Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Loft At 22nd Street - First Chapter

[This is a rough draft, subject to some edits, and changes as the story progresses]

Late September  1906
The Bookshop At The Loft - 22nd Street - Uptown

"Merciful heavens!"
Ainsley Birral jarred to a frozen halt, heart pounding beneath the palm she pressed against her chest.  The reaction was quite understandable. Even in the city, it wasn't every day one found a dead body cluttering up one's shop floor. At least, she thought the man was dead. He certainly looked as if he'd left this world, and without doubt, his departure had not been of his own volition. She gaped at the tableau, hovering at the threshold of the open door—which should have been locked—to the bookshop she and her sister, Rona, owned.
The Loft, as Ainsley affectionately referred to it, was a spacious, well-stocked-and-patronized store occupying the upper floor of a three-story structure owned by her uncle, Clyde Findlay. Ainsley lived in an apartment on the building's second floor with Rona and their elderly cousin Fiona Monro.
She closed her mouth and angled her head to listen, but discerned nothing to indicate the perpetrator of this horrendous crime might still be within. Her nose informed her oil from a lamp had been spilled. She squelched the urge to hurry inside to cleanse the potential fire hazard. She swallowed and tried to work up courage to enter, but wasn't at all certain she wanted to take the chance. When several more moments elapsed and the silence persisted, she forced stiff limbs to take a single step forward, all her senses alert for…anything. Nothing moved in the stillness. She gusted a relieved sigh, only then becoming aware she had been holding her breath.
Outrage! Nothing like this had ever happened in her life. She fought to clear jangling thoughts. What did one do when confronted with a murder? More importantly, how could such an awful thing have happened without any of them hearing a sound? Granted, Fiona was of an age where she might sleep through a parade, but to Ainsley's mind, it was deeply disquieting neither Rona nor herself had been disturbed in the night by the violent activity that had occurred only one story above their beds.
Footsteps and the scent of roses heralded the arrival of Rona on the landing behind her. Her sister gasped and grabbed for the doorframe as she caught sight of the old man lying in the middle of the customer reading area. "A-A-Ainsley!"
"Indeed." Ainsley took another short, hesitant step.
Rona grabbed her arm. "What are you doing?" Her hushed voice rose on the last word. "Never say you're actually going in there!"
"Why not? I can already see no one's here but this unfortunate soul. I need to learn if he's truly dead, and if we've been robbed."
"Robbed? Save us!" Rona tugged at Ainsley's elbow. "Sister please, come away. It isn't seemly to become involved with this. We should leave immediately."
Despite the trembling of her hands, Ainsley rolled her eyes. "Don't become hysterical, Rona, I beg you. The danger is past, and like it or not, we are already involved. Besides, if the poor man is still alive we need to get help for him immediately."
She scanned the scene. Blood—a dreadfully copious amount—beneath the man's head, along with the afore-smelled oil that had leaked from a reading lamp knocked off a table, had soaked the large oval rug defining the reading area. Further signs of a scuffle abounded. An overturned chair lay amid small, scattered knickknacks, and a celery green drapery panel had been pulled from its place beneath the pelmet, allowing a modicum of light into the shadowed room.
She uttered a pained exclamation at sight of her favorite floor vase in the corner, broken into colorful pieces like an abandoned mosaic. It had held a mass of peacock feathers, some of which now lay snapped and bent amid the fragments. What appeared to be the brass fireplace poker glinted amid the plumes.
Books—some of them expensive—were tossed everywhere, yanked by undiscerning hands from their places on the shelves. The chaos indicated evidence of either simple vandalism or a hasty search, but if the latter, for what? She kept nothing of a secretive nature here. Odd that none of the periodicals, children's books or lady's romance novels had been disturbed. She moved closer to the body. The movement brought into view a book clutched like an ineffectual lifeline in the dead man's fingers. It looked like one of the treasured research publications for which the shop was noted, and was open to an ancient illumination over which words, upside down to her position, had been scrawled in what appeared to be a dark, rust-colored paint.
Oh, it was horrible enough this hapless elder had died by violence in her beloved store. Why had the killer felt it necessary to add the destruction of an antique work of art to that abomination? Volumes such as this were often impossible to replace.  She bent to take a closer look and gasped, withdrawing with a shudder. The sense of having stepped unwitting into a nightmare increased. The old man had been bludgeoned. Her eyes flickered to the poker in the corner and she grimaced. The back of his head showed a caved-in spot, undetectable from the door, that the end of the poker would certainly fit.
But it wasn't the sight of the fractured skull that drew from her an almost irresistible desire to flee. Though she could now see the book clenched in his hand was, thankfully, merely a reproduction of medieval illuminations, the words 'AINSLEY IS NEXT' were untidily blocked across one page. Both the message and the inscription medium appalled her. The warning was penned in blood.
She stepped away, hand plastered against her stomach. Swallowing repeatedly, she turned to Rona. "Don't come over here."
Her sister shuddered. "I have no desire to come closer." Rona sounded the way Ainsley felt. "In fact, I say again, we should leave. What if the killer returns to murder us, too? What if he decides to slit our throats? Oh, Ainsley, whatever shall we do?"
Rona's complexion was more alabaster than usual. Shock darkened her rounded blue eyes.
Pity tempered Ainsley's usual blunt response to her sister's dramatics. Rona was truly frightened. To be perfectly honest, so was she. "Well, we certainly are not going to panic."
"Do you say that because you're truly not upset, or because you're trying not to panic and you don't want me to, either?"
"It's not working! Ainsley, we are alone up here. What if the person who did this is close by?"
Ainsley collected herself and squared her shoulders. It would do no one any good to think on that possibility.
"I think we may be sure whoever did this has removed himself far away." Her lips tightened. Rona was overwrought. She needed something to do, needed to get away from the scene but bless her, did want to leave Ainsley alone. "Run downstairs to the pharmacy and wake Mr. Schmidt. Ask him to come up. Tell him what happened and have him call the police and send his assistant to bring Uncle Clyde. Oh, and wake up Fiona. She'll need to get dressed."
Rona's face paled even further. She caught Ainsley's hand. "The police! Oh, Ainsley, must we? Bart won't like that. It will reflect badly on his family, placing them in the middle of an untenable social situation."
"Your fiancé will have to understand. We cannot ignore this is a crime scene. The police must be informed. Go, now!"
"You should close the door and come with me." Her sister actually wrung her hands. "Oh dear, what an awful scrape."
"Rona, go!"

Rona obeyed. It was an indication of the depth of her agitation she made no effort to be lady-like as she clattered down the stairs. Ainsley sighed. Bartholomew Osbourne—and his family—were wealthy and influential. Bart's mother was a favorite among the city's highest echelons of society. His father hated publicity. Both already balked at their son's engagement to a woman not quite of their status. For her sister to become involved, however innocently, in something so distasteful and scandalous as murder might be the edge they needed to force Bart to break the betrothal. Rona was right. This could become a problem, in more ways than the obvious.

Monday, August 4, 2014

What You May Not Know About Vikings!


In an earlier release, Rose of Hope, set in post-Conquest England, I feature a scene set in a fictional Viking village on the Essex coast that I called "Ljotness", founded two centuries earlier by a Viking jarl.

In my newest release, Viking Sword: A Fall of Yellow Fire - The Stranded One, the hero and his family live in Ljotness (his father is the one who took the town from its Anglo-Saxon thegn).

Even though Rose of Hope came first, it seemed a natural progression back to Viking Sword, because the Normans (the heroes of Rose of Hope) were direct descendants of Viking ancestors (the great Rollo was William the Conqueror's many times great-grandfather). 

I'm having a lot of fun learning about Vikings and thought I'd share some of more interesting tidbits I've come across.

"Official" Beginning of the Viking era in England
Historically, the Viking age in England began with the famous raid on the "Holy Isle" of Lindisfarne in 793. The account, with the accompanying prophesy a few days previous, was recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle:
In present day English:
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Year 793.
"Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria, and woefully terrified the people: these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. A great famine soon followed these signs, and shortly after in the same year, on the sixth day before the ides of January, the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed god’s church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter."

"Forbidden" love songs
The Viking goddess of love, Freya, adored poems and songs about love, but oddly enough, in many parts of the Viking world, certain love stories, called "maidensongs" were forbidden. Why? Because love was considered the most powerful force in Midgard (the earth), and that made the songs too powerful to tell. It was feared a maiden might be seduced and ensnared by a love song and be tempted beyond enduring to yield her innocence or elope with the wrong man.

We today find the concept of slavery horrifying, but it was a common, accepted part of the Viking world. Slaves were often people stolen during raids, and most were taken to trade centers and sold. They were called "thralls' and occupied the lowest rung on the ladder of Viking society. The average Viking family had only one or two slaves. These people had few rights, and could legally be mistreated or killed, including being used for human sacrifice. When a slave could no longer work - for whatever reason - and was therefore 'useless', they were killed. Slaves were allowed to marry, and one interesting 'right' a male slave held was the right to kill a man, even a freeman, who "messed around" with his wife against her will. Under Norse law, freemen could not kill another man for that reason.

Have you ever wondered what you'd do if someone gave you a húdfat as a gift? Chances are, you've already used one while on vacation. A húdfat was, essentially, a sleeping bag. When rolled up, personal items were rolled into it for safekeeping. The interior layer was wool, the outer layer a durable, moisture-resistant material such as oiled leather (they were also called "leather-bags"). They had ties to hold them on the body while rowing and also to keep the rolled-up húdfat in a closed bundle when not in use. They could be worn for warmth or protection from the weather while an oarsman rowed. Some were single-man size, others were two-man size, for extra warmth.

Runic Language
The Viking language consisted of runes, symbols that stood for a specific letter of the runic alphabet. While the runes were not considered 'magical' in and of themselves, they were sometimes used in the casting of spells or the telling of fortunes. The runes were carved into pieces of wood or stones and might be used for anything from writing letters and offering prayers ,to necklaces spelling a person's name. They might also be worn as a pendant or amulet, by both men and women, as a charm for protection or good luck. Runes were carved into stones (runestones) as memorials to those who had died. 

The Norse had no system of coinage before the late 9th century. Instead, they practiced a "bullion economy". A few coins (usu. silver or gold, and to a lesser extent, copper and bronze) found their way to the Scandinavian trade centers, but to the Vikings they were simply chunks of metal and often ended up being melted down or turned into jewelry. Vikings bartered using what they called "hack-silver" - pieces of silver and gold such as links in a silver chain or sliced up coins. Bars (ingots) of precious metals were also used. To preserve accuracy, traders and merchants carried their own precisely calibrated scales.

I hope you've enjoyed this quick jaunt into the world of the "Northmen" (and maybe even find inspiration for a Viking tale of your own). I'd love to hear your 'favorite facts' about these fascinating people.  

Màiri Norris