Magnus, page 1part #4 of Mists of Albion Series
A Time Travel Romance
Copyright © 2018 Joanna Bell
All Rights Reserved.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locations is purely coincidental. The characters are all productions of the author’s imagination.
Please note that this work is intended only for adults over the age of 18 and all characters represented as 18 or over.
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My mom almost teared up when it came time to say good-bye. I was conscious, as she enveloped me in what must have been one of the least sincere mother-daughter hugs in history, that to anyone else in the airport we must have looked like a normal family.
"You have a lot of growing up to do, young lady," my mother whispered as she pretended to wipe a tear off one heavily rouged cheek. "I just hope some time in the country will help you see it, too."
I looked up at my dad, standing slightly behind her, refusing to catch my eye. He should have said something. But there were already a thousand times my dad should have said something, and he never did.
"Dad?" I prompted, as the old familiar anger started to rise up in my chest.
"Listen to your mother," he mumbled, stepping forward to offer an awkward hug and then back again immediately so as not to interfere for too long with my mom's dramatic good-bye scene.
Just before I was about to turn away, she suddenly grabbed my face between her hands and let out a wail that caught the attention of everyone within a twenty-foot radius. "Heather!" She sobbed, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. "Oh Heather! You don't know how hard I've tried to help you! You don't know how difficult this has been for me! You –"
It struck me then, as I noticed a few disapproving looks thrown my way by strangers –who couldn't help but find themselves sympathetic to a pretty blonde woman's tears – that I had my ticket in my hand. For once, I didn't actually have to listen to the woe-is-me lecture my mom was working herself up to right there in the middle of the airport.
I turned, jerking my face out of her claw-like grip, and began to walk away.
"Heather!" She screeched. "Heather, goddamnit, don't you dare walk away from me! Don't you dare!"
I kept walking. My mother doesn't show herself in public. Not the side that isn't pretty and blonde and endlessly suffering at the hands of her useless husband and her wayward disappointment of a daughter – me. She wasn't going to throw a fit right there in front of everyone and I knew it. So I kept walking. I didn't look back. I didn't look at anything. Just straight ahead until I was in my seat on the plane, staring out the window as the sunlight glinted off the silvery wing.
I'd never flown anywhere before, but I wasn't scared. At take-off a wave of exhilaration swept through my whole body at the sudden sensation of flight. I leaned in close to the window, watching as the airport, and then the surrounding fields and the roads and the cars below me got smaller and smaller until the flight leveled off and the middle-aged man next to me peeled his white-knuckled fingers off the armrest and lit a cigarette.
"Can I bum one of those off you?" I asked.
The man, who had a visible sheen of sweat on his forehead, silently handed me one of his cigs and his lighter and then I relaxed back into my seat and took a short drag. I'd never met my aunt Brenda or my uncle Bill, or the disabled younger son I was going to help them care for over the summer. I didn't know anything about River Falls, New York. What I did know is that it was very far away from Los Angeles. As far as I was concerned it could have been Mars – what mattered was the fact that my mother was not going to be there.
As the pale, dry desert gave way to the green patchwork fields of the Midwest, I allowed myself to daydream a little about what River Falls might be like. It was a small town, apparently. And I was from a big city. I had a Sony Walkman and Jordache jeans and a fresh perm, all courtesy of my dad's guilt complex. He wouldn't stand up for me in front of my mom, but he had no problem trying to buy forgiveness for his parental failures. What would the people my age in River Falls think of me? Would they be impressed? Would the boys do double-takes when I walked into the local bar? Would there be one boy in particular, tall and dark and looking not entirely unlike Tom Selleck, who might take an interest in me?
You're not going to River Falls to flirt with boys. You're going to help your aunt and uncle with your cousin.
Yeah, all of those things were true. But none of them meant I couldn't have any fun.
A stack of magazines lay on the bed in what was to be 'my' room for the summer, at uncle Bill and aunt Brenda's house in River Falls. My heart sunk a little to see that they were all copies of Seventeen – which I hadn't read since I was twelve. But Bill and Brenda didn't have any daughters, I reminded myself, so they couldn't be expected to know what young women were interested in. On top of the magazines was a small handwritten note. I picked it up, smiling at the kindness of the gesture, the feeling of welcome.
The smile didn't stay on my face for long. The note was a list of rules. 'House Rules.'
1. Absolutely no smoking or drinking.
2. Absolutely no stealing. When you get a job, we will give you an allowance out of your paycheck.
3. Absolutely no backtalk or disrespect.
4. Absolutely no boys allowed in your room.
5. Absolutely no swearing.
6. Absolutely no hitting, punching or violence.
Hot tears of shame stung my eyes – obviously my mother had been in touch with Bill and Brenda. There was no way that list, which was the kind of thing that seemed more appropriate to a juvenile detention facility than a family home, would have found its way onto that stack of magazines if she hadn't.
I looked up at my aunt Brenda, who had been fairly quiet on the drive back from the airport. Now I recognized her wariness for what it was. Part of me wanted to throw myself at her feet, to beg her to give me a chance, to hold off on judging me until I'd had some time to prove I wasn't the devil in thick, black eyeliner.
But my mom had a way of coming off as the most reasonable person ever, and somehow I could tell from the look on my aunt's face that nothing I could say was going to convince her I wasn't some kind of miscreant.
"Hi," I replied quietly, looking down at the pastel pink carpet.
"Did you see our note?"
"So you understand the rules in our household. We expect you to find a job as soon as possible – Bill can give you a ride if you need one for an interview."
A job. The note had mentioned the same thing. Confused, I smiled up at Brenda, desperate for her to realize I was as interested in avoiding
Brenda sighed and pursed her lips. "You didn't think you were coming here to stay in our house all summer in exchange for a few hours of babysitting, did you?"
"I –" I started, and then stopped, because in fact that's exactly what I had thought. Because that's exactly what my parents said it was going to be. As far as I knew I was in River Falls to help my aunt and uncle look after their youngest son, Brad. "I'm not trying to be rude – and if you want me to get a job I will – but my mom said I was –"
"Your poor mother!" She cut me off, raising her voice alarmingly. "Don't you think you've put that woman through enough?! You haven't even been here for twenty minutes and you've already broken the rules!"
I closed my eyes tight and drew a slow, deep breath into my lungs, willing myself to stay calm. You know how persuasive your mother is. It's not Brenda's fault she trusted her. Just get a job and do your best, she'll see the truth soon enough.
"I'm sorry," I replied. "I – I'm not sure what rule –"
Me and my aunt, little more than strangers, stood facing each other for a few moments, and I could see from the look on her face that she was waiting for me to do something – to yell or scream or blow up or, who knows, run into the kitchen and grab a knife and try to stab them all to death? When I declined to do any yelling or stabbing, she smoothed her hair and told me to be up at six o'clock the next morning to help with Brad. And then she left.
When I was sure she wasn't coming back, I lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, telling myself that whatever I was in for that summer, it couldn't possibly be as bad as being back home in L.A., with my parents.
My leathers were heavy, sticky with blood. Another man's blood, not my own. The deck of the ship was stained dark with it, the oarsmen still spattered with it.
My father – the Jarl – and my older brother, commanded their own ships, sailing close to mine as we closed in on our home village of Apvik, empty-handed.
Empty-handed because we lost? Because we were bested by the disorganized Franks we'd set upon not two nights previously, who had surrendered quickly and then helped to load their grain stories and livestock onto our ships? No. Empty-handed because my dull-witted brother, the next Jarl by rights, had managed to drunkenly spill svass across the sacks of grain, which then went up in flames as soon as a spark from the bonfire happened to alight upon them. I was so angry I couldn't even speak.
"Brother!" Asger shouted from where he stood at the bow of his long-ship – second only in grandness to our father's. "Take that look off your face! Apvik is in the distance, and the village girls await the return of the Jarl's sons!"
I turned away, pretending I hadn't heard over the creaking of the oars and the shouted conversation of the men, and glanced towards my father. He, too, stood at the bow of his Jarl's long-ship, also assiduously pretending had not heard Asger's shouted words.
In truth, it disgusted me. It was not my place as the younger son to question anyone – especially my father the Jarl. And so I didn't question him – not with words, anyway. But anyone looking upon my face would have seen the contempt in which I held my brother, shouting of victory on his long-ship as we returned to Apvik with no spoils, no grain or pigs for the stores. We didn't even have any slaves, because Asger's men were so ill disciplined that they had allowed them to flee during the panic that had ensued when the grain sacks caught fire.
The Franks were nothing to me, strangers in a strange land. But they were men, and it didn't take a gothi to see that they loved their wives and their children as much as we Northern men did. And we had spilled their blood, copious amounts of it, as those same wives and children had looked on, screaming and pleading with us to spare them. And for what? For nothing.
A man of the North kills for necessity, for destiny. He does not revel in bloodshed, as the pigs revel in muck. That is what the gothi said. That is what my father used to say, before the gray began to appear in his beard and the antics of his oldest son made him stop speaking of things like honor.
"His head, Mother! You should have seen the way his head came off – so easily it was like a ripe fruit plucked from a late summer branch. Ha! And the wailing of his wife, as if –"
My brother spent our first supper upon our return regaling my mother with tales of the slaughter, and so joyous was his tone you'd think he spoke of Yule revels.
"Enough, son," my father said when he seemed determined to keep going until we had all lost our appetite. "Your mother is just happy to have her boys back, she needn't hear all the details."
Asger quieted down for a moment or two, frowning and taking a great bite of the buttered dark bread I knew my mother had baked because it was his favorite. But he was off again shortly thereafter, with more stories of killed men, killed livestock, burned villages.
Later, when he had left in search of one of the village girls, I helped my mother carry the empty plates and cups to the water's edge, to wash them with the rough sand of the beach.
"You don't have to help me with this, Magnus," she smiled as I followed her down the narrow path to the beach. "It's woman's work, son. You should go with your brother and find yourself a girl. You will marry soon, will you not? I don't think it too much to –"
"Mother," I said gently, kneeling down beside her to wash one of the ornately carved horn cups that only Jarls were allowed to drink out of. "Why do you speak of marriage to me when Asger remains without a wife? Of what importance is it to you if your second son finds a wife if your first –"
"Voss!" She cried suddenly, and my eyes widened at the unfamiliar sound of my mother cursing. "Oh Magnus! Why must you and I always speak in these roundabout ways, as if neither of us can see the truth?! You do not need to ask me these things, do you? Not really?"
I bowed my head and pretended to be engrossed in the task of scooping wet sand into another of the cups. My mother was right. I did not need to ask her those questions, because I already knew the truth that it seemed only we could see.
"Your brother isn't fit to herd sheep, let alone lead men," she spoke again, her voice very quiet. "It's only the Gods themselves keeping him alive now – and even the Gods' patience runs thin soon enough. Who will take care of your father and I when the gray runs thicker in our hair? Who will take on the name of Jarl when Asger gets himself killed?"
My mother seemed so small beside me. When had I grown so big that my own mother was as tiny as a child next to me? And when had it happened that she felt bold enough to say such things to me, to lay the burden of heirs at the feet of her second son, whose whole life had been an exercise in watching her and my father coddle and fawn over their first?
"You see who it is you've made," I whispered, as my heart pounded in my chest. "All my life you and Father spoke of nothing so much as you spoke of accepting our roles. And now you see what everyone in this village has seen for years and you come to me for –"
The sound of palm meeting cheek echoed through the cool night air and I lifted a hand to my face, remembering a time when such a blow would have sent me weeping to my bed.
"How dare you speak to me like that?" My mother spat, but I could hear the wobble in her voice even as she tried to conceal it. "How dare you speak to me as if I'm your father – as if I had some say in this situation! He is the Jarl, Magnus. The Jarl. Of all the people, I am perhaps the least well-placed to question him. You have done your duty as a second son – more than your duty, if what your father tells me of rescuing Asger from various scrapes abroad is true – and I have done mine as a wife. I have obeyed my husband, and fed his children at my breast. Look at how big you are, how tall and strong, look at –" she broke off, and buried her face in the crook of her elbow to stifle a sob.
She wasn't wrong. As long as the resentment had been bu
"But why must it be?" I asked, softening with pity. "Why must it be this way, Mother? Why must you and I remain silent as Father takes decisions that harm our family – our people – because he cannot see what Asger is?"
My mother turned her face up to me then, no longer angry, and her hazel eyes swam with a faraway look I could not quite decipher. "I don't know, my boy. It is as it is. Not even a Jarl can question the way of things – so who are we? We've done our best, haven't we? And when you look at me with resentment for asking you to take a wife, you must know I ask it for your good as well as mine. You must take a good wife – a smart girl, a girl with wit and fire in her belly. None of these simpering idiots that Asger favors will do for you, Magnus. You must build a life for yourself, a happiness for yourself that does not depend on your father or your brother. You still have a chance to do this."
She left the unspoken part of the sentence, the part where she acknowledged that her own chance was gone, unsaid.
I knew my mother meant well. I knew she spoke from the heart, where she truly wanted the best for me. But still my stomach burned with the rebellion that had been there since I was a child, the part of me that wanted to gather the gothi and my father and the people of the village and proclaim in front of them that I rejected their ideas about duty and rules and things being 'the way they are.' It was not the time to say such things there on the beach with my mother, though.
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