QSFer Angel Martinez has a new MM fantasy book out:
A huge bear at the door, a handsome, naked stranger in the snow, magic fish, enchanted beards—and Rowan thought his life was odd before.
Content with the quiet isolation of their lake house, Snowden and Rowan Hadley survive on summer jobs and winter hunting, unable to move on since their parents died. Their peace is shattered by a strange, human-acclimated bear who insists on following Rowan like a giant hunting dog and again by the discovery of a naked, surly stranger in the snow.
Both bear and man lead the Hadley brothers into a strange, surreal world where sorcery and RPG software intertwine. Curses and magical traps lie in wait around every turn. Rowan and Snowden will need to adjust their view of how the world works, and quickly, if they want to live through rescuing their enchanted princes.
Newly Expanded Version.
A hard gust threw dry leaves against the kitchen window, their pale, tattered lobes scratching questing fingers against the glass.
Rowan shivered at the unwelcome image. Bad enough a storm was moving in, but his brother had gone out into the wind to secure the back gate. He’s taking a godawful long time…
The back door slammed open. Snowden stood there panting, as if he had raced for the house.
“Snow?” Rowan went to him, trying to peer around him into the dark. “What is it?”
He only glimpsed eddies of snowflakes whipping around the yard before Snowden set his shoulder to the door and shoved it shut. He shook his head, chest still heaving. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what? Don’t go out there?”
Snowden nodded as he slid the deadbolt home. “Tracks. Back gate.”
He brought his brother a chair and made him sit so he could help him off with his snow-caked boots. “They were…someone’s tracks?”
Trying to get information out of Snow was hard most times, but when he was upset, it bordered on impossible. Rowan understood his twin better than anyone else could, though, and he remained patient. “Animal tracks, then. Something big.”
“Bear,” Snowden muttered.
“You’re sure it wasn’t just a big dog?” Snow lifted dark eyes to glare at him. “Okay. Not a dog. But we haven’t had bears around here in forever.”
Snowden shrugged, a gesture that clearly meant, Fine, don’t believe me.
“I’m not saying there wasn’t one. Just surprised. Guess the weather’s been bad west of here. Poor bear.”
A snort indicated that Snowden’s sympathies weren’t with the bear.
“Must be hard, though.” Rowan put the soaked boots on the mat by the door and hung Snowden’s fleece-lined jacket on its hook. “Trying to find food to get through the winter…”
He trailed off, the statement a little too close to home. Snowden’s calloused hand closed on his arm with a little shake.
“I know. We’ll be fine. Of course we will.” He shook off the momentary gloom. “We’re safe in here while poor Mr. Bear’s outside in the storm. And I made soup from the rest of the rabbit. We can have some tonight. Freeze the rest. We’re good for a long while. There’ll be a break in the weather soon and we’ll get into town for supplies.”
Neither one of them mentioned that one usually needed money for that sort of thing. At least if the shopper wanted to do more than just look. We’ll figure something out.
In the summer, they had the honey to sell from their mother’s apiary and the berries from the huge, tangled patches of blueberry and raspberry bushes on the island. They took seasonal jobs as river guides, too, as long as the weather held. The first winter hadn’t been so bad, since a small life insurance policy had come through. But things always came up. Between repairs for the truck and the generator, an unexpected tax bill, and Rowan getting pneumonia, the money was long gone.
Their parents had put a sizeable chunk of money aside—investments, annuities, and so on—but several relatives had come forward to contest the will. Their inheritance languished in probate.
He ladled out the soup into his mother’s blue stoneware bowls, trying not to think of how she had always laughed when he told her they matched her eyes. God, I miss them both.
They ate at the kitchen table in companionable silence. No matter what else they did during the day, they had always eaten dinner together, as a family. It was a tradition they sorely needed now, the comfort of each other’s presence in the evenings.
“Bear, huh?” Rowan finally broke the silence. “Probably won’t stay too long. Not much for a bear to eat here on the island in the winter.”
“Honey,” Snowden muttered darkly.
“Yeah, he probably smelled it. But he can’t get through the enclosure to the hive boxes. He’ll give up and go away. I mean, it’s just a black bear.”
Snowden shifted, staring at his soup.
“What? Oh, come on. It has to be a black bear. We don’t have any other kind. Not like we live in Alaska with the Kodiaks.”
He would just have to go out in the morning and look for himself. Not that he disbelieved Snowden. His brother wasn’t in the habit of exaggerating. But if it was an unusually large black bear, or something bigger that had wandered down from Canada, he might have to call animal control.
That they might be trapped in the house, with him unable to hunt, was a sobering thought.
“Satellite’s probably not going to pick up much.”
“Wanna play some Fae Mongrels after dinner?”
Snowden’s grin said You bet your ass I do loud and clear. As a rule, they didn’t have extra money for games, and evenings passed with TV or reading. But Fae Mongrels had been a gift from a neighbor across the lake, in gratitude for help with her raccoon problem. They had tried to be noble and refuse, but the new game from Thaumaturgy Inc. had proved too much of a temptation.
The wind whined in the gutters as they settled on the sofa.
“You want to start new characters?”
With a little frown, Snowden shook his head.
“But I thought the wings were bugging you?” An RPG with real depth and variety, the game swiftly taught the unwary player that every advantage came with liabilities and every action had consequences. Building characters became half the fun, so the player could find out how a spiked tail might affect balance, or how wings might become disastrous during ground battles. No two journeys the same boasted the back of the box, and if that couldn’t be literally true, there were enough variations built in to make it effectively true.
Snowden kept his wings on his mountain sprelf and Rowan stayed with his clawed, shapeshifting lycanoni. The evening passed in near silence, the characters speaking for them onscreen as they battled a horde of ogre bats and reached a seedy border town.
Another angry gust rattled the windows and Rowan couldn’t help thinking of the poor bear out in the storm.
“Yep, boys, that’s a bear.” Mike tipped back his broad-brimmed hat.
The storm had let up in the small hours of the morning and a call to the nearby park station had brought two curious rangers out to have a look.
“Black bear?” Rowan asked, though from the size of the tracks all around the house, he was afraid he knew the answer.
“Nope. Too damn big.” George scratched his white hair before replacing his hat. “Unless it’s some new mutant kind of black bear. Gotta be something bigger. Probably a grizzly, though I’ve never seen one this far east.”
“You won’t have to…shoot it, will you?” Rowan swallowed down rising nausea. Killing to eat was one thing, killing a bear just struck him as horrible.
“Not usually necessary,” Mike said as he reached for the radio mic in their snowcat. “Pretty good success rate with getting the bear tranked and relocated. With the black bears, we only do it if they start being a nuisance. Raiding garbage cans. Wandering the streets in town. But something this big… We’ll keep an eye out for him.”
George pointed to the tracks leading away from the house and out onto the frozen lake. “Anyway, your visitor didn’t find anything interesting here. Looks like he left the island after the snow stopped.”
Mike was speaking into the radio, “Heading back from the Hadley place now…”
George bent to take a last look at the tracks, shaking his head. “Just don’t know what would possess a bear to come all that way…” He straightened, aiming a sharp glance at Rowan. “You boys all right out here?”
“We’re fine.” Rowan made sure to smile, though a war raged inside him between bristling at the implication of helplessness and craving that same implied help. “Just waiting out the winter.”
A soft grunt was George’s only commentary. Rangers came and went for the nearby state park, but George had been on the job since before Rowan and his brother had been born.
Mike turned back to their conversation. “You give us a yell if your visitor comes back. Just keep your distance and head inside if you see him.”
Snowden gave his brother a hard look.
“We will!” Rowan threw up his hands. “I’m not messing with a grizzly.”
“Good call.” George eased back into the driver’s seat of the snowcat, then leaned out to tap Rowan on the arm. “You boys have some room in your freezer chest? Margie over-baked again this year when the grandkids came to visit and I’d like some room in our fridge for a good steak or something instead of the never-ending pies.”
“We’ll take some off your hands.” There. Gracious all around. “What are friends for?”
Snowden gave him a too-serious nod. “Saving…George. From…pies.”
And now Snow makes jokes. It’s raining surprises. He knew there would be other groceries most likely sneaked in with those troublesome pies and he made a mental note to have Snowden write it down so they remembered to pay the Larsens back in the spring.
They took another tour of the windblown tracks around the house while the rangers made their slow way back across the frozen lake. The huge paw prints circled the apiary enclosure once, but there were no signs that the bear had tried to paw his way in. The shed, likewise, had a single circle of tracks. The house had three overlapping circles and a puzzling depression in the snow outside the living room window.
Rowan shivered. He had the oddest impression that the bear had sat there in the storm, watching them play.
The unlikely black sheep of an ivory tower intellectual family, Angel Martinez has managed to make her way through life reasonably unscathed. Despite a wildly misspent youth, she snagged a degree in English Lit, married once and did it right the first time, gave birth to one amazing son, and realized at some point that she could get paid for writing.
Published since 2006, Angel’s cynical heart cloaks a desperate romantic. You’ll find drama and humor given equal weight in her writing and don’t expect sad endings. Life is sad enough.
She currently lives in Delaware in a drinking town with a college problem and writes Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around gay heroes.
Email: [email protected]