Wednesday Weekly Roundup

Two more older titles had a face-lift – new cover, new blurb – please, check them out! Lost in the Milky Way (formerly known as Yash&Ryo Lost in the Milky Way) and Soul Thieves are now gone from Smashwords as well, until they manage that actual merging with D2D, that is.

Last week was my most prolific of the year with 25K written, but then, I was off DayJob. It’s also a personal record, the previous one being 21K/week! Whenever I’ll manage to be a full-time writer, how much more will I be able to write? 😉

Although again it’s a series of novels… my wordcount drops dramatically when I write short stories, because of the day-break between projects. If I write a 40K short novel, I’m putting down more words in a month than if I write four 10K stories.

There will be a series of shorts when I finish these novels, but they’re all mostly connected, so I should be able to write them quickly. My poor editor doesn’t know what’s coming for her in June, LOL!

Now, about that Kickstarter… my author copies arrived, and I realized that one book has a cream interior, the others white. Teaches me not to check when I publish the rest after four years, but then… Future Earth Chronicles anyone? 😉

For whoever came late to the party, in Future Earth Chronicles, the paperbacks have alternatively white and cream interior because I screwed up with the first two… For Otherside I realized my mistake when I received my copies, so we have a vintage-looking first book and brand new ones! 😀

Otherside paperbacks

There is still time to get Visions of the Future bundle and get all those awesome sci-fi ebooks for a ridicusly low price. Check it out, and if sci-fi is not your cup of tea, share with friends, in case someone is interested! 🙂

Now I shall get back to writing… and working on that non-writerly stuff… and Friday I’m back to DayJob, sigh! Have a great week! 🙂


Creativity Carnival

I couldn’t let this art-cue pass and tomorrow the new one will be out, so… extra post (but usual visitors shouldn’t expect anything else until Sunday!) on a usually post-less day… This is run by very creative Shafali, who also did the cover of my latest ebook.

The Two Faces of Jane

Plain Jane likes simple things, Vain Jane wants beauty, wealth and fame.

Plain Jane is a modest corporate employee, Vain Jane is a sexy bitch who likes to play with men’s hearts.

Plain Jane is like Cinderella, Vain Jane is Snowhite’s stepmother, the beautiful but evil queen.

Plain and Vain wage war in Jane’s head.

Plain Jane has the most exposure in life.

But if Prince Charming walks by, it’s Vain Jane who is going to get him!


workshop exercise

Once upon a time (i.e. last year) I used Sundays to post my writing exercises from workshops of both prose and screenplays. Now I don’t have that many left, so I’m just posting here a random exercise – from the first day of my Wales workshop. It’s the only one unrelated to novels I must write (maybe there’s another one… yeah, well, reading a piece without punctuation isn’t that funny, so I’ll spare you that one), so here it is.

First we had to pick an abstract noun. I’m not mentioning it here for the reasons stated below.

Then we were supposed to write a situation about it (free writing, 10 minutes or so):

mind wandering, characters suddenly speaking up, new scenes popping out of nowhere, a-ha moment, jotting down notes in the moleskin notebook, creative frenzy is happiness!! Listening to something/someone (song/person) and having a shiny new idea to elaborate. Time vanishes and doesn’t matter during shots that take you higher than drugs. If only the hand was as good as the mind (I want the thoughts-recorder now!!).

Then the abstract noun and the five senses (again I’ll omit the abstract noun, bear with me):

… is a shiny castle, it tastes like chocolate, smells like peppermint, feels like a velvet gown, sounds like a Bollywood soundtrack.

Finally a piece about that abstract noun without mentioning it:

As the train moved on I pushed the “play” button on the CD-player. Old fashioned me plunged into Bollywood, with the sound of Dostana (the Hindi word meaning “friendship”). It’s very short but totally covers the mood, and even if the movie is shot in Miami, it’s still and Indian movie, which suddenly triggered ideas for Air, the first Book of the Immortals. I usually write medieval fantasy, but Air is inspired by India and Persia. My characters popped up on the very modern soundtrack, and the first ballad became part of the story, something I should weave in the rewrite. Touch is the sens I’m supposed to explore in Air, but those songs triggered new ideas both connected to Air and Ether (where Sound reigns). Submerged by a wave of new images, I know how to swim in those metaphorical waters – thank goodness, because in reality I can’t swim. But the gift to see shiny castles and velvet gowns makes it worthwile.

So, what is the abstract noun I picked up? Can you guess? (no, you don’t win anything if you play this game, just have fun! ;-))

the masked ball back-story – the end

the beginning can be found here, here, here and here. See you tomorrow at the masked ball!

They left the de’ Gigli household and headed back for the Embassy as the sun set on the Veniche canals. Bianga hung at Kareem’s arm.

“So, what do you think of my family?” she asked, curious to hear her beloved’s impressions.

“They seem nicely uptight, especially your cousin Nicoletta,” he smiled. “Besides, nobody gets to choose relatives.”

“I like yours,” she said. “Especially your sister Kiran.”

“Your brothers are too young to have anything in common with me!” he laughed. “Fabrizio looks like trouble for young women…”

She chuckled.

“You know, I still remember when they announced me he was due,” she said, dreamy. “He certainly grew up while I was away! I sure hope he doesn’t get himself in trouble…” Kareem’s gentle laughter was the sweetest sound.

“We’ll keep an eye on him at the ball,” he promised. “And your cousin Carlotta as well.”


The morning after everything seemed clearer. The meeting with Lucia, the visits at the Museo to admire the stumpwork robe, the de’ Gigli household and the whole town of Veniche had a new glittering shade.

“Do you want to repeat any of yesterday’s visits?” Kareem asked.

“No, we better go to the dressmaker, I wouldn’t want to go mask-less at the ball,” Bianca decided. “I know a couple of places, and one even has ready-to-wear costumes and masks for rent. I want an exotic look. You forbade me the dancing gown, so I’ll pick up something else. Let’s go, I’m curious to see what’s offered on Veniche shops after ten years!”

They strolled out of the Embassy and along the canals until they reached a dressmaker with a great selection of half-made costumes. They tried some “historical” outfits and were considering a Sultan and his wife’s clothes, very excited at the find, when Carlotta came in, flushed, and accompanied by a cloaked figure.

Bianca and Kareem observed Carlotta try on her newly made gown, shades of pink and little roses that suited the young girl’s complexion.

“Maybe we should wear our evening clothes and a face mask, what do you think?” Kareem asked as they took off the Sultan clothes.

“I don’t have an evening dress,” she replied, still thinking at her younger cousin. “Not for formal Veniche balls. I grew out of mine a few years ago.”

“I can afford to buy you a new one, matching your cousin’s,” he assured. “Although, with your eye color, I’d make it blue.”

“I’d love that,” she smiled fondly at him. They told the dressmaker who quickly measured her.

“Same model as the young lady there?” the small woman asked.

“Yes, but in shades of blue,” Kareem said. “Maybe with violets or lilies instead of roses.”

The dressmaker bowed. Carlotta had retrieved her day clothes too, and her mysterious companion had vanished. She seemed eager to talk, so Bianca took her to a nearby coffee shop while Kareem decided he had a secret errand, also to give the ladies some privacy.

“So, Carlotta, what’s new?” Bianca asked, seeing her younger cousin relax with a tea and a pastry, away from her mother and sister.

The Masked Ball backstory – scene 4

Because watching “Une vieille maitresse” sparkled my imagination again, here is another bit of the Masked Ball backstory.

Bianca stared at the stumpwork robe again, thoughtful. It was indeed a masterpiece, and she wondered once more what Lucia had seen in it (or anywhere else in the Museo, she had been edgy throughout all their visit) to upset her.

Fabrizio de' Gigli

Kareem’s calm breathing and gentle comments helped her relax, and she decided it was time to go home. She’d still sleep at the Raji Embassy, but suddenly she missed her family she hadn’t seen in ten years.

Thus she headed for the Gigli palace where her father’s family shared different apartments: half belonged to her father, Claudio, the other half to his brother Francesco, who had two daughters – barely children when she had left, she wondered what they had become.

She herself had two younger brothers, Carlo, who had been fifteen when she had left, and Fabrizio, eleven. Both were now grown up, maybe already married, and Bianca was curious to see them again.

She hesitated in front of the doorknob shaped as a lion’s head, though. Maybe her parents were still mad at her and wouldn’t let her in. Maybe she wasn’t welcome anymore. After all, she had ran away at seventeen to avoid a pre-arranged life.

She squeezed Kareem’s hand and his smile gave her courage. She knocked, her heart beating faster.

Her anxiety proved to be groundless – her father was dead, her mother welcomed her with open arms, gushing over her gorgeous “husband” (she didn’t dare telling her there hadn’t been any wedding ceremony), and her two brothers, who were now handsome young men, seemed to have genuinely missed her.

Carlo de' Gigli and baby boy

Carlo was married to Isabel from Trevallyn and had a small son, Fabrizio was still looking for a bride and hoped to find someone at the masked ball.

“How did you find out about it?” he asked, excited to hear Bianca would be attending too.

“I have a new friend, Lucia Brabante, she invited me,” she answered.

Carlo and Fabrizio exchanged a glance.

“Why am I not surprised to hear you found another writer friend?” Carlo smiled. “We all look forward to see who will accompany her to the ball. Did she mention anyone to you?”

“She was quite vague about it,” Bianca admitted. “What about our cousins, will they be there?”

“Why don’t you go and ask them?” Fabrizio suggested. “I’m sure they missed you too…”

The masked ball – by Barb

Starts here – my backstory for the Masked Ball on may 1st at Mesmered’s.

Kareem had seen Veniche during his education years, when he was traveling to learn languages and cultures other than the Raji. He had a faded memory of palaces and canals, dark cloaks and strange masks, as he had at least once seen the Carnevale there.

Bianca hadn’t seen Veniche for ten years, but was glad to be back. The long journey from Kareem’s palace wrecked her, though, so she slept blissfully in the Raji Embassy bedroom under Kareem’s amused eyes.

He had spent many of those nine years watching her sleep or create, unaware of his presence – of course when he wasn’t busy with his palace and social life. He needed less hours of sleep, and was still fascinated by what went on in her head, whether she was awake or not.

The morning after she said she needed to explore on her own, call at Lucia and meet her, spend a morning on memory lane, whatever it was, Kareem let her go with a smile. She also planned to choose their masks for the ball, and he wasn’t really in a shopping mood.

He spent the morning talking with his friend the Ambassador, exchanging news and stories, and relaxing in the inner garden of the Embassy. The weather was cooler than the Raj, but it was a sunny morning and the Days of the Dark seemed still quite far away.

Bianca came back for lunch unusually quiet. Kareem thought she looked more worried than dreamy, and after the meal he asked if she’d like to go for a walk, show him some places. She nodded and waited for him to dress in the local fashion (without the cravat), then they left the Embassy together.

Kareem and Bianca strolling through Veniche

“What happened, my shrimati?” he asked, seeing her frown in concentration. “What went wrong?”

“Nothing, really,” she answered, still pondering. “I met Lucia, she’s such a sweet person, and she took me to the Museo to see the stumpwork robe. You should see it too, it’s such a masterpiece even I could admire – and you know my stitching skills aren’t that good.”

Kareem nodded with a smile.

“We can go there now if you want,” he said. “What else?” He knew something had upset Bianca even if she had denied it.

“Maybe tomorrow,” she said. “Let’s keep walking…” She pursed her lips. “You see, I can’t really tell for sure because I’ve just met her, but I think Lucia knows something that scares her. I sure hope she has friends to talk to, as I couldn’t really get through.”

“Yes, I know your discretion and inner shyness often prevents you from asking questions,” he said.

“Especially with someone I just met,” she sighed, frustrated. “I need time to get used to that person and earn the confidence to ask personal questions!”

He had to admit her skills were in writing, not conversation. “Well, we still have a few days before the ball, maybe Lucia appreciates the fact that you’re not asking questions, and she’ll eventually confide in you,” he said.

“I still think I need a blade-edged fan for the ball,” she shivered in the mild weather and grabbed his arm as if it were a safety rope. “I had forgotten how strong the presence of Others is here.”

“Do you actually feel them around us?” he asked, puzzled.

“It’s more something in the air, I really can’t explain, I’m sorry.”

“Well, they say one of the Gates to Faeran is right here…”

“I know, I grew up with it, but it was also one of the reasons to leave…”

Both were thoughtful for a moment, not really noticing anything around them.

“Is there a place you’d like me to see?” he said, trying to cheer her up. “Your house? Some special corner?”

She smiled against her will.

“Let’s go to the Museo, we’re on the right way anyway,” she decided. “And then I’ll show you the best of Veniche, what do you say?”

“Sounds good,” he smiled, relieved. She relaxed her grip on his arm, and they continued their stroll under the sun.

The masked ball – part 5

My back story continues. The first part is here on Mesmered’s blog.

Bianca and Kareem before leaving the Raji palace

Bianca and Kareem left the palace in a comfortable carriage that would take them to Veniche as fast as possible. The inside was cozy and Bianca put down the red rose Kareem had given her upon leaving and blotted herself against him.

He was wearing his Raji clothes without the huge turban he normally used in public appearances, and she looked at his serious face, sweeping her fingers through his short black hair.

“Why did you cut it?” she pouted.

“I do it every ten years to allow it to grow back stronger,” he answered.

“But I loved your curls!”

“The curling-iron is the cause I have to cut my hair from time to time,” he smiled.

“When I first saw you, your hair was almost like this,” she sighed. “I was so happy you let it grow!”

“Would you like me to wear a wig at the ball?” he suggested, amused.

“No, only elder men wear them nowadays.” She lay her head against his shoulder. “I think we should hide weapons somewhere, you could have a knife in your boots and I…”

“Why would we do that?” he interrupted, puzzled. “It’s a masked ball, is it not?”

She looked him in the eyes, serious.

“It is. But Lucia tells me the Others will be there too. She knows personally some of them! I want to be ready, just in case…”

“You always wear silver and I’ll have my charms, what could the Others do to us anyway?”

“I don’t know, that’s the problem. They’re unpredictable. What if they take a fancy in you or me?”

“Oh.” He pondered and sighed. “Then we shall conceal weapons in our costumes. I know you can be an action woman when necessary.”

“Thank you, my shrimati,” she purred. He grinned.

Kareem's official dressing before the haircut

“That’s my line,” he said.

“Is it?” she giggled. Then lowered her eyes, serious again. “I hope we’re doing the right thing,” she said with a sigh.

“If it’s a mistake, we’ll make it together,” he said gravely.

“With you, I feel invincible,” she said, holding him tight. “If we survive, I’ll take you to my family.”

He smiled.

“And where will we stay until the ball?” he asked.

“A hotel will do,” she shrugged.

“Then I’ll ask my good friend the Raji ambassador to shelter us.”

“You’ve been to Veniche before?”

“Of course. But never with a native.”

She pulled back to stare at him with mild suspicion. He gently laughed at her expression.

“What?” he said. “You know I traveled as much as you!”

“And how familiar are you with secret messages?” she challenged. She picked up her gloves and her fan. “Did you know we use these to communicate?”

the original drawing - I'm more towards medieval fantasy, but gladly re-did it when I found out it was more Regency style

“No, my shrimati, please, teach me the ways of Veniche women…” And after hearing all sorts of complicated explanations, he sighed. “I’m afraid your world is too complicated for me. I can talk the language of the roses, but fans and gloves are beyond me.”

She smiled fondly at him.

“You will learn. I know you will.”

“Do I have to dress like them as well?” he asked with a glint of irony in his dark eyes.

“If you want. You don’t have to wear the cravat, though,” she decided.

“I knew it,” he scoffed.

“I hate them,” she frowned.

“I know.” He kissed her. “Don’t worry, I can be a western gentleman if I have to,” he whispered.

“I know you can.” She lost herself in his eyes, thanking Aine for having put him on her path.

short story

This is not for the Masked Ball. I wrote a story under 2000 words and decided to post it here. It’s medieval fantasy, I don’t write historical things yet. I feel I’m better with novels, but sometimes I can’t stretch an idea beyond short-story lenght. So here’s my latest attempt.


by Barbara G.Tarn

Berina wasn’t beautiful. Her muscled frame and sheer height intimidated most men. She was also rather plump, but had real strength that allowed her to do most men’s jobs. She rode through meadows with her usual male clothes – the tunic might make her look fatter, but a peasant dress would look worse, and be less comfortable than her breeches.

She lived on her own in a small country town and worked for a local trader, Master Remigio – she took his goods to and from the surrounding farms. She owned a horse for her little journeys, but Ariellone wasn’t as good or as fast as its predecessor, Ariellino, who had served her faithfully for over ten years.

“Come on, Ariellone!” she snorted, trying to spur her mount. “If you don’t hurry, we’ll have to sleep under the stars!”

The horse neighed, but accelerated a little, eventually reaching the last farm of the day trip. It behaved more like a mule than a gelding. The farmer and his wife were already outside, waiting for them. She gave them their fabrics and took the two live chickens in payment, tying them to the saddle so they wouldn’t hurt neither her nor the horse.

She waved good-bye to the peasants as Ariellone trotted away, suddenly eager to get back to the stable.

Her dinner was lonely as usual in the single-room house she had found. Since she had developed her size, she had been destined to hard work. Her father had tried to send her to the mines, but she had run away, because she didn’t want to live in the dark.

She was barely visible at the village, in spite of her physical presence. They took her for granted, never glanced at her twice. Master Remigio tended to underpay her – he probably wouldn’t have paid her at all if he weren’t shorter, skinnier and so obviously weaker than her. The others liked her, but ignored her most of the time.

The farmers were nicer, as she brought them news of the small town and sometimes even of the two closer and bigger cities (Master Remigio traded with anyone). They were the only ones who wondered why, at twenty-five, she didn’t have a husband. She gruffly replied she could take care of herself – she had enough of dealing with Master Remigio and the old farrier, she didn’t want any other man messing up her life.

Then one day the farrier retired. Berina found a young man in the workshop who introduced himself as Ronan. He was as tall as her, with the right muscles at the right places, but looked skinny near her plump frame.

“Nice to meet you, Master Ronan,” she said, positively impressed. “You sound foreign…”

“I come from beyond Darkmine,” he admitted, and his light accent was even more endearing. “How can I help you?”

“Oh, yes, here…” she remembered to give him the overused bridle that needed repair. She observed him work and wondered: what was a young blacksmith doing in that rat-hole of a town? He looked more like someone working for a castle landlord, or in a much bigger town. What was he doing here?

“Where have you been?” Master Remigio thundered when she eventually went to the shop.

“Had the bridle repaired,” she answered, still dreamy. “There’s a new farrier.”

“So I’ve heard,” he grunted. “A good for nothing, I’m told.”

“He’s competent in his job, and the only one available,” she retorted. “Are you preparing my money?”

“You don’t deserve it, but here it is,” he gave her five silvers. “Don’t waste your time with newcomers. And get back to work.”


The small town was filled with flower crowns and ribbons for a yearly festival. Farmers had come in their best garments and musicians were playing in the main square. People danced carols or ate the food displayed on tables all around the square.

Berina stood in a corner, observing the joyous people around her, until she noticed the new farrier, also alone and silent observer of the celebration. Neither of them had dressed up for the festival, but both wore clean clothes. She went to him with her heart in her throat.

“Hello,” she greeted. “How are you?”

“Fine, thanks.” His smile was his greatest asset. “Don’t you dance?”

“Me?” she looked skeptical. “I don’t like dancing,” she said quickly. “But you must be really good at it.”

“I’m not,” he chuckled.

“You seem to come from a castle, you look like a warrior,” she said. “You have all those scars and… I know, I shouldn’t ask, you don’t have to answer me.” She averted her eyes, embarrassed. He was wearing a tunic now, but she had seen him with a bared torso, besides he had a few small scars also on his face – nothing disfiguring, but still intriguing.

She looked up again, hoping she hadn’t offended him, but he looked amused.

“I’m not a warrior, but I am a blacksmith,” he said. “I used to make swords and knives, not sickles and reaping-hooks. I put shoes on war stallions, not on gentle mares.”

“A blacksmith earns more than a farrier!” she said, awed. “Why did you give it up?”

“You know my job?” he asked, curious.

“No,” she grumbled. “But I heard Master Amedeo talk. I even asked him to take me as an apprentice, but he refused.”


“He said it’s not a women’s job.”

“Not for normal women. But I daresay you wouldn’t lack the necessary physical strength.”

She straightened her back, elated. That was the very first compliment she received in her life.

It was his turn to avert his eyes with a melancholic look.

“It’s true I’d earn more in a big city,” he said, thoughtful. “I used to work in a castle, in service of Lord Henry of Rocky Mountain. I had to leave a very good post, though.”

“What happened?” she couldn’t refrain her curiosity.

“I was attacked by five guards of my lord,” he said sourly. “He didn’t like his wife’s attentions for me.”

“The lady of the castle?” she asked, incredulous. He nodded.

“Lady Isobel had a crush on me. I was only a servant, what could I say? I let her have her way. Until her husband found out. I survived the attack and ran away. Considering how vindictive Lord Henry can be, I left the country altogether.”

“So your scars are from the aggression.”


“Bastard masters,” she grumbled.

“Yours beats you?” he asked.

“He can try,” she scoffed. “I’m stronger than him.”

He smiled at her again.

“Will you dance?” he asked, offering his hand.

“I can’t dance,” she admitted, embarrassed.

“Fine, I’ll wait for you for your first lesson tomorrow, then.”

“What lesson?”

“Didn’t you want to be a blacksmith’s apprentice?”

“You mean you’ll have me?”


“But… I’m too old…”

“I don’t think so.” His smile was so dazzling that she had to hug him, almost knocking him down – but he showed he was strong enough to keep his ground.


Thus Berina became Ronan’s apprentice. He also taught her to make swords – and to use them. More physical exercise toned down her size without her even realizing it, and her heart was filled with joy every time she spent some moments with the blacksmith.

She soon realized she had fallen head over hills for Ronan, but didn’t dare telling him. He was a kind instructor, a nice friend, but she couldn’t see herself with him. Master Remigio tried to ram some good sense into her, but she simply quit his service to concentrate on her new tasks.

One day she strolled out of town with Ronan, weighting her sword and frowning in concentration for the upcoming fencing lesson.

“You’re very good,” he said. “I don’t have much more to teach you. Soon you’ll be able to take up my shop.”

“Why would I want that?” she asked, puzzled, putting the weapon back in its scabbard.

“You deserve your own shop. You worked really hard for those skills,” he smiled. “You moved here first, I can find another place to set up shop.”

“No way!” she panicked, stopping dead in her tracks.

“Why not?”

“I don’t want you to leave! I… I… I’d rather come with you!”

His smile faded, and she averted her eyes, desperate.

“I know, I’m not noble, nor rich, nor beautiful, but I don’t want to lose you,” she said on the edge of tears.

He pulled her closer.

“Then you shall not lose me,” he declared.

He gave her a long, gentle kiss.

“You don’t have to do it…” she whispered, breathless with happiness and dazed by the sudden turn of events.

“Nobody is forcing me,” he said. “You’re the freshest and sweetest woman I have ever met, and trust me, I’ve seen many.”

“So you feel something for me as well?” she stammered, incredulous. He smiled and nodded, and kissed her again. Berina felt herself drowning in sudden bliss.

The Masked Ball – part 4

So, here’s the final decision.
Bianca de’ Gigli with her 9 years partner Kareem Ranjeet will be attending the Masked Ball. The beginning of the story can be found at Mesmered’s.

I’ll post more during the month of April, but end this with a villanelle composed by Bianca for the ball…

The Masked Ball

We shall attend the masked ball
reaching Veniche yesternoon
and merrily dance through the hall

as lights fade, and come nightfall
we shall walk fast under the moon.
We shall attend the masked ball

we cannot resist this joyous call
to see the Museo and its festoon
and merrily dance through the hall,

something we shall forever recall.
It shall be like a honeymoon,
we shall attend the masked ball

and as we swing, each other eyeball
hoping the masked ladies won’t swoon
and merrily dance trough the hall.

And when the masks line the wall
may the judge be the buffoon.
We shall attend the masked ball
and merrily dance through the hall.

(a special thanks to Jan Fortune-Wood of Cinnamon Press for teaching me how to write villanelles! :-D)

Women on Tour writing exercise – September 2009

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.

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