If you shop at Barnes & Noble, then until December 19th, if you buy one of the first two books in the Magorian & Jones series, you can get the other at a 50% discount.
Also, we’re two weeks away from the release of The Shield of Agrona, so today, as usual, I’m dropping in the entire first chapter of the book, whole and complete.
EXCERPT FROM THE SHIELD OF AGRONA
COPYRIGHT © TAYLEN CARVER 2021
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The Forest of La Mancha, Toledo, Spain. Late May.
The canopy over our heads was so thick that when it began to sprinkle, no water reached us where we sat beneath the mighty oak tree’s waist-thick branches. Magorian, though, frowned up at the bright green, new leaves. “We should go back inside.”
I spread my hands out protectively over the top of the Tarot cards arrayed upon the folding table between us. “You’re looking for a way out of this. That means you must finish it. You know we have to do this.”
Magorian met my gaze. His eyes had taken on a silvered glint under the canopy, but I suspected they would look the same no matter where we were sitting. As much as he hated these sessions, that look in his eyes told me they were doing what we suspected they might—they were bringing his prophetic powers to the fore.
He sighed and nodded. “Yeah, you’re right.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “At least it’s cool out here.”
We were sitting beneath the oak that Delta had named “Joe”. Delta had bestowed the name when she planted the acorn given to her by the leader of the Old Ones in the forest. Delta had carefully chosen a spot to plant the acorn after walking the length and breadth of the long front yard of Magorian’s house. At the time, we had tried to talk her out of it.
“It’s in the middle of nothing out here, honey,” Ketill had explained to his daughter, as Delta carefully dug out a small hole in the indifferent sod that covered the yard. “Wouldn’t it be better closer to the house, where it can cast shade in the summer…if it ever gets that tall? We’ve gotta be close to a hundred feet away from anything, here. Deidre, explain it to her for me, will ya? I don’t have all the words.”
When Deidre had signed her father’s questions, the little dryad merely shook her head and patted soil back over the buried seed. The next day, the seedling was up to Delta’s knees, waving in the last of the winter-cold air.
Two weeks later, the oak had grown to full size, shooting up multiple feet every day. We could almost see it growing. Out of curiosity, I used the sheet of paper trick to measure the height, each day. The oak stopped growing upward when it reached a hundred feet. It also stopped growing outward when it was nearly brushing the side of the house.
Delta had found the one spot in the yard where the one hundred and sixty foot spread of the tree did not block the driveway, the path to the front door, or any of the windows on that side of the house.
It was a monster of a tree, and everyone in the house switched from calling it Joe, to calling it Old Joe, which suited it much better.
As the heat of late spring began to build, we discovered that the air beneath the oak’s more-than-man-height lowest branches was cool and shady, and the soil pleasantly loamy. We had taken to using the oak as our outdoor seating and gathering area. I suspect Old Joe enjoyed the company, even though Delta often slept in the tree, upon the platform Ketill’s oldest son, Eucleides, had built for her in the upper branches, where the canopy was thickest.
I’d pulled Magorian out here this afternoon for another prediction session. Trying to conduct them in the house, with its multiple interruptions, busy people and noise was difficult. And I didn’t want him anywhere near his office or his workshop, where even more powerful distractions sat upon desks and benches.
I pulled my hands away from the Tarot spread and picked up my notebook. “Very well, where were we?” I checked my notes. “Okay, let’s try numbers.” I looked down at the array spread between us. “Unless there’s more in this spread you can see?”
Magorian frowned down at it. “If there was, it’s gone now.”
“I got the first part down,” I assured him, as he swept up the Tarot cards and shuffled the deck. I tried not to watch him shuffle. Magorian was so practiced at handling the cards it seemed like magic, the way they moved around his fingers. I often found myself watching them ripple in waterfalls, spread like peacock tails, then neatly pack themselves back into a solid brick. Right now, though, I didn’t want to be pulled away from my thoughts, so I studied my notes. “There’s a lower level of hell in my future…was that it?”
“Somewhere hot,” Magorian said absently, still shuffling.
“That will be Toledo in three months’ time,” I said indifferently. I didn’t like to react strongly to his predictions. Any sign of fear or trepidation I gave him would shut him down, and I wanted Magorian to get comfortable with this ability of his. “So let’s try numbers, now.” I put the board down. “So, wise wizard friend of mine, what numbers should I use for El Nino?”
El Nino was the Toledo weekly lottery, and regularly featured jackpots in the multiple millions of Euros.
Magorian put the pack on the table. I reached out with my left hand and split the deck twice, then restacked it in what I hoped was a random order. I handed the pack back to him.
Magorian dealt the cards, this time in a simple row of six cards, to match the now-weekly El Nino lottery numbers. “Any winnings, you split with me, ‘kay?” And for the first time ever, he fumbled the cards.
I ignored the alarming mess of cards upon the table. “You think I’m so sold on your prophet skills, I’d invest money in this experiment?”
Magorian looked up from the clumps of cards. “Wouldn’t you hate yourself more if I got them right and you didn’t have a ticket?”
I laughed. “Wouldn’t you profiting from the prediction foul it up?”
“Let’s find out,” Magorian said easily. “This spread is split between us. I’ll do another spread next week, that you can collect a hundred percent on.”
I nodded. “Done. All in the name of science, of course.”
“Absolutely. Cold experiment, no variables.” Magorian shook his head and looked down at the cards. “I have no sense of anything at all, from these,” he said flatly. He had not made any attempt to remove the cards that had dropped out of the deck and laid upon the row he’d put down.
“No numbers come to you?”
He rolled his eyes at me. “The numbers are on the cards.”
I felt mildly silly. “Of course,” I said. “But the El Nino goes up to forty-eight. Tarot cards only go to twenty-one.”
Magorian pointed at one of the spilled cards. The World lay face up over The Sun. “The Sun is nineteen. The World is twenty-one. That’s thirty.”
“But those cards fell out of your hand,” I pointed out.
Magorian shook his head. “Maybe they wanted to be out of the pack. Who knows? Take down the numbers, doc.” He called out the six numbers, pausing to add the totals together for the cards that lay on top of each other.
I wrote them down, doubt touching me. All the numbers were less than forty-eight, which would fit with the El Nino lottery. But were they legitimate, coming as they did from scattered cards?
“This is an experiment, remember,” Magorian added.
I nodded. “Yes. Sorry. It just seems a little messy.”
“That’s life for you.” Magorian sat back and pushed his thumbs into his temples. “No more. Not today.”
“Not like the first few times.”
“Progress then.” I glanced back through my notes. “There’s a bit of a pattern emerging. All of the predictions you’ve made that haven’t eventuated are abstract. The weather, sports events, election results. But all the predictions you’ve made that had a positive outcome are highly personal. Estefania, earlier this year. Fabricio’s little sister arriving in Toledo as an angel. Harley von Canmore reaching out to me from Canada. Even Ketill’s idea about the tunnel…and the more I think about it, the more I think you already knew Señora Mingo was making Deidre do all the work in the kitchen before we confronted her.”
Magorian grunted. It might have been an affirmative, but he was busy massaging his temples, so I didn’t ask for clarification. Instead, I made my point. “If your predictions are all highly personal, if the person has to be in front of you for you to know their future, then your nightmare of hell might just be that. A bad dream.”
Magorian lowered his hands. I’d intrigued him. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
The hell nightmare had been plaguing Magorian for months. Actually, years—for he could remember having the same nightmare when he was a child. Magorian had shown me a copy of the Temptation of St. Anthony triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, and said it was a close approximation of the feeling the dream imparted in him—and me, too, for that triptych was not full of butterflies and flowers.
Magorian’s nightmare had not recurred for many years. Earlier this year, though, it had returned. It was a constant visitor, now. The nightmare was making Magorian’s sleep choppy and grinding him down. It was why I had proposed we deliberately experiment with his predictive abilities and find what the limitations were.
And now I’d just given him a glimpse of what might be one of them. “Your nightmare includes thousands of people,” I pointed out.
“Millions,” Magorian corrected me.
“A lot of people, then. Whole populations. Yes?”
“If you can only make true predictions about individuals, then the nightmare is not a prediction.”
Magorian looked like he wanted to grasp the proposition and run with it. I could see temptation making his jaw work. Then he sighed and shook his head. “You say it all the time, doc—you need a huge dataset to find patterns that really mean anything. We’ve only been at this a few months.”
“But still, it is highly suggestive,” I countered. “I can’t find a solitary exception anywhere. All your accurate calls are about one singular person. Never a group.”
The screen at the kitchen doorway, at this end of the house, squeaked as it opened, pulling our attention away from the cards and the topic. I think Magorian was grateful for the reprieve, for he bent to peer under the lowest leaves at the edge of the canopy.
I bent and looked, too. I also wanted a break. I spent a lot of energy making sure Magorian was left with the impression this was clinical, emotion-free experimentation, to strip away the horror and the worry that surrounded his ability. I made light of negative predictions and downplayed bad outcomes. The hot place in hell he’d described as my future at the beginning of this session was just the latest of disturbing imagery and ideas he’d “seen” in the Tarot cards.
I peered under the oak branches. It had stopped raining, already. Thamina, the salamander who had replaced Señora Mingo, held the screen door open while speaking softly with an encouraging tone to someone inside the house.
Morris hopped down the steps to the ground, spread his wings and turned his head, no doubt looking for Magorian.
Morris had been gifted to Magorian while still an egg, as payment for Magorian’s skills as a wizard. The entire household had been alarmed when a vulture had hatched, but Magorian had decided to keep Morris. I think he insisted upon Morris staying because everyone is repelled by the bird—a sensation Magorian was used to, himself.
“Here, Morris!” Magorian called, as Thamina tried to shepherd the vulture toward the oak tree. She carried a heavy pot in one arm, and the leather gauntlet Magorian used to feed Morris.
Morris was a griffon vulture and, like the tree we sat beneath, he had rapidly reached his full size. He weighed twenty-five pounds and his wings stretched for nine feet. But that wasn’t Morris’ most alarming aspect. The fact was, Morris was ugly. Vultures were not known for their looks and Morris was a prime example.
He spotted Magorian under the tree and ran toward us, his wings lifting out in excitement, his shoulders hunched and his big, strong beak thrust forward. The ruff of feathers around his neck were pure white, the rest of him a dull ochre, with darker brown spots, while the edge of his wings darkened to near black. He had white socks around his ankles and the bald neck and shoulders that characterized the species.
Thamina smiled as she followed Morris over to the tree, ducked under the outer foliage, then straightened.
Magorian patted his knee. Morris waddled over, his powerful claws digging funnels in the dark loam, and pushed the side of his head up against Magorian’s thigh. He crooned softly.
I still found Morris’ open fondness for Magorian and a small handful of others astonishing and amusing. But Morris had grown to maturity among a household of adults and children who doted upon him, played with him, and petted him whenever he let them. Magorian, and sometimes Delta, were the only people he would accept food from, though.
Thamina handed Magorian the bowl over Morris’ head, and the heavy glove, still smiling. “That thing…he is so sweet.” And she blushed at her own temerity and looked down at her feet. Even the graduating dots of horny skin over her brows seemed to be tinged with pink.
“He’s anything but sweet to look at,” I told her. “He’s ugly. But he is one of the most affectionate animals I’ve ever come across. Maybe it’s to make up for his appearance, which puts him at the end of the line for volunteer scratches.”
As I spoke, Magorian scratched the back of Morris’ head and the bird begun to purr. Until I’d heard Morris rumble contentedly the first time, I had not known that birds could purr the way cats did.
I hid my amusement. Morris didn’t like being laughed at.
Thamina put her hand over her mouth to hold in her own laughter. “Morris tells me it is time for food, Mr. Benjamin.”
Magorian nodded. “Thanks, Thamina.”
She glanced at me. “It is teatime, yes?”
I wanted to blow her a kiss of gratitude, for she had read my mind. But she would be embarrassed by that. So I beamed at her. “Perfect!”
Thamina pushed at the back of her hair, awkwardness radiating from her. Any form of praise, even the most indirect kind, tended to fluster her. She hurried away to get my tea. She had a knack for making excellent tea…something I could not attribute to Señora Mingo. I was glad Ketill had spotted Thamina’s potential, for she fit into our household with ease, and the kitchen had run smoothly since her arrival.
Now, if we could just boost her confidence and ability to stand up for herself, we would be able to return some of the positive changes she had brought about. She was still too afraid of her own shadow.
Magorian had fitted the big, thick gauntlet onto his hand. Then he patted the table with it. “Up you get.”
Morris flapped his wings enough to lift himself up onto the table. He landed with an ungainly stagger that made the table rock, then tucked his wings away. He bent his crooked neck and plucked the first of the raw meat scraps from Magorian’s fist, with a squawk of pleasure. Magorian had learned that even though the vultures reached full physical maturity quickly, they still needed to be fed by an adult for most of a year. After that, they often stayed with the adults in a community.
“They’re family-oriented,” Magorian told us. “I couldn’t get rid of him now, even if I wanted to. He’s attached to us.”
“Attached to you, Magorian,” Ketill had shot back. “Dumb thing follows you around like a puppy.”
So Morris was here to stay.
I got to my feet. “I’ll leave you alone to commune, you and your familiar,” I teased Magorian.
I went into the kitchen, where Thamina was just pouring my tea. She had a scone ready on a butter plate. A pot of her delicious lemon curd butter sat beside the plate. She made the butter with lemons which the tree in the enclosed garden in the middle of the house had kindly dropped for her when she asked—each lemon perfectly ripe and juicy. The lemon tree was another project of Delta’s.
I leaned my hip against the counter and drank my tea while Thamina moved about the kitchen, working steadily. I felt no need to engage her in conversation, for she was occupied with her work. I was similarly occupied. I’d parked myself here, where Magorian, who was highly intuitive, wouldn’t spot the dark train of my thoughts.
Since February, when we had returned from France beaten and bloody, with Felix’s triumph stolen from us at the last minute by Aurelius and his Old Ones, I had deliberately not pressed Magorian into researching and figuring out the next item needed to cast the spell that would revive Agrona, the old goddess of blood and carnage.
We had needed time. I had been injured, but I had been even more afraid of the recovery than the injury itself. Sabine and her talented fae had nursed me back to health in their bucolic forest hospital. Their unique talents saved me from my personal curse—pain killers. Magorian had orchestrated my recovery, kept the camp going while I could not, and dealt with the media flare-up over our battle with Aurelius at the Pont du Gard. The latter had taxed him as much as being injured had vacuumed my energy, for Magorian was so introverted he verged on being reclusive.
For that reason, I had given us both room to breathe for a while. I had pushed Magorian into the search for Felix’s triumph. Now I would not push him into the search for what I suspected would be the last unique ingredient for the spell, the shield of Agrona’s shield. Or, as Magorian had conjectured, the shield of her favourite warrior lover.
Only, time was ticking on. Aurelius would not have stood still since February. He had money and resources, now. They were being fed to him by Old Ones detained in China. Who the hell knew what he had told them to convince them bringing back the old deities was a good idea, but a high official in the PRC had assured us a small river of cash was exiting China with Aurelius’ name on it.
The longer we waited to find the last remaining ingredient of the spell, the longer Aurelius’ lead grew. I had tried to pick away at the spell with my inadequate research skills, but I needed Magorian to do the heavy lifting on this.
Yet we had absolutely needed this time.
Through the kitchen window, I watched Magorian emerge from beneath the tree, heading for the kitchen door. He carried the empty pot and the gauntlet. The table and chairs usually stayed folded up and leaning against the oak’s trunk.
Morris followed Magorian, trotting and flapping his wings to gain extra inches every few steps, which let him cover ground as quickly as Magorian.
Magorian opened the door for the bird, who stepped up into the kitchen with unbalanced dignity.
Thamina whirled and raised her broadened fingertip at Morris. “Not on the table, you hear?”
Morris clacked and squawked at her, as if he was protesting.
Magorian stepped around Morris and looked back at him. “Come and work with me, you great lug.”
Morris folded his wings and followed Magorian around the big worktable, to the door into the house. There, Magorian paused and looked at me. “It’s time.”
“Time?” I lowered my teacup.
“Aurelius is an amateur, but he’s not stupid. If we don’t start looking for the shield now, he might just get the jump on us. We can’t let him have the shield, too. This is our last chance to stop him.” Magorian paused. “You’re ready.”
It wasn’t a question.
I put the cup back on the saucer. “We’ll be in Magorian’s workroom, Thamina.” It was getting close to sunset and Ketill’s family would wake, soon. Thamina could tell them where we were, if they needed us.
Then I followed Magorian and Morris into the house, eager to get to work.
They’re braced for threats from everywhere but between them.
The world’s first modern wizard, Benjamin Magorian, and Dr. Michael Jones have been licking their wounds and recovering from their near-fatal confrontation with the siren, Aurelius, at Pont du Gard, in France. But time is running out to save the fractured world of humans and Old Ones from Aurelius’ scheme to summon the old gods and avoid the destruction the gods would hail down upon every mortal, no matter what their race.
The two bend their talents and expertise to figuring out who Agrona’s shield might have been. Neither of them are braced against threats to their odd, but effective friendship, until Jamie ap Morningside, a lovely fae with deadly secrets, steps between them.
The race to find Agrona’s shield and keep it out of Aurelius’ hands appears to have foundered before it has properly begun…
The Shield of Agrona is part of the urban fantasy series, Magorian & Jones, by Taylen Carver.
Urban Fantasy Novel
And don’t forget that if you buy your copy directly from me at SRP, you get your copy of the book a week earlier than anywhere else. So you’ll have it next Thursday.