I’ve just added an excerpt from the beginning of Fields of Iron to the already published Fields of Air, so I thought I’d better put it up here, too! I’ll put the next two snippets in my release alert newsletter (which is the only kind I have), so if you haven’t joined the flock, I hope you will!
Somewhere in the Wild West
The witches who inhabited the canyons and tributaries of the mighty Rio de Sangre Colorado de Christo had controlled its sandstone fastnesses for fifty years. La bruja who went by the name of Mother Mary had been the first child born to a member of the original band of runaways, escapees, and criminals, and had grown up knowing no father, but many mothers, sisters, and friends. Her biological mother, a former dance-hall girl who had run away from an abusive employer and a worse lover, had accumulated a number of whores and Navapai laborers and even a Canton scientist who had been forced to be a laundress as companions along her journey to freedom. They had found the river and its bewildering series of canyons, tributaries, and caverns, to say nothing of its ancient, abandoned cliff dwellings, to be a more welcoming home than the towns of the Texican Territory, and had taken up residence in a country where no one would find them.
Slowly the word spread among the abused, the dispossessed, and the destitute in the desert reaches of the Wild West that if one could only get to the river, one could find safety and food and employment. For the witches did not merely haunt and hide. They built. What they lacked in physical strength they hired or invented. The Canton scientist specialized in steam-powered engines, and was only too delighted to teach any who cared to learn about how to control the flow and speed of the river, how to go up and down the seven-hundred-foot cliff faces with the ease of a house spider, and how to construct the underwater traps with which they inspired terror in the hearts of the invaders from the west. These were men from across the sea who coveted the power and commerce the river could make possible if they could only get their hands on it.
Oh yes, they coveted it. But the witches had no intention of giving up their fierce independence or their arrangement with the small but cheerful armada of steamships plying the races and reaches of the river. No one outside of those echoing canyons could understand how the steamships could navigate the rapids. Most believed the boats to have been wrecked years ago. Some believed there had been powers of magic or time travel at work.
But the witches knew, and smiled, and counted the gold that bought more iron and more supplies and seeds for their crops and the occasional pretty gown.
Gloria Meriwether-Astor sat upon a wonderfully carved stool made of silvery driftwood and tilted up her face for Ella Balboa, Mother Mary’s daughter and the girl who had saved her life the week before. With one fingertip, Ella rubbed white paint into her skin from hairline to chin, and then picked up the paintbrush with its load of black.
The bristles tickled as she traced whorls and webs and flowers around Gloria’s blacked eyes, a pattern that, when it was completed, would look like lace upon Gloria’s skin and render her completely unrecognizable in its very uniqueness.
“So what happened to the Canton scientist?” she asked, doing her best not to move her lips.
“Jiao-Lan climbed the starlight stair about fifteen years ago, but before she did, she was able to teach two generations of girls what she knew. Stella, Clara’s daughter, is probably the smartest of all of us. She’ll be heading upriver soon to add some improvements to the original mechanisms that control the rapids. She’s been teaching the younger ones, and they’ll take over when the time comes.” She added a final flourish to Gloria’s nose, and tilted her head to examine her handiwork. “Red lips, I think, to set off these gold roses, and I have a silk crown of roses for you. I think yellow goes better with your hair, though tradition tells us red, for love and blood. Oh!” Her brown eyes, starred with long lashes, widened with an idea. “We could play brides!”
Gloria laughed, and was surprised to find that the paint did not stiffen or crack. Considering the hour and a half that Ella had taken to create her work of art, she was grateful that a single smile would not spoil it all.
“My dear friend, while I confess to having been the unwilling recipient of a number of proposals, it seems that playing brides will indeed be as close as I will ever come to that happy estate.”
“Oh, no,” Ella said quite seriously as she applied gold paint from a tiny pot to this spot and then its opposite on Gloria’s cheeks, where presumably there were roses. “You are so beautiful. I am quite sure that had you not left your former life, you would have been married within the year.”
“And I am quite sure that you are sweet to say so.”
Gloria could not tell if the other girl’s color changed under the paint, but her gaze dropped in embarrassment at the compliment.
Gloria went on, “Fortunately, there is more to marriage than beauty on one side and wealth on the other. My friend Claire Trevelyan Malvern has found love and companionship with a man who is her equal in intelligence. While my standards in that regard must be set considerably lower, I aspire to such a union, too.” She paused, gazing past Ella’s shoulder at the wide ribbon of brilliant blue visible from the stone veranda on which they sat, where the canyon walls admitted a view of the sky above. “I am willing to wait for the right one,” she said softly. “And to remember that a man’s worth is not measured by social skills or wealth, but by temperament, and generosity, and courage.”
“Men aren’t the only ones with those qualities.” Ella carefully applied red from another pot to Gloria’s lips, and then stood back to admire her handiwork. “Could you not make a home among us? Because you know, there is plenty of generosity and courage and intelligence among our ranks, if that is what you’re looking for.”
“I have seen that already,” she agreed. “May I see what you’ve done?”
Ella waited a moment, as though she expected Gloria to say more, and then got up to fetch the mirror. It was silver, with a chased handle, and could have held its own on any dressing-table in Philadelphia. Gloria held it up and gazed upon the wraith it reflected.
“My goodness, you’re talented. No one would know me—all they can see is your beautiful art, Ella. Now I truly feel like one of you.”
The other girl dipped her head. “Gracias, amiga. It was my pleasure. Will you have the crown and veil now?”
“Oh, why not? In for a penny, in for a pound.”
The much abused canvas pants in which Gloria had spent much of the past two weeks had finally given up the ghost when she had climbed the hidden spiral stair up to the witches’ main palace in the cliffs a few days ago, and she had been obliged to raid the coffers in the storage rooms here. Nothing would force her to part with her custom-made corset with the gold coins sewn into the lining, but now she wore a ruffled, bleached cotton skirt with several layers of point lace, and the embroidered blouse Ella had given her on her arrival, cinched at the waist with a corselet of tanned and polished leather. Along with the gray wool blanket and boots she had brought with her, she also now possessed a chemise edged in lace, a linen shirtwaist, and a brocade waistcoat with no fewer than four hidden pockets, as well as a short canvas duster against the night’s chill. If she could only come across another pair of pants that fit, she would have nothing left to wish for.
Now, her white blouse and creamy skirt would have to do for playing brides, a thought that made her want to giggle. She had never played brides in her life. But with Ella, who may have been past the age of making her debut but still possessed the innocent joy of childhood, it seemed like just the thing to while away a warm February afternoon while they waited for Captain Stan and his crew to come back with news of the war brewing in the west.
Ella climbed the stone steps and Gloria heard her opening and closing a chest in one of the rooms above. She came down a moment later bearing two veils over her arm and two crowns of silk roses.
“Where did the veils come from?” she asked curiously, dipping her head so that Ella could lay the large square upon it, with one long point falling over her face. It was edged six inches deep in the most beautiful embroidery Gloria had seen since— “Why, this looks like Burano lace, from the duchy of Venice.”
“I don’t know.” Ella fitted a crown of yellow and black roses over the veil and handed Gloria the mirror once more. “Things come on Captain Stan’s boats and we never know where he gets them. Sometimes I believe it’s better not to know. Oh, don’t you look like a bride, to be sure!”
Gloria gazed at her reflection. She certainly didn’t look like any bride she had ever seen before—not like Claire must have, in the Worth ivory satin Gloria had sent as a wedding gift two months before. But all the same, the lace was delicately sumptuous, and the rose crown made her feel rather regal, if one overlooked the face painted to look like a celebratory death’s head.
“For we are the dead,” Ella had explained to her the other day. “Many of us have grown up on the river, but many have come here to leave their lives behind and be reborn as the dead. So we celebrate both death and life. Besides, it frightens the stuffing out of the Californios if they get a glimpse of us.”
Copyright 2016 by Shelley Adina. All rights reserved. For the rest of Chapter One, subscribe to my newsletter and become part of the flock! The next missive goes out in early August.