The chill of an ancient world wraps around the fortress as the Mary Anne Yarde, author, lover of history, finds herself in the stark, unforgiving stones of Benwick Castle. A land of her own making, the setting of her novel, The Du Lac Chronicles, she now confronts the former King of Cerniw in a most unusual audience.
I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t feeling a little bit nervous. Actually, that is a lie; nervous does not even begin to describe how I am feeling right now.
You have to understand that I never thought I would be in this position. I am the one in control…I am the author. This is my world. I created it. But now I am here, in the year AD 495, staring at a large embossed oak door, and I am wondering what on earth I am doing. This place - this world - is real. My heart is beating so fast, I fear at any moment it is going to burst through my chest and kill me. To make matters worse, my palms are sweaty. I hate sweaty palms.
I quickly wipe my hands on a dress I borrowed from Annis – jeans would never do for this situation. I slowly raise my hand to knock. I hesitate for a fraction of a second. I so don’t want to do this, but I must. I have been summoned, and I have to answer for my crimes.
My knock is feeble, although still it echoes in this cold, lonely, corridor. Benwick Castle is a fighting castle; there is no time for comfort here. The only ones who can boast of luxurious chambers, in this castle, are members of King Budic du Lac’s immediate family. I may be many things, but a family member, I am not.
I almost sigh in relief when my knock isn’t answered. I am off the hook – he isn’t there. I smile to myself and begin to turn away.
That voice, so familiar, so…
He is just behind that door. And he is going to kill me - so much for being off the hook.
I am exaggerating; of course, he isn’t really going to kill me. He is an honourable knight and an honourable king. Still, he isn’t going to be best pleased when he and I finally meet.
Nervously, I reach for the black iron handle of the door. I push the door open and timidly walk into the private chambers of Alden du Lac, the former King of Cerniw.
His room is lavishly furnished. Beautiful tapestry’s hang from the wall. There is a small tapestry in the corner of a woman and a white steed. There is a horrid stain on the delicate embroidery. No one knows what caused the stain…except for me. And I am not telling – not yet, anyway. There is a beautifully carved bed, and the furniture screams wealth. The room is also very warm, a novelty in this cold castle. I am not surprised by the grandeur of the room. After all, I did design it.
Alden is looking out the small window, his back towards me. His back…the back I lashed. He turns then, his grey eyes hold a hint of humour, and I feel myself relaxing, and I return his look with a tentative smile. I go to curtsey, but he shakes his head as if he could not stand such a courtesy between us. I stand with my hands clasped in front of me, not knowing what to do.
“Please sit.” He indicated a very uncomfortable looking wooden chair that is in desperate need of some sort of cushion. I perch precariously on the edge of the chair and glance towards the door. If things go pear-shaped, I could always make a run for it.
He picks up a goblet of wine, swirling the contents of the cup absentmindedly around.
“So you are the one,” he says, that half smile on his face.
I feel like I should apologise…I did put him through hell, but the words dry up in my throat, and all I can manage is a quick nod.
“You burnt my kingdom.”
“Well…strictly speaking I didn’t,” I mumble, as my face heats with embarrassment, “It was Cerdic of Wessex that did that.”
“You told him to,” he answers. “You wrote the words down on parchment, did you not?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time…” my voice trails off as he laughs softly. I know his laugh. I know what he sounds like when he finds something humorous. This isn’t his humorous laugh.
“How could you?” He pulls a chair up and sits down opposite me. He leans forward and gives me that look – the look I hate the most…he is disappointed in me. He makes me feel insignificant.
“Do you take pleasure in suffering?” he asks.
I don’t want to answer, so I look away, fighting the tears. The silence stretches on for a long time, neither of us speaks. He is waiting for me to answer. He has the patience of a saint – he could wait all day if need be.
“I’m an author,” I mumble in my defence. “This is what I do. I create worlds. I created you…” He doesn’t look particularly impressed with that statement, and I fear that maybe I have gone too far.
“You did.” He leans back in his chair and regards me through narrowed eyes. He is taking my measure…I can see that he is. Well, two can play at that game, so I copy his expression, and I see, once again, the beginning of a smile on his face.
“If I said sorry, would that help?” I ask.
“Not at all,” he answers, but the smile on his face widens, and I know now how Annis feels when he looks at her. I could fall in love with a man like this. His smile widens and I realise that he knows…he knows what I am thinking just as easily as I know what he is thinking. We can read each other like…like a book!
“So what do they think?” He gets up as if agitated and walks back over to the window.
“What do who think about what?” I ask innocently, as I watch him.
He sighs very audibly and turns back around to look at me. “What do they…the people who read…what do they think about this world?” he is biting his tongue, and I understand what he isn’t saying. He wants to know what my readers think about him. Not because he is vain, but because he wants people to like him.
“I think my readers prefer your older brother, Budic,” I reply with my tongue firmly in my cheek. No one likes Budic…even I don’t like him, although I always enjoy writing about him. It is nice to write about a character that does not understand the word ‘empathy.’
“Is that a fact?” Alden asks as he crosses the room again. He pours me a goblet of rich red wine and hands it to me. I take a sip and sigh…this is the good stuff. Alden must have raided Budic’s wine cellars…again - it wouldn’t be the first time, and I am pretty certain it won’t be the last.
“Good?” He asks, raising one eyebrow in that infuriating way of his.
“I’ve had better.” I dare, and watch fascinated as his eyes sparkle with mischief.
I take another sip. There is no denying it, the wine is very good. I wish my local supermarket stocked such a fine vintage. But alas, they don’t…because it doesn’t exist in the world I come from. Shame!
“I am curious,” he says as he takes his seat again. “This world, me, my brother’s, Annis…”
I know what he is trying to ask me. He wants to know what inspired me to create this world.
“I grew up near Glastonbury,” I say as if that explains everything.
He frowns and shakes his head, and I realise Glastonbury does not exist in his time.
“Avalon,” I try again and suddenly he understands.
“You hear stories about him in your time? They still talk about King Arthur?” The questions hang between us. If I say the wrong thing now, I fear I may be ejected from the kingdom forever.
“I always preferred Lancelot,” I state, and I know I have said the right thing because he smiles.
“He was my father.”
“I know,” I say, “he was a good man.”
“He was,” Alden agrees. “So what have you got against his sons?”
I almost choked on the wine. It isn’t personal. Why can’t he understand? He isn’t real. He is a figment of my imagination. I shouldn’t even be here. I begin to rise. No matter what I say, he is going to judge me and find me wanting, so why bother?
“No, don’t.” He speaks the words softly, and I find myself sitting back down and staring at him like some love-sick puppy. For goodness sake, pull yourself together woman. He is another woman’s husband, and he isn’t real. I silently scream in agony.
“Tell me, were any of the scenes…” he laughs again, the sound bitter, “I meant my life…did you find any part of my story,” he shakes his head and looks away.
“I never meant to hurt you,” I state, gingerly reaching out to touch him.
He flinches away from me. “You tied me to a post and took the skin from my back.”
“It wouldn’t have made much of a story if I gave you an easy time.” I answer, “and I didn’t enjoy writing those horrid scenes. I usually ended up in tears.”
He looks at me perplexed. “You cry when you write?”
“All the time,” I state. “I cry when something horrible happens. I cry when something good happens. I am a heaving wreck of emotions. You have no idea what I go through for you.”
“The feeling is mutual.” He returns.
I huff and look away. I adore him. I never wanted anything bad to happen to him, but the story…it is always about the story. And besides, I compensated him for his horrendous time. I pushed Annis into his path…I gave him a reason to live and a reason to fight. He would have died if I had not sent Annis to him.
I hear him rise from the chair, but I don’t look at him because I know what he is doing. Alden always paces when he is apprehensive. He is pacing now.
“Can you cook?” He has stopped pacing and is looking at me again.
It is an unexpected question. What does my cooking abilities have to do with anything? “I once burnt pottage.” I reply with a shrug, “What’s it to you?”
“Annis burns pottage,” he says matter-of-factly.
“Really? I didn’t know that,” I answer, trying not to smile. Annis is renowned for her inability to cook – something she and I have in common. A little bit of me in the story.
He narrows his eyes again. “Tell me one thing, before I dismiss you…”
Dismiss me? The cheeky beggar, he can’t dismiss me. I am in charge here. This is my castle…I created it. But being in his presence, I keep forgetting that.
“Surely not everyone likes your story. How do you deal with critics?”
“I send Wessex and his army to burn their kingdoms,” I answer with a straight face, and he laughs.
“Everyone is entitled to an opinion,” I say. “You know that better than anyone.”
“I do.” He reaches for my hand. His touch is warm, and my skin tingles. I quickly withdraw my hand. He isn’t mine. I tell myself again. He will never be mine. I chant the words in my head as he guides me towards the door.
“We cannot linger. These are dark times, and you must return to your world. But before you go, tell me…does it end well…does it end well for us?” he whispers the words as he reaches for the door handle.
“I can’t tell you that,” I say, shaking my head. I haven’t finished writing Book 2 yet, let alone Book 3. I am not going to give away all my secrets.
“But you know how it ends.”
“I know how it ends,” I reply.
“The next story in the series -”
“Is about Merton, your younger brother.”
“You will look after him, won’t you?” he asks, a note of concern in his voice.
I smile in answer, and he opens the door. I find myself back in that cold, lonely corridor. The door clicks shut behind me and the flaming torches flicker. I take a deep breath – the air is cold and musty – it hurts my lungs to breathe it in, but I don’t care. I close my eyes, a smile pulling at the corner of my mouth and I silently congratulated myself because I survived the most unusual audience with the former king of Cerniw.
© Mary Anne Yarde 2016
Born in Bath, England, Mary Anne Yarde grew up in the Southwest, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology, and lives just a horse ride from Glastonbury, perhaps the fabled Isle of Avalon.
With an education that includes history and equine science, Mary has brought her passions into her writing.
Find out more about the writer and the books at her website.
The Du Lac Chronicles : Book 1
A generation after Arthur Pendragon ruled, Briton lies fragmented into warring kingdoms and principalities.
The powerful Saxon King, Cerdic of Wessex, has spent the last twenty years hunting down Arthur’s noble knights. Alden du Lac, the once king of Cerniw and son of Lancelot, has nothing. Betrayed by Cerdic, Alden’s kingdom lies in rubble, his fort razed to the ground and his brother Merton missing, presumably dead.
Annis, daughter of King Cerdic of Wessex, has been secretly in love with Alden for what seems like forever. She will not stand by and see him die.
Alden has one hope: When you war with one du Lac, you war with them all. His brother Budic, King of Brittany, could offer the deposed young king sanctuary, but whether he will offer the same courtesy to Annis is far less certain.
The Du Lac Chronicles are available now at Amazon.
Stripped Bare is an occasional column where authors and other creatives are given the chance to expose themselves to the world in unusual and creative ways. It is by invitation early.