Friday, 3 April 2020

The inspiration for my medieval historical romance, "Plain Harry"


The inspiration for my medieval historical romance, “Plain Harry.”

The wounded warrior is a powerful archetype and one I find fascinating to explore in romance. I love writing strong heroes but heroes without flaw, without fears are blank. Wounds of any kind, physical or of the spirit, give me a starting point to develop a character.
Harry is one such character. As a result of childhood small-pox, he has many scars. Isolated and mocked for his appearance, he believes he is ugly, both inside and out. Esther, my heroine, sees him as more than his scars and recognizes him as the knight and hero he truly is.
Esther, too, is damaged. A widow, she has emerged from a terrible marriage where she was beaten and broken down. Lacking in confidence, she needs to discover her self-belief.
These two wounded characters gave me the starting point and inspiration for my story.

The setting also gave me endless ideas. I love the British woodland and countryside, the seasons and weather and different skies. I love the flowers and scents and feel of grass and bark, the sounds of birds and calls of forest animals. In my “Plain Harry” I tried to bring out my delight in the land.


I’m a member of the British Woodland Trust and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. I walk in my local woodland every day. I love British classical music for its fey elements and enjoy reading old fairy tales. My hubby and I are looking forward to gathering strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries in our garden, with redcurrants and blue berries to follow. Sometimes he or I pick through “Curye on Inglysch” a compilation of 14th century cookbooks, to try and adapt things as a change from an everyday diet. It’s great fun!

Here's the blurb for "Plain Harry" and an excerpt.

 Recovering from a brutal marriage, Esther is living quietly as a widow when a letter from her brother Sir Stephen destroys her contented life. Stephen orders her to marry Sir Henry—but who is this “Plain Harry” and how will he treat her?


Set in medieval England in a time when women had few rights, this story shows how love can flourish in the unlikeliest of places and between the unlikeliest of people.


Here is Chapter One, to give you the beginning of the story.


Plain Harry
A Sweet Medieval Historical Romance

Lindsay Townsend

Chapter 1
               
Northern England, Spring 1363


Esther knelt on the floor of her still room, the one place she would be undisturbed, and forced her fingers to uncurl. The scrap of parchment in her hand dropped to the tiles she had so proudly swept that morning. She did not need to read the letter again, since its terms were already seared into her mind.
Sister,
I offered Sir Bertrand D’Acre an insult for which he challenged me. As I have still a broken arm from a previous duel, my place was taken by Sir Henry Leafton, who fought as proxy as my champion and won. Sir Henry asks to be remembered to you. He met you at court last midsummer with your then husband Sir Edmund. As you are now a widow, Henry wishes to court you. I have agreed to the match.
The day after you receive this letter from my herald, Sir Henry will call on you. You will know him. You will be obedient to him. Be ready. We owe him a great debt.
Sir Stephen Armstrong.

The parchment scraped along the edge of the table where she made her cordials. Stephen had not written the note—he could scarcely sign his name—but it was his way of speaking, no kind of greeting or salutation, bluff and brutal and always to the point.
 “I am to marry again,” she whispered, through frozen lips. The line, Henry wishes to court you, was nothing more than a pretty fiction, as Stephen had already offered her to the champion who had saved his life. Her forthcoming nuptials were as good as settled.
Esther’s racing heart felt as if it flipped over in her chest as her skin chilled. Memories of bellowing Sir Edmund, of their vile wedding night, of their horrible, short marriage, battered through her afresh and she closed her eyes, willing her slight, trembling body to be still. As a widow she had been independent, looking after her small estate, making her cordials and ales, taking care of her two old retainers, few estate workers and page, beholden to no one.
And now, with a few foolish words, my younger brother ties me back into wedlock. I know Stephen and how his tongue runs away with his wits. Because he could not resist making a cruel remark, he lands himself in trouble, and yet he is not the one who pays. In what way do I owe this stranger, this Sir Henry, a great debt? He did not save my skin.
Esther snatched up the hectoring note—and how typically selfish of Stephen not even to give her the illusion of a choice, not even to have his herald wait for her reply—and crushed it beneath her heel.
“He never asks, he demands! Because he is the son and heir, and the law and the church all say that men have governance over women. Because he would not back down or apologize and had another fight for him, I must now be obedient? How is this fair?”
Her voice rang in the small chamber but no one answered. Through a gap in the window shutters a bee droned into the room and out again. Esther felt that it had taken the spring-time with it.
“It is worse,” she continued aloud, hauling herself upright by the table leg, wondering what cordial she had been preparing when Stephen’s herald had smashed into her life. “What am I to say to Walter?”
Handsome, blond, curly-headed Walter, her own age of nineteen, a good man, a squire and, more frequently of late, a messenger and herald. He served neighbors of hers, Sir Richard and Lady Constance, and always lingered a little when he delivered messages from them. He praised her cordials and teased her in a gallant, sweet way, calling her “Mistress Bright Eyes” and “his nimble-fingered physic”. He gossiped like a magpie and was less than kind in his quips about her old retainers, but she liked him.
Walter respects me. My brother would say he is a landless squire, ready to flirt with any woman with a little riches, but Walter has never demanded anything of me. At night in her narrow bed, Esther sometimes imagined running away to the crusades with Walter, of their making a life together in the mysterious east, or the Mongol court.
That pleasant day-dream must be over. I have to marry Sir Henry.
Esther resumed grinding coriander, ginger and cardamom to make her compost, the chutney that Agnes and Adam liked and that Walter said went well with all meats. Bent over the mortar, the swirl of sweet spices no longer making her smile, she tried to recall every Henry she had ever met. Harder than it seems, since Henry is a popular name.
A dark face tumbled like a leaf in a breeze through her memory. Esther crushed another batch of coriander seeds and let the ghost flit back to her again.
A time at court last spring, when the cuckoo had just begun to call, as now. The great hall at Winchester, fragrant with fresh strewing herbs and colorful with the king’s wall tapestries. She had been hurting, because Sir Edmund had beaten her the previous evening, blaming her for his impotence and for not gifting him an heir. Colliding with the edge of a trestle, she had been unable to disguise a wince when a cloaked and hooded stranger had clasped her hand and softly drew her aside, shielding her from her stomping husband.
“Be well, my lady,” the stranger wished in a low voice. Tempted and reassured by such rare kindness Esther had peeped up into his hood—and seen the face of a demon, pox-scarred and livid. He had cold blue eyes and haggard features, pale where they were not ridged with black pits and broken veins.
Clearly aware of her shock, expecting it, the man’s thin mouth jerked into a crooked smile and he gave a brief bow. “Sir Henry of Leafton, at your service. I will take my leave now.”
Lanky and gray as a heron, he melted away into the crowds of knights and stewards before she could apologize. When Sir Edmund jabbed her bruised side and hissed at her to attend him, Esther had tried to forget her ill manners, although Sir Henry’s ruined, burnt-looking features had haunted her dreams for several nights after.
“Plain Harry,” he was known, throughout the court. She had spotted him the following day, a head taller than most and always courteous, ignoring gasps and rude finger-pointing and striding gracefully through the press of courtiers with that crooked smile and keen eyes that missed little. Including herself, it now seemed.
I remember him. And clearly he still remembers me. The pestle dropped from her nerveless fingers and Esther wrapped her arms about her middle, trying to rock for comfort. What can he want with me, except revenge? But revenge for what? For what my brother did or for some unknown insult I gave him? What?
                ****      
Plain Harry knew he did not suit his nick-name. He had been plain before the pox had scarred him at eight years old, but now he was ugly. Gangling, too, and it did not seem to matter that he moved smoothly, stealthily if need be, or that his hair was blacker than a midwinter night and curled whenever it was damp.
I do not fit the name Harry, either, he thought, presenting himself at the widowed Lady Esther’s sturdy manor house. He watched patiently as the old watchman limped off across the modest great hall to fetch his mistress. Harrys were kind, hearty, shoulder-slapping fellows, always part of a mob. He was solitary by nature, a lover of books and wild places, desires sharpened by his appearance and by the way his father flinched and his mother lamented his loveless state each time he returned home. He had flung himself into military training, if only because a helmet covered his looks. On the battlefield no one cared if he could not dance, or compose a love poem, or swear undying devotion to a damsel who would doubtless go shrieking off to a convent if he tried. In a melĂ©e his lanky frame and long reach were an advantage.
War had also taught him how to take notice. At court, twelve months back, he had seen Lady Esther shrink slightly each time her boorish husband addressed her. He had noticed her stumble once, blushing wildly, and jerk back as if burned when her flank grazed a table. He had reacted then without considering his visage, offering her his arm as support. Her pink and pretty lips had parted to say thanks and he had felt normal for an instant, until her wide brown eyes met his.
Harry slammed his hands behind his back and let his fingers play tug of war against each other. Even with the strains of dread and regret shadowing her clear-cut features, and the bruises at the sides of her head which she had tried to hide with her veil, Lady Esther had been flawless, a delicate beauty whose natural cream and roses complexion contrasted cruelly with his own craggy, ugly, black looks.
So why am I here at her home?
Because, last summer, he had glimpsed not a morsel of disgust in her pale, shocked face. And because he sensed that, widowed or not, the lady needed help. Her fool of her brother was already using the promise of her hand as a means to save his own skin—Sir Stephen had done it with him and Harry had no doubt that were he not to marry Lady Esther, Stephen would offer her out again.
‘Tis a pity womenfolk have so few rights against the men of their families, but such is the unkind way of the world.
Harry shook his head, unsure if he would have ever entertained such ideas had he not been uglier than a troll and subject to the bitter way of the world himself. Yet he had ridden to this compact jewel of a manor not solely for sympathy.
Admit it man, this is the only way you will win a wife. He was rich in war-loot and tournament prizes but as a younger son would not inherit the land that all damsels demanded in return for their wedlock. Harry could not fault them. You could build and grow on earth but never on gold, however prettily it gleamed.
Pray God the lady here considers that last point about me, that I can keep her and her good land safe, better than most handsome squires or knights. Harry knew that was unlikely but he could hope.
His breath hitched as the red curtain to the private solar, the little chamber at the back of the great hall, drew back and Lady Esther emerged.
Glorious. She made the word real. The bruises and hurts she had endured under her old husband were gone now and she shone like a harvest moon, her eyes brighter than polished bronze, her hair—the glimpses he could see beneath her modest white head-veil—a rippling mass of chestnut, shot through with tawny. Small and slender she came toward him, silken as flowing water, an image enhanced by the green-blue gown she wore, a color Harry knew had been fashionable at court a year ago.
She did not smile but the sight of her graceful shape and movement was enough. Harry’s body reacted as it had not done since he was fourteen and an easily aroused and blushing squire. Why now, by Christ? Is it so long since I have been with a woman? Despising his looks, Harry was no gallant or regular user of the stews, but even so this ardent reaction was embarrassing. Praying that his interest and urgent physical response did not show, he flung his cloak loosely about his rangy figure and gave a low bow.
“My lady.” His voice sounded less its usual music, more of a rasp.
“Welcome.” She sounded as indifferent as a cloudy day and about as warm. “Will you take refreshment?”
“Please.”
“Come to my still room.”
Dazzling and distracting as the planet Venus, she turned, then Harry heard her soft footfalls shifting through herbs strewn on the hall floor, stirring up a scent of lavender as she walked back to the curtain. Recollecting his scattered wits, he strode to catch up and passed through a tiny solar, the watchful warrior in him seeing a small weaving loom, a spindle, a narrow chest and a canopied bed before he had to duck to avoid a doorway lintel . Shifting sideways through the low arch, he blinked at the bright chamber beyond.
Painted flowers tumbled round the walls, while under painted trees brightly rendered unicorns and dragons gamboled up to the roof rafters, drawn at play as if such creatures were as carefree as the spring lambs bleating outside. Harry swiftly shut his open mouth and saw, with new admiration, the many flasks, jugs, basins, sacks of dried herbs and tables of knives, pestles, and mortars that he guessed made up a good still room. The air was heavy and sweet with the tangs of rosemary, cinnamon, sage, lavender and bitter orange peel, and a rainbow array of cordials in heavy glass flasks lined the shelves behind Lady Esther.
“Amazing,” he murmured and wondered, when his eyes met hers again, if she had softened a little. “You did this?”
“Since my lord died and I moved here.”
Her low voice touched on a scandal. On his death-bed the wretched Sir Edmund had attempted to deny the now-orphaned lady her widow’s portion because she had “failed” to provide him with children. Luckily, Sir Edmund’s adult son Richard was more honorable than his father and had released the bits of land into her care. The modest manor house was her own dowry, the only part of her family legacy that Sir Stephen could not touch.
“You have done well with the place.”
She inclined her head. “Richard has helped.”
Her former son-in-law but not her brother, Harry noted. Clearly Richard had little faith in Sir Stephen defending the rights of his sister, and neither had he. To that end, Harry knew he should raise the issue of marriage, but when? To do so at once was surely too unmannerly.
To his surprise the lady raised the matter.
“Will the priest be coming here? That is,” and here the pink flush on her ivory cheeks and dainty chin darkened to rose, “if you and my brother are agreed?”
Her voice was calm but her hand trembled as she lifted a jug from a small brazier and poured two cups of gently steaming tisane. He took a cup from her, touching her fingers briefly in an attempt to reassure—why he was not sure, only that he was keen she did not think him a bully. Unsure how he looked when he showed his teeth, since he had no mirrors and did not waste time peering at his reflection, he did not smile.
“I am content with the match between us,” he said steadily, wanting to say more but unwilling to impose on her. Determined to be honest he added, “I understand if this is not your desire. I can, if you wish, tell Sir Stephen that we did not suit.”
Spirit flared in her eyes and stiffened her shoulders. “Which leaves me vulnerable to other men and their offers.”
“Would he force you to accept any?”
Her shoulders dipped. “You know my brother. Right, custom, the church would all be on his side. Now he has conceived the idea of my marriage as a means to advance himself, he will not stop until I am re-wedded.”
And you will be beleaguered and nagged to death until you choose what he demands.
“It could be my only way, if I wish for a family of my own.”
Was that yearning he caught in her voice? To give her a moment, Harry took a sip of the tisane, giving a tiny huff of pleasure when the blended taste of raspberry, orange, and strawberry hit the back of his throat. Should he say what he wanted to admit? Why not? She longs for a family, a home, children, and so do I. A marriage between us could be a way.
In truth he had ridden to Lady Esther’s manor to release her from her brother’s cruel expectations. Seeing her afresh and learning that his repudiation would not save her from other, possibly harsher marriage suitors, was forcing him to reconsider.
Can I court her? Harry dared not admit his deepest hope, that she would somehow see past his maze of scars, but he could offer her family. “Until I caught small-pox I looked agreeable, in a homely way. My present appearance would not be inherited by any of my children.”
She raised her head and speared him with a glare. “What are you saying, Sir Henry? Please do me the courtesy of being direct.”
He leaned forward, drawn to her bright boldness, and was saddened when she flinched slightly. Yes, you have been struck before, my lady, for you to show such a honed reaction. He took another sip of her very fine tisane, allowing her another instant to compose herself.
“Will you call me Harry?” he asked mildly. “Whenever people say ‘Sir Henry’ I feel they are speaking of my father.”
“Harry.” She spoke his name as if turning a pebble in her mouth. “I presume you wish to call me Esther?”
“If it please you. Were you named after your mother?”
“No.”
He thought his feeble attempt at conversation had failed when she added, “You may call me by my name.”
“Thank you.” Harry took her concession as a sign and put down his cup. He meant to keep to his new purpose, to be as direct as she demanded, but to his own surprise a different question slipped out. “Did you paint the unicorns and such?”
“I did.”
After the stark admission, Esther tried to hide her blushes behind her cup, which he found endearing. “They are well done,” he said gently. “You have made a magical world in here.”
For an instant he worried he had been too honest, or perhaps too over-courtly, for what did he know of such pretty games? Esther—and she was Esther now, no question—glanced at his clenched hands, bunched in his long brown tunic, and said, “You will not object if I paint or brew?”
“Why should I?” The instant he answered, Harry wanted to flay himself. Of course her old husband had probably objected. Sir Edmund had wanted her as a breeding mare and no more. “I stitch gauntlets,” he added, an undertaking he had the tools and strength in fingers for, and one his comrades in arms had learned not to mock.
“I would be interested to see those.” As if she had admitted something unseemly, Esther blushed afresh.
 Yes, I think we will do well together. We are both shy of the wider world, in different ways, and happy to create a place of peace in which to dwell. Slowly, so as not to startle her afresh, he raised both hands and reached out. “Esther, I swear here and now that you will be safe with me.” His mouth had dried the instant he began to speak, but Harry forced himself to keep going. “Will you do me the very great honor of marrying me?”

 "Plain Harry" is for sale on Amazon





Friday, 21 February 2020

Seasonal drinks for festive times - beer, ale, mead and wine.

Nefertiti pours wine for AkhenatenIn my historical romances I write about every season and sometimes include scenes from seasonal celebrations, such as the winter Saturnalia in ancient Rome. Then, as now, drink was an important part of such festivals, but what kinds of drink?

In ancient Egypt, people drank beer or wine. The aristocracy enjoyed sweet wine spiced with honey and the juice of pomegranates. There was red or white wine, with the wine of Buto in the Delta being considered some of the best, but wine was also imported from Syria, Palestine and Greece. The ordinary Egyptian drank beer, made from fermented barley bread and sieved first to remove the bits, and the results are familiar enough: ‘Thou art like a broken steering-oar in a ship,’ says a school text from the New Kingdom, ‘…Men run away from before thee, for thou inflictest wounds on them… Thou dost reel, and fallest on thy belly and art besmirched with dirt.’

You can read more about the ancient Egyptians in my novel "Blue Gold" which is just 99 cents or 99p.

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Roman wine on board ship through GaulAncient Romans had a range of beverages to choose from during their mid-winter celebration of the Saturnalia. (December 17th to 23rd.) Romans like L. Lucullus, rich beyond belief after military campaigns in the East, had wine tables at their feasts, huge amphorae containing the wine, long spoons to scoop it out and sieves to strain the lees. Herbs could be added to Roman wine, for colour and flavour, and it was usually diluted with water - boiling water in winter, so the wine could be served warm. There were libations to the gods poured with wine and games played with wine. The Romans enjoyed sweet and dry wines, white, yellow, red and black wines.The black was mature Falernian, which began as a sweet white from grapes picked late, after frost, and darkened as it matured, deepening in flavour over the years (and increasing in price – showy gourmets like Lucullus certainly made a point of serving it).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
You can read about ancient Romans and Roman Britain in my romance novel, "Flavia's Secret." This is only 99cents or 99p and its climax takes placing during the Saturnalia.

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Willam the Conqueror feasts in England ahead of the Battle of Hastings (from the Bayeux Tapestry)A drink common to ancient Roman and northern European lands was mead, made of honey and water. Mead was the drink of choice at Anglo-Saxon feasts. Because drinking water was so often impure in the ancient world, ale was the 'everyday' drink, but mead was for feasting. There were mead halls and, in the halls, mead benches, where men sat drinking side by side. Drinking horns and glasses were richly ornamented and highly prized. Anglo-Saxon wine, some grown from grapes that could flourish in the south of England, was light, quickly consumed and not very strong. Ale, drunk by all ages, was a
sweetish, thick drink, again not very alcoholic. Mead was the intoxicating draft, subject of riddles and poetry and drunk prodigiously in seasonal feasts. A later recipe from the fourteenth century describes ‘fine mead’, with the honey pressed from the combs and added to water left after boiling the empty combs (as for ordinary mead), then flavoured with pepper, cloves and apples and left to stand.

Magnus and Elfrida, hero and heroine in my medieval Christmas romance, "The Snow Bride" know mead,  as do Conrad and Maggie, hero and heroine of my holiday romance "Sir Conrad and the Christmas Treasure."





Happy Holidays!

(All pictures from Wikimedia Commons).

Lindsay
http://www.lindsaytownsend.co uk 

Friday, 3 January 2020

Book Excerpt: Rocket's Red Glare: A WW II Era Alternate History Novel by Cy Stein (Abeel Street Press, March 14, 2020)

      a heart-pounding political satire that eerily parallels Washington, DC today



           “Jack Kennedy, FBI, sir.” Kennedy reached into his
pocket, pulled out his badge, and presented it.
            Leo paled. Should he make a run for it? No, Kennedy
looked about half his age and could catch him easily, especially
since—at the moment—this block was empty of people. His
palms and brow began to sweat.
            Kennedy noticed Leo’s discomfort.
            “Oh, don’t worry, Professor.” He smiled, a large, toothy
grin. “I’m not going to arrest you. I’m here on more of, ah...
a social visit. A way to get acquainted, I think. We need to
have a chat, you and I, and this seems as good a place as any.
Somewhere we won’t be overheard. So please, walk with me.”
            Relief flooded through Leo, though he remained guarded.
He recognized the name Jack Kennedy as the son of Lindbergh’s
crony Joseph Kennedy, former ambassador to the U.K. He
knew Kennedy as a defeatist and before that, an arch-appeaser
of Hitler, and currently as the Secretary of the Treasury. He
had been unaware Joe Kennedy’s son was working for J. Edgar
Hoover and couldn’t imagine how anything useful would come
from this interview. But since Kennedy wasn’t hauling him off
to face a federal judge, Leo thought it might be best to hear him
out.
            The two men crossed First Avenue at a traffic light and
continued along E. 71st Street in the direction of the East River.
This block was distinctly shabbier than the one to its west. There
were fewer single-family brownstones fronting either side of the
street, and more four and five-story walkups, which increased
the local population density. Still, the block was a pleasant
residential neighborhood, a calm, tree-lined lacuna in the midst
of Manhattan’s quotidian turmoil.
            “I understand, Dr. Szilard,” said Kennedy, when they
were about twenty yards from the motorized tumult of Second
Avenue, “that you are the local head, or leader, whichever you
prefer, of a group that calls itself the Resistance.”
            “Why, Mr. Kennedy,” Leo said, his heart skipping one
beat and then another. “Where did you get a silly idea like
that? I’m head of nothing and leader only of myself. I’m afraid
someone is making up stories about me.”
            “Ah, then I am sorry, Professor, for taking up your time. I
have some information that would be of interest—I think great
interest—to that organization. But perhaps you are not the right
person after all.”
            Leo squinted. There was no way to know if J. Edgar
Hoover was setting a trap, using Kennedy as bait. But the fresh-
faced young man seemed so earnest and honest that Leo was
moved to take a chance.
            “And if I may ask,” he said, “what kind of information?
It is possible I know people who might be interested in talking
with you, though I have no direct connection to the organization
you are referring to.”
            The two stopped next to a stunted oak tree struggling
to survive in the chemical ambiance of midtown Manhattan.
Kennedy drew close so he wouldn’t be overheard. “Information
that could take down Lindbergh and the corrupt kleptocracy of
fascists destroying our beloved country.”
            Leo stared at him. “Your father among them, Mr.
Kennedy? Am I to believe you are ready to commit patricide?
Do you know what the ancient Romans did to a man who killed
his father?”
            “Ah, something about a sack and a monkey and the Tiber,
as I recall.”
            “You are correct, Mr. Kennedy. They tied him up in a sack
with a monkey, a dog, a rooster, and a snake and tossed him in
the river.”
            “Ah, that sounds, ah... painful, Professor.” Kennedy
grimaced. “But this isn’t ancient Rome. Don’t get me wrong; I
love my father dearly, but he can take care of himself. Always
has, always will. The man is indomitable. But I have to make my
own way. And that’s why I want to join up with the Resistance.”

Visit Cy Stein on Goodreads at
and coming soon in 2020:

Friday, 6 December 2019

"The Snow Bride" New Excerpt




The Snow Bride

She is Beauty, but is he the Beast?

Book One of The Knight and the Witch


England, winter, 1131

Elfrida, spirited, caring and beautiful, is also alone. She is the witch of the woods and no man dares to ask for her hand in marriage until a beast comes stalking brides and steals away her sister. Desperate, the lovely Elfrida offers herself as a sacrifice, as bridal bait, and she is seized by a man with fearful scars. Is he the beast?


In the depths of a frozen midwinter, in the heart of the woodland, Sir Magnus, battle-hardened knight of the Crusades, searches ceaselessly for three missing brides, pitting his wits and weapons against a nameless stalker of the snowy forest. Disfigured and hideously scarred, Magnus has finished with love, he thinks, until he rescues a fourth 'bride', the beautiful, red-haired Elfrida, whose innocent touch ignites in him a fierce passion that satisfies his deepest yearnings and darkest desires.


 Here is a new excerpt from my Medieval Romance, "The Snow Bride",where witch Elfrida and warrior Magnus are getting to know each other.



Chapter 3

Her dreams were dark and strange, full of loud noises and storm. She called, in her dreams, on the saints and the old ones to protect her, while at times she was in a land of white, then red and green. When the space about her turned blue, she woke.
Magnus was sitting beside her, playing chess with another man. As he moved the queen, he lifted his familiar, ugly head and smiled at her.
“How are you now?”
“Better, becoming better,” she said. “But how long and where—”
He smiled. “Never fret, Elfrida! My men and hounds are searching the forest even now, and Christina’s betrothed is with them. They will find the track of the monster even in this snow.”
Elfrida looked about, recognizing the hut and the charred remains of Magnus’s huge bonfire.
“You were too ill to move,” Magnus said simply. “I did not realize at first, but when the fit-demon came over you, I reckoned we must stay here.” With a quickness that astonished her, he took her face in his hand. “The demon has gone from you. Your eyes are as clear as amber again, and very sweet.”
Elfrida flushed, unused to anything of hers being called sweet. She was conscious, too, of the steady warmth of Magnus’s fingers against her cheek even as she anguished, wondering what the fit-demon had made her do. For the first time in an age she wondered how she looked. Were the itching-pox spots very bad?
I fret for a mirror when Christina is still missing! That is more sinful than witchcraft.
The man beside Magnus spoke, and Magnus laughed, releasing her.
“Mark is a simple soul. He thinks you are not pretty enough to bother with. He says he would have rolled you in the snow and left you.”
Elfrida rubbed her finger and thumb together, murmuring a charm to bring fleas to the ungracious Mark, a wiry russet-and-gray fellow with a red nose. She smiled when he clapped a hand onto the back of his neck, and cursed.
“How long have your men been searching?” she asked, wondering if the helmet full of hot water was still about and if she might have some.
“Since dawn today,” Magnus replied, holding out a flask. “We must do it quickly. More snow is coming.”
Elfrida glanced at the cloudless sky and wondered how he thought that. “Where are you looking?” she demanded, taking the mead with a nod of thanks. In this sacred time before Christmas, such honey drinks and small luxuries were forbidden, but God would understand a gesture of peace and fellowship.
Mark glowered and said something more, which Magnus waved away with the stump of his right hand.
“What did he say?”
“That an ugly woman is an affront to God and that you ask too many questions.”
“Mark is a fool. When I am well, I will be acceptable, and Mark will still be a fool.” She glanced at the fellow, who slapped at another biting flea on the back of his neck. “That one will say that all women talk too much. He steals brides, do you know?”
“I think you mean the monster rather than my soldier.”
“I hope he fights better than he reasons.”
“He does. As for the monster, Walter told me through an interpreter.”
“What else has Walter said?” Loathing the way the men of her own village had kept secrets from her, Elfrida forced herself to swallow her resentment—it would only waste time now. Biting her tongue, she took a huge gulp of mead, which made her eyes water and had her half choking.
Magnus did not grin or clap her on the back. He waited until her coughing had subsided and gave her a slow, considering look. Whatever he saw must have satisfied him. He spoke again to Mark, a clear order, and waited until the man had risen and kicked through the snow to a covered wagon.
“How are the spots? Itching yet?”
Elfrida gave a faint shudder. “Do not remind me.” Since stirring, she had been aware of her whole body tickling and burning. Mark’s idea of rolling in the snow might not be so bad.
“Walter told me that the village of Great Yarr has a bathhouse. Bathing in oatmeal will help you.”
She did not say that the village could afford to spare no foodstuffs and would not be distracted. She had tried to rush off in pursuit of the monster before and gained nothing, so now she would gather her strength and learn before she moved. “What did you call the beast? Forest Grendel? Is it known he lives in the forest?”
Magnus shook his head. “It is not known, but I do not think so now, or at least not outdoors. I have hunted wolf’s heads who have been outlawed and fled into woodland, and they always have camps and dens and food caches within the forest. I have found none of those hereabouts.”
“My dowsing caught no sign of any lair of his,” Elfrida agreed.
Magnus leaned forward, bracing himself with his injured arm. Elfrida forced herself not to stare at his stump, but to listen to him.
“Do you sense anything?” he asked softly.
“The night you came, I felt something approach.” She frowned, trying to put into words feelings and impressions that were as elusive as smoke. “A great purpose,” she said. “A need and urgent desire.”
Now Magnus was frowning. “Have you a charm or magic that will help?”
“Do you think I have not tried magic, charms, and incantations? My craft is not like a sword fight, where the blades are always true. If God does not will it—”
“I have been in enough fights where swords break.”
“Are your men good trackers?”
“They would not be with me, else.” If Magnus was startled by her determination to talk only of the beast, he gave no sign. “Tell me of your sister and her habits. Did she keep to the same paths and same tasks each day?”
“Yes and yes, but what else did Walter say? The old men have told me nothing!”
“No, they do not want the womenfolk to know anything, even you, I fear.” His kind eyes gleamed, as if he enjoyed her discomfiture. He had a small golden cross in his right eye, she noticed, shining amidst the warm brown.
A sparkle for the lasses, eh, Magnus?
To her further discomfiture, she realized he had asked her something. “Say again, please?”
“Would you like some food to go with your mead? There are the remains of mutton, dates and ginger, wine and mead and honey.” His brown eyes gleamed. “My men found it in the clearing where I found you. The mutton has been a bit chewed, but the rest is palatable, I think.”
“It is drugged!” Elfrida burst out. “I put”—she could not think of the old word and used her own language instead—“I put a sleeping draft in the wedding cakes and all.” She seized his arm, not caring that it was the one with the missing hand. “Do not eat it!”
“Sleeping draft?” He used her own words.
She yawned and feigned sleep, startled when he started to laugh.
“A wedding feast to send the groom to sleep! I like it!” He chuckled again and opened his left hand, where, to Elfrida’s horror, there was one of her own small wedding cakes.
“Do not eat it!” she cried.
With surprising speed, Magnus rose and flung the cake straight into the forest. Elfrida watched it tumbling through the trees, going leagues and leagues, it seemed to her.
“Now we must shift with what I have.” Magnus settled back again, rumbles of laughter still shaking in his huge chest. “Do not look so troubled, Elfrida. I am too greedy to put anything on my food but salt, when there is some.”
With Christina still missing, Elfrida could not smile at the irony, but her belly growled, reminding her that she had not eaten for days.
“I am hungry, too,” she admitted. “Thank you.” They could still talk while they ate.
Sharing roasted chestnuts, acorns, toasted bread from the stores of Magnus’s men, cheese and apples and dates, she and Magnus shared their knowledge, too.
“Walter called him a spider?” Magnus repeated when she had told her sorry tale. “One who comes and goes without sound?”
“And without breaking twigs. You say he has struck at all three villages? A maid from each one, perhaps?”
Magnus nodded. “I was told that the orphan lass was taken from Great Yarr and another maid from Selton, with your Christina being carried off from Top Yarr.”
“So it may be that the beast knows the area well.” Elfrida chewed on a date, guiltily enjoying its sweetness even as she wondered if Christina had eaten yet. “You think he will touch Lower Yarr?”
Magnus sighed and stretched, cracking the joints in his shoulders and his good hand one by one. “I have sent men to all these places, including Lower Yarr, to get the villagers digging out ditches round their homes and gathering thorns to put round their houses. I wish the menfolk would let the maids come to my manor, but they refuse.”
“They refuse? They?” Elfrida felt as if she had turned into a dragon and might breathe fire, she was so angry. Rage burst through her, and she clutched her wooden cup so fiercely she heard it crack. “By what right do they choose and not say a word?”
Magnus scratched at one of his deeper scars. “It is the way of the world. You are freer here than in Outremer, where women are kept indoors.”
“Thank you. That is such a comfort,” snapped Elfrida. She could feel mead trickling down between her fingers, and her anger tightened another notch. “Christina would be safe now, if they had told us!”
“Would she have left her betrothed, especially so close to her wedding?” Magnus asked patiently.
Elfrida closed her eyes and said nothing.
“Once my men begin work on the ditches, your villagers will have some explaining to do.”
“Good!” Elfrida ground the fingers of her free hand into her aching eyes. Her limbs itched and flamed, and she no longer had any appetite.
“Do you know anything of this orphan girl?”
“Why her particularly?”
“Because it was obvious from what the headman told me that she had no one to stand for her.”
Elfrida took a deep breath. “I would have spoken for her, but I knew nothing!” In a fury, she dashed her hand against her forehead, forgetting she was gripping the wooden cup, and immediately saw a host of green lights.
“I have something of hers,” Magnus remarked quietly. “Part of a blue veil found inside the lean-to. The place where she lived,” he added.
“The beast came inside her home? Did she let him in? Did he force the door?”
“From what I was told, I think the creature slipped in through the roof.”
Which explained Walter’s prodding of the thatch when he had last visited Christina, Elfrida thought, abruptly chilled as she imagined a shadowy, hulking form bursting into a hut from above.
Was the monster as big as Magnus?
She glanced at him, her fingers absently scratching at the spots in her hair. He looked at her steadily.
“I am not him,” he said, “and you should not do that.”
Elfrida’s hand flew down to her lap. “Blue veil, you say?” she croaked, snatching at the first thing she could to cover her embarrassment. “My sister’s wedding veil is blue.”
“One of the doors in my dream of the creature was blue.”
Elfrida’s interest sharpened, even as she realized that Magnus had mentioned his dream to purposely divert her. But then, she worked in dreams. Dreams were important. “Tell me all.”
She listened carefully to Magnus’s halting account, not shaming him by asking what he was leaving out in his tale of the river and the doors. Men did not feel easy discussing dreams.
“Who are Alice and Peter?”
“The true friends of my heart and hearth. Hellsbane—Peter of the Mount—was a fellow crusader, fighting with me in Outremer. He has carried me off the field of battle more than once.”
“And you him,” Elfrida guessed.
Magnus waved this off. “His fight name is Hellsbane. Alice gave him that name.”
“And what is she?”
“His wife.” Magnus puffed out his cheeks, making himself an ugly, jolly demon. “Like you, she is a healer, a maker of potions. But a lady.”
Shrugging off the but, Elfrida wondered what Alice the lady looked like, then found her thought answered.
“She is small, like you, and pretty, with long, black hair and bright, blue eyes. She wears blue, also. The Forest Grendel would have stolen her away had she lived hereabouts and Peter been dead and in his grave.”
“The monster has his dark-haired bride,” Elfrida reminded him, feeling a pang of envy at the warm way Magnus described the lady Alice, “but no auburn yet.”
“You cannot put yourself up as bait again.”
“No one will stop me.”
Magnus shook his head. “You have some days before you can even entertain such foolishness.”
“Men like the outward show. I know that all too well. I have never seen a handsome man with an ugly wife.”
Magnus’s brown eyes twinkled. “You would at court and in kingly circles. A handsome dowry can work marvels for a plain girl.”
“Plain yes, but no worse than that.” Why do I pursue this? I know men are shallow as dew ponds!
Anger at herself and mankind made her blaze out with another fresh rage of itching, all over her body. She glanced longingly at the snow and then at the necklace of bear’s teeth and claws slung around Magnus’s thick neck.
“Those are the claws I saw the night you found me!” she burst out, reaching out to touch the necklace. Pleased to have one mystery understood, she smiled in turn and bent her head eagerly as he dropped a small parcel onto her lap. “What is this?”
“His token, dropped into the girl’s rush pallet when he stole away with the orphan. I am most interested to know what you make of it.” He cleared his throat. “What you sense from it,” he added, glancing at the charms around her neck.
Why did he not show me this earlier? Elfrida unwrapped the rough cloth with trembling fingers. She did not want to think of the girl, waking in her bed and finding a monster where she should have been safe within her home.
She did not want to touch the object, not at first, and studied it a moment. “Have you handled this?”
“I did exactly as you did, Elfrida. I untied it and looked. I cannot say for the village headman or the rest.”
She lifted it, still wrapped in the cloth, and sniffed.
“I did that, too,” Magnus said quietly. “The scent is cloves and frankincense.”
“Cloves, frankincense with a whiff of pepper and ginger. All foreign and expensive. So the monster has money and servants.”
“Ah, to buy them for him! Unless he steals those, too, from peddlers and the like, as they pass through the forest.”
“It has a blue base,” Elfrida observed, turning the cloth on which the object was laid.
“Ancient glass, Roman, I think, cut to shape and set into the wood. Is it a cup, as seems? Or was it fashioned for other uses?” As he spoke, Magnus lifted his left hand and made the sign to ward away the evil eye.
“There are no runes or magic signs cut into the goblet, no gems or magic stones inset within it.” Elfrida closed her eyes and breathed in deeply through her nose. “It is old, made in the time of our grandfathers. It has held hot things.”
“Blood?”
“Tisane.” Elfrida smiled at Magnus’s wary question, amused and saddened in equal parts at the way nonwitches thought all magic dark and terrible. “See where the inside is stained dark? That is with tisane. I would say a blackberry tisane.”
“Not blood and not beer either, like your own good ale.”
“No.” Absurdly touched by Magnus’s praise, she found herself wishing, for a moment, that she could give him more ale.
“What?” Magnus asked, altogether too sharp and all seeing.
“Nothing, eager one! Now let me work.” Confident of her own magic, she took another deep breath and lifted the small bowl-shaped cup with both hands.
Images rose out of the snow and played across her startled eyes. There was Christina, laughing with her head thrown back, and a dark-haired girl dancing on the spot, blowing into a small pipe. A shadow fell across them both, but they did not shrink back. Rather they stepped forward eagerly, their hands outstretched like beggars at a fair.
“Christina!” she called in her mind, but the vision faded even as she strained to reach for her sister and for an instant felt as if she flew, as she could when she ate the secret mushroom of the birchwood. She blinked and was looking down from the treetops, east into a gray sky at a hillside of oak trees, and within the oak trees were three strong towers.
She lunged forward like a hawk, dropping to the tower with the blue door...
“Elfrida? Elfrida! Are you with us again?”
She sighed, pinching the top of her nose, forcing her spirit back within herself. It was mildly disconcerting to discover that she was half on Magnus’s lap, her body propped against his barrel chest and her head snug in the crook of his arm—his arm with the stump, she realized.
“Are you well?” he asked again, touching her forehead with his good hand. “Your eyes rolled back into your head, and you were twitching like a hunting dog on the scent.”
“I was hunting,” she replied. Deciding she was too comfortable to stir from where she was, she talked quickly as the scene vanished into the whiteness of the snow. “He has them bewitched in some way, perhaps with a love philter, perhaps with a handsome, pleasing familiar.”
“Have you a familiar?”
She scowled at the interruption, conscious again of the itching in her hair and across her face and arms. “I do not need one,” she said sharply. “But listen to me now, for once the sight leaves me, I do not always remember it well.”
Magnus nodded and brought a finger to his lips, his promise of silence.
“To the east of here, within the forest, there is an oak wood set on a high hill. His lair is there, within three strong towers, three towers, one with a painted blue door.”
She heard Magnus’s breath catch, but he did not interrupt.
“I saw my sister, laughing, and another girl, playing a pipe. They were dancing. I do not know if they were together, or if they danced alone, for the beast. They seemed unharmed. I did not see the third, but they were safe and even happy.”
She felt Magnus’s gasp of relief, and his reaction inspired hers. Overwhelmed to know that Christina was safe, she sobbed aloud as tears burst out of her.
“Aye, aye, I wondered when it would come to this.” Magnus gathered her closer still, ignoring her fever and spots. When her weeping subsided, he gave her a clean rag to wipe her face.

* * * *

He believed her. He had seen magic in Outremer, where men had put themselves into trances and driven nails into hands without pain or blood. He shouted to Mark, a single order, “Stop!” and listened as Mark blew his horn to signal to the rest of his men.
“Does the monster hunt alone?” he asked Elfrida. She was rubbing at her forehead with the rag, and he took it from her to stop her bursting her spots. She frowned but not because of the itching pox.
“I do not know,” she admitted.
“No matter,” he said easily, glad she had sense enough not to claim more than she did and not wanting her to blame herself. That was the failing and limit of magic, he knew—it never showed everything.
She squirmed on his lap and rolled off him into the snow.
“I must set a charm to find this oak hill.” She rose to her feet, seemingly unaware of how she swayed in the still, crisp air like a sapling in bad weather. “All oaks, and very ancient, with lichens hanging from them. And mistletoe!” She brightened at remembering, the glow in her small, narrow face showing how pretty she was, without spots.
She checked the position of the sun and began to walk southeast, tramping stiffly through the snow. Then she turned back.
“Your men know to let me pass?”
“They would not dare delay a witch.”
She smiled. “No, only you would.” She turned, took another step, and stopped.
Magnus did not want her to leave, either. He told himself it was because his men were even now calling back through the trees, “Nothing!” “No track!” “Nothing here!”
I need her skills, and though she will not admit it, she needs mine.
He limped toward her and offered her his good arm. “May I escort you? I have seen a mage’s house in the East, but never a witch’s home.”
He caught a glitter of interest in her eyes, quickly suppressed as she jerked her head at his horse and gathering men. “Do they come, too?”
“It will be quicker,” Magnus said easily. “Once we know where to seek your sister, we can set out on horseback.”
“I do not have a bathhouse nearby.”
“A barrel of water and hot stones will do as well.”
“And food and hay? I cannot magic those.”
“My men have brought both, even oats.”
She glanced at the gray skies and shook her head. “There will be more snow tonight. More! I have no spells against that amount of evil weather!”
“And your sister is indoors.” He waited a moment, for her to see the good in that, then added, “If we cannot hunt in more snow, neither can the beast.”
She nodded and took his arm, saying quietly, “Thank you.”
They walked forward together.



THE SNOW BRIDE (THE KNIGHT AND THE WITCH 1) https://amzn.to/2MZZan0    


Lindsay Townsend