Since Amazon doesn’t allow you to preview a book while it’s in pre-order, here, for your reading pleasure, is chapter one of Druid Defiance. What you’ll read here follows on what happens in the previous book, Bitter Thorn Tribe, so… be warned, there may be a spoiler. To set you up, in case you haven’t read it, Balor’s minions caused Stacy all sorts of trouble in the last book, they lost someone, and at the end of the book, she decided to take a trip. What follows is the very next day after that big something happened.
THIS IS THE last time. Aaron swore it. The last time that bloody monster ever harms the sacred ground, or the Steward! He’d had enough long before Balor’s Harbingers attacked the sacred ground. But this, the partial destruction of what Stacy held dear was the last possible straw.
He’d slipped out while she showered, unable to think of anything else save how he might have lost her. Now that she was safe at home, he had a job to do. Better to do it quick while she was safe and distracted—for the most part.
Faulty wiring caused the fire, the inspectors said, but he knew better. Hours may have passed since the attack, but Aaron was no less angry, and no less sure of who caused the explosion.
The old Battle Rage coursing down his forearms, Aaron bashed his harshad at the gate of the Sidhe mound in which he thought to find Balor. A hill-like fortification, shielded by a magical mist, the hill made of phosphate and something like dead rat carcasses. A veritable pile of junk on the marshy outskirts of Bitter Thorn Grove’s beaches.
Appropriate for you, you heinous monstrosity!
The thick stone barrier barely shuddered. Was that enough recompense for what Balor’s men had done to Stacy’s history center. The sacred ground? For putting her once more so close to possible death? Never.
Die, bastards! That, yes that would assuage his anger. Every last Harbinger and their foul master Balor dead for all and ever would more than pay for their slight to the Steward, her family, and the Harbingers’ destructive violation of the sacred ground.
He hit the gate again, this time with a charge of his battle magic. The stone glowed a bright azure color, shuddered again, and split open. Dark light oozed into the bright morning along with ozone and the scent of offal. He stormed into the breach and entered the barrow, harshad blade before him. Heart pounding adrenaline he considered what to do as he advanced and the passage’s darkness swallowed him.
Should I call out my Enemy? And be stomped on before he moved an inch? No, better to leave a trail of death announcing him. Better for Stacy’s sake, and that of her whole family, to kill as many as possible.
Gripping his harshad tight, he raced through the darkness. Fog smelling of garbage and excrement assailed his nose. Pricks of light darted at him, into his head and brain and still he barreled through the entryway.
Alarm bells blared. Aaron darted forward, his ears ringing from the deafening wail, ignoring the urge to wince away from the noise shaking the walls.
A beast appeared with leathery skin, a bent snout and large eyes, a taller height than Aaron himself, and knuckles huge and dragging the earth. Harbinger.
The Harbinger bellowed and ran for him. Aaron slashed at the beast.
Another appeared to take his place, chattering. Aaron wondered if the beast cursed at him. Surely, he was taunting him.
“Speak the gods’ Gaelic, if you can be so civilized, you thrice-cursed Fomoriian!” Aaron didn’t give him a chance to obey his order, carving through his thick skin.
Three more beasts emerged into the passageway.
A horrific giggle filled his ears.
“Your blade will never find purchase, harshad warrior. You are but an unskilled girl-child here.”
Though anger gripped him hard, Aaron kept it from his command, “Face me as you aught, Wicked One and I will show you my skill!”
The lights blinked out, leaving him in a tomb so black, he made out nothing of the tunnel he’d entered.
Something sharp flitted past him. Sensations like tiny needles stabbed his bare arm. He slashed his blade after the beast—for surely it was a beast.
A giggle sounded in response. “You missed, Warrior.”
So we’re going to play that game, are we? “I’ve not come to banter with you. Balor, come forth! I demand it. Honor demands it!”
“You are in a position to demand nothing, feeble sir.” The reply hissed in his ear, as if the speaker stood close behind. A mixture of men’s voices, and women’s.
Aaron swung his blade over his head, hearing just the whoosh of its passage through the thick air. If the speaker had a body to go with that hissy voice, it had quick reflexes. “Don’t waste my time, Balor. Show yourself! We’ve business to finish.”
“You would break the treaty?”
“To borrow a friend’s phrase, I don’t give a bloody good god damn about the treaty!”
Jim’s phrase, but still. Any friend to Stacy was his.
“Or you shall do what?” A darker shape formed against the gloom. “You who have no strength to control the Steward cannot possibly hope to command me.”
We will just see about that. “You are here, are you not? I demand you cease all actions against the Steward.”
He flexed his left hand, tightened his grip on his blade with the other, considering his action.
Light skimmed over the shape, shined in Aaron’s eyes. He squinted, and yet tried to keep the dark shape in his sight. The dark shape rose, towering above him. Balor?
If Balor had come, could he kill the monster? He’d vanquished the god on the battlefield once, according to the rules of battle. His action now was outside all constraints. How would his gods, to whom he owed his part in this war, his fealty, his ability to protect his beloved Stacy, and her family, her world, react if he indeed vanquished their foe for all time? Without their approval.
Now as the evil cyclops materialized before him, he wondered, could he wipe this bastard from eternal existence?
If Balor opens his poisoned eye, I’m dead.
Even if he threw up his protections and shut his own eyes against it, would it be the last time he ever did? Here, without the harshad druids and their blessed Cauldron of Rebirth within shouting distance, he was sure he knew the answer to that question.
This was ill-conceived, nitwit.
“You should listen to yourself, warrior,” the dark voice croaked. “Unless you wish death over the job you still have yet to do.”
He focused on his blade. Yes, what of Stacy? What of the next generation? “Do not think to tell me my duty.”
“What do you expect of me, then?”
“I expect you to die.”
As he swung his blade, Balor came fully into the light. Two men stood on his shoulder, and they struggled to raise his eyelid.
Voices shouted from behind. Aaron felt two hands grasp him by the arms. The light swirled around him. He hit the ground and rolled. Sunlight blazed down from overhead.
This is it.
But as he drew another breath, inhaling the scent of dirt and trash, Isaac growled at him.
“What the bloody hell is wrong with you? Did you want to die?”
Aaron knew he wasn’t dead. Sitting there, arms draped over his knees, and taking deep breaths of the sweeter, cleaner air of Bitter Thorn Grove—even laced with its usual exhaust and city-scents—he realized how close he’d come.
Isaac leaned down, glaring at him, a stethoscope waved around his neck, mud and dirt stained his white coat. “Did you?”
“I think you know what I wanted to do.”
“Yes, well, you should’ve warned us.”
“So you could stop me?”
“It would’ve been nice. If I could’ve made you come to your senses before this little assault, I wouldn’t have had to drop everything to save your neck.”
Taking him in again, he realized his friend had been in surgery this morning and left it to come save him.
Aaron mumbled an apology.
Isaac offered his hand to help him up. “Not accepted.”
The light flashed around them, and the Tampa Bay park in which they stood blinked out.
A week had passed since that little time bomb of Balor’s had gone off, and still Stacy’s heart stuttered every time she walked into the storage area. The fire marshals had come to make their pronouncement of the stability of what remained of her storage room; the insurance men, likewise, were composing their assessment. No doubt, they, at least, would make her rebuild that room, if nothing else. She was still surprised Balor’s bomb, for she had no other mundane way to describe that exploding plant to people, hadn’t taken the whole building down.
Today, she sat on the floor in the hall outside, gazing at the gaping hole, covered in plastic sheeting that Mick and Aaron had helped her drape over it. With the help of a few friends from the harshad warriors, they’d gone back in this morning and carried out what was left of the heaviest busts and statues. Some of the memorabilia littered the back galleries, though she couldn’t see them from here. More framed documents, maps, and a few paintings, lined up against the walls. The electrical system was iffy and the lights blinked overhead.
The blast had even affected their phone and Internet connections. Now she flipped through a half-filled notebook, comparing inventory notes with Erika.
Her friend tallied and recounted what they owed the museum in Sarasota who had only just delivered a few precious artifacts right before the explosion.
Though Cyreth had offered the use of her computers, Stacy made more notes, and composed an email through her cellphone. She’d stored other notes on her home laptop.
As to her new home, everything she and Aaron needed, they’d already removed from some of their moving boxes, the rest would come later. With all her focus on the history center—what was left of it—she hadn’t yet grown accustomed to her house’s layout, the hall, kitchen, or bathroom. The only thing she’d taken time to do was christen the bedroom.
“What are you smiling about?” Erika asked.
Stacy blinked the memory of her beloved Aaron’s nightly attention away. “Nothing.”
“So you didn’t zone out? Then what did I just ask you?”
“If I’d called about the tickets. Yes, we’ve got a flight to Ireland on Tuesday.”
“No, I didn’t mention you and Aaron’s plans—eh, wedding plans.”
Erika knew they’d postponed the wedding so that she may get married in her ancestral home. But Stacy hadn’t told many of her friends why she’d moved it from Bitter Thorn Grove, Florida, to Bitter Thorn Grove, Ireland. Nor why she’d rescheduled it from midsummer to Samhain. There were just some things of her myth-laced life that her very down-to-earth friends didn’t need to know. “I asked you how much we should allocate from the insurance payment on the Derringer maps to the Falkenberg Road pottery the explosion cracked.”
“Oh.” She flipped a page, then another. “I don’t know.” She rose to her feet and headed toward the storage area, paused, and squeezed her eyes shut. “Remind me again, it’s gone.”
Erika said nothing and Stacy glanced over her shoulder to see her friend sucking in a deep breath to fight off her own tears. “What were you after?”
“The ledger where we wrote the amount we insured the maps for.”
“I’ve got it here.” Erika raised the folder she held. “It looks like five thousand, minus a few pennies.”
“And they paid us…” Not nearly enough. She let out an exasperated growl. “Put five hundred toward the pottery restoration and the rest to the map’s owners. That should do, for now.”
“Good. And the plates?”
“Two hundred. That’s more than enough to glue them back together.” Her smartphone chimed an alert and she glanced at it to find a text from Aaron.
How are all things going?
She texted back a quick, Okay. Not the truth, but she knew he’d know how she felt about this destruction.
Where was he, anyway?
Mick cursed from the main room. A moment later she heard, “They’re in the office hallway, but she’s busy.”
Stacy and Erika glanced up from their notes. “Mick, you okay?” Stacy shouted.
The burly, dark-haired, and strong-armed guard appeared at the end of the hall.
She asked, “Do you need something?”
Aaron appeared behind him. Handsome and tall, with light skin tanned from the summer sun. His strawberry blond hair was down around his shoulders today.
Stacy couldn’t fight back a smile. But his frown concerned her.
Nonetheless, she met him in the middle of the hall. He ran his hands up and down her arms, kissed her nose. “Are you okay?” As ever, his Irish accent didn’t fail to send a thrill racing over her skin.
She snuggled close, enjoying his unexpected attention. “Of course, why shouldn’t I be?”
“Still want to go to Ireland, or did you change your mind?”
Erika checked her notes. “Your flight’s not until the day after next.”
“Is that so?”
“Oh.” Erika blinked. “You want to go now.”
Stacy nodded and met her friend’s gaze. “If you can spare me?”
Erika took the ledger from her. “I got this. Go. Have fun.”
Back home, Aaron occupied his time making a few calls—to Isaac and Cyreth. Stacy left him to it. Meanwhile, she checked the answering machine to find a call from her mother about the wedding and spent some time answering her while she packed.
As she folded a second pair of jeans into her bags, Aaron finished his calls. “Did you mention to her how much I hate flying?” he asked.
“Do you really think she’d understand?” She looked at the phone. “I mean, five hundred years ago we knew about you harshad warriors and your magical mode of travel, but… Okay. Yeah. You’re right. We’ll go now, if she doesn’t mind.” Stacy plucked up her phone again and sent Enda a text message. Yet, not quite sure how to phrase the topic, she merely stated,
Don’t be surprised if our flight arrives early.
Enda responded: Airline? Is Aaron’s fabled ability no more than a story, then?
The question surprised her and she handed the phone over to Aaron.
He angled his head to read, grunted. “Of course she knows. Why would that astound you?”
Stacy rolled her eyes to the ceiling and sent back a quick message. Apparently, we have much more to discuss.
Enda said, Come whenever you like, but I have a few more days at the hospital before my holiday begins.
Stacy relayed the message. “She knows to expect us sooner rather than later. So, we’re covered.”
Except for one last thing which prompted a second flurry of text messages. “How would you feel about a side trip?” she asked, reading the response.
“I just invited us over to Jim’s for dinner.”
Jim’s apartment seemed no bigger than a shoebox with Aaron and him inside. The interior held his couch—really, a futon—on one side, the television across from it. A black light poster of a Buddha decorated the sliver of the north wall. A counter ran along the eastern side of the apartment on which she spotted a stove’s burners, a sink, and a strainer with a straw sticking out of the utensil alcove. Somewhere in the kitchen the refrigerator waited. She heard it, but didn’t see it.
“Do I need to say I feel squished in with you two standing here?” Stacy teased. She wondered that her tall, burly friend, who always reminded her of a biker, found comfort in so small an apartment. “Maybe I should stay on the porch.”
“If you want my neighbors to hear our conversation, sure,” Jim said. “I thought we wanted to keep the whole you marrying an immortal thing secret. No skin off my back.”
“I guess you’re right.”
He pointed to his small dining area. “Come on in. Dinner’s almost ready.”
Taking a sniff, she considered the savory scent. “Swedish meatballs?”
Jim shrugged. “Something between that and shepherd’s pie. Sans all the excess greens my mom forced in me.”
Aaron nodded. “Sounds perfect.”
They sat down at Jim’s small dining table—a table that looked like it might belong in a farmer’s home circa 1930s. Jim offered them beers, Aaron declined. So, he brought out cans of Coke instead. “So, what’d the insurance adjusters say?”
“What else could they say?” Stacy took a sip. “Faulty wiring is on us.”
“Of course.” He eyed the oven. “And the appraisers said we should just demolish the history center, right?”
“Do you think there’s a chance in hell I’d allow anyone to take a wrecking ball to the center?”
“What was I thinking?” Jim tapped his forehead. “Remind me to call my doctor tomorrow and have him take me off the painkillers.”
Stacy touched the arm that hadn’t been burned, though, to her eye, the severity of his injuries wasn’t as bad as she’d thought. Remember to thank Isaac for stepping in. “How are you, really?”
“Pretty good, all things considered. Let me just get this right out in the open, I don’t care what Dr. Hollis says, I betcha I’ll be back next week.” He flexed his arm in a tentative manner. “Tell your friend Isaac he made a good call suggesting Hollis. He’s done a fantastic job with those grafts.”
Stacy tipped her head, and touched his hand. “He’s a wizard, for sure.”
“He’s—” Jim blinked, pointed to Aaron. Stacy didn’t oblige him with an answer, but she thought the doctor in question was one out of the druids’ little black books, for sure. “As long as no one tries to make me lift that canoe in the main gallery, I should be okay.”
“Good man.” Aaron toasted him. “And we didn’t even need to throw you in the Cauldron.”
The harshad druids treated many of their wounded warriors to a dip in the Cauldron of Rebirth. She too had gone inside it. Why not her friend?
Jim blinked. “Uh… Well, I wasn’t hurt that bad.” Nervous, now, he picked up a potholder lying off to the side of the sink and spun it around, put it back. “You really do have one of those.” He looked to Aaron. “Of course you do. You’ve been in it?”
Aaron nodded. “More than once.”
“If you said less than that, I might stop taking the painkillers this moment. Because clearly they screwed with my brain.” Jim slid back on his heels and leaned his elbows against the counter. “All right, then. Here’s what I think. Not to go against your gods or anything, but if you want the history center, it’s yours, for ever and ever. Can I just negotiate my severance package?”
Stacy laughed. “Jim, it’s not yours to give. But I have not, nor will I ever, give away that property. If it’s not in my hands, you can be damned sure I want it in Erika’s or yours.”
The timer dinged and Stacy helped Jim remove a glass pan from his oven. The savory scents of beef and cooked sweet potatoes and carrots filled her nose.
She paused while Jim excused her to check the food’s doneness. “In fact—” She glanced at Aaron. He nodded. “In fact, I wanted to see you tonight about the property. I have a favor to ask.”
“Shoot.” Jim removed a spatula from a drawer in the island and cut the pie with it.
“You know how the succession of the property—the sacred ground, I mean—is handled in our family?”
He removed a slice of the pie and set it on a plate that he handed to Stacy. “Usually, it goes to the Steward’s daughter who gives it to her daughter, et cetera. So I’ve heard. Why do you ask?”
The first bite made her weak in the knees. “Oh my gods! I think you just killed me.”
Jim blinked. Aaron narrowed his eyes at her, assessing, fork halfway to his mouth. A moment later, she saw the tension drained from him.
Stacy fanned herself. “This is divine, Jim. Why do you work for me and not as a chef?”
“I’m not that good.” Jim shrugged. “This is my best.”
“If this is your best, I’d love to see what your worst is.” She took another bite. “So, to your question. Aaron and I are going to Ireland.”
“For your honeymoon.”
“For our wedding,” Aaron corrected. He pointed his fork to Stacy. “The bride made a recent change of plans.”
“Interesting.” Jim filled his own plate and topped off his drink. “You’re moving your wedding to Ireland, for, what? The romanticism of it?”
“That and because Enda has control of the sacred ground or at least the deed to it.” Stacy paused and nodded when he stared at her. “The original. And I want to get married on it, so as to keep from breaking tradition.”
“Well…” Jim glanced to Aaron. “I suppose that makes sense.”
“I’ve already talked to your boss,” she teased. “She’ll let you go to the wedding.”
“If I’m back the very next day.” Jim winked. “Boy, I’m sure the airlines will appreciate that.”
“With what we’ll pay them to cart you over,” Aaron said, “they’d better.”
“Aren’t there some logistics to worry about, though?” Jim took a bite, paused, thinking. “There must be. You’re the Steward, after all.”
“That’s why we’re here. I’d like you to stay here and guard the history center in my stead.”
“You want me to—” Jim set his fork down, and Stacy thought it might be a good thing. He looked green, as if he might have to spring up to make it to the sink before losing what he’d already eaten. He drew in a shaky breath. “Can you do that?”
“Stacy’s being a bit overdramatic, handing it to you.” Aaron picked up his glass and asked for a refill. As Jim obliged, he explained, “She need not be on the property specifically. Stewards can go away for a while, now and then.”
He may think so, but Stacy had bigger plans. She just didn’t know if they were feasible, yet. “Maybe, but he’s right. I want you at our wedding. The question I had was would you mind taking over temporary Stewardship while we’re gone. Just in case.”
“In case, what? Your plane goes down?” Jim stared at her. “I thought you guys—” He wiggled his fingers. “Flew through space or something like that.”
Stacy winked at Aaron. “Something like that. Will you do it? Take control of the history center for me?”
“Erika would be better at it.”
Aaron turned his plate to get the last bit of food. “Erika isn’t her blood cousin. You are.”
Jim didn’t answer at first, but the far away glaze that slid across his eyes said he was considering it. After a moment, the fog in his gaze cleared and he pointed to Aaron’s empty plate. “More?”
“I know I’m her cousin, does it just have to be me? I’ve never run the place before. Sure, I can bully people into helping you get what you want, Stac. But I wouldn’t know the first thing about what you do, every day.”
“And what do you think I’m going to do? Fire Erika before I leave?” Stacy shook her head. “Honey, she’ll deal with the collection just fine. You do what you do best. All I need from you is…” She paused. “Is… I don’t know, for you to clock in?”
Aaron nodded. “If the gods are listening, they’ll know what’s what just in our agreement tonight.”
“Great. What if those monsters come back?” Jim gave Aaron a pointed look; Stacy thought she understood his hesitation exactly. “I’ll keep a fire extinguisher handy.”
“Our entire army isn’t going to Roscarberry.”
“Not that they’re not all invited to the wedding. We’ll just need a bunch here.”
Here, Aaron opened his wallet and pulled out several business cards. “Aiden and Ian are staying; you know them.” He laid the business cards before Jim.
“What about Madden?”
“Who?” An afterthought provided Stacy the name he meant. “Maedus? He’s insisted on coming to the wedding.”
“Naturally.” Aaron handed him a few more cards. “If anything happens, and you need more help, call these men.”
Jim turned one card, picked it up to hold it between his first and middle fingers. “Or women I guess you meant to say?”
Aaron nodded. “And I know a few of our druids would volunteer to stay behind with you in case you need help.”
“Wait. Won’t you need them with you in Ireland?” Jim scooped another slice of his dinner onto his plate. “Don’t make them stay behind on my account.”
Jim nodded to her. “They should be with you. You’re the steward, after all.”
“I’ll have my own contingent. Cyreth and Dylen are going with us.”
“All right. If that’s what you want.” Jim spun his fork. “I’ll keep an eye on the history center, on one condition.”
“What?” Aaron paused in his pursuit of another helping. “I can give you a free lesson at my school, but no more than one. I’ve got to pay for the facilities, you know.”
“No, nothing like that.”
“A harshad?” Stacy bit back a laugh. “I don’t know if that’s possible. Is it?”
Aaron raised his glass to Jim. “I can always ask.”
“Something even easier.” Jim flexed his hand. “I want to see those records you were reading. The ones of our ancestors you mentioned. I’d say that’s a good trade.”
A hearty laugh burst from Aaron. “You really are her cousin!”
“I’ll do it,” Jim said. “But I’m just not sure I’m the safest choice.”
Aaron picked up his Smartphone from Jim’s coffee table—what was little more than an oblong oval of a glazed oak stump. A tap woke the phone up and he showed Jim a paper Cyreth had scanned for them, conferring the duties to the chosen family branches. “I’ve been assured you are welcome to take on a Steward’s duties.”
“And what about the rest of it?” He winced as he shifted in his seat. “Right now, I doubt I could fight off a flea, let alone a Harbinger.”
Stacy glanced at Aaron. “You know the fella Erika’s dating now?”
“That’s the one.”
Jim harrumphed. “He’s a harshad warrior?”
Aaron nodded for her.
“That does make me feel a little better. Still…”
“I promise,” Aaron said, “you’ll be fine.”
Reluctant, Jim agreed. “If you say so. I’ll be wherever you need me.”
As Steward, Stacy travels to her ancestral home in Ireland to wed. When she is granted access to the family’s sacred site, her presence opens a magical portal that brings her into a new version of the world. Does this mean the gods approve and her wedding can move forward or will the evil Balor object and end the world once and for all?