Excerpt - Into Thin Air
A Midwinter’s Night
Somewhere in time, high in a blanket of darkness, three stars furiously blinked…
”I’m not at all in favor of this decision, Fergus. I daresay it’s rather selfish. Why have They assigned him another charge now? After all, the boy has proven his worth far more than once.”
“Pah!” Fergus’ starlight sputtered. “You whine overmuch for a Moorish warrior. Dunna be ninny, Aizeene. ‘Twill give the lad character!”
“Not tae mention secure our promotion,” said Elgan.
“But the boy’s worked hard these past centuries to shed his wings. There’s nothing more he desires and deserves more than mortality,” Aizeene fretted. “His retirement is less than a pair of fortnights away!”
“Blast you, Aizeene, this is unavoidable! We’ve no choice in the matter.”
“What mean you?” asked Aizeene.
Elgan sighed. “I’m afraid there’s a small problem.” He coughed. “His charge? ‘Tis a girl. She’s the One.”
Aizeene gasped. “Nay. Mean you, the very One?”
Fergus snorted. “Aye! She’s the boy’s soul mate! His bloody Intended! Nigh onto dead, the lass is, and because of her, he may lose that blasted mortality he so heartily desires.” He harrumphed. “Lasses. A fickle-minded lot of trouble, if you ask me.”
“The lad has a will stronger than any I’ve ever known,” Elgan interrupted. “He’s managed for nearly a thousand bloody years, don’t forget, and not once has he lost a charge. Besides, I grow weary of twinkling up here with you witless fools. We need that bloody promotion!”
Aizeene puffed out a blast of star shine. “What of Nicklesby? He used to be one of us. Can he not give any aid at all?”
Elgan blew out a gust, a spray of starlight scattering about. “Nay, other than what knowledge he has on the matter of the girl’s condition. Besides, he has no inkling of this new development. ‘Tis forbidden to inform him likewise and you know it. Now. Like it or no’, Gawan of Conwyk is indeed faced with this new challenge, and if he succeeds, ‘twill guarantee his mortality as well as our positions. All of our positions.”
Aizeene relented. “What of the boy’s heart, though? What of hers? By the saints, there’s much at risk.” He sighed. “What if he doesn’t succeed?”
Elgan drifted closer. “Well then, my old Moorish friend, it appears his fate lies in the hands of an addle-brained modern lass.”
Ferguson cleared his throat. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
“You know there isn’t, old crow. Fate has a much stronger will than any of us, and ‘tis against all rules to interfere,” Elgan said. “All we can do is hope. Pray. And watch. Now begone, the both of you, and help me maintain sentry over these two. But brace yourselves, lads, for what you’re about to witness is not for the faint of heart…”
Northeastern England A Midwinter's Night Present Day
Frigid water lapped at her cheeks, sloshed over her insulated jacket and jeans, seeped into her skin. A howling wind whipped overhead, sucking the air from her lungs. She couldn't move, couldn't open her eyes, and the pounding against her temples throbbed like her head was being bludgeoned with a sledgehammer...
Then a gruff voice grumbled above her, disjointed. “Oy, girl, why'd ye have to...appeared out o' nowhere...me wife will kill me...can't let them find ye...”
Ye? Who says ye anymore? She tried to open her mouth, tried to scream, but no words came out, though she still made an attempt. Hey, pal, can you give me a hand up? I'm freezing my butt off...
In the next second rough hands tried to lift her from the icy water, but dropped her with a splat. Ouch! Can you go a little easy, guy? She tried to move, but her body was dead weight.
More disjointed words faded in and out. “...too bloody heavy...gotta hide ye...sorry, missy.”
Those same rough hands grabbed her by the wrists and pulled. Her body moved over rock and sand as Whoever dragged her...Somewhere.
Oh, God, she was being abducted, maybe even murdered...
Her teeth clacked together as her head grazed a rock, and a dizzy queasiness stole over her. The already-cold air touched her soaked body, and she floated, the muffled voice seeming more distanced, yet...not. Every inch of her hurt like hell, as if all her bones were broken. Pain seized her, making pricks of light flash in rapid fire behind her eyelids. What was happening to her?
Then an arctic blackness engulfed her, and the muffled voice faded further and further away.
Northeastern England A Midwinter's Night Present Day
God's teeth, the bloody fool wasn't going to give way.
Gawan peered into the drizzly night at the headlights bobbing toward him, and from the looks of it, whoever it was didn't plan on stopping. Probably a lost tourist, he'd wager. And on a one-track lane, no less.
His one-track lane.
The lights bobbed at an alarming pace, erratic and faster as they grew closer. With a grumble and a curse, and no where to go except backward, Gawan slowed, stopped, and put the Rover in Reverse. Half-turning in his seat, he steered toward the small by-way he'd passed, backed in, and waited for the vehicle to go by.
Seconds later, a beat-up farm truck blew by. Not a tourist. “Witless fool,” Gawan grumbled. The truck didn't belong to anyone he knew–not that he knew many–but he'd be sure to keep an eye out for it. The reckless idiot could kill someone.
And the last thing he needed was another lost soul on his hands.
Throwing the Rover in Drive, Gawan pulled back onto the lane and continued home.
The rain picked up, and he flicked the wipers on high. Probably not the best of nights to crave a fried Milky Way, but Nicklesby hadn't learned to make the bloody things yet, and Mrs. Cornwell had indeed called him to come 'round and collect a fresh batch. By the saints, he'd nearly burned the larder down when he last tried to make them himself–-“Bleeding priests!”
Gawan slammed his foot to the brake and skidded to a stop. Throwing open the door, he jumped out into the now-pouring rain.
A woman, soaked to the bone, stumbled over the guardrail and landed flat on her bottom. Wet hair plastered her head and hung forward in thick strands to cover her face. She didn't move.
Reaching her, Gawan went down on one knee and placed a steadying hand to her elbow. “Ti'n iawn?” he asked. Not in Welsh, fool. “Are you okay?”
Mayhap she was drunk? Funny, she didn't smell of it. He looked around. No car, not even a bicycle. He peered over the guardrail. Nothing below. She was drenched, alone, and in the dead of a cold North England's December eve.
“Girl, are you okay?” Gawan hooked a finger through her wet tresses and slid them to the side. He bent his head to get a better look. “Are you hurt?”
The girl lifted her face, her eyes rounded and glazed. Rain dripped off the end of her nose, and her lips quivered. But she said nothing. After a quick scan of her person, he noted no blood to be found.
Standing, Gawan yanked off his weatherproof and draped it over her narrow shoulders. He pushed his own wet hair from his eyes. “You're bound to freeze to death, miss, if not drown in this downpour. Come. I'll take you–-”
As though poked with the tip of a sword, the girl leapt from her spot on the lane. “No! Um, I mean,” she stammered, and in an intriguing American accent, “I'm fine. Really.” She wiped the rain from her eyes and looked around, then walked to the guardrail and peered over the edge. “I, uh...is that the sea down there?”
She looked completely lost. More than that, she seemed... bewildered.
“Girl, come with me out of the rain. There's no where to go for miles around. I live,” he nodded his head toward the lights at the top of the cliff, “just there. Please.” He took a step toward her. “Nicklesby can see you to a room for the night.”
She stared at him, and crazy at it was, standing on the one-track lane on a chilled Midwinter's night in the freezing rain, he noticed with an intensity how beautiful she looked soaking wet.
“Who's Nicklesby?” she asked, the wariness in her eyes reflecting off the Rover's head beams.
“He's my man,” Gawan said.
One of her eyebrows lifted. “Your man?”
Gawan nodded. “Harmless, I assure you. Besides, you can't just wander about in the cold rain. You'll catch your death. Come.” He inclined his head to the Rover.
With a final glance around, she pulled the edges of Gawan's weatherproof closer and walked to the driver's side and got in.
Gawan tapped on the window. “I vow 'twould be best if I drove, miss.” Learning to drive had proved to be a difficult enough task. He couldn't imagine having to drive on the right side, as the Americans did. Insane.
The door opened and she stepped out. “Sorry,” she mumbled, then walked around and slid into the passenger's seat.
“Quite alright,” he said, trying to put her at ease. When they were both inside, he put the Rover in Drive and started back up the lane. “Do you have a name, girl?” he asked. “Or mayhap someone you'd like us to ring?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her looking at him. “What's happened to you?”
Then, fidgeting, she placed her hand on the door handle. “Maybe you could just drive me into town?”
Gawan knew she was scared, didn't want to give her name, and wished like hell he could put her at ease. And by the devil's pointed tail, he couldn't leave her. “Nay, miss. I fear everything's closed for the night.” He turned his head to look straight at her. “You'll be safe within Grimm's walls. I give you my word.”
She frowned, as if pondering, then nodded without saying anything at all and stared out the window into the ink-black darkness. Her hand, though, remained clenched around the door handle, ready to bolt, her chin trembling from the cold. At least, he thought it was from the cold.
“T'will be fine, girl,” he said, and turned the heater up. Damnation, he grew weary of calling her girl, or miss. If only she'd tell him her name...
Minutes later, the Rover climbed the winding, rocky path to the barbican gates. They opened as he approached, and Gawan steered through and around the drive, stopping at the front entrance. He jammed the gear into Park and turned off the engine.
“You live here?”
“Aye.” Oy, he did at that. Gawan peered through the darkness at imposing Castle Grimm-–what he now called home after two-hundred years–- “Who are you?”
He blinked. Damn, he must look like a fool. “Forgive me, girl. Gawan of, er Conwyk. Gawan Conwyk.” He gave a short nod. “Let's quit this drafty Rover, shall we? No doubt Nicklesby has a fire roaring in the great hall.” He jumped out, grabbing his bag of fried Milky Ways from the dash, slammed the door and ran around to help her out.
She sat, hesitating. Not that he blamed her.
Finally, she accepted his outstretched hand and stepped out of the Rover. At that same time, the oak double-doors of Castle Grimm swung opened.
“Young Conwyk, what are you doing in the rain? Do you require aid?” his wiry steward called.
“Nay, Nicklesby,” Gawan answered. He tugged on the girl's elbow. “Come.”
For a moment, Gawan thought she'd run. Her wide eyes darted from Nicklesby, to the barbican gates, and back to him.
“Thanks,” she finally said, and started to move.
As they climbed the steps, Nicklesby clucked his tongue. “Oh, dear. Soaked to the bone.” He lifted his gaze to Gawan. “I thought you went out for those fried concoctions you fancy.”
Gawan stepped into the great hall, and all but pushed his confused visitor inside ahead of him. “I did,” he held up his rather pitiful looking sack of treats, “and I stumbled across our guest on my way home.”
Nicklesby eyed Gawan for a moment, no doubt curious, then the girl. “Her room shall be ready, post haste.” With that he hurried up the stairs.
Gawan bet Nicklesby was nigh onto bursting at the seams with curiosity. Nosey devil, that one.
He ushered the girl to the hearth, where indeed, Nicklesby had an enormous fire roaring.
She took a step closer to the flames, stared into the fire, and rubbed her arms.
“Have you a name?” he asked. “You never did say–-”
She hesitated. “Where am I?” She turned to face him. And waited. Expectantly.
Gawan scratched his chin. Did she really have no clue? “As I said before, Castle Grimm.”
She squinted, staring hard. “No. Where am I? What country?”
Bleeding priests, she didn't even know what country she was in? “'Tis the North of England. Now, your name–-”
She scratched her brow. “England? You're kidding me?” She looked at him. “You spoke to me earlier, out there,” she inclined her head to the double doors, “in another language.”
Gawan gave a short nod and ran his fingers through his wet hair. “'Twas Welsh.”
She paced, looking at her feet, and began to mumble to herself. “...in the North of England–how'd I get here?--in a castle, with a Welshman. Cute, too. Everyone talks funny, saying nay, ye, mayhap, and aye. Twas.” She shook her head. “Didn't think they still said that stuff. I just don't get it...”
“Mayhap I should ring the infirmary? I could send for a helicopter–-”
“No! I'm,” she stopped and patted her head, then stomach, “fine, really. I just...this is all just so weird.”
Taking off his insulated jacket, Gawan tossed it over the back of his favorite chair and placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. She looked up.
And his bloody knees nearly buckled.
Though drenched like a stable rat, Grimm's latest guest had shoulder-length cinnamon-colored hair which hung in thick wet hanks to frame a creamy, oval face. Like-colored brows arched over green-–no, blue-green eyes that stared at him, wide and uncertain.
“Do you know who you are?” he asked, as gently as he could.
Still wearing Gawan's weatherproof, she pulled the edges together and frowned. “Don't be silly. Of course I know who I am. I...I'm,” she glanced around the great hall, then her eyes widened, “Eleanor. That's right. My name is Eleanor.”
Gawan cocked his head. “Just...Eleanor?”
Again, she moved her gaze around the room, then back to him. “Aquitaine. Eleanor Aquitaine.”
Gawan gave a polite smile. “Very well, Miss Aquitaine.”
“The chamber is ready, young Conwyk,” Nicklesby called from the top of the stairs. “Come, miss. You must get out of those soaked garments, post haste. I have a robe at the ready.”
Following Ellie up the stairs, he and Nicklesby escorted her to the prepared room. At the door, she turned.
“Thanks for letting me stay here. I...don't know how to repay you.”
Gawan shook his head and reached into his pocket and withdrew his mobile. “No need, Ellie.” He felt Nicklesby's pointy elbow sink into his ribs. “Make use of anything you find in the chamber and latrine. And here,” he said, placing his small silver mobile in her hand. “Keep this with you. Local numbers are listed, including the constable.” He smiled. “Just to make you feel safe.”
Her gaze shifted from his, to Nicklesby, and back. “Thank you.” She pushed a bit of her hair from her eyes. “For everything.”
Gawan gave a short nod. “Pleasure is quite mine.”
Nicklesby cleared his throat. “I'll prepare an evening snack–something other than those horrid fried bars young Conwyk brought home. No doubt you're hungry?”
Ellie stepped into the room. “Starved.”
“Splendid. I'll see to it.”
With that, Ellie closed the door.
Gawan looked at Nicklesby and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Eleanor Aquitaine.”
Nicklesby lifted one silvery gray eyebrow. “Come again?”
Jerking his head toward Ellie's door, he leaned closer to his steward. “She told me her name was Eleanor Aquitaine.”
Both silvery gray eyebrows shot up. “Do say? What a coincidence–-”
“'Tis not a bloody coincidence. She saw the tapestry hanging in the great hall. She's no more named Eleanor Aquitaine than I.”
With a nod, Nicklesby agreed. “So right.” He quirked a brow. “Then who is she?”
Gawan grabbed his man's elbow and led him further down the corridor. “I vow I don't know. At first, I thought she'd been hit by this witless fool in a farm truck who nearly ran me off the track. Out of nowhere, she all but stumbled over the guardrail and into the lane ahead of the Rover. No car, no one else around. Just her. Didn't even know she was in England.”
“Passing odd, indeed,” Nicklesby said, nodding.
“Aye.” Gawan looked over his shoulder at the still-closed door of Ellie's chamber. “After she eats, mayhap she'll remember–-”
A small crash sounded from behind. Gawan looked at Nicklesby, then both hurried up the passageway to Ellie's room.
All was quiet within.
Gawan rapped on the solid oak. “Ellie?” He and his man shared a glance, then Gawan knocked again. “Miss...Aquitaine?”
“Try the door, master,” Nicklesby urged.
“What if she's...undressed?” He thought a moment. “Mayhap you're right–-”
“Oh, for God's sake, move over,” a grumbly voice said. The shimmering image of Sir Godfrey of Battersby appeared between Gawan and Nicklesby, then without effort poked his ghostly head through the six-inch, solid oak door.
He pulled his head back out. “She's gone.”
“Impossible,” Nicklesby said.
Gawan tried the door, found it unlocked, and pushed it open.
He, Nicklesby, and Sir Godfrey all entered the chamber.
It was, as Sir Godfrey claimed, empty.
In the middle of the floor lay Gawan's mobile. Beside it, his weatherproof. He bent to retrieve both. “By the bloody priests...”
Nicklesby, who'd quickly run about the room, checking every nook and cranny, sighed. “Indeed, she's nowhere, sir.”
Crossing the chamber, Gawan threw back the drapes and shoved open the window. The North Sea crashed against its rocky base. Thankfully, the spot of ground below the window remained vacant.
Eleanor Aquitaine had disappeared, indeed.
He turned and faced his companions. “She couldn't have left the room. We blocked the passageway. And by the saints, she didn't jump.”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” clucked Sir Godfrey. “Still learning the ways of the unliving, eh Grimm?” He shook his head. “Shame, really. A most comely wench, in my own opinion--”
Gawan took a step closer to Sir Godfrey, nearly nose to nose. “What mean you?”
Sir Godfrey, previously of Battersby, lately–-as in the last one hundred and fifty years–-of Grimm, folded his arms over a silk and ruffled tunic. “Why, she's dead, of course.”