Okay, I know it's a little early to start talking about Christmas with Thanksgiving still coming later this week, but please bear with me. Or come back and check out this post after you've turned your calendar to December :)
Did you know I have a Christmas story published in an anthology called Christmas Fiction off the Beaten Path? My contribution, "Return to Callidora," was one of those story ideas that just wouldn't let me go. I kept picturing cute scenes between the main characters and brainstorming ways to make the plot work, and since the inspiration came after a dry spell it was so much fun to be writing again! It took me a while to find the right home for this fantasy-holiday-romance mashup of Shrek and The Pied Piper, but I'm so glad I did! (If you're curious about my thoughts on the other fantastic stories in Christmas Fiction off the Beaten Path, check out this post. And if you'd like to buy it, you can find it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble!)
Today I'm excited to share an excerpt from "Return to Callidora" - one of those moments between my main characters that just made my inner romantic grin from ear to ear :) As a quick recap, Princess Eveline has been locked in a dragon-guarded tower for years as protection from a vengeful sorceress, waiting for a worthy knight to rescue her. In the meantime, Ryker, a servant with an unusual ability to control animals (including dragons) with his music, brings her yearly supplies every Christmas. Ryker has just arrived at the tower after riding through a snowstorm on his valiant steed, Mushroom. Enjoy!
***Once we had Mushroom situated, Ryker and I each donned several saddlebags and headed for the kitchen. I lowered my bags to the floor and began rifling through.
“Let’s get you something to eat. I have bread, and my strawberry preserves turned out well this year. Hopefully Cook sent the usual butter and cheese. Oh, and—”
“Ev, slow down.” Ryker tugged at my arm. “I’ll last a few more minutes, I promise.”
I straightened. “But your journey must’ve been miserable, in all that snow.”
“I’m fine.” He stepped closer. “You’re the one I’m concerned about. How are you?”
“Same as ever, as you can see.” I tried to keep my smile steady.
He blew out a small chuckle. “Not quite the same. Your hair is longer. And your eyes...”
I squirmed under his scrutiny.
“A little wiser, perhaps.” His grin faded. “But you’ve been well? Plenty to eat and drink? No illnesses? No signs of Kirra?”
“Yes. The well hasn’t run dry, my garden still grows, and illness is rare when one stays indoors at all times with no other human contact.”
He winced and shifted his feet.
“As for Kirra, to my knowledge she hasn’t come anywhere near. Though I’d hardly know what to look for if she had.”
“Aodhan seems as sharp as ever, so you should be safe.”
I nodded. “Now, about that meal. Do you like tomatoes? I can’t remember.”
“Tomatoes sound wonderful.”
Soon I had eggs and meat frying over a fire and a plate laden with vegetables, bread, and cheese set before Ryker.
“There’s been quite a bit of talk about you lately, you know.” He swallowed, keeping his eyes fixed on his plate.
“Me?” I prodded a sizzling egg. “I’m surprised anyone remembers I exist.”
“No one’s forgotten about you—you’re practically legend in Callidora.” He cleared his throat. “It’s no secret you recently came of age.”
“What does that matter? I could hardly host a ball to celebrate.” I transferred the cooked food onto another platter and approached the table.
Ryker sighed. “Now that you’re eighteen, I think many would-be rescuers are just waiting until the snow clears.”
“Really?” The plate clattered onto the table. “I don’t understand why anyone would bother. None of them have even met me.”
“Your beauty is highly reputed throughout the kingdom.”
“Is it?” My heart flailed, but the surge of vanity didn’t last. “But what if I don’t live up to my reputation? What if someone slays the dragon and then takes one look at me and heads back out the door?”
He coughed, red tingeing his ears. “Not possible.”
“I might be a disappointment.”
I lowered onto a chair and popped a cube of venison into my mouth. “My life will change so suddenly, all in one moment.”
“A change for the better.” Ryker reached across the table for my hand. “You deserve to be surrounded by people who love you, wearing fancy gowns and attending banquets and dancing at balls.” He squeezed my fingers, then drew his arm back. “Not serving a meal to the poor musician you’re stuck with for company.”
I threw a napkin at him. “You know I’m thrilled to have your company.”
“Only because you have no other options.” He tossed the napkin back with a flourish.
After he scraped the last bite from his plate, he rose and stretched. “I hope poor Mushroom’s warmed up a bit. We’d best be on our way.”
“What?” I halted on my way to the wash basin. “You just got here.”
His breath fluttered the hair on his forehead. “I know, but getting back won’t be any easier than the trip here. The daylight’s already gone.”
“But you always stay for Christmas.”
“That was when your tutor was still here.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Your parents wouldn’t like it.”
“They never need to find out. I have your usual room prepared.” I grasped his arm. “Please? You can’t know what it’s like, being left alone for an entire year. When Frances went with you last time, I thought I was happy to see her go. Now I’d give anything for her lectures and scolding. To have someone to talk to.”
“Oh, Eveline. I know it’s been hard.” He placed a warm hand on my back. “All right, I’ll stay. But just for one night.”
I clapped. “Thank you! What fun we’ll have. With all the new supplies, I can cook something special.” My heart drooped. “Even that doesn’t seem like much, though. I wish you could stay longer.”
“I definitely couldn’t agree to that.” He raised an eyebrow at my pout. “Just think how it would look to your rescuer to find a man already here.”
“He wouldn’t have anything to worry about from you.”
His jaw tightened. “Because I’m so very insignificant?”
Ugh, men and their pride. “No, Ry, that’s not what I meant.” I stepped closer. “I just know you would never...take advantage of being alone with me.”
“Of course I wouldn’t.” His cheeks turned pink. “But he wouldn’t know that.”
“True. I can’t afford to send my knight into a jealous rage the moment he walks through the door.” I retreated to the wash basin. “But I still don’t see why my tutor had to be sent away.”
“Apparently you were done with your studies.”
I blew out a breath. “You know what I mean. Couldn’t I at least have a maid?”
“And what would your brave knight do with the extra companion when he rescues you?” He smirked. “Leave her here? Heft her up onto his horse behind the two of you? Bring an extra mount?”
“Oh, you’re impossible.” I flung a cascade of droplets toward him.
He ducked. “Just thinking it through the way I’m sure your parents did. I doubt they would’ve forced you into solitude if they could’ve devised a good alternative.”
“Maybe.” My sense of mischief faded. “I sometimes feel like they just took the easiest path. Locking me away until I can be someone else’s problem.”
“Ev.” Ryker came to my side and squeezed my shoulder. “Your parents love you. It shows in their faces every year as they fret over whether they’ve packed enough supplies. I’m not sure they chose the best path when dealing with Kirra, but I believe they tried to do what they thought was right.”
“Thanks. What would I do without you, Ry?”
“Be a whole lot drier.” He splashed water into my face, and I shrieked.