Sample text for The rose labyrinth / by Titania Hardie.

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A blackbird's song broke into his uneasy dreams, but the shutters on the cottage windows were still tightly closed.

Will had arrived late, the faded September twilight long gone, but the moon had been bright enough to find the secreted house key among the geraniums. He woke now in panic in the darkness, strangely disorientated, though a tiny shaft of light was trying to force its way in. Without his noticing, morning had come.

He leaped from the bed in a rush, and worried at the window catches. The wood had swollen in the rainy weather, and the shutters stuck for a moment before his fingers understood them. Then instantly he was bathed in intense light. It was a perfect early autumn morning, the low-lying mist already pierced with sunshine. The myrrh scent of roses came in with the light and the moist air, blending with the distinct note of French lavender from a hedge somewhere below. Such bittersweet memories stole in with the smell, but at least they restored some sense of calm and drove the haunting faces that had crowded his dreams from his mind.

He had forgotten about the immersion heater last night, but he was desperate to shower off the dust from yesterday's long ride from Lucca. He found the cool water refreshing, sorry only to lose the heat that might have eased the stiffness in his body. His Ducati 998 was definitely not a touring bike: it was like a tetchy supermodel. Breathtakingly quick, absurdly demanding, yet exhilarating to ride, it suited Will's humor and eccentricity to perfection; but over long stretches without a break it was uncomfortable, if he were honest. His knees had been cramping a little in the leathers late yesterday, but he shrugged that off. You had no business riding such a bike if you were fainthearted.

His face in the mirror confirmed his mother's view of him as "an angel a little fallen"; he resembled an extra in a Zeffirelli film, he thought, his jawline outlined with dark stubble. He laughed with shock, recognizing that at this moment the look would unsettle even her. There was something manic in the face laughing back at him, and he knew he hadn't kept the demons of his journey from getting a little too close to his soul.

He pared -- rather than shaved -- away the growth of several days, and wiping soap from the razor he suddenly noticed a slightly faded rose which had dried perfectly in an old ink bottle by the sink. Perhaps his brother, Alex, had brought someone there in the last couple of weeks? He had been so immersed in his own thoughts lately, he hardly knew anyone else's movements. He smiled, intrigued at the idea.

"I'll call him early this evening," he said aloud, surprised at the unfamiliar sound of his own voice, "once I get to Caen." The ferry wasn't leaving until nearly midnight; but right now, he had things he wanted to do.

In the serene morning light of the kitchen he started to relax for the first time in weeks, losing the disturbed, fugitive feeling he'd found shadowing him recently. The smell of apples in the orchard spilled through the open door -- bringing the comfort of the thirty-one autumns he'd enjoyed before this one. He'd run from everything and everyone, but it felt good that he was coming home. He rinsed the bloodred wine stain from the glass left from last night and threw what was left of the French loaf into the oven to encourage it for a few minutes. He decided to check the bike, as he barely remembered how he'd parked it: all that had kept him going during those last grinding miles at speed from Lyon was the thought of refuge, breaking into the pungent Meaux brie he'd packed in his rucksack, with a baguette, a glass of his father's St.-Emilion, and bed.

Outside, everything was disarmingly peaceful. There was a late flush of wisteria scrambling over the front of the cottage. Apart from superficial signs of neglect betrayed by an uncut lawn and unswept path, the house didn't reveal the family pain that had shaped its solitude for many months. Following the sudden and terrible loss of Will's mother from cancer late in January, no one had appeared to want to visit it. Easily accessible on any three-day weekend from their home in Hampshire, this had been her space, her escape, her joy to paint and garden in; and her ghost haunted every corner even now, in broad morning light. His father was grieving quietly and saying little, working as hard as ever to avoid thinking too much; and Alex seemed somehow to cope with all events without letting others in on the depth of his feelings. But Will was proudly his mother's son, emotional in his response to life and passionate in his relationships. And here, in her enchanted space, he missed her.

His eyes swept the short pebbled lane from the road to the door, but nothing exceptional caught his attention. The emptiness was almost an anticlimax -- but a welcome one. It seemed that no one knew, or cared, where he was -- at least for now. Unconsciously his fingers toyed with the small silver object suspended from a short chain around his neck, suddenly closing on it possessively. Then he headed toward his mother's rose garden. She had spent more than twenty years gathering a collection of old blooms, in homage to the great rose growers, that would have looked perfectly at home in Malmaison. She had painted them, embroidered them, cooked with them; but if they noticed she was gone, they whispered it to no one. Set into the fountain among the beds was a bright mosaic tiled with broken china, which she had made herself when he was small. It was a spiral with a motif of Venus, patroness of roses, in the heart of it. It exerted a magnetic pull on him.

Vaguely noting that the sunshine-yellow bike was grimy with the miles, but perfectly safe in the shade by the house, Will retraced his footsteps. The smell of good coffee brought him back to the present as he went into the kitchen. He ran his hands through his untidy curls. His hair was clean and already dry from the warm air, but badly in need of a cut. He'd better do that before Alex's birthday lunch on Sunday: things were frosty enough between his father and him already, without his looking quite so vagrant. His fairer brother, with straighter hair, was always neat and untangled, but after more than a month in Rome Will had started to resemble a local. And that suited him; he preferred to blend in wherever he could.

There was no butter, but the warm bread was good smeared with jam from his mother's last batch in the pantry. He was licking his thumb when a postcard on the dresser took his eye: unmistakably her handwriting. "For Will and Siân," it began. He reached for it. When could she have written this?

For Will and Siân. Try to rest for a few days. There's some venison in the chest freezer -- can you make use of it? Be sure to check the knot garden for me. See you at home over Christmas -- D x

Last November, it must have been. He and Siân had spent most of that year quarreling, finally splitting up late in the spring, but strife had dogged them at least since his birthday in August last year when her unceasing demands for commitment had convinced him that it would be better to abandon the idea of a week in the house in Normandy together. Siân had no other friends there at the time, and without much French she was thrown back entirely on him, which he doubted their relationship could take at that moment. So they had never come and collected the note, walked in his mother's healing garden, nor eaten a last supper in the Pays d'Auge.

He smiled now to think of her: three months on the road had softened his anger. She was so strikingly unusual -- not to everyone's taste, but thus, somehow, doubly so to his, and he suddenly felt an unanticipated longing for her physically, as though aware for the first time of the blank space beside him and in his heart. But setting passion aside -- the passion that had been the nucleus of their relationship -- he knew he had been right to end it. Their love was springtime, and the skies had changed. He was not forgiving and pragmatic like Alex, nor always a finisher of what he started, and he could never be the husband she wanted -- the achiever, the man to shop with on Sundays at the Conran Shop, the lover who would sell his Ducati and buy a Volvo. Having declared a passion for his wildness, she had sought from the beginning to tame him. He was happy to cook for her, make her laugh, sing to her, and make love to her as no one ever had; but he knew he could never dissolve his personality to silence the strong political opinions he held, which always led to violent arguments with her mindless girlfriends and their docile partners. Ultimately he couldn't inhabit her safe -- and in his view, bland -- world. He was committed to experience life, whatever the cost.

He flipped the card over. It was the Great Rose Window at Chartres. His mother had painted it often, from inside, from out. She loved the light through the glass -- the way it almost stung your eyes with its brilliance, penetrating the gloom.

He toyed with his cell phone for a moment. It was now charged and, without taking his eyes from the image on the card, he texted his brother.

Have at last invaded Normandy! U've been here l8tly? Sailing from Caen 23:15 tonight. Will call you B4. Much to ask U. W

In one smooth motion he slid into his leather jacket, pocketed the phone, and secreted the postcard against his chest, right next to the treasured document that had sent him spinning into Italy for the summer on a frantic research quest. He had started assembling some of the answers he'd come looking for, but a continuum of questions seemed to be opening up even now around him, and a sense of mystery deepened. He stepped into dusty boots and swiftly closed the house, depositing the key in its hiding place. He didn't even chamois down the bike, just pulled on his helmet, took his gloves from the tank bag, and swung into the saddle. He'd need fuel for the forty or so miles to Chartres.

Copyright © 2008 by Titania Hardie

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Dee, John, -- 1527-1608 -- Fiction.
Family secrets -- Fiction.