They threw her in the storeroom and locked it. She banged on the door, of course, screaming and yelling and demanding explanations. But it did no good. After a while she got tired and hoarse, and dropped down on the floor. She didn't really need an explanation. They must have found out. A shiver ran through her. What had they done to him? But the shiver passed, to be followed by hunger, and she began to worry more about what they would do to her. It was nearly two days before the door opened. She was very hungry by then. Thirsty, too.She was still shaking from the hard journey at the wedding. Scrubbed (but not fed or rested) she turned red-rimmed eyes up to look at a tall, reedy youth with a too-soft, petulant lip. He gazed down at her with his nose wrinkled and his eyes suspicious. He shot an angry glance elsewhere, as if about to protest, then looked back at the resplendent cleric. The priest was chanting something in a sonorous voice, but his words rumbled around and around in the huge chamber with its lofty ceiling until they sounded more like thunder than vows. Eventually he stopped talking, and after a moment the echoes stopped too. He stared at her a moment and said, "Well? Do you swear?" "I. . I do," she whispered. In later years she would not deny that she had been asked, and she had agreed. The young man beside her sounded no more enthusiastic than she did; he did not look down at her when he swore. Then they took her away, and a homely little maid helped her out of the elaborate dress and locked her into a bedroom. At least there was a cold supper laid out. She ate the cold supper. Then she looked at the huge bed, shuddered and crawled into the bottom of the wardrobe with a pillow. When she crawled back out of the wardrobe in the morning, she saw the bed had been slept in. She was still staring at that when the little maid bustled in to strip it. There was a blood spot on the sheet. How had that got there? The maid did not lock the door on the way out, so she pulled on a robe and went downstairs in search of breakfast. She did not see her husband again for a month. Then one day he joined her at breakfast. "Good morning," he said politely and then, with a rueful smile, added, "I didn't get your name." "Isobel," she whispered. His name was Edward, she thought. No, Edgar. He sat, and waited as if he hoped she would speak further, but she did not. At last he continued, "You were unwell this morning." She looked up. She had been unwell, and she knew what that might mean, and apparently he did, too. "Perhaps we should start spending more time together. So that, if you are unwell again, there won't be any talk." He shrugged and cocked his head. "My father would not like it if there were talk." She stared at him. He couldn't mean what it sounded like he meant. He looked back at her, and attempted a smile. Maybe he really did mean it. So she tried to smile, too. "All right." After that, he started visiting her bedroom every night. He didn't stay very long. Sometimes they chatted. Sometimes he brought a book. He never tried to touch her, at least not until she had grown so large that there was no mistaking the touch for anything but interest in the baby. He was very interested in the baby. He paid a lot of attention to making sure she was comfortable and well cared for. He brought in a midwife to watch over her. He asked her about names, and they talked a long time about the possibilities. She suggested his father's name, but he said his father didn't want that, thought it might bring bad luck. So they decided to call the child after Edgar's grandfather, or his late mother if it were a girl. They got to be friends. He held a celebration and she met his other friends. Several had traveled a long way, and stayed a while. One of them stayed a very long while. Eventually she figured out why Edgar was willing to pretend to be her baby's father. She felt sorry for them both, and tried to be extra nice to his friend. Giving birth was very hard. The baby was a girl, scrawny even by newborn standards. Edgar laughed and cooed over the baby, but all Isobel could think was how angry Edgar's father would be about it being a girl. Turned out she didn't have much milk, so they got a wet nurse who took the baby away. She wondered if she might have done better at loving the baby if she'd had milk. Edgar stopped coming to her room in the evenings, and she discovered that she missed him. They still took meals together. One day, he said nothing all through dinner and then, while the serving girl was clearing away the sweet, suddenly turned to her. "My father wants to know when we're going to try again." "What did you tell him?" she asked. He shrugged. "I said we'd try." The look he gave her was almost frightened. She took his hand. "Then we must try." She expected him to come back to her room that night, but he didn't. Instead he sent a note, inviting her to tour the estate with him in the morning. She didn't really need the tour; she'd visited most of it already, back when she was still wondering if she might try to run away. It was not large as country estates went. The farmed land was fertile and well-tended, but not very extensive, as the terrain was far from flat, and each new field had to be terraced out of the hillsides. The surrounding woods were dense and thick with deer. The nearest road was five miles out. She had decided against running away. She met him at the stable, and they mounted up, he astride and she perched precariously on a side-saddle. Almost as soon as they rode out, he sent the grooms on ahead. They were alone. So alone, she suddenly realized, that there was not even the possibility of a servant overhearing. She was not accustomed to being that alone. Even when he visited her room, there were doubtless servants who knew how little happened between them. "Do you really want to try? Truly?" he asked her. It took her a minute to grasp his meaning. "Well, we are married," she replied. "And you have always been kind to me. I would not grudge you your rights." But she knew very well how little interest he had in his rights. "Do you?" "No!" He almost sobbed, and then shot her an uneasy glance. "I hope that does not offend you." She shook her head with a smile. "If you are merely compliant. . . If you do not particularly desire. . . Our last child was not really mine, and I did not mind. . . Would you mind if the next child were not really yours?" She thought. He could not possibly mean he had a bastard somewhere. "Do you know of. . . an orphan in need of a home?" "You recall Girard?" His friend. She nodded. "His family is pressing him hard to marry. So he thought he would see if he was able. And so he was. He did not much care for it, but he was able. And now the girl is with child." She thought about how frightened the girl must be. "Of course she can come here, poor thing. But I do not quite see how we could arrange it. There are always servants about." She paused and looked around at the great open sky, and the wooded hills, all so huge and free and unreachable. "It is difficult to keep secrets, even small ones." He sighed, deeply, as if a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. He even smiled. "Difficult, yes. But not quite impossible. It is mostly a matter of picking your servants with great care." She found herself suddenly remembering the blood spot on the sheets the morning after her wedding night, and the homely little maid who had stripped the bed. The girl had since proved many times to be a cheerful and reliable servant. "Just leave it to me," he continued. "I will take care of everything." "No," she replied. It made her nervous just saying the word. She did not recall saying it often. "If we do this, then we do this together. And the girl will need a friend here." He turned to her with an amazing smile, a smile that was simultaneously bewildered and delighted. His smile was not romantic, of course, but it was definitely a smile of love. She smiled back. It turned out the girl was not well born enough for Girard to marry, even if he had wanted her. She was one of his mother's serving women. So Girard and his mother were both invited for a visit. The girl was just beginning to show. Indeed, if the mother hadn't been half blind, she would have spotted it already. The girl was hustled quickly out of sight and the mother gifted with a new maid, while Isobel's clothing was altered and padded. Lies were told, social occasions curtailed, and a midwife bribed a princely sum. Edgar's father rarely actually spoke to her, and never without an appointment, but he took to striding about the grounds smiling. She tried to befriend little Maud. (Funny how she always thought of Maud as little, when the two of them were very much of a size.) But the girl just blinked at her and never said anything more than, "Yes, Ma'am," or "No, Ma'am." It seemed nothing could draw Maud out of her shell. Even in childbed, she was strangely quiet, emitting only stifled gasps and silent tears, leaving Isobel to rend the air with fake screams. She died before she made a sound, and the midwife had to cut the boy out of a cold womb. She grieved hugely over Maud, more than any bond between them justified. It was as if the girl's silence had been a reproach, her death a personal failure. She tried to comfort herself in caring for the son. Her son, now, not Maud's. Mothering came far more easily with him than it had with her daughter, as if she had improved with the practice. "They will think I like him better because he is a boy," she reflected, and tried-tried very hard-to be a little kinder to the girl. If she fell short, the slack was taken up by Edgar, who doted on his 'daughter' and, strangely, Edgar's father. It was as if, relieved of the pressure to acquire an heir, he was freed to indulge the sentimentality of a proud grandparent. He spoiled the little girl shamelessly, assuring her that she was wondrously beautiful, and promising her a pony for her dowry. "Surely money would be more appropriate," murmured Edgar, but the old man just laughed. "She'll like the pony better, won't you, Princess?" he replied, picking up the little girl and swinging her back and forth like a bell. "And she won't have to worry that her husband will take it away from her and spend it." As he had done to his late wife, nobody pointed out. Eventually Girard managed to marry: a whey-faced nobody with a rich father. She spent all her time in the chapel and thought men and women should only come together to procreate. Fortunately, she was quite fertile, so Girard managed to oblige her, quickly, before his tolerance failed. He, too, hosted a celebration as soon as her condition was confirmed. It was the first time Isobel had left her father-in-law's estate but, aside from hanging out the carriage window all the way, she saw little. Edgar and Girard disappeared together almost as soon as they arrived, leaving her to make small talk with a woman who stopped complaining only to say her prayers, and not always then. There was a ball, of course, a huge affair, so the bride could display her rounded belly. Isobel was dazzled by the jeweled crowd. "You are the prettiest one here," Edgar whispered in her ear. He had bought her a new gown for the occasion, and retrieved his mother's diamonds from storage, so she could hold her head high even among all the glamorous city gentry. Girard called for a toast and dancing. She had drunk too much champagne already, but could hardly refuse. Then, in that heartbeat of silence between the toast and the music, she heard, "Isobel?" A man stepped around from behind her. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her out onto the floor. She looked up at him and her glass slipped from her fingers. Then they were dancing. He held her tightly. More tightly than was proper when dancing with another man's wife. She tried to pull back, but there was no strength in her arms. "At last, at last. It's been so long." He pressed her hand. That was the only actual touch, skin-on-skin, between them: their hands. But somehow her whole body burned from the contact. "No one would tell me what had become of you. I feared you were dead, that they had killed you for what we did." It seemed strange to hear her old thoughts in his voice. All the little hairs inside her ear stood up when he spoke. His words dropped to a husky whisper. "I've never stopped loving you." She found some strength and pushed him away, but the act exhausted her, and she stumbled and half-fell. "Excuse me," she muttered and, head down, fled across the floor, bumping into dancers at every step. Suddenly Edgar was beside her, with an arm around her waist, holding her, but gently, nowhere near so tightly as that other embrace. "I need air," she gasped, and he rushed her out onto the terrace. She gulped in the icy winter air. Friends and acquaintances and even curious strangers trickled out onto the terrace behind him, asking after her. "She's better now," he assured them. "She just took a turn." He chuckled. "Perhaps soon, like Girard, we too will have news to share." He looked down, and she saw anxiety lurking in his eyes. "Not so, my dear?" She pushed herself up from the rail, and forced a smile. "It is too soon to tell," she told him earnestly. She turned to face their friends, with an embarrassed smile. "But perhaps." Their friends started back into the ballroom, away from the cold of the night. Behind them, near the door, she saw him. There was a woman by his side, holding his arm possessively. She was less than fair, but very expensively dressed. Her eyes burned. Isobel guessed she had noticed the dancing. Edgar took her back to their room, helped her undress and tucked her in. Then, as always, he left. She lay very still. Her head was spinning from the champagne. Her heart was bruised and aching from the shock of impact. The candle flickered by the bedside, but she was too weary to reach over and put it out. And then, quite suddenly, it was very dark and very late. The door was swinging open with a faint squeak. She sat bolt upright, clutching the coverlet to her chin. He was closing the door firmly behind him. He stood a moment with his back to it, gazing at her. "What are you doing here?" she cried. He flew to the bed, pulling her up into his arms. Her fists clenching the coverlet remained between them. "Oh, my darling, did you think I could stay away, now that I've found you again?" He drew back an inch, and gazed into her eyes, then leaned down to kiss her. She wanted to say no, but she had no breath. She would have had to drop the coverlet to push him away. And his kiss was all consuming. By the time it was done, she was beyond words. She faintly heard herself thinking about no, but by then he was pulling the coverlet away and the touch of his hands on her body, his mouth on her breasts, was liquid fire, quenching all thought. In later years she would maintain that she had not been asked, and she had not agreed. Not really. But it took many hours before she finished failing to say no. It was well after dawn when he finally took his leave, pausing by the bedside to kiss her one last time, and promising to come back that night. "But what about your wife?" she whispered, too limp even to turn her face toward him. He laughed. Bitterly. "She'll be no problem, I promise. She'll wear herself out with nagging and then drink herself into a stupor." Not the answer she'd been looking for. "But my husband?" "I much doubt he'll be a problem, either." He must have seen something on her face, but misunderstood it. "Oh, my poor darling! Don't you know what he is? Where he is?" He knelt and resumed the goodbye kissing. His hands roamed all over her, tickling her nerves, stroking her secret places, stirring her body into a wakefulness she did not want. Then he pulled down the pants he had only just pulled on and mounted her again with astonishing fervor, so that she screamed beneath him. Even in later years she could not pretend it was a scream of pain. When he left her at last, she wept. She was still weeping when Edgar came to see why she wasn't at breakfast, still weeping as he bundled her up into the carriage, still weeping all the long way home. For weeks, she paced around the terrace, gazing out at the snow with empty eyes, praying she was not with child. It had only been one night, she told herself. Other women had assured her that it usually took more than one night. Some had tried, almost desperately, for years. Surely, after only one night, she could not be with child. She was with child. When she was certain, she wept again, wept into Edgar's arms. He rocked her gently and dabbed at the tears with a handkerchief. "You still love him so much?" "No!" she cried. Surely this awful, gaping pain, this crushing foreboding of disaster couldn't be love. "He must have bewitched me." Bewitched. The word hung in the air. Their city friends would have laughed. But in the country, where farm workers still sprinkled salt on their lintels, and spat into their palms when crows flew over the graveyard, it did not sound so foolish. "It doesn't matter." Edgar took both her hands, wrapping his own around them as if to keep them together. "It's no different than when you first came here, except that now we know we can trust each other. My wife is with child. Why should anyone question that? My father will be delighted." Could it be that easy, she wondered. Edgar's father was delighted. But then a letter arrived. She burned it unread, but it was followed by another, and then another. Edgar decided to read a few, and his look grew thoughtful. "We had best increase the guard." She did not even come downstairs when he was caught sneaking onto the grounds. Her maid, however, watched everything from the gallery. "It took three men to hold him!" she reported with enthusiasm. "And the foul names he called our lord! I'd blush to repeat 'em! They dragged him out, still screaming for you. I tell you, Ma'am, it makes me ashamed how I used to be so terrible jealous of you. It's just like the priest said, I see. Beauty is a fearful curse." "You were jealous of me? But you were always so kind and thoughtful! You were my first, sometimes my only, friend here." "Well, of course, Ma'am. I couldn't hold it against you for being pretty. Weren't your fault." Isobel reflected that jealous women were not usually so generous. When the wife arrived to pick up her errant mate, she was rigid with hatred. Edgar had him hauled up from the prison, still in chains, and told his wife plainly that she was fortunate to get him back in one piece, if a bit battered, and that she'd not be so lucky twice. Her nostrils flared. "If you wanted him gone, you might have tried asking your lady witch to take her spell off him." "If there's magic at work here, it's your husband's own black and lecherous heart," he informed her. "Although I do not doubt he's told you otherwise. I assure you, if my good lady had wanted him, I'd have let her have him. So take him and go, and if you value his life, keep him well away." "It is you who are deceived, Sir," she spat. But she did not have the chains undone when her escort took him to the carriage. Rumor had it that she did not undo the chains, even when she got him home. But she did not hide him in a dungeon. She showed him off, chains and all, to everyone she knew, and filled their ears with her ranting. Apparently, the city folk did not always laugh at talk of magic. At least not when it was offered up at great dinner parties, and accompanied by food, drink and lavish gifts. There were letters from Girard. Edgar travelled to town on business. After a while, the royal guard rode up to the gate. She had grown quite large by then, but Edgar requested that she join him for the audience. "Do not be alarmed when they ask about him," he whispered as she leaned on his arm. "Just try to smile and let me do the talking. All will be well." It was easier than she had expected. Edgar explained that he had never met him before Girard's party. "I have been told he once asked to marry my lady, but her father was against it. He was not well born. And she has always seemed content in our marriage. Not so, my own?" He looked down smiling. She smiled back up, with all sincerity. "Exactly so, my dear. You have been better to me than I ever dreamed possible." "May we speak to your lady in private?" they asked. He curled his lip. "You think I have coached her, and she will change her tune when I am gone?" He sighed. "You had best not badger her, or I will have your hides. As you can plainly see, she is expecting in August." Actually she was expecting in September. He rose. "Are you up to this, my lady?" "I see no need for it," she answered. She rose, gripping the arms of her chair to push herself up. "Be it public or private, I will say the same thing. My father sent that man packing years ago, and that was the end of it. I hear rumors that he goes about saying, or rather that his wife goes about saying, that I have magicked him somehow, but why would I do that? I assure you, I want nothing more than never to see or hear of him again. Perhaps, if he is not faithful to his wife, she should consult with her mirror." Then she feigned a great gasp, and gripped the arm of her chair before falling back into her seat. Edgar hurried the men out. It really was August, and early August at that, when her pains came. She was delivered of not one, but two children, a boy and a girl, both so tiny and sickly that no one expected them to live. She tried her best, but they cried and would not nurse. And then a messenger from Girard arrived, gasping and exhausted, his horse nearly ridden into the ground. There was a warrant for her arrest in the city, and the royal guard was on the way. She changed clothes with the maid, the dear, faithful maid, who kissed her cheek and promised to look after the babies. Edgar arranged for a cart, not a carriage, and smuggled her out the back to a peasant's house, just as the guard came knocking on the door. She went from one poor but hospitable home to another, to a church, and arrived finally at a nunnery. And that was the end of the journey: the end of her marriage, the end of her motherhood, the end of her life. She wore a plain gown and ate plain food. She worked in the garden, and the kitchen. She said prayers five times a day. She lay down at night on a small bed in a small cell. She wondered sometimes if the nunnery were really much different than a prison. But it was a clean prison and her fellow inmates were, for the most part, kind and good hearted. And it was certainly better than being burned at the stake. Once a month, Edgar would visit with the two elder children. Much to her surprise, every other month Girard and his wife also came to see her. And four times a year, the maid visited too, always apologizing for her presumption, as if Isobel had any rank left to be concerned about. The outside world went on. Her twins lived, but remained frail. The witchcraft trial was never held, but neither were the charges ever officially dropped. Her former lover slipped his chains and ran away, never to be seen by anyone again. Much like herself, she supposed. His angry wife despaired and took her own life. Edgar's father died, too, but that was hardly unexpected. Her daughter married. Nothing changed, not inside, not outside. Isobel continued to pray five times a day, always the same prayers. After a few years she hardly heard the words. But she found that there could be considerable comfort in sameness. Children expected everything to be huge and grand, she reflected. But huge and grand were too much for the human heart. She focused instead on the small, on making perfect such tiny acts as kneading dough or planting bulbs. Those around her said that she grew wise. She laughed and said that she had only grown weary. Very weary, indeed. Eventually, a day came when she lay down on her familiar little bed, and cast off her final prison at last.
x x x
A beautifully wrought debut tale by Ms. Jordan. Rarely do I find newcomers to anotherealm with such command of the language and the story-teller's knack. I look forward to future submissions from Michaele. How about you? Tell me so on our BBS. - GM