And the beat goes on

It’s now four days since my last post. I am somewhat calmer, though sinking deeper emotionally. I feel alone in this. He coops himself up in the den, swathed in down jacket and blanket, door closed, heater on though it’s in the upper 60s outside and the heat’s on in the house. He eats in there alone so as not be cold. It’s so hot that when the nurse comes he sheds everything but his light shirt. When a friend drops by, he laughingly asks if I have a towel for the steam room.

The raised toilet seat with arms that I ordered came as expected on Friday. I tried to remove the regular seat, but couldn’t get the nuts to budge. This annoyed me, as I value my independence, my can-do abilities and spirit. Still, he needed the seat so I called a neighbor-friend. He came, tools neatly arranged in some girdle-like appendage for his tool bucket that featured pockets outside the rim and inside, and quick-as-you-please had the old seat off and the new one on, much to my joy and irritation. My husband left his cocoon to see the results, and our neighbor pointed out that an extra gasket would make the installation more secure. Hubby went off to the basement to see if he had one. My husband’s tools are in no way as neatly kept as our neighbor’s, and, “As Rome goes, so goes the world”, his area of the basement is none too neat either.

So when he fell, it was no surprise. My husband, of course, couldn’t rise alone, breath pushed out of him, bloody lip, lying, panting like a fish out of water. Our neighbor went to help him up.

He was achy yesterday, and today, Sunday, and complaining that the stent hurts at the point of insertion and further was an irritated red, but then, that’s precisely what he fell on. I checked with the Intervention Radiology resident on call, who said if we needed to we should go to the hospital Emergency.

Upon rethinking his pain, my husband decided it was probably from the fall, and the pinching feeling was from the skin growing around the external tubing. After all, he’d experienced the same feeling after his stomach cancer surgery when skin grew around the drainage tube. (So, he can be introspective when he has to be.) The subtext to this conclusion is that he’d rather not sit in Emergency all day for what will be nothing. He hopes.

I’ll call the doctor tomorrow, not only to speak about the tubing pain, but to find another alternative to the ongoing diarrhea. Yesterday, he had fluids, all arranged by the doctor’s wonderful physician’s assistant and managed by a visiting nurse. My husband has been to the bathroom so often since then that he said he’s sure those fluids are all out of him already. This is really discouraging, especially after the grand failure on Saturday, when his diarrhea was so rampant he soiled himself, all his clothing, including his shoes, and left a trail through the kitchen that the dogs found interesting. While I was busy shooing them away and cleaning the trail up, he was miserably trying to shed his clothes, saying that he couldn’t take much more of this. It wasn’t worth it. That was disturbing to hear.

I keep seeing better days, though I’m aware things will most likely get worse–side effects of IV chemo and all–in the nearer future, and because of some strange turn of mind, I wonder with Thanksgiving around the corner will he abdicate his steam room to join us for holiday dinner or eat in solitary confinement? Or will he raise the thermostat and roast us all so he can be comfortable in the dining room?

And what about Christmas? I put our Christmas tree in the den. Must I forego that because not only would the tree die in 2 days of tropical heat, I couldn’t go in there to enjoy it. And that’s the thing about Christmas for me. I love the peace of the holiday, the twinkling lights and the memories attached to all those ornaments.

But those things are yet distant. I keep hoping for a miracle. More weight on his frame. Less output. Gotta hope.

What goes into an antagonist?

Recently, I’ve been mulling over the effective traits of antagonists, so it was ironic that  the commercials of a particular yogurt company I’d been aware of worked as a primer in creating those traits.

The first two commercials, which aired around mid-year 2015, featured a kind of spunky brunette in 60s mod fashion who danced around while a voice-over in mock-French accent proclaimed good news–the product had reduced its sugar content by 25%. And, as the French-accented voice insisted, the yogurt still tasted good–or “gyud”.

That high-pitched voice didn’t sell either sincerity or ‘gyud-ness’ to me, but I thought she’d make a ‘gyud’ devil in angel’s clothing type of antagonist. After all, who’d think this cutesy innocent capable of malevolent activities, of acting on some deep-seated personal desire, or capable of vengeance? Terrific!

Then came a commercial featuring a burly bald man in a lovely gray suit who looked like he belonged either in a boxing ring or working for the mob. His stomach rumbled as he strove to convince us that dining on his tiny cup of yogurt with what appeared to be a demitasse spoon would assuage his hunger.

i didn’t buy it. Of course, this actor’s been seen on TV and in the movies, and surprise of surprises, among his many roles he’s played a boxer and a bounder. Well, he’d work as an antagonist based on his all-too-cultivated malevolent looks alone. I mean, he looks like a bad guy. But if satiating his hunger with tiny spoons and such manly victuals as yogurt is his thing, I fancy him as my type of quirky brainiac antagonist; perhaps, the industrialist ex-Nazi type who plans to eliminate mankind and create a new world a la Ian Fleming’s Dax character, highly if bizarrely motivated (at least to finish his yogurt).

After those two, the company released a commercial that features some poor fella on a ladder waiting for permission to pick fruit, while a young woman in farm duds stands below in the orchard. After telling him ‘not yet’ a few times, she finally yells “Pull that peach!”

Of course, I didn’t understand her command the first few times the commercial aired, and when I finally did, I thought the exercise silly.

But I know what kind of antagonist she’d play, a dominatrix, maybe seeking a partner with sticky fingers for a bank heist. Clearly, he’d play her minion–no, not like Stuart, Kevin or Bob–but the unquestioning dupe in her evil plans. I can see her hiding her nefarious deeds, using her minion as a foil. As for him, I presume he’d be an adaptable minion, and therefore, in the end, might overtake his dominatrix antagonist out of revenge and claim supreme power–bwah-ha-ha!

The most recent commercial viewed features mom, dad, son and daughter, lounging about the kitchen spooning yogurt into their mouths. Of course, as their mouths are full, all they can manage are eyebrow wiggles, smiles, and a lot of ‘mm-mm’s.

This cast put me in mind of happy-go-lucky soldiers of the dark, the zombies who unconditionally follow their evil master’s commands, their brainlessness mirrored in their empty smiles and their ‘mm’ing sounds. In the end, they too, might turn on their leader and become more amorally ruthless than he was.

So, yes, all of these commercial characters are candidates for antagonists, either with annoying qualities that would enhance their vicious deeds, or with innocuous qualities that clearly must hide a diabolical mind.

So ultimately, what goes into an antagonist? Yogurt. And no, I don’t remember the brand.

Lucky Boy

A short story for the still short new year.

Lucky Boy, copyright 2016, by Donna Rubino

Joe Claesson threw himself down in the brush beside me, sending a sworl of dried earth into my face. “Hey, Cara-sweetie, didja hear?”

I spat. “Quit it, Joe. The name’s Carabinieri.” Nothing made me madder than to have some slice o’ white bread from Kansas make fun of my name.

“Hey, this ain’t New York City.” Joe grinned and clapped me on the helmet. “You rather I call you Angel?”

“It’s Angelo.” I dug a rock out from under my hip and hurled it away. Sometimes I thought Ma musta hated me, naming me after some old great grandpapa in Italy.

“Yeah yeah, kid.” Joe butted shoulders with me. “Orders are to go into the town to mop up any Krauts still there.”

“Who’d be stupid enough to still be there?” Our guys had bombed the hell out of coastal towns like Emilie and St. Lo at the same time my buddies and me landed on Omaha Beach. There wasn’t much left of the town. But then, there was nothing left of the guys in my squad. They died on the beach that day, mowed down by machine gun fire, blown up by landmines.

At night, I could still hear the bombs screeching, exploding, the machine-gun fire, men screaming. The only way I knew if I was dreaming or not was when I saw the blood spraying everywhere, the guys cut in half, limbs flying away, or flying at me. That was Omaha, so I was dreaming.

Since then, we’d marched along paths of sand, packed earth and sometimes paved roads. Made the walking easier, when we could walk and not crawl or run, crouching, in a fire-fight.

“Okay, Cara-sweetie.” Joe rapped on my helmet again. “Let’s go.”

We shoved ourselves to our feet, slung our rifles over our shoulders and headed for the troop gathered around Sarge.

“Y’all keep your heads down and do me proud, boys,” he said in that Southern drawl of his.

I didn’t much care about doing him proud. I was more interested in staying alive.

We followed the road into St. Lo, 19 of us, jumping bomb craters, clambering over downed trees and building rubble, and at a corner pungent with rotting horse remains and piss, separated into four groups to scour the town. Me, Joe and two guys from Cleveland went off down a rubble-strewn street. Before long, we were two as the Ohioans peeled off and headed down a hill towards the bombed out post office.

Joe and I headed toward the town center.

“Hear that?”

I nodded. An exchange of fire. A yell. The roar of a flame thrower. A withering scream. Cleveland had a flame thrower. Hope it was theirs and not the enemy’s.

Joe and I crouched now, losing our footing on loose bricks, throwing an arm out against part of a wall to keep our balance as we went.

A dog barked. Joe nudged me. “Maybe the Krauts been feeding him. Let’s go look down that courtyard.”

I shook my head and thrust my chin forward. There was a restaurant up ahead, a standing building. I was no hero, but if my job was to sweep for Germans, that was a good place for them to hide.

Joe left me.

I inched along, gaze scanning the empty stone frames of windows on my right, open street on my left, swinging my rifle before me, ready. One more block to the restaurant. Heck, maybe there was some food left. Cheese keeps. Wine, too. Ma’s Sunday gravy popped into my mind. I swallowed a river of saliva.

Under my boot soles broken glass popped, cement dust gritted. A burst of distant machine gun fire stopped me cold near the next corner. An M-1 answered. Another exchange. Too far to be Joe. One of the other fellas.

I gripped my rifle tighter and headed toward my target, slipping on a fallen Boulangerie sign, slamming my rifle butt against the wall to right myself.

I made it to the intersection. At its corner I swung right to check around it, and came face to face with a blond, blue-eyed Nazi. He was taller, bigger, older than me, a good ten years, I figured, and carried a machine gun.

I froze. So did he. We didn’t blink, just stared at each other, fingers on our triggers until the Kraut’s gaze slipped past my shoulder like he was dreaming. Slowly, he turned his back on me and in five steps—yeah, I counted ’em–disappeared through a door and into a crumbling building.

I spun back around that corner, out of his sight. As I slammed my back into the brick wall, my bones melted straight into my boots. So did I, and slid down to sit, gasping for breath, gripping my rifle stock, trying to stop shaking. Shit. Shit. Shit.

I should be dead. Why wasn’t I dead?

The best, the bad, and the ugly

For writers, one of the greatest worlds to drop in on is a writer’s conference. One of the best on the North American continent is held each year in a suburb of Vancouver, BC, called Surrey. The Surrey International Writers Conference is an annual event that draws writers of fiction and nonfiction, agents, editors, and luminaries from the publishing world. It’s earned its ‘international’ status, as writers come from Canada, the US, Europe, and farther. Many years it’s a sellout. This year, its 23rd annual installment, was one of those, with about 600 in attendance for 3 days of sessions geared to beginner and advanced, fiction and nonfiction writers, with opportunities to pitch to agents, and have your work vetted by published authors and editors.

It’s always an engrossing conference, rich in opportunities for polishing skills, deep-diving into new elements of craft you’ve been dying to explore, and flexing creative muscles that are just itching to be worked.

Most first timers are agog at the variety of offerings and the bonhomie of other attendees. Most repeat attendees relish the creative atmosphere, the opportunity to meet other writers and talk craft, books, and shop, and to renew friendships face to face.

The Surrey International Writers Conference is certainly the best.

The bad is, well, seeing it end and having to leave, knowing your batteries won’t be charged as well until next year.

The cost of attending a conference isn’t cheap but it’s always worth it. The cab ride to and from the conference, however, isn’t so lovely. About $80-85 Canadian. But that’s not the ugly.

The Ugly is having your flights delayed both ways, and worrying if you’ll make your connecting flights, and in some cases not making them at all. I’ve learned over the years to seek connecting flights at least 90-120 minutes apart… just in case. (And yes, I’m snobbish enough to wonder why there aren’t any direct flights from my home town. It’s NYC for Pete’s sake!) And I am appreciative of the flight info updates I get on my phone. I understand flight delays or paths changed due to bad weather.

But when an outbound flight is first declared to be 60 minutes, then 90 minutes, and finally 2 hours late, and the reason given is that ‘debris’ got in the way of a door closing and ruined the seals so that a new plane had to be put into service, well, <sigh>.Maybe I give them a point for originality.

I know airlines realize we are captive audiences. They also want our business. Without it, they have no airline. Likewise, all the cutbacks have forced patrons to expect and settle for less, but it doesn’t mean we are content with less. Altered flight times are unacceptable to everyone–business people with meetings to make, families on vacations who have paid for hotel rooms and theme park tickets going unused because of delays, conference presenters who miss their speaking and session engagements.

Ugly. Purely. I won’t name the airline. I tweeted about it from the airport so they’ll go un-noted here. But as they say, ‘vote with your feet’ or in this case with your wings, I’ll not book with them next year.

Marketing’s nothing new

In honor of the Halloween  season, a friend and I took a lantern walk through the Sleepy Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (640x480)Hollow Cemetery last night. Unfortunately, no apparition guided our walk, and no spirit appeared beside his monument.

Still, the evening was lovely, and the monuments were gorgeous, so beautiful, in fact, that I wished it was daylight so the pictures I took would do them better justice.

We learned about architectural differences, for instance, the Rhinelander family, a familiar name in New York history and society since the 17th century, has two mausoleums seated side by side. One built in 1890, and one built in 1905. Those 15 years saw a change from the Gothic style popular in the latter Victorian era to a more Classical style in the early 1900s.

Gothic style 1890

1890 Gothic style

1905, Classic in granite.

1905, Classic in granite.

There were monuments in granite, in marble, and in a wonderfully clean, white (though our guide said it was pale blue) and smooth stone-looking material that wasn’t really stone. It was poured and cast zinc! Cheaper than either marble or granite, doing away with the necessity of a stonecutter, the monuments were particularly appealing.
Zinc poured monument

A monument to those who died in the Revolutionary War (erected in 1890) sat atop a high point where lookouts during the War could see the City (New York City) and the Hudson River, and watch for British incursions by land and sea. With the moon overhead, it was easy to imagine them sitting around a fire watching for the enemy.

Watching the city and the river (640x572)

There are so many important people buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery that they’d fill a book! George Jones, co-founder of the New York Times, Brooke and Jacob Astor, Andrew and Louise Carnegie, Edward “Major” Bowes, John D. and brother Lawrence Rockefeller, and so many soldiers, artists, the occasional politician, philanthropists and journalists it boggles the mind.

One of my favorite inhabitants, however, has to be Washington Irving (1783-1859), lawyer, diplomat, and internationally famous author of short stories, histories, essays, and biographies. (My photo was distant and very dark, but here’s one that’s perfect.) It’s ironic that a D student who hated school should grow to write classics that are required reading for students today. Of course, his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is renowned as a seasonal favorite.

But Irving’s masterstroke of marketing occurred in 1809, when he posted a series of missing person notices in New York newspapers seeking one Diedrich Knickerbocker, a Dutch historian who’d gone missing from his New York City hotel.

For months afterward, people would write him with Knickerbocker sightings, that he’d been seen upstate, or claiming that  he didn’t look well and should be taken in and cared for. New York City officials even considered offering a reward for his safe return.

So, when Irving published the satire “A History of New York” by Diedrich Knickerbocker in December of 1809, he’d already created a following clamoring for Mr. Knickerbocker and his book. Sheer genius.

Oh, and Ichabod Crane? Real fella. It seemed Irving had a habit of using the names of people he met or knew for characters in his works.

Mr. Crane was not amused.

Night sky at cemetery (640x480)


Writing about relationships… in the fast lane

They say write what you know, and so many of my stories revolve around relationships–with mates, children, friends, and pets. These relationships inevitably feature humor, pathos, frustration and the patience to endure, all the result of human interaction.

This post, a short story entitled Life in the Fast Lane, is one example of how real life informs fiction.


How Margarida got her groove

Part of the work involved in creating a novel is learning when backstory adds to a story and when it’s extraneous, so that the finished product moves apace because the timing’s good and the writing sparkles.

This flashback scene, which originates in Grifon’s dining hall, was cut from the original Luck of Two Magpies, its important information woven into another scene. Still, it’s a lovely scene.

In The Luck of Two Magpies, Margarida calls Elisa by her Christian first name, Cara. As this scene is in Margarida’s pov, Elisa is referred to as Cara. Duncan is William’s dog.

Margarida wagged her spoon in Cara’s face. “Ye must ally yourself with a strong man. My William is such a man.”

“I must do no such a thing!”

“Aye. Ye must.” Her chin dipped authoritatively.

“It wasn’t that way for you. You told me so.”

Margarida dropped her gaze. “But also I did say ye we were lucky, my lord Dyrke and I. Truly. I loved my lord from the moment I set eyes on him.” She smiled, holding her palms to her cheeks to cool them. “And he me.”

Her hands went to the table, their mottled backs a sign of so many years passed. They were still for a time, until their tremor matched the twitching in her eye.

In a moment she was gone from Cara and the hall.

She was almost three and ten again, and standing beside her mother on the curtain wall at Bien Venue. Her silk gown was new, the perfect blue shade to bring out the silver in her gray eyes and the platinum in her blonde hair, though the slim cut of it made her feel awkward.

She plucked at the bodice.

Her mother tapped her fingers lightly. “Let it alone, daughter… See there. The Earl of Norburnshire’s party approaches.”

Indeed they did, with pennants waving, horses prancing. Hubert was a man in his prime her mother said. He sat his saddle ramrod-straight, dark hair gleaming in the sun, teeth flashing as he laughed and spoke to the lad who rode beside him.

She couldn’t see much of Dyrke. She knew he was eleven. She knew she was tall. She gripped her mother’s hand, her palm moist.

“Ma mère,” she whispered nervously.

Ma mère’s smile creased the skin around her eyes but made her look younger. “Our lord your father has prayed mightily o’er this match, daughter,” she said, trapping a flying wisp of Margarida’s hair in her fingers. “ ‘Twas made when ye were a babe. A most advantageous match for ye, bound to a most powerful House.” She tucked the blonde strand into one of the dozen ribbons braiding Margarida’s hair. “And yet our lord did petition God that in doing your duty you should also know happiness.”

She nodded. She had been schooled in what to expect today and  wasn’t worried. It was only their first meeting. It was the future that caused the right hard twist in her stomach and the sleepless nights she was having of late. She’d seen animals rutting; watched the sows grow fat and push out their piglets, the cows drop their calves. There didn’t seem to be much to bearing young. But she’d begun to notice her parents’ role more. Of course her father’s word was law, but her mother was always beside him. He conferred with her often, valued her opinions.

What of Margarida? She would be a wife, a noblewoman of stature, one day, countess to an earl. Would Dyrke be as enlightened as her father? What if he wasn’t?

Ma mère tugged at her hand. “Come. They ride beneath the drawbridge.”

Down each of the hundreds of stone steps, Margarethe’s stomach sank a bit further, her thoughts grew direr. What if her future husband denied her books? Studies? She knew his decisions would be final, but what if he never included her in the process of making them? What if he hated reading? Debate? Music? What if he chose her women-in-waiting instead of letting her choose? What if? What if?

“Have a care,” ma mère said as they descended into the last staircase, a tight spiral in a slender tower lit only by the arrow slits in the wall. She clung to her mother’s hand, wishing she were still a small child, wondering if she would have some say in the running of the household? What if her mother-in-law hated her?

They emerged from the dark shade of the tower and paused a moment, blinded by full sun. She could hear her father’s and Earl Hubert’s growled laughter, hear the muffled sounds of their back-slapping.

As her sight returned, she saw them break from a hug, hold each other’s arms, speaking words she could not quite make out. In the space between them, a raven-haired boy stood with his back to her. Black hair, like Hubert’s. Dryke.

“Come,” ma mère whispered.

Approaching, she added disappointment to her fears. Dyrke came halfway up her father’s upper arm. Her temple grazed her father’s shoulder. She trembled as her father caught sight of her. He flung his arm wide and called gregariously, “Daughter! Tarry not! Your future lord is here to pay ye court!”

Lord Hubert swung toward her, his stare appraising her as if she were a prized mare bought and paid for. She nearly vomited.

Dyrke was slow to turn about. He held her gaze. His eyes were the most intense blue she’d ever seen. The breeze on her tongue told her that her mouth was open. She pursed her lips, at once jelly-limbed and wondering if she could walk the rest of the way.

She didn’t have to. Dyrke broke into a grin that rivaled the sun for brilliance, and strode toward her.

“You are Margarida.” He held out his hand, palm up. “I am Dyrke. I understand we will be wed in time.” The corners of his mouth quirked as he fought to keep from smiling again. “If you will have me.”

She rested her palm in his. He closed his other hand over hers. His fingers were warm; his grip was secure but not too strong. His grin reemerged, fuller, brighter than before if that were possible.

“I will,” she croaked.

“ ‘Tis goodely, my lady,” he said confidently. “Of course, there will be much time before we wed, but that is good, as well, nay?”


“Aye. I wish to be as tall as my wife.”

She blushed, thinking he sought a way out of their contract. If he never got as tall as she was, he wouldn’t marry her. She dropped her gaze. “As you wish, my lord.”

He laughed. “Nay, my lady.” He bowed perfectly. “I would be as you wish.”

And it had been as she wished. He never quite got as tall as she, but that hadn’t stopped him. She learned he was persistent. They wrote to each other for the next five years, all through his private tutoring, his squiring in King Edward’s household, and while he studied at Oxford. She loved his openness, his willingness to argue, to accept defeat when she was right, to be modest in triumph. He left Oxford at graduation and rode straight to Bien Venue to claim her despite his father’s insistence that he wait according to protocol. She learned he was stubborn.

In the years that followed, she shared every intimate detail of his life, even the ones she didn’t care to know. He was honest, trustworthy, intelligent, brave; the best a man could be. She adored him. And when, after years of worry and doubt, William was safely born, she knelt beside Dyrke and prayed God that their son should know the same fullness in marriage that they had.

She glanced up, aware that the hall was silent. Cara watched her, consumed by curiosity, but this reverie was private. She sighed in defeat.

“Aye, then.” Her head came up sharply, her chin a round, hard pillow of resolve. “I will not mention an alliance until—”

“Thank you, dear Lady Margarida!” Relief flooded Cara’s face. She jumped from her chair.

“Will ye ne’er learn ye must move slowly? Gracefully?!” Her instruction fell on deaf ears as Cara hugged her from behind, kissing her cheek. “Tsk!” She patted the arm wrapped around her neck. “Get ye gone, before my lord sends his squire for ye.”

“Yes, ma’am. William said not to be too long,” she said breathlessly, and ran off.

Margarida grunted. “Aye…I shall say no more about an alliance, until ye do both see the truth of it before your eyes.”

She tore a piece of brown bread from her trencher, but one look showed her the eggs and mutton it held were cold. She wrinkled her nose. “Duncan!”


Not working today but working still

I can not write today–or yesterday. In fact, I’ve been in a funk since Friday. No thought, no inspiration. I’ve been abandoned.
I wondered why, and so I charted my biorhythms.
Sure enough, while my intellect biorhythm soared, my physical, emotional, intuitive, and awareness readings were in the loo. My aesthetics reading wasn’t much better.
I know better than to struggle against that much deficit, and so I shall spend the rest of my day reading.
That, too, is part of being a successful writer.

The Legend of Azurene

This blog post is actually a short story. I hope you enjoy it.

The Legend of Azurene, by Donna Rubino, © 2004

“…And so Abril the brook warren—m’lady!” Kate sprang from her chair, sending its wooden legs chattering along the stone-paved floor. She offered the Countess Drucilla a proper curtsey, but her sidelong scowl was aimed at Drucilla’s maid, Enid, and threatened reprisals for bringing the House down into Kate’s domain.

Tradition had woven this hour into the fabric of Stregmore House, binding the servants into family. For most, servantry was the only family they knew. Enid knew better than to make them uncomfortable by bringing a stranger—and their countess, no less—into the bosom of family. And the fact that Enid found such fascination with the floor just now said she understood her crime.

For a moment, Countess Drucilla’s pale gray eyes looked sharper than Kate had recalled, and then her smile disarmed. “Mistress Kate, Enid oft’ speaks of the wonderful tales you say.” She motioned Kate back to her chair with a graceful flourish that sent her veil fluttering like a sail in fair winds. “I did think you might not mind did I sit here on the stair and listen with the others.”

Her timid expression was more suited to a scullery girl than the lord’s new lady. From her shyness and the tentative way she had assumed control of the household, her training had not included such a competency. Doubtless ‘twas her dowry won his lordship. Kate had watched Lord John grow from a playful boy to a stalwart man, good and cunning, and he deserved a match in his mate.

But Kate was chief cook, not noble marriage broker.

She ducked her head to hide her embarrassment and irritation, thankful for the dim light and a wimple that hid her scowl in folds of wrinkled cheeks and forehead.

“ ’Tis not me place to deny our lady ana’thing, for it is her home and we are her servants,” she said and settled herself into the worn chair that was hers, inherited from the last head cook, Master Theodore. She could not be angry with Lady Drucilla. The countess had praised her talents for her workers to hear, and so she glowered once more at Enid, who fled after the countess to the stairs, where Lady Drucilla waved away one of the kitchen cats and sat in the shadows close to the wall. With little light in the basement kitchen, her lavender gown made the countess nearly invisible.

A torch sputtered as Kate stroked her chin. “Now, where were we?”

Ian, the youngest of the miller’s sons, piped up. He’d been fidgeting beside his older brother through the interruption. The lad could wait no longer.

“Not the tale of Abril the warren again.” The lad wrinkled his pug nose so hard his honey brown eyes all but disappeared inside his frown. “Will ye say us a tale of the outlaw Hereward?” His small voice was as hopeful as spring birdsong, and she had to admit, the story was a favorite, of a poor man cheated of his inheritance by a wicked and conniving brother.

“But that one I did tell ye only a sennight past!”

“What of Gamelyn?” Ian’s older brother, Marcus, asked.

“Aye, a good tale…” She had been putting together a new story, based on a tale that ancient Herriot the coal digger had told her when she was a young girl, and she longed to try it out. All she needed was a name for one of the characters.

She stared thoughtfully into the haze as a candle guttered. But for that name, the story was ready for the telling. A second candle flickered. It should not have, for it was new. She had told Bonnie to see to the trimming of the wicks. She must remember to speak with her. Bonnie, and the wick, she thought hard. Remember it for later, eh? Bonnie-wick. Bonnie-wick.

That was it! Bonwick! A good name. Exotic enough, common enough. She grinned eagerly from one face to the next as she cleared her throat. “As teller of the tale, I would offer one better.”

“Better?” Several in her audience came straighter as they sat on the cold floor, the two lads squirming closer to her knees, while others nodded, murmuring, “Ah,” and “Oh, aye,” and “Let us hear it, then.”

She drew out the suspense as she sucked in her cheeks, thinking how much they—and she—looked forward to this one afternoon a week when all the chores were done and they could relax together. She thought of old Theo, who had taught her to foster good cheer among her workers, to treat them with respect. After all, good help made the head cook look good; they pilfered less, too.

“Aye.” Her voice purred as a few in her audience began to fidget with anticipation.

Even Lady Drucilla shifted about on her step, hunched forward on her elbows like the young lass she was, watching the kitchen folk, eyeing Kate.

Kate shook off her air of smug satisfaction. The illusion would be lost if the others saw her overconfidence. She folded her hands in her lap and began, taking great care to stare into each face in her audience, an unexpected and practiced smile of timeless wisdom camouflaging the storyteller, rendering her invisible to her folk, inseparable from her tale.

“I shall tell ye a tale of our own woods,” she began. “The tale of a villein, a lass and a seer.”

“A seer!” Small Ian’s eyes grew wide. He nearly popped off his knees, wriggling as he was, tugging at his brother Marcus’s arm. “’Twill be a tale of a seer!”

His youthful enthusiasm earned him a rough cuff on the ear. “Silence, Ian!” Marcus whispered.

The small lad sat, chin wobbling as he scrubbed at the side of his head.

“Aye, in our own woods, then, well past the stone circle, there lived a seer in the auld weald. He was called Bonwick, and he lived alone in a grove, a grove made hallowed by the cedar brake that grew there.”

Countess Drucilla stirred. “Tsk! No cedar grows here.”

“ ’Tis that miracle what makes the place holy, m’lady.”

“Oh?… Oh, I see,” the countess said, though her frown said she didn’t.

“Now, not too far distant lived a villein named Culby. He was a short, thick man with a wart on his nose, and three more on his cheek.” Her fingertips fled across her cheek as if from something repulsive. “Culby was a mean, hard man who once did drive a team of oxen all days of the week, all weeks of the year, in rain and sleet and sun for seven years, until, from pure weariness, the beasties melted into pools of yellow lard in the field.”

Her audience gasped. “Nay!” and “Och!” some called. “Wastrel!” cried others.

“Aye.” She nodded serenely behind her mask of invisibility. “For that was the nature of auld Culby.”

Young Ian frowned. “Wicked man.”

“Even so, ‘twas seemly for the villein Culby to be so mean, for he had a hard life. His hectare of land was naught but stone and sand, and only nettle, and thistle, and briar grew there. His cow gave no milk, his hen no eggs.

“But one day.” She straightened imperceptibly, rounding her eyes. “Culby met a lass named Lisabetta. This lass took pity on Culby, seein’ in him some thing that no one else did see. And Lisabetta agreed to wed wi’ him. And she would smile as she rose each day, and singing, would milk the gaunt cow that had ne’er given milk, but for Lisabetta she gave a half measure, and she sang to the hen, who laid one egg each day for her.

And within a year, auld Culby’s lands were fruitful, and he grew enough of bean and turnip and barley for Lisabetta to cook a proper pottage, and in the next year, he bought a bull, and a sow and tusker as well. And Lisabetta fed them acorns from the wild oak trees and sang to them. And within another year, Culby had piglets and hams, and his land grew wheat enough that he sold that as well, and bought more land. And in the fourth year…”

Her audience held their breath, the Countess Drucilla included.

She allowed a smile to spread across her features. “And in the fourth year, his Lisabetta came with child.”

Her audience ‘ooh’ed and ‘ah’ed, satisfied with the tale so far.

“And Culby smiled.”

Her people chuckled, and one or two of the older ones clapped their hands, callused, horny palms popping hollow sounds that echoed in the dry, warm air.

“Which was no mean matter for a man what had ne’er smiled in his life,” she explained to the small sea of nodding, knowing heads, each able to see in Culby someone they knew. “And on the day auld Culby’s daughter was born, as oft’ happens, his Lisabetta did die.”

A few of the men shook their heads dolefully. One or two of the women dabbed at their tears with stained skirts or frayed sleeves.

“And things did pass back to the way they were.” She made her voice soft and mournful. “His land did become barren. His cows did dry up. The hens wouldna lay once more. His swine, they grew, but they wouldna sleek.

“Now, as she grew, Culby’s daughter—who was called Azurene for her eyes as blue as the sky—swept the earthen floor of Culby’s mean house, and mended her papa’s hose and spun linen from the small bits of flax she culled from a neighbor’s leavings. She cooked the few grains and paltry beans from Culby’s land into a meager pottage and baked horsebread from the wheat gleaned from adjacent fields after the master’s harvestin’ was done.”

“And what of the seer?” Ian cried impatiently.

The countess laughed behind her hand.

Kate fixed the boy with a narrow-eyed glare. “A’comin’,” she said so sourly that he cowered, leaning into his brother’s side, though the rest of the kitchen folk chuckled.

“Now one day, a stranger came into Culby’s yard.”

She paused. It was at this point in old Herriot’s story that his seer announced, ‘May the day bring ye joy,’ but the old-fashioned greeting was not familiar these days, and Kate would not have them ponder the words and grow deaf to her story.

“And ‘Good morrow to you this joyful day,’ the stranger does say.”

“And Culby says, ‘There is naught joyful in the world,’ and he stares at the man with ill will frank in his eyes.

“Whereupon the stranger does say, “Farmer, may I rest awhile?’

“And Culby sees him a’leanin’ wearily on his walking stave, and he says, ’Aye. Ana’where but here. ’

‘ ‘Tis unlike a northerman to give no respite to a weary traveler,’ the stranger says, a’shakin’ his hooded head.

‘I ha’ barely enough to feed me daughter and me. And who be ye?’ glum Culby asks hotly, not at all glad of heart to hear himself pronounced ill-mannered.”

‘I am Bonwick,’ the stranger does answer.

‘And what are ye that gives ye such claim to call me less of a man than my neighbor?’ Culby asks.”

She paused, winking. “And this Bonwick does smile and say, ‘Some call me ‘old one’, others say I am a seeker, still others call me ‘teacher’, ‘the old man’, ‘the finder’.’ ”

“Now, Culby knows of the seekers. He has heard stories passed to him from his father and his father a’fore that of men who worship the earth spirits, who by their words may cause seeds to sprout from the soil, and who can raise the dead from their pallets and render them whole.”

She whispered now, and as she expected, her people craned their necks and leaned in to hear the better, faces rapt.

“Aye. And who can speak wi’ animals.”

The countess snorted. “Enid!” She nudged her maid. “Unheard of!”

“Hush-a.” Enid waved her off, so eager to hear the story that she didn’t see Lady Drucilla’s jaw drop at her impudence.

Kate swallowed rising laughter. “And so Culby turns his mean eyes on the stranger. ‘If ye be a seeker,’ Culby does say, ‘Make me cow to gi’ milk, me hen to lay eggs.’

‘I shall do better,’ Bonwick pledges. And so he shakes loose his hand from his sleeve, and rubs the ring on his middle finger, a stone of amber as round as the sun, its golden rays a’flarin’ all about it like ruffles, and he lifts his stave and nods its head once, twice, thrice at Culby’s house, touching its other end to his ring. And right off, a sliver of lightning snakes through the door, and song—beautiful song the like of which Culby hasna heard for fifteen year since his Lisabetta died—comes a’floatin’ on the air.

‘ ’Tis me Azurene,’ Culby admits wi’ reverence in his voice.

‘Aye, your daughter,’ Bonwick does say to Culby. ‘She has the gifts her mother did possess. She does talk with the beasties, and husbands Mother Earth’s gifts where others trample them as waste.’

“And Culby looks at Bonwick as though he were a spirit long dead and come back to haunt him. ‘And how do ye know of my Lisabetta?’ Culby asks in a voice as brittle as the shedding bark of old Plain trees.

And Bonwick, he tips back his hood and smiles a sad smile, and tells the farmer, ‘She was my sister. ’

“And so!” She clapped her hands so hard that her audience jumped as one. “Auld Culby thinks his future is secured, for not only does his Azurene have the power to make him a man of fortune, he now has a brother who can do the same.

“But Bonwick knows Culby’s mind. ‘Ye shallna use the gifts of the Mother for thy own greed,” he says. “ ‘Twas why Lisabetta ne’er told ye her secrets. ’

“But Bonwick’s wisdom fell on Culby as words on a deaf man’s ears, for within a year, travelers did seek out Culby’s dwelling to beg Azurene to heal their children, and speak with their bulls, and lay her hands on them thinkin’ to bring them luck.”

Kate inhaled a long breath, drawing it out until she felt all of her people’s gazes bore into her. “Aye, and Culby did have his daughter do these thing… for a price.”

The kitchen folk grumbled. The Countess Drucilla leaned into the stair wall, wide-eyed at the malevolent echo that filled the shadowy basement kitchen. Yet pride filled her features, surely at the good hearts of her people.

“Aye.” Kate nodded. “For pieces of silver and gold Culby sold his daughter’s gifts and made of her a slave, and when Bonwick couldna change the farmer’s mind?” She shook her head sadly. “Tsk-tsk.”

“What?!—What did happen?!” young Ian shouted as he scrambled to his knees.

“Ah. Filled with woe, Bonwick betook himself into his weald of cedar.”

“And what did happen then?” Marcus hugged Ian to him.

Kate gazed beyond her audience, knowing it would unsettle them. “Why then, when Culby had silver enough for to live a life of comfort, anger came upon him, for he did realize his life would yet be empty, for his Lisabetta was not here to share in his fortune. And more greed came upon him, and when a knight in service to a cruel noble did offer Culby a bag of gold to betroth Azurene to his lord… ” She knotted her brows, leaving her listeners to wonder was it in anger or in pain. “He did give his consent.”

The cries of “Nay!” and “Fie!” and “Wicked man!” filled the enormous kitchen with its high ceilings and stone arches atop massive columns with as much lethal censure as any Catherine wheel or rack could.

“But Azurene would not go, and the knight who would take her did have her trussed and hobbled like a beast so not to escape him in the night.”

Again, Kate drew in a breath, long and slow enough so that her people fairly wriggled with anticipation.

She lifted her chin. “But she did escape.”

“How?” Every head turned to the sound. Countess Drucilla flushed scarlet.

Kate forced herself to be still until all stares returned to her, and resumed, her voice so soft that those in the back knelt up and leaned over their neighbors’ shoulders to hear. She liked the device, it brought her people closer, transferring their emotions from one to another.

“While she lay on the fragrant forest floor in the night, wrapped in her tattered brown cape, she called the beasties to her. Wee mice came and chewed through her bonds, while insects sang soft evensongs to keep the knight a’noddin’.

“And morn’ found her in her Uncle Bonwick’s woods.

‘Child, what ails thee?’ Bonwick asked her as she did stumble to his cave.

“’Uncle! Prithee. Help me, thy sister’s child!’ Azurene did fall to her knees and whimper and wail. ‘For a sack of gold my father has given me in marriage to a man I do not love. ’

‘Such a thing is woman’s lot,’ he countered sadly.

‘But this man does wed me only for the use of my gifts!’ Azurene cried, and did fall in a heap at Bonwick’s feet.

Now, Bonwick does grow angry. ‘Do you say your father did pander your gifts and that the price for lifelong use of the Mother’s generosity is one wretched sack of gold?!’

‘Aye!’ Azurene staggered to her feet. ‘Hark ye! The hounds! They search for me!’

‘Aye,’ her uncle Bonwick does say. ‘And woe is’t unto me, for if I hadna spoke thy mother’s secrets to Culby, ye would yet be safe at home. But so glad of heart was I to see my sister’s child,’ said he, weeping, ‘that I did betray the Mother and the Father. ’

“Now, the hounds’ were a’bayin’ the louder. And, ‘Uncle! Save me!’ Azurene did cry.

“Bonwick cried out also. ‘I will save thee and protect thee for all time. And your father shall learn a hard lesson, that the Mother’s gifts must be treasured and protected, not pandered and sold for a sack of gold coin!’

“And with that, Bonwick did raise his fist and strike his stave upon his ring and utter his magic. And golden lightning flashed, and thunder roared, and the winds whipped up and blew Azurene’s tattered cape o’er her head.”

Kate only took a moment to moisten her lips, but Ian and Marcus both cried, “Mistress! What did happen then?!”

She leaned forward in her chair. “As the knight did appear upon the crest of the hill, he did behold a bolt of lightning strike the slender Azurene. It froze her brown cape to her body, its tattered edges a’droopin’ from the top like tears.”

Kate’s arm shot out. “Another strike!”

Her audience gasped.

“And what is impossible did happen. The cape grew tall, its girth grew wide as Azurene did become a mighty tree. The tatters did sprout and swoll into thick, sturdy limbs that stretched high and far, tall and proud, but did bend ‘neath the weight of all her branches, until they swept the forest floor.

‘Mother! I am thy servant!’ Bonwick he bellowed into the angry wind. A thunderbolt clapped so loud that the earth ‘neath him did groan and split wide and Bonwick did fall into the cleaving. Azurene’s branches swept his cape o’er him, and Bonwick did sink into Mother Earth’s bosom.

“Now, the poor knight did think the grisly thing ended, but one more rumble of thunder did cause the ground at his feet to shudder, and a legion of lightnin’ bolts did mark the place beyond which the Mother wished no one e’er to pass. And the knight did watch, fearful and quaking, as the whole of the wood did sink down into a vale so deep that the Mother’s breath—”

Drucilla’s veil fluttered as her elbow nudged Enid. “What’s that?”

“Fog!” the startled maid said loudly.

Kate shot a withering glance at the two, then took stock of her audience. Their concentration had not been disturbed. She exhaled her relief silently. “So that the Mother’s breath, then, rose to keep safe the willow, Azurene, from common sight. And so, ‘twas ended.”

Everyone heaved a contented sigh.

Everyone except the Countess Drucilla. “Welladay, there is no fair end here,” she insisted as she wiped tears from her face and climbed to her feet. “What of Culby and his gold?”

Most everyone was polite and remained silent. The miller’s boys, however, laughed out loud, and a few others, who knew the countess couldn’t see their faces, chuckled, though they squelched their laughter as she swept past them.

Kate glowered them into silence. After all, she was responsible for their behavior.

“You see, m’lady,” she said, “certainly the knight couldna return to his lord wi’ neither gold nor woman, and so he would return to Culby’s farm and take back his sack of gold.”

The young countess nodded earnestly.

“Also, as talley sticks are oft’ reckoned, the knight would have ta’en from Culby all his silver as his cost for renouncin’ the settled bargain. And without the aid of Azurene or Bonwick, auld Culby’s lot would be what it was a’ the beginnin’. A fair and fittin’ end, I am certain ye would agree.”

The young Countess thought a moment, then smiled. At first, it was shy, but by and by it lit her face, until her limpid gray eyes froze, keen as an eagle’s a’hunting high in the sky.

“Aye. I do agree, Mistress Kate, and thank you for your patience.” She pushed her veil aside with long, graceful fingers.

It was all Kate could do not to gasp, for on Lady Drucilla’s thumb sat an enormous amber ring, carved to mimic a sunburst.

The Lady Drucilla’s mouth curled up, her expression at once ageless and knowing. “May the day bring you joy,” she said softly, and spun on her heel to go.