Happy Thanksgiving to all my wonderful readers! I hope you enjoy a day full of friends, food, and family—and realize how much we all have to be grateful for.
I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving—especially that time my mom made the gravy explode (I’m still not sure how she did that). We’ve never had huge Thanksgivings in our family. It’s always my parents, my sister, and my grandparents—six people—eating so much food we can hardly think straight. Dad and Papa would always watch football while I helped Mom and Grammy in the kitchen. And my sister—well, historically she’s set the table, but recently she’s been helping with the food. She’s making pecan pies this year.
Several years ago, my sister and I made Thanksgiving trees. They were just little foam trees, and on every leaf, we wrote something we were grateful for. (It wasn't this fancy, but here's the general idea:)
I was thankful for my dolls, my dog-walking business, and my books.
Nicole was thankful for Pokie (her little green stuffed porcupine), her food, and her soccer ball.
Neither one of us put “my sister” on a leaf, until Grammy told us to.
Today, I’m thankful for my family and God’s blessings in our lives. I’m thankful for my home, my church, my job at a nursery, and all the books I’ve read and written. (And I’m very thankful for you all, my dear readers.)
But this Thanksgiving is going to be a bit different from our previous Thanksgivings. It started back on Sunday, when I got a phone call at 7:15 A.M. I was still in bed, but I hardly ever get phone calls, so I answered it. And I was glad I did.
It was from my mom. She was in the hospital with my dad. He was having a heart attack.
No one was expecting this. My father is about as strong as a horse. He eats healthy, and while he doesn’t get much exercise, he’s still pretty strong. In fact, he’d just spent all of Saturday digging holes for fence posts.
The next few days were rather hectic. I’d drive my sister to the hospital every morning and do school in the waiting room, because the Wi-Fi was faster there. People dropped by. One family brought pie. They are now my favorite family ever.
My father ended up having two stents put in. He never lost his upbeat personality, and God’s blessed him with peace. He’s given all of us peace, actually. I knew my dad was in good spirits when he asked me to bring his hairbrush from home.
At first, it was a little strange to see Dad lying so still in a hospital bed. But today, he might as well be at home, sitting in his red recliner, watching football. He looks great, and everyone is very thankful that he’s alright.
What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving season? Let me know in the comments below! God bless you, dear readers, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving day…and don’t forget to like us on Facebook!
Alynn awoke at the same time she always did, halfway between Prime and Terce, and right before the sun turned the clouds from black to grey. She could hear Rowan chopping wood outside, and she rolled over to see Tarin sleeping peacefully. She dressed quickly and ran a brush through her hair. She wanted to look nice on her first day at work.
While the stirabout was cooking, Alynn swept the floor and tucked her bedroll under the bed. Tarin woke up slowly, rubbing his eyes.
“Are we still in Barrygone?” he asked.
Alynn took Tarin’s clothes off the nail on the wall. “We are,” she said, plopping Tarin’s clothes next to him. “Rise and shine, Tarin! I’ve got work today.”
“Did you tell Da?”
Alynn bit her lip. Rowan hadn’t come home from work until well after dark. Tarin was already in bed, and Alynn had nearly nodded off waiting for him. He’d eaten his soup in silence, then halfheartedly kissed Alynn’s head before he fell asleep, murmuring about horses.
“Not yet,” she said.
Tarin yawned. “I think you should. Has he brought the wash-water in yet?”
“Yay! I don’t have to wash my face today!”
“Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we have to be dirty,” Alynn scolded. She ran a comb through Tarin’s hair as he put his socks and boots on. “You don’t want people to look at us like they’re better than us, do you?”
Tarin scowled. “I don’t.”
“Then wash yer face.”
Rowan came inside with an armload of firewood, set it near the stove, and left for another armload.
Alynn’s eyes stayed on the closed door as if she half expected Rowan to open it again and smile and say, “I forgot to tell ye good morning, didn’t I?” But the door didn’t open, and Alynn sighed.
“Stack the firewood, Tarin, while I tend to breakfast.”
Rowan didn’t say his good-mornings until after he’d prayed for the watered-down stirabout, and he ate without hardly saying a word.
“If I come home early enough, could you mend my trousers?” Rowan asked. “I tore the leg yesterday.”
“Thanks.” Rowan gave each of his children the kiss on the head that they coveted every morning, then left for work. Alynn smiled. She washed the breakfast dishes and was at the O’Shaughnessy’s house by the time the church bells rang the hour of Terce.
“Alynn, you’re here!” cried Fiona. She was already perched on the seat of a spinning wheel, the delicate machinery whirring at her fingertips. She waited for the wheel to stop before she bounced off and hugged Alynn. “Oh, this will be grand! I’ve never worked with anyone my age before. You don’t know how to use a spinning wheel, do you?”
“That’s alright, I’ll show you. This is the distaff, where you put the fleece. And the yarn goes through here, here, and under here, and it ends up on this bobbin here.” Alynn’s eyes tried to follow Fiona’s pointing finger, but nothing worked. “Does that make sense?”
“Just spin the wheel, and the rest is like a drop spindle,” Fiona promised. “It’s easy once you learn it.”
“What do I do?” Tarin asked.
“What you’re doing, lad, is comin’ with me!” said Colum, who had just finished inspecting the wheels for damage. “It’s market day.”
Tarin beamed and skipped after Colum. “Be careful,” Alynn called after him.
“I will!” Tarin promised. The door shut, and for a moment, Alynn was worried for him.
But then, she sat down at the spindle, and excitement pushed out all her worry. She spun the wheel to get the feel of things, then loaded the distaff and started working. Fiona sat beside her and worked the wheel like a seasoned veteran, talking all the while.
“Perchance tomorrow you can eat breakfast with us,” she prattled. “Is it lonely, not havin’ a sister to talk to? My sister Agnes is only nine, but she’s still fierce nice. She understands me better than Seamus. But Seamus is six, and Mum says that if he and Agnes switched places, I’d like him better. I still can’t imagine livin’ without Agnes. And then we have Ceili. She’s two.”
Alynn smiled. “Do you like havin’ a baby sister?”
“I do, but she’s loud and she cries a lot still. It was fierce terrible while she was teethin’. Mum says she’s spoiled because she’s the littlest, but I still think she enjoys actin’ the maggot.” Fiona finished spinning all the wool on her distaff, and she looked at Alynn. “Do you wish you had a sister?”
“Do I count?”
Alynn smiled. Her eyes were focused on her work, but she could still see Fiona’s eyes sparkling. “We’ll see.
For many people, a love of words starts early. I was one of those people. When I was just three years old, my mom would sit with me in a big, red armchair and read Little House in the Big Woods to me.
It wasn’t long before I was old enough to read the books for myself. By the time I was seven or eight, I’d read the entire series—and I didn’t stop. I continued with Roger Lea MacBride’s tale of Laura’s daughter Rose in Little House on Rocky Ridge. I remember idolizing Rose’s friend Paul Cooley. In my eyes, he was fifteen. He could drive a wagon all by himself, and he was practically a grown-up. I was surprised to look back a few years later and realize he was only ten.
I recently picked up one of the Little House books again--On the Banks of Plum Creek to be exact—and I realized just how much they’d shaped my childhood.
I loved the Little House series because it was simple. There were no fancy gadgets or devices. People talked with each other instead of texting friends. And on the cozy winter evenings, they’d sit in front of the fireplace, and Ma would sew and Pa would tell stories and play his fiddle.
Yes, they had their share of problems—and then some. But with hard work, sacrifice, and determination, they got through them.
I’m far from being a pioneer. I enjoy using electronic devices, I can’t knit, and I’ve never played volleyball with a blown-up pig’s bladder. But I learned some things from the Ingalls. I learned that families who stick together can get through anything. I learned that it’s okay to take responsibility and do more than your fair share of work. And I learned that even pioneer siblings didn’t always get along, either.
It took me a while to realize how much I’d actually gleaned from the Little House series. In Where the Clouds Catch Fire, I describe a blizzard. Have I ever seen a blizzard? No, but Laura has. She described them in great detail, and I was able to give that much more authenticity to my own writing by learning from her.
Laura was a great describer of details. She probably learned that from describing things to her sister Mary after she went blind. In the books, she describes sunsets and kittens and so many dresses that I got tired of reading about what everyone was wearing. I didn’t understand most of the words for fabric—words like “cambric” and “fawn-colored” and “gingham” and “muslin.” In fact, I always read the word “cambric” as “ceramic” and figured it must be a very stiff material.
But alas, all good series must come to an end. I moved on—I read The Chronicles of Narnia and Charlotte’s Web and The Crittendon Files, and more recently I’ve read The Scarlet Letter. But one of these days, I should dust off the old set and start off at the beginning, with Laura introducing us for the first time to Ma and Pa and Mary and Carrie and Jack, the brindle bulldog.
Have you read the Little House series—or do you prefer the TV show? What’s your favorite book series! Let me know in the comments below! God bless you, dear readers—and don’t forget to like us on Facebook!
“When’s Da going to come home?” Tarin begged. His face was blackened with soot from cleaning the fireplace, and the rest of him wasn’t much cleaner. “I’m hungry.”
“We’re all hungry,” Alynn sighed, closing her eyes. She’d lie down on the floor if it wasn’t still so dirty and wet from the leaking roof. Three days’ worth of cleaning hadn’t made too much of a difference on the tiny hovel. She’d spent four hours scrubbing the walls, and she still couldn’t see much of a difference.
“I want cheese,” Tarin said. “And bread and soup and carrots and a big cup of milk!” He spread his tiny arms wide, smiled, and looked up at Alynn. “Can I have some cheese?”
“We don’t have any.”
Tarin’s face fell, and he went back to cleaning the fireplace. “Is this good enough, Lynder?”
Alynn looked at the fireplace. Only half of the fireplace was noticeably cleaner, and streaks of soot were everywhere. “Let me touch it up,” she said.
“You never let me finish!”
“You’re not old enough yet,” Alynn snapped. “Go pick dandelions.”
“But it’s rainin’!”
“You said you’re hungry. Go outside and pick dandelions.”
Two tears slid down Tarin’s soot-streaked face, and he stormed out of the house. Alynn sighed, then scowled as water dripped from a leak in the ceiling down the back of her neck. If Tarin were older, she’d send him up on the roof to patch it. It was almost as rainy inside as it was outside.
Alynn took all the buckets, mugs, and bowls she’d placed under leaks and emptied them into the soup kettle. “At least we won’t be fetchin’ water for a while,” she muttered.
Someone knocked on the door, and it creaked open. The latch was broken.
“Can I come in, Alynn?” asked the voice of Fiona O’Shaughnessy.
“Sure, you can,” Alynn sighed.
Fiona had visited the hovel only once before, but she skipped inside as if she was visiting an old friend. She looked up at the leaky ceiling with a wry smile and found a dry patch to stand under.
“You’ve done a grand job of cleaning,” Fiona said. “How can you stand not havin’ a fire going?”
“Can you help me finish cleanin’ it?” Alynn asked.
“Sure, I can. I should have brought my brother Micheal with. He’s eight, and what he’s got is more energy than the rest of us put together. He doesn’t enjoy cleanin’ much, though. He likes runnin’ errands with Da. What is it you like to do?”
“I don’t know,” Alynn said.
“Of course you know. Everyone likes somethin’, don’t they?”
“I suppose I like gardening,” Alynn said. “But we haven’t had a garden since I was nine. We’ve moved too much.”
“That’s a fright.” Fiona scrubbed the stones deftly. There seemed to be magic in her touch that made dirt fly away. “I like cleanin’, but it’s cookin’ I like best of all. I’m still terrible at it. I can spin, though. Da pays me sometimes to spin for him. Do you like spinnin’? I’m sure Da could pay you, too.”
Spinning yarn wasn’t Alynn’s favorite chore, but she didn’t mind it. She enjoyed watching the fluffy rolags of wool turn into soft yarn. And she was willing to do anything to get out of the hovel and earn an extra shilling for food.
“I’d love that,” Alynn smiled. “Do you truly think he would?”
“Of course he would! As long as yer da’s alright with it, that is. I can teach you to use the spinnin’ wheel.”
For the first time in a long time, Alynn felt hope and excitement. It was Christmas and Easter and the first day of harvest all wrapped into one. “I’ll tell Tarin,” she said, “and I’ll meet you at yer house!”
“A job?” Colum asked quizzically, letting his spinning wheel come to a stop. “You’re a wee bit young for a job, aren’t you?”
“But she’s my age, and I’m twelve, and twelve is a grown-up, right, Da?” Fiona asked. She looked at Alynn. “You’re twelve, aren’t you?”
“She’s not!” cried Tarin, who had tagged along.
Alynn shrugged, trying to look unconcerned. “I’m close enough.”
“Is yer father alright with it?” Colum asked. “You’ve talked with him?”
Alynn nodded, and her conscience stung for lying. “I have—I mean, I will tonight. If he comes home for tea, that is. Sometimes he doesn’t get back from work until after Tarin’s gone to bed.”
“And he’s always too tired to play with us,” Tarin said.
A friendly look came into Colum’s face. “Well, lassie, you can work from Terce to noon, every day except Sunday, and I’ll give you five shillings a week. Tarin, you can come and help me run errands, and I’ll give you yer own shilling if you’ve earned it. How’s that?”
Alynn’s face lit up, and she gave Colum a hug. “Thank you, Mr. Colum,” she smiled. “Thank you so much. When do I start?”
“Come on Monday, if you’ve a mind to.” Colum smiled, and Alynn skipped off to make dinner. Hopefully, it was the last time she’d have to make do with oats and wild greens
Good characters are vital to any story. Think about all the TV fandoms—“Game of Thrones” comes to mind, as does “Supernatural” and the Star Wars franchise. Why do people go absolutely crazy over these shows? They love the characters. And so I’m here today, dear readers, to tell you how to create a multi-dimensional, heartstring-pulling, compelling fictional character.
There’s no way I’m getting this done in 500 words, so I’m just going to cover the basics.
Every character, be they the hero, the villain, or the guy who gets honked at for cutting someone off in traffic, needs three qualities. They are:
Everyone is good at something. Your character’s strengths are the things they’re good at or admirable qualities they possess. They might be smart, athletic, kind, funny, or attractive. They might be good at making friends or sword-fighting. Everyone character needs strengths—even the villain. The truth is that even the most despicable person has things you can admire about them—even if it’s simply their determination to reach their goal.
A quick word of warning: your characters should not be good at everything. There are three general categories your character’s strengths will fit into: intellectual, physical, or intrapersonal. In other words, they can be smart, athletic, or social butterflies—but never all three. Pick one, or two at the most, because perfect characters are boring.
To counteract your character’s strengths, they also need flaws. Thanks to a YouTuber (Ellen Brock, I believe), I now know that your character’s main flaw should be something rooted in their backstory. For example, Alynn’s character flaw is her extreme workaholic nature. She developed this after her mother was kidnapped and she basically had adulthood thrust upon her at the age of nine.
The flaw can be anything—pathological lying, a bad temper, depression—as long as it can be linked to something that happened in the character’s past. In most books, the character flaw is resolved as part of the book’s plot and/or the character’s arc.
Obviously, your character is going to have more bad qualities than just their flaw. They’re human, after all, and humans have bad qualities. Be it slouching, procrastinating, swearing, or constantly tripping over things, your character will have little things wrong with them that are called quirks.
Not all quirks are bad. I twirl my hair a lot. This is a quirk, and the only negative consequence to it is split ends. Another word for a quirk would be peculiarity, or something that makes that character unique. Quirks can be useful. My mom has the habit of clearing her throat, and it came in handy when my child self would get separated from her in Walmart.
Well, there you have it! The three things any character needs to be well-rounded and emotionally compelling, in less than 500 words! If you were a fictional character, what would some of your quirks be? And if you belonged to a fandom, which one would it be? Tell me in the comments below! (Also, feel free to ask questions, be they about the blog post or Where the Clouds Catch Fire in general.) God bless you, dear readers—and don’t forget to like us on Facebook!
Even though Rowan rarely accepted charity, he took up Colum’s offer to spend the night. Perhaps it was because a gentle rain had set in during dinner, or because the woods were too wild for camping in, or because the O’Shaughnessy family was simply too friendly for anyone to decline their offers of hospitality. However this miracle happened, Alynn was glad of it. She awoke the next morning to the smell of Kiva making breakfast.
Alynn pulled her dress on over her undershift and draped her plaid over her shoulder. She pinned it in place with a horseshoe-shaped pin, then tied it at the waist with a rope. Her belt had worn out two houses ago.
“You’re awake early,” Kiva said, stirring the stirabout. “Did you sleep well?”
“I did,” Alynn nodded. She dug through her family’s trunk, careful not to make too much noise, until she found her comb. She worked it through her strawberry-blonde tangles.
Rowan entered through the back door with a bucket of water. He smiled at Alynn. “I can’t thank yer family enough,” he told Kiva softly. “We’ll be leavin’ as soon as Tarin wakes up. I need to hunt for a job.”
“You’ll stay for breakfast,” Kiva said.
Rowan gave a smile that he didn’t mean. “I’d hate to intrude.”
“And I’d hate for the black pudding to go to waste. You’re stayin,’ Mr. Rowan, if there’s anythin’ I can do about it.”
Rowan hesitated, and Alynn smiled. He’d never turn down black pudding.
Tarin sat up, his hair as wild as a rat’s nest attacked by a stoat. “Lynder, where are we?” he asked.
“We’re still at Mr. Colum’s house,” Alynn said. She brushed Tarin’s hair while he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “In Barrygone.”
Tarin looked around. “Something smells funny.”
“It’s black pudding that Miss Kiva’s makin’ for breakfast.”
Tarin made a face, and Alynn gave a sympathetic smile. She wasn’t terribly fond of black pudding, either, but it was a welcome break from stirabout.
Alynn helped put breakfast on the table. Rowan ate quickly, then left to find at least a decent day’s work. Alynn ran her fingers over her rosary necklace and breathed a silent prayer that he would find a job. But she didn’t have time to worry. She helped Kiva wash the dishes, then went with Fiona to weed the garden.
“Do you like gardens?” Fiona asked.
“I don’t mind them, but I prefer spinning. Da’s got a spinnery. Sometimes, he lets me work with him. Wool makes yer hands soft, and it smells good.”
Alynn smiled. Not everyone enjoyed the distinctive barnyard odor of wool, but it reminded Alynn of her grandparent’s house in Limerick. “My Granddad was a shepherd,” she said. “He and Nan always had soft hands.”
“That must be grand. My Nan, she’s got claws like a banshee.” Fiona made a face, and Alynn caught herself giggling.
“Fiona, are you workin’ or talkin’?” Kiva demanded. She’d been working in the patch of dye plants. “It’s nigh to noon. What have ye finished?”
“The watercress, parsnips, and onions, and we’re halfway through the garlic,” Fiona announced.
“Grand job,” Kiva said. “Alynn, where’s yer brother?”
Alynn’s heart skipped a beat as she stood and scanned the yard. “Tarin!” she shouted. She saw nothing, she heard nothing, and fear started mounting within her. “Tarin, where are you?”
“Lynder!” cried a faint voice. Alynn spun around to see Tarin, followed closely by an unusually cheerful Rowan. Alynn gasped.
“You found a job?” she asked.
“I did!” Rowan said, taking Alynn into his arms as she ran to hug him. “And I found a house, not too far from here.”
“Where are you workin’?” Kiva asked.
“Harald Otarrson, the horse breeder. We’ll be livin’ on his croft.”
Kiva nodded. “I wish you luck.”
Rowan kept talking—probably thanking Kiva for the hospitality—but Alynn tuned out. Harald Otarrson was a Norse name, Norse just like the man who had kidnapped her mother. Part of Alynn was frightened, and part of her was livid. She squeezed Tarin’s hand until he squirmed, gave her thanks to Kiva, and clung to Rowan’s hand as they left for their new home.
The croft itself was beautiful. Horses grazed on grass greener than any dye, and stone walls kept them inside. But the hovel Rowan led them to was falling down.
The door hung precariously from one hinge as Rowan opened it. It reeked, as if dung had been used instead of mortar between the stones. The wattle-and-daub roof was still dripping from last night’s rain, and part of the wall looked as if a tree had fallen on it. Leaves and trash were strewn across the straw floor.
Alynn took a deep breath and blinked. Perhaps, if everything was cleaned and the bed was made up, and the roof was repaired, it would look more like a home.
“Tarin, fetch some firewood,” she said. “I’ll see if I can’t borrow a broom.”
Pen or pencil? Screen or paper? Coke or Pepsi? Writers have to make a lot of choices. And while people are curious as to what's best when it comes to platforms, writing utensils, and the great paper/screen debate, I can only answer their questions with what works best for me.
I started writing my first book in a notebook. I was ten when I started, and I remember sketching the single illustration at my sister's kindergarten graduation. I also remember walking dogs and saving money to buy my own computer, because my notebook was a pain in the butt. My grandmother actually bought me my first computer--a purple HP Pavilion which faithfully served its purpose for six years.
I prefer writing on computers for multiple reasons. It's faster to type than it is to write, it's a whole lot easier to edit your work, and it's easier to share with others. I'm not picky when it comes to my choice of computers. I currently use a Dell Inspiron. It's nice, and I like that it's a touchscreen, but you have to remember to turn it off periodically or it goes a little crazy. It also doesn't have a DVD drive, but I'm pretty sure they aren't standard anymore.
And as far as writing programs go....Word really is the best. I'm still using Office 2010 because my dad bought it a long time ago. OpenOffice is a good alternative, but for novel writing, I'm actually starting to use yWriter. (You might have heard of a similar software called Scrivener. yWriter is basically the same, just free and more dated.)
All this isn't to say that paper doesn't have its place. I use paper for outlining plots, character development, and drawing things like maps and timelines. I also store random notes on sticky pads. At the moment, I have a sticky pad listing the full name of a Welsh character (their patronymics go back five generations).
And when it comes to paper--pens or pencils? I had someone ask me this question on Quora once. I typically use mechanical pencils. I can't stand not being able to erase things. But pens have their place. I actually have a pen with a llama topper sitting in my pencil holder right now. I probably named it Kuzco. I watch too many movies.
I personally listen to music while I write. I don't know why. Instrumental music is supposed to boost creativity, but at the moment I'm listening to Thousand Foot Krutch, which doesn't exactly fit into that category. It still does a good job of masking the sounds of my sister playing with her friends out in the loft and my dog whining outside.
And for the age-old debate, Coke or Pepsi? Forget it. I don't do caffeine. (So don't even bother asking me if I drink coffee. I don't.)
What's your favorite writing medium? Do you drink Coke or Pepsi? Tell me in the comments below! God bless you, dear readers, and don't forget to like us on Facebook!
The oxcart ride was so rough that Alynn would have been less sore if she’d have walked. Nevertheless, she was grateful for the chance to rest. She slid off the cart and stretched her aching joints, and even Tarin made a face as he jumped down.
“Lynder, I’m hungry,” he said. “Do we have any more cheese?”
“I’ll check,” Alynn promised, even though she knew she wouldn’t find anything. “What about some watercress?”
“But I want cheese!”
Alynn checked the horse’s saddlebags one last time, and once again found nothing. “We don’t have any,” Alynn said. “We’ll get more. Don’t worry, Tarin.”
“It’s nigh time for tea,” Colum said. “Come eat with us, will you, Mr. Rowan?”
“I hate to intrude,” Rowan replied, which was his way of declining charity.
“Whisht, we love the company,” Colum said. “Run to Miss Kiva, lassie, and tell her we’ll be havin’ friends over!”
“I will, sir,” Alynn nodded. She ran into the spinnery, then into the room behind it that was so much like her home in Limerick, and looked around.
Colum O’Shaughnessy’s house was a perfect home. There was a pot bubbling over the fireplace, and a cat sleeping on the bed, and two girls playing with dolls on the floor. Everything was warm and cozy. Mrs. O’Shaughnessy was slicing bread at the table.
Nervously, Alynn rapped on the doorframe.
Mrs. O’Shaughnessy looked up. “Come in, child,” she said pleasantly. “Is it cardin’ spinnin’ you need from us?”
“I’m Alynn McNeil, and Mr. Colum said my father, my brother, and I could eat with ye tonight,” Alynn replied. “What can I do to help, Miss Kiva?”
“Stir the stew, if you’ve a mind to. Fiona, put the baby in her cradle and come help.”
Alynn stirred the stew as she was instructed, then looked beside her. A girl about her age, brown-haired and blue-eyed, was staring at her.
“How are you gettin’ on?” the girl asked. “I’m Fiona.”
“Set the table,” Kiva instructed. Fiona bounced off, and Alynn looked back at the stew. She’d have to be careful around Fiona. She’d learned long ago that girls her age were generally friendly, and the more friendly they were, the harder they were to leave. Usually, though, they’d leave her alone if she ignored them.
“You said yer name was Alynn, didn’t you? Where are you from? Are you stayin’ here?” Fiona babbled. She danced around the table, her skirt swirling, as she placed five bowls on the table. “Mum, we don’t have enough bowls.”
“Share one with Seamus, then,” Kiva said.
“Alright.” Fiona smiled at Alynn. One of her top front teeth was missing, and Alynn caught herself smiling back at her. She quickly checked herself and stared back at the stew.
“It smells good, doesn’t it?” Fiona asked. “That’s because Mum put lots of meat in it. It’s fierce good. I’ve not met a person yet who doesn’t like Mum’s stew.”
Tarin flew through the door. “Lynder, Mr. Colum says that he’s ready to eat,” he said. He looked at the stew, then the bread and cheese on the table, and grinned at Kiva. “You make good food! Can I have some cheese?”
“Tarin, whisht,” Alynn snapped. “I’m sorry, Miss Kiva. That’s my brother, Tarin. He should know his manners by now.” She glared at Tarin, but he smiled sweetly and hugged her legs.
“You shouldn’t be mad that I’m hungry,” he said.
“Oh, stop,” Alynn scolded, smiling. She filled a bowl with stew. “Sit at the table, will you?”
“I will.” Tarin climbed into a chair just as Rowan and Colum came in. Alynn filled the rest of the bowls with soup and was grateful to sit down with her own bowl. She’d only half-filled it, in case Rowan or Colum wanted extra.
“You’ve got to be hungrier than that, child,” Kiva said as she eyed Alynn’s bowl, and she gave her an extra ladle of soup.
Colum prayed for the food, and the adults all began talking about Rowan and where he was from and the weather there and the price of rent and livestock at market. Alynn tried to listen.
“I don’t get grown-ups,” Fiona said. “They talk about boring things. Don’t you think that?”
Alynn savored her bite of stew. She nodded.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
“I talk,” Alynn insisted with her mouth full. She swallowed before she continued. “I just don’t get the chance to do it much.”
“I’m always at home workin’. I can’t talk to Tarin, because he’s too little.”
“You don’t have any sisters?” Fiona asked.
“That’s a fright. I’m sorry.” Fiona gave a sympathetic smile, but then her face brightened. “I can be yer sister. Will you like that?”
Every part of Alynn wanted to say no, that she’d only leave again, and she’d hurt them both. But Fiona’s shining eyes and hopeful smile changed Alynn’s “I won’t” to a quiet “I think that’s grand.”
Hello, dear readers! Here's an excerpt from Where the Clouds Catch Fire. Tell me what you think in the comments below!
Alynn woke the next morning not knowing a thing about the Norsemen’s meeting the previous night or their dashed plan to attack the monastery that morning. She went about her morning chores with the newfound joy of salvation in her heart, setting breakfast on the table just as Lukas came in from taking care of the animals.
“I surveyed the blizzard damage,” Lukas remarked, wiping snow off his boots. “Nothing worse than at least four inches of snow, thank the Lord. And…what, may I ask, is this ye’ve set on the table?”
“Parsnip porridge,” Alynn answered, hoping that she didn’t sound too ridiculous. “I finished a bag of oats yesterday, and the root cellar’s snowed over.”
Lukas stirred the pot over the fireplace suspiciously. “Indeed. How’d ye make it?”
“Grated, boiled, and seasoned parsnips,” Alynn answered. “It’s as ready as it’s ever going to be.”
Lukas sat down across from Alynn and bowed his head. “Precious Lord Jesus, we thank Ye fer a good night’s sleep, and fer protecting us during the blizzard last night. Thank Ye fer accepting Alynn into Yer family, and fer another beautiful day to grow closer to Ye and serve Ye. We pray that Ye’d bless this meal and the hands that prepared it—and keep us from food poisoning. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”
Lukas opened his eyes to see Alynn glaring at him through angry turquoise eyes that snapped diamond sparks. “Food poisonin’?” she repeated. “Really?”
“I’m just teasing ye, but if ye’d just been served stirabout made out of parsnips, ye’d ask the same question.”
“But food poisonin’? Not even Tarin could ruin a parsnip that badly,” Alynn defended. “I’ve already test-tasted it, and I’m still alive. Don’t worry. Just try it.”
As he apprehensively took his first bite, Lukas seemed to choke as he put his hand over his mouth, forcing himself to swallow. “Och, goodness!” Lukas coughed, drinking half his mug of water. “What did ye add to this after ye tested it?”
Surprised, Alynn took a bite of something that had the bitterness of gall and the texture of vomit and spat it back into her bowl. “Faith! Lukas, I’m sorry…you might have been right about the food poisonin’. Will—”
“Alynn, calm down. It’s not that bad—”
“Not that bad, indeed!” Alynn contradicted. “My father could cook better than this! I can’t see how—it was melted snow, parsnips, and parsley, it shouldn’t taste that bad!”
Lukas looked up at her with a start. “We don’t have any parsley.”
Alynn paled. “We don’t?”
“Show me what ye used.”
Alynn got up, picked a bag out of the spice cabinet, and handed it to Lukas. He looked at the leaves inside of it, sniffing them curiously. “This is milfoil, Alynn,” he corrected.
Alynn’s eyes widened in surprise. “What? But—but it looks just like parsley, how can it…?”
“The Lord made it that way, I suppose.”
Alynn took the bag that Lukas handed her, tied it again, and put it away. “I’ll make curds tomorrow.”
“I could always make griddle cakes,” Lukas offered.
Alynn sighed. “I might have to take ye up on that offer. I’ll give this to the pigs.”
“Alynn, ye’ll do no such thing,” Lukas declared. He rose from the table and was at the cupboard before she could object. “Somewhere on the top shelf…in the back…I know we have some honey…there it is.” He sat back down and set a covered jar between them. “We are going to make this work.”
Cautiously, Alynn took a spoonful of honey and stirred it into her porridge. “Is it supposed to be this thick?” she asked. “Does it melt?”
“Ye act like ye’ve never seen honey before.”
“Lukas, I grew up patchin’ clothes with barley sacks, not sippin’ tea with the governor’s daughter. Of course I’ve never seen honey before!”
“Then pardon my asking,” Lukas said, stirring his bowl vigorously and tasting it. “Much better. How’s yer fried cabbage coming?”
“Fish oil doesn’t work. The pigs wouldn’t even eat it.”
Lukas hid his half-smile by taking a drink. “If ye can dig through the snow and get to the root cellar, how does stirabout sound fer tomorrow morning?”
“Better than parsnip porridge.”
“Aye,” Lukas nodded. He picked up his drinking mug. “To fallbacks.”
“We’re going camping tonight!”
Alynn McNeil couldn’t help but smile at her little brother’s antics. Tarin skipped beside her, holding her hand. “Will there be wolves like there were last time?” he asked.
“I hope not,” Alynn said.
“Aw,” Tarin mourned. His freckled face fell for a moment, but them he smiled again. “Maybe we’ll get to hear them sing! Da, why do wolves sing to the moon?”
Alynn looked up at her father Rowan, leading their rented horse. His eyes were distant, like they usually were, and his face was blank and expressionless.
“Da,” Alynn repeated. Nothing changed in Rowan’s appearance, so she tugged his sleeve. “Father!”
A spark of life jumped back into Rowan’s eyes for a moment. “What is it, Lynder?” he asked.
“Why do wolves sing at the moon?” Tarin asked again.
“Because—because wolves can’t always be together,” Rowan said. “But when they’re apart, they sing to the moon. When all the wolves, all across Ireland, sing at the same time, it’s like they’re singing together.”
Tarin smiled. Rowan picked him up and carried him on his hip. A journey of two and a half miles was difficult for Tarin to make on his five-year-old legs.
Part of Alynn wished that Rowan could pick her up and carry her, too. But she was eleven, already entrusted with running the McNeil household, and no one with that responsibility should be carried like a toddler.
“Can I ride on the horse?” Alynn asked.
“Me too?” Tarin asked.
Rowan looked at the horse, already laden with all the worldly goods his family possessed. “I don’t think there’s room for ye.”
“But I want to ride the horse,” Tarin said.
“But you can’t.”
Tarin grumbled and buried his face in his father’s royal blue and forest green plaid. Alynn wished she’d have kept her mouth shut.
As Alynn glanced at the forest that surrounded them, she became aware of a noise that was gently lifting itself above the clip-clopping of the horse’s hooves on the path. It sounded like a rumbling, too constant to be thunder, and at times what sounded like a man’s voice.
Suddenly, the rumbling was so close to Alynn she could feel it, and she turned to see the face of an ox, mere inches from her.
Alynn screamed, and Rowan snatched her out of harm’s way. The ox took a few confused steps backwards on the hidden side-path it was on, lowing as it went. A man jumped out of the ox-cart and started shouting at it to calm down.
“We’re fierce sorry, lassie!” the man said as soon as his ox was quiet again. “It’s hard to see anythin’ on these blasted forest paths!”
“No trouble,” Alynn breathed. She was still trembling as she clung to Rowan like a squirrel to a tree.
“Wayfarin’ strangers, are ye?” the man asked. He ran a hand through his hair, a wild cross between blond and brown. “Ye aren’t headin’ to Barrygone, are ye?”
“We are,” Rowan said. He offered his hand for a handshake. “Rowan McNeil.”
“Sure, how are you gettin’ on? Name’s Colum O’Shaughnessy.”
“We’re grand,” replied Rowan, which was the farthest thing from the truth he could have said. “How about yerself?”
“I’m grand, grand.” Colum hopped spryly into his oxcart and smiled. “I’m headin’ for Barrygone myself. I could give yer wee lass and her brother a lift, if they’d like.”
“Yay!” shouted Tarin, sliding down from Rowan’s arms and climbing into the oxcart. “Lynder, it’s full of wool!”
Alynn came around to the back of the oxcart and sat carefully, making Tarin sit down beside her. “You must own a spinnery, Mr. Colum.”
“That I do! You’ve a smart lass, Mr. Rowan!”
“She takes after her mum,” Rowan said. Alynn heard the clip-clopping of the rented horse’s hooves, then a shout from Colum, and the ox cart started moving with a jolt. It bounced over every dip and pebble on the dirt road, and Alynn clung to Tarin for fear he’d fall off.
“Lynder,” Tarin asked, as if he couldn’t feel the bumps, “are we going to stay in Barrygone for a long time, or are we movin’ again?”
Alynn gazed up at the sky. There were a few clouds, but not enough to hide the pure blue of the sky. A sudden beam of light dazed Alynn as the sun peeked out from behind a cloud.
“The sun’s shining,” Alynn said. “That means Jesus is smilin’, and I’d say that’s good luck.”
“Good,” said Tarin, cuddling closer to his sister. “I want to stay here.”
Alynn smiled. She prayed and wished with all her heart that they could stay. Even so, she’d learned never to tell Tarin they’d never move again. Lying was the one sin she didn’t enjoy bringing up in confession.
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.