Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review - Between Two Fires by Mark Noce

Last year at this time I had the privilege of showcasing Mark Noce's debut novel Between Two Fires and when I learned he's releasing the sequel in early December I knew I had to read the them.
I hope you enjoy my review of Between Two Fires and check back in around his release date of 12-5 for an interview, showcase, review and giveaway.

ISBN-13:  978-1250072627
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Release Date: 8-23-2016
Length: 336pp
Buy It: Amazon/B&N/Kobo/IndieBound/Audible
Saxon barbarians threaten to destroy medieval Wales. Lady Branwen becomes Wales' last hope to unite their divided kingdoms when her father betroths her to a powerful Welsh warlord, the Hammer King. But the fledgling alliance is fraught with enemies from within and without as Branwen becomes the target of assassination attempts and courtly intrigue. A young woman in a world of fierce warriors, she seeks to assert her own authority and preserve Wales against the barbarians. But when she falls for a young hedge knight named Artagan, her world threatens to tear itself apart.

Caught between her duty to her people and her love of a man she cannot have, Branwen must choose whether to preserve her royal marriage or to follow her heart. Somehow she must save her people and remain true to herself, before Saxon invaders and a mysterious traitor try to destroy her.

excerpt courtesy of St. Martin's Press


Today I will marry a man I have never met. My stepmother orders the servants to brush the dust off my white gown. Father, our King, is already well into his cups as he and his warriors sing bawdy songs from the mead hall. Beneath my chamber window, the sea crashes into the hill fort walls. My head aches as the rolling surf bangs against the slick rocks far below, wearing away the fortress crags with the endless patience of the tide. I’ve half a mind to throw myself over the ledge.

But I don’t. I am Branwen, daughter of King Vortigen, ruler of the Kingdom of Dyfed. I have a duty to the honor of my ancestors, and I will not be the first of my line to blemish it. Nonetheless, at times like these, surrounded by my stepmother’s dawdling servant girls and their barking lapdogs, I wish I wasn’t an only child. That’s not entirely true. Father has countless bastards, many of whom are no doubt carousing with him down in the dining hall this very instant. But I have no siblings born on the right side of the blanket, no one to confide in. No one to take my place in this betrothal to a distant king.

The floorboards of my solar shudder beneath my feet. My stepmother grimaces, annoyed by the boisterous celebration of Father and his warriors drinking, brawling, and merrymaking with the peasants and scullery maids in the adjacent hall. I can hardly blame them. The people of our tiny seaside kingdom are euphoric. Not because they long to see me wed, but because my marriage means a lasting peace and an end to the war. My soon-to-be husband has an army of six thousand men outside our gates who have laid siege to our kingdom for the past two moons.

All I know of him are the six thousand spears that dot the green hills from the landward side of my window. That and the stories about him. I know less than a common dairymaid thanks to my stepmother, the Queen. She forbids any of the servants from telling me much of the outside world. But I have overheard a few rumors, from women in the kitchens and the horsemen who run Father’s stables. They call him the Hammer King. He wears an iron mask into battle and wields a war-hammer said to have slain a hundred foes. My nightmares of late consist of a shadowy, faceless blacksmith. Each evening he swings a massive hammer down upon the anvil of my heart. I often awake in sweats that soak my bedcovers.

I tap my foot, glaring at my stepmother.

“Please, leave me be. I need to make water.”

The Queen frowns.

“Do not muss your dress. A lady doesn’t raise her voice or stomp her foot.”

I roll my eyes. She ushers her bondswomen and their small dogs out of my bedchamber. Sometimes I envy those little hounds. At least my stepmother pets them and says nice things to them. She continually mistakes me not for her stepdaughter, but for some porcelain doll she can dress up and paint as she pleases. After the door closes, I wait until the last of her footfalls diminishes down the stairwell.

I collapse on a footstool and put my head on my knees. I can’t weep. My stepmother will see the tearstains and Father will backhand me for having bloodshot eyes on the day of my wedlock. It seems just yesterday I played along the windswept beachheads, making tracks in the damp sand. The heft of my crepe wedding gown weighs me down as I look out my bedroom window for the last time. I’ll be wed to the Hammer King by sundown.

Composing myself, I descend to the main dining hall. I hide my palms within the folds of my gown so that no one will see my hands shake. Father and his warriors cheer when they see me, banging their mead cups against the tabletops. Liquor sloshes from the brims of their drinks. They’re too drunk to notice how I look. My stepmother’s servant girls snicker behind their hands. Crow Face. Raven Head. Blackbird. The same old names. My stepmother makes no move to stop them. In our kingdom, even the slaves mock me.

My pale cheeks burn. My stepmother’s golden hair shines by torchlight, just like a noble lady’s ought. Even the bondservants have tawny or brassy locks. My midnight tresses and forest-green eyes reflect in the polished shields hanging on the wall. Black hair. Peasant hair. Amongst our kingdom, only the commoners and barbarians have jet-black sheaves like mine. It doesn’t help that I’m thin as a stick and the bumps on my chest are small as flat cakes. No wonder my stepmother and Father are so delighted. The miracle of all miracles has happened. The day they marry off their ugly daughter.

And to a mighty king no less. I labor under no illusions. I am part of a bargain, a peace settlement that will bring stability to the warring kingdoms. The man who plans to marry me tonight has never seen me before, nor did he ask to. I only hope the war doesn’t start anew when he sees what an ebony-haired scarecrow he has for a bride. I’ve reached my sixteenth summer and already my life seems to be over.

Father motions for me to take a seat on a mead bench across from him, a checkered board laid out on the table between us. His thanes give us a wide berth. Father clearly wants a moment alone with me. He may look all mirth and smiles, but he flashes a wolfish smirk from behind his frothing drink.

He makes the first move with an onyx pawn, his strategy always aggressive when we play chess. Celtic Chess, known as fidchell in Ireland and gwyddbwyll in parts of Wales; playing the game connects us to our roots, an ancient stratagem originating with the Old Tribes whose blood runs in us still. It’s the only pastime Father and I ever shared together, the only moments when I saw something other than a stern monarch always frowning at me. Sometimes before the chessboard, he even let down his guard and talked of Mother. Not today though.

I defend with my druids, pieces called “bishops” by the clerics who play the game today. I prefer to remember things as the Old Tribes called them, as my mother would have known them. The King grimaces as he strikes one of my pearl pieces down with his horseman.

“You always hold back. Don’t just defend, learn to strike.”

“Maybe I’m laying a trap.” I smirk.

“Not likely.”

He glances from side to side, doubtlessly ensuring no one lingers within earshot as he leans across the board and lowers his voice so that only I can hear.

“I don’t need to tell you how much hinges on this alliance with the Hammer King. I’ve no son born on the right side of the blanket, and my wife’s womb lies empty. You’re all I have left, so we must make do.”

There it is. A not-so-subtle dig that had I been born a boy, things might have been much better for everyone. But now, he must make do with a raven-haired urchin like me. I swallow, trying to focus on the board while I listen.

“You’ve no wiles to put on him, no way to seduce the Hammer King, even if he was that sort of man,” Father explains. “But you will be privy to private councils and words that pass in the halls of his castle. Things that may never reach my ears. It will be up to you to look out for Dyfed’s interests.”

“You want me to spy on my new husband?”

“I want you to keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut.”

I sigh, taking a deep breath. This may be the last time I see Father for a long, long while. I might as well be honest.

“Is it all worth it, Father? Wedding me to this stranger to save our people?”

Father grimaces at me like I’m some idiot child.

“Better to be at the right hand of the devil than in his way.”

Within a dozen moves, he eliminates half my pieces on the game board despite losing his horsemen and his queen. Father was always good at sacrificing a queen when it spoke to his advantage. His sea-gray eyes gaze into mine, the look of a man more king than father. He takes my king piece to win the game, his voice flat and even.

“One game ends, another begins.”

A knot tightens in my stomach, knowing that he refers to more than just the chessboard.

War trumpets blare outside. My heart stops up my throat. The clanking din of iron greaves and heavy chain mail echo from the hall entranceway. The Hammer King has arrived.

Father’s men push back their mead benches, grabbing their spears and shields. Even though peace has been declared, they plan to look their fiercest before the Hammer King’s men. Several guardsmen surround my stepmother and her ladies, but only one soldier thinks to stand by my side.

Ahern shoulders his spear and shield beside me. His stout frame and ochre beard bear a strong resemblance to my father. Even though he is one of Father’s many bastards, he almost seems a full brother to me at this moment. I would reach out and take his hand, but right now I can hardly keep my knees from wobbling.

The Hammer King’s thanes fan out into the torch-lit mead hall, the ever-present roar of the nearby surf thundering through the bones of the castle. Despite the crashing waves, my heart drums louder within my ears. The Hammer King’s men wear iron helms and vests of mail, their thick teardrop-shaped shields bigger than our people’s light calfskin bucklers. Although I know it would be treason to say it, the Hammer King’s warriors look big enough to swallow ten of Father’s men for supper. So I say nothing. My stepmother often reminds me that a lady keeps silent poise. Father always chides me that no one wants to hear what a little girl would say, especially when kings and lords are present. A herald blows on a curved horn once more, before raising his voice for all to hear.

“All hail, King Morgan, Lord of South Wales, Master of castles Caerleon and Caerwent!”

I murmur the name of my future husband. Morgan. I half-forgot the Hammer King had a real name, just like any other Christian soul. He is just a man, after all. My heart lightens until a lone figure appears in the hall entranceway. He wears a crown made of forked stag antlers, beneath it a metal helmet with a steel mask. Despite the tiny mouthpiece and eyeholes, the mask resembles the grim visage of an iron goblin. I cannot move, frozen by the hollow stare of the Hammer King as he stands on our darkened doorstep. Even Father’s mouth hangs open, speechless. Only the sound of the sea and guttering torches fill the vast stone hall.

Morgan’s footsteps clack heavy as horseshoes across the cobblestone floors. He carries a huge iron war-hammer, slung behind his back. I doubt any men in the room would have the strength to lift it. He pauses first before Father and my stepmother before turning toward me. The Hammer King removes his riding gloves as he looks me over. Even through the eye slits of his mask, I feel his gaze appraising me as a knight might observe a horse. My cheeks burn hot as I dig my fingernails into the flesh of my palms. What did I expect after all? He is a warlord called the Hammer King, not some charming troubadour with a harp. He has not come to woo me, but to bed me. The King removes his helmet-mask and smiles.

I swallow. He wears his brown beard short and well trimmed, his gray eyes sparkling with a hint of starlight. Morgan flashes another friendly grin. He even has all of his teeth! Other than an old scar along his left eye, he has an unblemished face. My stepmother’s ladies-in-waiting would surely blush if he ever glanced their way.

Bowing slowly, I regain my composure. He is a king, after all, and is only being courteous. It must make him retch, to have an ugly youngling like me for a bride. Morgan has at least ten years on me, maybe more. He could have any queen he might desire, but he has chosen a crow-faced girl barely halfway through her teens. I can guess his thoughts. Morgan sees my father’s lands when he looks at me. He sees all the green pastures, windswept rocks, and stout spearmen of Dyfed in my eyes. I represent an extension of his ever-growing kingdom, nothing more.

Father clears his throat. Were the situation not so tense, I might stifle a giggle at seeing my father so lost for words. He and the Hammer King bow to one another, their warriors leering at each other across the room. Father never takes his eyes off King Morgan.

“I present my daughter, Lady Branwen of Dyfed. May she bear you many sons!”

I flush from ear to ear. The Hammer King frowns with approval and nods. He takes my hand, his fingers so much larger and rougher than mine. I feel small as a mouse in his grasp. Father raises his hands, signaling to the minstrels that they may resume playing their lutes and pipes. The din of clanking drinking horns and mirth making fills the hall. Serving wenches smile as they bring mead to soldiers from both armies. Father leans in close to Morgan’s ear.

“Let us retire to my private chambers, Lord Morgan.”

The Hammer King bristles at Father calling him “lord” instead of “king,” but he nonetheless nods in reply. He seems a silent sort of man. What must my boisterous father make of his new son-in-law? The Hammer King releases my hand, but I remain beside him, uncertain what to do next. My stepmother intrudes with a curtsy, batting her eyelashes at King Morgan.

“My liege, I summoned a banquet from our larders for your wedding feast. Forgive our unprepared tables, but we had little warning of the newly announced betrothal.”

“No need, Queen Gwendolyn. I march at dawn back to Caerwent. My bride and I will be wed there.”

“Oh, I–I see,” my stepmother stammers.

She curtsies again, her eyes glazing over with distracted thoughts. Morgan’s words clearly disappoint her, but I can’t help from flashing a dark smile. At least I won’t have to deal with any more of my stepmother’s pomp and fuss, struggling to make me a lady after years of neglect. At the same time, the finality of my wedlock weighs down my steps. Come tomorrow, I’ll leave my childhood home beside the sea forever, belonging to a strange man in a strange castle far to the east.

Father detects none of his queen’s disappointment, nor my own foreboding, as he ushers Morgan toward his chambers. I trail after them, still not knowing what to do with myself. Father gives me a sharp glance. He clearly doesn’t want anyone disturbing his meeting with Morgan, but I loathe the thought of remaining behind with my stepmother and the other chattering serving girls in the main gallery. I’ve never been one for festivities. Reading one of Abbot Padraig’s books beside the fire, alone in my solar, has always appealed to me more than the drinking songs of the mead hall. As I stand alone, save for my guardsman, Ahern, King Morgan turns back and takes me by the hand.

“I would have my Queen-to-be remain at my side. I brought an army all the way to Dyfed for her hand, and I don’t intend to let her out of my sight.”

He smiles again, and I find myself stupidly grinning back. Hopefully, he doesn’t notice my crooked eyeteeth or the pockmark of acne on my left cheek. Did he really assemble an army just to make a woman out of a stick-thin girl like me? Father raises a stern eyebrow before he shrugs. He mumbles under his breath.

“Womenfolk are too dim to betray secrets they do not understand anyway.”

The three of us snake up the spiral staircase to Father’s solar overlooking the cliffs. Ahern remains at the foot of the stairwell, guarding the entrance. Father shuts and locks the door.

A chill runs down my spine as a fell wind blows in through the window. Icy stars glimmer over a rising blue moon. Father rarely allows anyone inside his private quarters. Although a Welshman to the bone, Father is proud of the blood of Romans and Irishmen in his veins, distant though those ancient links may be.

An imperial eagle standard from a long-lost legion of defeated Rome hangs in one corner. Celtic tapestries with knot-work deck the stone interiors. Father lights a candelabra beside his desk before unfolding several parchments and charts. He stoops down beside the chamber hearth, rekindling a fire in the glowing embers. Morgan pores over the largest map on the desktop, a drawing of Wales sketched out by long-dead monks with insect ink on calfskins. I’ve seen the Abbot’s clerics do as much when they recopy the tomes of the ancients in their chapel by the sea. I retreat to the corner of the chamber, more comfortable in the shadows where I can see without being directly seen.

The fire in the grate blazes to life, lengthening the shadows that line Father’s face. Without warning, he brings his fist down hard on the center of the map on the table. I jump back at his snarling face, but Morgan doesn’t move, almost as though he expected this outburst. The two kings stare one another down as the blaze in the fireplace snaps and crackles across the peat logs. Father breaks the silence first.

“Do you think to steal my throne from under me? My lineage is twice as ancient as yours!”

Might will unite Wales under a single king someday, not pedigrees,” Morgan replies calmly. “And I’ve more than enough spears to drive your tiny kingdom into the sea, Lord Vortigen.”

Father sneers at Morgan in turn calling him a mere lord in his own castle. Backing against the wall, I suddenly wish I hadn’t poked my nose into Father’s affairs. If only the Virgin would provide me a tactful way to flee the room. Foolishly, I placed myself in the corner opposite the door. With Father’s blood up, I’ve no intention of crossing his path while he and Morgan stare one another down. Father bangs his fist against the tabletop again, raising his voice loud enough to shake the rafters.

“Aye, you might, might scale our walls, but we’d bleed your army dry if you tried it!”

“I’ve no intent of shedding blood before my wedding night. Nor do I wish to interfere with your castle and kingship. You knew what type of alliance I wanted. Your daughter’s hand unites our houses.”

“But I still rule as sovereign in my own lands!”

“Of course. Dyfed belongs to you and your sons ever afterward, but when I call on you, I expect Dyfed’s spearmen to join my army. I am a patient man in many things, Vortigen, but in the days to come, you either stand with me against the Saxons or not. That promise I will keep in blood.”

At mention of the Saxons, my heart sickens. Those cruel pagans have conquered more than half our lands and every year eat away at the borders of Wales. Their hordes of bloodthirsty warriors have filled every cemetery in the Welsh Lands with countless men, women, and children. I ball my fists at my sides and shut my eyes. Only once have I seen the Saxon brutes up close, long ago. The flames of the longhouses and the screams of womenfolk still ring in my ears from that night. Father’s stern face sobers with sadness at the mention of the Saxons. He glances at me as I bite my lip in the shadowy corner.

“Ever will I stand against the Saxon invaders, Morgan. It was they that took my first wife and nearly made an orphan out of my daughter the night their longships arrived on our shores.”

I look Father in the eye, my own green eyes burning hot as embers. Almost never do we speak of Mother, not after that night all those years ago. Suddenly, Father’s mild contempt for me becomes so plain. He lost my mother, a beautiful wife of the Old Tribes with midnight locks and emerald eyes. In her place, all he has left is me. A daily reminder of a lesser, uglier version of the queen he lost. Who can fault Father for despising me? He only managed to save me that fateful night, not Mother. The Saxon swords did the rest. Morgan steps between us, for the first time really looking at me without the pretense of a half-forced smile.

“Not a family in Wales hasn’t lost someone to the Saxons,” Morgan begins. “Since my father was slain by their chiefs, I have ever waged war against them to keep my kingdom and all of Wales safe.”

Morgan faces Father again.

“We are natural allies, Vortigen. Every year the Saxons push our borders back. Lands that the Welsh once peopled peacefully now lie burnt and broken under Saxon rule. We must unite all the Welsh Lands or it is only a matter of time before the Saxon war-chiefs push all our kingdoms into the sea.”

“You’ll never unite all the Welsh,” Father says, hanging his head. “Not since the days of Arthur has it been done. Maybe these are the last days of the Free Welsh. Perhaps the Saxons come to bring about the end of the world as the priests have foretold.”

Rarely have I seen the wind knocked out of Father so, and never have I seen him show his despair before a stranger. Despite still wearing my white wedding gown, I throw a horse blanket around my shivering shoulders. His words chill me to the marrow. All our once-great castles and sacred sites have fallen to the Saxon invaders in the last few generations. Londinium, Camelot, and Avalon are all mere memories in the folklore of our people now. Far to the west, on our rocky peninsula of Dyfed, it seems easier to sometimes forget the Saxon threat that daily besets the eastern borders of the Welsh Lands. But I sometimes wonder whether I’ll ever live long enough to sprout gray hairs on my head, before the Saxons extinguish our race from the free kingdoms in the west. According to the priests, it has been nearly six hundred years since the coming of Christ and already it looks as though the End of Days is upon us.

Father collects himself and grimaces at the map. The mountainous, wooded terrain of Wales has helped defend us just as much as the sword and spear, but the many rivers and valleys also divide us into separate fiefdoms all calling their own lords king. From the northern realms of Gwynedd to the southernmost territories of Gwent, no Welshman acknowledges a single monarch as ruler over all Wales. Father shakes his head.

“Even with you and I united in the South, the rest of Wales will never bend the knee to you, Morgan. Belin the Old rules North Wales with an iron fist, and the Free Cantrefs in between are just as likely to raise the sword against us as they are the Saxons. Our Welsh love of independence and infighting may be what helps the Saxons to finish us off in the end.”

“Leave Old Belin and the Free Cantrefs to me,” Morgan assures him. “Climb one mountain at a time.”

Father nods and grasps Morgan’s hand in the Roman fashion, the two noblemen clutching one another’s forearms firmly. Goose bumps cover my skin. Only yesterday, Morgan’s armies were our enemies, and tonight they become our friends.

Morgan lost his own father to the Saxons and so we both know what it means to lose a parent. Perhaps that should comfort me, but instead a prickly feeling rises in my gut. Something about this unnaturally calm Hammer King unsettles me.

By wedding me, he has united Father’s kingdom with his own, obtaining control over all South Wales without losing a single soldier. Whether Father knows it or not, he has for all intents and purposes bent his knee to Morgan. The spearmen of Dyfed will now fight beside the knights of Morgan’s army. Like a spectator of a chess game, I’ve watched Morgan put my father into checkmate and Father doesn’t even seem to know it. This husband of mine is no fool to be trifled with. Perhaps he will someday be king of all the Welsh. Perhaps.

Both men look at me as I clear my throat. It takes a moment to find my voice. What do the likes of kings care for the thoughts of a sixteen-year-old girl? But I’ve the blood of Celts and queens in me, and among our people, women still have the strength to speak up. Even a tiny mouse like me.

“There is one thing you wise men have forgotten.”

Morgan and Father exchange looks.

“It will take more than swords to defeat the Saxons,” I continue. “Their numbers are greater than ours.”

“Speak when spoken to, child,” Father fumes, before apologizing to Morgan. “She reads too much from the Abbot’s books, and you can see how it addles a feminine mind.”

“No,” Morgan interrupts with a hand. “I would hear what my Queen has to say.”

Father gives Morgan a sidelong glance, probably wondering why he indulges me so. The Hammer King looks me up and down, not as a horse this time, but sizing me up as though I were a man. Before either of them can change their mind, I press on with my point.

“Suppose you do the impossible, and unite Wales, and push back the Saxons. We will be too weakened and new infighting will begin. New invaders will come. Whether Saxons or Picts at our gates, an iron fist will not keep the free-spirited Welshmen loyal to any man’s crown.”

“Bah!” Father protests. “Let us worry about that day whence and if it ever comes.”

“No, the lady is right,” Morgan says, still looking at me. “What would you do, Lady Branwen?”

My gaze falls and I feel hot in the face for having brought the subject up. I see the problem too clearly, but a solution does not arise in my mind. My voice dies down to almost a whisper.

“I know not, my liege. I only know that bloodied spears and swords are not enough to bind the Welsh people together. You must do something else to unite them … something that speaks to their hearts, to earn the love and admiration of all Free Welsh folk.”

I straighten my spine. Father blows air between his lips and turns to stoke the fire. Morgan says no more, observing me with his unfathomable gray eyes. Just like the people of Wales, I too would prefer Morgan win my heart before claiming my loyalty. I know not whether my words have touched him or if he thinks me more the fool. Probably just some little, insignificant girl, whose only purpose is to provide a bedmate and heirs for the royal line. Just what a proper lady ought to be, my stepmother would say. I grind my molars, half-mad at myself for speaking my mind and half-frustrated that my stepmother’s view of a woman in this world might be right after all. But she doesn’t have the blood of the Old Tribes running through her veins like me.

Without another word, the two kings descend the stairwell toward the din of boisterous revelers in the mead hall. Traversing the stairs, I feel Morgan close to me and smell his musk, a hint of pinesap and peat smoke on him. He must spend many a day in the field, under a tent, rather than at home in his castle. My palms sweat, feeling his breath so close to mine own. Will he wait until our wedding before putting me in his bed, or will he take me aside tonight? Wed by a priest or not, I’m to be his property soon enough.

Descending the turret steps, Father and Morgan outpace me as the two of them resume speaking in low tones. At the foot of the stairs, I head down an adjacent corridor, needing a moment to myself. A salty evening breeze cools my face as I stand beside an arrow slit overlooking the orange glow of the chapel windows down by the cliffs. Hymns from the monks’ and nuns’ evening vespers reverberate along the dark moors as the clerics pray to God.

A pair of footsteps shuffles beside me in the dim corridor.

“I hope I’m not too late to wish the bride-to-be congratulations and a long, happy life.”

“Abbot Padraig,” I reply, smiling at the balding holy man. “What brings you up from the abbey?”

“A little memento for my best pupil,” he says with a grin.

He pulls a large tome out from beneath his brown robes, opening to the first page. I put a hand to my mouth at the sight of such a magnificent manuscript, fine yellow vellum replete with perfectly tilted script. An illuminated image of a dark-haired woman wearing a crown shows on the opening page, her gown painted with bright azure, beryl, golden, and ruby hues. The Abbot places the heavy book in my hands.

“It’s written in my own hand, a record of the ancient days of the Old Tribes, and Queen Branwen the Brave.”

“Branwen the Brave? My mother named me after her.”

“Because Queen Branwen was the most beloved queen of all Wales,” he says, beaming. “Wise, good-hearted, and courageous.”

I raise a curious eyebrow.

“She also met an unfortunate end, if I recall.”

“Sometimes sad stories teach us the most. But I pray that you will draw inspiration from this book when you live in your new castle, far from home.”

I reach out and take the old man’s hand. Books are rare as gold, and this is no small present even for the head of a monastery. No one has ever given me such a treasure before.

“Thank you, Padraig. I shall read it often, and when I do I will think of you, my friend.”

He smiles and bows, still vaguely formal in his mannerisms, despite the two of us having been student and teacher for years. His vestments smell faintly of crushed herbs, doubtlessly having just come from the monastery apothecary. The patient monk spent many hours not only instructing me in scholarship, but also in the ways of the healing arts. I’m going to miss his steady voice and fatherly countenance.

The hymns from the abbey down by the sea gradually change their tune, the new melody perking my ears. An ancient lay in the Old Tongue. I swallow a lump in my throat, recognizing the familiar evensong. They only chant like that when a woman begins childbirth, using the song to draw the babe into the world. Local womenfolk heavy with child often go to the abbey to receive help and blessings as they bring their newborns into the world. Of course, not all mothers survive the ordeal.

Morgan will surely expect me to bear him sons before long. How many moons before I find myself on a birthing bed? Will the nuns sing of my deliverance or my funeral dirge? A knot forms in my throat.

Father and Morgan’s suddenly harsh voices echo down the hall. I beg Padraig’s forgiveness as I excuse myself and hurry back toward the foot of the turret stairs. The guardsman Ahern bows toward them, his face flushing with color.

“Forgive me, sires, but a rider has arrived bearing ill news. The East Marches are under attack! A Saxon army has crossed into the Welsh Lands.”

I feel the color drain from my face. Several other guards exchange worried looks. The roar of wenches and soldiers in the nearby mead hall reverberates off the ceilings. Most of the revelers still do not know of the evil tidings. Tomorrow many of them may be widows or dead. Perhaps this alliance between Father and the Hammer King has come too late.

Morgan loosens his giant war-hammer from his back. He hangs his head and speaks under his breath, although whether praying to God or cursing the Saxons, I cannot tell. His war-hammer seems nearly as tall as I am. He turns to Father as he dons his helmet, the mask portion still drawn up so we can see his face. Whatever his feelings, he speaks with the stoicism of a veteran soldier.

“I leave posthaste, Vortigen. My army is needed elsewhere, but I will call upon the spearmen of Dyfed before long.”

“God go with you.” Father nods.

A hush falls over the entire castle and I no longer hear the minstrels playing. Word has clearly reached every corner of the keep. Morgan orders his warriors about. His men scurry out from alcoves to get their armor on whilst maidens pull on their disheveled shifts and wipe fresh kisses from their tender mouths. A few older soldiers guzzle down the last mead in their drinking horns.

As I step back quietly, others bustle about without seeming to notice my presence. It looks like I won’t be going anywhere after all. Morgan is halfway out the hall entranceway, his thanes saddling their horses. A mixture of relief and regret bubbles up inside me. With a war on, the Hammer King hardly has time to make a wife of me just now and take me away from my childhood home. At the same time, it will be another monotonous month or more of listening to my stepmother’s chatter and the snide remarks of her ladies-in-waiting.

I set down my new book from the Abbot on a nearby table, gazing at the image of the ancient Queen Branwen on the first page. What would she do in my stead? I’m no great matron of the Old Tribes as she was.

Morgan calls out above the chaos of mingled soldiers and serving wenches, drawing my attention with his commanding voice.

“Lady Branwen, we must make haste.”

He speaks politely, but firmly, and at first I do not understand. Morgan beckons me forward while drawing his black mount nearly to the lintel of the hall entrance. My eyes widen before I cross the floor and take his hand.

He means to take me with him. Tonight. This very minute.

My pulse jumps in my throat. I move to speak, but nothing comes out. With one swift motion, King Morgan hoists me atop his dark stallion. He mounts the monstrously large beast and wraps an arm around my middle. His massive war-hammer dangles from the other fist. A single kick of his heels jolts the horse forward as we gallop off into the night. Dim torchlights and the whoosh of the sea fade behind us.

I’ve not even had a moment to say farewell. To Father, Ahern, the Abbot, or even my stepmother. I’ve nothing but the wedding gown I’m wearing. And my new book still sits half-open on a mead table in the main hall! Curse my empty-headedness.

Morgan and his horsemen canter through the darkness, neither sparing a glance toward me nor each other as they follow the old coast road east. An argent moon emerges from the clouds, lighting our path ahead. Despite the cool night air, I sweat like a roast. My temples ache as I glance back at my new husband, holding me astride his horse like a stolen bride. Morgan grimaces as though already deep in thoughts of battle. He intends to take me with him against the Saxons, and into the heart of danger.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Noce

Listen to an audible sample HERE
Book two out 12-5-17

Between Two Fires
Mark Noce
Noce’s debut is like an armchair travel back in time to the turbulence and wild beauty of late Sixth Century Wales. Featuring a realistic mix of Christianity and Pagan worship he spins his tale rich in folklore, legend and factual history, while his eloquent narrative captures the powerful emotions and the violent, unforgiving times. His unforgettable strong willed protagonist, Branwen, extraordinary costars and vivid scenes make this a page turning must read for all fans of historical and literary fiction and especially those who love strong, history making women characters.
Sixteen-year-old Branwen is the only legitimate child of King Vortigen of the Welsh Kingdom of Dyfed and is about to become a queen. She’ll marry a man she’s never met, a King ten years her senior not for love but for duty and for protection because her world is one of constant conflicts, threats not only from the conquering Saxons but also infighting within the many Welsh clans. She’s got the blood of The Old Tribes of her mother running through her veins, blood from a time where women were held in high esteem and equals to men. She’s not sure how she’ll do it but she’s determined to make a difference as a woman in a world now run by men, a world ruled by the sword, a world where the female sex is considered foolish and unimportant. Her fervent hope is that she avoids becoming a pawn.

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Meet Mark:
MARK NOCE writes historical fiction with a passion. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he has been an avid traveler and backpacker. He earned his BA and MA from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he also met his beautiful wife. By day, he works as a Technical Writer, having spent much of his career at places like Google and Facebook. He also writes short fiction online. When not reading or writing, he's probably listening to U2, sailing his dad's boat, or gardening with his family. He is the author of Between Two Fires.


  1. This would be such a tough choice - true love or what her parents expect. Things were so different during that era. I haven't read historicals in a while, but I'm thinking more about what happened in the past now that I'm older. My teachers would be so proud. (lol) Hugs...RO

    1. so proud :). I love Paula Brackston's fantasy tales of old Wales and I thought to add in some reality and see how they match up. I LOVE them both!!

  2. Ooo Medieval Wales. It has been a while since I traveled there via my sofa.

  3. FYI..I love your header. Is it new or am I slow?

    1. you are not slow it was actually sent to me by a commenter called Vanilla Orchids she didn't want to insult me but she thought this header would look good on my site. She found it on a free pic site and modified it with my name and script. I absolutely LOVE it, and you know me ms I can't do anything technical without step by step instructions, I gladly accepted her offer. I even offered to let her put a designed by label but she said she really didn't do anything much. Thanks for noticing Kim

  4. This sounds pretty amazing! What a hard decision for Lady Branwen to make. I would definitely like to find out what happens.

  5. I like the cover, but not maybe in tune with the period

    1. No, you think the gate is too ornamental for 6th Century Wales? I wondered about that myself, although they were pretty talented in iron work so perhaps

  6. That excerpt dragged me right into the story. I'm putting this one in my wishlist.

  7. Oh I hope she gets her heart's desire and helps her people. I'd read it for sure and most look up the first one. Loving the new header, only scrolled up when I saw Kimberley's comment. Very nice must say.

  8. I adore medieval romances and this looks like a story I could really dive into.

  9. I really love the new header. It looks amazing. I'm glad that you enjoyed this book. It does sound like a very interesting tale.

    Melanie @ Hot Listens & Rabid Reads

    1. Thanks Melanie I do too. I'm going to devote a post to it soon!

  10. Sounds really good, Debbie! I love that cover, too. It's very unique. Yay on the new header! I'm finally getting around to visiting everyone and a couple of yall have changed things up all pretty like. lol

    1. Glad your getting back Anna, just take care of those eyes!!! xo