Tuesday, 19 May 2020

New! The Master Cook & the Maiden. Medieval Historical Romance. Excerpts. Money off

#NEW THE MASTER COOK & THE MAIDEN Vengeance…or love? Will Alfwen have to choose between them? And what part will the handsome Master Cook, Swein, play in her life? amazon.com/dp/B088RJNYJ4/ UK amazon.co.uk/dp/B088RJNYJ4/ #Romance #MedievalRomance #RomanceNovel

Vengeance…or love? Will Alfwen have to choose between them? And what part will the handsome Master Cook, Swein, play in her life?


Romance, MedievalRomance,  RomanceNovel

The Rose and the Sword Novel Series


The Master Cook and the Maiden
Lindsay Townsend

Third day of Lent, 1303

The small brown dog stumbled towards Alfwen as she pounded washing in the river. Without stopping her work she watched the little rough-coated creature slip through a gap in the convent boundary wall to limp her way, flopping down on the damp grass twice before it reached her.
“Hey, boy,” she whispered, glad of the honest companionship even if it was just a dog. Hearing a pitiful whine she dropped the dry crust she had been saving for her supper in front of the shivering beast. “Go on, it is yours.”
The scrap disappeared between the dog’s narrow jaws. Alfwen wiped a hunger tear from her face, glancing about. So far, she and the little dog were safe from discovery. This close to Terce, the other nuns and novitiates of the convent were busy with their own assigned labours. As Alfwen had pretended she was afraid of the river, naturally the spiteful Mother Superior had ordered the girl to do the sisters’ laundry, an outdoor task that suited Alfwen very well, even on this bitter afternoon in early spring. Tempers sharpened during Lent, when all were famished, and to be in the fresh, chill air was better than being mewed up in the sooty church or cramped, icy scriptorium.
Kneeling on the riverbank, Alfwen wrung out another section of bedsheet and dunked the next, flinching at the freezing water flowing over her reddened fingers and pale skinny arms. No possible spy was with her, no religious or lay brother or sister, and she could relax a moment. She unwound from her knees and sat on the grass, trying to ignore the burning prickling in her legs. When no shout or complaint issued from the convent she stroked the dog.
With a soft whine the beast crawled closer. So small and trembling, she thought, and she could count its ribs through that rough brown coat and the raw patches along one flank where the fur had shed. Recalling a lively, bouncing pup from long ago, she whispered, “Teazel?”
The dog weakly wagged a balding tail. As it raised its head, Alfwen spotted a filthy cloth collar, half-hidden by dirt.
“I gave you to Walter with a leather collar,” she murmured, surprised she remembered that detail. Teazel snuffled and edged even nearer, so she could see the grey in his muzzle. She wrapped the dog in the rest of the dry sheet she had yet to scrub and fought down a wave of horror.
Walter must be dead. Teazel would never have left him.
She tried to pray for her brother. Failing that, she tried to remember him. It had been seven, no eight years since Walter and his new wife had abandoned her in the convent, though Alfwen knew she had no vocation.
I was ten years old and my parents had just died. Walter was in the first flush of marriage and lordship and his wife—Alfwen shuddered, checked again for spies and admitted the truth. Enid hated me.
A growl came from the tangled sheet as if Teazel agreed with her. A quivering, questing muzzle emerged from the heavy linen and Alfwen was struck by a memory of Walter. Her older brother, whirling about the tilting yard with his new puppy in his arms, laughing as the little dog yapped and squirmed and nuzzled closer.
“He likes me!” Walter cried, pressing a sloppy kiss on the pup’s back.
“He is yours,” Alfwen agreed, and Walter had grinned at her, his hazel eyes bright with joy, the sunlight picking out the red glints in his brown curls.
Enid had soon shorn off his hair, claiming it unseemly for a young lord. Alfwen had scowled and Walter had scolded her for protesting against his wife, although she had said nothing. Two days later she was delivered to the convent, a poor, mean place. My limbo, with an entrance to hell, and my brother did not care, did not question. Eight years she had been here as a novitiate, neither lay nor nun. Postulants to a religious life were supposed to serve only a year as a novice but as a sister Alfwen would have status and Enid and the Mother Superior between them did not want that. Instead I am trapped and my close family have forgotten or dismissed me. Would I be as stupid and selfish in wedlock as Walter?
Alfwen shook her head and tried a second time to pray for her brother’s soul.
He is gone forever and I cannot even cry.
She tried to think of him, remember him, kindly memories. Save for when she had given him Teazel, and he had taught her to write her name, she drew a blank on any more joyful times. Have I forgotten or was Walter really so morose and carping? Am I unjust in how I consider him now?
In the dank grey light of early spring, the bell for Terce rang through her like a blow. Numb, Alfwen rose, ready to gather her work and stumble into the nunnery’s huddled church set close to an expanse of marsh but out of reach of the river. She reached for the part-washed, part-dry sheet and Teazel burst from its coils. Again she noted his thinness, the scrap of cloth collar.
The collar was once part of a favourite gown of mine, a yellow dress my mother made me.
The bell for Terce continued to toll and Alfwen detested its sweet intrusion.
Anger sharpened her, tempered her dull acceptance of convent life into more than resentment. In a blast of sudden added colour she saw the white and pink daisies by her feet, the blue glow of a kingfisher farther down the riverbank, the glint of gold amidst the dirty yellow of Teazel’s collar.
He has something pinned to his collar.
A shadow fell across Alfwen before she could unpin the tiny roll of parchment, but thankfully it was merely a cloud, not a nun coming to drag her to service.
No, the good sisters of Saint Hilda’s will be hastening to church. I will not be missed until after the latest holy office.
Alfwen flinched as the gold brooch scratched her fingers and then the thing was undone. Heart hammering, she smoothed out the parchment.
Two words only in her brother’s hand, but a message to her, all the same.
“Avenge me.”

Chapter 2
Swein saw the girl drop into the water from the riverbank and leapt from his waggon, sprinting to reach her before she drowned. Hearing no splash or screams he dared to hope and ran faster, forcing air into his searing lungs.
Pounding along the track and over the water-meadow he vaulted the mud brick wall of the convent. He landed clumsily but kept going, determined to save her. Never a fatal accident in my kitchen and I’ll not gave one here, either.
Scrambling to the edge of the bank he stared downstream, seeing nothing but a young trout, swung round to scour upstream—and choked on his breath. Tripping daintily over the river pebbles at the stream’s edge the girl walked steadily away from her pile of laundry.
Swein flattened himself to the grass and watched the small, skinny wench. Her skirts were sodden to the backs of her knees, he reckoned, but she moved smoothly, never looking back. Across her retreating shoulders she carried a sling, made from part of a sheet. A little old dog poked its muzzle from the bundle and seemed content with the ride.
A runaway from Saint Hilda’s. “No business of mine,” Swein muttered, but his ankle ached so he lay still and stared.
The girl disappeared round the bend in the beck—stream, Swein mentally corrected, since this was in the south, not north—her presence winking out like a small star.
She will walk to the ford and take the Roman road hence. I could drive my waggon there and wait for her.
“Why not?” Swein said aloud, flexing his toes in his boots. “I have no business with Saint Hilda’s.” The head nun in the place did not like men and detested cooks so he had never had cause to visit in his travels.
‘Tis Lent and I go home for Lent. Cooking food for fasting times does not stir me and my folk are waiting. He had the early gifts ready for them.
Still he would catch Nutmeg, his mule, and his waggon and drive to the ford. That girl needs fattening up, I reckon, fleeing from Saint Hilda’s.
The nobles I cook for do not like me curious but I am my own master and this Lent time is my holiday. He could do largely as he pleased and he wanted to see the lass’s face.
Swein rolled to his feet and set off back for the track, whistling a merry tune.
Alfwen glanced at the sinking sun and the crossroads with dismantled archery butts stacked against the oak tree. She had hoped for a hiring gather and had her story ready. I am a laundress seeking honest work.
She wanted to steal a nag and ride to her family’s seat at Ormsfeld, but she brutally dismissed the desire. She needed to know how Walter had died and who were his enemies. Teazel would never have left if Walter lived still. Yet no one had come to the convent to tell her that her brother had died. Although I am a de Harne I have been buried at Saint Hilda’s for eight years and no doubt forgotten.
“Avenge me,” Walter growled in her head, in a voice she was not sure was his, or what she remembered of him.
Again she was relieved she had not taken final vows. Nuns were not supposed to plot vengeance.
Why should I? When did Walter care for me?
Alfwen squashed such thoughts, stamping her feet in a futile bid to keep warm. Her skirts and sandals were still wet from the river and she knew she would look strange, a lone woman with no protectors. I dare not linger here past twilight. I have to find shelter, food for Teazel.
The dog slept on the damp ground in her rough bundle, weary with hunger. Enid starved him. Did she do the same cruel thing with Walter?
“Are you seeking work?”
Startled, Alfwen turned, stumbling as she took a rapid backwards step. The man looming over her was so big—
Strong arms caught her, brought her safe against a broad chest.
“Here,” said the stranger as she gulped in breath to fight, “Before you hunger faint.”
A large calloused hand pressed a warm round dumpling into her palm, a white plump dumpling straight from a pottage pot, but not so hot as to burn. The comforting heat and yeasty scent took her straight back to childhood, pottering after Simon, the old cook, who would often take her with him into the kitchen garden and let her eat fresh bread from his ovens.
Avenge me, Walter scolded, while she chewed and swallowed the dumpling treat, licking her fingers after.
“I need a washer lass,” the stranger went on, dropping a morsel of something on the earth for Teazel. “I feed my folk well. You come?”
He almost had her at feed well, but Alfwen had not sprung the trap of the convent to fall into another. She shook her head. “I cannot stay, sir.”
Now she spoke, Alfwen felt the light-headedness of hunger boil into the seethe of panic. What might this big brute make me do for his food?

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Flowers and Romance, with excerpts. Romances all 99cents/99p

Flowers and Romance go together - florists report their peak sales around Valentine's Day, and at weddings, men sport buttonholes and women corsages or bouquets.

I love to incorporate flowers into my romances. One of my favourite scenes is from "Flavia's Secret", where Flavia discovers that Marcus has left her a bouquet and other gifts:

Marcus had returned.
Flavia said aloud, ‘Marcus is home,’ and felt an overwhelming fountain of delight building within her—even a sleeping potion could not suppress that. She leapt from her bed, her drugged limbs tottering slightly, her head swimming, and saw a small posy of winter flowers lying on her pillow.
Suddenly, her legs would not hold her up anymore. Flavia flopped back onto the bed and reached with trembling fingers for the posy. The flowers blurred before her eyes and she almost cursed Pina for that sly sleeping draught, but the instant she felt it, her anger melted away into renewed joy. Marcus was safe, home again, bringing others safely home and bringing her flowers.
No one, no man, woman or child had ever brought her flowers before.
She lifted the posy. Beneath it were three slender bracelets, which Marcus must have bought on the way out of the city that morning, bought and given to her: her first jewellery.
Hardly daring to believe that any of these gifts were real, Flavia softly gathered them up and walked quietly to the chamber door. Stealing out into the corridor, she came to a window and opened the shutter a crack.

The fog had lifted and the moon was riding high. By its brilliant light, she could admire the tiny white flowers of chickweed, the delicate flowers and foliage of shepherd’s purse. There were dried fennel stalks and a single daisy and two blue speedwells that must have flowered out of season. The small bunch fitted easily into the palm of her hand, but she guessed the care that had gone into making it, especially at this time of the year, when flowers were rare.
The thin bracelets were of copper, very highly polished. Savouring the feel of the cool metal against her skin, Flavia slipped them onto her wrist. She shook her arm and smiled as she heard the bracelets clash gently together, like a tiny sistrum.

I also explore the more exotic flowers that came into use in Britain with the Roman invasion, including one of my personal delights, the peony. This excerpt is taken from "Flavia's Secret" where Flavia takes Marcus to a secret place within the Roman city of Bath:

It has hardly changed,’ she murmured. As if from far off, she caught a faint whiff of incense wafting from the altars close to the spring shrine to Aesculapius. Listening, she could hear nothing of the city outside the high boundary walls, only her own breathing and the creak of the bare-branched oak tree. A raven was perched in its branches, preening itself. She and Marcus were standing away from the shade of the empty house, in a clear patch of warm flagstones where the bushes had not yet encroached. The sun was warm on her skin and Marcus’ hand around hers warmer still.

‘Go on.’ He encouraged her memories.
‘After the old slave showed me this place, I returned only once.’ Still haunted by the remembrance, Flavia chewed on her lower lip. ‘It must have been two or three years later; I know I had been a while in Lady Valeria’s service and learned that she was as kind as she was formidable.’
‘She was,’ Marcus agreed, squeezing her fingers.
‘Lady Valeria had sent me to buy some new sweet wine. She loved wine.’ Flavia’s gentle smile faded. ‘Before I reached the wine shop, I was chased in the streets by two youths. Two well-fleshed sons of centurions, in rich black and red tunics. They pointed at my hair and said something about blonde hair in other places and yelled, ‘Let’s get her!’ I thought they were going to kill me. It was only when I was older that I realized what they were after.’
Aware of the stiffened figure beside her, Flavia suppressed a shudder. ‘No one stopped them,’ she went on. ‘A few by-standers cheered: it was a good joke. Two hearty boys having sport with a little slave girl—no one saw the harm. I was running between stalls, trying to lose them, trying to keep in mind which streets were dead-ends. I was terrified that someone would grab me and hold me for them.
‘I ran along the street passed the healing spring of Aesculapius—I thought that perhaps among the worshippers I would be safe. And then it was as if I remembered for the first time in an age; as if the memory came just as I could run no more.
‘I thought: the deserted villa, and set out for it. I knew where to go, as if my feet remembered. I climbed over the wall as if I had wings on my back helping me. I heard the two youths go blundering past in the street and I laughed, because I knew I was safe. I had remembered the place in time.’
Flavia pointed to a bare patch of earth close to one end of the rectangular pool. ‘It was early summer, and there were peonies growing and flowering there. I had never seen such vibrant, opulent flowers before—they don’t grow naturally here. I didn't even know what they were called until I saw a drawing of one, years later, on a medical papyrus scroll my lady had me read.’
‘It is a healing plant,’ Marcus agreed. ‘My mother grows it in the garden at home. I think she has also used it in magic, so I suppose a sorcerer—’ He shook his head. ‘But I have never seen it growing here.’
‘The scent of those blood-red flowers made me drowsy.’ Releasing Marcus’ hand, Flavia walked to the patch of bare earth, sat down on her heels and trickled a handful of dirt through her fingers. ‘I stretched out by the pool and slept. Then I bathed in the waters. I felt as if I was washing those chasing youths off me; I felt cleansed.
‘I was very late, returning with the wine, but my lady never scolded. After that, I started to dress in cook’s cast-offs, which were baggy.’
‘Shapeless,’ Marcus said.
Flavia nodded, trickling another fistful of dry soil through her hand. Her fingers and palms were healing quickly: she felt no pain at all. ‘Isn’t it strange, though, how I forgot this place for so long and then thought of it in that way, exactly when I needed a safe haven.’

Prickly flowers such as teasels and thistles can also play a part in romance, as seen in this scene from my "A Knight's Enchantment," and the byplay between Hugh and Joanna:

          He hugged her again—any excuse—and reluctantly spurred Lucifer on. The village lad had been pale and in a hurry, even refusing a bite to eat in the kitchen in his haste to return to tell the elders of Manhill-de-Couchy that help was coming.
          And if it was what he suspected, he would need his wits about him, not be distracted by Joanna's warmth, the scent of her hair, the dazzling rush of inner light and weightlessness that exploded in him each time her thighs brushed slightly against his. He tried to gather himself.
          She is your lady and you are her knight. Treat her with all courtesy.
          He asked after her health. Was she warmth enough? Too hot? Would she like a drink of mead from his flask? Did she have any questions for him? Would she like him to do anything for her?
          "Tell me the local name of that flower," she answered, swinging about and fixing him with a steady look, as if she knew very well what he was about.
          He stared at the thistle she was pointing at, growing out of a cart-rut like a spear from a fallen warrior, and gave a grunt of laughter. "Shall I pick it for you, my lady?"
          "Only if you wear a glove."
          "When are you going to stop mentioning gloves?"
          She shrugged. "When I am free."
          This territory was too dark. Hugh whistled to Beowulf and Lucifer and cantered on, giving the horse his head as they drove through a mess of oak and lime saplings growing as weeds in the middle of the track. He heard Joanna coughing at the raised dust and checked Lucifer, standing up on his stirrups to check where on the winding. sunken road they were.

        To me, cowslips and primroses are the perfect springtime flower. I can't resist mentioning them in my stories, such as in "Bronze Lightning", where the heroine Sarmatia undergoes a ritual trial.

 Sarmatia watched on the Sacred Hill. She saw Laerimmer's falcon, now set free, and started up, but the peregrine flew straight overhead. Her call was for her mate. Sarmatia settled again, narrowing her eyes up and down the smooth curves of the hill. Presently she saw the gleam and moved towards it.

The light was constant. It ran before Sarmatia as she scrambled onto the head of the hill. She climbed amongst cowslips, seeking gold in gold, and came upon a spring. Beside its clear waters was a goblet. A golden light flashed from the goblet rim as Sarmatia stretched out her hand.

The wine she drank was sweet, full-bodied. It warmed her and piled swathes of cowslips one on another, so that she walked in a golden cloud. Wrapped in light, Sarmatia plucked the flower stems of cowslip and wove them into a wreath for her head. She found a plate of gold and three narrow leaves of vervain, the plant of magic and divination, laid upon it. The scentless, tender leaves were swiftly swallowed.
The vervain seemed to have no effect on her. She saw the stranger beckon even without magic. Her feet were not winged, no fleeter, as she picked a way down the hill. She came within an arm's length of the man, who spoke without turning. 'What? Is a fisherman too poor for you now?'
Sarmatia sprang forward and was gathered into the firm arms she had never forgotten. With her head against his thick black hair, she smelt salt and harshness and felt living warmth. 'You're not dead!' she cried, in joy beyond laughter or tears.
'What's death?' Her father was as abrupt as in her childhood. He pulled back and Sarmatia looked into his face. His brows were heavy and dark, his features those of her brother, but his eyes were her own.
'I'm your ancestor-soul. In me is all your will and purpose.' The amber eyes looked deep into hers. 'Be wary of the end of will, Sarmatia. Remember how your father died, stubbornly putting to sea in poor weather.'
The arms released their grip, the sea scent drifted off with the wind. It was as though Sarmatia was staring at a deep lake and only her eyes were reflected. She might have watched forever, but a breeze blew dust into her face. She had to blink it away. Opening her eyes, she was alone.
No time for sorrow: another figure had appeared on the hill. Clutching her cowslip wreath, Sarmatia ran to meet it. Suddenly she stopped. The figure also stopped. Under long white robes covering even hands and feet there might be woman or man. The head was hidden by a dark blue veil. Sarmatia bowed her head. 'Who are you, please?'
The figure gave no sign of hearing. Sarmatia walked round it. She sensed its eyes seeking her through the dark veiling. 'Please, let me see your face.' She grasped the blue cloth and, meeting no resistance, lifted it.
The face was hers, as she would be in old age. The eyes were closed, for which small mercy Sarmatia was thankful, but for the rest— She brought her hands up to her own unwrinkled cheeks, afraid she would find them as ugly as the features shown before her. Every line and liver spot of age was on that face. The mouth, her mouth, drooled open to show the remaining teeth.
Sarmatia had always feared creeping old age, hid the fear in her heart and never looked too closely. Confronted by the certainty of all her beauty wasted, she was almost overwhelmed by self-pity. This was how she would be in later years, but how many? And how sad that at the end even laughter should wear out flesh.
With that second thought came compassion. Gently, though her fingers trembled, Sarmatia lifted a hand and closed the ancient mouth.
At her touch, the eyes of her future self opened and the wrinkled mouth spoke. 'I'm your self-soul. I'll always be with you.'
The face about the eyes grew younger and Sarmatia looked upon herself. Not as in a glass, which reverses left and right, but as Fearn could see her, as she was beyond the mirror. What she saw surprised her.
'Yes, you are softer than you think, Sarmatia. Whatever your hopes, you weren't meant to live alone, or with the animals you love so much. To every human being you met on your travels, you owe a part of your life.'
'Even Carvin?' asked Sarmatia, chilled to the marrow.
'Carvin sent the bronze ring north, didn't he?' Her self-soul smiled and there was solace for Sarmatia, though she knew it was her own lips that moved.
'Are you old or young?' she asked.
'Is forever old or young? I'm your self-soul that will be reborn. You and I are one.' The white-robed figure walked forward and Sarmatia experienced the deepest embrace she would ever know, spirit over flesh and flesh over spirit. It was sweeter than her animal-kinship, a light she could gather in her arms and keep. The white robes fell onto the earth, melted away.
She had faced her most hidden fear. The rest of the test might be harder but she would meet it gladly, eager for the lessons it would teach her. Sarmatia looked up at the sky.
It was still only noon. The sun seemed scarcely to have moved since her discovery of the golden cup. For the first time since moving on to the head of the hill, Sarmatia heard laughter and music and beneath these the featureless roar of people's movement and speech. She looked back and waved at the tiny crooked figures round the many campfires. Streams of sacrificial smoke drifted up to her. She could have no food until she had completed the test.
She had made a mistake in looking back. Her appetite alerted, other scents came crowding in: rich stews of cooking mutton, crushed spices, fresh baked bread. Yet she had to remain on the head of the hill. The goddess would know if she cheated. I would know, thought Sarmatia, running uphill, putting distance between herself and the cooking smells.
A stumble brought her to her knees, hair and hands dusted with flowers. Fascinated, Sarmatia saw how the pollen had been smeared on her in stripes, so that her hair was patterned in brown and orange. She lifted one hair plait and tried to shake off the clinging pollen when a shadow fell across her face.
Sarmatia raised her head, heart quickening as her eyes met the lounging shape of her spirit animal. It lay with its back to her, head at rest on the hidden paws. Like a beast on some fabulously woven cloth, the yellow stripes of its long body were the nodding cowslip flowers, the darker stripes of its coat was her hair. Now the narrow trumpets of the flower heads were thickening into fur. The brown hair blackened and the shape grew and took on the rounded contours of a living creature. Her spirit animal yawned, a red tongue rolling round its fangs like meat in a huge bronze cauldron, and a liquid eye, deeper than any sunset, slid round with the head to fall upon Sarmatia.
Both were still. Only the wind lifted Sarmatia's hair and stirred the shaggy facial whiskers of her animal's broad head. Then the great beast thrust its front paws forward, raised its rear haunches and described a graceful curve. Her spirit animal yawned a second time, rocked out of the curve and came to push its head under Sarmatia's hands.

Bluebells and wild garlic are two British natives, perfuming the woodlands with sweet (bluebells) or pungent (wild garlic) scents in spring.  When I write stories set in that season, I often try to incorporate them, as a romantic setting.

This is from my sweet romance novella "Plain Harry":

Her little estate was well-ordered, Harry thought, carefully matching his longer stride to hers. She had a kitchen garden, filled with beans and peas and fragrant herbs, and wicker bee hives, chickens bobbing about, and a cow and new calf grazing beneath an orchard filled by apple blossom.

“I could read under these trees,” Harry found himself admitting, and was rewarded by Esther gifting him a brief smile.

“I draw and sew out here, when I have time,” she answered softly.

They had reached a log pile, the freshly hewn wood curing under a canopy of trees, and to his surprise and delight, she scrambled up it rather than going the long way about. Looking back at him, her face was as red as a sweet apple. “Forgive me,” she stammered, her fingers wringing her gown as if she were a naughty maid. “It is what I usually do. I meant no disrespect to you, sir.”

Saddened by the “sir”, Harry shook his head. “This is your place, Esther. I would not have you other than you are. May I join you?”

Surprise brightened her elfin face afresh and he clambered up nimbly at her slight motion of that crooked finger, standing beside her. “King and queen of the motte,” he said playfully and she grinned, the first open, genuine smile he had seen.
This is how she should be, sunlit and content, with every feeling showing on her face, without fear of censure. Feeling the logs steady beneath his feet and warmed by that smile, Harry took another chance. “I need to ask one thing concerning your last marriage.”
She did not leap down from the logs, but tensed and he sensed it was a near thing. “Yes?”
“It was bad, was it not?”
Esther looked away, back to the house, where her aged woman-servant was hanging dripping washing over a guardian holly tree to dry. “Very,” she said quietly.
“It will be different with me,” he promised. “May I help you down?”
“No need.” She jumped off the logs to the ground, fast as a kingfisher, and smiled back up at him. “Shall we go on?”
 Either she dislikes being touched or has been touched harshly. And why, indeed, would she want to be touched by me? Clamping hard on that last thought, Harry leapt down beside her and gave a playful bow. “Lead on, madam.”
He took care not to watch the sway of her hips and tore his eyes away from her bottom, though not before he registered that it was pert and nicely shaped. Feeling his blood to be on a slow sizzle, Harry followed his lady-to-be. 
Esther deserves peace and safety and to know hands that do not strike her. Already, trailing slowly after his agile mate, he was planning how to court and win her trust.
I know I am ugly beyond sin but I can do this for her. It would be a pleasure to watch her blossom.
 They strolled in her two fields and small spinney for the rest of the morning, Harry offering her his hand each time they came to a puddle or fallen branch on the paths, though she always shook her head and jumped the obstacle. He never scolded her for not using his help, and by the end of their circuit through the copse and bluebells Esther was pointing out landmarks. By the time Harry took his leave, riding off to somewhere—tomorrow she would ask where—she waved him off into the late spring twilight and hugged herself when he turned on his horse and waved back.
The next day and for three weeks, while wedding banns were read in the local church, Harry stayed with her all day until twilight then rode off to the nearby pilgrim inn. They spoke of Outremer and the Holy Land, of flowers and roots that were good in healing salves, of how some clouds looked like dragons and others like fishes, of the new music and songs the troubadours had brought with them from France—of everything, really, Esther thought with a happy sigh.
Harry worked with her, too. Unlike Edmund, who had done nothing outside the bounds of knightly caste or custom, no task was too small or unknightly for her lanky, good-natured day-shadow. Grinding herbs side by side in her still room, stirring steaming barrels of ale while she added spices to the brew, mending fences with old Ulf, her farm-hand, checking that the cow and calf were healthy when the milk-maid was busy making cheese and could not, putting down wicker pallets in the yard after heavy rain, so the place would not be churned into mud. Harry had done that task by himself and once gone sprawling into the muck, but had only laughed.

Happy Spring and Summer to you all! 
Lindsay Townsend

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.
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?”
“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?”
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