Category Archives: Fiction

New Release: No Peace After War

I am very excited to announce the release of my newest book, No Peace After War!

High Resolution Front Cover_6087540

There may be no experience more horrific, no personal trial more challenging, than a soldier facing the ravages of war. But for many members of the armed services, returning home after combat is only the beginning of a new, very different set of challenges. Facing isolation, lingering traumas, and unspeakable fears, these brave men and women struggle to find peace long after their physical service is done.

As the wife of an Iraq veteran and a volunteer who has worked with armed service members, author Claire St. Hilaire has heard a number of these heartbreaking, often complex stories face-to-face

In No Peace After War, St. Hilaire shares a collection of short stories and poems that give voice to these dark and difficult realities—exploring haunting memories, society’s treatment of veterans, and the true definition of honor.


No Peace After War is available now on Amazon in Paperback and Kindle format.

Reviewers are free to contact me at claire.m.sthilaire@gmail.com for a complimentary digital copy.


Reflection on the Lake

Freeimages.com/Debbie Wogen

Freeimages.com/Debbie Wogen

Standing here among the mountains, I intend to enjoy the pristine peaks, glacial waters and ancient pines until the sun disappears into the night. I find an open slab of granite overlooking the alpine lake. The warm contours of the rock feel luxurious in contrast to the frigid air invading my lungs. At this moment, I wish I could be a reptile and just curl up on this rock and sunbathe all afternoon.

After arranging myself comfortably in the sunshine, I allow my mind to run off where it likes and quickly become mesmerized by the crystal lake below me. The water is perfectly clear on the surface and then descends into deeper and deeper blues until it finally disappears into the black unknown.

It is still early spring, and the snow has not completely disappeared from the ground. Even the lake still flaunts a few remaining fragments of ice reposing on the surface. The sun continues to rise in the sky. Calmed by the bickering birds above me and the still waters below, I lose myself in contemplation.

I think back over the recent seasons of my own life – the woes that not too long ago inundated my life like a winter storm. Looking down at the ice decorating the water, I recall the times that, I too, froze over during my life. When winter comes, when the wind lashes against you, and those around you turn cold, what else is there to do?

Like freezing water, my mind slowed. I would lock my thoughts away. The natural fluidity of my ideas and hopes would harden. I became as firm and immovable as the glaciers that feed these waters.

In this state, no one could hurt me. I could survive. I could stand tall and hold my own through the long darkness of winter. But I too, like many glaciers, began to crack from the immense pressure under which I placed myself.

There is a time for strength and a time for serenity. I started to see that it was time for me to change. I let myself enjoy the sun. I opened up like the flowers around me. I chose to be happy and once again splash and tumble in the world around me.

I lie back on the rock now to ponder the sky. The granite beneath me warms my back, and the sun caresses my face. I am glad that spring has come again.


Perception

Unsplash.com/Joshua Earle

You have been on the trail for a few hours now. You are beginning to feel it in your calves and lungs. But, you are nearing your destination. You can’t wait to experience the rush of reaching the top- to stand high among the peaks where the mountain’s ancient knowledge seems to surge through you like an icy current.

As you come around the final bend, the sun breaks through the trees and the wind rushes past you. Victory at last. Sore from the steep climb, you wander slowly across the timeworn rocks, avoiding the sinewy brush poking up through the granite.

But, you are not alone. Ahead of you, standing on the edge of a great precipice, with his arms stretched out wide, stands a man. His back is turned toward you, and you cannot see his face. His hands briefly form a fist, then open upwards to let the forceful mountain wind sweep over them. Without turning around, he whispers, “Beautiful isn’t it?”

Is he daring and victorious? Or is he desperate and reckless?


You step out onto the sidewalk. The sun tries to warm your skin, but the rays move sluggishly through the brisk autumn air. Your feet enjoy the luxurious cocoon of foam and rubber separating them from the merciless pavement.
Your heart beats a little faster in anticipation of the coming exertion. Your joints brace for impact. You slip in your ear buds and instantly your blood races to the beat of your favorite song.

You have a few blocks to warm up before you reach the trail, and your run begins in earnest. You start with a refreshing jog that has you bouncing down the sidewalk to the music. You are just waiting for your lungs to catch up to your heart.

Suddenly, you hear the measured thuds of someone running behind you. You turn your head and see, not one, but two people are quickly overtaking you. The front-runner is a young woman. Her chest rises and falls quickly as she races past. She doesn’t notice you when she passes; her whole being is focused on speed. She is pushing her body to the limit.

A few yards behind her sprints a young man. Sweat drips down his face, but he doesn’t wipe it away. He too is completely focused. Not on the trail, however, but on the woman ahead of him. His muscular legs reach forward in long, grasping strides. But, as they both disappear around the bend, the woman continues to outpace him.

Did you just witness a woman fleeing an abuser? Or did you just see a woman winning an aerobic challenge?


You hear the rumble of the ocean waves outside your cabin. You are tired from the drive here, but the warm ocean sands and cool waves call to you. Besides, the sun will set soon, and you don’t want to miss it.

When you reach the beach, the sun has already begun adorning the sky in ravishing colors and regal patterns. As you sink your bare feet into the sand, you realize how small you are in the grand scheme of existence. You make your way, awestruck, to where the water meets the sand. You splash your feet flirtatiously among the army of waves waiting for the moon’s command to storm the beach.

A little further up the beach a woman, dressed in rippling linen with her auburn curls tied loosely over one shoulder, wades knee-deep into the surf. She doesn’t seem to realize, or care, that you are here. You can just make out her expression in the fading light. She is gazing, as if completely mesmerized, out to sea.

She falls to her knees and bows her head as the water rushes around her. She stays there, immovable; her eyes shut and her head bent down – seemingly at peace.

Has she come here and collapsed among the waves in despair? Or is she here on her knees before God?


You finally made it. You felt sure your friend’s driving would mean that an off-ramp would be the last thing you saw on this earth, but happily you survived the freeway. After a cordial farewell at the drop-off zone, you head to the check-in kiosk with your carry-on rolling behind you.

As you print your ticket, you are tempted to re-check your bag to make sure that your laptop is snuggly nestled where it won’t be crushed. But, you assure yourself it’s fine. Besides, it will have to come out when you go through security anyway.

You’ve finished at the kiosk. Fortunately, you are not as techno-challenged and irritable as the woman the check-in agent is trying to assist. You make your way casually to your gate. You’re very early and will most likely have an hour to spend drinking coffee and playing on your phone, so there is no rush.

As you find your place in the security line, a couple catches your eye. The man is dressed in military camo as is the bag beside him. He is clinging to a slender woman in heels and a red dress. Her face is buried against his shoulder, and his chin rests on her head. A few tears fall down his face as he tilts his head to kiss her. The TSA agent is ready for you, and you don’t get to see the outcome of the embrace.

Did you just observe a tearful homecoming? Or did you just watch a heart-wrenching farewell?


The alarm goes off again. You look at the time, trying to calculate if you can push snooze just once more. You realize that if you don’t get up soon you won’t have time for a cup of coffee. This is enough motivation to turn off the alarm.

You stretch out in bed, hoping to preserve the last moments in your sanctuary. You reach over to turn on a lamp near your bed. The light assaults your face, and you recoil with a grimace and an injured moan.

Finally, you force yourself to venture out into the real world. You shuffle across the carpet eager for the two pleasures of the morning – hot coffee and a hot shower. You turn on the water, allowing steam to accumulate while you brush your teeth. When you approach the sink, you meet your disheveled reflection in the mirror.

What do you see? Do you see a person exhausted and defeated by yesterday’s battles? Or do you see a person eager and preparing to conquer today?


Perception defines you and becomes the filter through which you interpret your world, your God, and yourself.


The Hunt

KuduThe day we die a soft breeze will wipe out our footprints in the sand. When the wind dies down, who will tell the timelessness that once we walked this way in the dawn of time?

– From a Traditional Song of the San People1

I feel his presence. I sense how he moves. I follow his footsteps. My brothers beside me. I tread softly across the scorching sand. The sun’s heat burns within me. I find him among the acacia. A strong kudu bull guarding his herd. My muscles tense. My time has almost come. My anticipation grows as I creep closer. I am a predator.

My legs twitch like the Cheetah’s tail. Ready at any moment to lunge me into the chase. My mind is focused. I see only my target. I feel his heart beat in my chest. He is wary. He senses me also.

He bolts. My brothers divide the herd. I focus only on my prey. The signal is given and I begin the chase at last. My quarry is faster. He quickly gains the lead. But now blood rushes through my limbs giving them strength. My lungs extract precious oxygen from the dry desert air. They burn, but they will not fail me. Sweat drips down my face, washing away the heat of the sun.

The bull tries to outrun me, but I have a cheetah’s heart. The bull tries to confuse me. His tracks disappear as he flees into heavy brush. But I carry the desert’s wisdom in my mind.

The sun rises high in the sky. My prey tires. He is alone in a land of predators. This proud beast has been torn from his clan and is left fleeing for his life through the unending wilderness. If he stops, he will die. If he stumbles, he will die. If he gives in to fatigue or thirst, he will die. Yet hours have passed among the unforgiving sands and he still lives.

My limbs ache with fatigue. I begin to question my resolve. My prey is driven by fear of death, I by desire for life. The rise and fall of my chest, the rhythm of my feet as they beat the ground beneath me, they are the drumbeat of life – the cadence of a predator.

The bull experiences a different tempo. His hooves frantically pushing against the ground, his heaving gasps for air – his is the beat of survival. Each breath drains his energy and brings him a moment closer to death. But each labored breath with which I answer brings him a moment closer to life.

The sun begins to drop in the sky. I have one goal – to keep running. My body longs for water, food and rest. Every step requires effort. These final moments will decide the winner. My prey has proven his fortitude. He has brought us both to the brink of collapse. Soon the desert will choose the victor.

She is fickle, the desert, and harbors no preference for predator or prey. Only the strongest win favor. And everyday us mortals must once again prove ourselves worthy to reach the night.

The mighty bull collapses. His proud eyes meet mine. His expression is sad and wise. I feel his spirit deep within me. Yesterday he was the survivor. Yesterday his strength and experience was enough. Today I am the victor. Today he returns to the desert sands. But though he gives me life today, tomorrow is unwritten. Only one defeat separates the living from the dead. Only a few moments determine a victor.

I thrust my poisoned spear into his heart. His death is quick. I kneel beside him to honor his valor and ensure the desert receives him with honor. Today I will live. Today I will see the night. May I honor my prey’s sacrifice and face tomorrow with courage. For who can predict their own fortunes in the desert?

1Fourie, C. (Ed.). (1994). Living Legends of a Dying Culture: Bushmen Myths, Legends and Fables. Ekogilde.


More About the San People:


River Song

River Nymph Photo2

The trees bow when she walks past. Or perhaps it is just the wind. Her white dress drapes gently across her shoulders, framing a slender neckline. Her golden hair is pulled gently up. A few stray locks fall loosely at her temples. Her eyes are like the river, just before the rapids, when the swirling greens and blues are barely contained.

I find this creature on the river’s bank – a rushing river with the air of a general at war. The crashing sounds of his battle with the rock have been heard for centuries. And they will be heard for centuries longer. Yet, he slows and calms when she is near. Or perhaps it is just an illusion.

She wades out to her waist. The river parts to embrace her. I watch with wonder as the woman stands in the middle of a river known to drown grown men. She begins to sing. The song is soft at first. Perhaps it is just a songbird. The music weaves in and out with the sounds of the river as if they are two voices. They are playful like a brook, dancing together in the sun.

Now an echo emerges, far away, as in a great canyon. A painful echo of loss and suffering layered among the rock. An angry rush drowns the pain as the river surges tempestuously. The notes crash together. The river takes over as the woman’s voice falters.

She recovers. The river calms and the woman’s voice, clear and strong, pierces the air. The two voices are now almost completely united. They form a melody forceful and deep, yet tender.

I fall asleep on the riverbank, but the harmonies haunt my dreams. When I wake the woman is gone and the river has resumed its war. A fly plays above the water and the flowers are enjoying the sun. It’s getting late and I should be at home. Perhaps it was just a dream after all.


A Diamond is Born

EngagementRing

Deep in the mantle of Earth, a diamond is born.

Carbon, the once proud remnant of stars, is humbled beneath Earth’s surface. No longer does it grace the sky – illuminating space with honor and fervor. Its dignity is crushed beneath ancient rock; its fortitude tested by the seething heat of a capricious planet.

Nevertheless, clinging to ancestral pride, it will not relinquish its birthright and be consumed by the depths. Instead, it uses Earth’s own rage and might to grow, atom by atom, into a crystal – as hard and powerful as it is radiant. With each carbon bond the crystalline structure grows stronger. Infused with the unconstrained heart of the planet it connects earth and fire until a star is reborn.

In a fit of jealousy the volatile planet banishes the crystalized carbon from its mantel and expels it onto the surface. Forced from Earth’s bosom and left unprotected in the cold, its shape gains permanence, and millennia upon millennia it lies, abandoned and forgotten. Until, finally blessed by fate, it is unearthed from the volcanic wreckage. It is admiringly called “diamond” and given unconditional care. Cut into exquisite form, it sparkles with the remembrance of its once august place in the sky.

And now, my husband, you give it to me. A stone that, like myself, has survived unyielding fire, crushing pressure and interminable abandonment. And yet, discovered and loved by you, today we both once again shine with the brilliance of stars.


A Soldier’s Letter Home

mailbox

He sat down to write the letter. This was not his first letter, but each time he hoped it would be his last. Words never came easily to him. The blank page lay on the desk, innocent of the words he was about to assault it with. And still, words remained chambered in his mind, waiting for pen to touch paper.

He dropped his forehead into the palm of his hand. He tapped his pen against the paper in agitation. He glanced around for inspiration – a green cot, a desk and chair, a refrigerator and a grey locker – nothing to write home about. He finished off the warm water left in a crackling plastic bottle and began staring blankly at the wall.

His mind wandered to the recipients of the letter. Dad would probably be catching a train to Boston. He would be sitting down in a worn seat on the isle, offering the conductor his ticket, and then taking out his tablet to catch up on the news before a long day in the financial district.

Mom would be eating breakfast before heading to the community college. Maybe she was finishing up a few last minute grades while trying not to burn herself on a second cup of coffee. Looking out the window she would sigh as the loosening blossoms from a nearby cherry tree floated by on the breeze. This letter wouldn’t be the first they had heard of their son. But it would be the most personal.

He set the pen down, ripped the U.S. flag from the right sleeve of his ACUs and turned it over in his hands thoughtfully. He’d been here eight months and had dreamed about home so often he wondered if he had made it up in his head. Maybe home was like heaven. You hope and pray its there. You work your ass off to get there. But you actually live – and die – in hell.

Enough philosophizing. He slapped the flag back onto his shoulder and forced himself to write the first lines:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith,

I am deeply saddened by your loss. Please accept my earnest and personal condolences for the loss of your son


Our Father

maninchurch

A man walked cautiously into an empty church. The towering ceilings made him feel small, like a child. The elegant stained glass made him feel course and dirty. The embroidered wall hangings made him feel poor and humbled. The Holy Sacrament displayed on the alter at the head of the church made him feel nervous and unworthy. But, the church as a whole, in all its grandeur, made him feel safe. God would meet him here.

He found a place among the pews and sat down, hat in hand. Silence echoed through the imperious hall. The man’s eyes dropped to the floor, unsure of what to do next. He only remembered one prayer from his childhood, so he began softly to recite it. With each familiar line his mind wandered into unscripted invocation.

“Our Father, who art in heaven,”

God, I’m not sure if you see me as a child or a creation. I’m not even sure if you really care about the everyday troubles of man with all the problems facing this world. But, I really want to believe right now. I could sure use a hand figuring out this life you created.

“Hallowed be thy name,”

Right now nothing seems sacred anymore. You start off life with this dream – this expectation – that certain things are your right if you’re a good person and you work hard. Lord, you know I do my best, but over the years my dreams seem to have dissipated into oblivion.

“Thy Kingdom Come,”

I never wanted much, Lord, just a family that loved me. A wife I could spoil. A couple kids I could pass on my knowledge to. A little house that would hold our memories. Work that would leave me tired at the end of each day, eager to come home.

“Thy will be done – on earth as it is in heaven,”

But somehow I’ve gotten lost on this journey called life. Lately I feel like I haven’t just lost sight of the destination, I’m spiraling out of control. I seem to be making decisions without a purpose, simply to get by. I don’t have a direction in mind, so I just swerve around in the dark.

“Give us this day our daily bread,”

Some days I wonder where the money for our next meal is gonna come from. Since I lost my job in February everything’s been mighty tight. I know I should be content asking for a square meal and a roof over our head, but it is so hard not being able to surprise my wife with roses or buy my kid a new bike. Lord, wasn’t it you who said man does not live by bread alone?

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,”

If it was just you I had to ask forgiveness from I’d do it in a heartbeat. But, it’s my family that really deserves an apology. I’ve been so stressed, and been feeling like such a louse for not providing better. I guess I take it out on them. My wife thinks I don’t listen or don’t understand; I do. I just can’t fix it, so all her lecturing just makes me feel like I’m in quick sand, getting smaller and less significant every moment. Eventually, she’ll just swallow me up, and then who will she blame?

“And lead us not into temptation,”

I don’t understand. If you love me like a father and want me to be a good person, why do you make it so hard on me. I’ve made some bad decisions in my life, but I was young and stupid. I’ve tried to love my wife, be a responsible father for my children, work hard and make a home. And yet, everyday you test my very will to survive.

“But deliver us from evil,”

I’m tired God. Tired of work with no reward. Tired of fighting for every little thing. Tired of all the bickering at home. Tired of being pushed backwards every time I take a stride forwards. I don’t need a perfect life, Lord, just a break from the battle.

“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”

After reciting those final words aloud he stood up resolutely. His rugged, oil-stained fingers brushed against the worn wood of the pews as he returned to the isle. Crossing himself, he returned to the door. His hat settled back into the well-worn groove in his hair, and the church door shut behind him. Climbing into his run-down truck he drove home in silent reverie.

“Amen.”


The Lotus

Lotus

The Lotus has its roots in the mud

Grows up through the deep water

And rises to the surface

It blooms into perfect beauty and purity in the sunlight

It is like the mind unfolding into perfect joy and wisdom

-The Buddha

She grew up an outsider and took pride in her ability to survive. No one really knew her. No one except me, of course. I knew her intimately from the first day I came into her life. I met her when she was very young, and I never left her side.

I was there when her father yelled and said that, for all her Mother’s tears, she was the one to blame. She told me he must be right. Why else would he accuse her?

I was there when her mother called her a liar, and her brother said it too. She pleaded. She proved them wrong. They said she should still be sorry. She begged me to explain for what.

I was there when she was sick and her Mother cared for her. She confessed that she loved to be sick. Despite the pain, she was happier. She couldn’t be bad if she was ill.

I was there when she screamed and punched the wall. “It isn’t fair!” she cried. Then she drowned the pillow with her tears. “Why am I a terrible person?” I stood and watched her pain.

I was there when they took her away. They said that she was sick. They said she needed care. But she wasn’t happy this time. “I am not sick,” she protested. Then sadly to me, “Maybe I’m just bad.”

I was there when she left. “You’ll never make it on your own,” they warned. Her face was dark, but her eyes glinted, “Watch me.” She turned her back and I followed her out.

I was there when her first lover began to call. She always did his bidding. When he called her names she was silent. “He’s right you know,” she whispered, and never shed a tear.

I was still there when the cops showed up and she told them what he’d done. “They won’t believe me,” she confided. But they did. On her way to court she fretted, “He will speak and everyone will know I’m bad.” But he never even showed.

The gavel struck. An advocate showed her a paper and said, “You’re a victim.” She stood up straight and tall. She looked him in the face and stated with defiance, “Not anymore.”

On the courthouse steps that day she asked me to stay. “But you need me,” I protested. “No I don’t,” was her reply. I stood, alone and unwanted, as she walked away strong.

So, here I am. Waiting for someone new. My name is guilt. Who are you?


Innocence

Castle_Innocence

The tender spring grass was spiced with the smell of pine. Florence knew she must have a million of those pesky needles ornamenting her long, golden hair by now, but she didn’t mind. She lay on her back, her heavy damask gown spread out in feminine waves around her. A large wine red garnet accented by onyx adorned her chest and accented the smaller stones studding her waistband as it followed her hips down to an elegant V. While her head rested, supported by her two small hands, her blue eyes continued to enjoy the scene around her.

The blissful sun tripped and tumbled down the heavy-laden river. The trees above whispered among themselves about the impropriety of such a display while their little leaves, unconcerned with the serious nature of the moment, shimmered with unconcealed delight at the antics of passing clouds.

Lower to the ground tiny violet butterflies flitted from flower to flower. Florence wished she could hear the tiny faerie orchestra that must be accompanying this beautiful butterfly ballet. It would have made this moment complete. Alas, instead she was interrupted by the sound of a galloping horse.

Rupert frequently disturbed her reverie. His presence was not wholly unwelcome – though she did her utmost to convince him of the contrary whenever possible. Rupert’s spirited black stallion reared in protest as he came to a sudden stop near Florence’s sanctuary. Despite the snorting and commotion as Rupert dismounted Florence did not even deign to acknowledge his presence. In fact, this flashy entrance had become so commonplace that not even Florence’s white mare grazing nearby bothered to look up from her meal.

Rupert was instantly seated above Florence’s head. His chin rested impatiently on one knee while his dark eyes hastily searched Florence’s features for an explanation.

“What are you doing here?” he finally questioned sharply.

“I’m thinking,” Florence answered wistfully, still staring into the sky. “You should try it sometime.”

Rupert was not amused. “You shouldn’t be alone out here. What if something happened? What if the Norse happened upon you, or wolves, or…”

Florence pushed herself up with one hand, turned to her interrogator with a smile and used her other hand to re-order a few of his particularly angry curls. “I can take care of myself Rupert. Is that all you rode out here for? To lecture me on forest safety?”

“No.” Rupert returned angrily. His sword tore at the soft grass as he rose to his feet. “Though it would be nice if you listened just once.”

Florence giggled as she shook the forest floor from her hair. “The moment you start speaking sense I will be a captive audience.”

Rupert just shook his head and fetched her horse. Presenting her with the gentle mare he delivered his intended message, “My Lady, you are wanted back at the estate.”

“Why, thank you, My Lord,” Florence smiled as she alighted nimbly into the saddle. She rode with both legs gracefully draped over one side and her full skirt cascading over both saddle and mare. Rupert’s stallion was already trotting forward as Rupert leapt into the saddle to lead the way home.

Florence easily caught up to them, then pushed forward so that she led the way. Her form was that of an albatross gliding effortlessly on the wind’s current. Rupert leaned forward, sharpening his stance like a falcon before a dive. Florence’s eyes flashed with the delight of a challenge – the race was on.

She ducked under and around branches trying to gain an advantage, but surprisingly, Rupert stayed neck and neck. Once, she was convinced his horse had stumbled, but he quickly resumed his place crowding the narrow paths through the forest.

“Give up!” Florence jibed with a giggle. “You can’t win!”

“Never!” Rupert returned leaning in a little closer to his stallion’s perspiring neck. “I can’t just let you win –It’d be un-chivalrous of me.”

Florence began laughing so merrily that for a few moments Rupert actually began to gain an advantage. “Well, then I suppose I will have to beat you fair and square to preserve your honor, My Lord!”

Rupert cocked his head with a wry smile over his shoulder, “No way you can beat me!”

Florence’s laughter abated and she caught back up, “What?! You don’t think you can lose to a girl?”

It was now Rupert’s turn to laugh, “Oh, I’m sure I can lose to a girl. I’m just not going to lose to you.

Florence was about to smack Rupert with a snarky come-back when he grabbed her bridle, pulling her mare to a halt so suddenly she nearly fell off her horse.

“What’s going on?!”

“Shhhh!” he ordered forcefully, dragging her behind the wet carcass of a fallen tree. He then cautiously pointed to a glint of tempered metal through the undergrowth and a Norse crest.

“We have to get back to warn the citadel!” Florence insisted.

As she began to move her heavy dress rustled against the leaves. Rupert grabbed her arm. “Would you calm down! We need a plan before we get caught and have a ransom note sent to the citadel! In case you hadn’t noticed, they are kind of blocking our path home.”

Florence’s eyes twinkled with a mischievous delight. “Let’s take the river!”

“What!” Rupert gasped in a whisper. “Are you crazy? There are rapids between here and the citadel!”

“Come on! We’ll make a raft and tie the horses to either side.”

“Its not a raft! Its daft!

Florence hoisted her skirts and grabbed her mare’s bridle. She easily slipped among the trees like a panther. The only sound was the soft purr of her garnet that hung elegantly from her neck brushing against the ferns as she leaned over to avoid detection and the crackling of twigs under the horses hooves. Rupert followed close behind – his sword drawn and shimmering viciously in the filtered sun.

Finally, they made it to the river’s edge. Here the river moved along lazily – napping on fine silt and smooth stone. But, just around the bend it woke up energized and ready to play. Rupert could feel his body being smashed against the boulders with every piece of wood he lashed together.

“This is a terrible idea,” Rupert complained one last time. “We should stand up and fight.”

“Stand and die more like it.” Florence finished taking off her shoes and stockings and urged her horse into the river. Soon the lower quarter of her dress was afloat and a shriek escaped her – “So cold!”

“I told you!”

Finally, the raft was ready, the horses tied to it, and the intrepid travelers on board. The journey began.

The horses walked them without incident to the bend in the river, but as soon as they reached the rapids they realized they had made a vital error. As the river began to wake up and speed through the forest the raft wished to go too. The horses could slow it – but this caused the raft to lurch about and they had forgotten to bring a stick of some kind to stabilize. They were quite literally up a river without a paddle.

As the raft began to buck more wildly the horses became nervous – particularly the stallion. The mare, seeing Florence in distress, was nearing the bank trying to get to her mistress and this caused slack on the line. In addition, Florence was having a harder time staying on the raft as her heavy dress filled with water. She began shivering from the glacial water and it took all her strength to fight the weight of her jewels and water logged fabric.

The mare couldn’t take it anymore and jumped in the frolicking rapids. This caused the raft to spin a full 90 degrees; the stallion revolted – breaking his tether; the raft flipped dumping its occupants into the river, and the mare realizing her folly climbed back onto the bank dragging the remainder of the wrecked raft with her.

Rupert couldn’t figure out which way was up for the first few minutes. Eventually the river tossed him to the surface and he stole a beautiful, begrudging gasp of atmosphere. Miraculously, he still had his sword and he managed to wedge it between two boulders as he tumbled by them. Using all his strength to hold on to the hilt, he buckled his leather belt around the sword to secure himself in place.

Next, he began calling for Florence. He knew time was running out. If he couldn’t find her soon he wouldn’t find her. “Florence! Florence! Come out! This was your stupid idea! Enough already!”

He felt something brush past his leg. Reaching down he grabbed a fistful of – hair! He pulled it out of the water. It took him a few minutes to find the shivering face underneath all those matted, tangled curls, but when he did she was still smiling. “I told you we’d live!” She gloated.

He couldn’t argue with that. Using his sword they climbed out of the river together and onto the crisp, warm bank.

“Well, Florence. That was some idea,” Rupert admonished playfully as he collapsed against an inviting pine.

“Plenty more where that came from.”

“Swell…”

Florence was about to answer when a voice echoed through the woods, “Katy! Katy!”

First faint – then louder and clearer, “Katy! Its time to come inside!”

The trees disappeared. The horses were gone. Florence and Rupert sat hidden under a patio table.

“I guess I have to go,” Florence dropped her big, blue eyes to the ground. “Mom’s calling me for dinner.” Her forlorn expression, golden pigtails, and drenched summer dress were all beautifully reflected in the growing pool created by the garden hose at their feet.

“I told you that you were wanted at home. Its ok. We can play after school tomorrow,” Rupert smiled. “I’m sure we can get to the citadel this time.” Then he leaned over and quickly kissed her cheek. “See you tomorrow!”

Her eyes got even bigger than usual for a minute and then, in a fit of delighted giggling, she ran home.

Rupert stood up, put his hands in his pockets, and watched her run home with a sigh. He couldn’t wait for tomorrow’s adventures. Hopefully, she’d let him actually battle the Norse tomorrow.


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