A harsh winter had ravaged the landscape, leaving little more than tracts of hard-packed ice impaled by bare stumps, set stark and wretched against a brooding sky. The bleakness was alarming but strangely familiar, echoing her heart’s melancholy with sublime poetry. Adolescence had come without warning, isolating Kaitlin Spencer as much or more than the relentlessly churning storms, making her a stranger to her own impulses. Worse, she’d been holed up for weeks in a tiny, dilapidated cottage just inside the palace walls with her parents, also strangers. She’d spoken to them only when inevitable.
This was her first outing since the sun had peeked sheepishly between walls of gray, illuminating a single patch of snow. Thankfully, the girl’s nurse had encouraged the excursion, even vouching for her whereabouts. She’d been surveying the surrounding terrain on horseback for mere moments when Puck lost his footing on the slickness, throwing her and bolting into the shadowy gullet of the bare-limbed forest that reared up behind the palace. She rose, dusted herself with stiff, frozen fingers, and ignoring the throbbing in the hip on which she’d landed, started after her impertinent steed.
“Puck!” She cried into the hollowness. The mysterious dark swallowed her velvety tones instantly, just as tangles of wretched limbs strangled all light at a certain distance. She could hear the clopping of hooves on randomly strewn rocks not far ahead; he hadn’t gone far. It wasn’t like him to be spooked, and even less so, disobedient. Soon he’d return and eat carrots from her outstretched palm.
“Puck!” She called again, to combat the dread that seemed to hang over the place more and more the deeper she penetrated. The cloud cover filtered the sun like a blanket, but the crisscrossing limbs rendered light even more muddled and confusing here in the forest, making it impossible to tell the time of day. She’d left the palace grounds only moments before, but suddenly felt hours could have passed, or days, or weeks.
She called a third time, but the sound of her own voice was scarcely recognizable, edged as it was with panic. She pursued the resounding clatter of hooves, her own overtones mingling with the gentle cacophony. But suddenly there was a third sound, weaving its rich, melodious baritone between the more percussive, staccato lines like a shimmering thread. It was sweetly seductive and captivating all at once, transforming the barren glen into a magical tapestry.
Kaitlin found herself entangled in its weave, tugged along weightlessly by the shimmering thread of a voice, helpless to resist even if she’d wanted to. Puck became an afterthought or a distant memory, so hypnotic was the effect. And there, emerging from darkness and centered in the tapestry like a perfectly embroidered tableau, stood the source of the unearthly melody. Framed by an ashlar bridge that spanned a shimmering rivulet, bathed in dapples of golden light—the few that dared penetrate the sheath of darkness—stood the most beautiful youth Kaitlin had ever laid eyes on. Dark, wavy locks hung over staunch, surly brows. But the eyes they framed were wide and angelic, emanating ice blue to rival the clumps of snow all about. The boy’s jaw formed a continuous, uninterrupted line, denoting strength and stalwartness, as did the muscular neck and well, every part of him. Full lips enunciated the wordless melody that hung on the air.
The first peculiar thing Kaitlin noticed about the youth was his attire; his tunic was tattered and soiled, a far cry from what she was accustomed to among the courtiers of the palace. The coarse fabric was cinched at the waist, and sheer leggings defined muscular thighs that remained casually crossed as the boy leaned against the ashlar bridge. His sinewy forearms were outstretched, offering her the reigns that had slipped out of her own grasp moments before. He’d enchanted Puck too; the horse did not so much as stammer or pace—only waited patiently for command.
“Thank you,” she managed, tipping her head.
“M’Lady,” the youth replied, putting an end to the enticing lullaby.
Kaitlin advanced with reticence; she knew better than to put herself in danger so far from the company of others. But something about the boy’s angelic voice made her trust him. Or to not wish to trust him. Or to mistrust herself, or some combination thereof.
She felt her hand leaving her side. As it reached for the reigns, the boy’s outstretched hand closed around hers, and her eyes locked with his. In seconds, their lips had come together and she found herself in a state of complete surrender, sliding to the earth in wonderment at her own abandon, and at the same time, never having wanted a thing more. And then he was inside of her on the slippery earth, the two of them gasping in unison and her staring into the confusion of crisscrossing branches, flushing and heaving and welcoming the light sweat that came in defiance of winter. She’d been told by schoolmates the first time was always a disappointment; how wrong they had been. Or how unlucky.
After the final gasp, the two lovers, strangers to one another, made introductions.
“I’m Titus,” the youth offered, reclining against the base of the ashlar bridge, somewhat spent.
Sheets of ice had begun to melt there where mitered granite met the soil, yielding a margin of verdant moss. It’s there Kaitlin wedged herself, collapsing into his sturdy frame.
“I’m Kaitlin,” she reciprocated.
She would not tell him she was Kaitlin Spencer, of the noble Westshire Spencers. Nor that she lived inside the castle walls, the only child of the royal seamstress and her silversmith husband. Least relevant of all at the moment—hence, no need to share—was the fact she was in line to court King Zardus himself one day. She was not descended from nobility, nor was she a member of the royal court. But her parents had been bestowed titles for one simple reason: it was well agreed-upon that she was the fairest maiden in all the land. She was soon to be put on market; her coming of age ceremony would take place in mere months.
In the mean time, she was being preened.
Withholding her social status did not feel like deception to the girl; the station that awaited her was hardly who she was anyway. And the roll in the—snow, as it were—that she’d just shared with the boy was the most honest act she’d engaged in in God knew how long.
Still, to deflect attention, she asked “Do you live here, in these woods?”
“Yes, M’Lady,” was all the boy offered.
“I’ve heard tell of villages deep in these woods, but never had occasion to meet an inhabitant. Only at the Spring Festival, of course…”
Once a year, folk from every corner of the kingdom gathered to celebrate the arrival of spring and to sell their wares. As a child, she’d been fascinated by forestfolk—by the dark, unruly appearance and demeanor of those who dwelt beneath leaf and limb. When she shared as much, the boy scowled.
“You seem altogether—different,” she observed. The vendors and merchants who’d captured her imagination at the festival were less—idealized, to put it kindly. More gnarled and torqued and knobby, beset with peculiarities like not enough fingers or too many. Some sprouted fern-like limbs or fungus-like antlers, which made them ideal novelty acts during festival season. Kaitlin knew full well, even as a child, that the misfits and undesirables stood little chance in society, and so took to the shadowy underbelly of the forest canopy, forging a civil bond by their shared uniqueness. Over time, their existence, revealed only when stumbled upon by the wayward traveler unsure what he was seeing, gave rise to lore of dwarves and elves and goblins.
“I was not born a forest dweller,” Titus explained. “I was taken in by forestfolk when my parents perished.”
“I’m sorry,” Kaitlin consoled, gently stroking his thick umber locks.
The boy’s eyes retreated in time, as though hacking away at thickets of brush to get at his earliest recollections.
“My entire village was burned,” he continued. “By the Royal Army. It had been a harsh winter; we hadn’t the means to pay our taxes…”
The boy’s sadness touched Kaitlin, and she lay her head upon his chest, allowing her chestnut hair to spill across it like spun gold. She knew her fair complexion contrasted with the swarthiness of his swelling ribcage, that the crimson flush of her cheek complemented the heart that beat inside, so rich with life and loss.
“And how did you learn to sing?” Kaitlin asked in earnest. Though the melody had been wordless, the sheer mastery of his instrument, the perfect tone and utter pitch control, spoke of training.
“I’m not sure,” Titus confessed humbly. “As far back as I can remember, I amused my new family with song. The forestfolk, though musically inclined themselves, called it a gift.”
“A gift indeed,” Kaitlin Spencer concurred with unbridled enthusiasm. “The gift of enchantment…”
Here she took to planting tiny breathless kisses across the flawless expanse of her lover’s chest.
And then something came over her. “Carry me away once more,” she pleaded. “Let your voice carry me far from here, where words are silly and useless, where branches flutter and the forest quakes and appearances fall away like so many dead leaves…”
Titus indulged her with his gift, that of impossibly ethereal overtones and undertones that resonated above and below—in the core of her being and the heady chambers of her lofty ideals. The melody was the same one as before—one she recognized from a dream of the past or a vision of the future, or both. It was as though he knew her better than she knew herself, keyed into her essence from some expansive perch beyond the here and now. The ineffable feeling of being transported, however, quickly turned to that of being abducted, and her heart beat wildly. Somewhere in the ether, her heels scrambled for solid ground, for fear of being whisked away to a place of no return.
She panicked and sprang to her feet.
“I must go,” she bade him.
He sat up, bewildered. “But—”
“I have had a most wonderful afternoon. One I shall never forget.”
In her heart, she knew it to be true. What she could not know is how the memory of it would come to haunt her, or the indelible stamp it had already imprinted on her soul.
“When shall I see you again?” the boy asked as Kaitlin mounted Puck from the bridge.
“Never,” she called back regretfully. “I must never return to this place…”
Halfway back to the barbican, she felt it and looked down. Her garment was soaked in blood.
She began to devise an alibi. If she could not make it to her chambers unnoticed, she’d say her cycle had arrived, or that it was the horse. He’d become startled (not altogether untrue) and she’d suffered quite a jolt. She promised God that if King Zardus would buy the story (after all, she’d heard of quite a few hymens that had been broken not by husbands but by temperamental horses) she’d never be so reckless again.
And she made sure of it. Or life did. From that day on, abandonment was tempered with structure and discipline, their meticulously orchestrated plans for her sufficient to distract her from her own heart. A week after Kaitlin Spencer’s coming of age ceremony, King Zardus called upon her by sending an engraved invitation to the door of the small cottage she shared with her parents.
Lady Spencer’s eyes swelled like a squall on the high seas imagining an entire future for her daughter in the few words the squire read aloud:
Lady Kaitlin Spencer
Your presence is required this very eve, at six-and-thirty on the clock
At the Royal Banquet Hall
That King Zardus might be enchanted by your company during supper.
Lady Spencer wasted no time pressing her daughter’s fanciest gown, adorning it with brocade sashes and a train to rival her cascading locks. She was the royal seamstress; it was no effort at all ensuring her daughter’s appearance would eclipse that of every last lady of the court. She smiled approvingly once finishing touches had been applied, and bade her daughter farewell along with her husband, who was teary-eyed and full of pride.
The King’s reaction on seeing the maiden was no less effusive; his jaw nearly fell to the floor in abject surrender when she was escorted into the enormous dining hall. Still, it was she who curtsied and kissed his ring, gluing her eyes to the floor. King Zardus immediately put the girl at ease, seating her beside him at the head of a ridiculously long rosewood dining table. The two were waited upon hand and foot, treated to a four-course meal of roast mutton and a string quartet. Kaitlin found the affair less stuffy than she’d feared, reveled in the sheer glory of abundance. It was clear the harshness of life was kept at bay here in the castle’s bailey, but a distant memory.
She even found the king himself attractive, in a fatherly sort of way. His effusive laugh was earnest, contagious, calming her nerves and endearing him to her. She had to remind herself throughout the evening not to take the attention personally; the king was keen to settle on a wife and produce an heir.
Rumors of the otherwise benevolent ruler’s temper had made it to the furthest reaches of the kingdom, however distorted, rendering the momentary charity, at least in Kaitlin’s estimation, disingenuous. Or worse, subject to whim. She couldn’t shake the sense that although good fortune had landed her in the path of opportunity, the stakes were all or nothing. If she said the wrong thing, or if a foul mood beset the man, her head could end up in a basket like that of the last contender.
Her fears proved unfounded in the end, and her head remained attached. After a three-week courtship, the two were wed in a lavish public ceremony. Subjects attended from far and wide, eager to lay eyes once again on the fairest maiden in the land, now a bride, and soon to be their queen.
It was not long, however, before the fanfare and ceremony yielded to malice. Rumors of former dalliances came to haunt the queen in a most unkind way. In preparation for betrothal, royal midwives had officially confirmed the bride’s hymen had gone the way of so many other young equestrians’, and the assessment had appeased royal concern. But whispers began to circulate on the lips of courtesans, primarily the lips of those who wished to cull favor with the king. Or better still, to share his bed once the queen’s head was on a post somewhere.
The rumors were not confined to the palace walls; pamphlets circulated in the streets, tabloids meant to tarnish the as-yet pristine but mysterious reputation of the young queen. In an attempt to endear herself to the people and diffuse any ill will with earthiness, the queen guzzled ale at festivals, told raucous and bawdy jokes in public. The king was only charmed by the impropriety, momentarily blinded by a love he hadn’t seen coming—not by a long shot. But the people were not so charitable, taking the relaxed decorum as further proof of their queen’s inferior stock.
The king paid no attention; if anything, his myopia extended to the notion the two were a team, that the shelter of their union could withstand any storm. He touted a new protocol—a more friendly and accessible oligarchy. Even so, when Kaitlin’s head hit the silk pillow at night, imagining Titus’s supple lips on her breast all those years ago, she couldn’t help but worry. Part of her knew at any moment the gossip might rouse her husband’s suspicions. Despite his own disdain for appearances, he’d behead her in an instant if his dignity was threatened. He was a man, after all, and a prideful one at that.
Over time, the king’s council bent his ear. The people were not sophisticated enough for change, they said, at least not in the form of relaxed protocol. It would be wise to curtail ‘earthiness’ with manners, he was advised; the rebellious streak the royal couple shared would benefit from improved appearances. And it was always best to have the people on your side. The king took to reminding his wife to sit up straight, to retire her goblet early in the evening, to wave correctly and use the right utensil at the right time.
Queen Kaitlin took to sobbing at night once she’d dismissed her handmaiden. Eviscerating slander aside, the formalities were killing her inside.
Even the couple’s lovemaking was routine. At first, when she was called upon to visit the king’s chambers and do her wifely duty, she cherished the regularity. She found great purpose in lying beneath his corpulent royal mass, staring at the gilded ceiling tiles. She wanted nothing more than to bear the man an heir. But the familiar, comforting ritual turned eventually to desperate protests her heart alone could hear: she had wants and needs of her own. Desires. Dear lord, she thought, if he only knew…
Over time, Queen Kaitlin’s despair grew too deep for a satin pillow, and overflowed its banks. It was her nurse, Lady Crawley, whom she confided in—the very same handmaiden who had birthed her in her midwife days, the very authority who’d inspected her before the betrothal. She was trustworthy, Kaitlin knew; after all, the woman could easily have thrown her under the proverbial carriage on discovering her hymen had gone missing.
Lady Crawley was a comforting, matronly presence, alternating between stroking Kaitlin’s hair with compassion and cradling her cheek to a full bosom.
“Every woman since Eve herself has felt the way you’re feeling,” the woman explained. “There’s no shame in it. We’re so much more than our wombs and their ability to birth babies.”
Here, she lowered her voice to a whisper. “We’re Goddesses, truth be told. Each one of us. And each one of us shall inherit a kingdom.”
Her depression lifted somewhat. She didn’t take the woman’s wisdom as license, per se—more as an elixir to the guilt that came with fantasizing. About him. His full lips and broad shoulders and taut physique. Imagining it was his hips that swiveled and thrust against hers between embroidered satin sheets when the lights went out. The image of Titus kept lovemaking bearable, diminished the feeling of objectification, and even worse, failure. After all, it had been three years, and her body had yet to produce an heir.
It was three years to the day, in fact, when he reappeared.
She never imagined laying eyes on him again. Oh, sure—she’d kept one eye out for him at the three Spring Festivals that had come and gone, both disappointed and relieved when his fair visage failed to materialize. She’d begun to wonder if she’d imagined him, somehow dreamt him into being.
Until there he was in no uncertain terms at a public hearing in the village square she was loathe to attend. Titus was not merely in attendance; he was the defendant. He’d been arrested for stealing bread from a too-trusting baker who nightly left fresh baked loaves to cool in the open air of a cobblestone alleyway.
Titus looked just as she remembered him. If anything, the beauty of youth was now edged with the ruggedness of experience. Oh, his brow had always been tortured by loss, the look in his eye tragic. But fine lines had now etched themselves on the wide expanse of his forehead, and Kaitlin, rather than lamenting the passage of youth, basked in the beauty of experience.
From afar, that is.
Titus’s eyes remained glued to the earth throughout the proceedings. Only when King Zardus himself rose to pronounce a verdict, did Titus’s eyes find Kaitlin’s across the village square.
Without warning, something came over her, pushing out her better sense for a far more dangerous pursuit—principle. She took hold of her husband’s massive forearm as he prepared to deliver both verdict and sentence.
“Have mercy, my dear,” she whispered, voice trembling. “Please.”
The king remained stoic, fixed on the throngs of countrymen hushed in anticipation. His eyes alone shifted, finding those of his wife. What he saw in them was inscrutable.
She spoke too quickly, to cover up for something. “It’s been a punishing winter, my love. The forestfolk are a good people…”
“A good people?” the king scoffed. “It is well-known they are baby-stealers. His people drink the blood of infants.”
Kaitlin shook her head. “It is but a mean-spirited myth, my love. Search your heart and you know it to be true. When the plague strikes, forestfolk are the only ones willing to take in the orphaned.”
All at once, fear of discovery gave way to conviction and she stood as if readying herself to march though the valley of the shadow of doubt on integrity alone. “They are misunderstood,” she insisted. “Oppressed, by our very own way of life. They are a good and kind people—close to the earth and all that matters. And this man is no exception; he is beyond reproach, my love. A victim of circumstance alone. Of appearances.”
A microscopic change stirred in the man’s eyes, as though the truth in her words had disturbed the surface of some glassy pool. Just as quickly, his eyes girded.
“On this day the court hereby pronounceth one Titus DuBois of Willowbrook Province guilty of the offense of thievery, sentenced to an incarceration of no less than eight year.”
The sentence had been doubled.
Kaitlin’s heart sank.
The kingdom’s sole prison was the vast dungeon whose labyrinthian cells riddled the palace basement. It was here Titus was ordered to serve out his harsh sentence, and here he was flung into darkness, as good as forsaken. The wails of prisoners and the cracking of whips never made it above ground, could not penetrate the durable stone masonry that divided the world of the living from that of the damned. Just as the silvery moat protected the palace itself—a stronghold of sublime, if precarious ideals—from assault, an ashlar barrier kept the sounds of the unsavory dungeon from permeating daily privilege. For that reason, it was no great effort for the royal couple to march onward, just as life itself was wont to do. Guilt is a peculiar thing, after all, culpability such an unsavory prospect to the waking mind as to be pushed further down with the digging in of heels, the polishing of appearances so obstinate in defiance of it.
The look Zardus had seen in his wife’s eyes at the public hearing was never discussed. Not a thought or an utterance went to the subsistence of prisoners deep in the earth. But the far-below toil made its way through stone walls all the same, if by vibration alone, weakening the foundation. The wails of prisoners hijacked royal dreams, tainting them with a nightmarish dread.
It was a moonlit night two years after the arraignment that Kaitlin called out in her sleep, bolting upright. She was alone in her bedchambers, not having been called upon to join her husband in his. Lady Crawley’s modest quarters were adjacent, and hearing the anxious cries of her queen, she dashed in to see what was the matter.
“A haunting dream is all,” Kaitlin explained. “Still, it moved me. I dreamt a mocking bird came in the dead of night, and landed right there…”
Here the queen indicated the stone ledge of her windowsill.
“The melody it chirped was hauntingly familiar, so much a part of my soul as to distinguish fire from ice…” She wouldn’t say it, but the familiar melody came from a distant past, when life was infinitely less complicated, from the lips of a boy whose soul was as innocent as her own.
“It seemed so real,” she insisted, her visage still haunted. “But when I woke, there was nothing there.”
Lady Spencer looked to the open window and back. “Pay it no mind, my dear. You must rest.” The woman attempted to pull up the bedding, but Kaitlin pushed it away restlessly.
“There’s something I must do,” she proclaimed.
As eerily nostalgic as the song had been, she wished it hadn’t come. Surrendering to her husband’s touch would only be torture going forward. Though the wandering of her own heart had never been discussed between the two, his lovemaking had become characterized by the disdainful grunts of one harboring a nagging grudge. It was nearly unbearable.
Before standing, Kaitlin took her nurse by the pudgy shoulders in earnest. “The king is fast asleep,” she whispered. “’Tis highly unlikely he’ll call for me.”
Lady Crawley waited, unsure where her mistress was headed.
“As such, I am relying on you for a simple favor.” The look in her eye grew insistent.
“Should my husband’s page, or anyone for that matter, request audience, please inform them I am incapacitated. If my husband insists, please impress upon him that my company would be—messy at best.”
Crawley nodded. “In any case, “ she concurred, “Next week would be more suited to conception. I shall make the fact clear; the state defers to my authority on such matters.”
“Thank you, thank you!” Kaitlin cried, her enthusiasm betraying something to the woman.
The queen had already risen, dressed herself. She approached the open window of the turret that was her bedchamber. Without further explanation, she swung her legs over the precipice and was gone.
A moonless night shrouded her shimmy down the trellis, the drop to hard earth. Discretely, Kaitlin located a small, slatted vent in the bailey’s foundation, one she’d well researched. In no time at all its louvered slats lay on the earth and the queen was maneuvering covertly through the narrow space that remained.
Once inside, she unrolled a parchment in the dim light. She studied what was etched thereupon, as she’d done many times before. It was nearly by rote that she proceeded to navigate the maze of darkened corridors and grim, lightless vaults.
When she found him, he was wide awake.
“I’m so sorry,” were her first words. “I did all I could.”
“I dreamt you’d come,” he said deliriously, as though looking upon an angel or a ghost.
“I only wish it could have been sooner,” she lamented, her eyes scanning the crisscrossing ridges of flesh that had been scarred at the crack of a whip. Tears formed in her eyes.
Any bitterness on Titus’s part yielded to long-suppressed desire, a longing that had never left him. He pressed his ravaged body against rusty iron bars. She didn’t dare encourage him by returning the gesture, even in pitch-blackness without a warden in earshot.
“Please, you must heed my words,” the queen insisted urgently. We haven’t much time…”
With that, she handed a scroll between iron bars. And then a rusty key, ridiculously large.
“Once I’ve gone, this is your way out.” A distinct red scrawling of ink indicated the proper route to freedom. Suddenly it became clear to Titus that solving the maze had been the reason for her delay, not indifference. A look of gratitude came over his youthful visage, still flawless despite wear and tear.
“I’ve missed my family,” he said simply, tears forming in the enormous discs of his eyes, visible even in the scant light. “They need me…”
Kaitlin folded her hand over his about the rusty bar that separated them. It was the grandest gesture she dared attempt. “I must go before I am discovered.”
“Please, he whispered throatily as she rose. “Come to me in the forest in two days’ time. Where we first met, by the bridge.”
She hesitated, torn.
“I must see you again,” he cried. “I’ll not lose you a second time.”
Her voice rose through a tense gullet like magma through terra firma, despite her own objections. “I will. I promise.”
In two days’ time, having yet to shake the delirious, foggy dream that had taken the place of reality, Kaitlin appealed once more to her nurse’s confidence.
“Yes, M’Lady,” Crawley agreed without hesitation. “Incapacitated.”
An orange crescent of moon hovered over the stark landscape as Kaitlin shimmied down the trellis. Managing to evade notice by palace guards, she made it through a crenel in the parapet and dashed across the open field separating it from the towering wall of pinions that was the forest.
Its face was perforated with deep hollows receding to unknown depths, tangled limbs that defied the tangerine hues of the crescent moon. A nearly inaudible breeze moved between them, beckoning Kaitlin into uncertainty. Her first step echoed forebodingly, the snap of leaf and limb sounding a grave warning. She ignored it, dashing forward over snaking roots and undulating mounds of heaving soil, following the rhythm of a racing heart. Only yards into the shroud of ambivalence, a gnarled tendril came to life, springing into her path.
There was no time to react; straight away whatever it was sunk its unruly fangs deep into the flesh of her bare ankle. And then, it slithered away and was gone. Kaitlin winced at the sharp pain, writhing. But she refused to succumb here, would have to barrel onward to the agreed upon place—the long ago refuge that existed in secret, a hollow glen reduced to dreamlike memory.
He was there, bathed in moonlight, leaning casually against the misshapen bridge just as before. The moment he saw her, he sensed something was amiss and rushed forward. Without a word, his mouth was on the pale flesh of her ankle, sucking out poison. Titus relied on an instinct he’d learned early on, an intuition forestfolk seemed to share due to sheer proximity to nature. When he was sure he’d sucked out every last drop of poison that had begun coursing through her veins, he lay her upon the verdant moss, legs splayed out and away from her beating heart. Finally, he plucked a handful of moss from the earth and pressed it gently to her flesh. In seconds, the two small perforations sealed themselves and disappeared. A blush returned to Kaitlin’s face, pushing out deathly pallor.
“Thank you,” she sighed.
“How I’ve missed you,” Titus panted, unable to tear his gaze from her fair visage, tiers of chestnut hair that spilled across his lap like waterfalls.
She gazed up at him deliriously. “I’ve missed you too,” she confessed. “It’s too much to bear.”
She reached up and stroked the stubble-strewn expanse of his strong jaw, traced the supple contours of his full lips with a trembling finger. “Take me,” she entreated him.
For half a second, the youth looked as though he might consider the proposition. And then: “You must preserve your strength.”
“On the contrary,” she protested, “Your touch is all that can bring me back to life.”
With that she raised herself from the earth, pressing her lips to his. Her hand found the base of his skull among unruly locks, pulling him further in to her. The insistence in her grip was feral, rising up from a place in her she scarcely knew. She found herself surrendering to utter abandon, driven by a primal desire so forceful in that moment she’d have forsaken anything to fulfill it: her good sense, her status, society’s codes and the confidence of her husband. Indeed, her very life was at stake and she welcomed the risk for a single moment more entangled in him, feeling the tingle of his wavy locks caressing her to life. Feeling the rippling mass of his broad back as it heaved, her fingers tracing each scar and reading the agony it memorialized. She felt her body awaken; it was nothing less than the force of life that moved between them, uniting their souls with each thrust and spasm and pulsation, pushing out chaos and assigning meaning in its place.
She felt the shudder and release as he climaxed, the involuntary contractions in her own body that invited more and more of him upward and inward. And then, the two collapsed to the earth, remaining entangled, basking in a union both wished would never end. The world could not pry them apart, nor the threat of death that would surely be their punition; all that mattered was lying there as one.
A hundred yards away, cloaked by underbrush and intertwining roots, a figure watched until the two rolled apart.
There were to be subsequent liaisons, now bathed in the dappled light of a full moon, now shrouded by humidity or lost to the swarthiness of a moonless night. At least once, Kaitlin became distracted by the rustling of leaves but eventually returned to the task at hand.
The queen’s will to live returned with the color in her face. She’d stopped eating, but even her appetite returned. The king noticed, and the begrudging duty he performed between the sheets grew ever more spirited. Every aspect of life improved for the queen.
Until one day, she became alarmed when her monthly flow was missing in action.
She beseeched the council of her nurse, Lady Crawley.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t have lain there so long,” was all the woman said in reply.
“I beg your pardon?” Kaitlin came back, in earnest shock. Her heart began to beat wildly in the barrel of her chest.
“Let’s not, shall we?” All at once, the matronly look in the woman’s eyes yielded to something more sinister—something inscrutable Kaitlin had yet to put a finger on.
“Sit down, my love.” Crawley’s hold was insistent, more forceful than need be as she guided her queen to a settee near the turret window. Her eyes flashed to the falling dusk without, the margin of trees that defined a towering wood, now a sheath of moral ambiguity.
“You’ve been foolish,” she began. “Not for betraying your king, or even your own heart, but for all the rest.”
Kaitlin waited, her own eyes darting to the violet dusk and back. She tried to slow her breathing, the palpitations of her heart.
“Every midwife knows how conception occurs. It’s not through regularity or persistence. Not even love. It takes a youthful seed and a level of—shall we say—skill?”
Kaitlin scoffed involuntarily. She had no idea what the woman was getting at, or knew precisely but didn’t want to hear it.
Nonetheless, the woman persisted, her eyes narrowing to slivers. “Every contraction in a woman’s body is a receptive impulse. And lying there, basking in chemistry or infatuation, indulging the delusion of romance, only allows those contractions to do their intended job, to defy gravity. Better to up and throw one’s clothes on.”
Kaitlin withdrew her hand from her matron’s suddenly clammy one, deciding to pull rank. “How dare you speak to me in such a manner. Watch your tongue.”
The woman did not bat an eye; time and experience told her exactly what cards she held. “My darling, I’m trying to help you. Let’s not forget I brought you into this world, nor that I know you better than you know yourself.”
The thought made something in Kaitlin bristle, the hairs on her neck to stand. On an instinct to escape the room, she flew to her feet and approached the open window. And then, thinking better of fleeing, she wheeled around.
“What have you seen?” she demanded.
The old woman took her time, allowed her thin lips to curl into a wry smile. “Everything.”
And then, once she knew the information had sunk in: “It was quite the spectacle.”
In a single moment, every gasp and shudder and spasm and contraction came back to Kaitlin—those caressed by moonlight and those under cover of pitch blackness. She felt more than dirty; she felt invaded. Suddenly every maternal embrace the woman had provided, every gentle stroke of her chestnut locks, had new meaning.
“My Lady, there is no need to fret.” The words were disingenuous, fraught with duplicity. Still, Kaitlin sat once more; she had no choice.
“We can move on from here,” Crawley explained, her voice a seductive whisper. “You and I both know the king will be elated to finally have an heir. Your secret is safe with me. We shall announce the fact to him tomorrow.”
Kaitlin looked and felt sick.
“And anyway, neither of us knows to whom the child truly belongs.”
As much as she wished not to utter the words, Kaitlin heard herself say: “You mentioned skill. Simply put, the contractions do not occur when the act is routine. But on one point I will differ, to the grave:”
Here, a conviction rose up in Kaitlin’s body, one she had felt coursing throughout her life, here and there making itself known, but driving her always in defiance of appearances. The rebellion in her was the core of her essence, the passion that made her feel most alive. “It is love that cements, that ensures conception. Any man can learn a skill. Any woman can allow her body to produce contractions. But chemistry alone compels one to ‘lie there’ as you call it, to bask in euphoria. And isn’t that, in the end, just another word for love? Conception is an act of the universe, the product of two souls uniting in love.”
“You silly child.” Here Crawley herself rose and advanced to the window, looking out over what was left of the kingdom. Darkness had begun to claim it in all directions, leaving nothing sublime or redeeming to the eye. “Lives have been conceived by rape since the dawn of man. And they continue to be, every day.”
Kaitlin had nothing to say back. The woman’s wisdom—that of experience—so eclipsed her own. She waited.
“Now then, shall we prepare the announcement for tomorrow?” Crawley pressed.
“And what is the price for your silence?” At that moment, for the first time ever, Kaitlin felt innocence drain from her, like the blood that should have gushed two days previous but refused.
The old woman did not answer—only smiled inscrutably.
The eight months that followed were strangely joyous, by all appearances. The king was elated, even vindicated in his estimation. His virility had been publicly confirmed, after all, not to mention the future of his dynasty. Kaitlin herself stopped worrying about paternity; Lady Crawley assured her regularly women had carried such secrets since the dawn of time. Kaitlin even imagined her husband was in on the unspoken code, as long as propagation was in place. His means, indeed the love he felt more strongly now than ever—the one that would shelter and protect their union and even turn to a useful propriety—all would nurture an intact family to proliferate well into the future.
The only thing that weighed on the queen’s heart was the thought someone was waiting for her. That that someone had been disillusioned when she’d failed to appear, that his heart had been broken. Irrevocably, even. She’d begged Lady Crawly for one last bout of confidence, that she might shimmy down that trellis one final time and explain things.
“Not in your condition. Absolutely not,” the woman had refused. But there was duplicity in her eyes even as she uttered the words.
Kaitlin didn’t dare beg Crawley to deliver word on her behalf, knowing now the woman couldn’t be trusted. Knowing now she’d escaped being thrown under the carriage all those years ago for simple ammunition. And now, as if all the preening and planning had paid off, Lady Crawley became the queen’s sole caretaker in the final months of her pregnancy. The maid waited on her queen day and night, even as she was confined to bed rest, wiping her brow, tending to her cravings and nourishing the growing life inside.
The queen went into labor two weeks early, in the dead of winter. The latter stage of her convalescence had been as tumultuous as the winter storms that howled without, battering the stronghold of the castle, but it was nothing compared to the ravaging toil that besieged her now. Nothing Lady Crawley could have said would have prepared her for the sudden, eviscerating pain. No matter how frequently or regularly it seized her, there was no preparing for it. The queen cursed her husband aloud several times, before the Royal Court, no less; they’d gathered about the maternity chamber as was customary, to witness the royal birth.
But when complications set in beyond anything Lady Crawley had seen in forty years of birthing, she ordered them away. The King obliged, deferring to the midwife’s authority and suddenly gravely concerned for his beloved wife. And perhaps even more so, for the wellbeing of his heir.
“What is the matter?” the kind demanded.
Crawley shot him a look from her position at the food of the maternity bed. Not only had the queen dilated well beyond what was normal, the crown that emerged was enormous. So much so that it remained stuck there, well after the first push, and the second, and the hundredth.
Crawley sighed, unsure what to do next. But all at once, the queen issued a blood-curdling, guttural wail, and the thing shot out of her. The king watched as Crawley severed the umbilical cord and placed the placenta in a bedside bowl. As much as Zardus had hoped to revel in the glory of the moment, he could tell by the midwife’s expression something was terribly amiss. As the woman swaddled the newborn in linen and prepared to rest it upon the queen’s breast, Kaitlin let out yet another visceral scream, this one an expression of terror. The king moved closer, lest his eyes deceive him. Could it be the infant bore a grisaille complexion, that in place of the poreless, if blotchy skin of a newborn it was covered in…scales? And when it opened its puffy eyes to gaze far too lucidly into those of its mother, could the pupils really have formed vertical, reptilian slits?
“You musn’t do such a thing. I won’t have it,” the queen protested when she heard her husband’s plan. “Divorce me or execute me if you must, but I’ll not abide such a lascivious crime! I’d rather drink poison.”
Though she herself was repulsed by what had come out of her, murdering it was not the answer. The king could publicly announce the infant had perished during delivery if he was dead set on it, but she’d not permit him to snuff the life out of it. It took a great deal of convincing, but in the end Zardus conceded: the infant would be trotted off into the woods, far from the palace, and left there to be raised by forestfolk. They were known for taking in undesirables, after all.
Such was their way.
It was Lady Crawley who insisted on accompanying the king’s horsemen into the woods, to see to it the child was not simply abandoned in a drift of snow, but delivered into the hands of the forestfolk directly. In the former scenario, the child would not have lasted an hour.
From the window of the turret that was her bedchamber, Queen Kaitlin watched the company of horsemen departing below. They were but specks against the stark white plain, black as spent embers blowing across mud-streaked ice. As they galloped away, strode into the shadowy fringe of encroaching wood, the queen allowed her gaze to shift to the horizon. It was swallowed up in broiling fog, as vague and uncertain as her future. All she knew for sure was that future would be one of pining, fraught with a deep sorrow no one man or kingdom could fill, the emptiness of having forsaken true love and abandoned the product of it. She’d go on to bear a brood for her kingdom—not just an heir but two siblings to spare. Still, part of her would forever dwell there among leaf and limb, alive in the beating heart of the hideous lovechild she could have grown to love had the world been a slightly different place.
“Wait here,” Crawley commanded the king’s horsemen.
She cradled the infant to her full bosom, swaddled as it was in layers of coarse linen. A great arch loomed over the clearing in which she stood, both ominous and welcoming at once, made up of writhing limbs and helplessly entangled roots that reached out to ensnare visitors in a sinister embrace. She advanced from the ambient, directionless light of the clearing into the swarthy hollow that breathed frozen breath. Tendrils retracted as she was swallowed up in shadow, clearing a wide thoroughfare.
Forestfolk moved about in darkness, forging strange silhouettes. Some were crowned with cascading ferns, others augmented with peculiar extremities not unlike fungus or fractured stone. Light glistened cold off reptilian scales as the last of the figures dashed into formation; it was nothing less than a reception line they formed in the dim light.
“I request audience with your king,” Crawley announced, her voice resonating with authority throughout the hollow.
A great set of double doors appeared, so organic as to be infused with—or hewn from—the bulbous striations of colossal tree trunks. There was no sound, other than that of the raspy wind, no fanfare or beating of drums. Two dignitaries accompanied the goblin king—one squat and rotund, the other spritelike and willowy.
“Your Highness,” the erect, tuberous one announced in hooty tones, “May I present Lady Crawley.”
It was Titus who stepped forward to inspect the gift that flailed restlessly in the woman’s grasp. Its tiny, ineffectual limbs flitted as she offered the thing up with outstretched arms.
Titus took the infant up in his own capable arms, drawing it nearer for inspection. Scrutiny quickly yielded to paternal affinity, fondness even. His eyes welled with tears.
“You’ve done well,” he commended Lady Crawley. “Would that we could flourish without your services. Would that our own pool would suffice in isolation. But such is not the way of nature.”
“Understood, my King.” the woman replied dutifully. “Glad to be of service.”
Here the woman bowed and retreated a step or two.
A moment later she’d rejoined the black riders who would whisk her away, across banks of unforgiving ice to the sublime spindle that towered over a bleak landscape, stronghold of tenuous ideals and ill-gotten privilege.