The Life of a Kingfisher
D. K. Marley
The past, future, and Excalibur lie in her hands.
Wales, 1914. Vala Penrys and her four sisters find solace in their spinster life by story-telling, escaping the chaos of war by dreaming of the romantic days of Camelot. When the war hits close to home, Vala finds love with Taliesin Wren, a mysterious young Welsh Lieutenant, who shows her another world within the tangled roots of a Rowan tree, known to the Druids as ‘the portal’.
One night she falls through, and suddenly she is Vivyane, Lady of the Lake – the Kingfisher – in a divided Britain clamoring for a High King. What begins as an innocent pastime becomes the ultimate quest for peace in two worlds full of secrets, and Vala finds herself torn between the love of her life and the salvation of not only her family but of Britain, itself.
From award-winning historical novelist, D. K. Marley - a story for OUTLANDER and MISTS OF AVALON fans - comes a time-traveling historical spanning centuries.
"It is, at the heart of it, a love story – the love between a man and a woman, between a woman and her country, and between the characters and their fates – but its appeal goes far beyond romance. It is a tale of fate, of power, and, ultimately, of sacrifice for a greater good." - Riana Everly, author of Teaching Eliza and Death of a Clergyman
n the beginning, a madwoman created Camelot; and in the fall of 1914, at the violent convulsion of the Great War, the legendary story sucked me into the past through the roots of an ordinary tree. I say ordinary, but sometimes first appearances deceive. They are oft-times alluring with awkward beauty, yet hiding a vacuous secret in the depths.
People and trees, how very similar in form. At first glance, nothing special to gawk at, such as the lonely Rowan overlooking our manor home, Tyalwyn; save for the gnarled trunk twisted to one side, a cluster of white berries brightening the grey branches, and a tangle of roots spreading over the ragged rocks. At the base, oozing from the depths, a slight bubbling spring etched a path down the cliff face, connecting with the River Usk snaking though the Brecon forest. The tell-tale liquid indicated the watery heart pumping deep below the entwining roots; and yet, as with most people, the signs passed unnoticed. Except by me.
And how do I know this tale? I sometimes wonder if I am the insane orchestrator . . . or did I inherit the story from my mother . . . or even, my grandmother? Who was this madwoman obsessed with King Arthur?
Isla, my identical twin, and I celebrated our twenty-eighth birthday on the 28th of June 1914, the same day as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, as ordinary girls hiding an echo in our rooted souls.
Our father, Ian, gifted us a new gown, each, on that day. Mine, a flowing tea gown in white voile with sheer inserts across the breast, puffed sleeves to the elbow and narrowing to the wrist, tiny mother-of-pearl buttons cascading down from the nape of the neck to the waist and French lace edging the high neckline, the prevailing fashion of the day. Isla danced round the drawing-room with her white eyelet lawn dress, and we made plans to wear them to Ascot come springtime, along with appropriate straw hats and parasols. Those innocent pastimes we devised the month hell vomited across Europe, spilling all the way to our once bright home boasting over the rolling Welsh moors. The details of a simpler, languid time; a time we expected to continue. How wrong we were and, dare I say, how naïve.
One month and a few days after our celebration, my father sat at the breakfast table on August 5th, performing his familiar ritual of reading aloud the headlines from a freshly ironed page of the London Times, while my mother scanned over the society column of the Glamorgan Gazette. My sisters and I waited, church mouse quiet, as the minute sounds of routine accented his words like tiny accompaniments—my mother's breathy sighs, Maegan scraping a spoon along the side of her teacup, Eilwyn muffling a giggle as Gwynna hummed, Isla whispering a hush with a finger against her coral lips, and then, the rustle of the newspaper as Father silenced us with a firm cough.
I must admit, my mind drifted. Talk of battles on the European continent made me yawn, as well as the fact that my head pounded after a restless night’s sleep. Another incessant dream, the same since childhood—an aggressive raven and courageous kingfisher locked in battle, flapping wings, bloody beaks, and the ever-present suffocating sensation of crashing waves over my head, which always woke me with a start.
Two iridescent blue tit birds fluffed their wings on a holly branch outside the opened window, and my eyes followed my mother's stare towards them. Their sweet chirping and hopping from one limb to another enlivened the dull words of impending war, yet my father's voice sparked, almost hopeful, upon the news. The brief and strained conversation or rather, performance, followed the daily script. Father's curt remarks. Mother's drained replies.
"The Times announces we are at war,” he announced. “The buggers soundly rejected the ultimatum, can you believe it? This aggressive attack from Germany, first against the royalty of Austria and now against Europe, should strike a chord through the noble houses of England. Russia is supporting Serbia, so who knows what else may develop. War is upon us, and we must prepare to support in any way we can.”
"Surely, this will pass," I said with another yawn.
“No, Vala, this is quite different,” he replied, sternly.
"What does the politics of Europe have to do with us here in Wales anyway?" My mother questioned in her faint distracted words.
Father folded the paper, tucking it underneath the lip of the gold-edged Crown Derby saucer in front of him. He crooked his finger in the handle of a teacup and held the edge to his lips, pausing to answer before he sipped.
"A significant amount, unfortunately. Countries are taking sides in this strife. Great Britain remains a loyal ally of France and Russia, and though she sustained diplomatic relations with Germany, she chooses to side against the Kaiser. We have a civic and patriotic fidelity to the Crown, and since my former service in the Boer conflict in South Africa, I must return to active duty," he said.
Mother sighed, once more, and touched her fingertips to her forehead. “No more talk of war, Ian. Please," she said. As she covered her face with her hands, small teardrops slid down her wrists along with her unmistakable whispers. “O, for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts . . .”
I knew the remark, so often I had heard her quote the line from Keats. She lived forever looking out windows to the horizon as if in search of some lost secret in the past. Father usually ignored her words but this time, he slapped the rolled newspaper against the table top causing all of us to jump in succession, all six pairs of eyes fixing on his reddened face.
"Isla, fix your mother some of her medicine,” he snarled.
My sister rose and stepped over to the long burled walnut sideboard, popped the cork on a squat green bottle, and poured a dram of brown liquid into a jigger, then walked round to hand her the glass. Mother threw the "liquor" back as if she slugged Scottish whiskey, although I knew better. When younger, perhaps twelve or so, I received a swift slap across my face after touching my tongue to the edge of the bottle, so I learned the bitter gall of 'mother's medicine,' as well as the daily, almost hourly, odour of laudanum on her breath.
Father took a deep breath, steadying himself as he drank his tea and then, motioned for Eilwyn, Maegan, and Gwynna's dismissal. "You may leave, girls. "
All three stood in a hurry, curtsied, and left us. Mother rose, as well, and placed her palm against her tight, corseted stomach. With her other hand, she fingered the black pleated edging round the scooped neck of her simple grey silk day dress.
"I will be in the orangery. I think the orchids are dying," Mother sighed, as she meandered out of the room leaning on Isla and leaving my father and me alone in the dining room.
Father stared out the window, the sun breaking in brilliant streaks through the mullioned glass. I sensed the anxious thoughts weighing upon him, darkening the shadows beneath his eyes and thickening the air, but I remained quiet. We played out the circadian pattern in the Penrys household—silent understanding, silent knowing, but no deep discussion at or beyond the breakfast table.
Daring to tear down the impenetrable wall, I reached across and brushed my fingers on his sleeve.
“Father?” He grunted a ‘yes,’ but did not greet my inquiring stare. “Are you all right?”
Historical fiction author specializing in alternate historicals, Shakespearean adaptations, and historical time-travel.