The bedchamber door, as ever, creaked as it opened.
Lady Catherine Fox stared at the brocaded, heavy velvet canopy of her four-poster bed. The curtains surrounding the bed were drawn and prevented her seeing her visitor but Catherine knew who was there. Her lady in waiting, Dame Mella Kalsten. Catherine heard a silver tray being placed on the low table at the foot of her bed. The delicate chink of fine china and the rattle of obscenely expensive silverware were as familiar to Catherine as her own heartbeat.
Soft footsteps padded around the room and Catherine could follow, almost predict, their path from the door, to the table, to the window. The next sound was the metallic screech as the brass-ringed curtains covering the window – correction, arrow slit, Catherine reminded herself – slid along the wrought iron rail as the curtains were opened. There was a polite cough, followed by “Good morning, milady.” The young woman sighed inwardly as her day began in the same way as it had for the last ten years of her life.
“Good morning to you, Dame Mella,” Catherine answered, as politely as she could manage. Which, the young woman conceded, was not very polite. Her head ached and something else, a feeling of guilt, gnawed in her heart.
She had pushed herself too hard the previous night, reading by candlelight until the late moonrise had peeked through the arrow slit and brought a silvery glow to her work. Catherine had dusted her vanity table with salt and drawn a stylised picture of a fractured heart in the pure white crystals. Into one half of the heart she had written “E”, for Erik, while in the other half she had scattered shredded rose petals, representing, of course, herself. The petals had been insanely expensive as roses were not flowering at this time of year and she had had them secretly imported from the southern lands where Summer still blossomed.
Catherine remembered reading and rereading the book she had borrowed from her mother's collection. It had called for the blood of the unrequited lover to be spilled onto the petals. She tested the edge of the knife against her thumb and balked as the steel scraped against her skin. Catherine had gasped as she pressed the blade harder but could not bring herself to draw her own blood. Instead, she had spat in a most unladylike fashion and mixed her spittle into the petals. She had tried to clear her mind and meditate on the thought of Erik, the tall, strong, red-haired Kal-Pyrran trader who frequently visited the market. Meditate was a rather flattering term, Catherine realised. Brooded would be more accurate, particularly when her thought strayed to the sight of Erik with one of the town's more costly doxies. She forced the dark thoughts of vengance from her mind and sprinkled more salt over the crack between the two halves of the fractured heart. With the tip of her finger, Catherine traced a spiral out from the centre of the heart, mixing the petals and spit with Erik's rune.
“Make us one,” she had whispered but in the back of her mind the thought had risen unbidden: and poison his whore's heart.
When the spell was complete, Catherine had cleaned her vanity table and retired to bed, perhaps only two hours before cock-crow. She had slept fitfully and nightmares had haunted what sleep she had had.
Now Catherine could hear Dame Mella bustling about her room. She heard her wardrobe being opened and the rustle of silks and velvet as the older woman sorted out clothing for her day. Catherine knew she had the right to order her lady in waiting from her rooms and to take her breakfast, ablutions and dressing in solitude. She had exercised this right just once, three years ago on the day of her sixteenth birthday, and the scolding her father had given her scared Catherine even now.
Lady Catherine Fox swallowed her pride, her fear and her guilt, opened the curtains and swung herself out of bed.
Catherine munched a slice of hot buttered toast which she had spread thickly with a strawberry preserve and said, around the mouthful of toast, “So, Dame Mella, what can we expect today? Some brave soul to rouse the peasantry against our usurpers? Or my father to bow and scrape to them?”
Catherine's unladylike conduct earned a severely raised eyebrow from the Dame. All she got in return was Catherine's naughtiest grin. “We both know the answer to that, milady,” the older woman replied as mildly as she could. Mella knew where this was leading. Her mornings with Catherine had become increasingly fractious over the last year.
“So, no change there, then?” Catherine said, waspishly. “Higher taxes. Our people working like slaves for a foreign overlord, our yeomen raised to fight his wars, our sons dying on his unjust battlefields.” Catherine's eyes widened as she saw the look of anger on Dame Mella's face and the younger woman realised she had crossed a line she should never have even drawn near. The Dame's son was lost on one of those battlefields three Summers gone.
Catherine lowered her gaze away from the Dame and the anger slowly drained away. “I am sorry, Dame Mella.”
The Dame drew a deep breath. Her son's body had never been found on that field. Some part of her held hope that he was still alive and might one day return. Though the probable outcome was that his shattered frame had been eaten by the savages he had been sent to fight. Mella gave Catherine her sternest stare and watched the girl wilt. She let out her breath and said “If I were you, Lady Catherine, I would be very careful making comments like those. Not only would they anger your father, they could be seen as sowing the seeds of rebellion and bring down such wrath upon your family that even I fear it.”
Catherine started at that last comment. Dame Mella had been her lady in waiting since Catherine had been weaned from her mother's breast and in those years nothing had scared the older woman. Nothing. She had even been at the battlements of this castle, loading crossbows for the defenders and helping the injured to the infirmary.
“My Lady,” Dame Mella went on, assuming her role as teacher, now, “you are of a family line that stretches back nearly nine centuries and has brought heroes, generals, scholars and even kings to the world. Your blood is in many ways purer than any other line in this land. A single thoughtless comment could bring ruin to your entire family, wipe their name from history and bring untold suffering to the people they swore to protect.”
Catherine pushed away her breakfast plate and dabbed her lips with the clean cotton napkin. She stood and curtsied to the Dame in a shocking breach of etiquette. “I apologise wholeheartedly, Dame Mella,” Catherine said with a sincerity that surprised even herself. “I have offended you and you have every right to report my insolence to my father.” She looked down at the floor. “I simply hope that I will bear whatever punishment he decrees with the same fortitude you show every day that you have to bear my own petty, childish outbursts.”
Dame Mella studied the shame-faced girl in front of her. “You have nothing to apologise for, milady. You merely voice the opinions of our own people as they toil in the fields and fight in the wars.” She paused and Catherine looked up with an expression of hope in her eyes. “I simply urge caution in the way you express those opinions. Caution, Lady, in when, where and with whom.”
“Our people cannot speak for themselves, Mella. Perhaps I should? After all, my father lacks the courage to do so!”
“Hush, child!” Mella retorted, angrily. The older woman struggled to regain her composure and eventually said, “Such carelessness costs lives, milady. Do you not remember the hanging of an innocent family in response to one insult directed at the overlord's son?” Catherine nodded, ashamed again. “You are walking a tightrope with comments like that, Lady Catherine. Do not let that rope end in a noose.”
The women regarded each other across the room. Catherine knew her anger was pointless and that Dame Mella was right. She had seen the hanging Mella referred to and the twisted expressions on the faces of the victims had haunted her dreams for years afterwards. The young woman did not like being beaten in such arguments. The Dame felt the weight of sadness in her heart increase at the thought of her lost son and his perfect bride who was standing in front of her. The silence was broken by a knock on the heavy oak door.
“Come,” Catherine said, her gaze not leaving Dame Mella. Two servant girls edged into the room, curtsied briefly to the Dame then more deeply and for longer towards Catherine, before clearing away the breakfast dishes and setting down a porcelain bowl and jug of hot, scented water, soaps and towels. The girls left the room and closed the door behind them.
“Shall I leave you, milady?”
Catherine relented. “No, Mella. Please stay.” She looked at the dress Mella had chosen for her. When did I last wear that? she wondered. “Are we expecting visitors today?” Catherine asked as she seated herself again and reached for the jug of hot water.
Mella sighed inwardly. What she had to say next would stir Catherine's already volatile mood. “Duke Gastar and his retinue arrived an hour ago.”
Catherine gasped in shock and spilled half the water across her chamber floor. “Gastar d'Alcene,” Catherine spat, “is no more Duke than I am the Queen of Karnath!”
“Such talk is unbecoming, milady,” Mella answered.
“And his retinue,” Catherine went on, unperturbed by Mella's warning tone. “By which you mean his pig-ignorant son, the ambassador who is so oily he leaves a snail-trail behind him and the Bishop of Lanmaar.” Catherine shuddered, rather theatrically Mella thought, as she nodded. “Not to mention at least a dozen bodyguards who, it is said, compare their swords to their manhoods and vice-versa!”
Now it was Mella's turn to gasp. “Lady! Wherever did you hear such slanderous talk?”
“Oh,” Catherine paused as she thought up a lie, “just castle gossip. You know how it can be, Dame Mella.” Catherine had simply repeated the slander voiced by her own mother, in actual fact, during one of their late-night tutorials.
The girl looked down at the puddle of water by her feet which had also soaked the hem of her white cotton nightgown. She made to move to tidy her mess but Mella intervened.
“Here. I'll do that.” Mella directed Catherine to the vanity table and brought over the bowl and water jug. Carefully, she poured the remaining water into the bowl and handed Catherine a face cloth and soap. Mella then dropped a towel over the puddle of water, prodded it a couple of times with her toe, and let it do most of the hard work. She would call the servants later to finish tidying up.
Mella turned back to Catherine and helped the young lady gather up her long blonde tresses into a rather untidy bun on the top of her head and fixed the bun with several long, brass pins. She looked at Catherine's reflection in the large oval mirror of the vanity table as the girl lathered the soap and washed. She placed her right hand on Catherine's shoulder.
“You must look your best today, milady,” Mella began and immediately felt the girl tense.
“Why? So Gastar's son can spend most of the evening staring down my cleavage?” Catherine feigned vomitting to her right. “Or will the Bishop try to chastise me for my sins?”
“Listen to me, girl,” Mella's voice was dangerously low. Catherine could not remember the last time her lady in waiting had addressed her as 'girl'. “You are to be the absolute centre of attention at tonight's banquet. Tonight you will be called upon to do your duty to your family and to your people.” Horrified eyes stared back at Mella from the mirror.
That could mean only one thing, Catherine realised. She was to be betrothed, promised, married off. Sold. The girl's heart sank. Her father was using her as currency, to be married off to Gastar's son in order to purchase a few more years of rule in his own crumbling realm.
Catherine's heart was beating fit to burst and her breathing was rapid as she struggled to control her temper. She twisted the face cloth in her hands as if she was throttling her father. He could not do this! part of her mind screamed. Her whole body shook with barely restrained rage and she felt Mella tighten her grip on her shoulders.
“He can do this,” Mella whispered, as if she had read Catherine's mind. “It is his right as ruler of this realm. It is your responsibility, first and foremost as I have taught you for many years, to obey your father's decrees.” Mella paused to let this sink in to her charge. “And you will do it, Lady Catherine Fox,” Mella finished rather coldly, emphasising every syllable of Catherine's name and title.
“I will not whore myself with Gastar's son, Dame Mella,” Catherine's voice was hoarse as she struggled to rein in her temper and her grief. Tears welled in her bright blue eyes. He will not rob me of my virtue! she swore to herself. In her heart, Catherine had already chosen the man she would give herself to.
Dame Mella undid the pins which held Catherine's hair in place and began to methodically brush out the girl's waves of soft blonde hair, which tumbled past her shoulders almost to the small of her back. There was silence between the two for a while.
“It would not be the act of a cheap harlot, Catherine,” Mella whispered. “It would be an act of sacrifice for your people.” She paused and handed the girl a silk handkerchief and waited until Catherine had dried her tears. “In years to come,” Mella continued as she gazed at Catherine's reflection, “when your father has passed on, Gastar's son will rise to the lordship of our country. You will have that buffoon wrapped around your little finger and you, Catherine, will twist his rules and his laws to the benefit of your people.” Mella sighed heavily. She could feel the tension had left the younger woman's body and there was a steely determination on the girl's face in the mirror. “You may never be queen, Catherine, but you have the chance to be the power behind the throne. I beg you for the sake of our people and the memory of my son, do not squander this chance, milady.”
Catherine was numb from Dame Mella's news. She wandered her rooms in a daze and tried to force her thoughts into some sort of order.
How could her father do this to her? The man was a coward! He lacked even the courage to tell her himself and had left poor Dame Mella to bear the brunt of Catherine's anger.
Idly, Catherine ran her fingers over the soft silk dress Mella had chosen. The dress was made in her family's colours, gold and blue, with intricate embroidery on the sleeves and bodice. It was cut low and displayed rather more of her than she liked. Oh, of course. She remembered, now. The last time she had worn that particular dress had been at the banquet where she and Gastar's son had been formally introduced. The oaf had leched down her cleavage for most of that night and had made a drunken attempt to grope her as they had danced. Fortunately, she had dodged skilfully to one side, looking for all the world like it was a simple misstep on her part, and Gastar's son had fallen flat on the dance floor.
That may have been the incident which decided her future, Catherine realised, as she sat down, heavily, in front of her vanity table. Gastar, in a fit of pique at his son's embarrassment and wanting to punish Catherine and her family, had chosen the most exquisitely painful torture he could devise. He had demanded Catherine as his son's wife in an act which heaped shame upon her and the family. As daughter-in-law, Catherine could be taken as concubine to Gastar himself, such was the law in their land, if not Catherine's own.
The thought of two of the d'Alcene men brutalising her was more than she could take. She gazed blindly at her reflection, her vision blurred by the tears streaming down her face. With her right hand she opened the drawer of her table and rummaged through trinkets, quill pens, sealing wax and assorted paraphernalia until her fist closed around the heavy metal object secreted at the back of the drawer.
Catherine withdrew the dagger and slipped it out of its sheath. This was not the light, thin-bladed stilletto she had used in her magic-working. The dagger was the one she had stolen from the castle's armoury the morning after her encounter with Gastar's son. The blade was nearly a foot long and its widest point was the width of three of her fingers.
You will not have me, Gastar! Catherine thought. She pressed the point against her chest and braced the pommel on the edge of her vanity table. She placed her hands on the edge of the table and gripped tightly. All it would take would be the right application of strength and power, a sudden lunge, and the dagger would be driven into her heart.
Strength and power, Catherine thought. The power behind the throne, she remembered from Dame Mella's words. No, not for me. She leaned forward a little harder and felt the dagger point cut through her nightgown and prick her skin.
A hard push would be all it would take. Catherine bit down on her lower lip to stifle the scream she knew was building in her throat.
There is more than one type of power. The voice that echoed around Catherine's mind was quiet, feminine but carried a weight of authority and wisdom. Worldly power, making laws, raising taxes, building armies is but one type. Worldly power is for those who do not understand that which lies beyond this world. In the realms of the spirits, the angels and demons, even the gods themselves, lies more power than most men can dream of, let alone control and use. I can show you those powers, my daughter.
Shocked from the brink of death, Catherine pushed herself backwards and nearly toppled from the low-backed chair. The dagger clattered to the floor.
"Mother?" she whispered. But Catherine was alone in her rooms. As the black despair fled from her mind, Catherine realised that those were the words of history, echoed back through her mind from the distant past. She must have been about five or six years old when, in the middle of the night, her mother had whispered those words to her.
Death was not the only way to escape Gastar's clutches, Catherine realised. The correct application of power could free her too. Catherine knew that her mother's library might contain the keys to that freedom. It might take twenty years to reach that goal. Her studies and her mother's lessons would have to take place in secret, as Gastar was known to treat witches and magicians with even more contempt than he treated his serfs. When the time came, Catherine would unleash that power and send Gastar and his son to the deepest hell she could find!
The young woman dried her tears, raised her chin and stared with pride at her reflection.
Catherine's thoughts turned to more mundane matters. There was one prize Gastar would never win. She quickly chose a plain, almost drab, grey dress of heavy cotton and wool, which she often wore when riding, quickly dressed and slipped on a pair of tan, doeskin boots. To add a splash of colour to her dress, Catherine belted a blue velvet sash about her waist and quickly hid her dagger amongst the folds at the small of her back. She stood with her back to her vanity mirror and looked at the sash. The bulge of the dagger was scarcely noticable, she saw and gave her reflection the naughtiest smirk she could manage.
With that, Catherine left by the back door to her rooms, fled down three flights of stone steps and into the castle's courtyard.
She paused for a moment and watched the household soldiers drilling in the courtyard. These men would form her father's honour guard at the banquet, though why he needed an honour guard when he could barely understand the concept was quite beyond Catherine. The order, About Face!, thundered across the courtyard and the soldiers turned to face their captain. Catherine ran to the castle wall, shot the heavy bolts on the sally-port door, and emerged a few moments later, into her home town.
Catherine walked through the town towards the market square. As ever, the sights and smells were entrancing to her. These folk were her people. She walked among them, shared their laughter, bartered unnecessarily for a freshly picked apple, and watched a group of young girls dancing hand in hand in a circle. It was simple, charming entertainment and Catherine applauded with the rest of the crowd.
Nine hundred years ago, Catherine recalled from her history lessons, as civil war raged to the south, Duke Stephan of Astan had refused the call to arms against the King. He seceded from the land of Menkalin and declared Astan an independent province. Of course, his peers had been furious and Stephan had stood seige in this very town. This had exhausted the armies of the other nobles who had eventually retreated from Astan province and been roundly beaten by the King's Own army as they had returned to Menkalin itself. Astan had remained independent of Menkalin and threw off the stifling and barbaric practices of feudalism that Menkalin still adhered to. Astan's people had been free of such cruelty since time out of mind. Until five years ago, when the armies of Gastar d'Alcene and his allies, seeking revenge for the nine hundred year old insult Duke Stephan had made, had invaded and routed every force sent against them.
Now feudal rule had returned with a vengeance. The people, her people, Catherine thought angrily, were ground down under the weight of oppression from a foreign power. Her father had surrendered on the field of battle and was now a puppet to Gastar d'Alcene who had all but declared himself Duke of Astan.
Vengeance, thought Catherine with a certain misery, would take a long time in coming for her people. I promise I will bring it to you!
She turned from the dancing girls and looked down the row of market stalls. There! she thought as she caught sight of Erik. Quickly, Catherine ducked behind a different stall and watched the young man. The Kal-Pyrran merchant-adventurer-warrior-womaniser was unloading a crate from a nearby wagon. Catherine could see the muscles of his arms and shoulders bulge and ripple under his leather shirt. Her head span dizzily and she felt her stomach alive with butterflies. What on earth am I thinking? she wondered. Of course, she knew exactly what she was thinking and even tried hard to feel ashamed. But looking at Erik drove those shameful thoughts away and Catherine felt only one thing: her own womanhood racing in her heart.
Catherine perused the goods on sale at Erik's stall, her right eyebrow raised in mock disinterest. In fact, her gaze was drawn to one heavy silver bracelet which seemed to be inscribed with runes. Several large, muscular Kal-Pyrran warriors, armoured in chainmail byrnies and with heavy, well-used swords scabbarded at their hips, watched her carefully as her fingertips slipped over the silver bracelet and touched on what looked like a gold ring.
“May I?” Catherine asked Erik, as politely as she could.
“Aye, Madam,” replied the Kal-Pyrran, his voice heavily accented, and rumbling richly from deep within his chest.
Catherine suppressed a shudder as she held the ring up to the Sun and watched the light glint from the band. Perhaps this would suit Dame Mella, she wondered idly, before replacing the ring on the stall.
“Oh, well. Nothing for me, today,” Catherine said with a light, and somewhat unladylike, shrug. She turned to go.
“Surely, Madam, you've seen something of interest?” Erik said. His voice was quiet but its deep rumble cut even through the rest of the marketplace noise. This was strange. Countless other women had said much the same thing. Why had he risen to this girl's unspoken challenge?
Catherine turned back and raised one eyebrow. “Tell me, Sir,” she began, “on which piratical raid were these looted?” There were dangerous mutters from one or two of the warriors. She shot a glance at the two men.
If Erik's voice was deep, his laugh was an octave deeper still. “I swear to you, Madam, that these are not stolen. They were each fairly won in the face of grave danger.” He paused and the girl looked more interested. Erik indicated a few of the items and gave them what he knew to be dubious provenance embellished with tales of dragon hoards and Orc raiders, Troll lairs and creatures stranger still. While Erik himself had not fought these creatures, other than the Orcs and Trolls which plagued his homeland, he knew his own father had faced them and won. Most of the time.
Catherine let the lies, as entertaining as they were, wash over her. When Erik had finished his stories, she turned her attention to the silver bracelet that had caught her eye. “And this?” she asked. “Faerie silver? Or tin?” she finished, a little acidly.
Erik was perplexed, now. Of all the items he had for trade, that was the one object he could not place even a half-real story upon. It was a strange item and seemed to glitter with a life of its own in the moonlight. He had hoped to be rid of the cursed thing in case there was magic in it. He suppressed a shudder, then inspiration came to him. “It's not faerie silver, Madam. Why, what would the faerie folk do with such a large bracelet, I ask you?” When Catherine did not reply, he went on. “I think it comes from West of the Barrier Peaks, in the forest land the Elves call Haseby.”
Rubbish! thought Catherine. The Elves would not allow such a treasure to fall into the hands of this Northern vagabond. The allure the bracelet held, however, could not be denied. There was definitely something special about it. Perhaps her mother would know? Catherine strove to recall some of the pictures, woodcuts and sketches she had seen in her mother's secret library but nothing like this bracelet had appeared in those pages.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Erik said, “A priceless work from a truly gifted people. Perhaps even a piece of history. Yours, Madam, for fifty gold crowns.”
Catherine gasped as her thoughts tumbled back to the present. “Fifty?” she blurted. “That would make it the most expensive piece of tin I have ever seen!” This brought further angry mutters from the warriors.
“Make it forty,” suggested Erik, who was now at a loss as to why he was bargaining with this girl.
Catherine rallied and drew herself to her full height and looked at the merchant with an air of regal superiority. It seemed she had won the first round! “Sir,” she began, “such common haggling I feel must be shameful to you. May I suggest we retire to somewhere more private and discuss the finer aspects of this treasure without our negotiations being overheard?” She glanced at the warriors and watched them scowl.
Erik smiled broadly. “Excellent idea, Madam.” He stepped around the stall and buckled a swordbelt around his waist. He turned to one of his men. “Look after things here, Olaf.” The warrior nodded, then Erik took the bracelet from the stall and reached for Catherine's left hand.
She took a step back, rather shocked at the man's brusqueness.
“Madam,” he said gently, “you can only appreciate the fineness of this small treasure if you wear it, if only for a short while.”
Impressed, Catherine held out her left hand and Erik fastened the bracelet, a perfect fit, around her wrist. She twisted her arm and let the sunlight glint from the metal. It was beautiful and, despite her mocking, Catherine realised that this was not cheap tin and might not even be silver.
Arm in arm, Erik and Catherine walked through the marketplace.
Catherine artfully steered Erik away from the Inn of Seven Wives, which was nothing but a fancily named brothel, towards the Feathers of Blue and Gold, the only inn in town which was allowed to paint its signboard in Catherine's family colours.
She relaxed back into one of the sumptuously padded leather armchairs of the Feathers' most private room and regarded Erik over the rim of her goblet. The aroma of the lightly spiced, rich red wine filled her nose and she breathed deeply.
Erik raised his own goblet in a toast. “To beauty,” he said, “both ancient and as young as Spring.”
Catherine rolled her eyes at the ceiling and sipped her wine, an excellent vintage from the cask of '43, a vintage older even than Dame Mella. She feigned a mild boredom with Erik's compliment but in her heart she felt a glow of pride. “I'd wager you have said that to every woman from here to Mayn.” She smiled wickedly. “And I'd further wager that barely one in ten of those poor women fell for your flattery!”
Wounded pride showed on Erik's face but he retalliated. “Madam, not one of those women would have stood for being called ancient!”
Catherine's temper burst. She sat bolt upright in her chair and nearly splashed wine over her dress. “Why you good for nothing,” she spluttered, and floundered for the right word, “pirate!”
Erik's deep laugh smothered Catherine's rage at being outsmarted. She laughed herself and relaxed back into her chair. That made the game even. “Oh, you rogue!” she said forcefully.
The man raised an admonishing finger towards the young woman. “Piracy is a capital crime in my land, Madam,” Erik said. “We scuttle any pirate vessel we capture and tie the crews to the decks so they drown with their ship.” He sat back and took some satisfaction from the look of awe, bordering on fear, that ghosted across the girl's face.
Catherine managed to change the subject. “I assume that would be after you took their loot yourself?” She flicked her left wrist and let the light glint from the bracelet.
Erik smiled broadly. “We call that the Law of Salvage, Madam. It is perfectly legal, I assure you.”
“Is that how you came by this, this, trinket?” she asked, with a glance at the bracelet, in an attempt to batter down Erik's price a little further.
“Ah, now we come to it,” the Kal-Pyrran replied. “No. That bracelet was not won through an act of piracy, nor through salvage.” He paused and looked the girl in the eyes, which were a clear, crystal blue. Why he said what he said next would escape Erik for many years. “To be honest, Madam, I have no idea where it came from.” He held out his hand and the girl, somewhat nervously, leaned forward and placed her left hand in his. Her hand was fantastically warm and her skin as soft and smooth as a baby's. With his free hand, he indicated the characters engraved into the metal. “In all my travels, on all the treasures and trinkets I have seen,” Erik managed a smirk which was mirrored in the girl's own smile, “and, I admit, on all the treasure maps I have followed, I have never seen writing such as this.”
Catherine leaned forward a little more. The two were so close now she could feel his body heat, a pleasant, but slightly dangerous, warmth which distracted her terribly. “It is certainly not Elven script, or at least none I have ever seen.” This comment drew a wide-eyed stare from Erik, who had never met Elven people who had an almost mythical history in Kal-Pyrra. Catherine played her advantage. Even this small piece of knowledge made her slightly superior to the Kal-Pyrran merchant and that felt satisfying. She was ahead in the game again. “The Elves of the Startop Hills west of here used to visit. Their clothes and banners were often embroidered with their mottoes and the names of their kings. These letters,” Catherine gingerly touched one of the engravings, “are nothing like theirs.” She looked at them more closely and frowned thoughtfully. “They are too crude, too angular to be Elven script.”
Erik had drawn closer too. Her perfume was delicate, not the overpowering musk favoured by some of the town's working girls, and made his head spin. When he spoke, his voice was slightly husky. “One thing is certain, Madam. The beauty of this bracelet is surpassed only by yours.” Gently, Erik kissed the back of the young woman's hand.
Don't stop. Please don't stop! Catherine prayed. Her heartbeat quickened as her prayer was answered. Erik's next kiss was on her wrist, just past the band covered by the bracelet. The next a little higher still.
He looked up into her clear blue eyes. She smiled nervously then reached out her right hand to stroke his cheek. He turned his head slightly and kissed her warm fingertips, though his eyes never left hers.
What followed was impossible to stop.
Erik grasped Catherine's arms and pulled her close, carelessly scattering their goblets and spilling the wine across the floor. Their lips met in a long, warm kiss, which Catherine broke with a breathless gasp as she tightened her embrace about Erik's shoulders. Erik returned the embrace and kissed the side of her smooth, soft neck. He slipped one arm under Catherine's legs and stood in one swift movement, cradling the girl in his arms. Erik carried Catherine the few steps to the bed and laid her gently on the soft covers.
“Don't stop,” Catherine breathed. “Make us one.”
Catherine lay in Erik's arms, her head on his chest, and listened to the beat of his heart. She would remember that rhythm, fast and strong, for the rest of her life. Every passing second was indelibly printed in her memory and in her spirit. That first, sharp pain deep within her which had eased so quickly. Passion, kisses, unstoppable desire. A release that had left her gasping for breath. Now, Erik's steady breathing. The feel of his arm about her shoulder. His hand stroking through her soft blonde hair. She remembered, as a girl, climbing a tree against her father's bellowed orders and looking down twenty feet to the ground, her head filled with the sickening whirl of vertigo. Her head was spinning like that now, not with height or the fear of plunging to her death but with the passion Erik had unleashed in her.
Exhausted by their illicit passion, the lovers slept.
What was that noise? Catherine wondered. The afternoon had been so peaceful and she had slept more soundly in Erik's arms than she had for many nights in her own bed. Now she was slow to wake and rather fuzzy headed. She raised herself up on one elbow and looked around the room. Noone could have entered while they slept. Catherine had the only key to the room.
She stiffened. That noise was the unmistakable sound of booted feet on hardwood floor. And was that the slight jingle of metal on metal as chainmail links rubbed against each other? Catherine jabbed her elbow into Erik's ribs. “Erik!” she hissed. Her lover stirred, noticed the look of fear on her face, and bounded out of the bed just as the first fists started pounding against the door.
“Catherine!” came the angry shout. A woman's voice.
The young woman's heart sank. Oh no! Not her! She watched Erik fumble through their discarded clothing to find his sword belt. This he placed on the bed before tossing Catherine's somewhat rumpled dress to her.
“Dame Mella, what are you doing here?” Catherine asked as she slipped out of bed.
“You know fine well why I am here, girl,” Mella answered, all her manners and courtly protocol gone from her voice. “Let me in!” she demanded.
Catherine struggled with her dress which had been turned inside out in her earlier haste. “You have no right to intrude upon my privacy, Dame Mella,” she called out. “I will join you in the castle in an hour.”
“If you do not let me in this instant, Catherine,” Mella retorted angrily, “then I will see you in the castle dungeon in half that time! You and that uncouth northerner!”
Catherine understood, then, from where Mella had received her orders. “My father would not dare! Let him come here and order me himself.”
“I tire of this, Catherine,” Dame Mella replied calmly. “You seem to have forgotten every lesson I have taught you and have spurned the memory of my son.” The Dame paused and hoped the mention of her son would twist the knife in Catherine's guilt and the girl would see sense. No answer, sensible or not, was forthcoming. “Catherine?” Another pause. Mella sighed and said. “Sergeant!”
The next sound was a heavy thud as two of the soldiers with Mella charged against the door.
Erik was half dressed now and had buckled his sword around his waist. He went to the window and looked into the Inn's courtyard. Ten soldiers were waiting outside and there seemed to be some sort of commotion half a street away. The Kal-Pyrran turned to the young woman and shook his head. No escape that way.
“Mella, stop this,” Catherine ordered, after the third charge had begun to split the door.
“I cannot,” Mella replied, with a hint of sadness in her voice. She nodded to the sergeant and the men gave one last charge at the door which splintered and broke.
Erik's sword cleared its scabbard in one smooth sweep. He pushed Catherine behind him and stood ready to defend her, his sword levelled at the two soldiers who had burst into the room. Two against one he could handle quite easily, Erik reckoned, but then the smile faded from his face as he heard a crossbow be cocked and ready to fire. The sergeant aimed the vicious-looking weapon at his chest.
Erik sized up the distance between himself and the first two soldiers. Duck. Break left. The first soldier would be dead before he hit the floor and the sergeant wouldn't risk shooting in case he hit the second man in the confusion. The smile returned to Erik's lips and he tightened his grip on his sword hilt.
“Don't do it, northerner,” warned the sergeant. He steadied his aim at the Kal-Pyrran's chest.
Catherine moved from behind Erik and stood in front of the soldiers, hoping that the sergeant would not risk shooting Erik if there was a chance he might hit her instead. She had managed to dress but looked more than a little dishevelled. These men and their sergeant she recognised from watching them drill and practice in the castle courtyard and at the archery butts in the nearby fields. “Lower your weapons, men,” she said, hoping that her status would carry more weight with the soldiers than their sergeant's rank, “we want no bloodshed here.”
Catherine noticed Dame Mella, standing in the ruined doorway, arms folded across her stomach. She could not remember the last time, if ever at all, she had seen her lady in waiting look so furious. The time for manners and her regal status was past. "Call off your attack dogs, Dame Mella," the young woman ordered.
Mella shook her head. "I take my orders and my duties from a much higher authority, milady." She glanced at the man with the crossbow. "Sergeant," Mella snapped.
"Take his sword," ordered the sergeant. One of the men stepped forward and reached for Erik's swordarm.
Erik twisted his arm away at the last moment and the soldier grasped thin air. The second man rushed in and the Kal-Pyrran reversed his swing. With a dull clang the pommel of Erik's sword caught the soldier on the side of his helmet. Stunned by the ringing impact, the man reeled and stumbled to his knees. Erik was in a rage now and he turned to bring his sword down on the soldier's neck.
"No!" Catherine screamed. She pushed Erik and unbalanced him long enough for him to think and hold his attack.
The first soldier raised his sword now and advanced on Erik and Catherine.
The girl's blood boiled over. She snatched the dagger, still hidden in the blue sash at the small of her back, and slashed at the soldier. The sharp steel sliced across the man's chest and cut easily through his blue and gold surcoat but skidded off his mail.
Catherine retreated back into Erik and held her dagger poised in front of her. She stared at the soldier's tattered surcoat. Her family colours. Ruined by her own hand. Catherine lowered her dagger and it fell from her numb fingers. “No more fighting, Erik. Please.” Gently, Catherine placed her hand on Erik's sword arm and felt the tension slowly drain from the iron-hard muscles that, just a few hours earlier, had embraced her with strength and passion. The point of his sword touched the floor and, seconds later, she and Erik were surrounded by armed troops of her own household.
The lovers were marched through the town, surrounded by soldiers. Dame Mella walked at the head of the procession, her head high and a look of such fury on her face that it cowed most of the townsfolk into scurrying away or pointedly ignoring Catherine and Erik. The lady in waiting never once looked back at her charge.
Catherine, in reluctant deference to her position, had not been bound. Erik staggered beside her with iron manacles on his hands and feet. He looked to her left at the small knot of soldiers who were attending the commotion he had seen earlier. Catherine followed his gaze and saw a woman's body being covered by a bloodstained sheet. She stopped abruptly. “Sergeant, what happened here?” Catherine was jostled by one of the other soldiers who attempted to keep her moving. She whirled on the soldier. “Keep your filthy hands off me!” Catherine screamed at the man, who, surprised by her anger, stepped back and almost bowed, as he had been trained to do, in front of a woman of Catherine's status. She ignored the foot soldier and turned back to the sergeant. “Well?”
“Some whore didn't make it through the night. Took a beating then what looks like a knife in the heart.” The sergeant looked accusingly at Erik. “Probably some out-of-towner did it. You know what they can be like.”
Catherine looked at the dead woman's face. Despite the pallor of death and the bruises on the skin, she was certain this was the woman she had seen Erik with just two nights ago. She glanced up at the man she had given herself to.
Erik must have seen the doubt in her eyes for he said, “Not me, nor any of my men. I swear that to you, Lady Catherine.” He paused and realised for the first time that Catherine was not just a merchant's daughter nor that of a minor baron, as he had first suspected. She was Duke Anton's daughter and heiress to the Duchy itself! How had she deceived me like that? Erik wisely suppressed a smile. “We are not the only out-of-towners here, my Lady.” One of the soldiers pushed Erik with his round shield and the party trudged on to the castle.
Catherine, for her part, believed Erik. She knew he was an adventurer, warrior, trader and a teller of tall tales regarding the goods he was selling. He was also womaniser of some reputation. All young men went through that, Catherine knew, and would take any opportunity to sow their wild oats, yes, as he had with her, before settling with the woman they knew to be the best. Catherine knew she was his best and no other woman would change that. She also believed he was a man of more honour than her father and, most definitely, that Erik was not a murderer.
Guilt gnawed in Catherine's stomach as she remembered her magic-making of the night before. Poison his whore's heart, the voice had said. Had the girl's death been her fault?
Catherine stood, alone, in the centre of the castle's audience chamber, as she had on seven occasions in the past five years. Her father, Duke Anton, was seated on an ornate throne and her mother, the Duchess Lydea, stood to the Duke's right, and slightly behind the throne.
Ever a wilful girl, Catherine had grown more restless and rebellious since d'Alcene's men had invaded her homeland. Each act of defiance had drawn more of her father's ire and now, Catherine had finally crossed the point of no return. There would be no forgiveness, no second or even eighth chance, no curfews, no grounding of a rebellious young girl, no special treatment for the Duchy's heiress. She would be punished according to the law of her land and there would be no escape.
Lady Catherine Fox stood proud and endured her father's anger with scarcely a flinch and not a single tear.
“Where is Erik?” she asked after her father's tirade. Her own future was in her father's hands and now her only concern was for her Kal-Pyrran lover. “Answer me, Father. While I stand here as your daughter, to be punished for my foolhardiness, I still have rights as your heiress.” Catherine knew the law of her own land or, at least, as they had stood before Gastar's arrival. How much had they changed? she wondered.
“The animal who defiled you is awaiting execution. He hangs at dawn tomorrow,” the Duke replied.
“Defiled?” Catherine could not believe this. She spoke as calmly as she could, her voice clear and each word crystal. “You are saying that Erik took me against my will. That he brutalised me in the way our invaders have despoiled our women.” She struggled for a moment to rein in her anger and at last said, “You have accused, tried and found Erik guilty of rape, while scores of our women have endured such a fate at the hands of Gastar d'Alcene's soldiers and not one of those bastards will hang!” Catherine glared at her father.
“He ruined not only you, daughter, but the honour of this entire house.”
“Honour!” Catherine laughed, sharply, nastily. “What do you know of honour, Father? You surrendered to Gastar's forces and begged that you could remain on that throne to rule as his regent. Your cowardice has robbed our entire country of its honour.” Catherine paused and looked down at the floor. She counted the white marble tiles around her feet as she had seven times before. This time, however, there were no tears blurring her vision. “I gave my honour to Erik, freely and without force or fear. Honour is a quality, Father, you would do well to learn.”
Duke Anton rose angrily to his feet and almost flew down the two steps from the dais to where his daughter stood. Catherine did not flinch and raised her head to meet her Father's eyes. At her side, she balled her right hand into a fist clenched so tightly that her nails stung her palm. If she had to lash out, so help her, Catherine would lay her Father flat on his back on the chamber floor. He walked a slow circle around her. Catherine, tempted as she was to follow his movements, kept her eyes fixed on the now empty throne. She could just see her mother, tense as a bowstring, with her hand gripped tightly to the back of the ornate throne.
Eventually, Duke Anton stood in front of Catherine and looked his daughter squarely in the eyes. “Honour, Catherine,” he began, “has been the heart and soul of our family since Duke Stephan declared our lands independent of Menkalin nine hundred years ago. Honour is not the only quality which defines us, as you appear to have forgotten, daughter.”
Catherine recited her family's oath, the promise she had made at the age of sixteen, and a passage which accompanied her nightly prayers. “We value honesty, generosity and valour. We seek to improve our skills and learning and strive to pass on that knowledge to the rest of our people.” Venom tinged her words now. “We prize justice and the protection of the innocent.” She calmed a little and finished the oath. “I, Lady Catherine Fox, swear to carry out these duties for the betterment of my family and the people of our land.”
She held her father's gaze for a long moment. The audience chamber was silent but for the strained breathing of father and daughter and the pounding of Catherine's heart in her own ears. “I have forgotten none of my family's qualities, Father. I swore our oath three years ago and will uphold my promise until the day I die.”
Duke Anton turned from his daughter, mounted the dais and sank back into the throne. “And to whom did you swear that oath, Catherine?” he asked.
“I ...” she began but then realisation dawned. Inwardly, her heart sank. Catherine knew she was beaten. “I swore my oath to you, Father.” A single raised eyebrow from her father made Catherine recant. She looked at the floor as the last trace of hope fled her. “I swore to the Duchy of Astan and the ruler who sits on that throne.”
The Duke nodded. “I must relinquish my rule at dawn tomorrow and Gastar d'Alcene's son will rule here. The son will not take who he sees as a whore for a wife.” Anton paused. He could see Catherine was trembling now and her throat twitched as she struggled to restrain her sobs. “Our family line dies tomorrow.”
It's my fault, Catherine thought. If I had but listened to Dame Mella's advice, I could have preserved my family line and ruled from the shadows for the betterment of my people. I have failed them all. I could have been a Duchess. Now I will be Gastar d'Alcene's concubine. A common whore with a more respectable name. The same black despair she had felt that morning assailed her now. If only I hadn't dropped my dagger! Catherine wailed inwardly.
Her thoughts were interrupted by her father's voice. “I have but one duty to perform before Gastar's son rules. Catherine, look at me.” When his daughter looked up, he was both surprised and proud that her tears were still unshed. “You have sullied the reputation of our family and marked each woman as a harlot. You must pay one final price for your insolence, stupidity and wantonness, which has brought shame upon us all.” His voice deepened and acquired the same gravitas it had held when Catherine swore her oath. “Catherine Fox, I consign you into the care of the Sisterhood at Osterlin Abbey. May they help you attain the qualities we value.”
Catherine whirled as the door to the audience chamber opened. There stood Dame Mella Kalsten and six household guards.
She looked back at her father. “You cannot do this to me! Mother! Tell him what he is doing is wrong.” Her mother closed her eyes for a brief moment and imperceptibly shook her head. It was one of their silent signals, taught in their night time lessons. The Duchess opened her eyes slowly and Catherine read the signal, concealed as it was by the pain in her mother's face. The Duke's mind would not be changed.
“Catherine,” Dame Mella's voice was cold, “we must leave now. Please do not force my hand in this. I have seen enough fighting today.” The older woman finished with a weary sigh.
The young woman did not turn to bid her parents farewell. With head bowed, Catherine Fox walked meekly to the door.
“She will hate me for the rest of her life,” Duke Anton said to his wife.
The woman was standing at the arrow slit which formed one of their bedchamber's small windows. She did not turn to her husband as her gaze was fixed on the receding line of torches which marked her daughter's passage through the night. Osterlin Abbey was several days away. “This way she will have some life. As Gastar d'Alcene's concubine she could have expected nothing but brutality. Your decree was for the best. Catherine, if she can rein in her temper, may well learn the real value of those qualities she has forgotten or ignored.”
“Why did she do it, Lydea?” Anton asked. “You know our daughter better than I.”
“Some of our cousins in Imer believe their goddess, Alora, grants any woman the right to follow her heart to the man she believes is right.”
“You are saying that Catherine's act was influenced by a foreign goddess? That is absurd, Lydea.”
“Alora is not just worshipped in Imer, Anton. She has a church, I believe, in Kalinan itself. But no, I do not believe Catherine was influenced by Alora.” The last of the torches had disappeared behind the trees. Her daughter was gone.
“Then why?” Anton was trying to understand why Catherine had pursued the Kal-Pyrran and brought ruin to the Duchy.
Lydea turned and smiled, if somewhat sadly, at her husband and walked the few steps to him. “She chose of her own freewill. She chose a man in whom she recognised many virtues and, admittedly, almost as many vices.” The sadness in Lydea's smile seemed to vanish, then, and she looked up into her husband's eyes. “It is not the first time a woman of our family has chosen a man her mother would have deemed inappropriate. I seem to remember a similar incident twenty years ago.” She laid her left hand on her husband's chest so that the dim candlelight in the room glinted off her wedding ring, an heirloom nine hundred years old.
Anton nodded, knowingly. “Are we to see history repeat itself, then?”
“No,” replied Lydea firmly. “We are to see history made around us.”
Two hours before dawn, Duchess Lydea descended the worn stone steps to the castle's dungeon. She dismissed the two guards and took the ring of keys from the hook. Only one of the cells was occupied at the moment but Lydea knew that soon they would be overflowing with innocent people accused of insulting the new Duke. Fear would be the true ruler of Astan for several years.
“Erik van Barden,” she said. There was no response but Lydea was sure the man's breathing had changed tempo. “Wake up, man,” she said impatiently. “You have little time.”
The Kal-Pyrran stood up from his low wooden bunk and walked into the torchlight. While bruised and dishevelled, Lydea could see that the man, several summers older than Catherine, was tall, muscular and undeniably handsome. Catherine may just have chosen well, reflected Lydea.
“Why did you do what you did to my daughter?” Lydea asked. “Answer me honestly, man, as I shall be weighing your words against Catherine's.”
Erik sighed. This might just be a game, one last round of mental torture before the hangman's noose took him. There was the chance, however, that Catherine's hand was at work somewhere. He answered as honestly as he could. “Your daughter has a beauty to her that I cannot describe. She was irresistable. I felt myself falling for her words and it took great strength of mind to stop myself falling further and faster. She said to make us one and I could not refuse.”
Lydea nodded. Her suspicions, founded on her examinations of Catherine's rooms, were borne out. Her daughter had bewitched the Kal-Pyrran. She managed to conceal her smile of satisfaction.
Lydea unlocked the cell door. “The Duke has reconsidered his ruling to have you executed for raping our daughter. There is no doubt in my mind that Catherine consented to you. She is an adult, after all.” The door screeched as Lydea pushed it open. Erik stepped through and immediately started looking for the exit. “I would suggest that you and your men leave town as quickly as possible. Our soldiers at least, still think you guilty and will happily cut off your manhood if they catch you.”
“Thank you, your Grace,” Erik said. “Before I go, may I see Catherine?”
“That will not be possible, sir” Lydea said. “Catherine has confessed that, while she feels deeply for you, she has shamed our family enough and does not want that shame to continue. I am sorry.” The Duchess paused, then produced something from behind her back. “You may need this.”
Catherine's dagger glittered in the torchlight. Erik grasped the hilt, smiled quickly, then turned and fled into the approaching dawn.