Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Flowers and Romance

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! 

Sunday, 8 April 2018

My Knight Books, Medieval Romances and Fairy Tales. All 99 cents/99p

If you enjoy historical romance and English medieval knights and maidens, why not look at my novels, novellas and re-told fairy tales? Several you can read for free on Kindle Unlimited and many are over 400 pages plus.


You can read an excerpt from my full length medieval romance novel "A Knight's Enchantment", with my female alchemist heroine here


Joanna is an alchemist, a worker in gold and secrets, trapped in the venal court of Bishop Thomas by deadly circumstance and by her own skills. Hugh is a young knight, landless and ignored by his father but desperate to find and recover his missing brother. When Joanna and Hugh join forces to free their loved ones, they find they must risk everything, even their growing feelings for each other.

Set in the medieval world of gold and alchemy, religious intolerance and corruption, jousts and chivalry, the story follows Hugh and Joanna’s adventures and their tortured, dangerous path to a lasting, passionate love. 


Read FREE with Kindle Unlimited.
Amazon Com   99 cents

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If you enjoy the world of chivalry and castles, have a look at my novel "A Knight's Vow"



A crusader, haunted by grief and guilt. A bride-to-be, struggling with old yearnings and desires. Can Sir Guillelm de la Rochelle and Lady Alyson of Olverton rediscover the innocent love they once had for each other? When Guillelm makes a fearful vow on their wedding night, is all lost forever between him and Alyson? And will the secret enemy who hates their marriage destroy them both?

“A Knight’s Vow” is a tale of romance and chivalry. In a time of knights and ladies, of tournaments and battles, of crusades, castles and magic.


Amazon Co UK 99p

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A Knight's Prize - Set in the world of the Tournament and the Joust, where knights battle for great prizes.

The eastern princess will be his prize – whether she will or no…

Sir Ranulf is a bold strong knight, ruthless in combat, but stricken by the loss of his lady. He feels dead inside and sees the glittering world of the tourney as so much frippery. In a time of great pestilence and suffering, he has become disillusioned with the petty, artifical world of lords and ladies, until he comes upon a new face at a joust, the mysterious, exotic Princess of Cathay. Soon, he swears, she will be his, his woman, his prize.

Edith had been a smith’s widow, struggling to survive with her villagers against a heartless lord. Seizing a chance, she has transformed herself and her fellows into a new creation, an eastern princess and her luxurious court. With their silks and spices, veils and tents, perfumes and flowers, they now look the part of royalty and eat well, but if she is unmasked, the nobles will kill them.

So far, Edith has been able to play the courtly game of favours, gallants and damsels with the best, but this Sir Ranulf reminds her too greatly of her hidden, secret past, and more besides. Even as she struggles to captivate him, she is drawn to Ranulf, a part of her longing to become his, whatever the cost.


 Amazon 99 Cents

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Free with Kindle Unlimited


Finally my novel set in an older time, just at the start of the medieval age.

A Knight's Captive


It’s 1066, a year of strange comets and portents, harsh battles, dying kings and Norman and Viking invaders. Compelled to go on pilgrimage in a restive northern England, war-worn Breton knight Marc de Sens knows his first obligation is to his three orphaned nieces. But then he encounters the stunning blonde beauty Sunniva and his life changes forever.
I
Thrust together by betrayal, Marc and Sunniva must find a way to survive these turbulent times, but both hold dark and deadly secrets and trust between them is slow to grow. What happens when their tentative truce is shattered? Will Marc be held captive by his past? Will Sunniva become his willing prisoner? And will they find a way to find love and free themselves? 


(Previously published by Kensington Publishing, New York, in 2009. Nominated for the ‘Romantic Times’ Reviewers’ Choice Best Historical Novels Award, 2009.)


Amazon Com 99 cents
Amazon UK 99p 


If you fancy a light, feel-good, sweeter glance at the Middle Ages, have a peep at my 3 novellas, "Plain Harry" (with a nod to the story of Beauty and the Beast) "Sir Baldwin and the Christmas Ghosts" (with a medieval Scrooge) and "A Christmas Sleeping Beauty" (where this beauty just won't wake)
My sweet medieval historical romance novella, "Plain Harry" (which first appeared in the Letterbox Love Stories, Volume 1 Anthology) is now available as a stand-alone, priced just 99 cents or 99p.



Blurb.

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.


 "Plain Harry" is for sale on Amazon 99 cents

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SIR BALDWIN AND THE CHRISTMAS GHOSTS

Ambitious and arrogant, the young knight Sir Baldwin returns to his family’s lands and estate at Brigthorpe to face disaster. The pestilence has struck, destroying his parents and all his family save for a young half-brother, Martin, whom Baldwin does not wish to acknowledge because Martin is the bastard child of a serf. Baldwin needs to learn kindness and how to be a lord–and quickly.

Into this hopeless situation comes Sofia, a young woman who can see glimpses of spirits, of the restless dead. These revenants are very restless around Sir Baldwin.
Somehow, Baldwin and Sofia must work together, to make a true Christmas for the survivors of Brigthorpe and the Christmas ghosts. Can they do so in time—or will the gulf of class and custom make any love between them impossible?

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A CHRISTMAS SLEEPING BEAUTY

Handsome, confident, a touch arrogant, Prince Orlando thinks that now he has found Sleeping Beauty, his kiss will wake her at once. When it does not, he realizes he has much to learn about life, and love.

Princess Rosie, trapped in her enchanted sleep, dreams of a mysterious man. Is he a rescuer, or a nightmare? She must fight to recover herself, and all before Christmas, for time is running out.

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Thursday, 15 March 2018

Reissue of "To Touch the Knight" as "A Knight's Prize." Blurb and First Chaper

Why the change of title? Because this historical romance is set in the world of jousts and tournaments, where knights fought for prizes.


The eastern princess will be his prize – whether she will or no…

Sir Ranulf is a bold strong knight, ruthless in combat, but stricken by the loss of his lady. He feels dead inside and sees the glittering world of the tourney as so much frippery. In a time of great pestilence and suffering, he has become disillusioned with the petty, artifical world of lords and ladies, until he comes upon a new face at a joust, the mysterious, exotic Princess of Cathay. Soon, he swears, she will be his, his woman, his prize.

Edith had been a smith’s widow, struggling to survive with her villagers against a heartless lord. Seizing a chance, she has transformed herself and her fellows into a new creation, an eastern princess and her luxurious court. With their silks and spices, veils and tents, perfumes and flowers, they now look the part of royalty and eat well, but if she is unmasked, the nobles will kill them.

So far, Edith has been able to play the courtly game of favours, gallants and damsels with the best, but this Sir Ranulf reminds her too greatly of her hidden, secret past, and more besides. Even as she struggles to captivate him, she is drawn to Ranulf, a part of her longing to become his, whatever the cost.




                              Prologue—Summer 1349
                                           

Warren Hemlet, England.

"He has walled us in alive! Our own lord has abandoned us!"
          "He cannot do this!"                                   
          But he has done so, Edith thought, as she crouched to give her shivering cow a drink from a bucket of water. Sir Giles de Rothency, their brutal lord of Warren Hemlet, had driven all of them, villagers and beasts alike, into the church and had ordered his men to seal them within to die.
          He might have spared her, for she was the smith's widow, skilled in metal-working and so useful, but she had entered the simple, windowless church willingly enough. It could be that they would all die of the pestilence soon, and she wanted to be with her own people.
          "We have wine and water," she reminded the others, rising to her feet and speaking above the hammering as their lord's men barred and sealed the door. "We are in a holy place." She hoped her voice would not waver as she said this—she had fallen out with God. "We are together."
          "What use is that when our lord herds us in here, the hale and the sickening, so all perish?"
          Edith trod on the loud-mouth's foot.
          "We are together," she repeated. "Those men outside will not stay for long. If we go quiet and stay quiet, they will think us dead. We know this has happened before, in other places."
          Around her the villagers grew silent, thinking perhaps, as she was, of the ghastly rumours concerning the pestilence. Only last month a peddler had come to Warren Hemlet with gruesome stories of people going to bed healthy and dying in the night; of people dying in the fields, in the washing houses, in the streets. No one was safe, or spared. She had seen it herself, all this last week, in her own village. So many had died. From their village of four-score souls, only three and twenty were left. Of these, Anwyl was already coughing in one corner and Peter the shepherd lay shuddering and whimpering amidst his scrawny sheep, his neck covered with red boils.
          And then their lord had come—not to save them, but to ensure the sickness did not spread to him. Which was how they came to be here, in the church: a stone building Sir Giles intended would be their tomb.
          "But we shall escape," she said aloud. If she was to die, she wanted to do so out of doors, under the blue sky and trees. "We shall break out."
          "And flee this place, that God and his saints have left," said her brother quietly. Gregory could always speak and be heard: he was the priest here, so people listened.
          "How do we do that when we are locked in?" demanded the loud-mouth.
          Edith threaded her way round the villagers to the stone font and picked up the baby she had carried into the church with her and laid in the dry stone bath. She unwrapped the "baby's" saddling bands to reveal her own metal-working tools, bundled together in a rough blanket.
          "We shall get out," she said.
          "And then?" demanded the loud-mouth.
          He was as noisy as a miller, Edith thought, but she did not say that. Their miller had been one of the first to die at Warren Hemlet and since then there had been too much death, and talk of death. She glanced at her brother, but Gregory was tending a shuddering old man, Martin, who lay against the south wall of the church, giving him his own cloak. Soon, Edith guessed, he would be leading his depleted flock in prayer, but her thoughts ran to more practical measures.
          "First we must be quiet. Those outside will not leave until we are." To mark her point she crossed back across the nave to her cow and settled down beside Daisy, taking a small comfort from the warmth of the animal. When she said nothing more, the other villagers began to lament afresh, then they too fell silent.
          Edith closed her eyes, pretending to sleep. She had plans. If they lived, she had many plans that would bring them food, riches, honour and a different life to slavery in their lord's fields. Gregory disapproved, but so he must for he was their priest, and he had sworn to keep his distaste to himself. He had grudgingly admitted they had few choices, and none virtuous.
          Edith considered her scheme afresh. Again she was glad her grandfather had once been a sailor, and that her old husband, Adam, had been so excellent a smith. From these two worthy men she had a fund of stories she could draw on and more besides: bundles of cloth, paintings on the tops of tables, strange devices, knowledge of steel and surgery, fine pottery. The things were buried in her herb garden, the memories in her head.  She would need both.
          If they survived....
         

Chapter One


Castle Fitneyclare, near Fitney Major, Oxfordshire, Summer 1351


"Ranulf, what are you doing, talking to that wheezing old crust? The games of love are soon about to begin!"
          Ranulf had his back to the speaker but he recognized the ringing voice. "Such trifles can wait, Giles," he replied, without turning round in the narrow tent, "I wear no token save my late wife's, you know that. I must speak with my steward now." Seeking the next name, he bent his head lower to the parchment spread out on the small table.
          "But the ladies will be there at the castle!"
          "Not my lady." Ranulf pointed to the next name on the list. "How fares Alfstand village?" he asked his steward Offa, who had once been Olwen's man. "Have they men enough for the hay harvest or do you need coin to hire more?"  
          Offa, a steady, sturdy man, had sense enough to ignore Giles's huffing behind them and answered promptly, "More men will be needed, sir. The hamlet is most piteously afflicted by the general pestilence. I would say we need seven or eight."
          "Make the ones who are left work double," said Giles, sounding to Ranulf as if he was stifling a yawn. "Leave that, Ran, and come out into the sun, or you will soon be as sallow and puny as a clerk. No way to win a new lady!"
          Ranulf thought of Olwen, of her pale beauty and secret smiles, and he longed to knock Giles's smugly handsome face against the tent post. Why had God granted him and Olwen so little time together? Why had their time been so marred?  He was a widower at six and twenty, with no wife or sons and a host of bad memories. Was he a fool for still loving Olwen? For still missing her?
          "I will come later." 
          "Ranulf, you cannot hide away in that black armour of yours forever."
          "Later, Giles."
          "Hell and damnation, Ran, you are as dull as a priest these days! When was the last time you went wenching?"
          "Giles—"
          But Giles was already leaving, with a final jab—"The Lady of Lilies will be there; not that the princess will favour you and your miserable hide"—and Ranulf's heart and head burned afresh. He stared blindly at the list of names, wishing he could go back to bed. Every day was the same, a dragging of his useless limbs around whatever joust or tourney he and Giles were at. If the pestilence overwhelmed them all in the end it would be a relief to him.
          But not, perhaps, to his people in the north: they depended on him. He sighed and looked at the list again.
          "She is said to be very mysterious. It is said she can predict who will win at jousts."
          Ranulf grunted and tried to find the next name.
          "To be very beautiful, also."
          "Who is, Offa? The queen of elf-land?"
          "The Lady of the Lilies. I have never seen her, but I can believe it."
          Ranulf found himself wondering about the damsel's true name. In the last few months she and her company had appeared at almost every tourney. He had been away on his estates, but now he had returned to the jousts, her name seemed to be on every man’s lips. Some said she was the mistress of Sir Tancred of Mirefield, a knight he knew to be of middling ability, but a good-natured sort.
          "I have not seen her, either," he admitted. He had not sought her out before. Now he wondered why. Was Giles right? Was he turning into a clerk? Was he dull?
          Giles has not seen her, either, he reminded himself, but then Giles had also been away, at the courts of France, and had only lately returned to England.
          "Her tent is a wonder of colour and delight, Sir. I saw it this morning, on my way to you. Her attendants were erecting it and making all fine."
          That surprised him. "She does not stay at the castle? I thought all the ladies were with Blanche Fitneyclare."
          "Not my Lady of the Lilies. The castle is too old and dark for one so delicate and fair."
          Ranulf raised his head and stared at his steward. "You, too? I thought it was only Giles who fell in love so quickly, and sight unseen."
          The older man scratched at his ear and cleared his throat. "The list of harvesters will keep until noon-time, sir. The Lady of the Lilies demands that knights who would claim her favour seek her out first, ahead of the other ladies. And she will make us wait. It is said she always makes squires and knights wait."
          "Arrogant wench!" In spite of this, Ranulf felt a glimmer of interest, the more so when Offa set his sturdy legs more firmly apart and said ruggedly, "She is a real princess, sir, from the far east beyond China and Cathay. She travelled west from her father's court to escape the pestilence."
          "Her father let her come all this way? I did not think her retinue so large."
          "No one would dare interfere with my Lady of the Lilies."
          Ranulf sensed that Offa had an anecdote he wanted to share, and he tried to block the matter with a terse, "A pity for her, then, that after all that travel, the pestilence has come here to England."          
          Offa's swarthy face darkened to a dull red. "I would like to see a real princess." The words before I die hovered in the air between them.
          Ranulf gave up and straightened, cracking his head on one of the tent poles. Refusing to rub his smarting forehead, he ducked toward the door-flap, saying over his shoulder, "For you then, we shall both go, or I shall have no peace before I fight."
          He could not see Offa's face but he sensed the man grinning as he stepped out into the sunlight.

          Promise me, her brother had pleaded with her on his death-bed. Promise me you will guide them to a better life. That you will not live a wicked life of sin and lies. They follow you as they follow me, so you must vow this, Edith.
          And, clasping his limp and fevered hand, she had vowed that she would do all he had asked, for Gregory had been dying and she had wanted to comfort him.
          Three days after she had broken them out of Warren Hemlet's church, her brother had collapsed. She had tended him, building up a bed of grass and heather by the road-side, warning the surviving villagers to stay back. Fearing the pestilence, these had fled into the woods, but they had returned after she had buried Gregory at the edge of one of the strip fields. Walter had even carved a cross for her to put on the grave. She had made the sign of the cross but she had not prayed—why should she pray to a God who took Gregory but allowed Sir Giles to flourish? After a time, prompted by the children's hunger-cries, she had moved from the grave and tottered on, blind as to where they were going.
          She had expected to die, but she had not. When she did not die, she took it as a sign that God had not noticed, and she had decided that God would not notice when she put her first plan into action.
          For two years now her plan at worked well and better than well, even more sweetly than she had hoped, and she told herself that she felt no shame—none, excerpt for when she dreamed of Gregory.
          For the last month, she had been dreaming of her brother every night.
          The truth of it was that she did not like to sleep without a husband. Bundled with the other widows at night, she missed a man's warmth, a mate's rough yet tender wooing. At such times, all she could do was work: labour until she was so weary that she dropped like a stone onto her pallet.
          I have some time before the knights arrive and clamour for favours. I could take our bed linen to the river to wash. With my work-rough hands and my hair over my face no tourney man will know me. Yet if any lusty serving man detains me and he is charming and comely, then why not? If we are all due to die soon of the pestilence, why not indeed?
          She smiled and began to strip the pallets.

          She was walking with the bundled sheets to the shallow, slow-moving stream when she realized that another was there before her. A man, big and muscled enough for a knight but not in armour, was sitting on the river-bank with his boots off, dangling his bare feet in the clear water.
          Large, fine feet they were, too, and very clean. She stood in the shade of a young beech tree, shielded by its fresh leaves, and watched him; this nameless knight. He was new to her, and a pleasure to look upon, with a trim waist and good shoulders. He slowly kicked his legs in the water and she noticed the dark swirls of down on his calves, less lustrous and straighter than his fair-going-to-russet shaggy, badly-clipped hair. She wondered if the tiny dark fish were nibbling his ankles and laughed softly at the foolish idea. He was handsome, she conceded, if long, clean-shaven features as regular as a mason's new carving of a king were to one's taste—and they were to hers. On his feet, standing proudly on the daisy and speedwell studded grass, he would be tall as a castle keep, but wiry, with a rangy strength she admired when he skimmed a pebble across the river.
          He had a paring knife on the grass beside him, on his left side: a left-handed fighter, then. In a flash, she imagined him cutting her toe-nails, using his long, supple fingers to cradle her feet. She drew him in her mind, long arms reaching for her, rolling her tight into his arms. His strong, full mouth would taste of peppermint, she decided, and she would feed him mint tisane and sweet, sweet dates. He would sweep her off into an uncut field of wheat and there, with the poppies glowing round them, he would make love to her. His hands would be supple, gentle and powerful together, and he would be generous with pleasure: shielding her, caressing her, teasing her, filling her....
          Such vivid thoughts brought a wave of heat pounding into her face, but she kept staring, tense as a harp string, waiting for something, some sign as to whether she should be bold. It would be a foolish risk, but then, would he know her again?
          "Probably not, for he is but a man,” she murmured. And it was a glorious gold and blue morning. A kingfisher flashed by, bright as a rainbow, and her knight looked both comely and charming.
          Choosing for herself, she lowered the bundle of bedding and took a step closer. Ahead, her nameless knight  splashed in the stream like a young lad and she chuckled to see him so simply happy, but then, perhaps hearing her unguarded laugh, he turned his head.
          His lean, narrow face was bleak, with a haunted look of grief about his dark brown eyes: a strained, weary face of many lost and lonely days. Sorry to see such pain and now shy of intruding, she moved sharply back, into deeper cover and shadow, but he called out to her.
          "Little maid?” The unguarded, stricken look dropped from his face as he smiled—to reassure her, she realized. “The bank is large enough for two. I shall not trouble you."
          When she did not stir, he patted the ground beside him. "The sun is warm and the water very pleasant. We may sit together in peace." He smiled again, his teeth white against his tanned face—good, strong teeth, she noticed, and none missing—"You have my word."
          Tempted, she almost moved forward, but then caught herself in time: he was being kind, but such grief as his should be respected. To make all sure, to stop herself from yielding, she called back, "I must go. My lady awaits."
          "Your lady? No lord, then?"
          She did not answer his questions. It was time to go, more than time. A tumble in field might be a consolation, as a plucked flower may be a delight, but both would quickly fade.
          And if we are all to die of the pestilence, what matter? Did you not hope and plan for exactly this kind of encounter? Stop this foolish shyness! Seize this brawny, beautiful brute and make him yours for the morning!
          She shook her head against herself, her loins and lips tingling at the lascivious notion. That glimpse of his heart, and his kindness, made him real to her: a person, not a day-dream of desire, and she would not treat him so. Thus, when he rolled to his feet in a swift, powerful arc of movement, she skittered sideways, away from his likely approach. Plucking the heap of sheets off the beech mast, she gathered them tight and then pelted off, the sun burning on her head and face. Torn between going and staying, even as she fled, she made for the tall, multi-coloured tent at the eastern side of the tourney ground, her mind in as much turmoil as a kicked beehive.
          We could have this morning, and then? Do not look back!
          Do you want to lie with him and then yearn after him for weeks? Do you want him to regret our union?
          Do not look back! He may take it as a signal to follow!
          Do you want to watch him flirt with others, and realize that grief of his, that seeming care, is as shallow as a dew pond? Worse, do you want to see him with another lady and know for sure our time meant nothing?
          "I would be his equal and mean all of it," she panted, her calves and thighs aching as she ran past a startled group of pages, who instantly began to point and to make lewd remarks on her bouncing breasts. "I am his equal." Against the jeering of the tousle-headed, gawping lads, her voice sounded false in her ears, too light.

          Ranulf knelt beneath the spreading branches of the beech tree where the maid had sheltered. Offa was still in the bushes somewhere, struggling with his bowels. His poor steward had been sweating with fear, though he had tried to convince the hapless Offa that it was likely nothing more than the sudden, unfortunate results of eating a bad meat pie, and not the pestilence.
          He rose off his knees into a crouch. She had been about this height, as brown and nimble as a sparrow, with a mass and maze of hair. She had carefully hidden her face and eyes. Perhaps her mistress had not known she had ventured to the stream; perhaps she was playing truant, like a school-boy. A mystery maid, much as the Lady of Lilies was a mystery princess.
          "I wonder who she belongs to?" he said, idly patting the narrow trunk of the beech where the lass had leaned and not really caring at that moment if he meant maid or princess.
          "Offa!" he bawled, pitching his shout above the stirring camp, "Have you died in that hedge?"
          There was a cracking of twigs and his steward burst out into the water-meadow from a stand of hawthorn and guelder rose, his mouth already busy with excuses.
          "Peace, Master Steward, and lead on." Ranulf waved off the rest, only half-listening as Offa apologized again. All of this—stream, maid and princess—were pretty diversions. They would pass the morning until it was time to fight again.

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