Knights of England Series
Mary Ellen Johnson
"Life though pleasant is transitory, even as is the Cherry Fair. "
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BEFORE I WAKE (Travels Across Time, Book 1)
I am standing in front of a huge wooden door held together with four black iron bands. Actually, two doors, like the doors to a cathedral, though these lead to a bailey, then deeper into the heart of our castle to the keep, which is my destination. I look down to see my tiny slippered feet planted upon the planks that comprise part of the drawbridge.
I look up to see, above and around the doors, whitewashed stones which, depending on the manner in which the afternoon sun strikes them, reveal the faintest tint of rose. The colors remind me of cherry blossoms, though this year’s petals have long since littered the ground in the small orchard beyond our enceinte. I wonder, because I am afraid to ponder what awaits me inside the keep, whether Maman will allow me to pick cherries at harvest, or will she say I am too old?
Somewhere in the background, like the buzzing of a fly, I hear a voice, Viola’s voice, guiding me.
Unnecessary. I am fully here, a slightly built girl standing on a drawbridge, gathering the courage to meet my future.
Though I am this girl, I am also observing her/me from above. Currently viewing myself from the back. I have light brown hair that falls in a silky cascade to my waist. My gown is blue.
The doors swing open, as if I am expected. I don’t see anyone, not even in the bailey, which is curiously deserted, though I suspect my perception is faulty. I am so nervous I have tunnel vision.
I step into the great hall, which is filled with lords and ladies, all attired in intense colors—blues, yellows, oranges, reds, green the color of the summer grass in England’s fields. Because I am in England, of course I am. Two long linen-draped tables flank me on either side. In front of me, a raised dais.
A pair of large carved chairs in the center. My parents. Even as I walk forward, observer me gasps, “They’re so beautiful!” My father, brown-haired and bearded with sharp features, my mother, her perfectly oval face accentuated by an ivory wimple.
Observer me is surprised by my parents’ beauty, since that is not how our ancestors are usually portrayed. Still, I am here, and this is what I see. Breathtaking parents—and a plain girl so frightened my legs tremble beneath my gown. A plain girl whose name is…
It is on the tip of my tongue, teasing my consciousness, though I can’t quite pull it forward. What is my name?
The conversation in the great hall dips; I sense all eyes upon me. I, who prefer to hover unnoticed in quiet corners, am the unwelcome center of attention.
I approach the dais. I am so very small. I feel as if I am the size of a doll, though that can’t be so. I just feel so hesitant and uncertain, which makes me long to bury my face against Maman’s surcoat or hide in the buttery among dusty casks of wine. Today is the most important day in my life and I am too young! Years are a muddled thing, but I calculate I am around twelve. My mother’s smile is kind, and I sense she is silently urging me forward, to remember my training, to behave as the lady I soon will be. My father looks solemn, a bit relieved since negotiations have been tedious. I am vaguely aware of pages behind them, carrying platters and jugs.
My heart begins a sudden racing, faster and faster until I fear it could force its way from my chest.
I know he is sitting beside my father, at his right hand. We have not even met, officially. Maman confided that he has seen me, but I’ve not been allowed that return courtesy. All I know is that he is very old, fifteen years older, and I am afraid of him. Certainly afraid to risk a glance at him, even out the corner of my eyes.
My father is speaking, not so much to me, I don’t think, but to the assembly. After he finishes, I gather the pitiful rags of my courage and dare a glance at my fiancé.
My first glimpse of the man who has haunted me through the centuries, the man I’d never even sensed until this moment.
Like a flash of lightning, his name blazes upon my consciousness: Ranulf Navarre.
My breath catches. My initial quavering glance hardens into an endless stare. I am not so young that I cannot feel attraction, if not desire. Ranulf Navarre is the most mesmerizing man I have ever seen.
Black hair nearly brushing his neckline, big even sitting down, his shoulders wider than my father’s, and my father is more physically impressive than…the comparison eludes me. Our king? Our prince? I am too captivated by my fiancé, too undone by his presence, to think clearly. Ranulf Navarre, in turn, scrutinizes me through eyes so big and brown—the color of my pony’s or the roe deer I’ve seen in the Royal Forest. But nothing soft or gentle resides in those depths—not now, when he is weighing and measuring me, considering my worth as his future bride. And certainly not later, when he torments me into madness.
This I instinctively know, even when I cannot possibly know such things.
I cannot look away. As our gazes hold, Ranulf’s irises darken until they appear black. Or have I confused that with the shifting shadows in the great hall? I cannot tell; I cannot think. Ranulf Navarre’s surcoat is the color of blood—or more perhaps the color of red wine when raised to the light. It perfectly sets off the darkness of his hair and eyes and complexion.
Even among the jeweled colors of those around him, my soon-to-be-husband glows more brightly than all the rest combined. I’ve never seen the like.
My legs shake so violently I must forcefully lock my knees in order to remain standing. The rest of the room fades; there is no one here, anywhere, save for the two of us…
Like a fly buzzing, I hear Viola. Her voice is soothing but carries a commanding edge. “Move forward. To another event that is important to you.”
I think I remember my name. It’s a simple one. Mary? Eve? Alice? Jane…Janey. That sounds right.
Now I am a grown woman, though I still feel small as a youngling.
Once again, observer me notes that she/I remain a colorless creature. The kind of person who is so forgettable that a moment after you meet me or we hold a conversation, my face, my demeanor, my very existence vanishes from your memory. Everything about me—from my hair to my gown to my slippers—is the color of dust. What a contrast to the living flame that is my husband.
But where is Ranulf? He is not at my side.
I am standing on a parapet, gazing in the direction of the rocky path where I will first glimpse the procession. I am waiting, waiting for the return of my husband. Devastated. And so angry. I love and hate Ranulf Navarre in equal measure. I feel both emotions so strongly my very soul vibrates with the battle between them. I hate him because he is so big and strong and has a way of twisting everything so no matter the infidelities, the cruelties, the barrenness, it is always my fault. And I accept that, this insipid Janey does, if only on the outside. Inside, I am such a cauldron of contradictory emotions, so maddened by the resultant chaos that I do not know how my physical body—my muscles and cells and bones and the blood coursing through my veins—has not exploded. Because the love, the ache for Ranulf Navarre, the pain surely encompasses the universe….
More buzzing, so irritating that I imagine waving my hand in front of my face to brush it away. I am so deep into this scene.
I’ve wandered into an endless forest, so black and dense I’ll never be able to find my way out. How could I? There is no way out. Not for me.
Agitation rises like vomit. Panic. I am waiting, not for the return of my husband, but for the return of my husband’s body. Ranulf is dead, dead because he dared revolt against the king, he and that Frenchman and all the men that Frenchman and his sons led to their doom. I warned him, didn’t I? But what did I warn him of? What did I say? My head hurts with remembering. Or am I trying not to remember?
In the distance, I glimpse torchlights. Approaching in a slow, solemn funeral cortege. A scream escapes my throat.
I am thrashing upon the couch. Not on the parapet. On a soft upholstered couch, my head upon a feather pillow.
Once again, Viola, her voice more insistent, cuts through the memory. “Move on, to when you are leaving this life.”
I relax, sink back into the comfortable surroundings. Now I am both observer and Janey. I see her/me laid out as if asleep, but I am hovering high above the ground. Not floating exactly. More like the magician’s trick where his assistant appears to be levitating. My body—so insignificant—a mere husk of a human being.
“What did you learn from this life?” asks Viola.
I answer without hesitation, with a firmness I never expressed when alive.
“I will never let a man control me again. Ever.”
Following my regression, I walked around in a daze, unable to concentrate on anything other than the images dredged up during that fateful session. Wisps of dreams trailed me everywhere, teeming with knights in battle armor; a shadowed face, long hair caught by the wind, creating a dark halo around his head; torch lights, held aloft by robed figures, snaking down a hill; darkness laying like a blanket across an elaborate tomb. Unable to make sense of any of the images or scenes, I passed them off as arising from my research for The Lion and the Leopard.
Zak was building transmission lines, this time near Vail. For the first time, I was glad he was gone. I could not bear for him to see me unravelling, like a spool of cable wire reaching its end. When I thought of my husband, my memory held an image of him—the length of his hair, the exact shade of his eyes, the curve of his nose—that did not match the man who shared my bed each weekend. My initial reaction, no longer than a heartbeat, was that Zak Ridarelli was a stranger, a mistake, while my real husband was somewhere in hiding. I tried to act normal, but everything felt off-kilter; he felt off-kilter and when I looked into his eyes I wanted to weep.
Not my husband. Not you!
I imagined erasing Zak’s face and body and re-drawing it so it would match the man in my regression, Ranulf Navarre. Other times I wanted to beat my head against a wall in order to pulverize the image of Ranulf, the being of him from my brain. Tear him out from the roots of my mind like some sort of diseased plant.
Is this madness?
I sketched endless drawings of my long-ago husband’s face and form. In high school, I’d won awards for my watercolors and charcoal sketches, but the reconstructions left me frustrated. They were never right. Ranulf Navarre remained elusive, hidden from me, and it was driving me insane.
Lovemaking with Zak, always transcendent, was suddenly unsatisfactory. I kept having flashes of my knight, my husband—his face above me, his caresses on my body. Come and gone so quickly, like the glimmering of trout in a stream. I felt like a coin being flipped in a coin toss—this way, that way. Now I’m here, now I’m there.
“Hey, darlin’, something wrong?” Zak asked, wrapped in post-coital embrace.
“Of course not.” I forced myself to stretch up and kiss him on the lips. But I worried he sensed that I was pulling away. Would he think I’d grown cold? Look elsewhere to “fuck hard”? Over the years, I’d received phone calls from women asking for him, but he’d always had an explanation—old girlfriends or hookups of linemen buddies or someone he’d met in a bar, perfectly innocent, who’d morphed into a stalker. I was very much aware of the way women threw themselves at Zak, but I believed his protestations of fidelity.
Because I wanted to.
Because I couldn’t face the alternative.
My first husband’s betrayal had hurt.
But Zak? Zak Ridarelli would wreck me.