Gofannon's SongMy second novel is an Iron-age romance set in the time before the Roman invasion of Britain. Gofannon, a Pictish warrior, is captured and made slave to the local Druid, Aoife. The book tells their journey from suffering to understanding, where love and magic can replace violence in service to the Gods. This extract comes from the beginning of their tale, when Goffanon is still fighting his gheas.
Now it was time to begin. Aoife clapped her hands and gradually everyone fell silent.
“In the name of Bride, the Maiden, I welcome you to our Imbolc rite. Let us come together to honour our ancestors and the spirits of this place as together we ask the blessings of the Goddess on the children who have passed into maidenhood during the past year.”
Taking the hand of the woman nearest her, Aoife led the women and children into a slow, stately dance of welcome, weaving in and around the poles which held up the ritual hut and around the walls. Using only her voice and the shells she wore around her neck, ankles and wrists, she encouraged them to sing their praises to the earth and bid a joyful welcome to the emerging Goddess.
From his hiding place against the wall, Gofannon sat in a watchful crouch as the women danced. He was amazed how Aoife was changed by this role of priestess. At Yule she brought in the light to the nearby burial chamber, marking the point of sunrise with great whoops and loud cries, but she had been different then - austere, controlled, a spiritual guardian of the dawn, the promise of the sun’s return. She sat apart from the rest of the tribe, lost in thought, hardly hearing words spoken to her, the very epitome of the dark crone of winter whom everyone feared for her knowledge of life and death and rebirth.
Tonight, she was the Maiden returning from winter’s sleep, her bright green gown shimmering in the torch and firelight, rays reflecting from the surface of the shells she wore. She’d even woven tiny shells within her hair and round her throat, tiny pinpricks of light which moved as she did, with gay abandon; drumming on the earth with her bare feet to waken and draw forth the Maiden within.
Laughing and smiling, the dance came to its end. The women sank down onto the rugs and skins on the floor, gathering their children around them. Only the ten maidens remained standing, each one holding the special gift they had worked on during the year to represent their unique lives up until now. Some carried pieces of carefully woven cloth, bright with different colours, others painted clay dolls or smoothed sticks adorned with feathers and leather strips hung with carved bones or dried berries or flowers.
They all looked very young and apprehensive. They knew this ceremony was for them. Although they had been part of similar events in previous years, it was very different being a spectator from standing up in front of all the women in their village.
One by one, Aoife called them before her and took their offering, hanging it behind her on one of the bare branches. In return, she daubed a sacred sign in red paste upon their bare tummy, murmuring blessings on their wombs to bring them health and fertility in years to come.
Gofannon found his eyes were suddenly wet as he watched the line of girls come forward to be blessed. They were all around the same age as the girls he thought of as his own, though their mother would never tell him so. He hoped somehow, somewhere, they were being offered the same nurturing, care and blessing as these children and not thrust into a world of unwilling sexual slavery as their mother was. He should be there to protect them, but he was here, a slave like them!
“Be at peace, Gofannon. “ Aoife’s soft voice came into his head from he knew not where. “Remember the Goddess protects all maids who call on her at this time. All will be well.”
He rubbed his eyes furiously, wanting to curse and rage, but he could not move, could not draw attention to himself. How did she know? How did she tell his thoughts when even he barely caught them as they flew his mind?
“Are you a spirit?”
He looked round and saw a small child standing by his side, a dirty finger stuck in her mouth.
“Aye,” he whispered, “Now go back to your Ma like a good girl.”
The little girl shook her head. “I want to stay with you” and before he could protest she pulled herself into his lap and curled up in a warm ball against his stomach. Instinctively his arms came round to support her and before he knew it, she was fast asleep.
Soon the ceremony was over. Women came round with jugs of ale and flatbread and hard cheese wrapped in nettles. Gofannon felt his stomach rumble for he had eaten nothing since the morning, but he could not move for fear of disturbing the sleeping child and found himself dozing as well.
When everyone had eaten, Aoife closed the ceremony and the rest of the village went back to their own homes to sleep.
“You can come out now, Gofannon.” Aoife called him.
“What about the child?”
“What child?” Aoife came over to his hiding place and shook her head.
“There was a child asleep on my lap. Did she go back to her mother?”
“I didn’t see a child. Are you sure you didn’t dream it? I know every child in this village and beyond.”
Gofannon told her what happened; as he did, her eyes widened.
“Oh Mother!” she breathed. “I asked for a sign and She sent one!”
There were tears in Aoife’s eyes as she offered her hand to help him stand up. He was very stiff after crouching in the darkness for so long and confused by her emotional response.
“It was only a child,” he protested, “nothing to get excited about.”
With trembling hands, Aoife pulled the mask from his head and kissed him soundly on both cheeks.
“The Goddess has chosen you as her own, Gofannon. When these three days are over, you will be dedicated to Her service. Your new life is beginning.”
Gofannon held his tongue. Although he understood the words she used, he could not apply them with any meaning. All he had done was let a child sleep on his lap. She kept him warm and, now he thought about it, she helped the pain and rage he was feeling to melt away. Nothing strange about that. She must have toddled back to her Ma while he was dozing, nothing else.
He scratched his chin where his matted beard was playing host to a new generation of fleas. He could do with some food. Out of the corner of his eye he saw some cheese and a full jug of ale still sitting on one of the table at the back. He went over and started to eat.
Aoife let him go. There was no need to trouble him with what really happened. It was enough she knew he was chosen and could act accordingly. The dance of life had begun!
The Lady and the BullWhen business woman, Emma, decides to visit a selection of ancient sites in Cornwall, she doesn’t know a chance encounter at a holy well will change her life. Refusing a drink of water from a traveler, she feels compelled to return to the well and meets him again. Through John, she learns how to face her fears of male strength and vitality, discovering more about the true nature of summer loving.
This story is set in the heart of the Cornish countryside – a place of ancient magic and healing.
I feel asleep dreaming of the stars. Dreaming I was lying beside the fire gazing upwards, feeling my lover’s body upon mine, his face cutting out the stars from my gaze, yet his eyes were full of them. I dreamed I saw them reach down and touch me, bathing us both in their silver light. My hair was filled with starlight. I reached out my arms to take my place amongst the heavens….
…and felt John take my hand with his.
“You were dreaming, lass.”
I buried my head in his shoulder, wanting to hide from reality in his warmth. Once more his arm held me safe, while the other stroked my hair. When I was sufficiently soothed, I heard whispered questions in my ear.
“Why didn't you object to us sharing a bed tonight, Emma?”
His words stung me awake. They required thought and honesty from me. “It's a cold night and it's silly expecting you to sleep elsewhere. Why should I deprive you of your bed? Maybe I'm naive, but you don't strike me as the kind of person to take advantage of a situation.”
“It's a cold night, true enough, but you place a heavy burden on your impressions of me.”
I turned away from him, not trusting myself to seek his gaze, afraid of the truth he might steal from me. “I always do. I think I know something, but I don't make the effort to ask- to clarify.”
“Maybe,” he moved his arm, forcing me to turn and face him again, “but then, if I were a man who would take advantage, I would only answer in self serving ways and perhaps be very plausible.”
I turned my head into his chest, hoping my words would be too muffled for him to hear. “At least such a man would make me think he might want me, even if he didn't. With you, I have to make a decision, to be the person taking action. It's harder.”
“Yes. It's hard. But the night is cold and perhaps you felt that chill and wanted, no, needed human warmth.”
I let my head nod against him. “It's been a long time, ” I murmured, “even when you get used to sleeping alone, some nights you miss the warmth,”
His hand resumed its gentle, caressing strokes along my head, “Don't think I do not want you. I am powerfully drawn to you, but what I want is not relevant. You have to find what you want. I will help where I can.” I felt his mouth stretch into a smile.
“Tell me why it has been so long.”
“You really don't make things easy, do you?” I grumbled, “Doing things for other people is easy. It is easy to give, make others happy. It is more difficult to decide what I want and take it or make it happen.”
“Giving is not easy - necessarily - but it can be easier than wanting.”
I rolled on my back and studied the ceiling of the coach. There was no apparent light, but I fancied I saw a pattern littered with tiny stars twinkling down on me.
“Why has it been so long? I guess I missed out. At the time when there were many friends, a few lovers to share my bed. None of them seemed the one I wanted to stay with, so I drifted, let them go, did other things. When I looked around from the things I was concentrating on, there was no-one there any more. They'd all gone away to be with people who looked at them, spent time with them, cooked for them, offered them children. I'd grown use to a cold bed.”
He curved one heavy arm around me. It was a reassuring weight draped softly over me.
“You let you heart grow quiet and your body untouched.” My deep sigh acknowledged his observation and he smiled again. “Now, what does your heart need, what does your body want?”
It seemed an easy question. “They both want to be alive again.” I felt his hand move until it rested flat between my breasts. I did not remember removing my bra before getting in to bed, but it was no longer there as a barrier between his body and mine. His whole hand appeared to be resting upon me.
“I feel your heart stir,” he said, moving the hand to cup my breast, a soft, enclosing motion. “I feel your body stir...”
“Do you sense the turmoil -the questions and answers tumbling all together?”
“I feel it. Can I tell you something you may find hard to accept or understand at present? Do not look for questions to be matched by answers. Sometimes all the answer we get is to have the next question revealed to us. All we can hope for is interesting questions.”
“But then, at least the questions are ours. I feel those questions bombarding me at this moment are not mine. I hear others' voices clammering at me. It is as if I have to answer them to stop the noise.”
He seemed to understand my predicament. “No - simply listen to my voice. I have a question for you. Do you want me to wake your body? Now? Here?”
The answer nearly jumped from my mouth without my assistance. “I want you to know it, know my body, but that is different from wake it. I think you knew it once, but have forgotten. I do not have the courage yet to know yours.”
“That answer is yours - so it is a good answer. Our bodies remember things our minds have let slip away. The chemical components of a smell can wake long buried emotions. We can swim, drive a car, ride a bicycle - without having any of the knowledge of how-to, of the skills, present in our consciousness.
“If my hands remember you - if they recall your body - if they mapped your shape before, you will know. You will feel the confident touch of a knowing hand, not the fumbling approach of a stranger.
“If you sense my knowledge of you, it may be your own hands will recall me in the same way. Courage can grow when backed by confidence.”
His hands began to stroke whichever part of me came within their sphere. They were large hands with thick, deft fingers. This was not the feather touch of a lover seeking to arouse and excite, but the strong, sure stroke of one who knew my body well, seeking to reassure, to comfort, to bring my ease.
I felt his hand move again on my breast –soft, warm, the touch of a returning love. I knew if I reached out and touched his shoulder my fingers would recall the shape of his muscles, the hollow beneath his throat, the knotted strength of his belly and the rigid softness waiting for me between his legs. There was no need for my fingers to make the journey; the landmarks were already seared across the recesses of my mind. I let my arm fall lightly across his chest, releasing my senses to languish in his touch. When we knew each other again, it would not be tonight, not in the safe, containing warmth of a bed. I closed my eyes, feeling his breath against my cheek.
In my mind’s eye I saw the pictures painted on his skin – the dragon of wisdom curled around his shoulder, the many warriors grouped together upon his arm and on his chest a garden of flowers. In their midst a bull stood tall and proud, roaring his challenge to the wind.
It was the bull who sought me. I could smell him. He was quiet now while the Crone ruled, his strength weakened by winter sun. It would be different in Spring and Summer when his strength returned. Then he would take me. I felt grass beneath my feet and sunlight dance across my face. He had shown me when it would be. I slept.
The Bear and the Ivy LadyExperiencing nature can be more than you expect when sharing nettles leads to an intimate encounter with both a bear and a hawthorn tree.
The Bear and the Ivy Lady is a romance with a difference. Herbalist, Clara, is woken from sleep by a strange dream about a bear. While out gathering nettles, she meets a new neighbour, Artur, who asks her to bring him some iced nettle tea. The electricity between them is palpable. Will Clara’s feelings for Artur be expressed, or will she keep them to herself when she visits his sumptuous barn conversion? Is Artur really a man, or does he have the power to change her forever?
This short romance captures the heady delights of a hot, English summer deep in the countryside, when nothing is what it seems and knowledge must be gained through personal transformation.
“Will you join me?” He waved me into a chair and I sank back into the opulence of the upholstery. He placed ice at the bottom of the glasses and poured the rust-coloured nettle infusion over the ice as if he were pouring a fine, vintage wine. As he gave me my glass, our fingers touched again. This time, the world stood still for several long moments as I stared into the deep brown eyes of this perfect stranger, losing myself in the whirlpool of possibilities he offered.
“To us,” he said, clinking the two glasses together. I blinked, my mouth suddenly dry, as if his words unleashed some hidden fear in me. I sipped the drink, letting the ice cold liquid slip down my throat and quench my thirst.
He sat down in the other armchair watching me watch him. He tasted his drink and smiled. “It is good, stronger than the last one you brewed.”
I wondered how he could have known this was only the second time I had made the maceration.
“The nettles were more mature.”
His smile became broader. “Like you, a mature woman who knows what she wants. Maybe the lightning helped release their minerals. It is a long time since I saw anyone picking herbs in the wake of such a storm. I knew I must make your acquaintance.” He crossed his legs, revealing sun bronzed skin and bare feet with long, sensuous toes. My fingers itched to touch them. “I’m glad you came.”
I tore my gaze from his feet stammering, “I was told you would return. I am here to learn.”
“What is it you wish to learn?”
My palms were slick against the leather. My feet ached to touch the soft white pile of the carpet on the floor. My mind fought with my body to control the passionate pictures threatening to overwhelm me.
“Can you show me how to be wild and free?”
He looked at me for a long while, his face almost amused at my request, but his eyes were serious.
“Is this what you truly wish?”
I used the nettles to give me time in which to create a response. “I know I have a path,” I told him. “I feel my feet against the warm soil and sometimes they flinch from the sharpness of the stones, but I continue forwards. Sometimes grass grows over the path, and interesting flowers entice me to wander in their meadow, or people call to me to stop and join them.”
“Or stop and help them when they fear to help themselves.” His deep voice shocked me with its truth, but I nodded.
“There are so many other things claiming me, I lose my way. I forget where the path is or how I should find it. I cover my feet with thick boots and although they save me from the sharpness of the stones, I cannot feel the path breathing beneath me. I am lost.”
“You wish me to find the path for you?”
I shook my head. “No, it has already re-appeared. A dream-bear woke me. My feet are walking again. They brought me here.”
He got up from the chair. “Then here you stay, until you wish to leave. You will join me in a meal?”
What could I say? He went back into the kitchen and brought out fat vine leaves, stuffed with piping hot cheese and meat spilling out onto white china plates. He placed them on a low, white table accompanied by freshly baked bread and a forager’s salad; dandelion leaves, sorrel, chickweed, fat hen, chives, mint, and marjoram, the flavours tart and fresh upon my tongue. I spread newly churned butter over thick slices of bread, to soak up the fragrant sauce. Every morsel of food stimulated and nourished me like sunlight after a dull, damp winter.
He bade me take off my shoes and we sat, cross-legged on cushions, eating with only a spoon and our fingers. When I complimented his skills, he waved them away, but his eyes twinkled. For dessert he brought out syllabub in tall glasses topped with candied angelica and violet flowers, their petals so richly dark against the pale cream, the golden centres shining.
As we finished the last mouthful, the deeply golden rays of the sun began to change colour.
“Come,” he said, holding out his hands and pulling me to my feet. “It’s time to bid the sun farewell.”
We stood leaning against the garden gate, breathing in the scent of honeysuckle. Beyond the fields, the village slept, while on the top of the hills, the huge ball of molten red sank inexorably towards the treetops. We watched in silence as the sun rested for a long moment on the horizon then slowly slipped beyond until only a glittering crescent remained.
Then the sun was gone for another day, leaving me aching for lost light. I was mesmerised by the inevitable descent, suddenly conscious of the warmth of Artur’s body behind me and the gentle weight of his arms around my waist.
I let out a long sigh, consciously letting myself relax against him. A soft breeze ruffled my skirt, bringing the chimes of the nearby stable clock upon the air.
“Nine o’clock,” he said, his voice warm against my ear, “still time for you to walk home in the light, should you wish to go.”
“And if I stay?”
“It will always be your choice, Clara. Your presence pleases me a great deal, but if you stay, you will change. Spending time with me always changes others.”
I turned so I could see his face. “I would not have come here without accepting such a possibility.” I felt a hunger rise inside me as I lifted my face to his and closed my eyes.