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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Happy Yule ... and an excerpt from THE WHISPERING WIND

Christmas is one of my favorite times of year and Yule (or Mid-Winter Fire in my Pict stories) often features in my novels. 

Many of the traditions we have in the West hark back to these times. In my novel THE WHISPERING WIND I have my hero and heroine finally succumbing to their attraction for each other on the eve of Mother Night (24 December). It's one of my favorite scenes from my books ... and guaranteed to get you into the Christmas spirit!

If you haven't read THE WHISPERING WIND (or would like to re-read the scene), here it is below for you to enjoy!



 

Mother Night arrived with another heavy snowfall. Aelfwyn and Leofric trudged through three feet of snow on their way into town. Fat flakes fluttered down, frosting the surrounding trees and the roofs and walls of Lincylene before them. Smoke from cook fires rose into a washed-out sky. The aroma of roasting meat—boar, mutton, and fowl—reached them.

“I tire of this snow,” Aelfwyn grumbled as she struggled through a deep drift. Her legs were far shorter than Leofric’s, and she was having difficulty keeping up with him. “I want to see the earth again, and the grass.”
Leofric turned and smiled at her indignance. Then he reached back for her hand. “Come on—not much farther.”

Aelfwyn clutched his hand tightly, enjoying the warmth of his skin against hers, and attempted to quicken her stride. The heavy snow had rendered them housebound over the past few days. However, Cynn and Gytha had invited them to their home for the Yuletide feast, an occasion neither she nor Leofric wanted to miss.

They reached the town walls and passed into Lincylene under the Roman gate. The streets were deserted this morning, for all folk huddled around their firepits while they sipped mulled wine and waited for their noon feast to finish cooking. The aromas that Aelfwyn had smelled outside the town walls grew thicker within. She inhaled the scent of baking honey shortbread and apple and plum pudding, and her belly rumbled.

Boughs of holly and fir hung over the threshold of Cynn and Gytha’s hall. The mouthwatering aroma of roasting fowl greeted them as they ducked inside. Cynn and his family gathered around a long table. The girls sat, their round faces pink with excitement, helping their mother prepare the feast. The two eldest, Ealhgyth and Hilla, rolled out pastry and prepared the filling for an apple pie, while the younger girls chopped vegetables under Gytha’s watchful eye.

“Merry Yuletide!” Gytha bustled over to them with two steaming cups of mulled wine. “Come warm yourselves by the fire.”

A huge oaken yule log burned in the center of the fire pit, throwing out a considerable amount of heat. Aelfwyn shucked off her fur mantle and handed it to Gytha, who hung it up with Leofric’s near the door.

Sighing in relief to be out of the biting cold, Aelfwyn wrapped her chilled fingers around the warm cup.

For the first time since Leofric’s flogging, Aelfwyn felt welcome in Lincylene once more.

Of course Cynn and Gytha had been good to them, as had a few other townsfolk Aelfwyn and Leofric had befriended since their arrival here. However, she tired of the sniggers and stares whenever she and Leofric ventured into town to shop at the market. Leofric assured her it would stop soon enough, but their gawping galled her nonetheless.

“Your decorations are beautiful, Gytha,” she said, gazing around the cozy interior of the hall. Gytha and her daughters had decked the walls and heavy beams overhead with boughs of mistletoe, ivy, and witch hazel.

“Thank you,” Gytha replied with a proud smile. “The girls spent all of yesterday decorating.”

Cynn sat at the head of the table, his cheeks ruddy from warmth and wine. He beamed at them, and Aelfwyn smiled back. She shared Leofric’s opinion of Cynn, and had liked the meadhall keeper from the moment she met him. Cynn was a big-hearted man who had welcomed them into his home like kin.

“Sit down!” he called out to them. “The girls are baking shortbread. It should be ready soon.”

They sat down at the long table, upon a low bench. Seated side-by-side, Aelfwyn was aware of Leofric’s closeness. His arm lightly brushed hers as he reached out to steal a sliver of apple from Hilla’s pie filling. The heat of his leg next to hers made her breathing quicken slightly; a frisson of excitement igniting in the pit of her belly.

It was becoming unbearable—day after day cooped up inside the tiny hut, just the two of them. Leofric appeared unflustered by it, but the enforced closeness was starting to become slow torture for Aelfwyn. The hunger that knotted in her belly now had nothing to with the coming Yule feast.

She did her best to ignore the yearning but when Leofric sat this close to her, it was impossible to ignore.

“Here.” She smiled at Hilla and picked up an apple from the bowl in the center of the table. “Pass me a knife and I’ll help you get that pie ready for the oven.”

The girl beamed and nodded. “Thanks, Aeaba. I could do with some help.”

“She’d have the pie done by now, if she wasn’t so busy gossiping with Ealhgyth,” Cynn complained.
“Oh stop your grumbling,” his wife replied before giving Hilla a fond smile. “Let the girls be—it’s Yuletide.”


***

Gytha’s Yuletide feast was one that Aelfwyn would never forget.

She was a splendid cook, better even than Aelfwyn’s mother, who was the yardstick by which Aelfwyn judged good cooking. The table groaned under the weight of the magnificent roast fowl and a platter of roasted and braised vegetables, cheeses, pies, and sweet treats. They ate and drank slowly, enjoying the celebration of being able to eat such rich, delicious food. Now that they had little gold to see them through the winter, Aelfwyn and Leofric ate plainly. One cauldron of pottage would need to last three days, and there was very little meat in their meals.

After the feast, they joined the family on comfortable furs piled around the fire pit. Aelfwyn sat curled up against Leofric. Their friends believed them to be a wedded couple and perhaps wondered why they did not show much affection between them. The warmth and hardness of Leofric’s chest against Aelfwyn’s back was distracting to say the least, but her belly was full of good food, and the wine had made her drowsy. She dozed against Leofric’s chest, and was aware of him gently stroking her hair as he chatted to Cynn and Gytha.

She could have sat like that all night but, eventually, the time came for them to take their leave.

Aelfwyn climbed to her feet and stretched sleepily. Yawning, she turned to Gytha and hugged her. “Thank you so much. I have never felt so welcome in someone’s home.”

Gytha hugged her back. “And you always will be.”

Aelfwyn crossed to where Leofric was holding out her cloak. With a smile, she turned, letting him place it over her shoulders.

“Look!” Ealhgyth squealed. “They’re standing under the misteltān!”

Aelfwyn started slightly at the girl’s outburst before craning her neck up. Indeed there was a sprig of mistletoe hanging overhead.

“Now they’ll have to kiss!” Cynn’s eldest daughter clapped her hands together with glee before she and her sisters burst out into tittering laughter.

Smirking, Cynn gently cuffed Ealhgyth around the ear. “They’ve been waiting all afternoon for you two to stand under it.”

Aelfwyn felt her cheeks warm. She glanced over at Leofric who merely raised an eyebrow, his eyes twinkling mischievously. “Come on then,” he said softly. “We don’t want to disappoint them.”

He stepped close to her, before reaching down and cupping her face gently. Then he stooped, his lips brushing hers. He drew back slowly, meeting Aelfwyn’s gaze as he did so.

“Give her a decent kiss, man,” Cynn goaded him. “Or do you want Gytha and me to show you how it’s done.”

Leofric cast him a sour look, causing Cynn to bellow with laughter. “I don’t need any lessons from you on how to kiss my wife.”

With that, he drew Aelfwyn into his arms and kissed her deeply.

Aelfwyn melted into him, her arms coming up to encircle his neck. For a moment she forgot where she was. His kiss set her on fire. When they broke apart, both gasping for breath, the hall had fallen silent. The girls were all blushing, although Cynn and Gytha both wore smug grins.

“That’s better, Lenred,” Gytha congratulated him with a wink. “That’s how a woman likes to be kissed.”



That's all from me until 2018! I'm hard at work on BARBARIAN SLAVE (Book #2: The Warrior Brothers of Skye), and have just finished the first draft! I should have a release date available soon. :-)

Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year!

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