Hi! I’m Lou Hoffmann, happy to be here (one day late) with my November post, and I’m glad you’re here, too!
I don’t get to travel much. I’ve always wanted to, but just when I thought I was getting to the point in my life where I was ready to start committing resources and time to the cause, stuff happened. Kind of a bummer, but it would be so much worse if I couldn’t travel by book!
As an author, I get a double dose of book adventure, because I research and then I write. Both activities involve “going there, doing that.” Most of my research I can do via the web, these days, and oh, the places I’ve been with Google Street View! There’s a drawback there, though. Street View can’t help me travel through time. So, for instance, when I wanted to write a story (in-progress, The Harp and the Sea which my fellow pseudonym is co-writing with Anne Barwell) involving 17th century Scotland, I read websites, reproductions of historical documents (some of which were quite shocking), and scholarly books as well as lighter things. As this bit was set in the Borders, I learned bout families of reivers, March Wardens, King James, and the witch of Hermitage Castle. Then I applied my best mode of travel transportation—imagination—and went there.
On a rain-soaked day in autumn, 1605, the rough men who served Ker of Cessford and James Stuart, the King, shoved Robbie Elliot into a damp prison cell beneath Hermitage—a stark and haunted castle located almost dead center in the Middle March, a place he’d once called home. When he heard the heavy oaken door thunk shut behind him, rattling the rusty iron chains and window bars, he fell to his knees in the filthy straw that lay scattered over the stone floor. He and a half-dozen others had been force-marched sixteen miles from Hawick, bound, handled rough, and prodded with sticks. Now, Robbie tried in vain to find a few square inches of his body that didn’t cry out in pain.
“There’s water, Robbie.” The weak, high-pitched male voice came from the darkest corner of the cell, and it gave Robbie a start for he’d thought himself alone. “In the barrel there,” the man continued. “It’s clean enough.”
Robbie’s legs obeyed him after only a brief argument, and he stood and walked to the barrel. Dust and chaff floated on the top, but when he dipped the single iron ladle and brought the water to his lips, it had no foul smell. “I’ve had far worse,” Robbie said, and drank.
When he’d slaked his thirst enough, he turned to his cellmate, a man he knew. “How’d you come to be here, Keithen?”
“Same as you, I’d wager. I’d heard the Warden’s men were on the march, and I meant to hide at my old da’s holding, east of Kelso. But I was caught no more than ten miles from Hermitage castle and strung along with five others—including your stepbrother Jem. We’d thought we’d go no further than the gallows on the hill, but they brought us here.”
“Jem? He’s here?”
“Alas, Robbie, he was a lucky one, for he fell on the trail, and the Warden’s man kicked his head a mite hard. Snapped his neck.”
Robbie piled up some straw and sat, slumping back against the wall, his own head pounding as if he’d been the one kicked. Keithen, who tended to prattle on most of the time, stayed blessedly silent until Robbie spoke up a few minutes later. “Yes, probably lucky to die then, quick like that. Do you ken why they brought us here? What they’re planning for us?”
A sudden rattle of heavy keys beyond the door interrupted the prisoners’ conversation, and a single, crusted pot was pushed inside, it’s contents warm enough to steam in the perpetual cold of the keep below ground.
Keithen said merely, “Porridge, or what passes for it,” and then got up and lumbered stiffly to fetch the pot.
Robbie realized all at once that his insides had gone so hollow he’d be happy to fill them with a brick, and he wasted no time. Given no utensils, the two men scooped the thick, sticky oatmeal with their hands, minding neither the slight burn or extra flavor of the dirt and blood on their own skin. By the time they finished, Robbie had forgotten his last question entirely until Keithen answered it.
“I heard a couple English talking yesterday, their voices come down clearly through the shaft, just there.” He stopped to point at a corner of the ceiling, a black, empty rectangle amid the gray stone. “They said we’ll be marched to Carlisle, and wicked James himself, the King, travels there too. They’ll hang us all at once, for his entertainment.”
But even those resources can’t help one travel to fantasy worlds. Although, I admit, one can now visit Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in a number of places, when J. K. Rowling was writing it, she had only herself to guide her to the particulars. But that doesn’t quite say it all. I’m not privy to her process, but surely she learned all she could about medieval castles in order to create her fantasy. Similarly, when I knew that in Wraith Queen’s Veil poor Han Shieth was going to be stranded on an ice floe in a freezing sea, I had to expand my knowledge base about the landscape, how the sea and the ice floes act in that type of location, and what happens to humans exposed to frigid temperatures for any length of time. It was, in some ways, an awful place to visit, but I traveled there anyway, so readers could join the adventure too.
Han opened his eyes. The single gift freezing to death offered was the warm, drowsy feeling that came over the victim as body temperature dropped. Han had recognized that gift when it came and let himself fall asleep, feeling little pain at the time and knowing that in minutes he’d feel none at all. But now… something had changed. Someone sat beside him on the ice, someone wearing a hunter’s kilt and a cloak of soft leather.
Not enough, Han nonsensically thought. That’s not enough to keep him warm. But the man stripped the cloak from his shoulders and threw it over Han. Shivering under its faint warmth, Han fought to make his eyes work and registered the deep chestnut shade of the man’s unruly curls, the deep brown of his eyes.
“Lohen,” he said, “is that you? It can’t be you. You’re dead. Or am I dead too?”
“It is me, Han.” The man chuckled. “I’m dead, and you’re not. And you won’t be.”
“I will. No help for it. If you can save anyone, choose Luccan. Save the three of them on the trail. Take your cloak. Let me go.”
“Luccan is not near death at the moment. I would know. You are much closer to that state, but you will live, little brother.”
“I… I don’t think I want to, please,” he said, starting to shiver harder. “Let me go back to sleep until I’m gone. It’s so cold. Hurts so much to be awake.”
“Stop, Han! You’re not going to give up. I won’t let you.”
Han willed his eyes to focus once more. Lohen’s face loomed over him very near, his countenance right down to the minutia of pore and lash and stubbly beard. But where an empty socket had been at the end of his life, he now gazed at Han with both of the watchful brown eyes he’d been born with.
“You can’t stop it, Lohen. This is too much for me.”
“Who do you think you’re talking to, brother? I remember the last time you decided not to live—after the fire, the day our parents died. I made you live then. I’ll do it again.”
“Cruel, Lohen.” Han had intended to growl the words out with venom, but they dribbled forth in a raw whisper. “Why bring that up now. Why put the vision of that horror in my mind? Can’t you let me have a little peace on my last breath?”
“You aren’t taking your last breath anytime soon, brother. Think about that fire. See it in all its hideous glory. Hear it crackle and pop as it burned our mother’s flesh.”
“Stop.” Han’s shallow breaths came a little faster, whipped by anger and remembered fear. A small warmth crept out to his chest from the cavity where his heartbeat quickened, and adrenaline thinned his sluggish blood.
“Stop? No, I’m not going to stop. You will not be dying on my watch, Han Shieth. On the day you were born, I was sworn to protect you, and I’ll do it.”
“I don’t care! And don’t change the subject.”
The corners of Han’s mouth stung as he tried to curve them into a smile. Tears froze in the outside corners of his eyes. A wind came up and the floe beneath him rocked, spilling some water onto the ice and against his body. Neither wind nor water felt cold. Han knew what that meant—the blessed warmth had returned. He welcomed it, willed himself not to breathe.
Travel-via-book has much to recommend it, I think. For instance, it’s the only kind of trip you can take to the distant past, another dimension, your own home town with significant changes, or the far future. And it costs not a penny more to take the trip over and over again—and when I read, though the words remain the same, the places I see are a little different every time. But do you know what the best thing about this kind of adventure is? You can do it in your pajamas. Snuggled under a blanket. With two cats, or your dog, or your best friend. And you stay warmand dry while the storm rages outside your window and the landscape in your pages is 16th century Scotland, or desert, an ice-encrusted sea coast, a restaurant in Boca Raton, or a starship. How cool is that?
Hope you enjoyed our little jaunts out of town here. Before I sign off, I just want to say my Wraith Queen’s Veil Rafflecopter giveaway ended, and all four winners have been notified. But in case you missed, Authors Speak has a stupendous giveaway going right now. Win 9 ebooks from 9 different authors! You can enter right here. Just click the link. 🙂