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The Protagonist Speaks

Interviews with the characters of your favourite books

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Historical Fiction

Marcus Corvinus (of his eponymous series, by David Wishart)

Dear readers, tonight with me is a Roman nobleman, scion to the patrician Valerii Messallae family. Living in the times of the emperor Tiberius, he was privy to some of the most interesting events of the early Caesars, from a unique behind-the-scenes view. He’s here to tell us about his life and his times.


Tell us a little about your family and early life.

Gods! How much time have we got here?

I was born in Rome, where the family’s been a fixture practically ever since Romulus ploughed his first furrow eight hundred years back. Father Marcus Valerius Messalla Messalinus (yeah, all four of them; we Roman aristos don’t skimp when it comes to names), mother Vipsania (just the one name this time. Women have it easy). Paternal grandfather another Marcus Valerius Corvinus. That last is relevant. More about Grampa Marcus later.

Mother and Dad were different as chalk and cheese, which was one reason why they divorced around the time of my fourteenth birthday, just after the old Emperor Augustus popped his clogs. Became a god. Whatever. No coincidence there, mind, and not the only reason. As you might guess from her name, Mother was the daughter of Vipsanius Agrippa, the old guy’s erstwhile deputy and hoped-for successor, so contracted marriages at our end of the social scale being what they are it had been a pretty shrewd move originally on Dad’s part, politically speaking. And Dad was nothing if not political. Only it bombed. Agrippa pegged out not long afterwards, and by the time Augustus died (was promoted) where the succession – and political power – was concerned the only game in town was Tiberius, aka the Wart, son of his wife Livia by an earlier marriage (are you following all this? Questions later). No coincidence there, either, far from it. Believe me, I know; as things turned out, sussing out the details of that little bit of political engineering on the bitch’s part nearly had me in an urn before I hit twenty.

Anyway…

Okay, you know how things go for a kid with my background, from their mid-teens on. It’s pretty much standard, and mapped out from day one: a couple of years’ featherbedding with a legion so’s you’ll know, when the time comes, exactly how to beat the hell out of the poor buggers beyond the frontiers who are benighted enough to want to keep it that way, or stupid enough, if they’re inside them, to want out; followed by a strictly-regulated move up the political ladder ending in a consulship and the parking of your well-upholstered middle-aged bum on one of the benches in the senate and a lifelong place on the political gravy train. That, of course, was what Dad – being Dad – had planned for me originally. Only – equally of course, and fortunately – it didn’t work out that way. Thanks, primarily, to Grampa Marcus.

Oh, sure, he’d come up through the system himself. In spades. Unlike Dad, though, he was no political arse-licker: believe me – and again I know what I’m talking about here, having had personal experience of three of the buggers so far, plus Bitch Livia, who counts as an honorary fourth – it takes guts to tell a ruling emperor to take a hike. Which seemingly, on one memorable occasion, he did. Even as a know-nothing kid I had a lot of time for Grampa Marcus.

He had a lot of time for me, too, fortunately; surprisingly so, considering that, not to put too fine a point on it, I was an over-bred, snotty-nosed, spoilt brat, but there you are, that was Grampa Marcus for you. I can see now in retrospect (he died when I was eight) that we had a lot in common, character-wise, and he must’ve seen the same. Whatever his reasons were (although I have a sneaking suspicion they included a less-than-perfect liking for how Dad was turning out) he left me enough in his will – property and cash – to make me financially independent when I came of age. Which meant that when at fifteen I told Dad in no uncertain terms where he could stick his plans for my future the threat of being disinherited wasn’t something I needed to worry about.

Not that at fifteen I wasn’t still essentially an over-bred spoilt brat, mind (at least I’d got past the snotty-nosed stage). But then that’s par for the course: what upper-class Roman fifteen-year-old isn’t?

Enough about family. That side of it, anyway. And at least me and Dad made it up in the end, before he died, with allowances made on both sides. I’m really glad about that. You don’t want bad blood in a family, you really don’t.

So how did you get into sleuthing?

That was Perilla’s doing. My wife. Or she is now, at least, and has been for – gods! – the past twenty-five years. Her stepfather was Ovidius Naso, the poet exiled by Augustus and never pardoned. Grampa Marcus had been his principal patron, which meant that when Ovid died and Perilla wanted his bones brought back for burial she gave me the job of arranging it. Not Dad as his eldest son and head of the family, mark you; me. Which, it turned out, was my Uncle Cotta’s doing: elbow-in-the-ribs, nudge-nudge wink-wink stuff, which was typical Cotta. A nice enough guy in his opportunistic, duplicitous way, and he meant well, but the bugger almost got me killed.  Like I said, I was just an over-bred spoilt kid of nineteen at the time, party-party, smashed out of my skull for thirty days in the month. But that was a lady you couldn’t say no to – think Amazon minus the battle-axe but with added attitude – so I didn’t. And that was how it started.

She’s not as bad as she sounds, mind, Perilla. Or not really. Not when you get to know her.

Continue reading “Marcus Corvinus (of his eponymous series, by David Wishart)”
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Gwyn the Welshman (of The Atheling Chronicles, by Garth Pettersen)

Dear readers, tonight on the interview couch we have an 11th century warrior. He’s here to tell us about his amazing journeys through storms and treachery over seas and lands, across England and on the road to far off Rome.

Shield brother and friend to Harald, son of the king, Gwyn the Welshman is always at the atheling’s right hand, ready to defend him and the realm.


You are known as Gwyn the Welshman?

Aye. Gwyn ap Emlyn be my true and rightful name. Gwyn, son of Emlyn, who was my da, a course.

Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?

My wife, Gudrun would say I never did grow up, wouldn’t she? She can never resist a jab, that one. Got to love her. Well, I’m a Welshman, but you know that. Not that I’ve ever spent much time there. To tell you where I was a lytling, I’ll have to tell you of my father. My da had not the heart for working the land and being a scrapper he kept himself alive long enough to get good with a skeggox––a battleæx, you know. He had no love for the Saxons––the dastards had too many Welsh slaves, though I dare say the sardin’ Danes wasn’t much better. So he offers his battleæx to Sweyn Forkbeard, don’t he? That’s when he gets to know Cnute, son of Forkbeard, as they was fightin’ Edmund Ironsides. Shield brothers they was, and nothin’ counts more between men than killin’ together and keepin’ the other alive.

So Cnute’s handfasted wife was Ælfgifu, English born, from Northantone. And my da takes up with her friend Ylva. And what do you know, both women are expectin’ bearns ’bout the same time.

And the babes were you and Harald Harefoot, son of King Cnute?

Harefoot, ha! He loves that, don’t he? You guessed it. So the story of my growin’ up is all about my friendship with Harald Cnuteson, in’t it? Playin’, scrappin’––Harald and me, we was like two bear cubs.

And Sweyn, Harald’s older brother?

Sweyn the Swine we called him. What a cruel dastard he was. Still is. One time he took after us, Harald and me––can’t remember what for––didn’t need a reason. Harald got away, but Sweyn grabbed me and pushed me into the brambles. After Sweyn had gone, Harald was back to get me out, careful like, wasn’t he? Harald’s got a tender side you don’t usually see. Selia sees it––loves him for it.

And this, of course was before Harthacnute, Harald’s younger brother was born?

Half brother he is. Crafty fox. So Cnute casts Ælfgifu aside and marries King Æthelred’s widow, Emma, didn’t he? To unite the Saxons and the Danes he figures. Harthacnute comes along at the natural time after Cnute and Emma have done the deed a few hundred times––in the first week of the marriage bed, I’m thinkin’. Ha! So Hartha was a bearn when Harald and I were up and runnin’ everywhere. And he was with the Queen while we was with Ælfgifu, Ylva, and some of the other families. Harald didn’t see his father as much as before and that pained him. It was like Cnute had two wives, two families.

What can you tell us about your latest adventure?

Well, that would be when Yngvarr Skarissen and I set off in search of Harald, wouldn’t it. He’d been held for silver somewhere outside Engla-lond. Word came that he’d returned, landed near Ceaster. Then his friends lost him. Cnute sent us riding north. No that’s not the truth of it. He sent us to find that cur Drefan. We was lookin’ for him and tryin’ to find Harald, with a big swath of Engla-lond to cover. And there was that business with Pearce the Shire Reeve, the sardin’ pig poker, setting me up for Wregan’s murther. Pearce got entangled with the search for Harald as well, all on account of that connivin’…but I can’t tell you ’bout that. Continue reading “Gwyn the Welshman (of The Atheling Chronicles, by Garth Pettersen)”

Lucia Atella (of Prelude to Fate, by Rosie Chapel)

Dear readers, tonight with me is a woman from a the far reaches in the provinces of the Roman Empire, from a time of relative peace. She is here to tell us about how her peaceful life as a weaver and healer suddenly changed 

Editor note: it’s always great to have authors come back here to introduce new characters and new worlds. You can meet Rosie’s previous protagonist – Hannah of Hannah’s Heirloom trilogy – here.


Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?

My name is Lucia, I grew up, and still live, in a small town called Emerita Augusta in Lusitania… that’s in Hispania, if you’re not sure. Most people have never heard of it. Hmmm… it’s a lovely town and is all I know; I have never travelled far beyond the walls. If you have coin, there is always plenty to do. There are numerous thermopolia and popinae – although the latter can get a bit rowdy, so you need to have a care – and an eclectic collection of shops. We are lucky to have a theatre; it is the most incredible venue where they have all manner of entertainment. I love the plays, they are wonderful, and some make you laugh until you fall off the seat. Oh, and the amphitheatre, although I would rather not talk about that if you don’t mind, it holds bad memories for me.

Did you have any favourite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?

Before my father died, he took us out, occasionally, for a picnic by the Anas – that’s the river on the outskirts of town… well one of them. I was very young, I was only maybe seven summers when he died, but I remember him carrying me on his shoulders and we would sing all the way to the river. My mother tried to hush him… father could not hold a tune… but she still laughed and sang along with us, so I do not think she minded. Goodness, I had forgotten those days, thank you, if you had not asked the question, that would have been lost to memory.

What is this ‘toy’ of which you speak? I am sorry; the word is unfamiliar to me.

What do you do now?

I am unsure how it all happened, but I seem to be very busy. I weave cloth; usually simple pieces such as mats or wall hangings, but I also make wraps, and tunics and, now I have a bigger loom, I can even make togas or cloaks if people are prepared to wait a little while. I paint, usually decorative tiles and such like, and occasionally I am asked to do a portrait. Two or three times a week, more if an animal is injured or sick, I visit the bestiariorum, that’s where the animals used in gladiatorial games are housed. I… err… well… I suppose I am a healer of sorts. Continue reading “Lucia Atella (of Prelude to Fate, by Rosie Chapel)”

Nick Cisco (of Father Divine’s Bikes, by Steve Bassett)

38730511Dear readers, tonight with me is a police lieutenant from 1945 Newark, New Jersey. He’s here to tell us of the dark underbelly of a city that boomed during World War II but finds itself unable to cope with the peace that brings joblessness, despair and crime.


Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?

I was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. The sole child of first generation Italian immigrants, Angelo and Angelica Cisco. My father was a stevedore working the Port Newark docks, having turned his back on the easy money offered by an Italian mafia that began to strangle the city.

Like most immigrants’ kids, I got to know the city’s streets, empty lots and back alleys very well. They were our playground.

Did you have any favorite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?

I love the street sports, stickball and stoopball were my favorites. And they were cheap, we could all come up with the loose change needed for pink high-bouncers which were really the inner lining of tennis balls. You could find broom handles anywhere. I had a strong left arm and could really wing a bouncer off a stoop. I hardly ever lost a stoopball game.

What do you do now?

I’m a newly minted homicide detective moving over from the burglary detail during a shake-up of the police department by Mayor Vincent Murphy. I’m a cop, not by choice, but by circumstances including my marriage to Constance Margotta. This killed any chance to pursue the career I really wanted, art critic or curator. Continue reading “Nick Cisco (of Father Divine’s Bikes, by Steve Bassett)”

Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis (of Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile, by Jennifer C Wilson)

Dear readers, tonight with me is the ghost of the trusted lady-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots. She is here to tell us of royal life in in sixteenth century Scotland.


Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?

Ah, Scotland. We were a mobile household, but that’s what life was like in sixteenth century Scotland. I was one of seven, so they were lively times. That’s the thing about a good castle; what’s designed to protect and defend in times of siege and attack is great fun for children, left unsupervised by busy and worried parents. We ran riot. You ask about a favourite toy, but really, I wasn’t that keen on playing with toys; I preferred to lose myself in my thoughts, or play with my brothers and sisters. We practiced our courtly behaviour, making sure we were ready to take our places in society. You grew up fast in those days, especially when your brother was stepfather to the King of Scotland; we were practically royalty.

What do you do now?

It’s ironic, really, now, to be the trusted lady-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots, after what happened between her father and I. Happily, she believes that I never truly tried to kill him, and I was certainly never a witch. Queen Mary, she understands how times were, and is glad to have somebody by her side who can truly support her, with an empathy as to what she went through herself.

My days are largely my own, especially when the Queen is not in town. I don’t accompany her out of town, although I hope if she ever goes on a progress, that I would be able to attend her. When she is in town, I greet her each morning, we agree her itinerary for the day, and whether she needs any support from myself or Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, her right-hand-man these days. He’s such a good man; we make quite the team.

What can you tell us about your latest adventure?

Her Grace Queen Mary’s latest visit. She comes every year, at least once, usually during August, so she can enjoy what the festival has to offer. This year has been, interesting. She cares about her court, truly, but this year, the problems have been closer to home, what with her father’s mood lowering so badly, and then, well, other matters. We have all had to pull together, the ghosts of the Royal Mile. But then, that’s what we are good at. Whether it’s consoling the poor lad down in the tunnels, or keeping Greyfriar’s Bobby out of trouble, we know our roles, and we carry them out. Even the Covenanters know their place, once they are reminded of it.

And don’t forget the haunting. There’s nothing like a good haunting to lift the mood around here. They make it easy for us, with all the ghost tours; we can have our pick of victims, either the guides or the guided, depending on how we feel. Continue reading “Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis (of Kindred Spirits: Royal Mile, by Jennifer C Wilson)”

Shawn Kleiner (of The Blue Bells Chronicles, by Laura Vosika)

Dear readers, tonight with me is the world famous trombonist, Shawn Kleiner. He is here to tell us of his recent trip to Scotland with his girlfriend Amy – and what happened when she stranded him in a Scottish castle tower overnight.


Tell us about your life—back before this whole story started.

At the time, I had it all. Or I thought I did, anyway. I was rich. Well, I still am. More money than I know what to do with—except of course, provide for James—that’s my son, he’s just over a year old now—and make sure he’s well prepared for what’s coming if I can’t stop it.

But look, I’m already thinking ahead. You’re asking about the past. At least, the recent past, not the past I’m talking about. Yeah, before this whole thing started—it seems like centuries ago. I was the featured soloist in this small Midwestern orchestra, and I made them great. Not bragging, just saying how it is.

So we were playing all over the country and all over the world, you know? I was onstage, girls loved me. And I was throwing these great parties and women were throwing themselves at me, I was having a great time and I had this reputation for incredible luck. Until I gambled my trombone away, just before a major concert on our tour in Scotland. I thought I couldn’t lose. And somehow I did. And Conrad was going to have a fit if I didn’t get it back and it just went downhill from there.

I lied to Amy—that’s my girlfriend—or was, it’s hard to say now—to get the trombone back and cover up and one thing and another, we ended up in the half-ruined tower of Glenmirril. I was going to completely win her over with a midnight picnic and instead, she got all pissed and took off, left me there in all this mist. And I woke up—well, I woke up in the wrong century.

You know most people don’t believe that. They know you have a reputation for making up stories. But if we did believe you—what century?

Yeah, well, God’s got a sense of humor, doesn’t He? One time I ever tell the truth is the one time no one will believe me. I woke up in 1314. June, to be exact, about two weeks before the Battle of Bannockburn. Continue reading “Shawn Kleiner (of The Blue Bells Chronicles, by Laura Vosika)”

Matthew Wansford (of The Order of the White Boar, by Alex Marchant)

Dear readers, tonight with me is boy of twelve years, a merchant’s son who always dreamt of being a knight. His chance came in the summer of 1482, when he joined Richard, Duke of Gloucester – the future King Richard III.

He’s here to tell us about his life at court and the deadly games of the Wars of the Roses.


Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?

I was born, and lived all my life until last summer, in my father’s house on Stonegate, one of the finest streets of my home town of York. My father may not be one of the wealthiest merchants in the city, but to me, it’s a beautiful house. It even has glass-paned casements that you can open in some of the front windows. If you open the one in our second-floor jetty (where I used to share a room with my brother Peter) and lean out as far as possible, you can just see the topmost tips of the towers of our great Minster – the cathedral of our city. Its bells you can hear resounding through the whole house at all hours of the day and night. Perhaps it seems strange, but that’s one of the things I miss most about being away. That and my family, of course, and my friends from the Minster song school.

Did you have any favourite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?

My most precious memories are of my mother – caring for my sister, brothers and me before… before she died. She was always a loving mother, even when our father was stern and seemed unyielding. When we did anything wrong, she would always talk him round so he was less harsh with his punishment. I think he welcomed that. He is quick to anger – and often regretted his swift actions. She would allow him a way out. His grief at her death after the birth of our little sister was painful to witness.

What do you do now?

Since my disgrace last summer, and my expulsion from the choir school, I have been honoured to serve as a page in the household of His Grace, Duke Richard of Gloucester, brother to our sovereign King Edward IV, at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale. As my father says, I have fallen on my feet. Undeservedly perhaps, given the shame I brought upon my family – and I never thought to have such luck.

I have always dreamed of becoming a knight – ever since I first could read the courtly romances and tales of chivalry in the books my father imports from the Low Countries and France. But I thought it would only ever be a dream – that I would live out my days as a clerk in my father’s business, or at best become a cantor at the Minster like my brother John. Yet now I am on the first step to becoming a knight and warrior like my esteemed master. Continue reading “Matthew Wansford (of The Order of the White Boar, by Alex Marchant)”

Tilla (of the Medicus Roman Mysteries series, by Ruth Downie)

Dear readers, tonight with me is the wife of an officer in Hadrian’s legions. We have interviewed her husband before, but we thought it only fair that we give her a voice too.

Born as Darlughdacha of the Corionotatae (really, she’s not quite sure why people prefer ‘Tilla’), on the furthest reaches of the Roman empire. Though married to a Roman officer, she is a healer (and now a Roman citizen) in her own right.

She is here to tell us about life bridging the British and Roman worlds.

This interview celebrates the release of Memento Mori, the 8th volume in the acclaimed Medicus series, which we’re just nuts about.


Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?

Well, it was NOT “some flea-bitten outpost beyond the last supply depot”, no matter what my husband’s friend might tell you.  One of the things I’ve learned about Romans is that they’re very good at having opinions on things they know nothing about.

Our farm used to overlook a beautiful wide river valley. I say ‘used to’ because there’s hardly a trace of any buildings there now. Sometimes when I listen to our old neighbours complaining about the emperor’s Great Wall across the land, I want to say to them, well at least you’ll never have to worry about the northerners coming in the night to steal your cattle and burn your house down, will you? But I‘ve learned to keep quiet.  Roman soldiers have a nasty habit of setting light to things, too. Which can be very awkward when you’re married to one of them.

Did you have any favourite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?

I try not to think about when I was a child, because then I think about my brothers, and I start to wonder about the men they would have grown into and the girls they would have married and all the nieces and nephews that will never be, and as our Mam used to say, Nobody likes a girl who feels sorry for herself. I used to find that very annoying at the time, but it’s true.

What do you do now?

Ah. Even though I was the one who wanted the baby, I didn’t mean I wanted to have to look after her all day and all night, all the time. Sometimes it’s nice to think about something else. Sometimes it’s nice to get all the way to the end of a conversation without having to stop and wipe up somebody’s dribble or pat them on the bottom. So it’s much better now we have a babyminder.  I can go out and earn some money helping deliver other people’s babies, and when I’m not doing that I’m free to help my husband when he gets himself into trouble. Which he’s quite good at.

What can you tell us about your latest adventure?

We were asked to rush south to the spa town of Aquae Sulis, because my husband’s best friend was accused of murder. Really I think it was just my husband who was asked, but I guessed he would need some help, and I couldn’t leave the baby behind, so we all went.

What did you first think when you heard that Valens was accused of murdering his wife?

At first I thought, that’s impossible. Then I thought, but Valens was always a useless husband, and then I thought, surely being a useless husband and having opinions on things you know nothing about does not make you kill your wife.  But then my own husband found out more, and we both began to wonder.

What was the scariest thing in your adventures?

I would like to say it was the terrible thing that happened when my husband went missing, and that was indeed very frightening. But so was being tied up in a shed and lying awake listening to the rats. Of course I didn’t know my husband was going to go missing at the time. Perhaps that’s just as well. Is it possible to die of fright? I don’t want to find out.

What is the worst thing about being married to a doctor?

Usually it would be the people calling on him at strange hours, or the peculiar smells when he boils up medicines, or the disgusting topics of conversation. But the worst thing about being married to this doctor is the constant moving house. I thought things would improve when he left the Army, but we still don’t have a cow or even a vegetable patch.

What is the best thing about it?

I have seen parts of the world none of my own people will ever see. That is how I know that Britannia is best.

What’s your favourite drink, colour, and relaxing pastime?

Beer, blue sky (rare and precious in my homeland) and singing songs about the great victories of my ancestors. My husband complains that the songs are very long, but my people have a lot of ancestors. We also had a lot of victories—until the Romans turned up. That is why we keep the memories alive: our children need to know where they come from, and that our land has not always been occupied by men from Rome.

What does the future hold for you?

I’d like to say a cow, a sunny vegetable patch and perhaps another baby. But I expect it will just be more packing and unpacking and getting my husband out of trouble.

Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?

I could, but once something is written down you never know who will find it and read it. That is why my people only pass on their secrets by word of mouth. So, do you promise not to write anything? Good. Come and sit beside me and I’ll whisper…


Ruth Downie read far too much Jane Austen at University, and ended up with an English degree and a plan to get married and live happily ever after. She took up writing fiction when she realized that she could make absolutely anything happen using only a piece of paper and a biro.

Her murder mysteries are mostly set in Roman Britain, because she’s fascinated by the idea of her ancestors living in the wild west of someone else’s empire. MEMENTO MORI, her eighth novel about a Roman army medic called Ruso and his British partner Tilla, is published in March 2018.

Join us next week to meet a the captain of a mercenary team. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right) to be notified when the next interview is posted.

Tom Islip (of Shadows of the Lost Child by Ellie Stevenson)

Dear readers, tonight with me is a boy from Victorian Curdizan, a fictional version of York, England.

He’s here to tell us about his life, and how it changed when he met Alice. Alice, you see, is from our own time – though she can visit the past, and interact with Tom and his mates.

Read on to find out about Tom’s life and time-crossing adventures.


Tell us a little about where you live. What’s it like?

Curdizan Low? Well, I like it, but I doubt you would. If I say, back street pubs, narrow lanes and open drains, you get the idea? Being just a lad, I’ve never known anything else, of course, but Louise, my mate, she told me once she couldn’t wait to get out of the place. But, then, she lives in Curdizan High, it might sound posh, but it’s definitely not  – she lives in a place called Pearson’s Tenements, five stories high. I once saw a woman jump from the top. She didn’t die, but she never walked the same after that. The rats in the High are the best thing about it. I didn’t even see Louise – she’s vanished from sight.

So what makes Haversham Road in the Low better?

It’s a house not a room, although our house does back onto the mill. That’s why it’s dark, there aren’t any windows at the back and not much light at the front either, the mill’s silo blocks it out. My da, Scotty, works at the mill, or that’s what he calls it, when he’s not drinking, and I go to school, they feed us there! The school’s not far from the tenements. When I can, I bunk off for a bit and visit my mate, Ben Tencell, he’s the man who makes the coffins and buries the dead. It’s a bit creepy in his workshop, with all those coffin lids on the walls. Even Norah, the horse is scared. Ben’s house has a secret tunnel, under the workshop, that leads to the church. That’s how we had our adventure… Continue reading “Tom Islip (of Shadows of the Lost Child by Ellie Stevenson)”

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