Nectar from a Stone: A Novelby Jane Guill
On the road, they cross paths with Gwydion, a moody
It is 1351 in Wales, a country subjugated by England, beaten down by superstition, war, and illness. Elise, prone to strange visions and the sole survivor of a plague-ravaged family, has fled her village for distant Conwy with her servant Annora, running from a murder she was forced to commit in self-defense.
On the road, they cross paths with Gwydion, a moody Welshman seeking to avenge his murdered family and reclaim his estate, and are drawn into a bloody confrontation with another traveler. In its aftermath, Elise and Gwydion find themselves shocked by their developing feelings for each other, and they part.
As the women ultimately reach Conwy, a menacing shadow from Elise's past creeps toward her, and she must face it to find the peace she longs for, and help Gwydion recapture his home, and her heart, in the process.
In a dazzling narrative where mysterious visions, powerful desire, and dark secrets from the past converge, Jane Guill spins a masterful tale of romance, revelation, and breathtaking suspense.
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Chapter One: Gray Hill
North Wales, Summer 1351
Maelgwyn's "husbandly attention," as he called it, went on and on. Strange, how time could creep and crawl.
The room grew darker as the fire died.
"Have you no answer, Elise?"
Had he posed a question? Lying there, all she'd heard was the sighing of the wind, outside, and the faint rush of blood in her ears.
He stared down into her face. "Or is this unamiable silence yet another sign of your waywardness?"
This required some reply. "I have never studied to be wayward to you, sir," she said.
"Hah. You require no study, being a born mistress of the art." He reached down to pinch her thigh, his usual way of emphasizing a point. She bit back a cry but knew there would be a bruise. "Had you been attending, wife, you would have heard me say your constant lack of response is vexing. Nor am I able to fathom your ingratitude. Who are you to be ungrateful? Better souls than you suffer every hour. As we speak, worthy Welshmen bleed on French battlefields. In the course of the Great Mortality, thousands of good Christians fell. Yet you survived, Elise. Then you were so fortunate as to come here to me. Deo dilecti. But why?"
Deo dilecti. Chosen by God. When had she so offended her Maker that she had been chosen by Him, for this?
"It is as great a mystery to me as it is to you," she said, without equivocation.
"So I should imagine. But are you happy to be alive, rejoicing in my protection and devotion? No, I fear you are not. The pitiful dowry you brought with you does not compensate me for your relentless ingratitude, I assure you."
She closed her eyes for a moment, considering that dowry. It had not been pitiful, she knew. But she also knew there was never anything to be gained by contradicting Maelgwyn. So she opened her eyes and said, "Merely I am worn from the demands of the day and the household. There's only Annora to aid me." Then she lied. "But I am not ungrateful."
Would the reasonable excuse of fatigue stem a more grueling interrogation? The truth would never do. She couldn't tell this cruel man how she loathed and feared him, how the very sight of him -- his long, muscled trunk and ox's neck -- had become so abhorrent to her it was almost past bearing. Further, the truth could finally tip the scales of his volatile temper, a temper grown increasingly vicious in the two years since she had come to his rambling old house, Bryn-llwyd. Gray Hill.
"I confess," he was saying, "I forget from time to time that you are but a woman, the worst sort of stinking rose. The holy philosophers tell us all we need know of the sorry origin of women."
He continued, providing endless unwanted instruction even as he resumed his "husbandly attention."
She turned her head away to look down at the wooden floor, hoping to will her mind to some less hurtful place. A large black spider, speckled with yellow dots, crossed a rough plank near the hearth. It stopped and reared two of its legs, as if searching for some invisible passage. Then it lowered its legs and scurried toward a wall.
What tales had she heard of spiders? What had her servant and friend, Annora, told her? Elise pondered the question to divert herself. Soon she remembered Annora's words: to their webs spiders entice fallen souls who only appear to poor human eyes as trapped moths or mites, before herding them to Purgatory. But hadn't Annora also said the creeping things were a blessing in the house, because they could miraculously absorb the poisonous Pestilence vapor, bind it to the spots on their backs? Could these tales be true?
The evening wind grew stronger and shifted. Timbers objected. On one wall of their chamber three extravagant new glass panes, Maelgwyn's proudest acquisition and the first, he boasted, of many more to come, had been set into a triptych of branches hacked from a young oak. Still tall in its place but condemned to wither limb-stripped and then tumble down too early, that oak could no longer soften with its used-to-be leaves the view south to the empty Migneint Moor. It was Elise's fancy that the triptych, stolen from the tree's living body, would never contentedly cradle its fragile burden. And so it moaned softly with complaint.
A fierce gust brought the faint scent of the garderobe to the solar. The privy had been corbeled out over the river next to the chamber, and often stank when gales blew from the west.
"Fah, it reeks of cess in here," said Maelgwyn, for once echoing his young wife's thoughts.
But she flinched, for his harsh voice had startled her.
"You're skittish as a maiden, girl. Does my affection overwhelm you, or are you merely in the throes of yet another of your unholy visions?"
This jibe targeted a susceptibility to trance, hers since the season of the Gemini moon in 1343, eight years past, when she was eleven. Terrifying or glorious, her visions came unbidden, mostly eluding interpretation. To the past frustration of her loved ones, and now Maelgwyn, they often featured absolute strangers. Often, but not always.
In trances, sometimes only vaguely remembered by her once they'd passed, she had rightly foretold a rain of dying stars and spoken, most eerily, with the forgotten voice of the bard, Taliesin, who passed to Rapture in the days of Arthur and Myrddin. She had described strange landscapes and revealed to a lonely maiden the secret love of a neighbor. Likewise, many times she had predicted pregnancy. Or death.
That final item, predicting death, could not be thought remarkable. Death had lately stopped in many houses. It had thrown its dark cloak over every valley and knoll in Britain.
On the island of Anglesey, where Elise was born, three or four days north from Gray Hill, the gift of prophecy was regarded as God's favor. When she was a child, her parents refused coins from neighbors hoping to crouch nearby, their ears cocked for any mystic rambling that may have chanced to fall from Elise's young lips as she worked the spindle or sorted her mother's herbs.
Deep mystery was in her spells. Among a world of betters, why had God chosen her to deliver even the least vital word? Or was it God who had chosen? Elise understood there was no tisane or trick to calm her doubt on this. Was she God's herald, or only Satan's fool?
High wrought by what he called immoral superstition, Maelgwyn rebuked her for her trances without fail, and the previous winter he had lashed her with a studded whip one morning as she sat enthralled in a vision. Elise had felt no pain but had revived to the sight of three bright welts across her inner wrist. She had smiled down at the marks and said, unexpectedly to herself, "Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."
Her husband's face had grown chalky white before he added more wounds, blurring the crimson edges of the original three. "Blasphemy!" he cried and flung himself from the room.
His ill temper had not softened since, but she preferred it more than she could say to his monstrous ardor.
Now, in their solar, he pulled her up by her arms and dragged her from the bed without warning. She made an effort to stand upright but stumbled backward. Only a wooden chair behind her kept her from sprawling. At her seeming retreat, Maelgwyn's hands dropped to his sides. His blue eyes glinted in the light of the tallow candle flickering on the table near the chamber's closed door. Cast into ghostly relief by the candlelight, a dark vein pulsed at his temple.
He swooped down to catch her wrists with one large hand and squeezed so hard that her fingers grew quickly numb. "You choose so blithely to defy my wishes? Then kneel," he said, forcing her to her knees. "Like so. Only now do you strike the proper posture for supplication, Elise."
When she tried to pull away, he tightened his hold and seized the neck of her summer shift. She gasped as he ripped downward, rending the fine cloth. With a soft hiss, the ruined shift fell to the floor around her.
"Didn't the great thinker Boethius tell us that woman is a temple built upon a sewer?" he said, breathing a bit harder, but smiling. "Was he not a godly man?" He reached around her and ran the blunt fingernails of his unoccupied hand down her spine. "Some of your gender will call that an overly harsh edict, of course. But what is a righteous man to do? I must align myself with the Church's precepts and declare every woman an Eve."
Face hot, legs icy, Elise ceased any effort to free herself and sagged into his grip. "I am only fatigued, Maelgwyn, and addled by weariness. I will not fight you anymore," she said, staring up at him. "Let me rise so we may go on. I'm too aroused to kneel." She essayed a coy smile but knew it must be ghastly.
"No, Elise. Your wan smile and gray eyes can't dupe me further tonight. I mistrust women with gray eyes, you know, for they always, always prove to be sinful. In any case, I am a prophet now. And I foresee the most practical way for a willful wife to absorb a husband's teaching will be low and mean, so she may more easily comprehend it. That thought is balm for my distaste. I only pray my righteous seed is steered by Heaven to a smooth passage down your throat, toward your wicked soul."
He released her and inclined his head. "Move to me now, to ingest my probity."
Stronger hints of the privy assailed her as mounting winds buffeted the old manor. Some creature, mouse or bat, disturbed the thatched roof above. Drifting to the floor beyond Maelgwyn, the resulting halo of fine dust shone in the candle's glow.
Not a soul would come if she called. No one would hear her cries, except perhaps her friend Annora, Gray Hill's only other human inhabitant. Meanwhile her bare-chested husband stood between her and the door, hosen around his knees.
"For shame, woman," he finally said, as she gave no sign of obeying.
Another gale shook the manor. Hail pinged against glass. With more urgency than grace, she tried to rise but tangled her feet in her torn shift. Maelgwyn yanked her up by her hair.
"Any bleating ewe would be less trouble," he said, dragging her back toward the bed.
Twisting away at the last moment, she ran to the window. There, after two long years of cowardice, her caution deserted her. It dissolved like a tattered shadow. But in its stead it left a wild, quick-blossoming rage. Her head fairly swam with rage.
"A ewe? I recommend one, sir," she said, breath uneven. "Or an ass. A fine great ass for your mighty probity." Without conscious thought she began to laugh like a madwoman.
His thick brows drew together to form one black line. "Yet more shame, Elise."
Her laughter ceased as abruptly as it had begun. "Maelgwyn, can you not feel it? Something taints you. Some evil. In this house you are the fountainhead of everything unholy, for your pleasure can only be bought with pain. How sad and rotten your soul must be, how endless your fear. Indict me if you must" -- she wrapped her arms around herself, covering her breasts -- "but you know full well your own foul craving will condemn you straight to Hell."
A sickly half smile played at the corners of his mouth, and his nostrils flared.
Forcing herself to look into his face, she was shocked to catch a glimmer of fear, fear she had discerned in him only once before.
He drew back slightly, as if sensing her discovery.
"You're frightened," she said.
He took a breath; his broad chest swelled with it. And the fear disappeared from his eyes.
"Afraid?" he said. The word dripped with scorn. His teeth showed in a wider, crueler smile. "Of a godless female? You're a greater fool than I supposed."
"Likely I am. But I saw it. You had that same look another time, one other time only, just after I came here."
"Poor Elise. It's almost amusing to witness your attempts to evade my wrath, and God's."
Her eyes did not leave his face. She would will him to answer, will him to pay for his violent gratification with one small moment of truth. "You know it's true. That first time, I described a vision I'd had. It was before I knew to keep my visions secret from you when I could. I told you I saw a woman. She stood naked by a river and she wore a necklace of tiny starfish. She called your name. She -- "
"Your tactics pall."
"Who was she? Your first wife? Your mother?"
Silence fell, absorbing any warmth remaining in the room. Gooseflesh climbed her limbs. Her dark hair spilled down her back to her waist. Outside, the hail stopped, and the wind grew less violent.
After a near eternity of quiet he spoke. He brought his hands to his chin, palms together as if in prayer. "What do you hope to gain by spewing your wicked tales, Elise? You and I both know your visions are only a sorry plea for my attention. We both know you never prattled of any woman."
"I did, Maelgwyn."
He went on as if she had not spoken. "But by mouthing your lies, your evil fantasies, you have damned yourself with words. Finally, Elise. Finally you cause me to kill you, as I've imagined I might since we wed, if only to do God and other men a service."
He took a step toward her, and another.
She shrank back with a cry.
He stopped and gazed past her, to his new panes and the darkness beyond, to the unseen rushing river. "Who will weep? I'll say you fell to a revisiting of the Mortality. I'll say you divined it yourself from a glimpse, in a vision, of a lake burning with brimstone. Is that not prophetic? Tomorrow morning or the next, what fool would burrow into your grave to confirm the dreaded symptoms?"
Without moving his head he shifted his focus, regarding her from the corner of his eye. "Let she who is ripe...fall."
"You're mad," she whispered.
Slammed back against the window, her knuckles hit a pane. Glass shattered, scoring uneven red lines down her arm. He struck her across the face with the side of his broad hand.
As blood dripped from her elbow to her foot, he struck again.
Shielding her head with her sound arm, she fell to the floor. "If I am to die," she cried, "at least let me say a prayer of contrition."
He loomed over her, breathing hard. "My dear," he said, with sudden real dismay, "I fear you are in the right. Yes, you must pray to Mary Magdalene. You must ask her to petition Heaven on your behalf -- although I suspect it will be futile."
She cringed when he reached out, obscenely gentle, to stroke her hair. "Poor girl, where is my Christian compassion? Yes, yes, you must certainly pray."
She looked up at him as he bent over her. "I already have," she said -- and drove a sharp glass dagger upward, hard, into his groin.
He crashed to the floor, but then staggered up at once to his knees. "Satan's bitch," he gasped. His arms shot out. His hands closed around her throat.
As a gray mist swirled up before her, she lashed out blindly with the shard and heard him curse again. His hands dropped away from her neck.
Once more the room grew still.
Copyright © 2005 by Jane Guill
Every age presents men and women with its own peculiarities, pains, and pleasures. In 1351, when this tale begins, the world still reeled from a sweeping and horrific visitation of the bubonic plague. People named the disease the Great Mortality, or the Pestilence. Educated guesses put the death toll in Europe at somewhere around one-third of the population, perhaps more. Certain places were luckier than others, but doomed villages here and there succumbed completely.
The Church of the Middle Ages, God's omnipresent intermediary in the Western world, had proven all too clearly unable to stop the spread of the affliction. More worldly opinions had to be sought. In October 1348, learned doctors in France decreed the disease was caused by a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the fortieth degree of Aquarius, an event they said had taken place on March 20, 1345. Their opinion was accepted as state-of-the-art scientific wisdom. Like the Church's call for unceasing prayer and contrition, the doctors' astral verdict did nothing to deter the Mortality. The pandemic took its own unimaginable course, leaving in its wake stunned and disheartened survivors.
The Black Death was by far the most grievous tribulation of the fourteenth century. But there were other conflicts and troubles.
Edward I, grandnephew of Richard the Lion-Hearted, conquered Wales in 1282. When Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last true Welsh prince, was killed in battle against Edward's forces, his head was stuck on a pole and displayed in London as a trophy and unambiguous warning to the defiant.
Edward was an effective and ambitious ruler, but ruthless. His son, Edward II, was the first English-appointed Prince of Wales. But Edward II came to a famously bad end, deposed and murdered by his wife, Isabella of France, and her English lover, Roger Mortimer. However, Edward and Isabella did manage to produce an heir before they grew completely estranged. It was their son, Edward III, who ruled Britain in the days of this story.
A war with France was instigated by Edward III and had already been raging for fourteen years by 1351. England felt entitled to huge chunks of France. Of course, France disagreed. There was also fierce disagreement on trade issues. In the end, England won most of the battles, but France won the war. The conflict lasted until 1453. It is now called the Hundred Years' War, a more euphonious but less accurate appellation than the Hundred and Sixteen Years' War.
It's likely people on both sides of this contest often set out to do battle with patriotic zeal. Joan of Arc, perhaps the most famous teenager in history, comes to mind. But some participants certainly hungered for plunder more than anything else. Others had no say at all in their military careers but were dragged unwillingly into duty. This was probably the case with many Welshmen.
Women faced battles of their own. A woman in the fourteenth century dealt with customs and abuses so familiar to her she may not have even given them any particular thought. Unless she was wealthy, her legal status was on par with a madman's or a sheep's. Her husband could beat her if he took the notion, as long as he didn't cripple or kill her -- and provided her screams didn't disturb the neighbors.
A thirteenth-century (male) encyclopedist called woman "a hindrance to devotion." Original sin was traced by the Church to Eve. Naturally it followed that all women, with a few saintly exceptions, were the Devil's temptresses and his lusty recruiters. Of course, not every male embraced that prickly assumption. Surely many men adored their mothers and daughters, their good wives, and did not suppose them to be demonic seductresses.
The Welsh places and byways mentioned in these pages are not fictional. The Trackway of the Cross can still be traced or even walked for a large part of its sixty-mile length. Sylvan quiet reigns over much of it. A medieval man or woman dropped there now through some glitch in time might find sections of the track little changed. Birds still sing high in the oaks. Bees flit and buzz. But if the modern pilgrim hears monks' chants or lepers' clackers, or glimpses lost ladies in the mist, it's only a trick of the imagination.
Sarn Elen too -- the Roman Road in Wales -- can be followed for a long way. Ghostly legionnaires do reveal themselves there, now and again, as they do on many of the Roman roads in Britain. Perhaps these indefatigable soldiers are still looking for a way back to Rome. Or maybe they're only eternally marching back to their British outposts, hungry for dinner and evening wine. The lonely ruin of Dolwyddelan Castle can be visited, also the church at Llanrhychwyn, and of course, Edward I's imposing castle at Conwy.
The Welsh language, one of the oldest in Europe, flourishes.
And the Honey Fair still takes place in Conwy, every September.
Copyright © 2005 by Jane Guill
Meet the Author
Jane Guill is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of two Illinois Arts Council awards. She divides her time between far northwest Illinois and North Wales.
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I picked this book up off the sales rack not thinking it would be any good, and I am happy to say I was wrong. This book is excellent from beginning to end. The author does a great job keeping you engaged, and has a very intriguing writing style. I highly recommend it!
Jane Guill¿s debut novel, Nectar From a Stone, tells the intertwining stories of a young widow seeking redemption and a noblemen¿s quest for revenge. In 1351, the plague has devastated Europe, Wales is a country subjugated by English oppression, superstition runs rampant, and the medieval church blames women for just about anything it perceives as sinful. Elise, a half-Welsh, half-English woman plagued by strange visions, is forced to stab her brutal husband in self-defense. Believing him dead, she flees with her servant, Annora, for Conwy, hoping to find work and peace. Gwydion, also half-Welsh, half-English, is a brooding nobleman on his way to Conwy as well, seeking vengeance against those who murdered his family and seized his estate. He and Elise cross paths on the road north and against better judgment, are inexorably drawn to each. As each reaches their destination, a dark and cruel shadow from Elise¿s past begins to catch up, sweeping her and Gwydion into a terrifying confrontation with their enemies. Nectar From a Stone is a fascinating window into medieval Welsh life. Impeccable research and lively characters bring both the place and time alive, illustrating the depth to which war, illness, the church and superstition played in everyday life. Elise and Gwydion are endearing, and Annora is a delight with her wry humor¿a nice balance against the cruelty of Elise¿s evil husband Maelgwn and Gwydion¿s conspiratorial foes. Jane Guill¿s intelligent, rich portrayal of medieval Wales is told with charm, wit, and masterful storytelling. Highly recommended.
In 1351 Wales, evil Maelgwyn performs his ¿husbandly attention¿ to include yelling at his spouse Elise, who has the gift of visions. When Maelgwyn starts to abuse Elise, she, not fearing him and refusing to cower, kills her husband. With the help of her older servant Annora, she dumps the corpse into the nearby river and flees. --- On the lam, the two women meet gloomy Lord Gwydion who seeks vengeance for the murders of his father and sister. Attracted to one another, Elise and Gwydion soon realize they have a common enemy as Sir Nicholas killed his family and tried to rape Annora and Elise. As Gwydion and Elise fall in love while she heals his physical and mental wounds, Maelgwyn survived with plans to avenge his affront. --- The keys to this great medieval Welsh romance are the relationship between the lead couple and the insightful historical tidbits that bring to life the mid fourteenth century. However, there is too much nectar in the story line as well written and interesting sidebars take away from the prime tale of malevolent thugs accosting and interfering with the romance between the good guys. Still sub-genre fans will want to join Gwydion and Elise on their trek filled with detours towards love. --- Harriet Klausner
I love history, but hate text books--making Nectar the perfect read for me. Author Jane Guill has a gift for weaving historical fact with enjoyable fiction, keeping the reader both enlightened and entertained. Her grasp of the English language is incredible, her attention to detail unsurpassed. I was intrigued by the symbolism utilized as well. Don't miss this excellent read.