First Chapter (All Of It!)
Sneak peek of Upcoming Fantasy Romance
We’re only two weeks away from the release of Touched by Maen Llia, which means it’s time for the first chapter.
If you’re reading the Once and Future Hearts series, this story comes after Downfall of Cornwall, and before Vengeance of Arthur. It’s number 8.1 in the series.
Excerpt from Touched by Maen Llia by Tracy Cooper-Posey
Copyright © 2021
All Rights Reserved.
King’s Palace, Maridunum, Kingdom of Dyfed, Britain, 506AD.
When Ianto grew tired of beating her, Catrin crept out to the old orchard where no one else went. She found a patch of shade beneath the apricot tree, and carefully rested her shoulder against the gnarled old trunk. She couldn’t put her back to it.
It was just after the midday meal and the sun was high overhead, blazing in a cloudless sky, beating down upon the dried earth between the trees. The weeds which had once softened the paths between the trees had gasped their last breath days ago, had withered and blown away. The vines on the old Roman walls surrounding the orchard were brittle, the leaves curled. When a breeze caught at them, they clattered, like a drummer’s sticks, but there was no breeze today.
The grapes which grew across the pergola were ailing. The apple tree in the corner drooped. Only the apricot tree thrived in the heat. Some said the apricot tree had been growing in this orchard since before Merlin’s time. They said Merlin had sat beneath the apricot tree and that the orchard had been a favourite place of his. Perhaps that was why it had never been torn down, even though few of the trees bore fruit, anymore.
Catrin wondered if the great wizard had come here to escape, as she did. She suspected not. Who would dare beat Merlin? He would have changed them into toads if they tried.
Thinking of wizards brought her thoughts back to Ianto, with his drooping moustache and cold black eyes. Catrin didn’t want to think about him at all. She hissed her annoyance as the bark on the trunk of the tree dug into a painful spot on her flesh. She shifted so only her outer shoulder touched the tree.
Then she rested her head against it and listened to a cricket swiftly tick in the corner of the little walled garden. Far overhead, a gull cawed. She could smell the heat rising from the soil around her, but it was not rich with earthy, green smells. Instead, it smelled dusty and tickled her nose.
Silence dropped over the orchard, as if the heat had blasted away the wind and rendered every human and creature incapable of movement.
Her senses told her she wasn’t alone anymore. Catrin turned to scan the gate.
The woman standing in front of the just-closing gate was nearly as tall as Catrin, with long silver hair flowing down her back. She favoured blue for her gowns, which tested the dying skills of the women of the court, but the Queen always got her way. The blue matched Eira’s eyes, which watched Catrin steadily. Her crooked fingers gripped the top of the staff she used to help her walk, ever since she had been thrown from her horse twelve years ago.
“My lady,” Catrin said, pushing herself up from the earth. Then she hissed again and paused as her back throbbed. Yet to make the Queen wait brought its own penalties, so she gritted her teeth together and rose to her feet.
“How bad is it?” Eira demanded. Her voice was rough with age.
“It is nothing,” Catrin lied. “Is there something you wish me to do?”
The Queen walked forward, the tip of the staff tapping hollowly on the baked earth. “Let me see this nothing and judge for myself.”
Catrin hesitated. She could not refuse. Eira was a queen. The Queen of Dyfed, at least until the next king was chosen from among the two cousins who claimed the throne was rightfully theirs. On the other hand, Catrin’s status was barely higher than a slave.
She was a bastard, the daughter of a servant. It was only because Queen Eira liked her that Catrin had any sort of position in the King’s house.
Only, revealing her back would be the same as declaring she was incapable of working. To work, to do every task and chore given to her, was why she was allowed to remain in the old Roman villa.
Yet the Queen had commanded. Catrin turned and slipped her arm out of the old tunic, then the other one, and let the tunic fall about her waist.
“Your hair,” Eira said, as she came closer.
Catrin gathered up the red wavy locks and pulled them over her shoulder, her heart thudding.
Eira studied her back for long moments. Then she sighed. “For a man made of naught but bones and skin, Ianto has a heavy hand. Sit on the bench over here. I’ve brought something which will help take the hurt out of the bruises.”
Catrin looked over her shoulder, startled. “You cannot mean to tend my back yourself? I can do it.”
Eira’s faded blue eyes met her gaze. “You can barely get up without help. Who else should do this?”
“Well, I suppose…” Catrin bit her lip. For minor aches and ailments, everyone in the palace consulted Ianto. “This is not proper,” she added, as Eira pushed her toward the bench, then gripped her shoulder with a hand that still had all its youthful strength and pushed her onto the hot stone.
“Oh, hush, child,” Eira muttered, sitting beside her. She propped the staff against the bench and pulled a small pot of unguent out of her pocket and removed the lid. “Turn so I can reach your back. Turn, I say.”
Catrin turned her back on the Queen. “The court would be horrified if they saw their Queen tending a servant.”
“Which is why I followed you to where no one else dares come, for they are all too afraid of the shade of Merlin.” Eira gave a “psh” sound, declaring that fear as nonsense. “You are too useful a companion and the lack of your company would be too great an inconvenience for me.”
The salve did soothe her hurts. It was cool against her heated flesh and spread relief across her back as Eira quickly spread it.
“I will not deprive myself of your conversation because I am too proud to minister to a girl who should know better than to dispute the King’s mage,” Eira added, her tone matter-of-fact.
“But it isn’t the solstice!” Catrin said. “Ianto has the day wrong, I can prove it! Mid-summer is tomorrow.”
“You can prove it, you say?”
“Yes! The sundial and my gnomon stick tell me the solstice is tomorrow. I swear to you, my lady, Ianto has it wrong.”
“Good,” Eira said firmly.
“You said nothing about the sundial and those sticks of yours when Ianto was beating you. I thought that perhaps you’d read it in the stars or some such foolish thing.”
“Magic? I have no magic,” Catrin said swiftly, for Eira had often told her that. “I have mundane knowledge, which you gave me.”
“I gave you books which I cannot read myself,” Eira replied. “I thought you were clever. Leastwise, you’ve always appeared so to me, with your reading and knowledge. Yet to tell Ianto he was wrong in front of everyone… Poor Ban the goose boy would have known to hold his tongue.”
Catrin looked over her shoulder—or tried to. The twisting movement hurt. She hissed again and straightened. “If I had stayed silent, then the mid-summer feast would take place tonight. The gods would not like that. How can I let Ianto expose the kingdom to more bad luck, simply because he has read the stars wrong?”
“You’re a bastard and a girl,” Eira said, in a calm way which took the sting out of that fact. “Ianto is a mage and a wise man. Who do you think the court will listen to?”
Catrin slumped. “Ianto.”
“Aye, and they did. The women will bathe in the Afon Llia at sunset, when the Maen Llia comes to drink at the river and bless them. The mid-summer feast will be held tonight, after the sun has gone. Nothing will change, except that now you have a back that looks like those dried vines over there.”
“It will heal,” Catrin said firmly.
“Aye, the flesh will grow back,” Eira said. “I will pray that your good sense does, too. Put your tunic back on.”
Catrin pushed her arms into the openings in the tunic and carefully pulled it up over her back. Unlike the ladies of the court, her tunic stopped at her ankles, instead of dragging upon the floor and trailing behind them as they walked. Her sandals did not tangle in excess folds and trip her up. She got up from the bench and turned to Eira. “Thank you, my lady.”
Eira grimaced as she put the lid on the pot and the pot back in her pocket. “For the salve or the lesson?”
“Both.” Catrin smiled.
So did Eira. Then the Queen rolled her eyes. “And now, I bid you help me up from this blasted bench. It is far too low for me to spring up the way you do.”
Catrin laughed and helped the old woman rise to her feet and put the staff in her grasping hand. Thanks to the salve, Catrin’s back only twinged a little with the movement. She waited until the Queen was steady on her feet once more.
Eira patted her cheek. “Do as you have always done at mid-summer, child. Do not give Ianto more reason to watch you. Do not give him any reason to think you may have powers which threaten him.”
“But I do not!”
“Yet you let him think you knew about mid-summer because of magic, just now. You did not speak of measuring shadows, as you do.”
“He gave me no chance to explain.”
“Nor will he ever. Ianto is a mage. Magic is all he knows. It gave him his position in my husband’s court. He will not deal with sensible, practical facts. Once I have gone, what protection you have against that drunken, womanizing fool will go, too. Learn to hide from his attention.”
Catrin nodded, for they were wise words. “I will.”
Caught between magic and truth…
Catrin is a handmaiden to the old Queen of Dyfed, whose husband and king, Geraint, has died without an heir, leaving the kingdom ripe for plucking. Yet Dyfed is the birthplace of King Arthur’s enchanter and adviser, Prince Merlin, who travels to the troubled kingdom to settle the question of who should be king.
Marcus Jorath is a newcomer to Camelot and wants only to serve King Arthur, whose peace has brought such a difference to the life and prospects of his family. Yet he is assigned to travel with Merlin to the out-of-the-way kingdom of Dyfed instead.
When the Dyfed mage, Ianto, declares it is mid-summer’s day, the maids of the kingdom visit the Maen Llia to make a wish. Catrin disputes it is the solstice, for she can read and is learned in the ways of tracking seasons and more, but no one listens to her, and she is forced to visit Maen Llia with the other women.
Merlin’s company of armed men come across the women, and Marcus finds himself drawn to the fiery redheaded Catrin and her blunt, direct way of speaking and thinking about the world. Their attraction puts them in the path of Ianto, who is more than the kingdoms’ inadequate mage, and has plans of his own he will not let a mere slip of a girl interfere with…
This story is part of the historical fantasy romance series, Once and Future Hearts, set in Britain during the time of King Arthur.
1.0 Born of No Man
2.0 Dragon Kin
3.0 Pendragon Rises
3.5 Once and Future Hearts Box One
4.0 War Duke of Britain
5.0 High King of Britain
6.0 Battle of Mount Badon
6.5 Once and Future Hearts Box Two
7.0 Abduction of Guenivere
8.0 Downfall of Cornwall
8.1 Touch by Maen Llia
9.0 Vengeance of Arthur
10.0 Grace of Lancelot
11.0 The Grail and Glory
A Historical Fantasy Romance/Ancient Historical Romance series