8:00 AM | Labels: ' Historical romance, 'The Snow Bride, Lindsay Townsend, medieval historical romance
The Snow Bride.' The hero Magnus and heroine Elfrida are searching for missing brides in a snowy winter landscape.
He found the holly bush and not a moment too soon—limping beside him, Elfrida was already half frozen. Again, Magnus regretted having to bring her, but he knew she would never consent to remain behind and, most important, her sister did not know him. He had tried to learn some of her dialect but not enough to explain to a strange, frightened girl that he was a rescuer, not a beast. A token of Elfrida’s might be interpreted the wrong way, so for now, it must be Elfrida herself.
“Sit down.” He drew his shivering witch into the heart of the huge holly where it was dry, and he unpacked the bundle as swiftly as his numb fingers would allow. The fact that she did not shove him aside to do the task herself he took as a poor sign, but he kept his words cheerful. “Fresh clothes here, so we shall soon be warmer. I have mead, too.”
He had no women’s things in the pack but had filched two sets of woolen tunics and linen braies from a stripling squire called Hugh, who fancied himself a person of good taste. Elfrida stared at the braies and shook her head. “I cannot wear those.”
“You will move more freely,” said Magnus cunningly, “and it will be a good disguise. We shall seem two packmen.”
“Ripe for bandits, then,” came the tart response, but she peeled off her less-than-perfect gown and did not protest when he rubbed her down smartly with it, seeking to dry her before she re-dressed. She tied the braies as she might a girl’s belt, which made him grin, and the green wool tunic was too long in the sleeves, but she had more color.
More fight, too, when she launched herself at the living circle of holly as he was rolling his shoulders in his dry tunic and retightening his belt. He caught her round the middle. “Shoes?” he reminded her.
“But she comes, she is coming now! I can sense her!”
“And we shall pick up her tracks.” He buffeted her lightly away from the holly thorns and waved two bag-like socks in her face. “Put these on first.”
She stroked the cloth and wrinkled her nose. “This is not wool.”
“It is woolen felt, from my manor. We know how to make it there.”
“It is warm,” she said in wonder and began to pull them on. He handed her a leather shoe next and showed her how to wrap pieces of wool about her feet and legs.
It took longer than for himself, but he did not care. The laundress would not be hurrying in this fine, bright, windless day, and he wanted Elfrida to be warm.
He handed her a short leather cloak, a riding cloak truly, but it would be long enough on her. “Tuck your hair under this cap, also.”
She widened her eyes at the dull, russet hood but did as he asked. Packing their damp things into the old, gray cloak he had brought the changes of clothes in, she looked puzzled when he tucked two more pairs of socks and lengths of wool down the front of his new tunic. “For later, if we need them,” he explained and kissed her, briefly. “You make a pretty lad. The hat shows off your freckles.”
She had been taking a mouthful of mead, and she choked, her mouth quivering in amusement. “You should see me in summer for freckles.”
“Oh, I will,” said Magnus. He parted the holly branches for them to set out in pursuit of the trudging laundress, who had passed by their hiding place with no sign of noticing them.
Her feet were beautifully warm. The snow was crisp and fresh, not damp or gray or slippery, sparkling in the sunlight and a joy to walk on. Her tunic and leggings were far easier to manage than trailing a dress. Indeed, she would be sorry to give them up and was already bargaining in her mind with Magnus to keep them.
Magnus was tracking the laundress, staying back so she could not hear them and would not see them easily while he traced the woman’s clear, single trail. Elfrida sped behind him, admiring his serviceable leather cloak, his working shoulders and hips, his smooth, long-legged stride. How had she ever thought him clumsy?
About them, adding to her feeling of a festive day, a day where surely Christina would be discovered, safe and well, the woods thronged with life. A tiny wren beaked amidst some still-brown leaf litter. A squirrel ran up a pine tree in a blur of red tail. Deer slots showed up clearly on her left side. She shook Magnus’s arm, and he turned and nodded.
“Aye, the hunt have missed those. They are a long ways off. I heard their horns, very faint, off over that hill of beeches. Better for us that they did not spot them.”
He smiled and, stretching out his hand, rumpled her cap, as if she was a lad. She grinned, feeling very young, as if the world and everything in it was made new for them. “Happy?” he asked, grinning like a lad himself. “So am I.”
They kicked on, a blackbird complaining about them out of another holly, and a small, unseen animal rustled at them behind frosted bracken. Elfrida paused to bow in respect to an ancient elder then had to scamper to catch Magnus as he crouched and slid down a steep slope, sitting on his behind.
“Easier than pegging my way down this,” he explained. “Your woman did the same.” He pointed to a set of parallel tracks.
“But she will see our tracks and know we are following.”
“Only on the way back. She will not know who we are, and even if she guessed, whom would she tell?”
Elfrida tried to imagine the timid, broken-skinned, chapped-lipped laundress braving the havoc of the great hall to speak to the wiry, weapon-laden Gregory Denzil, trying no doubt not to stare at the red wart on his forehead. She failed in her attempt. “You are right.”
She saw the flash of his grin before he turned about and marched on.
They approached another slope, and now the trees were all oak and lime and then solely oak, ancient and wide girthed, with spreading branches hung about with frosted lichens. Here the laundress had shortened her already slow stride and kept stopping for rests. Elfrida touched a place where a circle of flattened snow showed where the woman had rested her pack. She sensed fear. “We are getting close,” she murmured, straightening and listening intently, reaching out with her mind beyond the trailing lichen and sprays of mistletoe.
Mistletoe. Now she had seen one green-and-white plant she saw more, clumps and clusters of them, swinging from the oak branches, tucked within the oak trunks, trailing above Magnus’s head. Their white berries looked like milky, dead eyes, and she shuddered. He watches through these.
Magnus, blind in that sense, too honest, too much of the middle earth of this world, was already climbing, butting through the thin snow here like a Viking ship on a raid. Speeding up, he was already touching his dagger, checking his tunic for other knives. She hurried to catch him, slipping once in her haste.
“We must take care,” she warned. “We are close.”
In answer, Magnus pulled a sprig of mistletoe off the fork of a tree and dangled it in his fingers. “I should rush and catch that woman before she screams the wood down.”
He turned, and she grabbed at his hand, crushing the mistletoe between their fingers. The waxy insides of the berries stuck slickly to her thumb, reminding her again of death. “He does not need that kind of alarm. Listen to me!”
Elfrida stopped, struck again by the strangeness of the place. No birds sang here, no animals lingered, and the sun cast misshapen shadows. She flinched, a picture forming in her mind of a small wooden watchtower with a single blue door. The wings and bones of ravens were pinned to the timbers of the tower.
“Things are very wrong here, very amiss.” She seized her own strongest amulet for protection and tore it over her head. “Please, wear this for me.”
He submitted as she slung it quickly around his neck but then was off again, striding forward. He crested part of the hillside and instantly dropped to his hands and knees, motioning to her to do the same.
“Look.” He pointed to the wooden watchtower on the hilltop, surrounded by oak trees and mistletoe. “That was once a hunting tower for our Norman lords, I warrant, and with a blue door besides.” He chuckled, his eyes and face alight with victory. “And there she goes, our washerwoman.” Speaking, he gathered himself to leap forward and snatch the laundress before or as she reached the tower.
“Magnus! What do we do with her?”
“Why fret?” He waved off her question, seeming amazed by it. “You worry overmuch. We must get on, finish here, and get back. Even those Denzil guard lads will get suspicious in time, so we cannot linger.”
“But can you not feel it?” She had felt this expectant, tense, terrible sense once before, in the woods close to her home, on the night Magnus had snatched her. “Something is very close, coming fast.” Something terrible.