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! 

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