Three years ago, I embarked on an ambitious writing project. I would create a series spanning the entirety of the Civil War. I would abandon the middle grade genre, tackle more difficult subject matter, and double the length of my previous books. After nearly 300,000 words and over 2,200 hours, I’m very proud to say I have accomplished that goal. The Ella Wood trilogy has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from readers. But more than that, it’s stretched me as a writer and as a historian and brought me a tremendous amount of satisfaction.
The final book of the series, Ebb Tide, is in the last stages of editing and due to release in May. As I always do, I’ll be composing a series of blog posts featuring some of the fascinating research I uncovered in the writing of this book. But that’s next week. Today I’m celebrating with a sneak peek for those who’ve been waiting a year for this final installment.
If you have not read the first two books in the series, you may want to grab a .99 copy of Ella Wood and Blood Moon before you read this sneak peek, as it contains some MAJOR SPOILERS from books one and two. For the rest of you, here’s the complete first chapter. I can only hope it gives you as much pleasure as it’s given me.
(Ella Wood, 3)
Charleston, South Carolina
August 22, 1863
Emily felt the explosion before she heard it. Her ribcage thrummed like the plucked strings of a guitar, then the sky split open, pouring sound and fury down upon the world below. Her bones bucked against the sudden pulse of energy. Glass fractured. Horses plunged and screamed, slamming vehicles together with the crunch of wood on wood. Escape mocked them. East Bay Street was gridlocked, a mass of souls scrambling for position. Everyone in Charleston had joined the mad rush to safety.
Outside the carriage, a crush of frantic pedestrians swarmed through the spaces created by the jostling traffic. Emily cupped her face against the window to watch them pass. Old men, youths, women dragging screaming children, stately matrons—they streamed through the darkness with buttons undone and suspenders flapping. One fellow fled wearing shirt, drawers, boots, and nothing else.
Another shell dropped, tearing Emily’s attention away from the refugees. The shriek sliced through the night and dissolved in a flash of amber somewhere to the west. Trudy whimpered, a tiny sound like the mewl of a frightened kitten. Emily reached for her hand and glanced at the rest of her companions, momentarily visible in the fading brilliance. Stella’s face was stoic, but Aunt Margaret’s reflected fear and outrage. The same outrage that burned within Emily. How could the Yankees fire on a city filled with women, children, and old men?
“It can’t be much longer and traffic will sort itself out,” she reassured them. But her own heart pumped like the rod of a steam locomotive.
The carriage inched forward. Paxton strained against the reins as a ghostly figure in cap and nightgown ducked beneath the horses’ chins and set them to rearing once again. Somewhere ahead of them, the clang of a fire bell pounded out an alarm, but there was no room for an engine to pass. Northbound vehicles clogged the street from gutter to gutter.
Emily glanced behind. The mist from the harbor formed droplets on the glass and blurred the outline of her parents’ carriage, but she knew it held Ida Malone, Tandey, Betsy, Zeke and the few possessions they were able to carry away. The farm wagon came last, conveying the rest of the Preston and Thornton slaves. They were all fleeing together—to Ella Wood.
Emily knew what it would cost to return. Her father would not quickly forgive her for daring to steer her own course. He might not let her stay at all. As the carriage jostled another half a block, dread began building in the hollow of her belly, but it was nothing compared to the staggering ache of loss that pressed her into the seat. The letter in her pocket weighed more than a Yankee battleship—Jovie…missing at Gettysburg. She set her face toward home. What could William possibly do to equal the grief she already carried?
The carriage moved again, with fewer stops and longer starts. Another half hour carried them beyond the reach of the furthest shells. Pedestrians slowed to collect their wits. Vehicles began turning off at the homes of friends and relatives. East Bay ended, and Paxton shimmied over to Meeting Street, pausing to merge with another long line of traffic. The hundreds of wheels vacating the city warbled like the low, sad notes of a funeral dirge.
In the center of town, rising daylight cast the shelters of Marion Square into hard panes of light and shadow. The refugee camp was a warren of tents, crates, driftwood, rags—anything that might offer them shade at mid-day or stop the rain of summer squalls. Pinched faces peered out of filthy huts, speaking of hunger, illness, and deprivation. Driven from their homes, they had nowhere left to run.
“Such a pity,” Aunt Margaret clucked as they rolled past. “I wish I had something to offer them. All good Southerners, every one.”
It was probably true. Most Union sympathizers had been driven out or fled to the North long before. She, too, wished she could do more as she pressed a hand against the glass and watched the houses of the more fortunate block the muddy square from view.
The stately homes and wide avenues of the upper neighborhoods soon morphed into the squalor of Charleston Neck. Here, free Blacks and many for-hire slaves settled outside the direct scrutiny of Whites. The settlement had caused considerable concern among the town fathers in the past. It was illegal, after all, for more than seven black males to gather together without white supervision, and hundreds congregated in the ramshackle tenements of the Neck. But with far more important matters at hand, the issue had lost priority.
Now the permanent structures were augmented by the shacks of additional refugees. These faces held the same thin, desperate quality she’d observed in Marion Square. They’d inherited identical hunger, identical squalor. Only their color had changed. And with no public efforts at relief such as existed for their white counterparts, meager as they were, death became a very real companion.
Emily met the soulful eyes of a little girl with thick black braids. Where had she come from, she wondered. And why would her family congregate here? The Yankees held the entire coast, from John’s Island all the way south to Hilton Head. She’d heard that in Port Royal, contraband slaves were fed, freed, even educated. Why not try for the protection of the Union lines?
She waved to the child, who stared back at her immobile.
The Neck and its sorrows soon passed out of sight. The persistent rhythm of shells, however, followed Emily and her companions across twenty miles of South Carolina countryside. As the sun dragged the temperature skyward, fatigue settled over the travelers like a fine layer of dust. The carriage became a cauldron of heat, sweat, and odor. But at least they had shade. The heavy farm wagon, which fell farther and father behind, was open to the sun.
No one felt much like conversing. Even Aunt Margaret was wearied to silence. She’d grown thinner over the summer, strained by the relentless occupation. Today’s journey would likely test the limits of her strength.
Emily tried to draw her mind away from the tribulations of Charleston, away from her own private anguish, but evidence of war abounded all around her. Where farms and plantations once prospered, fields now lay fallow. Houses had fallen into disrepair. Livestock was nearly nonexistent. The landscape provided no escape from reality.
At last, as daylight diminished into the weak pastels of evening, Emily caught her first glimpse of Ella Wood. The drivers halted the tired horses outside the grand entry, and as Emily unfolded herself from the cramped quarters, she heard the shriek of a maid and the cry of “Missus! Missus!” fading into the house’s interior. She had been recognized. Moments later, Marie burst onto the porch, eyes as huge as carriage wheels, hands pressed against her mouth.
“Hello, Mother.” It was the first time they had laid eyes on one another since William had dismissed Emily from the Charleston house a year and a half before.
Marie swept from the porch and engulfed her daughter in a fierce embrace. “Emily, you’ve come home!”
She looked fragile—thinner and grayer. Emily dared not squeeze too hard. “I had to, Mother. The Yankees are shelling Charleston.”
Marie drew back in shock. “With civilians present?”
“They gave no warning.” Emily gestured behind her. “I’ve brought guests.”
By this time, Ida had climbed stiffly from the second carriage, and Paxton was assisting Aunt Margaret into her wheeled chair.
“Ida! Margaret!” Marie exclaimed.
Ida hugged her warmly. “Can you afford to feed all of us?”
Emily wondered the same. Most residents of the city were marked by gaunt, hollow faces, and the troops that guarded it fared no better. Her parents had generously donated both funds and food to the Cause, but their past support wouldn’t protect them from foraging parties that scoured the countryside as the army grew increasingly desperate. How much food remained?
Marie clasped her friend’s hand. “We won’t turn you away.” Then she bent to kiss her sister-in-law’s cheek. “Margaret, I’m glad you’ve come. We’ve been listening to the bombardment for weeks. Fort Wagner is so close to the city; I’ve been worried sick about you.”
“I was never in danger until they turned the guns on Charleston.” Aunt Margaret’s eyes flashed, and Emily wished fleetingly that she could loose the old woman on the Yankees. After the harrowing morning, the loss of her home, and a painful day of travel, her fury would have been at least as destructive as a howitzer.
“How can the fort possibly still be standing?”
Marie’s question dissipated into thin air, addressed to no one in particular. But Emily knew. In the hospital, she’d been mending and losing those defenders for weeks. They held on just as the entire South held on. Through sheer grit and stubbornness.
Muted by distance, the unbroken rumble of the barrage rolled on, binding them like an evil enchantment. Marie shook off the spell first. “You all must be exhausted. Let me show you to your rooms.”
A harsh voice halted them before they took a step. “What are you doing here?”
Earth, sky, and space condensed into single pinprick of awareness as Emily turned to face her father. William filled the entire porch, arms akimbo, eyes drilling into hers. The women dropped into silence. Slaves averted their eyes and busied themselves at their tasks. Emily kept her tone gentle and conciliatory. “Hello, Father. I’ve just delivered Aunt Margaret and Mrs. Malone. The guns are firing into the city.”
A muscle in his neck twitched. “You’re not welcome here.”
“I have no where else to go.”
“That’s not my problem. You chose your path.”
“William—” Marie began.
Marie quieted, but Aunt Margaret felt no compulsion to do likewise. “William Samuel Jackson Preston, you listen to me. Your child has returned to you after two long years. It’s high time you set wrongs to right and move forward.”
William’s eyes never even shifted in her direction. “Marie, take my sister in the house.”
“Confounded, stubborn fool! Mark my words. If you refuse to compromise, you’ll die a broken, bitter old man with no friends or family to mourn you.” Aunt Margaret continued to rail against him as Paxton wheeled her away, not letting up until the door closed behind her. Even then, her shrill voice could be heard whisking through the open windows.
Emily waited until all three women had left the yard. Her jaw tightened, and she struggled to keep her voice even. “I gave up school to care for Aunt Margaret.”
“Now that she’s here, she’ll be well tended. And you can go back to wherever it is you came from.” He spun on his heel and marched toward the door, the conversation over.
“I’m not leaving.” Her words chimed across the stillness, halting his footsteps. From behind, she could see the flush of anger that climbed his neck.
He spun slowly, menacingly. “I will not tolerate your presence on this property, young lady.”
Emily had prepared herself for this confrontation all the way from Charleston, but his rejection still pierced her defenses, slamming into soft underbelly. This man had once been the sun in her universe. For just a moment, she let her guard down. “Do you really hate me this much?”
The tremor in her voice had absolutely no affect. William’s eyes glittered like black crystals. “It isn’t a matter of emotion. You have disregarded every rule I’ve set.”
“I’m not breaking any now.”
“So I’m supposed welcome you home and kill the fatted calf?” His lip twisted, mocking her. “Even if the army had left us any, I think we’ve moved well beyond that cliché. By enrolling in school, you openly defied my will in a very public display of disobedience.”
She held her eyes closed for a long blink, reining in her impatience, willing him—just once—to see through her perspective. “I was pursuing the one passion I’ve held since childhood.”
“You made me look weak and foolish before all of Charleston County.”
“It’s always comes down to appearances, doesn’t it?” Still spoken quietly, her words had lost their congeniality. “Blending in, accepting the status quo, never finding the courage to even question it. You put your career ahead of your own daughter.”
His face grew redder. “I am proud of my accomplishments in the Assembly. I still have a reputation to uphold.”
“And Jack’s behavior did nothing to sully your image? Why could you grant him the freedom to make his own decisions but never me?”
“Because you’re a woman!” he bellowed.
Any slaves still bravely unloading the carriages scattered at this outburst.
“And that was my first sin, wasn’t it?” The brittle question fell into the empty yard, shattering any attempts at civility. “I can’t even count how many times you praised my academic accomplishments with a proud smile and the offhand comment that I should have been born a man. Do you have any idea how much that hurt me?”
He tore at his hair, pacing first in one direction and then another. “Your education was a generosity I’ve lived to regret. Had I been able to see what a stubborn, willful child I would create—”
“Educating me to think for myself is the one thing you did right!”
He stopped and jabbed at her with a forefinger. “Not when it fosters disobedience and disrespect. You have undermined my authority, even to the point of questioning the administration of my own estate.”
“This isn’t an estate. It’s a medieval fiefdom,” she spat. “You hold a coward’s view of women and slavery.”
His eyes narrowed. His voice turned deathly. “I’m fully aware of your Negro sympathies. Don’t think for a moment that I hold you above suspicion in Lizzie’s disappearance. It’s too coincidental, coming days after Ketch ran off.”
Her voice rose to a shriek. “It wasn’t coincidence. I masterminded the entire operation! Lizzie, Ketch, and the children. I moved them beyond your reach, and I’m not a bit sorry!”
He took a menacing step forward, his face unrecognizable in its fury. “Get off my land.”
She crossed her arms and planted her feet. “Or what? You’ll whip me? Lock me in the coal cellar?”
The blade of his glare nearly cut her in two. He shouted toward the stable, “Able, send for the constable immediately!”
Emily set her chin, but her heart thumped wildly. Would he truly arrest his own daughter?
“No one is sending for anyone.” The words preceded Marie out the front door. With a white face and noticeable tremor, she bypassed her husband, descended the steps, and alighted beside her daughter.
“Marie, go back in the house.”
“I will not.” She joined her quaking hand with Emily’s. “I’ve already lost four children. I will not lose my fifth.”
William’s rage boiled over. He stormed down the steps, his features distorting into a frightful purple mask. “By God, am I not a man?” he bellowed. “I will be obeyed by the women of this household!” His open palm struck his wife’s cheek with a sonorous crack. She crumpled to one side.
Emily sprang forward, throwing herself between her parents. “If this is the kind of man you’ve chosen to become, you deserve no respect.” She sneaked a glance at her mother. Marie appeared shocked but unharmed, cradling her face in one hand. “That woman has loved you and stood by you faithfully for more than two decades—despite your lack of reciprocation. She has more honor in her little finger than you could claim in a lifetime.”
His face quivered. His body trembled. Madness flickered in his eyes. It was like watching a man morph into a demon. Emily would have been terrified if her own anger hadn’t moved her well beyond fear. William reached out to squeeze her neck in a stranglehold, his eyeballs nearly popping from his head, when his right arm suddenly wobbled and sank jerkily to his side. Sanity returned first. Then came surprise.
It took a moment for Emily to recognize that her father’s mania had turned to distress. His head twitched. He tried to speak, but his words came out garbled. Then with one more step in her direction, he pitched headlong into the dirt.