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About the author:
E.J. Stillings believes in kindness and courage and learning something new every day. She often turns to nature for inspiration. When she's not writing, she can be found googling something, observing nature, reading, or taking pictures of her many rescue cats. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her life partner, in a neighborhood with wild peacocks.
What inspired you to write your book?
This story was inspired by a misty evening, a glass of whiskey, and thoughts of the previous Halloween. I wanted to try something new, a romance with magic and witches–all very different from my usual Contemporary Women's Fiction. However, I still wanted to keep it clean, as per my usual. Instead of purely physical attraction, I also wanted the focus to be on love and truth and soul connection. Basically, I've never found a book quite like what I wanted to write, so I wrote it.
Here is a short sample from the book:
If someone had told Henry at age twenty-five, he would be in an iron cage hanging from a gibbet in an empty field he would’ve laughed. A murder of crows watched him from the edge of the woods, waiting to feast on his body. He breathed through his mouth to wet his tongue with the mist surrounding him.
On the bright side, the cage wasn't the usual torture variety you would have seen in the busy streets of a bustling city years ago when gibbeting was in fashion. It was a head taller than Henry's six-foot stature and large enough to sit comfortably—even to curl up to sleep on his side. It had a solid iron floor, save for a hole that could only accommodate the passage of his waste. His final view before death, instead of filthy streets and curious gawkers, would be of green, grassy hills to the East and West. South was a derelict castle and village. North, closer, were the woods which provided the mist and gave the crows their perches.
Given the construction and location, his cage was meant to hold a man, not kill him. But, if that were the case, why was he stripped of his noble clothes? Why was he left in his tattered undertunic and braies? Why was he not provided any sustenance?
There was one person, however, who did not want him to starve. On two occasions, in the three days he'd been in the cage, he'd awoken to find a modest pile of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, pecans, and a piece of roasted pine bark, next to him. Unfortunately, the sun would set soon, and he'd received no such gift for the day. He sucked at the red and blue spots on his undergarments where the previous berries had bled, but there was no flavor left on the stains.
To avoid despair, he returned to his imagination. He thought of himself as he always had done: not as a poor trickster, but as a king who ruled vast lands—a dream for his future since he was a child. Who was to say he didn't have noble blood running through his veins? His parents? The very people who treated him like a burden before abandoning him when he was ten? No. There was nothing indisputable to say he wasn't a bastard with noble blood who could be king one day.
Unwilling to give up hope of escape, Henry grabbed the bars of the door to his cage and shook violently for the fourth time that day, perhaps his final try. The iron of both the structure and the lock held firm. The chain which suspended his cage from the gibbet also appeared not only intact but stronger than him.
He probed his memory again for an inkling as to how he became imprisoned at all. But, there was no such remembrance in his mind which explained his predicament. The last thing he could recall was marching through the misty woods, possibly the same woods which stood before him, in search of his spooked horse—a horse he'd also stolen. He had taken a break by a stream to wet his face, clean his perfectly trimmed beard, and smooth his long, black hair, which he wore parted in the middle like a nobleman, further displaying his streak of white hair which framed the left side of his face. He'd gazed at his reflection in the rippling water, admiring the man he'd become, then woke up in the cage, in his undergarments.
If he managed to free himself, he would have to travel through the woods, despite the risk of recapture. He would need to be vigilant in his awareness, which meant finding food for strength first, and a weapon to defend himself.
The smell from the putrid pile of human waste in the mud pit below him hit his nose, distracting him once again, forcing him to shift his position. He tried not to dwell on how many men had been here before him and what befell them. But the thoughts persisted in his mind every time the stench reached him. Did they indeed starve to death? Or were they merely detained until summoned by the king of that derelict castle? Was he watching through spies for the moment in which Henry would be most agreeable to some god-forsaken terms? Some proposition which he would otherwise deny with outrage, but would perhaps consider to save himself from this fate?
He'd already tried yelling toward the castle and village, but it was too far. If there were spies, surely they would have heard him and reported back to the king sooner. There should have been some movement by now, but there was none. Only the crows and the mysterious food deliverer took an interest in him.
As he gazed wearily in the direction of the castle, a figure of a boy caught his eye. The boy was running up the hill, toward the stone wall surrounding the castle and village.
"Hey, I see you! Come back!" Henry yelled with his hands cupped on either side of his mouth to cast his voice farther. "Help me!"
The figure didn't turn or slow, but it didn't matter. Henry rejoiced anyway as he imagined that boy would soon inform the king of his imprisonment, and his starving agreeability.
Feeling energized, he grasped the bars above his head and pounded his bare feet down on the iron floor, over and over, generating a loud clanging sound that reverberated back to him from the woods. It was both a celebration and another attempt to break free. The metal did not give way, not even a fingernail's worth. He lowered himself to sit, smiling, already concocting a plan to trick whoever would be arriving soon.
A twig snapped in the woods behind him.
Henry spun around, eyes wide, watching for movement.
"Who's there?" He listened carefully.
It had to be something more substantial than one of the crows. It was probably a wolf but could be a human. He hoped it was his food delivery. If he could talk to the person, surely he could persuade them to free him.
Shimmering mist trailed out from the woods and grew dense around him as if it was contained in the area, obscuring the outlines of the trees. It swirled as if there was a breeze, allowing glimpses of the trees. Then he caught sight of a woman standing at the edge of the woods, watching him—and not just any woman—the most voluptuous creature he'd ever laid eyes upon. Her moon-kissed skin shined in contrast to her fiery red hair and sapphire blue dress. He blinked, and she'd gone. Another blink and she'd returned.
She took one step forward. Her ice-blue eyes were fixed on Henry as she revealed more of herself in the mist caressing her figure. There was something familiar about her, but surely he would've remembered if he'd ever had the pleasure to see such a beauty before. She glanced down at her basket and back at Henry.
Perhaps she was the one who had brought him sustenance before, and that's why she looked familiar, but it was more than the sight of her—it was the feeling of her presence.
He opened his mouth to call out to her, but couldn't make a sound, so he offered a smile instead, inviting her to approach.
She returned the affection, briefly, and took a step back, disappearing.
"Wait!" He pressed his chest against the bars, reaching out as though he had a chance of touching her.
The mist grew so thick everything beyond his cage was white, like he was inside a cloud in the sky.
"Please, come back," he begged softly.
After several minutes, it was clear she had gone.
He leaned back in the cage and recited, "My name is Lord Henry Balleroy of Red Thorn. I am of noble blood." In truth, he was born Henrik Rolfe of Pig's Mud—the most impoverished area of dwellings in the kingdom of Red Thorn. After years of scrounging to survive, he stumbled upon a troupe of actors. He studied them, how they turned emotions on and off, portrayed different personas, and made people believe their words.
At seventeen, he'd successfully pulled off his first trick with his new, noble name. A merchant gave him new clothes with only Henry's promise of payment the next morning by pretending so convincingly to be a victim of thieves. The world was his for the taking until now.
"I will be free of this cage," he tried to convince himself.
A storm moved in, concealing the setting sun, bringing a cool breeze that cleared away the mist. He stared at the woods as his mind recalled even the smallest detail of the mysterious woman. The way her dress hugged her hourglass figure. How her long, red hair rested on her bosom. The softness of her jaw. The rosy color of her cheeks and plump lips.
He imagined himself meeting her under different circumstances, perhaps walking through a garden. She would smile at him as he presented her with a red rose. He would compliment her, “Knowing such beauty exists in this world will allow me to die a happy man."
Her coy response would be, "I, too, am fond of roses."
Their fingers would touch as she accepted his offering.
He would embrace her and—
Lightning flashed with a crack of thunder, and rain poured down.
He started again from the beginning. The woman was so enchanting. It was easy to lose himself in his fantasy, which would comfort him all through the night.
Brigit ran through the woods in the rain. Her wet, blue dress snagged on twisted branches of a bush. The abrupt stop made her drop the basket of foraged food she’d been carrying. The caged man did not sleep, and now he would not eat.
The longer she had watched him, the more a strange feeling stirred within her — something good amidst the guilt of playing a part in his imprisonment.
She conjured a shimmering mist from her palms, which formed shelter above her. Tendrils of the mist flowed from her fingertips, which collected the stray berries and nuts and freed her dress from the bush.
Her mind wandered back to the moment his gaze found her. A seed of doubt sprouted within her. She'd only managed one step forward before the fluttering in her heart urged her to retreat. How was it possible a part of him appeared to recognize her despite the enchantment she and her sisters had cast on his memory? How was it she too felt something familiar about him?
She’d learned from listening to him that his name was Henry, but couldn’t recall ever meeting him before. He was simply a suitable man in the woods. Could she go through with the spell if she could not even face him?
The rain continued to pour. Frustrated and sopping wet, Brigit transformed herself into a vapor and traveled to her home in the woods.