Ten days from Halloween, my neighborhood is filling up with displays of ghosts, tombstones, bats, rats, owls, spiders and all sorts of spooky stuff. Every kid in my niece’s first grade class knows what she’s going to be for Halloween, and their costumes are mostly ready to go, minus the last minute hem jobs with fabric glue or duct tape. My niece is going to be a Greek goddess. Athena, I believe. Athena is her favorite because of the owls, and because one of the characters in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is called Athena. I lobbied for Ariadne since it sounds sort of like arachnid, and Ariadne led Theseus out of the labyrinth with a thread (and spiders make thread, right?), but that was rejected with an eye roll.
I’m old enough to remember when Halloween wasn’t much of a deal. Nobody decorated yards or houses. There were probably three Haunted Houses in the entire Bay Area. There were no pumpkin patches, and there was one kind of pumpkin—big and orange. We made one jack o’lantern for the whole family. Mom bought us 99 cent Yogi Bear and Caspar costumes at the drug store, and they were so thin they shredded when we took them off. The masks got sweaty and cut into our pointy little chins. Halloween was mostly about getting the biggest candy haul possible. The goal was to fill a pillowcase. Spooky stuff was incidental.
I never had a costume remotely this good.
Much to my surprise, ghosts have become a recurrent theme in my life. Spending hours at a time lost in the past seems to invite unusual happenings, such as naming all the characters for a book, then starting the research and finding many of the names chosen belonged to people who lived in the story’s setting during the time of the book. But my historical fantasy novella, “Eve of All Hallows,” came about because of two specific ghosts (for lack of a better word).
One of my cousins sees dead people. For real. And she’s not crazy. Never has been. You can judge for yourself if you watch two recent episodes of Biography.com's television series “The uneXplained.” There’s my cousin Natalie talking about a couple of the dead people she encountered when doing ‘soul retrievals’ at The Monroe Institute. And there’s a researcher she doesn’t know and hasn’t met tracking down a couple of those people in historical archives. There are the details matching up. It’s pretty wild. (Natalie is also a writer and an accomplished artist. Her account of her near death experience after being blown up in an IED in Iraq is fascinating reading: “Application of Impossible Things” by Natalie Sudman. 2012, Ozark Mountain Press.)
Several years ago, while traveling in England my sister, mother and I felt all kinds of interesting sensations and had unusual, possibly ghostly encounters and experiences. Natalie and I decided to see if, using her special skills, we could trace back though our family tree to see who was there, where they had lived and when. I have some of those skills, but I’m in the bush leagues. Natalie’s got something special. Back we went through one of our maternal lines, and after a series of mainly low-key healers and water dousers, we got a live one. Her name was Gwyn, she told us, and she was furious with us both.
Why? Because we were wasting our gifts, she said. Look at us, women our age treating our abilities like parlor tricks to amuse ourselves when there was work to be done. Important work. Then she showed us her life.
Gwyn was a healer with a depth of gift rarely seen. She healed not only people but the land, animals, and pretty much anything present in time and space. She traveled throughout Britain, Ireland, and Northwestern Europe. She went where and when she was called. The druidic tradition from which she mostly worked had been nearly squashed by the Romans hundreds of years before her lifetime, but its hidden practice continued.
Gwyn did not have a family of her own, though she did bear a child late in life to continue her line. She told us lineage matters when it comes to these gifts. Some of them are physical traits that can be developed, much like athletic skills. People have differing abilities, and those with natural ability can greatly enhance their performance if they so choose. Or squander their potential. She curled her ghostly lip at us.
It was hard to tell exactly when she lived, but it seemed to be somewhere in the early medieval period. She had a home base in the mountains in the English/Welsh Borders somewhere around Chirk. She lived a life of service. Her own dreams and desires were not as important as her work. She was demanding, relentless, harsh, critical, and powerful. She did not care if people liked her or if they feared her. She served a greater good. She worked tirelessly to bring peace and health to all. She was a woman of sharp contrasts who saw far more than the day-to-day reality most of us concern ourselves with.
Gwyn tempted my imagination. I think she was probably a real person, but it doesn’t matter if she wasn’t—not for me as a fiction writer. She inspired me to work harder at getting my books to readers. And she inspired a character based on her, the hidden Queen of the Isles in “Eve of All Hallows.” I began to spin a story built around a tough, powerful healer with forgotten gifts and wisdom. I put her in the way of another ghost who had roared into my mind a year earlier in the Welsh Marches south of Chester, Æthelfrith of Bernicia, a seventh century Northumbrian warlord king.
My fictional interpretations of Gwyn and Æthelfrith do not closely resemble their ghostly personalities, but they are informed by them. Through Natalie, I have been able to ask them questions and ‘talk’ to them several times. Again, I wouldn’t go to the mat insisting they’re real, but they lead me to good stories. And then there are those ghosts Natalie talked to that ended up matching the details of real people who lived and died in the 19th century.
Gwyn might be real. It’s enough of a Halloween story for me.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of “Eve of All Hallows.” It’s available as an ebook from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, All Romance Ebooks, and Smashwords.
Samhain, 594 AD, in an Eastern Vale of Gwynedd
At midnight following the last sunset of the old year and before the first sunrise of the new, the walls betwixt this world and the next shuddered, slipped, and fell. Gwyn was there to catch them, seeking tasks and truths, as her mother had once done, and all her grandmothers before them. Samhain it was, so alone Gwyn sat upon a hawthorn stump, gazing into the flames beneath her cauldron, awaiting any who might come to share her fire and a cup of warming broth.
Many came and told their tales. Gwyn listened carefully to each one so she might commit their words to memory. There were other nights the Visitors came to her, but none so important as on this night of summer’s turn to winter. She welcomed all who appeared, be they kindly fat old women, children lost in the woods, hunting wolves, madmen, goblins, half-formed wights, or shadowy spirits. She heard their tales, or simply kept them company if they did not speak. Samhain was hers, and none were turned away no matter how gruesome their appearance or the tales they brought.
When the eastern darkness shrank before the faintest graying breath of dawn, Gwyn blinked and, finding herself alone, rose to stir her soup and ladle a dipperful into her cup. It was almost to her lips, the steam warming her nose with woodsy herbs and the good meaty scent of her oldest hen, when a gentle cough stopped her.
Beside her stood a small, wizened being. An old man, perhaps, but she thought not. He put her in mind of a barrow wight who’d borrowed a woolen cloak and cap from some unsuspecting traveler. His pale, bland features peeked in and out beneath the shadows of his cap, the shape roughly a man’s, but lacking human details. No eyebrows. The nose but barely there. A smooth, unsmiling mouth.
“Sit, my lord, if you would share my fire and cup. You are most welcome.” She offered him her soup, noting how the cup glided from her hands without a touch. She gestured to one of the stumps beside her, and seated herself when he did.
“Thank you, Lady.” He sipped the broth. “Ah. A kind and fertile land you have here. This was a happy hen.” He sipped again. “The parsley greened upon fat roots. The onion swelled thick and sweet in the sheltering earth. The water carried joy out of the mountains. The salt sings with the hale heart of ancient seas.”
Gwyn smiled, for this was high praise indeed from one such as he. “My thanks, kind lord. There is more in the pot if you would like it.”
He nodded, handing her the cup that she might fill it once more, and then again and again until Gwyn’s pot was empty, with just a film drying on the bottom. It pleased her that he drank it all, for few appreciated it as much.
When he was finished, he set the earthenware cup upon the ground. The sky was moving on toward dawn now, and he would soon leave, Gwyn knew, but she did not hurry him. Daylight would not harm him.
“I sought you from my home in the north, Lady, for I have news of one who will come to you before this year ends and the next follows on its wings. He is like a bright storm one moment and a dark flood the next. We have watched him since he was a babe, my kin and I, and he is now a man grown. King he has become in the Old Green Hills. Yet his path is not clear. He wavers between the dark and light. He needs a tempering hand, Lady. One such as yours. To guide him. He doesn’t know how deeply he can scar the land. He cares not. He cares for his people, but not the land that makes them and gives them life. There is . . . concern.”
“What would you have me do?” Gwyn asked. She had seen this soul when scrying. Felt him in the cold east wind. Seen his hands drip blood in visions.
“Teach him to respect the Mother.”
Gwyn was silent whilst she sent her spirit searching for this young king. When she found him, she sighed. “He will not listen. He harkens only to his own will.”
“You have something he seeks.”
Startled, Gwyn met the wight’s hazel eyes. “The Lady’s Gift.”
He nodded solemnly.
“It has not been used in centuries,” she said.
“Yet it is your right to grant.”
“I am not sure I could.”
His eyes smiled even if his mouth did not. “My kin and I are sure you can. I am come to tell you this. You must test him. If he is worthy, your guidance may turn him properly into the True King he is capable of becoming.”
She measured his words. “Or he may not earn the Blessing.”
“Indeed. You will judge.”
“Young as he is, I do not think he will like that.”
He shrugged as though it didn’t matter. “Will you take him on?”
She thought about the Gift that was hers alone to grant, about what it would mean to the Isles to have a True King and True Queen at once for the first time in a thousand years. She thought about an old song she had learned from her great-grandmother, too.
“Is it true,” she asked her guest, “that a draught of such a warrior king’s blood grants life immortal?”
If the wight had possessed eyebrows, they would have drawn together. “Not immortal in the sense you mean. Lengthened life. Three, maybe four natural lifetimes of your kind.”
Gwyn considered that. “In so many years, I could teach many. Strengthen our stewardship of the Isles.”
He nodded solemnly. “A Lady may take from such a king one of two Gifts in exchange for what she offers. You may have his child, or you may have the longer span of years.”
“Such a child would be powerful.”
The wight inclined his head. “In many ways.”
She inhaled as the wind blew fragrant applewood smoke in her face. “A choice like this bears close scrutiny.”
“Of course. There are great risks. If this king leans too far into the darkness—this question gnaws at the bones of the hills and the rivers running. It is why I have come to you. Why the land itself seeks your help.” He gripped his cloak with long fingers. “Will you take him on? Test and try his soul? Urge him to his brighter side? Teach him to master the darker half?”
Knowing it would not be easy, she raised her hands, palms up, toward the wight. “I will accept this task, if he comes to me here on a coal black mare with a white foal birthed in May.”
It was an acceptable condition, she knew. If the gods were with him, not at all difficult, either.
“He should come with his pride in check, and his heart willing to learn,” she added.
The wight stood and bowed to her. “So be it, Lady. Look for him ere the year is ended. My thanks to you, and may the Mother’s blessings fall like warm sunlight all the year long.”
She blinked, and the wight melted between the flamecast shadows into the sheltering wood behind them as the first blackbird’s song rose to greet the dawning of the New Year.
L.G.C. Smith is the author of “Eve of All Hallows,” “Master of My Surrender (A Paranormal Erotic Romance Novella), “The Outlaw’s Secret Bride." She’s never met a historical period she couldn’t fall in love with, and most days she wouldn’t mind time travelling—except when Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, or True Blood are on. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow her on Twitter: @lgcsmith