Rowan of the Wood – Chapter One

Rowan of the WoodEach week I’ll publish a new installment of our award-winning YA fantasy novel Rowan of the Wood for your reading enjoyment. Comment below to be entered to win an author-signed free copies of the entire series! The more you comment, the more times your name will be entered to win!

Rowan of the Wood, Winner of the Indie Excellence Award for Young Adult Fiction, tells the story of Cullen, a young boy who meanders through the redwood forest every day on his way to school, losing himself in books and fantasy worlds full of elves, fairies, and wizards. Cullen’s life changes when he uncovers an ancient magic wand that is inhabited by a powerful wizard, Rowan.

Nearly fourteen centuries ago, Rowan and his bride Fiana were separated on their wedding day. Rowan manages to survive, trapped in time, until Cullen releases him from the wand. Fiana uses dark magic to stay alive as she continues searching for Rowan. Over the centuries, Fiana descends deeper into the darkness becoming something evil and eventually giving up her search…until a young boy brings Rowan back to her.

Get your very own copy of Rowan of the Wood in either paperback or eBook. Also, enjoy the other books in the series:

Witch on the Water: Book Two
Fire of the Fey: Book Three
Power of the Zephyr: Book Four

Coming in Autumn 2013, the fifth and final book: Spirit of the Otherworld

Teachers and educators, ask me how to get your class FREE copies of this Amazon bestselling novel and lesson plans as well.

CHAPTER ONE

Circa 592 A.D., Caledonia. The wind whipped over the rolling Highlands, blowing the heather in a frenzied dance. The flowers filled the air with fragrant sweetness. A herd of deer soared across the hills in the fading daylight, turning together as one to follow the wind. The autumn moon emerged red over the horizon, impossibly big and perfectly round. The harvest moon. Its light spilled over the mountains as it ascended, contrasting the evening sky around it. The celestial light on this cold, black night eventually found the sacred stone circle below. A bonfire blazed within its center, casting a warmer, livelier light than the distant moon. Blue painted figures danced around the fire, wearing little more than the paint on their skin. They exhaled a visible mist, despite the warmth of the bonfire, and goose bumps showed on their bodies. They held autumn wreaths and harvest fruits as they twirled and wove around and between each other. A handful of celebrants skillfully played shallow, flat drums, or kept the rhythm with rib bones played like castanets between the first three fingers. The beat echoed with the pulse of the life around them. They moved and leapt into the air with impressive grace, staying in perfect rhythm with the cadence. One woman, with wild blonde hair, played a flute while she danced. With pixie-like movements, she skipped around the fire, weaving amongst the dancers. Her fingers flew over the stops as nimbly as her feet frolicked over the freezing ground.

A massive flat stone resting on two boulders dominated one end of the circle, serving as an altar. Several carved gourds sat upon it. Their candle-lit faces flickered to the sounds of the surrounding drumbeats. An old man and woman, with long white hair, happily tapped their toes to the merriment. Every breath showed the quickly dropping temperature; still they danced until the drumming and dancing ended simultaneously on a heavy downbeat.

Synchronized, as if the drums still played, the tribe turned their attention to a man and woman who had appeared in the firelight at the far end of the stone circle, opposite the altar. They stood there regally, dressed in deep green ceremonial robes decorated with the intricate knot-work of their tribe. The uncertain, quivering light of the fire hid their age well, but their pale faces revealed four decades of joy and love imprinted in their crow’s feet and smile lines. The woman’s red flowing hair twisted in the wind. She wore a wreath of heather and rosemary on her head. Her green eyes gazed upon her companion adoringly. A red beard lightly covered his chiseled jaw, and a wreath of rosemary decorated his own red locks. His eyes, full of devotion and kindness, looked into hers. Something deeper also burned in his blue eyes: unquenched desire and a love like fire. He took her hand and pulled her close; his crown of herbs touching hers. The wind entwined the strands of their hair together.

“Anocht, ar deireadh,” he whispered in the Gaelic native to them all and placed a soft kiss on her forehead.

Tonight, finally.

Rowan and Fiana had finally reached their wedding day. They had each heard the call of the goddess for service, and they had each answered. From the young age of ten, they began the long journey toward becoming a druidic priest and priestess. They had been childhood friends before that and fell in love by the age of twelve. Tradition demanded they remain chaste, which proved difficult during the years of such close proximity. While their outside friends grew up, got married and had children, they remained pure, to honor their tribe and their customs. They had vowed to wait until after they had been anointed as the tribe’s new priest and priestess, gathering power and magic to help and protect their people. For thirty long years, they had waited, but their wedding day had finally arrived. Tonight, they would be anointed and wed at long last.

The crowd chanted, “Awen, awen, awen.”  The couple parted hesitantly, as if it pained them to be out of the other’s reach. Their fingertips lingered a moment longer than necessary before parting completely. They each walked around the bonfire on opposite sides, between it and their surrounding tribe. The painted people gathered hand-woven baskets full of multicolored leaves and showered the pair as they passed. Fiana felt more like a goddess than a priestess. She reveled in the warmth of her tribe’s love and looked past the dancing flames to her betrothed. Many maidens would be frightened on their wedding night, but not her. She had waited too long. Fear was the furthest emotion from her mind. Nothing could go wrong tonight, nothing.

The moon, now high in the sky, created gentler shadows below. The fire illuminated the falling leaves, which shone like gold in the reflected firelight as they twirled down onto the proceeding couple. Rowan caught sight of Fiana gazing at him through the fire, and his heart quickened once again. The autumn leaves fluttered around him and the chanting of his tribe filled his ears; but nothing could draw his attention away from Fiana. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever known, and tonight he would have her in his arms at last. Tonight would be the beginning of their life together as priest and priestess, as protectors of their tribe, as husband and wife, as lovers. As soon as they cleared the far side of the fire, he reached for her hand. She took it eagerly and meeting his unwavering gaze, they approached the altar.

Clad in white robes, the old couple at the altar waited patiently for the bride and groom. The old man smoothed down his long white beard, causing the tip that extended past his belly to dance in the wind. The old woman’s braid extended straight down her back, nearly reaching her knees.

Rowan and Fiana had been chosen to replace the old ones, the reigning priest and priestess of this tribe. It was a great honor to be chosen, not only for themselves, but for their families as well. No one had expected the fire of the goddess to burn so brightly inside them. Many of the tribe had commented on the extent of their power. Even the elders spoke of power that exceeded all the ancient tales. Together, they would be more puissant than anything the tribe had ever known. After their union, they alone would be powerful enough to chase the invaders out of Caledonia forever. They knew little about this new religion of the invaders, but many of the men who followed the new god killed any who practiced the old ways and refused to convert. The invaders’ beliefs held that they were superior to all other religions and were justified in ridding the world of those they called “heathens.”

The union of these two lovers on this magical night would not only alter their fate, but it would change the destiny of the tribe and all of Caledonia. To further increase their power, they had chosen the night of Samhain to consummate their love. The veil to the Otherworld was the thinnest on this night. The magic that would flow into them would create a bond that could never be broken, not even by death. They had so longed for this moment, and it would all happen tonight.

The tribe moved closer to the altar to get a better look. Some shivered in the cold and huddled by the fire, but all were silent. Only the crackle of the fire and the faint whisper of the wind could be heard on this magical night. The heat rose between the couple’s eyes, and the old priest finally broke the silence.

He coughed once and then spoke loudly in the throaty beauty of Gaelic, welcoming their dear friends. “Fàilte – fearadh na fàilte càirdean.”

The crowd’s attention focused on him. Even Rowan and Fiana broke their gaze and released the other’s hand to face him, their retiring priest, reverently.

“Today,” the priest began, “we celebrate the union of spirit and flesh between Rowan and Fiana. Through decades of study, they have perfected the roles of bard and green maiden. They are now ready, on this sweet Samhain night, to be elevated to the rank of Priest and Priestess. They are our new way. A new generation of magic and power begins with this union. Through our spiritual dance, we welcome the dawn of winter and the slumber of autumn, on the night where those who have passed into the Otherworld might look upon us, sharing the magic of their world with us who remain in this one. May the goddess fill their bodies with her essence this night and, in their union, bring together all of Caledonia in safety and love.”

He turned momentarily away from them and lifted a thick loaf of bread from the stone altar. Tearing it in half, he said, “As a symbol of the god’s blessing, I offer this bread to you.”

Rowan took the bread and fed it to Fiana saying, “May you never hunger.”  He purposely let his finger glide across the bottom of Fiana’s lip. She gasped slightly and smiled, feeling her face flush at his touch. The sensation quickly spread throughout her body. She saw the same desire burning in his eyes as he took a bite of the bread.

The priest cleared his throat again, snapping their attention back to him. He turned to his wife who now held a silver goblet. She spoke with a voice deeper than one would expect to emerge from such a delicate, frail woman.

“As a symbol of the goddess’s blessing, I offer this wine.”

Fiana cupped the chalice in her hands and held it up to Rowan’s lips, tilting the cup towards him, “May you never thirst.”

The wine felt warm on his lips against the chill of the night, but once inside his body, it cooled the heat impatient to burst forth. Fiana, too, tasted the rich wine; then they both returned the offering to the old couple. The old priest motioned for them to join hands. They crossed their arms and took the other’s hand into their own, forming the symbol for infinity. Fiana felt the penetration of Rowan’s eyes into her very soul, and she had to catch her breath. The old priestess took one end of a braided tartan cloth; the old priest took the other end. Together, they draped the plaited tartan around the hands of the bride and groom.

“You have both waited a long time,” the old man said. “You have each passed the tests. Now, it’s time for celebration—and union.”

The old woman added, “You are now bound together in love, forever.”

Rowan and Fiana clasped their hands tighter, gazing at each other in anticipation. The tribe collectively held their breath, waiting.

“Don’t just stand there,” the old man chided with a smile, “Kiss her!”

Rowan laughed heartily; and the newly wedded couple pulled free of the braid and fell into each other’s arms, kissing passionately, as if they had been waiting their entire lives for this moment. They had. Not once in all these years had they stolen even a single kiss. Now Fiana’s lips felt even softer than petals of heather against his own. Desire welled up inside him, and he felt like he would burst. Being this close to her, he found his own flesh an obstacle. He wanted nothing more than to fold himself inside her skin and become one person. Nothing else would be close enough.

With their tribe roaring in approval behind them, the drumming and dancing struck up as their lips parted from their first kiss, but their arms remained tightly wrapped around each other. The smiles on their faces shone as tears of joy sparkled in their eyes. They held each other tightly and swayed to the music.

A horrible thunk suddenly interrupted the celebration, not at all in rhythm with the drumbeat. The music staggering into silence drew Rowan’s attention away from his new wife. He turned to the priest and saw the old man’s smile fade, as a bright red stain spread across his white robe like a blooming rose. He stumbled backwards against the stone altar, knocking over the goblet. Propping himself up against the rough stone, he grasped the arrow sticking awkwardly out of his chest, not understanding what had just happened. The old woman rushed to her dying husband, desperately whispering incantations over his wound.

After a collective gasp from his tribe, all was strangely silent for a moment. Rowan could not understand from where the arrow came. Then in the next moment, sounds of chaos filled his ears. A painted woman behind them screamed. Hoofbeats loud and then gone, as if coming to an abrupt stop from a full gallop. Trampling feet and clanking metal. More hoofbeats.

Clasping Fiana tightly to his chest, Rowan whipped around to see scores of angry men pouring into their sacred ceremony. His mind caught up with reality.

Fiana felt her heart sink in her chest, hollow with the loss of hope. In a timeless moment, she looked up at Rowan; the sadness in his eyes matched her emptiness. A tear fell from the corner of her eye. The wind touched the wetness and she felt cold. Rowan wiped it away with his thumb. They stepped away from each other and readied for battle.

Everything happened in an instant. The crowd fled from their attackers in all directions, but few got away before the slaughter began. A man on horseback seized the flautist, who screamed helplessly as he flung her across the horse’s neck and rode away. Other men with long swords rushed the frightened community. The tribe had been nearly naked for the ceremony; most of the tribe was completely unarmed. It had been careless of them, but they had never expected this. Not tonight. One man stepped in front of a near-naked woman, trying to protect her, but an attacker cornered them and viciously drove a sword through them both.

Rowan’s once gentle face filled with anger as he watched his tribe being torn apart. The heat of rage replaced every other emotion, as he reached down the bell sleeve of his robe and pulled out a knotty piece of wood, just as one of the invaders descended upon him. Rowan threw him off with the strength of many men. The man’s clutching hand ripped the front of Rowan’s robe, revealing a Celtic Tree tattooed on his chest. He pointed the wand at the invaders and screamed, “Stadaim!”

Fiana appeared right beside him, wand drawn, and repeated, “Stadaim!”

Instinct had taken over and the tears had dried. Her anger made her strong and focused. The magic of the goddess coursed through her, more powerful than ever before.

A few men stopped, frozen by the magic; but most of the assailants continued the slaughter without even a glance at their statuesque opponents.

“There are too many!” Fiana cried, in the midst of throwing spells at their attackers. Her confidence wavered.

Rowan’s very being filled with dread. His first day as High Priest and he would get them all killed. He should have been better prepared. He would fail them all unless he could find some way to help them, to save them—to save her. He looked around for some sign of an exit, but they were surrounded. Then he noticed a thin blue haze appearing near the altar. The smoke began to part in the middle and it spread, revealing a doorway. Their salvation.

“The Otherworld!” he screamed to Fiana, pointing to the mysterious doorway. “Get as many as you can through the veil. We will be safe there until it reopens.”

“And you?”

“I will be close behind.”

“I will not leave you. Not now.”

“I will be right behind. Now go!  Before it is too late!”

“You cannot hold them alone.”

She was right, and he knew it. He could not hold them alone, but together they could, for at least long enough to get most of the tribe to safety. Their greatest power took form when they touched. Rowan grabbed Fiana’s hand and a surge of energy shuddered through them from the heart of the Earth. With a unified deepened voice, they pointed their wands and shouted, “Stadaim!”

Their adversaries all froze where they stood, with only their eyes rolling wildly like trapped beasts as they tried to understand why they couldn’t move.

Rowan turned to Fiana; the magic they conjured shone from her like divine light, making her even more beautiful than ever. He forced himself to look away from the goddess before him. He shouted to his tribe, “All of you, through the veil!”  The spell wouldn’t last long—it was too intense to sustain. It would weaken them quickly.

The tribe looked at the doorway uncertainly, then back to the remains of their fallen friends.

“It is the only way to survive. Quickly—now!”  He spoke the last words in thunderous reverberation.

The frightened people rushed past the newlyweds, past the altar, and into the blue smoke. As they stepped through, they disappeared from mortal sight.

“Now you, my love,” Rowan said already feeling weaker. “Go. When we break our connection, I can only hold them for a moment. I will be right behind you.”

Fiana looked at him and pleaded with her eyes. Her heart filled with the love and longing that had consumed her adulthood, pushing the emptiness away. How could she leave him, even for a moment? Stay and die together, or go and risk never seeing him again. She searched for some other way, but found none.

“Fiana, we do not have the time,” Rowan insisted. “We will be together in the Otherworld.” Only steps away, they could both make it through; but she must go through first.

Fiana’s knees quavered in her exhaustion, and she fought to remain standing.  She clenched his hand tighter and said, “But no one has ever crossed over and come back alive.”

“Then we will be the first. Once we complete our union, love, our power will be greater than anyone has ever known. Now go!” The gentle urgency in his voice brimmed with regret and love as he spoke to her. He squeezed her hand and then let it go with a faint push toward the veil.

She took a tremulous step back and then hesitated, perhaps a moment too long. A moment that would haunt her forever.

Rowan struggled to hold the slowly reanimating attackers. His fallen brethren surrounded him. The doorway began to close; the blue smoke became denser. Fiana lingered on the threshold.

She cried to her husband, “Rowan!  The veil—it’s closing!”

“Go through!”

“Not without you!”

“Go through now! I’m coming.”

He stumbled toward Fiana, catching his balance on the stone altar, as the angry men came at him. Fiana passed through, and Rowan followed a step behind; but instead of passing into the Otherworld with the others, he walked right through the smoke. Right through Fiana.

Fiana screamed in anguish and fell to her knees, reaching out towards him, her husband, trapped on the other side of the veil with the invaders.

Rowan could not hear her, but he could still faintly see her fallen figure through the fading smoke. He had no time to try and stop the angry men. Only a moment more and they would be upon him.

“Come back for me,” Rowan said to Fiana’s pale figure. Pointing his wand to the middle of the tattoo on his chest, he said, “Falach.” In a flash of light, he disappeared into his wand, and it fell next to the altar.

The men stopped abruptly when Rowan disappeared, looking around confused. They backed away from the wand lying motionless on the ground, crossing themselves, and mumbling prayers of protection. A brazen fat monk, bolder than the rest, pushed through their ranks and strode up to the edge of the remaining smoke, smiling.

Fiana watched in dismay through the disappearing veil as the monk stood over the fallen wand. He curiously picked the wand up and with a look of triumph slid it with some difficulty into the rope belt around his overstuffed belly.

Fiana reached out in pain as the veil closed, knowing it would be a year before she could return. She watched helplessly as the monk walked away.

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