Me: Tell us about yourself
Elizabeth: I’m married to my best friend (cliché, huh?), have an almost grown daughter, and a scruffy old dog. We live in South Wales, not far from the areas about which I write. Here the land is full of castles, wind-swept mountains and hidden valleys.
Me: Tell us about your new book?
Elizabeth: It’s called The Spirit Guide. Here’s the blurb:
Seren has an unusual gift – she sees spirits, the shades of the dead.
Terrified of being accused of witchcraft, a very real possibility in twelfth century Britain, she keeps her secret close, not even confiding in her husband.
But when she gives her heart and soul to a man who guides spirits in the world beyond the living, she risks her secret and her life for their love.
It’s set in and around the market town of Hay on Wye, and its 1000 year old castle. And it features ghosts! The book, not the castle. Or perhaps the castle does, too…
Me: When you write, does your real life spill over into your book at any time?
Elizabeth: Only in that the places and some of the historical events are real. And some of the characters actually did exist, but I have superimposed my own ideas on what they were like, and this may not reflect their actual personalities.
And sometimes people I know creep in, too. For instance, the when I visualized the character Vaughan, I imagined him to look like a gentleman I used to work with.
Me: Do you think about a book of yours, being made into a movie, or not when writing?
Elizabeth: As I write I see the story unfolding as I would when watching a film, so yeah, I suppose I do, although that’s more a part of my writing process than having a serious consideration that a novel of mine would really be turned into a film.
Me: When naming your characters, do you give any thought to the actual meaning?
Elizabeth: Not to the meaning of the name, but the ‘feel’ of the name and the association I might have with that particular name are important to me. Sometimes a name just pops into my head, and I think ‘that’s perfect!’, and other times it takes me ages to find just the right one. I need to it sound right when spoken out loud, and also look good when written.
Me: What made you want to write and also what made you want to write the genre you are writing?
Elizabeth: It’s all my mother’s fault. She said right from when I was little and got good grades in my English classes that I should write. Easier said than done, though. It takes determination to transfer an idea in your head into real words on a real computer (or paper). As for genre, I think that was more accident than design. I wrote two novels before my State of Grace series, and they were what I would call women’s drama. They weren’t very good – rather dark and depressing. But when I read a few vampire books in which none of the vampires were exactly what I wanted them to be, I decided to write my own. The historical part of my novels just appeared out of nowhere!
Me: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Elizabeth: Stephen King! I’ve read his stuff from when I was a teenager, and I just keep going back to him. The Stand is my favorite novel of all time, and even now he continues to amaze me with his ideas.
Me: Do you have any tips for our readers that might dream of writing?
Elizabeth: Get that first word written! You are never going to be a writer if it stays in your head. And keep writing. It’s like any other craft – it takes practice.
Me: Tell us anything you want?
Elizabeth: I like horses – I generally slip one or two into each novel. It helps that I mostly write about medieval Britain, when horses were a part of everyday life!
Englishmen flooded the castle and I was up to my wrists in the blood of one of them, trying to push his insides back through the eight inch gash in his stomach. His screams filled my ears and my mind, setting my teeth on edge, drowning out the voice of my mother. I jumped violently as she touched my shoulder to gain my attention.
‘Stop, Seren. He is beyond your help.’
I knew he was, but if I could return his intestines to their rightful place, his cries of agony would cease. All I wanted was for this unknown man to be silent.
My mother moved me aside and I went willingly; she had some skill in matters of healing and I bowed to her knowledge.
‘Shield me from the eyes of others,’ she said, and I positioned myself behind her, blocking her hands from the view of those who might take an interest in her activities. I thought she was preparing to practice her peoples’ ancient art on the stricken man, but instead she killed him.
One hand over his mouth, she used the fingers of the other to pinch his nose tightly closed. He struggled fiercely, his feet thrumming against the pallet, his eyes wide and staring as he fought to breathe. His hands clawed at my mother’s own as she leaned in close to whisper in his ear, her grip hard and tight on his face.
I heard not what she said, but his struggles lessened and I watched, awed, as the light left his eyes and another glow, faint at first but growing steadily stronger, emanated from his chest and coalesced into a radiance brighter than the noonday sun. I looked away, unwilling to witness what I could not understand, and when I eventually forced my gaze back to the knight, his death was complete.
She removed her hands, as blood-drenched as mine, and put her ear to his mouth. I could have told her he was dead, but I held my tongue, as I always did.
‘It is kinder this way,’ my mother said. ‘You did all you could, but nothing would have eased his pain.’
She straightened up, her palms in the small of her back, working the kinks out of aching muscles, leaving behind two red hand prints clearly visible in the grime of her gown. My own clothing was stiff with dried gore: I did not think I could ever be clean again, either in body or soul.
‘Come,’ she commanded,’ there are others who need our help.’
I turned away, weary to my bones, wishing I was anywhere but here, in this charnel house of the dead and dying.
The great hall was filled with bodies, some alive and some not, and some wishing they had already gone to meet their maker. The scent of cow-fat candles and oak logs burning in the stone fireplace was an aromatic undertone to the copper-smell of spilled blood, and the stench of bowels loosened by death throes. Screams and groans rent the air, interspersed with calls for more water and fresh linen, and grown men begging for their mothers, or God, to help them.
It was a scene from hell itself, but even though I closed my eyes, I could not block out the vision behind my lids, and I knew I would relive this moment for the rest of my years.
My mother thrust me towards a body on the floor.
‘There is one you can save,’ she said, and when I failed to move even one step closer to my patient, she grasped me painfully by the tops of my arms and shook me hard.
‘I did not wish for this, either,’ she hissed, her face inches from mine. I could see flecks of blood on her forehead and lines of strain around her mouth. Her eyes were dark pits of despair. ‘It is my people these men are killing. But we have a duty to do what we can, and you will not shirk that duty.’
I nodded slowly, to show my acceptance of what she was asking me to do. I might not like it, but I knew my place. As a nearly-grown daughter of the chatelaine - wife of the lord of the castle - certain things were expected of me: tending to battle injuries was one of them.
Abruptly, my mother pulled me towards her, her arms circling me.
‘I promise this day will end,’ she said. ‘I know how hard this is – I, too was innocent of the horrors of war once – but if we do not tend to them, who will? Enough have died today and more will die tomorrow, but there are many we can save.’
She held me close, and I smelled the familiar scent of rosewater underneath the stink of blood, excrement, and sweat. The scent soothed me a little, but not enough to tell her the real reason behind my reluctance to attend to the injured, though the sights before me should be reason enough for anyone.
She released me and gave me a gentle push towards the inert figure at my feet.
I knelt on the sticky rushes, turned the man so he was on his back, and gasped in shock. This was no man, this was a boy, and one I knew well. Porec was no older than I, a stable boy who attended my father’s horses. He should not have been on the battlefield. He should have been seeing to the destriers, yet here he was, covered in gore as much as any fallen knight.
I touched him gently all over, seeking the source of the blood, and finding no visible sign, was about to conclude he was uninjured when, on lifting his head to attempt to dribble some water into his mouth, my hand came away freshly rubied.
The gash on his head was nasty but not fatal, and already the blood flow was slowing. I turned him on his side and called for fresh water. A bowl was placed next to me, along with moss for cleansing the wound. Gently I dabbed away as much blood and dirt as I dared, keeping my eyes firmly on my task, careful not to see the flashes of light which meant another man had died.
As I wrung out the moss, the water in the bowl already a deep red, I saw a flare of darkness in the corner of my vision and quickly raised my head, but it was gone before I saw it clearly. Then I spotted Isobel, and I hurriedly averted my gaze, but not before I registered her expression. Whatever it was, she had seen it too, and it worried her.
That day was longer than any I had experienced before. My mother and her women worked tirelessly as they saw to an unending supply of wounded. Limbs hacked off, stomachs rent, throats opened, gashes, stab wounds, heads caved in – the list of injuries man could inflict on man was seemingly endless, as were the ways of dying. The lights of souls leaving their bodies were as numerous as the stars on a clear night, and still the fallen kept coming. The Welsh, I heard, had it even worse, but my imagination failed to grasp just how much worse than this it could be.
Men too old for fighting cleared away the dead and brought more injured for the women to treat. Some we could help and would live to fight another day, but many were beyond our ministrations. Only my mother was able, or willing, to aid those whose death was certain, and even then she had to perform the task in secret. Many died screeching their agony to the rafters, and the noise haunted me for years to come.
I could tell the dead souls from the walking wounded only because the ghosts were uninjured. But their armour and clothing were those they had worn when they died, still bloodied and torn, and sometimes I could not help but mistake some of them for the living. My reputation for being strange was growing with each spirit I tried to aid.
There were too many of them for Isobel to deal with, and so the recently-dead moved among us, as clear to me as the living, and I tried to avoid touching them whenever I could.
I was swaying on my feet, exhaustion of both mind and body threatening to overwhelm me, when old Clara came searching. She stood, half-in, half-out of the great wooden doors, and I tried to smile at her but my cheeks were frozen into a grimace of despair. Her face was a mass of folded wrinkles, her toothless mouth open in a silent scream of horror as she stared beyond me at the hell inside. I glanced around, seeing the hall through fresh eyes, and my own expression reflected hers. My gaze was caught by one of the castle dogs scurrying past me with his prize grasped in bloodied jaws – a human foot. I swallowed down bile and raised a shaking hand to my forehead.
I needed to get out; just for a little while I needed to breathe air not foetid with the reek of death. I needed to hear the wind in the trees, and the murmur of the river, not the shrieks of mortal agony and the groans of those who lacked the energy to scream. I needed to stand on the balustrade and look out at the distant grey mountains, and forget the redness of slaughter.
I went to her, my old nurse, anxious for the comfort she never failed to provide, but when I grasped the hand she held out to me, I screamed.
A crushing pain was filling my chest, stopping my heart and breath, whilst another pain, sharper and deeper scoured my mind. Glew is dead, slain by an arrow to the throat. Oh Mary, Mother of God, my son is dead. I saw his body, laid out in the courtyard, still and cold, piled up with the rest of those who had lost their lives defending the castle. I knew before I saw him – I knew my eldest had gone. I knew it in my heart, but my head could not believe until I saw his body with mine own eyes. How can I bear it?
The pain in my heart is a dagger, rending me, shredding me, and I cannot catch my breath. I cannot feel my legs, and I try to scream, to call for aid, but only a groan leaves my throat.
I gasped and shuddered, caught up in the last moments of Clara’s life. As I clutched her hand I saw her son’s body through her eyes, I felt her pain, and experienced her death. And I was helpless to prevent it.
A warm hand prised my fingers away from my nurse’s grip. Released from my connection to her, I slumped to the floor, unnoticed; another prone figure amidst the many in the hall. Strong arms lifted me and carried me outside. I clung on, fearful of being left with Clara. I loved the old woman in life, but the dead Clara terrified me.
With eyes tightly closed, unwilling to see the fallen who lay all around in the courtyard, I breathed deeply, and never had air tasted so sweet.
Inside once more, my saviour climbed upward towards my mother’s chamber, and for this small act of kindness I would be forever grateful. I shared a room with two of my sisters, and at this moment I needed to be alone. Neither sister had yet reached womanhood and were spared the trials of this conflict because of their youth, and were confined to our room. My three elder brothers were squires at other castles, but there were two more in the nursery, too small to witness this carnage. I screwed my eyes tightly shut as I considered how my siblings would deal with Clara’s death. They loved her, too.
I opened my eyes as I was borne higher, but could see little of the man who held me, except a clean-shaven chin and dark hair, curling about the chainmail at his throat. The door was kicked open with a booted foot and I was deposited gently on the huge chest at the foot of the bed.
I looked up as he stepped away from me, then shivers set in, a reaction to both Clara’s touch and the misery of the last few hours. I slumped to the floor and he left me there whilst he poured a glass of my mother’s sweet wine. I gulped it thankfully, trying not to think how much the dark red liquid reminded me of the blood I was caked in.
‘Do you need fresh garments?’ he asked, his English tinged with French nuances.
I answered in the same language. ‘My mother has spare clothes in her chests. But is there any point? I will have to return to the hall soon and there is little sense in ruining more clothing.’
‘As you wish.’
He stood staring at me, and I at him. A fighting man, he wore chainmail over linen and the coif of his mail was thrown back from his head. His surcoat bore no emblem I was familiar with. A dagger hung from the belt at his hip, sheathed in leather, its carved ivory hilt gleaming dully in the light of the late afternoon sun, which shafted through the narrow, high windows. Soft black leather boots reached to mid-calf. He had the bearing of a knight, and an English one at that. But I could not fault him neither for his kindness nor for his ancestry: I was half English myself, and could trace my father’s lineage back to William of Normandy. My mother was all Welsh, and it was to my mother I was drawn, with her tales of magic, and the scent of sorcery which hung about her like the faint smell of wood-smoke from a distant fire. I was my mother’s daughter, as my brothers belonged to our father.
‘I must return below,’ he said. ‘Is there someone who can care for you?’
‘I need no care,’ I retorted, a little more hotly than his concern deserved.
He stared at me for several heartbeats and I returned his look as steadily as I could. I was unused to meeting a strange man’s gaze, but war had a habit of turning custom on its
head. I liked what I saw; dark, curling hair, dark eyes, and Norman complexion, or else he spent much time outdoors. Taller by at least three hand-spans, he towered over me as I sat in blood-drenched misery on the floor next to my mother’s carved, oak chest, trying to look more composed than I felt.
Abruptly I became aware of my situation. It was unseemly for me, an unmarried maid, to be alone with a man who was not father, brother or uncle, and I was alone with him in a private chamber. If I were discovered my reputation would be beyond repair.
‘I will rest a while,’ I said, my voice more gentle than before. ‘Thank you for your aid.’
He dipped his head, acknowledging my manners and my subtle dismissal of him, but he made no move to leave.
The silence grew and I wriggled uncomfortably under his scrutiny, but eventually he spoke.
‘What caused you to cry out?’ he asked. I could not fathom the expression in his eyes.
It was more than simple curiosity which made him ask, and instantly I was wary and on guard. My mother suspected there was more to me than I showed, as did others, but I well knew how fine the line was between appearing a simpleton and being thought of as a witch. I guarded this curse of mine jealously, even from those who love me, and I was not about to reveal my secret to a stranger, however pretty and courteous.
‘You saw the hall,’ I retorted, my tone sharp once more. ‘Any maid would be overwhelmed.’
His gaze raked my face, searching for more than I was willing to give, and somehow I thought he knew, I thought he could see my soul and the burden it carried, and I cringed before him.
‘You are too young a lady to witness such horrors,’ he said, after another long silence.
‘My mother does not think so,’ I replied, and I could hear the resentment in my voice and wondered at it. I knew my duty, and was old enough to perform it. I was a woman flowered, and if my father was successful in his quest for a husband for me, I would soon have my own homestead and family. This I knew, so why the hidden bitterness?
‘You are of an age to be wed, are you not?’
‘Yes. I am sixteen.’
I was conscious of the way his eyes traversed my face and body. It was not the surreptitious ogling that I was aware of with other men. It was an honest evaluation, with little more concern than if this strange knight had been buying a horse, and with an abruptness
which jolted me, anger spiked in my chest, swiftly followed by acceptance – I knew I was not looking my best. The coils of my dark hair stuck damply to my face, whether from sweat or blood I could not tell, and I was spattered with worse than blood. My gown, once a deep green, was now a muddied, bloodied brown, and the scent of death coated every inch of me. No wonder he failed to see me for the woman I was.
I scrambled to my feet and stood as tall as I could, emulating my mother’s unconsciously regal bearing, aware of my tiny waist and the flare of my newly-rounded hips, and was rewarded by a sudden glint of desire in those dark eyes. Now he saw!
I was instantly contrite. I only recently understood the power women wielded over men by virtue of their femininity, and I was too young to be completely comfortable with the interest I sparked. It was safe to flutter my eyes at strangers, whilst I sat at my father’s table, and with my mother to protect me from myself and others. This was another thing entirely.
‘I am Sir Walter’s daughter,’ I said, letting him know I was not some serving wench to be trifled with: I was not highborn, yet I was beyond the threat of a brief dalliance, and my father’s influence would ensure my safety. My simple statement spoke volumes.
So did his.
I breathed out in a rush and a blush coloured my cheeks. Of course he knew. Why else would he bring me to the chatelaine’s chamber? If I were an ordinary maid, then he would not have dared to invade the privacy of my mother’s rooms.
He bowed low, and took his leave, but not before I glimpsed the laughter in his eyes.
I heaved a sigh, weary to my soul, as the door closed softly behind him. The intensity of the last few moments drained away, leaving me exhausted and unnerved. I slumped back to the floor, unwilling to stain the wood of the chest with my blood-coated dress.
I didn’t hear her come in, but some sixth sense told me I was not alone. I lifted my head from my hands, expecting to see my mother, come to chastise me for shirking my responsibilities; instead I saw a spirit.
‘I’ve been looking for you,’ Isobel said.