This is the short story that came out of that September workshop, that I eventually wrote down. It should have been critiqued by my writers group, but the December meeting is postponed to January. Thus there you have it, as it was written, the last writing exercise of the year.
The garden bloomed with roses of all colors, well groomed and tended like most beloved children. The little stone fountain in the middle was covered with moss, but the two benches were clean, being much used to sit in the spare sun with a book or a craft work. Some roses climbed up the castle wall and where man couldn’t reach they were even more luxuriant than the lower bushes circling the secret garden. The castle towers and forest trees loomed over the colored patch, and the wind brought kitchen smells or forest scents to mix with the roses perfume. Swallows nested on the castle walls during the summer and cuckoos sang in the nearby forest.
In that unusually clear morning, Bronwyn sat in her garden with another embroidery to finish. She had long raven hair tied in a single braid that reached the end of her back, and sky-blue eyes. She wore a velvet blue gown over a cotton tunic, and a brown woolen cloak over her shoulders, as the day was sunny but cold.
The lack of news from the war-front made her irritable with the servants. Her husband Richard had gone to war, leaving her in charge of Winnowill Castle, which had belonged to his family for generations. All she could do was make her own secret rose garden, as the building was untouchable. Still, she wanted everything to be perfect in the castle for whenever the men would come back, so she often scolded the old butler or the young maids for screwing up things.
Sometimes the castle and its grounds felt like a prison. When the men would come back, they could go to the nearest town, travel the country, maybe even cross the sea on one of those big ships she had barely seen on paintings.
“My lady, Lady Eileen is here,” the butler talked from behind a bush, as he wasn’t allowed into the garden.
Bronwyn sighed, put the embroidery back in its basket, and went back inside. The castle seemed dark, as the windows were narrow to keep out the weather: it was comfortably warm in winter, thanks also to the fire logs in the hearths, and deliciously cool in the summer, but torches needed to give extra light to the rooms. Old tapestries, sometimes falling to pieces, decorated the walls, except in the library where shelves of manuscripts and a few printed books were kept.
Bronwyn found Eileen, Richard’s sister, in the great hall, seated by the fire with her usual frown. They were the same age, but Eileen had a completely different mind and they couldn’t get along. Eileen judged her and disapproved of her in every possible way. In fact, she had even tried to dissuade Richard from marrying Bronwyn, but he was in love with her, so hadn’t listened.
Bronwyn brooded while Eileen tried unsuccessfully to cheer her up with Alice’s attempt at climbing the oak tree, and Richard jr’s jump from the first floor balcony, but she didn’t look up from her embroidery as she listened to her sister-in-law.
“What about you, when will you give Richard children?” Eileen asked anxiously.
“We didn’t have time before the war came,” Bronwyn answered, looking out of the window. True that Richard and the men had been rushed away barely weeks after the wedding, but still…
“I got pregnant on my wedding night,” Eileen said. “I think you’re not being a good wife, my brother deserves better! Look at the castle…”
Bronwyn let her rant for one hour, then Eileen gave up and left, disappointed she couldn’t get through. Bronwyn shrugged it off, and decided to write a letter to her best friend Fiona, instead.
Eileen came visiting today. She droned on and on and on about babies and husbands and the war and everything. I mean, she’s a decent woman, but how boring! Not only did I have to marry her brother, I even have to put up with her! We’re so different I don’t think we could ever be friends. She’s so family and duty-oriented, sometimes she makes me sick. She never ever had any spark of passion for anything, be it a man or a pass-time – oh, except motherhood, of course. She married out of duty, had sex out of duty, but because she wanted so badly to be a mother, so she could pour her love over her off-springs. Poor children. Those two little devils are the most spoiled beings I have ever met. I’m sure if I told her about my feelings for Alan, she’d turn up her nose and bash me. What a hypocrite. I don’t believe she’s the perfect woman she wants us all to think she is. I’m glad Richard doesn’t expect me to be like her – maybe she gets on his nerves too! I wonder what Alan’s sisters are like. Might be they’d make much better sisters-in-law… Fiona, I wish you had a brother I could marry, and move to town with you!
That night she went to sleep alone one more time. A book of prayers sat on her bed-table, but she hadn’t opened it in months. She was losing hope, and her faith.
She longed for his return – except “he” was not the husband her parents had imposed on her. He was his best friend, though, so they had left together to fight for the country barely after she and Alan had confessed their mutual love. Therefore Bronwyn didn’t know what to ask of God, the return of both men or only one of them.
She often dreamed only Alan would come back, maybe wounded, most certainly sad for having lost his best friend. She would soothe him and nurse him back to happiness – and then they could marry and live happily ever after.
Then she felt guilty towards Richard and tried to imagine his return as well. The two young men had grown up together, had a few passions in common (swords and hunting), but were quite different, both physically and mentally. Richard was blond (like Eileen), Alan was dark haired. Richard was calm and logical, Alan was cheerful and sometimes hot-headed. Richard owned a castle, Alan was a cadet and owned only his weapons, his clothes and his horse – and called Winnowill Castle home.
Alan should have married Eileen, but Richard’s parents had found a better match for her. Now they were both dead, but the deed was done. Alan still walked the corridors of Winnowill Castle as a guest, and Eileen was gone. Well, before the war.
Bronwyn had met Alan first, as he had come to pick her up at her parents’ castle in the next valley. She had felt lucky when she had first seen his bright smile, and disappointed when he had told her he was “only the best-man”.
Then she had met Richard, who had chosen her from a portrait, and had always been a gentleman with her. But what she had felt with Alan, she could never experience with Richard. She loved to dance, and so did Alan, while Richard was a little stiff (but he knew the steps as he was a very well-mannered young nobleman). And in Alan’s arms she melted, while she accepted Richard’s touch out of duty. Sometimes she thought she had been cursed…
Bronwyn stared at her slim figure in the mirror. She looked younger than her age, possibly because she didn’t have children. Her mother already had four at her age, although one hadn’t survived the first year. Bronwyn had tiny breasts and long legs, Richard liked to compare her to a gazelle, but she preferred Alan’s comparison: he said she was like a rare animal that didn’t exist anywhere.
She was combing her long raven hair, brooding, when Richard came back, haunted, disheveled, lost. She immediately knew her beloved Alan was dead. She embraced her husband and listened to his horror tales, vowing to cut her hair.
She would always remember the smell of jasmine coming in from the open window when Richard told her Alan was dead. Now she had to keep from him the truth, that she had loved his best friend more than she ever loved him, that she had wished to have Alan’s babies and not his – could she have his, or just keep avoiding pregnancies, so they would have no issues at all? What could she do with her life now that her only reason to go on was lost? Should she tell the truth, call it quits and join a monastery? But how could she join a monastery when losing her religion? Still, the hermits’ life suddenly took on a new appeal.
She had cut her hair at the nape of her neck and was still considering what to do with her life, when the family gathered at Winnowill Castle to celebrate the end of the war. Bronwyn gave the kitchen instructions for a banquet, then waited with Richard for the guests to arrive.
Eileen was the first, of course, as she lived closer. She rushed into her brother’s arms, sobbing with relief, while the children started jumping up and down the benches. Eileen’s husband shook Bronwyn’s hand without smiling – he seemed haunted too. The war had left a shadow on all their faces.
Then it was the turn of Bronwyn’s sister Gwendalin, her baby in her arms, her two-year-old daughter attached to her gown. Her husband hadn’t come back, and Bronwyn hugged both her and the baby, feeling sad for them. She crouched to kiss little Joanie who weakly smiled at her.
Finally Rosalie arrived, puffing and huffing with her family of seven. She was Bronwyn’s eldest sister, and got along better with Eileen than with her own blood relatives. Rosalie had been left a widow long before the war because of a hunting accident.
Children of all ages started running up and down the great hall, and Bronwyn clapped her hands to announce dinner. Then the butler announced one more visitor. Richard and Bronwyn exchanged a surprised glance. They weren’t expecting anybody else.
Bronwyn’s heart sank when she saw Alan walking through the door. Even Richard was surprised, having left him for dead on the battlefield. Alan seemed to have lost his smile, but there he was. Pale and even more haunted that what Richard had been. He used to be talkative and sociable, but the man who came back was nearly mute, and had an accusing look in his eyes. Bronwyn couldn’t figure out what had happened, but she started thinking the two best of friends must have had an argument, a fight, a fallout, something that had put high walls around cheerful Alan, turning him into a living ghost of himself.
They were never really alone, thus she wasn’t able to talk to him. He kept to himself, not even speaking to Richard, who frowned every time he saw him. The two young men weren’t talking among themselves either.
“What happened?” Bronwyn asked one night. “What’s with you and Alan?”
“Men things,” Richard grunted. “It’s war, Bronwyn, you cannot understand.”
“Try me. Alan is your best friend, and now you barely talk to each other!”
“You expect your friends to be by your side on the battlefield, not that they betray you.”
“He betrayed you? How? Why do you let him stay if you’re so mad at him?”
“I thought he was dead. I didn’t think he’d dare to come back.”
“But he is back, now what?”
“He’ll leave soon. Does this bother you?”
She could feel his eyes on her in the darkness. He pulled her closer and started kissing her. She stiffened, but didn’t stop him.
“I am your husband,” he whispered threateningly in her ear. “You better remember that.”
She tightened her lips and didn’t reply. She must talk to Alan first. But she guessed Richard knew of her feelings for Alan, as that night he was more possessive than he had ever been.
A violent storm had ruined some houses in the village and taken down the wooden roof of the castle stables. Richard was busy surveying the repair works and Bronwyn slipped back into the castle, heading for Alan’s room.
She found him at his window, lost in thoughts. He turned to look at her with his new pained expression, but didn’t move.
“Stay were you are,” he ordered softly, blocking her in the middle of the room. “Don’t come any closer.”
She gulped down her feelings before speaking.
“What happened?” she asked. “Did you tell Richard about us?”
He turned to look outside again. She saw his Adam’s apple going up and down.
“I was scared,” he said. “We all were. We were afraid we’d never come back home.”
She moved one step forward, but without turning he said “Don’t”.
She sighed, frustrated.
“Alan, talk to me! Don’t tell me it’s a men’s thing. What happened on that battlefield?”
Alan’s brown eyes stared at her with their new sorrow.
“Did you know my sister Margaret has a child?” he said. “She had her outside matrimony, and she never said who the father is. We assumed it was some peasant she had fun with.”
“Unmarried mother is even worse than childless wife,” Bronwyn said, shocked. “How come she never revealed the name?”
Alan smiled ruefully.
“Because he had seduced her, and she had promised to keep it secret,” he said. “He had told her he’d never marry her, so she decided to have the baby on her own, to remember him forever. She’s been lonely since. He married somebody else. I don’t think he ever loved her, he only wanted to have fun.”
“Therefore he’s a nobleman,” Bronwyn frowned. “But what has this to do with Richard and you?”
“Richard told me he was Margaret’s daughter’s father,” Alan averted his eyes again. “And I told him I loved you.”
She gaped at him. So, Richard hadn’t kicked him out because he felt guilty somehow with the whole family? Or was there something else?
“Richard tried to kill me during the battle,” Alan said sourly without looking at her. “He can seduce my sister, but I mustn’t dare looking at his wife! He always came first, in everybody’s eyes…”
“Not mine!” She rushed to him and hugged him before he could pull away or stop her again. He winced as if she was hurting him.
“Bronwyn, please… stay away…”
“No!” She grabbed his head with both hands and kissed him hungrily. She felt him quiver and lean against the wall behind him as if he were about to faint.
“Bronwyn!” Richard’s voice boomed in the room, and she pulled slightly back to meet Alan’s wounded eyes. He turned his head to the window again as she let him go to face her husband.
Richard glared at both of them, his hand ready on the hilt of his sword.
“I think we should give up this farce,” she said, straightening up as if to shield Alan from Richard’s fury. “I don’t love you, and you already have a child with someone who does.”
“How dare you dismiss me?” Richard roared. “He is nothing, owns nothing! I gave you a castle, wealth and comfort, and a silly rose garden as thorny as you are!”
“My parents forced me to marry you because they didn’t know you already have an illegitimate daughter!” she replied defiantly. “And I don’t need your castle, you can burn the rose garden if it makes you feel better, as I won’t give you any children, so you better set me free!”
Richard stormed forward and raised his arm to slap her, but Alan’s hand stopped his wrist.
“Enough, Richard.” Suddenly the parts were exchanged: Alan was very quiet and Richard was furious. “You can make four people unhappy with your legendary pride, or we can all live happily ever after. Your choice.”
Richard freed his arm and looked daggers at both. Bronwyn saw his rage burning behind his tightened lips. She knew by now he was a stern calculator, he didn’t follow his heart’s impulses – if he had any.
She put her arms around Alan’s torso, waiting for her husband’s decision and listening to her beloved’s heartbeat. She thought if Richard killed them both on the spot, she’d die happy.
“You don’t have to marry Margaret,” Alan said. “But if you don’t want your family name to die, you better find another wife.”
Richard took in a deep breath and let go of his sword-hilt.
“Fine,” he said icily. “Get out of this castle, both of you, and don’t you ever show your faces here again.”
He stormed out of the room while Bronwyn relaxed against Alan. She looked at his face, relieved, but he didn’t smile. He glanced at her and looked away, sadder than ever.
She sighed and kissed his cheek. They had the rest of their lives to get over the split with Richard and find their own happiness.