Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Getting *THE CALL*

I love stories on how authors reacted when they got THE CALL from a publisher offering a contract. They're fun because you can see their reactions to the whole thing. I'll admit, I like to collect them. I run them because it offers hope to many aspiring writer wishing for THE CALL.

My guest today is Olivia Cunning. I've known her for over two years and have read many of her stories and thoroughly enjoy reading work from such a talented writer. However, like many authors, Olivia didn't get a request on the first query she sent out. There is a lot of writing, sending off queries, waiting, getting rejections, repeating the cycle and getting more rejections. Sometimes an aspiring author thinks they will never get a nibble of interest much less a call like this.

But let Olivia tell you about her call.

I think every aspiring author dreams about how they will respond when they get “the call” – the call that converts them from aspiring author to debut author.

Well, after years and years of dreaming about it, it finally happened to me. I was not prepared. Nope.

How would I describe my reaction to “the call”? Stammering idiot comes to mind.

Let’s back up a few days.

I’d been querying my erotic romance series “Sinners on Tour” for a couple of months. Strangely, the publishers I queried kept making requests to review the full or partial manuscript, but I had absolutely no luck getting a literary agent interested. No luck. None. Zero.

So after a couple weeks of waiting to hear back from publishers (milliseconds in literary world time), I get an email from an editor at Sourcebooks. She told me she was taking my manuscript to an editorial meeting later that week. Meaning she wanted them to buy it. No guarantees that the publishing house would be on board with her decision, but I had a foot in the door. Maybe a whole leg.

After I got over the accompanying feeling of flattery (more precisely: OMG, an editor likes my manuscript! OMG! OMG! OMG!), the panic set in. I still didn’t have a literary agent, but I needed one if I did get an offer for publication. Business person, I’m not. And I don’t speak legal-ese. Time to face facts. I needed an expert.

This meant it was time to make a few calls of my own. Email correspondence would be too slow. Spam filters eat my emails for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I couldn't risk it. I had to pick up the phone.

I was a nervous wreck. (Is this where I mention my phone phobia?) How many times had I been told to NEVER cold call a literary agent or a publisher? Uh, many. Many, many, many. And I don’t recommend it unless your situation is as immediate as mine was. As I dial the numbers on my short list of potential agents, I’m expecting flames to shoot out of the phone and to be connected to that annoying fax-machine screech in retaliation. It turns out that literary agents are very nice people. Who knew?

Also agents are interested in reading your manuscript immediately when you have a potential sale in the pipes. If they don’t think they’re a good match for your work, they will still reject you. It isn’t just about making a quick and easy buck to them, as I had always assumed. They really want a strong connection with your work. My respect for literary agents grew three sizes that day.

Luckily, I found a match – the wonderful Jennifer Schober at Spencerhill Associates. I knew she was the right agent for me because a) she liked my work, b) she was easy to talk to, and c) she didn’t connect me to a fax machine after making me wait on hold for thirty minutes. I knew she was good luck, because while I was talking to her on the phone, I got an email from Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks. She'd just got out of the editorial meeting, and... they wanted to publish my manuscript. Well, my manuscripts. Five of them.


Yes, I’m still pinching myself. They bought the entire five book series.

SO after much enthusiastic screaming at poor Jenn (who shared my excitement), I hung up and less than a minute later my editor, Deb, called. This is when my stammering began. And my gulping. I don’t even know if I said a single coherent sentence. It’s all a total blur. When it was over, all I could think was: what a great first impression to make on your new editor.

So how did I respond when I got the call? With a complete lack of poise and grace. Maybe I should have rehearsed my reaction in advance.

If you’re an aspiring author, how do you think you’ll respond to “the call”? Or if you’ve already gotten “the call”, how did you react? It has to be better than I reacted.

Combining her love for romantic fiction and rock ‘n roll, Olivia Cunningwrites erotic romance centered around rock musicians.

Raised on hard rock music from the cradle, she attended her first Styx concert at age six and fell instantly in love with live music. She's been known to travel over a thousand miles just to see a favorite band in concert. As a teen, she discovered her second love, romantic fiction -- first, voraciously reading steamy romance novels and then penning her own. Sourcebooks will release Sinner’son Tour in Fall of 2010.

You can visit Olivia's Website and read the blurbs on the series. You can also visit her on her blog:

Brian’s Muse Book Blurb

Human Sexuality Professor, Myrna Evans, wants nothing but a weekend of hot, no-strings-attached sex with Sinners' sensual lead guitarist, but Brian Sinclair is looking for something more permanent than a one-night stand. Unable to compose music for months, when Brian makes love to uninhibited Myrna, he hears exquisite guitar riffs and finger-burning solos. In Myrna, he's found his muse.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What Is Your Brand As a Writer/Author?

As writers, we know what genre we write but do you know your brand as a writer/author?

Recently, a friend and I had a rather lively discussion about this over drinks. Honestly, I hadn’t thought as much about what my brand was or even what a brand was, other than in general terms as applied to marketing.

So what is an author’s brand? The author's brand is his or her work. They’re known for writing certain types of books. Think Stephen King, Christine Feehan, Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, or even Dan Brown. You know when you pick up one of their books exactly what you’re going to get. For the most part, we pick up books largely based on the authors’ brand.

Established authors do see themselves as a brand. They work to protect that brand and some even have trademarks attached to their names. Their brand represents a certain standard or identity readers recognize. In many ways every author is a brand, though they may not see it that way.

As one writing friend reminded me, when we were discussing this, branding is important as is the integrity of that brand. He cited how Nora Roberts has her JD Robb identity for certain stories she writes and that way she doesn't confuse her readers. Jayne Ann Krentz does the same, to a certain extent, with here Jayne Castle persona for her futuristic stories, Amanda Quick for her historicals.

Years ago, Disney realized that they had unused movie making resources (writers, producers, directors, studios, etc) and signed Danny DeVito, Bette Midler and others to multi-picture contracts (which relaunched their careers) producing such films as Ruthless People and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

The Disney brand was so valuable, and these movies were not PG, they came up with a clever solution and distributed the movies under a new brand — Touchstone films.

From a marketing standpoint, having a brand is important. If someone says, Johnson & Johnson, Harlequin, Disney, Campbells, Revlon, Wilson, or Black & Decker you know exactly what the products are. So it’s not surprising that Publishers are actively cultivating the trend of authors as a brand. Publishers are the first to acknowledge that branding is becoming a more conscious marketing activity.

Lynne Brown, Dorling Kindersley's brand manager, made an interesting observation.

  • “In recent years in an ever more crowded market, the consumer has come more and more to rely on brand identity as an indicator for purchase. We believe this is now true in all industries and no less so within publishing… this will continue to be a strong ongoing trend…”

I have a brand as Sia McKye Over Coffee. I have a logo and a tag line. I play up my Celtic roots. Judi Fennell, author of In Over Her Head, has a brand, Fairy Tales with a Twist. Whether she writes about Mers or Genies, you know her books are going to fit into that brand. While she incorporates darker threads within her stories, she never loses sight of her brand. They’re light, fun, and humorous.

  • What are your thoughts on branding?
  • What’s your brand? How do you present you and your work?

Lazy G (TM) Freeze Brand

Touchstone Pictures (TM) Brand

Friday, December 25, 2009

White Christmas (Short Story)

Christmas means many things to many people. For some it's a profound holy day. For others it's a day of gift giving, or just another day. Still others have learned to revere the holiday and what it stands for through other ways and means.

Such is the story showcased here today. White Christmas, by Simon Garte, tells the story of a soldier at war, raised an atheist and what changed it all for him.

It was not a white Christmas that year. At least not for him. He was in a land that had never seen snow. Rain, yes - lots of rain. But no snow. In fact it was raining that Christmas morning. He was sitting by himself in the rain. Alone. The camp was almost empty. He had volunteered to stay since he wasn’t a Christian.

Not then.

And also Snake eyes had asked him to stay. That weird thing had happened two days earlier, when he had been sitting alone in the rain, just like now. Snake eyes had come up to him and started talking. Snake eyes hated him, so that was already weird.

“Hey man” Snake eyes said.


“I need a stabber for Christmas.”

He looked up at Snake eyes dark, inscrutable face.

“Me?” He asked.

“Yeah you. Abdul can’t make it and all the other brothers and crackers are going to that thing down river. But I figgered, you bein a atheist or a Jew, or whatever the f-ck you are, maybe you want to do it.”

He thought about it. He had never done this before, never been asked to.

“OK” he said.

Now he was waiting in the rain for Snake eyes. “It’s Christmas” he thought to himself. His father, a committed atheist, refused to have a tree or any decorations in the house. The family had always exchanged presents on New Year’s day. Christmas meant nothing to him.

Nothing good.

An hour later, he and Snake eyes were walking north on the trail. They were soldiers, and there was a war, but they were not fighting. They hadn’t been fighting for months. There was no point to it.

When they got to a place that Snake eyes recognized, he pointed into the jungle, and the white boy left the trail. He found himself a position with a good sight of the trail and Snake eyes. He rested the M1 on a branch, and settled down to wait. The rain stopped and then started again. Snake eyes was sitting in the mud of the trail.

The two kids in black pajamas came down the trail smiling and laughing. They were the “enemy”, but had been doing business with the platoon for a long time. One of them carried a large sack, the other an old rifle of some kind. The kid with the rifle went into the jungle on the opposite side of the trail from where the white soldier was crouched, and that left Snake eyes and the kid with the sack standing on the trail. Snake eyes started talking to the kid. They were smiling and laughing. At first. But then the kid started saying something that Snake eyes didn’t seem to like. Snake eyes began raising his voice, and the words came through the thick jungle to him sitting with his M1.

“That’s bulls-it, man. That is bulls-it. What the fu-k are you saying?”

The kid answered, but too quietly to be heard. Finally he shook his head, and put down the sack. Snake eyes reached behind him and took out a small stack of bills from his rucksack. The kid took the money and then grabbed the bag and began running.

“Fu-k”, shouted Snake eyes, “shoot the mother.”

He raised the M1 and fired a round which went wild, and then he saw that Snake eyes was down.

“Snake eyes”. He yelled. No response. Except for the rain it was quiet. He scanned the jungle on the opposite side of the trail, and saw nothing, but lay down a lot of fire. Then he ran to the trail. Snake eyes was alive, but there was a hole in his chest and blood was mixing with mud all over.

“Fu-k it man. Its Christmas, I don wanna die on Christmas.”

And then he did.

The white soldier tried carrying the body back, but only got a few yards. He dragged the body into the jungle a couple of feet, and then headed down the trail. His mind was blank. At the camp, he went into his tent and lay down. The chopper had not returned from the party yet, and he still had a couple of hours of solitude left.

The angel appeared as a dark haired, blue eyed young girl of about fifteen. She was dressed in pure white, and she stood in the center of the tent. He knew it was a dream. The angel spoke in a foreign language, but he understood it, as if he were reading the subtitles at a foreign movie. She said this to him,

“Your sufferings will be intense, but the Lord loves you. Never forget this.”

Many decades later, he had forgotten those intense sufferings, but he never forgot the dream of the angel standing in white in his tent on that Christmas day.

His white Christmas.


Simon Garte has published non-fiction and also writes fiction. He's a marvelous storyteller. Simon is a New Yorker currently living on the East Coast.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Cookies and Holiday Joy (short story)

Sarah inhaled the fragrances of cinnamon and sugar and the chocolate chips melting into gooey deliciousness in the oven. Homey smells. Christmas smells.

She wanted to sit, relax, to inhale more than smells. She wanted the peace of the season to wash over her, still her racing mind and ease her fractured soul. But if she stopped moving, sorrow would overwhelm. She knew it. Had given in last Christmas. And again on his birthday. She’d been unable to resist the lure of peace on those two days.

But peace had eluded her. And instead grief had stolen into her home, into her mind and heart. And she’d cried out her anger and sorrow and loss, collapsing on her kitchen floor in a tangle of oven mitts and tears and memories. And standing again, facing life again, had been nearly impossible.

She reached for the oven door just before the timer buzzed, and pulled out the tray of perfect cookies. His favorite. She baked them every year. He couldn’t get enough. And she’d watch as he devoured one after another, following every third bite or so with a gulp of cold milk. And he’d grin, crumbs clinging to his lips, knowing she got a kick out of his passion for home-baked cookies made just for him.

She scoured the kitchen; focusing on making perfect and whole those things she had control over. And pushed far from her mind the events she couldn’t influence or change. But she left the cookies mounded on wax paper since Mac liked them that way. Liked reaching across the counter and plucking one or two or five whenever he wanted them.

The reflection from the tree beckoned her to the living room and the large glass windows that framed it. She’d stop for only a moment, her heart promised her head. Just a brief passage of time to watch the snowfall, to admire the twinkling lights as they pushed against the darkness both inside and out. Just a moment . . .

When the clocked chimed nine, Sarah jumped. Then smiled. Silly to feel guilty over losing herself in memories of her husband. She wouldn’t break down this Christmas. She’d learned that lesson. Plus, the news had been better this year. The better news being they’d actually heard news. The first reliable report since her captain had gone missing sixteen months earlier.

Chaplain Anderson had called in October. One of the Resolute Seven—prisoners held for over four months in a no-name cave in Afghanistan—had mentioned Mac—someone who sounded like Mac, please God—in his briefing. So this year she’d added hope to her arsenal of determination and faith and prayers. This year she wouldn’t give in to despair.

She pressed her fingers against the cold glass. Closed her eyes and lowered her head.

“Keep him warm tonight. Please. Hold him in Your arms since he doesn’t have mine. Fill his heart with Your love, with my devotion. And give him Your peace.”

Sarah leaned against her hand and stared into the night. So quiet. So pure.

So lonely.

“And please hold me. Because I’m afraid I can’t hold on any longer.”

She returned to the kitchen. In the near dark she pulled milk from the fridge and poured a tall glass. She piled cookies on a plate and arranged plate and milk on the reindeer placemat at the head of the table. She fussed with a linen napkin, flattening it again and again until she realized what she was doing and yanked her hands away. Enough of that. She still had presents to wrap, gifts for her brother’s family. She turned. And blinked.

The front door was opening, three men stepping through.

Chaplain Anderson, removing his hat. Colonel Ryan, Mac’s CO, holding the arm of another man. That other man dangling a key from his fingers.

The third man lifted his head at her gasp. Then grinned. And then he was rushing to her and squeezing her and kissing her face.

“Sarah. My God, Sarah.”

And then Sarah was on her knees, holding Mac, holding a dream, and kissing him back. Touching him everywhere. Crying and laughing and shaking so much she thought she’d finally snapped and lost her mind.

But when Mac pulled back and grasped her face between his hands, when she could see his eyes and into his soul, she knew he was not imagined but real and in their home.

In her arms.

She stared in wonder for a timeless instant, then sobs burst from her chest and she burrowed into Mac, clutching him, trying to breathe, trying to think. Trying not to feel because the emotions were stretching her beyond her limits and shattering her mind.

“I smell cookies.” That was the colonel.

Mac laughed. He laughed. Sarah gripped him even tighter.

“Sir, those are my cookies. All mine. I’ve been dreaming of them for days. And I’m sorry to say, you won’t get a single taste.”

Sarah wiped her face against Mac’s coat. Trust her man to get to the heart of any matter.

“Sarah? You ready to stand now? I wanna get this coat off and hold you properly.”

“Major, I believe this is where Chaplain Anderson and I bid you goodnight. And Merry Christmas.”

Sarah scrambled to her feet, pulling at Mac, searching his face. Thin. Lined. Hers. “How? When?” She squeezed her eyes shut and drew in an uneven breath. He was still there when she opened her eyes. “Major?” She twisted to look at Colonel Ryan, but turned immediately back to Mac. “I was just asking God to hold you, since I couldn’t. And now you’re here. You’re here.

Mac saluted the other men as they eased out the door, but didn’t turn from Sarah. “He held me, baby. Every day I felt His protection and your love entwined, binding me in strength and hope.” He stepped close to her and again wrapped her face in his palms. His hands were shaking. “Tonight we hold each other.”

She lifted her hands to his where they framed her cheeks. His gaze was locked on her face. “Why didn’t you call? Have you seen a doctor? What happened? Mac . . . What happened?”

He leaned his forehead against hers, still unwilling to relax his hold. “I needed to be with you before the news broke, baby. I need you at my side to get through the rest of this. To he—” His voice broke and he hauled her against his chest.

“I’m here always. Forever.”

“I know,” he whispered against her neck. “And that’s what saw me through.” His entire body shook, vibrating against hers. “I didn’t break, Sarah. Not once. Not until a couple of Special Forces guys hauled me out. And then I cried like a baby.”

“Mac . . . ”

“My Sarah.” His lips feathered over hers. “Merry Christmas, wife.”

She slid her arms inside his coat and dug her fingers into his back. “Merry Christmas, major. I love you.” She closed her eyes. Thank You. For holding him. For bringing him home. For returning my heart.

My pleasure, Sarah. My very great pleasure. Merry Christmas to you and peace to this home.


Beth Hill writes fiction and loves words. She thinks that being a writer is the most satisfying and best job, hobby, career, and/or addiction one can pursue.

Beth loves the joys of Christmas.

You can reach Beth at her website, Read Write and Edit

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lakeshore Christmas And Cookies

My guest today, is Romance Author, Susan Wiggs. I've been reading Susan's books since 1990. Susan has written such a variety of books over her long career, historicals, women's fiction, and contemporary romance. Susan makes no bones about the fact she is a militant romance writer and I have to say, I'm glad of that. :-)

Susan's topic today is Christmas and a subject dear to my heart, cookies. I love collecting cookie recipes and experimenting with different ones. Of course, it must be done with appropriate music...

I made a lot of key discoveries while writing Lakeshore Christmas. One is that everybody–and I mean everybody–associates the holidays with a particular flavor, be it cinnamon, anise seed, ginger, chocolate, name it. The flavors of the season reach back deep into our roots, triggering sentiments and emotions we like to savor like a rich butter cookie with a cup of tea.

This caused a bit of a dilemma when it came to creating the very special holiday cookie recipes that appear in Lakeshore Christmas. I ended up testing dozens of options, offered to me by friends, family, librarians and booksellers–and sometimes the choices were as excruciating as my resistance to sweets. How can the Silver Palate cookies edge out Aunt Martha’s Molasses Stars?

This led to another little epiphany about the holidays. I finally figured out exactly why the Cookie Exchange came into being. It’s a way of sharing your special flavors with friends. My way of sharing is through my books, and for this novel in particular, I had an embarrassment of riches. Tons of glorious recipes, dripping with butter and sprinkled with sugar. So many that I couldn’t include them all–which is why I’m glad for this opportunity to share a few more. Here are some wonderful, amazing cookie recipes that didn’t quite make the cut, but they’re still worth baking up a batch.

I’m also eager to share something else with you. From my own childhood come rich memories of baking with my family in very specific ways. We had to use the wavy-tree cookie cutter, and the rainbow-colored nonpareils...and we absolutely, positively had to have music playing in the background. We played records on my parents’ totally mod stereo, everything from the Nutcracker Suite and Handel’s Messiah to Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones and Peaches en Regalia by the Mothers of Invention. So in addition to providing you with cookie recipes, I’ve included song suggestions for your listening pleasure while you bake.

Of course, since this is a Susan Wiggs book, there’s a world of difference between the main characters, so I had to create two different playlists. Maureen is the town librarian and a complete traditionalist when it comes to Christmas. Her nemesis–and the one man she can’t resist–is Eddie Haven, who lives up to his bad-boy reputation right down to the music he chooses.

Yet this novel is more than a love story featuring food, friends and family. Lakeshore Christmas is also a passionate drama involving something near and dear to my heart–the public library. I don’t have to tell you that this most precious of institutions is facing serious economic troubles. In the novel, the cookie exchange is held to benefit Avalon’s own public library, keeping it open for generations to come.

So I’ll end with a big idea: Bake some cookies. Save a library. Save the world.

  • What flavors and scents do you associate with the holidays?


Classic Christmas Cookies

"If there is no joyous way to give a festive gift, give cookies." –Maureen Davenport, in Lakeshore Christmas

3 cups flour
3 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1 cup sugar
6 T butter, softened
6 T shortening
3 eggs separated
1 1/2 t. almond extract
1/4 c orange juice

  • Preheat oven to 350° F. Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Cut in butter and shortening until dough resembles coarse meal. Mix in egg yolks.

  • In a clean bowl, beat egg whites and almond extract with mixer until soft peaks form. Fold whites into dough. Mix in orange juice.

  • Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly. Roll out dough to about 1/2 inch thick. Cut into shapes.

  • Create "cookie paint" with egg yolks mixed with food coloring, and paint to decorate. Sprinkle with sugar and nonpareils.

  • Bake until edges are lightly browned–7 to 10 minutes. Store in an airtight container.


Susan Wiggs's life is all about family, friends...and fiction. She lives at the water's edge on an island in Puget Sound, and she commutes to her writers' group in a 17-foot motorboat. She serves as author liaison for Field's End, a literary community on Bainbridge Island, Washington, bringing inspiration and instruction from the world's top authors to her seaside community. (See She's been featured in the national media, including NPR's "Talk of the Nation," and is a popular speaker locally and nationally.

According to Publishers Weekly, Wiggs writes with "refreshingly honest emotion," and the Salem Statesman Journal adds that she is "one of our best observers of stories of the heart [who] knows how to capture emotion on virtually every page of every book." Booklist characterizes her books as "real and true and unforgettable." She is the recipient of three RITA (sm) awards and four starred reviews from Publishers Weekly for her books. The Winter Lodge and Passing Through Paradise have appeared on PW’s annual "Best Of" lists. Several of her books have been listed as top Booksense picks and optioned as feature films. Her novels have been translated into more than two dozen languages and have made national bestseller lists, including the USA Today, Washington Post and New York Times lists.

The author is a former teacher, a Harvard graduate, an avid hiker, an amateur photographer, a good skier and terrible golfer, yet her favorite form of exercise is curling up with a good book. Readers can learn more on the web at and on her lively blog at

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Gift

In keeping with the spirit of the season, I've collected some short stories from several writing friends. I will be posting them through out the next two weeks. They range from funny to touching. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have.

My guest today is Rand Phares. I've read many of his stories and love them. I want to share one he wrote last year entitled:

The Gift.

Abbot Timothy and Brother Samuel stood just inside the main doors of the monastery, swirling snow filling the dark night around them.

Samuel adjusted his hood and leaned closer to the abbot. "Are you sure you don't want me to wait for you?"

The abbot shook his head. "No, Samuel. I have one last chore before I can leave. I'll be along shortly, before the town road becomes impassable. You go on ahead before they've run out of room at the inn."

Samuel frowned and peered across the courtyard at the monastery's church, its windows lit with a wavering glow. "A pity it's come to this, after all our years of service."

The abbot laid a hand on Samuel's chest. "Though the abbeys are being dissolved and we're being evicted, you can always hold to your faith and continue that service here, in your heart." He turned to the doors, slid aside a wooden bar, and—with Samuel's help—tugged the doors open.

Samuel adjusted his robe. "You're sure you won't come with me?”

The abbot nodded. "Go."

Samuel went through the doorway, hesitated for a moment, then continued on, his dark form melting into the storm. A moment later, drifting snow covered his footprints and it was as if he'd never been there.

The abbot shook his head. The king's decree had arrived a week ago: The Order was dissolved, its members to renounce their ways and leave the monastery no later than Christmas Eve. Tonight. The monastery, its grounds, and its treasures would revert to the people. Even now, two of the king's men were in the counting room, reviewing the monastery's records.

One by one, the monasteries of the land were being dissolved, taken over by local governments, monies and lands distributed to those in power. Monks had been expelled, left to fend for themselves, which meant hardship and death more often than not. Friendship toward fellow man seemed to have dissolved in the face of hard times and the king's decree.

As abbot, he would be the last to leave. How had the others fared? Emanuel, the infirmarian? Ethan, the sacrist? What of the troubled brothers, especially James, gifted with a lyre, but unable to form a single sentence?

Where would he himself go? He had no family, no friends outside the monastery. Would he simply starve, sharing the same fate as the others? After all this time surrounded by these walls, he did not look forward to leaving. The king's decree guaranteed a lonely, destitute, and painful end beyond the monastery.

He shut and barred the doors, then turned and looked at the church, at the rise of its steeple. Was its symbolic gesture toward heaven still meaningful in these times? Across the length of the roof sat the silent bell tower, oddly enough even taller than the steeple. He knew it spoke of a long-ago time when the monastery—sitting atop a two-hundred foot cliff overlooking a great road—had served as a lookout against enemy hordes sweeping in from the north.

He stared at the bell tower until his eyes stung.

So lonely . . .

So high . . .
So . . .

Painful? Perhaps not.

The tower stared down at him.

Will you follow the path the king has set down for you? Or is there another?

He blinked, rubbed his eyes with icy fingers, and looked back at the barred doors.

The king's path lay beyond.

He stared at the doors for a long moment. Then, his mind made up, he crossed himself, turned away, and trudged off through the snow toward the church.

Snow had piled against the great door leading into the church, and the door complained as the abbot struggled to open it. He stepped into the front nave, escaping the storm, but not the bone-wearying cold.

With the door shut behind him, he made his way toward the choir at the back of the church, eyes adjusting to the thin light of candles burning in side chapels. A statue of the Saviour seemed to shift slightly in the flickering light as he neared. He crossed himself and started off toward the dark door near the east transept; the door that led to the bell tower.

He reached for the door's latch, but a coughing sound stopped him. He turned and found a robed figure sitting in the choir pews. Why had he not noticed? Wasn't everyone supposed to be gone by now? This was certainly not one of the king's tallymen, with their fine purple tunics.

"Can I help you?" the abbot asked.

The figure stood and tossed back his hood. A thin young man, dark hair, bearded, but not someone the abbot recognized.

"Are you Abbot Timothy?" the man asked.

"Yes. And you are . . . ?"

"Forgive me, abbot. I'm Sebastian. Innkeeper Thomas sent me with a sack of food for your journey." He held up a dark bag. "Some mutton, cheese, a small flask of wine."

The abbot looked at the bag. "That's quite kind of Thomas. And kind of you, of course, for bringing it here in this storm. Tell me, how did you get in? We keep the main gate locked."

"I slipped in when one of the brothers was leaving."

"I see." The abbot gestured toward the bag. "Well, thank Thomas for me."

He put a hand on the latch beside him. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to extinguish the chapel candles before I leave. You'd better let yourself out and return to the inn before you become stranded."

"The snow is blowing very hard. You've no fear of being stranded yourself?"

The abbot glanced at the latch in his hand, then back at Sebastion. "I won't be long. You'd best not wait."

"That door leads to the bell tower?"


"Are there many candles in the tower?"

The abbot frowned. He opened his mouth to reply, but Sebastian waved a hand. "Forgive my impertinence, abbot."

He looked around at the statuary and tapestries. "It's a pity the church is being stripped of its treasures. But isn't it a greater travesty that the countryside is being stripped of its faith?"

The abbot sighed. Would this young man not leave? "Yes, it's true, what you say about the country. But when I step outside these walls, the king says I'm no longer a man of God. So my days of worrying about the country's faith are over."

"That may be, but what about your vow of service to Our Lord? True faith is difficult to drive from a man's heart, even in the face of kingly decrees."

Sebastian nodded at the tower door. "Are you like the countryside, abbot? Have you been stripped of your faith?"

  • The abbot blinked. Had he?

Sebastian laid a hand above his heart. "In spite of what the king says, you can always hold to your faith and continue that service in your heart."

The abbot stared at Sebastian. How did he . . . ?

Sebastian set the bag on a pew and looked up at the window. "It seems the snow has finally stopped. That should make your journey easier."

He looked back at the abbot. "One last word of advice, though." He smiled and nodded at the tower door. "Be careful putting the candles out up in the belfry. It's sure to be slippery up there, and I hear it's a long drop to the road below."

With that, Sebastian turned and walked up the nave, pausing only to cross himself at the statue of the Saviour. A moment later the shadows of the front nave swallowed him. In the snow-encased quiet of the church, the great door was particularly loud when it closed.

The abbot's gaze returned to the statue.

A thin bearded face, arms outstretched, a crown of thorns. From this angle, the candlelight made it look as if the statue stared back at him.


Abbot Timothy pushed open the great church door and took in the courtyard and the far shadow of the main gate. The young man had left the church after the storm died, but a silent mantle of white lay unbroken in all directions. And the air was still, wind no longer blowing snow across any newly laid footprints.

What was the hour? Was it Christmas yet?

He lifted the bag. Mutton, cheese, wine. A Christmas gift, perhaps?

He stared out at the night, and thought of the young man's words.

All of them.

And decided those had been the real gift this night.

Then, with a last glance back across the nave at the distant bell tower door, he shouldered the bag and walked out of the church. Heading toward the gate, the abbot was secure in the feeling that wherever the young man had gone, he was following.



Rand Phares's first foray into writing was at an early age, on a neighborhood "newspaper" he published with his brother. After a successful career in software engineering, he now focuses on psychological thrillers, and is within nanoseconds of completing his first novel, The Feast. Rand lives in NC with his family.