string of the camera around his wrist and felt his heart swell with pride. No other boy in his village owned such a stunning piece. Not that the camera was a frivolous gift. Not at all. His uncle called it an investment in the future. In the city lived a never-ending line of men and women willing to pay a few cents for a color photo. When he returned to Bogama for school, he planned to make enough money to send some home to his family — something that guaranteed plenty of meat and cassava for the evening meal.

Anxious to give his little sister, Aina, one of the sweets tucked safely in his pocket and his mother the bag of sugar he carried, Joseph quickened his steps across the red soil, careful to avoid a low limb swaying under the weight of a monkey.

A cry shattered the relative calm of the forest.

Joseph slowed as the familiar noises of the forest faded into the shouts of human voices. More than likely the village children had finished collecting water from the river and now played a game of chase or soccer with a homemade ball.

The wind blew across his face, sending a chill down his spine as he neared the thinning trees at the edge of the forest. Another scream split the afternoon like a sharpened machete.

Joseph stopped. These were not the sounds of laughter.

Dropping behind the dense covering of the large leaves, Joseph approached the outskirts of the small village, straining his eyes in an effort to decipher the commotion before him. At first glance every- thing appeared familiar. Two dozen mud huts with thatched roofs greeted him like an old friend. Tendrils of smoke rose from fires beneath rounded cooking pots that held sauce for evening meals. Brightly colored pieces of fabric fluttered in the breeze as freshly laundered clothes soaked up the warmth of the afternoon sun.

His gaze flickered to a figure emerging from behind one of the grass-thatched huts. Black uniform . . . rifle pressed against his shoul- der . . . Joseph felt his lungs constrict. Another soldier emerged, then another, until there were half a dozen shouting orders at the confused villagers who stumbled onto the open area in front of them. Joseph watched as his best friend Mbona tried to fight back, but his hoe was no match against the rifle butt that struck his head. Mbona fell to the ground.

Ghost Soldiers!

A wave of panic, strong as the mighty Congo River rushing through its narrow tributaries, ripped through Joseph’s chest. He gasped for breath, his chest heaving as air refused to fill his lungs. The green forest spun. Gripping the sturdy branch of a tree, he man- aged to suck in a shallow breath.

He’d heard his uncle speak of the rumored Ghost Soldiers — mercenaries who appeared from nowhere and kidnapped human la- borers to work as slaves for the mines. Inhabitants of isolated villages could disappear without a trace and no one would ever know.

Except he’d thought such myths weren’t true.

The sight of his little sister told him otherwise. His mind fought to grasp what was happening. Blood trickled down the seven-year- old’s forehead as she faltered in front of the soldiers with her hands tied behind her.


Unable to restrain himself, Joseph lunged forward but tripped over a knotty vine and fell. A twig snapped, startling a bird into flight above him.

The soldier turned from his sister and stared into the dense fo- liage. Joseph lay flat against the ground, his hand clasped over the groan escaping his throat. The soldier hesitated a moment longer, then grabbed his sister’s arm and pulled her to join the others.

Choking back a sob, Joseph rose to his knees and dug his fingers into the hard earth. What could he do? Nothing. He was no match for these men. If he didn’t remain secluded behind the cover of the forest, he too would vanish along with his family.

The haunting sounds of screams mingled with gunshots. His grandfather fell to the ground and Joseph squeezed his eyes shut, blackness enveloping him. It was then, as he pressed his hand against his pounding chest, that he felt the camera swinging against his wrist. He stared at the silver case. Slowly, he pressed the On button.

This time, the world would know.

With a trembling arm Joseph lifted the camera. Careful to stay within the concealing shade of the forest, he snapped a picture with- out bothering to aim as his uncle had taught him. He took another photo, and another, and another . . . until the cries of his people dis- sipated on the north side of the clearing as the soldiers led those strong enough to work toward the mountains. The rest — those like his grandfather, too old or too weak to work in the mines — lay mo- tionless against the now bloodstained African soil.

In the remaining silence, the voices of two men drifted across the breeze. English words were foreign to his own people’s uneducated ears but had become familiar to Joseph. What he heard now brought a second wave of terror . . .

“Only four more days until we are in power . . . There is no need to worry . . . The president will be taken care of . . . I can personally guarantee the support of this district . . .”

Joseph zoomed in and took a picture of the two men.

A monkey jumped to the tree above him and started chattering. One of the beefy soldiers jerked around, his attention drawn to the edge of the clearing. Joseph froze as his gaze locked with the man’s.

Someone shouted.

If they caught him now, no one would ever know what had hap- pened to his family.

Joseph scrambled to his feet as the soldier ran toward him, but the man was faster. The butt of a rifle struck Joseph’s head. He faltered, but as a trickle of blood dripped into his eye, he pictured Aina being led away . . . his grandfather murdered in cold blood . . .

Ignoring the searing pain, Joseph fought to pull loose from his attacker’s grip, kicked at the man’s shins. The soldier faltered on the uneven terrain. Clambering to his feet, Joseph ran into the cover of the forest. A rifle fired, and the bullet whizzed past his ear, but he kept moving. With the Ghost Soldier in pursuit, Joseph sprinted as fast as he could through the tangled foliage and prayed that the thick jungle would swallow him.


Monday, November 16, 3:11 p.M. Kasili Outdoor Market

Natalie Sinclair fingered the blue-and-yellow fabric that hung neatly folded on a wooden rod among dozens of other brightly colored pieces, barely noticing the plump Mama who stood beside her in hopeful anticipation. Instead she gazed out at the shops that lined the winding, narrow paths of the market, forming an intricate maze the size of a football field. The vendors sold everything from vegeta- bles and live animals to piles of secondhand clothing that had been shipped across the ocean from charities in the States.

Natalie stepped across a puddle and turned to glance beneath the wooden overhang at the stream of people passing by. Even with the weekend over, the outdoor market was crowded with shoppers. Hip- hop-style music played in the background, lending a festive feel to the sultry day. But she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Someone was following her.

She quickened her steps and searched for anything that looked out of place. A young man weaved his bicycle through the crowded walkway, forcing those on foot to step aside. A little girl wearing a tattered dress clung to the skirt of her mother, who carried a sleeping infant, secured with a length of material, against her back. An old man with thick glasses shuffled past a shop that sold eggs and sugar, then stopped to examine a pile of spark plugs.

Natalie’s sandal stuck in a patch of mud, and she wiggled her foot to pull it out. Perhaps the foreboding sensation was nothing more than the upcoming elections that had her on edge. All American citizens had been warned to stay on high alert due to the volatile political situation. Violence was on the rise. Already a number of joint military-police peacekeeping patrols had been deployed onto the streets, and there were rumors of a curfew.

Not that life in the Republic of Dhambizao was ever considered safe by the embassy, but neither was downtown Portland. It was all a matter of perspective.

And leaving wasn’t an option. Not with the hepatitis E outbreak spreading from the city into the surrounding villages. Already, three health zones north of the town of Kasili where she lived were threat- ened with an outbreak. She’d spent the previous two weeks sharing information about the disease’s symptoms with the staff of the local government clinics, as well as conducting awareness campaigns to inform the public on the importance of proper hygiene to prevent an epidemic.

In search of candles for tonight’s party, Natalie turned sharply to her left and hurried up the muddy path past wooden tables piled high with leafy greens for stew, bright red tomatoes, and fresh fish. Rows of women sat on wooden stools and fanned their wares to discour- age the flies that swarmed around the pungent odor of the morning’s catch.

Someone bumped into her from behind, and she pulled her bag closer. Petty theft might be a constant concern, but she knew her escalated fears were out of line. Being the only pale foreigner in a sea of ebony-skinned Africans always caused heads to turn, if not for the novelty, then for the hope that she’d toss them one or two extra coins for their supper.

Her cell phone jingled in her pocket, and she reached to answer it.

“When are you coming back to the office?” Stephen’s to-the-point greeting was predictable.

“I’m not. I’m throwing a birthday party for you tonight, remem- ber? You let me off early.” A pile of taper candles caught her eye in a shop across the path, and she skirted the edge of a puddle that, thanks to the runoff, was rapidly becoming the size of a small lake.

Stephen groaned. “Patrick’s here at the office, and he’s asking questions.”

She pulled a handful of coins from her pocket to pay for the can- dles. “Then give him some answers.”

“I can’t.”

Natalie thrust the package the seller had wrapped in newspaper into her bag and frowned. Patrick Seko, the former head of security for the president, now led some sort of specialized task force for the government. Lately, his primary concern seemed to revolve around some demographic research for the Kasili region she’d been com- piling for the minister of health, whose office she worked for. Her expertise might be the prevention and control of communicable dis- eases, but demographics had always interested her. Why her research interested Patrick was a question she’d yet to figure out.

The line crackled. Maybe she’d get out of dealing with Patrick and his insistent questions after all.

“Stephen, you’re breaking up.”

All she heard was a garbled response. She flipped the phone shut and shoved it back into her pocket. They’d have to finish their con- versation at the party.


She spun around at the sound of her name. “Rachel, it’s good to see you.”

Her friend shot her a broad smile. “I’m sorry if I startled you.”

Natalie wanted to kick herself for the uncharacteristic agitation that had her looking behind every shadow. “I’m just a bit jumpy today.”

“I understand completely.” Rachel pushed a handful of thin braids behind her shoulder and smiled. “I think everyone is a bit on edge, even though with the UN’s presence the elections are supposed to pass without any major problems. No one has forgotten President Tau’s bloody takeover.”

Natalie had only heard stories from friends about the current president’s takeover seventeen years ago. Two elections had taken place since then and were assumed by all to have been rigged. But with increasing pressure from the United States, the European Union, and the African Union, President Tau had promised a fair election this time no matter the results. And despite random incidences of pre-election violence, even the United Nations was predicting a fair turnover under their supervision — something that, to her mind, re- mained to be seen.

Natalie took a step back to avoid a group of uniformed students making their way through the market and smiled at her friend. After eighteen months of working together, Rachel had moved back to the capital to take a job with the minister of health, which meant Natalie rarely saw her anymore. Something they both missed. “What are you doing in Kasili?”

“I’m heading back to Bogama tomorrow, but I’m in town because Patrick has been meeting with my parents to work out the labola.”

“Really? That’s wonderful.” Her sentiment was genuine, even though she happened to find Patrick overbearing and control- ling — as no doubt he would be in deciding on a bride price. She hugged her friend. “When’s the wedding ceremony?”

Rachel’s white teeth gleamed against her dark skin, but Natalie didn’t miss the shadow that crossed her expression. “We’re still dis- cussing details with our families, but soon. Very soon.”

“Then I’ll expect an invitation.”

“Of course.” Rachel’s laugh competed with the buzz of the crowd that filed past them. “And by the way, I don’t know if Patrick mentioned it to you, but Stephen invited us to the birthday party you’re throwing for him tonight. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t mind.” Natalie suppressed a frown. Stephen had invited Patrick to the party? She cleared her throat. “Stephen just called to tell me Patrick was looking for me, but it had some- thing to do with my demographic reports. Apparently he has more questions.”

“Patrick can be a bit . . . persistent.” Rachel flashed another broad smile, but Natalie caught something else in her eyes she couldn’t read. Hesitation? Fear? “I’ll tell him to wait until they are compiled. Then he can look at them.”

Natalie laughed. “Well, you know I’m thrilled you’re coming.”

She would enjoy catching up with Rachel, and she had already prepared enough food to feed a small army. It was Patrick and his an- tagonistic political views she dreaded. She’d probably end up spend- ing the whole evening trying to avoid them both.

“I’m looking forward to it as well.” Rachel shifted the bag on her shoulder. “But I do need to hurry off. I’m meeting Patrick now, but I’ll see you tonight.”

Natalie watched until her friend disappeared into the crowd, won- dering what she’d seen in her friend’s gaze. It was probably nothing. Rachel had been right. Her own frayed nerves were simply a reaction of the tension everyone felt. By next week the election would be over and things would be back to normal.

A rooster brushed her legs, and she skirted to the left to avoid stepping on the squawking bird. The owner managed to catch it and mumbled a string of apologies before shoving it back in its cage.

Natalie laughed at the cackling bird, realizing that this was as normal as life was going to get.

Spotting a woman selling spices and baskets of fruit two shops down, she slipped into the tiny stall, determined to enjoy the rest of the day. She had nothing to worry about. Just like the UN predicted, the week would pass without any major incidents. And in the mean- time, she had enough on her hands.

She picked up a tiny sack of cloves, held it up to her nose, and took in a deep breath. With the holiday season around the corner, she’d buy some extra. Her mother had sent a care package last week filled with canned pumpkin, chocolate chips, French-fried onions, and marshmallows. This year Natalie planned to invite a few friends over for a real Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, mashed potatoes, green- bean casserole, pumpkin pie —

Fingers grasped her arm from behind. Natalie screamed and struggled to keep her balance as someone pulled her into the shadows.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Sword - Chapter 1 - Excerpt

The Sword
Crossway Books (April 30, 2010)

Bryan M. Litfin

Chapter 1 - Excerpt

The lone man deep in the woods of the Beyond knew a good sword could make the difference between life and death. Now, as the massive brown bear approached, he gripped his sword’s hilt in his strong, sweaty hand and resolved to live. He had just dealt the death blow to a wild boar. Downed by heavy arrows, but still kicking and thrashing, the animal found relief in the finality of the sword’s thrust. With a last squeal, the boar quit struggling and went limp. The hunter pulled his blade free of the carcass and was leaning on it to catch his breath when a rustling in the bushes signaled danger.

Turning toward the new threat, the man felt his heart jump as the enormous bear crept from the underbrush, its ears laid back, its eyes staring, its face contorted in a snarl. The hunter tightened his grip on his sword, discerning from the bear’s aggressive behavior he might soon require the aid of steel. The weapon was decent, and the man was well versed in its use. All his skill at arms would be needed if the menacing bear charged.

The bear swatted the ground, huffing and barking, not backing off but steadily advancing. It was a young male, probably twice the man’s weight, and its curved claws provided it with weapons it wasn’t afraid to use. One swat from its paw could break a man’s back or snap a limb. This animal was a predator—born to kill, to eat, to survive.

Yet for all the bear’s magnificence, the man could see it wasn’t in good shape. Its fur was tangled and dirty, its flanks thin despite its heavy frame—or at least thinner than they should have been in midsummer with the abundance of food. One look at the bear’s face told the story: a beard of porcupine quills bristled from its cheek and eye socket. Bloody scratches framed the quills where the bear had rubbed them. The right side of its face was a festering sore oozing with pus. One eye was swollen into a bulbous lump. This bear clearly could not hunt. Yet, like the man in the forest, it, too, had resolved to live.

The man knew the bear didn’t want him as prey. It wanted him to retreat, leaving behind the easy meat on the ground. Let the bear have it! Though pork ribs had sounded good to the man when he had taken down the boar, he had no intention of quibbling over cuisine with a wounded brown bear. Dried venison would do just fine in the campfire pot for one more night. The hunter relinquished his quarry and began to ease away, making no sudden movements or sounds.

But bears are unpredictable, especially a young male who has hardly eaten in weeks. The agonizing barbed needles had driven the creature to madness. Cold fear seized the man when he realized the tormented bear intended to vent its frustration on him. It rumbled a low growl, popped its jaws, and bunched its muscles to charge.

The man readied himself for a battle to the death. There was no chance to outrun the bear, no tree with branches low enough to climb. It was fight now or die. In some subconscious way, he realized that a sword is a poor defense against the thunderous muscles, daggerlike claws, and crushing jaws of an enraged bear. Against such power, human beings will always fail. Yet the man refused to let fear overwhelm him. Audaciously, perhaps somewhat irrationally, he prepared to confront the bear’s full weight with nothing but a standard-issue soldier’s sword.

With unbelievable speed, the mountain of brown fur surged toward its enemy. Ragged yellow teeth gnashed in anticipation of the bones they would crush. The man sucked in his breath, feeling the sudden rush of ice water in his veins. His stomach dropped its floor. Time slowed. It was as if he could see each drop of slobber flying from the oncoming maw, each grizzled hair standing erect on the angry face, each divot of turf kicked up by the galloping paws. Death was on its way.

As the man braced his stance for a quick dodge and thrust, chance and his body both failed him. He stepped on a loose rock, which rolled underfoot. His knee buckled in an unnatural way, and he collapsed in agony. Now, at the moment when mobility was most important, he was flat on his back with the bear nearly upon him. From the ground, the man brought up his sword in defense. Yet he understood that his already slim odds of coming out of this encounter alive had dropped sharply.

What happened next was the most surprising thing to occur so far that day. Just as the great beast was about to make its final pounce, an arrow struck its infected face like some giant usurper, the new king of all the other quills. The bear arrested its charge and threw back its head, howling from deep within its chest at this unprecedented height of pain. It reared and turned broadside. With its paw, it swiped at the arrow, snapping off the shaft but only driving the arrowhead deeper into its skull.

Another arrow flew over the man’s head, slamming into the bear’s ribs under its shoulder. It was a perfectly placed lung shot that buried itself all the way to the fletching. The bear dropped to all fours and started coughing up wisps of foamy blood.

There was no time to wait. The man leaped to his feet, ignoring the searing pain in his left knee. With his own roar he put his full weight behind a sword thrust to the spot where he thought the bear’s heart would be. The steel found its mark and slid in deep.

The bear reacted instinctively. The back of its paw sent the man sprawling in the dust. Too dazed to move, and with the wind knocked from him, he lay motionless on his belly, trying to recover. As his aware- ness of danger came flooding back, he rolled over and drew his knife from his boot, ready to do final battle with the dying bear. But what he saw brought him up short. The unexpected scene eclipsed his earlier astonish- ment, becoming the new most-surprising event of his day. He saw a girl—a stunningly beautiful girl—with a broadhead arrow nocked in her longbow, standing over the body of the dead bear.

The woman drew her bowstring and held the arrow in place as she approached the bear on the ground. Though it lay still, danger of this magnitude had to be treated with caution. A little blood bubbled from the bear’s chest wound, staining its fur bright red. No sooner had she looked than the bubbling stopped. The bear’s flanks no longer heaved, and its paws no longer twitched. Satisfied that the creature was dead, the young bow-woman turned her attention to the officer of the Royal Guard lying to the side of the clearing.

“Are you hurt?”

Though the man was on the ground, she could see he was tall and lean, with dark hair that could use a trim. A stubble on his chin indicated he had been in the field for some time. She knew from his uniform he bore a high rank in the scout force of the Kingdom of Chiveis. Yet she had to admit, he looked a little ridiculous lying there on his back.

“I’m unhurt, and also in your debt,” the man answered. He made no attempt to get up, apparently content to rest on the ground after his close brush with death. “You’re skilled in the use of a bow. And you have courage. The average woman would have faltered in such danger.”

She lifted her chin, bothered by his mixed compliment. “I’m not an average woman.”

“Obviously.” The man slowly got to his feet, wincing and standing on one leg, favoring his injured knee. “So, can I ask the name of such an exceptional woman? And what are you doing out here past the edge of civilization?”

The woman considered her reply. The soldier was right: she wasn’t where she was supposed to be. Royal law forbade anyone to leave the boundaries of the Kingdom of Chiveis. Though her family’s fields were on the frontier, as far along the Farm River as anyone dared to live, she had journeyed even farther downstream today, where no civilian was allowed to go—into the Beyond.

“If you intend to reprimand me, remember, you’d be dead right now if not for me,” she said evenly.

“Indeed, I’d be in the halls of the gods if not for your archery. But don’t worry, I’m not going to report you to the authorities. I just want to know the name of the pretty girl who saved me.” He raised his eyebrows and dared her to answer.

The woman decided to take him at his word. “My name is Anastasia of Edgeton. I’m the only daughter of farm folk who grow wheat along the river for the people of Chiveis.” Though the guardsman had said he wouldn’t report her, still, she felt defensive about violating the law and wanted to establish her family’s patriotic credentials.

“What are you doing in the Beyond?”

“I left home at dawn and came here trailing a roebuck. In fact,” she added defiantly, “I come here often.”

“Well, Anastasia, it’s a good thing you had a heavy bow with you today.” He smiled, gesturing over her shoulder. “But I bet you didn’t intend to take a bear for meat when you left Edgeton this morning.”

The tension between them drained away. She looked at this silly figure, this handsome man on one leg, grinning at her. He was obviously accustomed to the hard ways of the wilderness. His leather jerkin was that of a man who not only ventured into the forest occasionally but lived in it for weeks at a time. Yet apparently he had a humorous side too. Her defensiveness broke, and she smiled back at him.

“It’s true; I didn’t expect to encounter such a fierce adversary today. But when I decide to take my quarry, I always get him. And now,” she said, changing the subject, “may I have your name as well?”

“I’m Captain Teofil of the Royal Guard, the Fifth Regiment.” He offered nothing else, and she knew not to inquire further.

Teofil assessed the situation. On the positive side, he was alone in a secluded forest with an attractive girl. He had always managed to make the most of that situation in the past, though he doubted he would be so fortunate this time, and not just because of his injured knee. On the nega- tive side, he was far from his horse, which he had left with his gear in a meadow a league or two away. It wouldn’t be easy to hobble that distance. The negatives in the situation seemed to outweigh the positives.

He and Anastasia stood atop a bluff that loomed over the great bend in the Farm River. The river bend lay outside the formal boundary of the kingdom, though the Royal Guard did patrol the area regularly. From here, the lands of the Chiveisi stretched upstream to the southeast, where the river emerged from a lake at the settlement of Toon.

A plan began to take shape in Teofil’s mind. “Anastasia, how did you come to be here?” he asked.

“As I said, I was hunting the roe deer. My village has plenty of bread, but meat is harder to obtain for those of us on the frontier.”

“Right. I know you were hunting, but what I mean is, how did you travel? On foot?”

“No, in a small boat. It’s at the bottom of this bluff.”

“Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to commandeer your boat in the name of the king.” He meant to convey his request as a lighthearted joke, but it came out sounding more formal than he wished, like a direct order. Teo, you always do that, he chided himself. You come off so cocky to people who have been nothing but kind to you.

“My possessions are at the king’s command,” Anastasia replied, echo- ing Teo’s formal tone. The veil of tension assumed its place between them again. “If you wish to make your way down to my boat, you’ll have to lean on a crutch.”

“Perhaps I could lean on you?” He had intended it as a legitimate option, but now he kicked himself for how presumptuous he sounded.

“I believe a wooden crutch would be more receptive to your needs, Captain,” she answered with an unmistakable edge to her voice.

She moved swiftly into the forest and returned with a belt pouch, a hatchet, some hazel branches, and a handful of leather thongs. One of the sticks was in the shape of a Y, and to its top she lashed a crosspiece that could seat itself under Teo’s arm. He marveled at the woman’s resourceful- ness. She was doing exactly what he would have done.

“How does your knee feel right now?” she asked.

“It’s throbbing, actually,” he said without thinking. “You’re in pain?”


“You said it was throbbing. What did you mean by that?”

“I suppose it’s sort of throbbing. But the pain is minor. It’s hardly worth mentioning.”

Anastasia frowned and shook her head, letting out a small sigh. “Let’s have a look at it.”

She loosened the laces of his high leather boots so she could untuck his breeches and roll them past his swollen knee. With her long fingers she gingerly explored the joint. Teo noticed how lovely her hands were. They were the smooth hands of a lady, not rough and callused like a peas- ant’s. Her probing touch was soft and light, except when she pressed into the tissues.

“Do any of these spots hurt?” she asked. It did, but he refused to jerk or make a sound.

Anastasia glanced up. “It seems you have something unique here, Captain—a serious injury that somehow doesn’t cause pain. I’m skilled in forest remedies and healing, but it’s hard to diagnose a stubborn man.”

“I’m not stubborn! It just doesn’t hurt that much. Not for a man like me.”

“Does this hurt?” She gave his knee a hard squeeze, and he grunted in surprise.

“Aha! It seems we’ve finally found the tender spot.” She opened her pouch and rummaged in it, then pulled out a small knife.

Teo eyed the blade in her hand. “Apparently the frontier remedies are more rigorous than those of the Citadel’s doctors.”

Anastasia turned up the corner of her mouth and rolled her eyes, then bent to the hem of her blue dress and began to slice off a ribbon of cloth. Teo was amazed. He realized instantly she was making a bandage wrap from the only suitable material to be found nearby. Yet he also knew that farm girls in Edgeton didn’t come by their dresses easily, and they usually put great stock in such things. The garment had no doubt cost this girl several months of her earnings, with its embroidered pattern of Chiveis’s white mountain-star flowers. This was, he recognized, a sacrificial act.

She wound the strip of woolen cloth around his knee, compressing it to limit further swelling. When she came to the end of the bandage, she held it with one hand, and with the other she reached to her head and loosened a hairpin. Teo noticed her hair for the first time. It was a light amber color with highlights of gold where it caught the morning sun. The style had been done up around her head in the way of girls who are engaged in some strenuous task. Now when she shook her head, her blonde hair came spilling down around her shoulders in a graceful cascade. Teo realized the person in front of him was not a girl at all, but a lovely young woman. She slid the hairpin into the bandage to hold it in place.

“Anastasia,” he ventured, “thank you.”

“I’m only doing the king’s business,” she said as she handed him the crutch. “The boat is in some rushes at the inside of the river bend. It’ll take you a while to make your way down the bluff. I’ll meet you there later, after I collect my things.” And then, like a fairy sprite, she disappeared into the forest.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sworn To Protect - Chapter 1

Sworn To Protect
Tyndale House (April 2010)

DiAnn Mills

Chapter 1

We are truly a nation of immigrants.
But we are also a nation of laws.

McAllen, Texas

The Rio Grande was not just murky. It was toxic. Danika Morales respected the river’s temperament—lazy and rushing, crystal and muddy, breathtaking and devastating. To many ille- gal immigrants, its flowing water signified hope and an oppor- tunity for a better tomorrow, while others viewed the river crossing as a means of smuggling drugs or spreading terrorism. But for Danika, the depths meant death, and it didn’t discrimi- nate among its victims. That was why she chose a Border Patrol badge and carried a gun.

Shortly after the 8 a.m. muster, Danika snatched up the keys to the Tahoe assigned to her for the next ten hours and checked out an M4. A hum of voices, most with Hispanic accents and clipped with occasional laughter, swirled around the station. A labyrinth of sights and sounds had succeeded in disorienting her. A daze.

She took a sip of the steaming coffee in hopes no one saw how the day’s date affected her. Her hands shook. The twelfth of July. The second anniversary of Toby’s murder. She thought she could handle it better than this, but the raw ache still seared her heart.

“Tough day for me too,” Jacob whispered beside her. “We can get through this together.” The familiar tone of voice, as in many times before, nearly paralyzed her. Jacob sounded so much like his brother.

She stood shoulder to shoulder with her brother-in-law and glanced at his muscular frame and the silver streaks in his closely cropped hair, everything about him oddly different from Toby. Gone were the gentleness, the patience, and the outstretched arms of love.

“Thanks. But I’m all right.”

He frowned, a typical expression. “Well, I’m not, and you shouldn’t be either.”

She was in no mood to rile him today. “I miss Toby every minute of the day, but we have to move on. He would have wanted it that way.”

“Not till his murderer is found.” Jacob’s jaw tightened. “I’m disappointed in you.”

Danika took another sip of the hot coffee, burning her tongue. Caustic words threatened to surface and add one more brick to the wall dividing them. “I want the killer found too. I’m committed to it. I think about him every day and mourn for our daughter, who will never know her daddy. But I choose not to spend my time harboring hate and vengeance.”

“You must not have really loved my brother.”

The words cut deep, as Jacob must have known they would. No woman could have loved Toby like she did. “I refuse to be browbeaten by you anymore. Your hate is going to explode in your own backyard one day.” She stopped herself before she lit a match to his temper. Actually, she’d rather have been dropped in the bush for the next ten hours with a shotgun and a can of OFF! than argue with him. But the time had come to distance herself from Jacob.

“Hey, Danika,” an agent called, “do these belong to you?”

She turned to see wiry Felipe Chavez carrying a vase with a huge bouquet of roses. They remembered. She swallowed a chunk of life. “Oh, guys, you didn’t have to do this.”

Felipe made his way toward her. The other agents hushed; then one of them started to clap. She smiled through the tears as he handed her the clear glass vase. The sweet fragrance no longer reminded her of death, but of life and her resolve to live each day in a way that commemorated Toby’s devotion to her and their little daughter. Perhaps this was what the two-year marker meant.

She took the roses and studied the small crowd of agents. Good men, all of them—even Jacob.

“We cared about what happened to Toby too,” Felipe said with a grim smile.

Danika brushed her finger around one of the delicate petals and formed her words. Memories had stalked her like a demon since last night. “Don’t know what to say except thank you.Toby was a soldier for his own cause, and he spent his life doing what he believed in. Just like all of us.”

One agent shook his head, frowned, and left the room. Far too many explanations for his disapproval raced through her mind. But Danika needed to put the ugliness behind her.

She set the flowers on the long table in front of her. “Today is the second anniversary of Toby’s death. All of you have looked after me and my daughter, especially during holidays and spe- cial occasions. His death is why I’m more dedicated than ever to help protect the border.” She paused, sensing her emotions rushing into chaos. “I appreciate your remembering him and the sacrifice he made, especially since his beliefs were controver- sial.” Enough said.

She took a deep, cleansing breath. “I brought doughnuts.”

And they were buttermilk, Toby’s favorite.

She glanced at Jacob, hoping to end the tension between them. How Barbara could stay married to him was beyond her comprehension. He treated her and their four kids like yester- day’s trash.

Danika wound through the crowd of agents, greeting those who offered condolences and others who offered a good-morning.

The field operations supervisor, Agent Oden Herrera, stood in front of the flags—the U.S., Homeland Security, and the Border Patrol. Pushing the emotions of regret and grief aboutToby aside, Danika captured the supervisor’s attention. “During the muster you said intel had picked up a cocaine drop last night?”

Herrera walked to a wall map and pointed. “Like I said earlier: arrested seven men and two women right along here, your area. A kid had a small bag of cocaine on him. Most likely a deterrent. The drug smuggler either hid it before being apprehended, or he’s still waiting for someone to pick him up. Dogs have been out there most of the night, but Barnett and Fire-Eater are headed that way in a few minutes.”

Danika finished her coffee and made her way into the stifling heat and stopped by Jon Barnett’s truck. As Fire-Eater’s handler, he had everyone’s admiration, and the Belgian sheepdog had a reputation for being the best of the K-9s. Barnett snapped on the dog’s leash and waved.

“I hear we’re working the same area today.” Danika refrained from patting Fire-Eater. Some days he wasn’t people friendly. After seeing the dog in action a few times when he’d found drug runners, she sometimes felt sorry for those he brought down.

Barnett grinned and wiped the sweat already beading on his face. “He’s a good dog, Morales. Just needs a little help with his people skills.” He laughed, his freckles deepening in the intense sun. “And he’s great with the wife and kids. Like another mem- ber of the family.” He pulled out his keys. “Do you want to talk? We have a few minutes.”

All she really wanted was for the day to be over. Talking increased the chances of liquid emotion—which was more lethal than the river flowing between the U.S. and Mexico. “No thanks. I’m fine.”

“Do you need to talk?”

“It’s been two years.” Therapeutic or not, she would not open up, even to a sweet guy like Barnett. She’d spent hours build- ing a reputation as a tough agent, and she wasn’t about to take a nosedive now.

“Right, and the sooner you admit that today has crept up on you worse than a case of food poisoning, the better you’ll feel.”

She had to agree. “Have you turned psychologist?”

“Fire-Eater and five kids taught me all I know.”

“I had a dog when I was a kid,” she said, looking for any subject except Toby. “Gentle, sensed my moods, smart. My best friend. Sure missed him when he was gone.” Danika blinked back a tear, despising her reaction. She stared at Fire-Eater rather than look into Barnett’s face.

“I bet he slept at the foot of your bed.”

Fire-Eater climbed into the backseat of the double-cab truck.

“Sometimes in it. We even shared meals. I didn’t like meat, and he’d eat it for me.”

“Who’s your best friend now?”

She swallowed the ever-increasing lump in her throat. “Toby’s gone, and I have a tough time in church.”

“Confession is a beginning. Any family?”

“Toby’s family has been good to me.” Never mind Jacob. “My folks never approved of my marriage.” She sucked in a breath. It hissed like the poisonous snakes she feared. “Well-meaning friends do this to me.”

“Do you feel any better?”

Sneak. “Yeah, thanks, doc. You—”

Fire-Eater barked. No doubt anxious to get moving. The animal and Jacob had similar personalities, but today she’d rather be with the dog.


Danika turned off Old Military Road and bounced along a nar- row dirt and gravel path, bordered by tall, thick grass and brush and laden with prickly pears on the Rio Grande side and more thick brush on the other. Jon had radioed ahead and reported signs from last night, but nothing new. Every agent was on alert. Trouble brewed along the entire two-thousand-mile bor- der between Mexico and the United States. Drug cartels were slaughtering innocent people in the streets, and those on the U.S. side feared it was only a matter of time before the fighting spilled over the line. Not on her watch.

She drove slowly past the few houses perched on the right side of the road, most of which had been stash houses at one time or another, havens for illegal aliens and drug smugglers. She stopped the truck beside a well-worn trail to look for recent signs in the dirt. After a generous spray of mosquito repellent on her uni- form and hands, she stepped into the stifling ninety-degree heat and bent to study the hours-old footprints indicating where the illegals had gained access into Texas before being apprehended. Most of them only wanted an opportunity to better themselves, but others had a darker agenda. At least she hoped the footprints had been accounted for.

A breeze from the north fanned her face and offered a brief reprieve from the unrelenting sun. The tall grass with its thick growth waved as though mocking her commitment to the Bor- der Patrol.

Fifteen minutes later, Barnett radioed a call for assistance.

“Spotted a man wearing a backpack near the 112 sensor. He headed into the carrizo.”

Danika ran back to the truck and raced her vehicle toward Barnett’s location. She wanted to tell him to wait for backup and not search through the thick grass alone, but she knew Barnett and Fire-Eater were a team and stayed on the traffic. The smuggler probably hid on a rattler’s nest.

She was the first to respond to Barnett’s request. Pulling in behind his truck, she unclipped her HK from her belt while radioing her arrival. She grabbed her cell phone and dialed his number.

“Barnett, I’m here,” she said. “Tell me you’re not in the middle of the carrizo.”

He chuckled. “Fire-Eater’s after him. I’m skirting it. Neither one of us is coming out until we have our man.”

She pocketed her cell phone and followed the agent’s foot- prints on the dusty road until they disappeared into the thicket. Hot as it was, the Kevlar vest felt good, even if it was worthless against a stab wound or a shotgun blast.

Fire-Eater barked, snapping Danika’s attention toward the riverbank. The dog growled from somewhere in the depths of the overgrowth.

Gunfire cracked in the still morning air. Alert to the danger, she pulled her weapon.

“This is the United States Border Patrol! Come out with your hands up!” Barnett’s voice roared.

Another shot fired. Fire-Eater yelped.

Blood pumping, Danika yanked out her radio. “Shots fired. Shots fired. Agent or K-9 may be down.”

Two more shots pierced the air.

When Barnett didn’t respond, she clicked the radio in place on her belt. “Barnett,” she yelled, “tell me you’re all right.”


A dark-haired man emerged from the right side of the road several yards away, wearing a backpack that no doubt contained drugs. His attention scattered in different directions.

Alto, o disparo,” she said.

The man turned and fired at her before racing across the road. The bullet angled to her left. Danika returned the fire and sank a bullet into his thigh. He fell, and she raced toward him.

“Drop the gun, or I’ll be forced to shoot again.”

He kept his fingers wrapped around it. She wrestled with the rage that always seemed to lie below the surface of her control. If she killed him, she could claim self-defense. But her job title meant self-control.

“I said drop the gun.” She fired above him and kept running in his direction.

He lifted his hand and aimed. Instinctively she pumped a bullet into his hand. His wound caused a burst of blood to splatter the ground and the quiet air to echo with obscenities. Still he refused to release the hold on his gun.

“Do you want your whole hand blown off?” She stood over him and clamped her booted foot over his injured hand.

He screamed, and she pointed her firearm at his face. Danika trembled. She wasn’t a murderer, but anger did struggle to rule her emotions.

“You’ll pay for this,” the man said. “I know who you are, and there’s a contract out for you.”

“You aren’t the first or the last to threaten me.” She picked up the man’s gun, an older model Beretta. With his leg and hand bleeding, he wasn’t going anywhere. She slipped the handcuffs from her belt and clamped them on his wrists. Rolling him over, she brushed his bleeding leg against the hard ground, and he moaned. Where was backup? Please, let Barnett be okay. Five kids. A respected agent.

“The drug cartels will destroy the Border Patrol.”

“Big talk for a man in handcuffs.”

“You wait and see who wins.” He spit on her boot. “You’ll never find out who killed your husband.”

She smothered the gasp that nearly stole her breath. How did the man know her? know about Toby’s death? He clearly had inside information—information that couldn’t have been obtained easily. Unless Toby’s murder was related to something bigger than she had imagined.

Focus. Now was not the time to weigh the shooter’s words. Later she’d look into it.

Her gaze searched the area. An outstretched arm poked through the overgrowth where the downed man had attempted to cross the road. She hurried, gun raised, eyes taking in every inch of the brush. As she grew closer, she saw the rest of Barnett’s body sprawled on the trodden grass. Blood soaked the ground, creating a small puddle of red against the vibrant green. Danika bent to his side.

Barnett moaned. “He shot Fire-Eater,” he whispered. “Get him.”

“I have him cuffed. Hold on. Help’s coming.” She pulled out the radio. “Need EMS. Agent down.”

She hadn’t been there for Toby, but she could be there for Barnett.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Wildflowers of Terezin - Chapter 1

Wildflowers of Terezin
Abingdon Press (April 2010)

Robert Elmer


I live in a crazy time. — ANNE FRANK

Hanne Abrahamsen awoke with a start in the middle of a bad dream, something about being in nursing school once again and a man who looked like Adolf Hitler (but with the face of a codfish) announcing at her graduation that she was a Jew, and didn’t everyone already know that? The graduation had stopped, and she remembered wanting desperately to escape but not being able to move.

Hanne had never thought much about dreams, or cared. Until now.

Somewhere outside her window she heard what had awakened her: a line of cars and trucks roaring through the narrow streets of København, on their way to the devil’s business. And even louder at this time of the morning, when the only ones awake were the skrallemænd, emptying garbage.

She shivered and pulled up the covers to her chin, but couldn’t put away the feeling that something was not right. It was not the first time she’d heard German vehicles at odd hours, so maybe it was just the dream. Still, she slipped out of bed to check the window that faced Tuborgvej. Of all the nurses’ apartments on the Bispebjerg Hospital campus, hers commanded the best, and sometimes the noisiest, view of the city. She shivered at the September predawn chill, reach- ing the window in time to peek through the heavy blackout shade and see a pair of brake lights flash as a vehicle careened around the corner.

“Well, they’re in a hurry, aren’t they?” she mumbled, push- ing at the upper pane of her window to keep out the draft.

A Dane? Not likely. No dansker would dare make so much noise at this time of the morning—especially not after all the troubles and tension they’d seen here in København over the past several months. After the strikes and all the troubles this past summer, no one wanted to make themselves a target.

No,she’d heard German vehicles—and then another truck screeching around the corner confirmed what she’d feared. This one carried armed soldiers in back, holding on for dear life. This could only mean that the Germans had stepped up their campaigns against the Danish Underground—and that they were flexing their muscle in an early morning raid somewhere in the city.

Hanne drew back as the little cuckoo on the wall of her kitchen sounded four . . . five . . . six times.

“Too early, my cuckoo friend,” she told the clock with a sigh. “Though I suppose I needed to get up for the morning shift, anyway.”

But she stood there, shivering in her nightgown and bare feet, unable to move and unable to forget her dream—or the nightmare outside her window.


“We’re late.”

Wolfschmidt frowned and checked his watch once more as he squeezed the backdoor handle. Was he the only one in this operation who cared about being punctual? It would take a Gestapo man’s attention to detail to make this work.

His young driver from the schutzpolizei, the German Security Police, mumbled a weak apology and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead as they squealed past the famous Round Tower, then careened around the corner and approached the Jewish synagogue on Krystalgade.

Ahead and to the right, he could make out the large, blond- bricked building, rather square and squat despite a row of stained-glass windows running the length of the second floor level and a stepped roof even higher to the rear. Wolfschmidt thought it rather base looking and nowhere near as grand as a proper German cathedral, though that did not surprise him. A place of worship, indeed!

“Do you see it?” Wolfschmidt sat on the edge of his seat and pointed to a clear spot on the curb, directly in front of a gate in the street-level fence. “Stop there.”

“Yes, Herr Sturmbannführer,” replied the driver, using Wolfschmidt’s proper Gestapo title. At least he could do that correctly. But now Wolfschmidt grabbed the young man’s shoulder to get his attention and to go over their instructions yet one more time. Despite the utter routine of their action this morning, Wolfschmidt couldn’t help feeling his heart pounding in his ears. He was made for this work.

“Listen carefully, Anwärter,” he told the young recruit. “You willaccompanymeintothebuilding.Iwillbetwostepsbehind you. If any doors are locked you will break them down. If any- one tries to stop you or question you, step aside and I will deal with it. Keep your weapon holstered but loaded and ready.”

“I understand.” The driver shut off the car’s ignition and waited.Thegoodnewswasthatiftheyneededto,Wolfschmidt was confident this large young man had the required beef to make his way through any door they needed, locked or oth- erwise. Much more so than Wolfschmidt himself, who was slight of build and might break his shoulder if he attempted such heroics.

“Good. We will locate this librarian and escort him back to the car, so he will assist us in our task.”

Again the driver nodded. How hard could this be? But by now they were almost five minutes off schedule, and Wolfschmidt could feel his anxiety rising as he pushed open his door and stepped out into the cool September air. No more delays. No more foolishness.

“All right, then,” hissed Wolfschmidt. “Let’s be about our business.”

He straightened his high-peaked gray hat where it perched on his precisely short-cropped blond hair, then checked to be sure his matching gray trousers still held a crease after his short ride. Why was it so hard to find anyone in København who knew how to properly clean and press his uniform? Soon that would change, however, once this war was won and a more full measure of the Reich’s efficiency found its way to this city.

Or they could simply flatten it and start over. In his opinion that might prove to be the more efficient solution. Frankly, he didn’t care either way.

“After you.” Wolfschmidt waved for the young man to lead the way through the gate.

Happily it swung open with hardly a complaint, though he had to say that didn’t surprise him, either. These Danes had no sense of how to secure their buildings. They would be content, he imagined, to remain fat and protected by Germany, enjoying their cheese and beer and sending the best of their own produce to help keep the German army well-fed. In this way they could at least be useful, even if too many of them did not appreciate the advantage such an arrangement posed to their wealth and security. What did the Danes know of that?

Three steps up from the outer gate, the building’s large oak outer door swung open just as easily. This was going to be too simple. Checking his own pistol, Wolfschmidt stepped in behind the driver as they entered a high-ceilinged foyer. It smelled of ancient, institutional dust in the way of most such buildings, which gave him even more reason to despise the place. He stepped on the driver’s heel to hurry him along.

Beyond the red-carpeted foyer a set of double doors with small glass windows opened into the synagogue’s main auditorium, an expansive room with lofty ceilings and a horseshoe-shaped balcony level all around the back.

This could make a fine movie theater, he thought, and made a mental note of it.

But right now he focused on the task at hand, which would lead the way for a more sensible use of the building. Up in front, a cluster of twenty or thirty men had gathered for their Friday morning prayer service, dressed in the peculiar head garb that left no doubt of their religion.

Wolfschmidt had not come to pray. Despite his revulsion at being found in such a place, he straightened his back and coolly strode to where a robed, bearded man stood before the group. This would be the rabbi. And by this time they had stopped their prayer, or whatever Jewish thing they were doing, and all stared wide-eyed at the remarkable impertinence of Wolfschmidt and his assistant.

“Pardon me, sir,” began the rabbi, visibly shaken as he should be, “but—”

“Josef Fischer will accompany us immediately.” Wolfschmidt interrupted the rabbi. He naturally had no time for nonsense or small talk, even if he had been so inclined. To emphasize his commands he made a point of moving a hand to his holster, making certain they all noticed. They would understand his meaning, if not his German.

He needn’t have worried. A pink-faced little man in the front row stepped out after an uncomfortable silence, gently pushing aside the hand of a friend who halfheartedly tried to hold him back.

“Ich bin Fischer,” said the man, who adjusted a pair of round spectacles and stepped up to face them. He ignored the whispered warnings of his nearby friends, which Wolfschmidt counted for blind stupidity. So this was the man they’d gone to all this trouble to apprehend?

He might have respected a little more defiance, just for sport, even though this man stood a full foot shorter than himself. But never mind. They would all face the same fate, sooner rather than later. This Josef Fischer could appear brave as much as he wanted to, for all the sturmbannführer cared.

He signaled with a nod so that his assistant grabbed Fischer by the back of the collar and guided him roughly back up the aisle toward the exit. The man’s tasseled prayer shawl fell at Wolfschmidt’s feet, but when the Jew bent to pick it up Wolfschmidt couldn’t resist holding it to the floor with the toe of his boot.

“Keep walking!” ordered Wolfschmidt.

“Wait!” objected the rabbi. “What has he done? You can’t just come in here like this, disrupt our prayer meeting, and abduct our people!”

Wolfschmidt would have gladly taken on this man, here and now, had it not been for his specific orders and the even more specific task at hand. But with a deliberate motion he picked up the shawl and quite deliberately tore it in two. The ripping sound pleased him, even more as he watched the expressions on the men’s faces turn from fright to horror.

Without another word of explanation he turned on his heel to follow his assistant and their charge out to the waiting car.


Fifteen minutes later Sturmbannführer Wolfschmidt stood with arms crossed in the middle of the Jewish Community Center offices on Ny Kongensgade, New King’s Street. Surely it didn’t need to take this long to find a simple file of addresses?

And this librarian—Fischer—worse than useless. They could have easily broken down the front door, and never mind the keys which the little man now held in his trembling hands as he watched five uniformed schutzpolizei taking apart his office, file by useless file.

“It’s not in this one, either,” reported one of the polizei, tossing another file drawer into the middle of the room. Still the librarian trembled.

“You’re wasting our time!” cried Wolfschmidt. “Or would you rather we simply torch this place and be done with it? We’re going to find it, whether we destroy your office or not.”

Fischer looked to be in pain as he closed his eyes and mouthed . . . what, a prayer? Little good it did him now, because a moment later one of the schutzpolizei let out a cry as he pried open a locked metal file cabinet with a crowbar.

“I think I found something!” said the young man. Fischer winced but said nothing as they poured out the contents of the drawer, and then another—hundreds upon hundreds of cards, each one neatly printed with a name and address. Wolfschmidt smiled and stepped over to pick one up.

“Davidsen, Noah.” He smiled as he fingered the card. “You don’t imagine this could be a Jewish name, by chance?”

By this time the schutzpolizei had dumped the contents of several drawers on the floor. Which was all very well, but now they would just have to gather them all up and cart them away.

“In a box,” he said with a wave. “All of them.”

All of them, yes. The name and address of every Jew in this little country—and that would constitute close to seven thousand names. Perhaps that didn’t amount to much, com- pared to populations in other countries they had liberated. But it was enough to make their job much easier when the time came.

And that, he knew, would be very soon.