Monday, 20 July 2020

Crowning Glories - a blog about my love of hair, plus how I use hair in my writing.

Sir Frank Dicksee, 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' (1890), from Wikimedia CommonsI admit it. I have a 'thing' about hair in my writing.

Not in real life. My hair is brown going grey and tough. It goes its own way and if it's cut 'wrong' then it will spike. I have it cut short and leave it alone. We get along fine. But in my romance novels, I love hair.

What colour will the herone's hair be? How long? Wavy? Curly? I always like to imagine my main female character's hair.


Many romance novels have blond or auburn haired heroines. Isabella, my heroine from my novella "Mistress Angel" is a spectacular blonde, with colouring that both attracts and also makes others eager to prey on her. I showed off her hair with a scene drawn from the historical records - in May 1357, the King of France was brought as a prisoner to London and paraded through the city in style. The goldsmiths, eager to be part of the show, positioned twelve beautiful maidens in golden cages above the street for them to toss flowers. I made my Isabella one of the maidens.

The gaudy troop of soldiers and knights, already shifting at a slow canter, settled into a meandering amble as the road through Cheapside broadened between the grander houses belonging to the members of the goldsmith's guild.
“Ici, là!” cried Prince Edward, sweeping a bejeweled gloved arm toward the upper storeys. Beside him, on his taller horse, the French king looked up and softly applauded. Stephen scanned the ridge tiles of the freshly-painted, gilded houses and glanced where the prince was pointing.
There she is. He smiled.
He recognized her instantly by the proud tilt of her head, her sweetly handsome profile and those glowing eyes, more compelling even than the luxuriant gold of her hair or her sumptuous costume.
Goldsmith’s garb and no glover’s girl for sure, he thought, reining in his horse and slowing to admire her the more as she shimmered above him like the evening star. Encased in a narrow cage of gold suspended above the cobbles, he saw that she was one of twelve maidens positioned high above the street, all caged, all lovely, but his gaze returned to her alone. Already the others seemed pale shadows, water ripples, echoes. But she is stunning. Above the roar of  blood in his ears he heard the ribald comments of Prince Edward and knew he also approved of her. 
By a mighty effort of will Stephen tore his attention away from this bewitching, naughty beauty and returned to scanning roofscapes. Still his eyes kept flitting back as he silently willed her to turn within her cage, to look out, to look back, to see him.
Know me, girl. Wonder at me, as I do at you. He was torn between admiration and a longing to kiss her thoroughly for her deception. Kissing you will be a sweet revenge.
She was tossing flowers, delicate metal posies of gold and silver that streaked the cobbles like flashing dewdrops or sun-flashed rain, pretty trinkets that the populace would certainly scramble for as soon as the nobles had passed. Still staring toward Westminster, although she must surely know by the mutter of the crowd that the foremost Prince of England and King of France rode right beneath her cage, she scattered another handful of golden petals, seemingly oblivious to the gasps of admiration. Silhouetted against the dark, smoke-stained jetty of the house, her slim body made a pleasing, subtle curve.
****

I kept in mind those aspects all the time I wrote of Isabella - and her hair.

Elfrida, the witch in my "The Snow Bride" is a red-head. This shows her supernatural and inner
passion and fire, both of which she uses to lure a dangerous adverary closer.


She would not dwell on what could go wrong, and she fought down her night terrors over Christina, lest they become real through her thoughts. She lifted up her head and stared above the webbing of treetops to the bright stars beyond, reciting a praise chant to herself. She was a warrior of magic, ready to ensnare and defeat the beast.
“I have loosened my hair as a virgin. I am dressed in a green gown, unworn before today. My shoes are made of the softest fur, my veil and sleeves are edged with gold, and my waist is belted in silver. There is mutton for my feast, and dates and ginger, wine and mead and honey. I am a willing sacrifice. I am the forest bride, waiting for my lord—” 
Her voice broke. Advent was meant to be a time of fasting, and she had no lord. None of the menfolk of Yarr would dare to take Elfrida the wisewoman and witch to be his wife. She knew the rumors—men always gossiped more than women—and all were depressing in their petty spitefulness. They called her a scold because she answered back.
“I need no man,” she said aloud, but the hurt remained. Was she not young enough, fertile enough, pretty enough?
Keep to your task, Elfrida reminded herself. You are the forest bride, a willing virgin sacrifice.
She had tied herself between two tall lime trees, sometimes struggling against her loose bonds as if she could not break free. She could, of course, but any approaching monster would not know that, and she wanted to bait the creature to come close—close enough to drink her drugged flask of wine and eat her drugged “wedding” cakes. Let him come near so she could prick him with her knife and tell him, in exquisite detail, how she could bewitch him. He would fear her, oh yes, he would...
She heard a blackbird caroling alarms and knew that something was coming, closing steadily, with the stealth of a hunter. She strained on her false bonds, peering into the semidarkness, aware that the fire would keep wild creatures away. Her back chilled as she sensed an approach from downwind, behind her, and as she listened to a tumble of snow from a nearby birch tree, she heard a second fall of snow from a pine closer by. Whoever, whatever, was creeping up was somehow shaking the trees, using the snowfalls as cover to disguise its own movement.
A cunning brute, then, but she was bold. In one hand she clutched her small dagger, ready. In her other, she had the tiny packet of inflammables that she now hurled into the fire.
“Come, husband!” she challenged, as the fire erupted into white-hot dragon tongues of leaping flame, illuminating half the clearing like a noonday sun. “Come now!” 
She thrust her breasts and then her hips forward, aping the actions that wives had sometimes described to her when they visited her to ask for a love philter. She shook her long, red hair and kissed the sooty, icy air. “Come to me!”
She saw it at the very edge of her sight—black, huge, a shadow against the flames, off to her side, and now a real form, swooping around from the tree line to her left to face her directly. She stared across the crackling fire at the shape and bit down on the shriek rising up her throat.
The beast stepped through the fire, and she saw its claw reaching for her. She heard a click, off to her right, but still kept watching the claw, even as the fire was suddenly gutted and dead, all light extinguished.
Darkness, absolute and terrifying, smothered her, and she was lost.

Of course, the battered crusader knight Sir Magnus, hero of "The Snow Bride" is entranced by Elfrida and by her hair.

It's a sweet vice but I have to be careful. Sometimes I have have my characters spending too much time 'fiddling' with their own or others' hair - stroking, patting, tweaking, adding flowers. My heroes are usually as hair-fixated as I am and sometimes I need to remove some of their petting.

Why a dark-haired hero? I've never quite understood that romance 'guide'. Randal in my story Unicorn Summer (One of the novellas in One Midsummer Knight) is blond, a sunshine lad. (Again, I use the colouring as my own reminder and key to character, both for Randal and the Unicorn who is also an important part of this story.  I've written dark-haired heroes but to me it's not an essential.


Ffion shook herself.  “I care not for such trifles as looks,” she answered, in her head, “Though he is handsome.” He was sinewy and lean and his rough-cut yellow hair was as lush as summer butter,  flowing over his broad shoulders as Unicorn’s mane had spilled down his flanks. Catching glimpses of a green tunic and dark leggings beneath his chain mail, she noted the good quality cloth, of older dyes, she thought, but well maintained. Overall he seemed honest and open, and he had a very shapely mouth.
What do I care about his lips! He is clean-shaven, what of it? Aloud, she added, “Will you come with me, for company?”
It was a grudging invitation but Sir Randal smiled and said, “We shall discover how these feathers work.”  He tied his ancient helmet to his belt and offered her his arm.


In my latest novel, "The Master Cook and the Maiden" I have the hero, Swein, wearing a cap for quite a while, teasing the heroine and the reader as to what colour is hair is, a small, sweet mystery.

No one will bother looking for me, Alfwen almost confessed, but the night drew close and she did not want to admit she was friendless, powerless. “I can ride in your waggon?” she asked, spotting the same less than a sword’s length from her. I must have been deep in shock to have missed that and a mule arriving.
“I have some old pottage for your dog, too,” came the genial reply.
He swept her onto the back of the waggon, handed her Teazel and warned, “Stay away from the firebox, or the crocks therein. I have hot food going.”
“My thanks,” Alfwen whispered, praying her belly did not rumble at the thought of more dumplings. She met his bright eyes again, briefly wondering what colour his hair might be under his close-fitting cap. “Might I know your name, sir?”

Later, to show their developing closeness, Alfwen washes Swein's hair and she finally discovers its colour, length and texture.

To celebrate brown hair, in "Dark Maiden" my female exorcist Yolande has long, brown hair:

He saw her face change, becoming as still as a mask. Then she blinked. “I do understand it.  My thanks to you, master Geraint. How may I aid you in return? Are you thirsty or hungry?”
“Ale is always welcome,” he answered quickly, “but for now the pleasure of your company on the road will be more than payment.”
She raised her pretty eyebrows at that. The rest of her was  pretty too , if such a plain word could be used for such exotic looks. By “dark” he had expected black hair, which Yolande had—long, shimmering waves of the stuff, very clean but caught in a simple clasp at the back of her slender neck as if she had no time for any fuss. Her eyes were either brown or black—he could not be sure—but they were clear and steady as if she looked straight to the heart of things.
To the heart of me, for sure. Geraint liked women, loved their smell and feel and their cockeyed way of looking at the world. For all her man’s clothing, Yolande was very much a woman, and a love worthy of Solomon. Her skin was a beautiful shade of bronze, smooth as polished wood, and her eyelashes were double-lashed. She had a narrow face and elegant bones but there was a strength in her, character and soul together. He could imagine her besting devils.
For the rest…the performer in him knew at once that she should be in bright colors, reds and yellows and blues, not the drab serge of a thatcher. If she was in his company for long—and he intended she would be—he would tempt her into a brighter manner of dress.
For she has the glory of the evening in her. She wins me already and does not know it.
“I do not chatter,” she said, unaware of his inner tumult. “I have a way to go.”
Better still. He admired how she did not admit where she was headed. “For today then?” He lifted his hands, palms up. “To the nearest house of honest folk, who will let you sleep by their hearth and me in their hayloft?”
“You wish to squire me to safety?”
“For the pleasure of—”
“For the pleasure of  my company. Yes, Geraint the Welshman, you said that already.” But she was smiling as she spoke and he knew she would agree.
“Shall I carry this?” He motioned to the cross. “You have your bow and bag already, and it will be no trouble.”
After a moment she strode out like a youth, leaving him to catch up. Geraint admired her graceful gait and did not hurry. He wanted their day to last.
By then I may have won another day in her company.

I like to use hair to confound stereotypes. One of my heroines, is blonde - but she would never have a "blonde" moment. She is a dangerous, calculating, kindly, devious.

So I have fun with hair. I've had curly haired heroes and heroines, long haired heroes and heroines, shorn heroes. I've had heroines caught by their hair - one is trapped by her long hair while trying to escape.

Next time (maybe) I will have to celebrate the naked scalp. That, for me, would be a challenge.

(Photograph by courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Out today - "The Master Cook and the Maiden." One of The Rose and the Sword Series



#NEW THE MASTER COOK AND 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

New Excerpt

Swein considers Alfwen and reflects on his witch great-grandmother, Elfrida (from The Snow Bride.)




I would rather have her on my knee, but then she would know how much she moves me. For what seemed the thousandth time that long day, Swein reminded himself that “Alfie” was meant to be a boy, and they had already had trouble.
“Any more attacks?” he had softly, as the hasty clean-up clattered around them.
“None I could spot.”
“No insults or ugly names?” he persisted.
She shook her head, taking the spoon from his fingers, helping herself to a mouthful of stew, handing the spoon back. “Where are the twins?”
“Guarding the waggon.” A shadow of concern in her eyes made him added, “They got bowls of stew as well.”
“No roast meat?”
Swein laughed. “That is for our betters,” he said, ignoring the startled glances he received from the spit-boys at that admission. He winked at her and added softly, “Yours was a bit of cook’s privilege.”
She settled back against him, her hip and thigh pressed against his. Swein thought of the oaf who had yelled earlier and knew he would do something to the man. I would challenge him outright, but Peter braying-voice Thatcher is a sneak as well as a bully. He deserves a more creative answer, including one of my grannie Elfrida’s sleeping tinctures for starters.
Swein offered her the spoon back and delighted in how she scraped the stew-bowl, chasing every scrap. The more devious, plotting part of his mind was thinking of the special items in his locked box. Peter Thatcher, a bully in everything, guzzled unthinkingly, worse than a pig. A pitcher left near him, filled with good wine, he would down at one gulp and never taste the sleeping eastern poppy.
Let him snore the night away at my feet. I will deal with him properly later. He would leave more flagons about the kitchen, with lesser sleeping draughts, so the noisy mob quietened and he was left to cook in peace. No need to give away all my secrets, anyway, and the lads will be improved for the enforced slumber. Not for the first time, he blessed Elfrida Magnus-wife and her book of cures. His own mother, Bertha too, for recognising he had a similar gift and for passing the roughly bound mass of parchments to him.
“Are kitchens always this way?” Alfwen was asking.
“Hot, hellish and hectic? Very much.”
“Yet you enjoy it?”
“Thrive is more accurate,” Swein admitted. “As I told you, I am the youngest of four brothers and going into war-craft is expensive. Gideon, who is making it his trade, moans constantly of coins and gold vanishing like dew whenever he attends a tourney. Chain mail costs and swords more so.”
“War horses,” Alfwen agreed, and smiled at his obvious surprise. “At Saint Hilda’s the sisters often gossiped of knights and tourneys. I think they would have happily watched a joust, if they could.” She waved the spoon, an invitation for him to continue. “So?”
 “I had no interest in scholarship or politics, so the church did not appeal. Even an apprenticeship is pricey, and I confess I like my food. Learning to make it, and make it well made sense to me.”
It had given him pride and independence, too, but he knew she already understood that.
“Later today I will make several sweet subtleties.” He had them in mind, a castle of sugar, a unicorn with a honeycomb as a horn, egg whites beaten to soft foam and cooked slow, then filled with fresh cream. “Or I should say, tonight.”
She straightened at that, dropping her spoon into the stew bowl. “But when will you sleep?”
“Tomorrow in the waggon, while we travel over to your first home. It makes sense,” he went on. “The kitchen will be quiet tonight, the lads asleep, and I can use the big tables and the pots and pans I need to clarify the sugar and so on, then take the finished dishes up to the pantry cupboards. Belmond will see to the rest of the food. We can slip off and not be missed.”
Master Champion would not care, anyway, as long as he had his sweets.
“For Walter?”
For you, to give you peace. He did not say that, he was no idiot. “I would like to see where you were born,” he replied, avoiding Walter altogether. “You can show me where you played.”
Her eyes darkened at that but she gave a jerky nod and with that he chose to be content. Still, as he kept guard over her sleeping form while the other cooks snored in heavy poppy sleep and he laboured long past moon-rise, he thought of her non-answer.
What will I discover at Alfwen’s childhood home? Was it a home at all?





Monday, 1 June 2020

The Inspiration behind my "Master Cook and the Maiden". Plus a new excerpt

THE MASTER COOK AND 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?


People sometimes ask me: "Where do you get your ideas from?" In the case of my Master Cook and the Maiden, it came from a real historical event.

In the early 14th century, a nun called Joan of Leeds "crafted a dummy... to mislead...She had no shame in procuring its burial in a sacred space" according to the Archbishop of York, William Melton.

By means of the dummy, she faked her own death and fled the convent of Saint Clement by York. Later gossip placed her in the city of Beverley and she was ordered to return to the monastic life by her Archbishop.

Joan's absconding from the convent is not the only one recorded. In 1301 another nun, called Cecily, stripped off her habit, disguised herself and rode off to live with one Gregory de Thornton. 

Clearly, the relgious life was not for everyone. 

In the case of my heroine Alfwen, she is not yet a nun. She fakes her death by drowning, a fate that could happen all too easily to laundresses who had to deal with heavy, waterlogged sheets and clothes in their local rivers. She gambles that the church authorities will consider her body swept away and so makes her escape.

Why she does so forms the catalyst of the story.

#NEW THE MASTER COOK AND 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

New Excerpt

They made good time now to a moated manor house where Swein had agreed, via messages and parchment delivered by a very condescending herald, that he would interrupt his Lent to cook for a knight and lady. As Nutmeg clattered the waggon over the drawbridge, Swein took in a sharp breath and looked at her. “Take care here. It feels amiss.” “Then I am glad I am with you and left Teazel safely back at home,” Alfwen replied, with a calm she did not feel, but wanting to support this man who had rescued and always helped her. Rewarded by a flare of light in his amber eyes and a quick rumble of laughter she turned to face whatever trouble they found. “Will you call me Alf?” she ventured. “It is a part of my name.” He snorted, his humour restored. “If I must!” Alf was certainly better than “You, boy!” which Alfwen endured from the moment she stepped down from the waggon. “You, boy!” yelled a sweating, bearded giant of a man in a filthy tunic as Swein handed her a new leather apron, “Since you are finally here to work get to the well and fetch water, and then rake out the ovens, and then—” Further orders were stopped by Swein stepping up to the taller man so close their boots collided. “Stay, please,” he said to Alfwen, adding in the same breath, “Where is the head cook?” He smacked the letter of introduction against the giant’s chest, allowing all in the kitchen yard to see the lord’s seal. The bearded giant lost his ruddy colour and his bluster, pointing back at the windowless soot-stained building he had just emerged from. “I will introduce us,” Swein went on, glancing at the giant’s meaty fists. “You should get to the well and wash your hands.” He deliberately pushed by the cook and slammed open the door, ignoring the yowl of “Shut it!” from within. Instead he held it wider, allowing Alfwen to see what looked to be a scene from hell. By the light of flickering torches, half-naked, sweating bodies tended glowing orange fires and turned pieces of some kind of flesh on smoking griddles. In the middle of the kitchen, sitting on a bench that was raised to be almost a throne, a dumpy man with a cloth cap similar to Swein’s punched the air, cursed and exhorted “any of you bastards” to close the door. Swein did so and guided her away. “We need to see the lord,” was all he said, followed by “No wonder the lady is sick and needs special dishes made,” and “I hate bullies,” a few moments later. He offered Alfwen his arm, exactly as she dimly recalled Walter offering Enid his, and swept her away, clearly not caring if the round-eyed onlookers thought she was a lad.  


Tuesday, 19 May 2020

NEW! The Master Cook and the Maiden - pre-order now with money off! Excerpts

#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


THE MASTER COOK AND 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?

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B088RJNYJ4/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p2_i8
UK                                              
https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B088RJNYJ4/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=The+master+cook+and+the+maiden&qid=1589871416&s=books&sr=1-1

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B088RJNYJ4/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
Romance, MedievalRomance,  RomanceNovel

The Rose and the Sword Novel Series



Excerpt

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?