Thursday, November 06, 2003
It was late in the year, and the snow was silently wafting down from grey skies above. The young girl had little worry in the world, and she looked not nearly her twelve years. Raven curls cascaded lightly around slender shoulders, contrasting starkly with the porcelain face; eyes, a stormy coal black, flickered intently over words on a page: yellowing parchment, marked with heavy, black ink, scrawled messily by an unconcerned hand.
With a sudden movement, she sharply took up residence on a nearby footstool, heavy gowns rustling - the only disruption in the silence of the room. From far off in the castle, muffled by the heavy wood of the locked door, a lone clock could just scarcely be heard, steadily ticking out the minutes - marking the laborious, continuous passage of time.
Though the note was short - filling only half of the page, the writing neither large nor small - only the shades of night, gradually falling, casting long shadows in the room, finally brought her reading to an end.
With a soft sigh, she lowered the page; her slender hand falling to her side limply. With another rustle of skirts, she rose again from her seat, standing a moment. Then three paces, hard-soled shoes rhythmically connecting with the hard wood of the floor, brought her to the long, narrow window.
She leaned lightly against its frame and stared blankly out at the darkening landscape beyond. The forest was nought but shadows, its foremost trees stretching black limbs into the purple sky. Ten leagues of snow-covered ground separated castle from the woods beyond, the terrain flat and the snow unmarked by footstep.
To the west, the sun was disappearing below the hills which marked the periphery of the kingdom, casting the land into gloaming. A path wound its way in that direction, through the wrought iron of the castle gates. Its snow was packed hard, black gravel thrown up by horses’ hooves as they trod along, taking others to and from the castle.
But for the room’s sole occupant, there would be no further comings or goings. The thick stone walls, lightly chilled to the touch, now constituted her prison, the room her cell. Though the door locked from inside and she wore no chains to bind her, her childhood home no longer brought asylum, only stifling confinement, be it imposed or only imagined thus.
Lugubriously, she turned from the window, the land beyond now covered with a blanket of pitch black. Now the only light in her keep came from the burning log ensconced within the stone fireplace. Flickering oranges, reds, and yellows danced merrily within the grate, but cast jumping, looming shadows on the rest of the room. The hollows of her narrow face seemed to twitch and twist in the glimmering beams.
Now, from far off, a marked and steady footfall could be heard; hard-soled shoes on a stone floor, echoing off of the cavernous walls beyond the shut door. Slowly, but constantly, they grew ever nearer, slowly slipping into conscious notice of the girl. She made no move, but cast her gaze askance to the door, listening intently as the sound grew ever-louder. With a resigned patience, she waited, as a charged man would await his executioner.
The footsteps drew up, then came to an abrupt stop. The noise was immediately replaced by a muffled clinking - the sound unmistakable as none other than jingling keys. One was shaken loose, but no noise came of it being inserted into the lock.
Rather, a sudden, sharp rapping came at the door, its contrast to the muted sounds of the chamber causing the youngster to start slightly. There was a pause, then the noise came again - louder and more persistent this time.
“Deirdre, yee’re to open this door!” The order carried through the wood on the wings of a shrill, female voice, marked with a common accent, but the solemn girl still made no move to comply or offer response.
“Deirdre!” The voice was sharper now, higher pitched, and showed signs of weary strain.
“You’ve a key,” the girl finally offered, her voice kept purposefully low and marked with a grievous solemnity.
“Why must ye always be so difficult, girl!” came the voice again, angry now, marked with impatience. Still, the room’s occupant did not stir from where she stood, staring into the flickering flames.
Now came the scraping noise of heavy iron in an old lock. Giving a groan of complaint, the bolt finally slid aside, clanking noisily into its new resting place. The handle reflected the fire’s light as it turned slowly, the brass polished just by constant use. Silently the door swung open, falling into the room and stopping just short of hitting the wall behind.
An aging woman peered into the room, looking stern and ill-mannered. Her dress was simple, but clean and well-kept, and her thick hair was pulled back into a severe bun. She stood in the doorway for a moment, backlit by the torches blazing in the hall beyond, before finally stepping foot over the threshold.
Immediately she withdrew a pack of matches from her pocket, and striking one, set to lighting the two torches mounted either side of the door, then the lantern set on the corner of the heavy desk. Deirdre did not even glance away from the fire nor make any other movements to acknowledge the new presences in her sanctuary.
“Yee’re not dressed,” the older woman said, grabbing the lantern securely by its handle and marching over to stand before the girl.
“No,” was the simple reply, as Deirdre was at last forced to look at the intruder who now blocked the view of the flames. Her expression was level but slightly challenging, as she studied the wrinkles that lined the aging face.
With a tsk of disapproval, the woman sized up the girl, not intimidated in the least by the defiant tone or expression, if, indeed, she noticed them at all.
“Yeer father is expectin’ ye downstairs in ten minutes,” the woman informed her, as she now moved away.
Deirdre resumed watching the dancing flames as the woman made her way over to the tall chest that stood against the far wall, carrying the lantern with her. With little care, she flung open the heavy doors, and began rummaging through the contents that hung with military precision. With a speed that hinted easily at a familiarity with the closet and its contents, the woman drew out a formal gown, of the finest silks - coloured brightly in reds and yellows. The frock was tossed onto the hulking bed, atop its heavy duvet. Shoes of a matching red were pulled lightly from a cubby beside the hanging garments and dropped to the small rug that covered the ground separating bed and chest.
“Ye’ll dress now,” the old woman snapped in order, nodding at the chosen clothing. “Yeer father will’nt be pleased with the delay.”
Deirdre tore her eyes from the fire, casting a brief, dismissive glance over at the selected garments, then at the woman bidding her. Eyebrows lifting so slightly as to barely be perceived, she just turned again to face the stone of the fireplace.
“Father is not pleased with much,” came her quiet and solemn reply.
“And ye’ll not be needin’ to give him more to complain about, now will ye?” With a sigh of impatience, the woman stalked over to her quiet charged and nudged her gently but persistently towards the bed.
“Father would not take notice if I were present or not, once he’s through with displaying me for his visitors,” she noted dully, as she allowed the woman to force her simple, black dress up over her head, not seeming to take much notice of such things.
“Ye’ll do as yer told, and that’s that.”
The old dress was tossed aside, to the cold floor, and the new one picked up. Deirdre just stood limply, now only in her undergarments.
“Not as if I’ve a choice,” she countered, though the spirit for fighting seemed to have left her.
The woman carefully wound her hands through the slim sleeves of the dress, approaching them from the cuff first, to finally come out through the opening for the wearer’s head.
“T’aint many as gets to pick their lot in life, so don’t ye be complainin’ too heartily ‘bout that. Seen plenty more unfortunates who take what they’re given in stride, and like as ye could do the same.”
Without waiting for a reply, the woman snatched up the girl’s wrists, one in each hand, and with a practiced motion, slipped the dress off of her own arms and onto Deirdre’s.
“I’d rather be poor and without shelter,” Deirdre replied petulantly, as her head emerged from the folds of fabric. She brought up a small hand to angrily brush flyaway locks of hair from her face.
“Ha! Yee’re not like to be sayin’ that once ye’ve tried it for a few days,” came the laughing response, as the old woman tugged the dress on straight, then set to doing up its many buttons, fingers still nimble despite the stiffness of age.
“And you would not be thinking that I had it so well, should you try being his heiress and daughter for even one fleeting hour.”
“So hard done by you are, right as rain.” The tone was not mocking, but it certainly did not mirror the girl’s seriousness.
The buttons now fastened, Deirdre found herself prodded towards the bed, and pushed gently to perch on the edge of it. Dropping into a crouch, joints creaking in protest, the woman set to unlacing the simple, hard shoes the girl had firmly fastened to her feet.
Deirdre did not bother with a reply, but set herself instead to sulking. She made no attempts to either help nor hinder the woman’s work, and soon found herself being tugged back to her feet, which were now encased in more formal shoes of a brilliant maroon.
”But why must I always do just as he orders?” she finally inquired, as the woman set to roughly brushing out her curls with a thick comb. She did not wince as the severe movements forced her head back, only to be pushed harshly forward again by the wizened hands.
“Because of him’s the one who be payin’ me, and yee’re the one who be havin’ to listen. When comes the day that yee’ve the money, I’d be more’n pleased to listen to ye,” came the reply, tone lighter than the words’ meaning.
Now finished with brushing out the tangle of curls, the woman turned the girl by the shoulders, grabbing the lamp up from where she’d set it and holding it before the young face.
“Yee’ve been leanin’ yer head ‘gainst the windowpane ‘gain, haven’t ye?” The woman licked her thumb, then rubbed the digit roughly against Deirdre’s forehead, fighting to remove a black streak that was there.
“Am I no longer allowed to even look upon the out-of-doors?” came the melodramatic reply.
“Ye’ll have to be takin’ that up with yer father. But keep yer head offa the glass, y’hear? Marks both it and ye up right badly, it does.” With that, she shepherded her young charge out of the room, closing the door firmly behind.
- posted by Deborah @ 7:15 AM
Copyright 2003 - debbo