On a cool spring evening, a young lady in a silken gown crept out onto a fire-lit balcony. Her eyes were the color of damp grass, her hair the hue of bracken. Delicate features sat in a neat face still slightly rounded with the bloom of youth. Her neck and wrists were festooned with gold and jewels, but they were not the main signifiers of her nobility. Royal blood flowed in Mary de Vere’s veins, evident in her dignified posture and effortless grace in even the smallest and most common motions. As she leaned her weary body against a pillar, the curve of her hip described an elegant sway. Her eyelashes drooped low, for exhaustion was creeping upon her. The spring celebrations were still carrying on in the hall below, lords and ladies and their offspring making merry.
Mary was not inclined toward such occasions. She found polite conversation tiresome and the frequent suggestions of impending matrimony even more so. It would not be her choice who she married, but all of Staffordshire knew that Lord de Vere was a doting father, unlikely to give his daughter into marriage lightly. There were several suitors courting her, though she doubted any did so for love.
A slight sound in the shadows confirmed her suspicion that she had not escaped the gathering unnoticed.
“Mary…” her name was growled softly in a familiar masculine timbre.
She answered without turning her head away from the starlit night. “Martin.”
“You look more beautiful than ever, Mary. There is not a lady who can compare.”
Martin de Stafford, heir to Stafford manor, stepped forward and fixed his eyes upon her. He was a handsome man, as most young men of strength and means were. From a distance, there was no difference between Martin de Stafford and the many other young bucks attending the spring gathering. His station perhaps made him more interesting to some mothers of prospective brides, for he bore the name of the shire. It was his family who owned the largest manor and the greatest holdings. But Mary was not impressed, for she too came from a powerful, though dwindling, family. The de Veres owned much of the shire; indeed much of what the de Staffords did not own was in the possession of the de Vere family. Hundreds of peasants lived on their lands and survived by tilling their fertile soils.
Dark of hair and of eye, Martin de Stafford was possessed of some rakish charm, though it tended toward the reserved and serious. He did not dance as many of the other young men did, nor did he laugh and curse at the antics of the jesters and the players.
Many thought him dour, perhaps even simple, but Mary knew better. He had been five years old when she was born, and their late mothers had been the very best of friends. For many, many years, Mary had followed the older Martin about their respective manors and surrounding lands with a great fondness. For his part, he had tolerated her as a gentleman should. Though he had not always been pleased by her presence, he had gone out of his way to ensure her safety. Martin seemed to know her wicked thoughts before she had them; indeed, their long association had led to a certain intuition for one another’s actions.
In early adulthood, they were still very much good friends, but Mary’s feelings had undergone a certain change. When she looked at the hard—some might say foreboding—lines of Martin de Stafford’s face, something in his gaze made her heart leap and her pulse race. Promises of forbidden pleasures danced in pupils made wide by the firelight.
“I thought I might be alone for a time,” she said, turning from him to gaze out from the balcony over the darkened, silver-spun land lit by the moon. A breeze caught the loose strands of her hair and made them billow like a banner. There was something in the air that evening, something Mary could not comprehend but could sense. It made her ill at ease.
“I can leave, if you like.”
“No,” she said softly. “Stay.”
Martin walked beside her and put his hand over hers. The touch of his skin was warm, comforting. She felt some of her anxiety abate.
“The world is changing, Martin.”
“The world is not changing. We are. Soon you will be married and I will be married, and we will have families of our own.”
“Yes,” she said softly. Soon he would be married to a second cousin from Cheshire. The marriage had been arranged when he was but four years of age. Now that he was three and twenty, it would take place in the coming year.
As a child, Mary had once wished that she and Martin could marry one another, but Martin had never spoken of such sentiments, and as time passed, she had stopped her innocent declarations of love. Now there was only the silence between them to be shared, the touch that soothed but could not satisfy.
“Soon you will be married and have a brood. Soon you will have a potbelly and a thick beard, with meat stuffed into graying pelt, and soon you will have gout in your big toe.” She laughed with merriment at her own jests.
Martin’s lips twisted slightly. “Your imagination will get you into trouble, sweet Mary.”
“Will it? I think not.” She turned her back to the balcony and looked sidelong at him. “Will you wear double breeches to stop the sagging of your manhood?”
“Mary!” Martin snapped her name. He had always been given to censure, and she to teasing.
She did not feel tired any longer. Instead, she felt quite wide awake, glee flashing through her blood as Martin’s dark eyes flashed warning. “You say my name so sweetly,” she laughed.
“I will thrash you just as sweetly if you insist upon this rudeness,” he said, glowering in a way that would have made a less familiar companion wither.
Mary leaned over and placed a chaste kiss on the tip of his nose. “You will never thrash me.”
“Perhaps I will not thrash you,” he admitted. “But I will not hesitate to bare your hindquarters, m’lady, and spank them until they burn brighter than these torches.”
“All for a little jest?” Mary feigned shock. “My, what a brute you have become, Martin.”
“I know you well enough, Mary. I know that after your innocent jests come actions not nearly so innocent.”
“And what trouble could I possibly find on this balcony?” She gave him an arch look, her green eyes sparkling with daring.
“Mary, you could find trouble in a sack,” he said. “You may fool your father and those about you, but I know you for what you truly are, a wicked miscreant who all too often escapes folly without the punishment she so deserves.”
He spoke quite sternly, though not without affection. It was not the first time Mary had heard such sentiments from him, but as he had never acted upon the words, they did not unduly concern her.
She laughed again. “You had best be careful, Martin. Your scowling will create so many wrinkles your bride will think she is to marry an old man and refuse you on the wedding night.”
“As I understand it, my bride is most eager in that regard,” Martin replied, seemingly unthinking.
Jealousy welled in Mary. It was not that she wished to marry Martin, at least not that she could admit to herself. But thinking of another woman in his bed, under him, bearing his children, plagued her mind most horribly.
“I am sure she is eager. Eager with the squires and the stablemen, and no doubt the mail couriers, and—”
“Mary! I will not hear another foul word out of you. It is not becoming, nor is it respectful. You are speaking of the future Lady de Stafford.”
“Lay de Stafford, mayhap.”
“You test me, Mary.”
Mary froze as he reached for her wrist and wrapped his large hand about it. He pulled, and she found herself pressed against his body, so close that their lips almost touched.
“If you test me further, I will not hesitate to lift your skirts and do as I have promised.”
“Test you, as half of Cheshire has tested your bride?”
There was no further discussion. Martin held her firmly, reached down, swept up her skirts, and tucked them into the hand that held her. She was all but bared there in the moonlight, her drawers offering little coverage, for the ties had worked their way loose during the dances and now sagged open, displaying the pale curve of her virginal cheeks.
Red bloomed across her bottom as Martin de Stafford made good on his promise. He clapped his hand hard against Mary’s buttock, thrusting her against his body. She cried out, but he ignored the sound and laid another, then another blow, until she was dancing yet again, this time against his masculine frame.
“Stop!” she beseeched him. “I pray, please, stop!”
“I will stop when you apologize for your foul and unladylike language,” he said. “Not to mention the aspersions you have so carelessly cast upon my bride to be. You have not so much as met her.”
“I don’t need to, the troubadours all took a turn… Ow! Martin!”
He spanked her more firmly, sweeping up both side of her skirt and pushing her undergarments fully aside so the fine white linen framed her ever reddening bottom.
“Your cheeks shall pay for your cheek,” he said, grim voice loud over slaps and protestations.
“This is most immodest!”
“As was your speech.”
“I shall tell my father. He will have you horsewhipped!”
“He will do no such thing,” Martin replied as his hand struck the center of her quivering bottom. “And nor will you, I’ll warrant. He would be most disappointed by your comportment. I know I am.”
The four little words were like a dagger in Mary’s breast. In that instant, she knew that he did not understand her jealousy. He thought she was being crass for the sake of being shocking. He was punishing her as he might a younger sibling.
Tears sprang to her eyes, not as a result of the sting in her hide, which was not inconsiderate, but as a result of the rejection she felt.
He saw her tears, mistook them for contrition, and stopped. “Have you learned your lesson?”
“I have,” she said. She had learned her lesson—the lesson being that Martin de Stafford, for all his compliments and kindness, would never see her as anything other than the snotty-nosed whelp who had once followed him hither and thither.
“I am glad to hear it.” Letting her skirts fall, he placed a chaste kiss on her cheek. “Do not look so sad. It was not so painful. I have seen you endure much worse without complaint.”
He referred to scrapes and bruises, not spankings and heart wounds. The former were much more easily borne than the latter.
“I am weakening in my advanced years,” she said by way of explanation.
“That I doubt,” he said, unhanding her wrist.
She missed his grip almost immediately. A wistful gaze passed from her to him, even as her bottom stung with the outrage he had inflicted upon her. There were very few men Mary would ever have accepted such treatment from, but Martin was foremost among them.
How perverse, to watch him prepare to take a wife. A lifelong association was certain to be broken when he made his family and she hers. Many words clustered upon Mary’s tongue, confessions of love, statements of desire. But they all stayed mute, for what was the point of speaking when her words would do nothing?
“It is not like you to be melancholy,” Martin observed. “Nor is it in your nature to hide away from the fun. Will you not tell me what weighs so heavily on your heart?”
“I cannot tell you,” she said. “I cannot tell you, for nothing can be done about it. Things are as they are, and all the wishing in the world will not change them. We are not people. We are pawns, moved about the board of life by those who bore us.”
“Has your father displeased you in some way?”
“No. My father has given me every advantage and every freedom, but it will all amount to naught. Soon I will marry some poor soul and make his life a misery.”
Martin’s bright laugh broke the night. “A truer word was never spoken,” he said. “I only hope you marry a man equal to you, sweet Mary.”
Biting her tongue, Mary pretended at a smile. There was but one man equal to her. He stood before her, utterly indifferent.
As words faded into silence, the young friends looked upon one another. No more would they ride out with their peers, many of whom were already married and producing heirs. No more would they find innocent amusement on the river of a summer’s afternoon. The mantle of noble duty was a heavy one, and they could put it off no longer.
Mary never learned what Martin was about to say, for a piercing scream from the party below broke through their conversation. It was followed by a cacophonous shouting and more shrieks—horrible, bloodcurdling sounds.
Martin turned toward the noise, shoulders squared. “Stay here, Mary,” he said. “Something ill is afoot.”
He rushed toward the stairs leading down to the main hall. Mary followed immediately behind him. She had no intention of staying alone on the balcony whilst people below yelled bloody murder.
When she arrived below, she discovered that the minstrels had stopped playing and were looking toward the center of the hall with pale faces. A cluster of nobles made it impossible for Mary to see what had happened, but it seemed obvious that some attack had taken place, for a man dressed in the black robes of a monk was being hauled toward the back of the hall by three stalwart men. In his hand a long silver dagger was dripping blood, the essence of some poor soul.
An assassin. An assassin at the house of de Vere. Cold fingers clutched at Mary’s heart.
The throng parted for a moment, and Mary saw red velvet shoes. Red shoes trimmed with gold. One was being worn, the other lying on the floor beside an unshod foot. Mary recognized the shoes, for she herself had embroidered them as a gift for her father’s birthday.
“Father?” She did not scream the word, but her filial whisper parted the crowed as well as any horn.
There upon the floor was her father. His face was pale, eyes staring and devoid of life. Darkness from the depths of the pit of hell rose and claimed Mary. She dropped in a faint.
* * *
In the black days that followed, Mary’s estranged uncle took over the estate. Her father’s murder remained something of a mystery, one that was ill-investigated. The man who had committed the horrible act was put to death before making a full confession, so his motives never came to light. There were suspicions, however, that he had not killed the late Richard de Vere for reasons of his own, rather that he may have been paid to do so. Though he was dressed as a monk, he had belonged to no order. Indeed, his real name was unknown.
The misery of the entire affair made Mary numb to much of what went on in the weeks following his passing. Her uncle, Vincent de Vere, was a petty merchant with none of her father’s sensitivities, especially regarding marriage. Within weeks of Lord de Vere’s passing, he informed Mary that her wedding would take place—to a man who was not a noble but whose family ran a large fishing enterprise in the North Sea.
“But, Uncle,” Mary protested over the kippers she had been eating, “I do not wish to marry this Jonathan Roth. I do not know him, and I certainly do not love him. Father would not—”
“It matters not what your father would have decided,” Vincent interjected snappishly. “He has passed, Mary. I am lord of these lands now, and of you.”
Black hate welled in Mary, a thick, cloying feeling that left no room for anything else. She would have liked to have flown at the horrid man who taunted her with echoes of her father’s visage in his own miserly face, but it would have been for naught. Unlike Mary’s father, who never so much as raised a hand to his child, Vincent believed in beatings. He had whipped half the staff out of employment in his first week, and though Mary had thus far avoided the taste of his lash, she was under no illusion that she was immune.
“Please, Uncle Vincent. He is forty years my senior.”
“You will do well with an older man,” Vincent snorted, rifling through a chest containing jewels which had once belonged to Mary’s late mother and now belonged to him.
His fingers, oiled with fish breakfast, smeared and stained the gold, silver, and opals in a way that made Mary tremble with rage. Mother had kept those pieces in pristine condition all her life and now they, like everything else in the de Vere manor, were being besmirched by the interloper.
“Besides,” he said, wiping his dripping nose on his sleeve. “You are practically a spinster yourself.”
“I am not a spinster!”
Vincent looked up from his treasures, a vicious look upon his face. “You are fortunate that you are to be married soon and cannot go to the altar marked and bruised, or else I would beat you most severely.”
It was quite apparent to Mary that she, like the jewels, was a commodity to be traded away. Vincent had not so much as bothered to look for the highest bidder, or a suitable husband. He had simply chosen one of his trading partners and foisted her upon him. Up until that moment, Mary had not known how much capacity for hate she had. She hated Vincent with all the strength in her body and her mind and her soul.
A few fanciful times she contemplated running, but where would she go? What would she do? Everything she had was at the manor. Her entire life was there, the fond memories of her mother and father before their respective passings. She was part of the land itself. She could no more leave it than she could step out of her body and leave that behind. All she could do was hope that her new husband was a kind and able man who would perhaps make her happy.
When the Roth contingent arrived, Mary’s hopes were dashed. Jonathan Roth might perhaps have been kind, but he was certainly not able. He was ancient, withered, and bent with a hundred different maladies, none of which had any hope of cure.
Mary drew back upon meeting him and almost burst into tears upon the spot. His pate was bare and covered in liver spots, his face wrinkled in the extreme. There were hearty men at the age of 58, but Jonathan Roth was not one of them.
After meeting her affianced, she made private protest to her uncle, but the man was not to be swayed.
“You are most ungrateful!” Vincent snarled, his hand clutching at a riding crop. “I find you a husband who will take you from me without so much as a cent in dowry and you turn your spoiled nose up at him. Why, I should flay the very skin from your hide!”
Under threat of beating, Mary sought to run to the de Stafford manor, but the word was that Martin de Stafford had gone away to Cheshire to claim his bride. There was nobody left to help Mary, no allies who could bring any real pressure to bear. The simple fact of the matter was that she belonged to her uncle and he could choose her husband as he liked.
So it was that Mary went to the altar with a man whose rheumy, cataract-filled eyes could barely see her. Jonathan Roth may once have been a handsome man, he might still have been a nice man, but Mary did not know, for he coughed most terribly throughout the small, ill-attended ceremony, a horrible rattling, rasping sound that made Mary quite concerned for his health.
None of her friends were in attendance. The wedding had not been widely publicized, for Uncle Vincent had not wished to spend the money on feeding guests. The dour future Mary had feared was upon her, and there was little she could do. Indeed, even the gown she wore was a source of torment.
“You are fortunate to have this wedding dress,” Vincent had said meanly when he gave it to her. “It is not a gift, so be careful with it. I will sell it after the wedding.”
Mary recognized the dress. It had been her mother’s wedding dress. Of course Vincent wanted to sell it. There had once been a few pearls about the bodice, but some rough hand had picked them off. Mary suspected she knew who had done that. The same man who had removed all the gold fittings from the bedrooms. The same man who had auctioned off the family silver in the garden to a throng of common merchants who trampled the flowers and scuffed the tender blades of grass.
By the time Mary made her solemn march down the aisle, the de Vere manor was a skeleton of its former self. The portraits of her and mother and father had been taken down and, of course, sold. Vincent would have sold the family tomb if the local priest had not forbidden him to disturb the bodies that lay there.
Mary walked down the aisle with the manner of a woman going to the gallows. Her fate was inevitable however much she loathed it, however much she despised the man who held her arm. Vincent insisted on giving her away, of course. Not out of any sense of affection or even duty, but out of a desire to see the transaction completed.
There were only two members of Jonathan’s family in the church, a nephew and his wife. The nephew looked squinty and mean, with deep-set dark eyes that held a malice that seemed very out of place in a chapel. A twisted little devil, Mary thought to herself. The wife looked pale and coughed often into a well-used handkerchief.
The priest seemed thoroughly disinterested in the ceremony, perhaps even a little drunk. Certainly he slurred his words more than once. Mary was not surprised her uncle had employed a drunkard priest. It was certainly in keeping with the misery of the entire affair.
She did not pay much attention throughout the ceremony. She repeated the words as instructed, pledging obedience and loyalty and a great many other things to a man she did not know, and listened as her husband rasped his way through a similar set of empty promises.
“Those the Lord has joined together, may no man sheparate. You may now kish the bride.”
Dry lips pecked at Mary. She tried to hide her revulsion, but it was not possible. She turned her head away at the last moment and received her husband’s kiss upon her cheek. Vincent snorted with dark amusement at the affair, then strode out of the chapel without another word to his newly wedded niece.
Mary left the chapel on her new husband’s arm, or rather, with her new husband on hers, for his steps were faltering and his breath weak.
She had hoped that once the wedding was done, she might be able to find some semblance of happiness, but the horrors of the day were far from over.
No sooner had they stepped out of the doors than old Jonathan Roth collapsed and did not get up again. The family picked him up, carried him back into the church he had just been married in, and requested a funeral, whilst poor Mary looked on in mute horror.
She then had the very strange experience of attending a funeral on the day of her wedding. Jonathan Roth was put to ground in a simple pine box. Then the nephew and his sickly wife set off in their carriage without so much as a word to Mary.
For a time, Mary wondered if she too had died; certainly nobody seemed to be acknowledging her presence. The priest offered her a consolation sip of communion wine, a rare kindness on a day marked by death and desolation. She refused, preferring instead to make her way back to the family home. But when Mary returned to the manor, she found the doors locked. Vincent spoke to her through a window.
“Go away! This is your home no longer!”
“What do you mean?”
“This is the de Vere estate. You were married as Roth. You, Mary, have nothing.”
Mary drew back in horror, seeing how neatly she had been tricked. She was now absolutely certain that her father’s death had not been unrelated to her uncle. In a few swift moves, the queen had been removed from the board entirely, and the black rook had taken possession of all he surveyed.
“How could you do this to your own flesh and blood? You are a knave, sir! A villain! And you will see justice ere you die. I promise you that!”
“I have done nothing that the law does not condone, trollop! Now get away from here, before I set the dogs on you!”
Mary doubted that the dogs, which had once been hers, would do much besides lick her to death, but that was not the point. The horrid creature she shared some small amount of blood with was the greater danger, and he was right. Nothing he had done was against the law. He was well within his rights to take her land, sell her possessions, and marry her off to an invalid.
The lands she had once roamed, the rooms that had once been home, all the possessions rightfully hers, were stripped away. A woman could not own property. Her father could, but Mary had no father. Her husband could, but Mary’s husband was no more. She was a poor widow.
There was but one place of refuge, one place that might take pity upon her. Gathering her robes and the few possessions deemed worthless enough to allow her to keep, Mary started off down the long and winding road from de Vere manor.