You watch the fire die, until it lights only a dwindling half- circle around the hearth, leaving the rest of the hall in shadow. Through the waxed linen covering the narrow windows, the moonlight does reach you, but it is a pale, cold light, an icy glow that only emphasizes the silence, the sense of loneliness about the hall. The high seat stands empty, as it has since your lord father left for the Holy Land, long months ago. Since he died there, fighting for the King and the Church.
Even wrapped in a warm robe, you feel cold. Empty. There are no ambitious lordlings here, to manipulate with sweet words and artful glances from violet eyes so often praised by the flattering tongues of minstrels. There is only the loneliness, and the knowledge that you are trapped, ensnared, as surely as the sun rises each morning.
As a young girl you hated your beauty, knew that it and your dowry made you a prize, a commodity to be bargained over, and finally sold. You knew that suitors would see only Lady Tamara DeWinter, not you, not your true self beneath the mask. You hungered to be known for what you were, to be understood and accepted by the men who aspired to share your life and your bed.
But now you use your beauty as ruthlessly as any weapon. Because of it, you are underestimated. Because of it, your enemies believe you are only another weak female, left behind to guard lands and wealth of menfolk gone to the Holy Land, and now alone in truth, a foolish woman trying to fill a man's place. They do not know what your father taught you; how to defend yourself with weapons and your wits; how to read faces as easily as words upon the written page; when to fight and when to retreat; how to use secrets, and the value of patience.
They do not see the tempered steel beneath the silken exterior, and you dare not show them. It rankles, that you must use your body rather than your mind. You feel sometimes like a whore, in thought if not deed. But you are alone, and the only thing that saves you from your enemies is that they think you less than you are.
Even the embers are fading, now, and the cold is settling in. You are frozen, a woman made of ice. Once you have worn a mask for too long, it becomes who you are. And the life inside you, your true spirit, slowly starves and dies. If only you could break free of the ice, if only you could escape!
After a time, you realize that you have, that you have somehow left the hall behind. It is dark here as well, wherever here is, and cold, but it lacks the dampness in the air that you could feel in your bones. That, more than anything, tells you that you are--elsewhere. As your sight adjusts to the darkness, you realize that you are in a small chapel, foreign by the look of it. You move carefully to the altar, and light a candle. Its soft, warm glow seems to light more than it should. You smile in wonder at the beauty of the chapel, at the serenity on the faces of the icons and the intricate loveliness of the mosaic floor at your feet. It does not enter your mind to be alarmed, even as you realize that this is impossible, that there is no way you can be here. This is some holy place of the East, some Greek chapel far from England. It must be a dream.
"Who are you?" a weak voice asks, speaking English with a strong northern accent.
You whirl, your heart racing as you reach instinctively for the knife tucked under the belt of your robe. There, lying on the floor, is a man, a knight to judge by the quality of his weapons and armor. He is wounded, dark blood pooling on the floor beneath him. There is a crest on his tabard, a great bird with wings outstretched. His face, flushed with fever, is younger than you would have expected to see beneath that blood-matted silver hair. His eyes, as gray as the sea, pierce your soul. There is greater weariness there, and greater pain. But it is the light there, the light that is dying, little more than fitfully burning embers now, that reaches through the ice and touches you.
"A friend," you say, taking your hand off the hilt of your knife. Carefully, as if you are approaching a wounded wild animal that will flee if startled, you kneel beside him, assessing his wounds. Healing was one of the womanly arts you never begrudged learning. "Your wounds are grave, sir," you tell him. "Let me tend them--"
He shakes his head. "No, lady," he says, and the sadness of the faint smile he gives you is enough to bring tears to your eyes. "Save your skills for those worthy of salvation. Let me die. It is what I deserve."
It makes you angry. "You have no right to judge the worth of your own soul, sir," you say sharply. His smile vanishes. "Only God can do that."
The smile returns, real humor there this time. "Here I am, dying in this forsaken land," he murmurs, his voice wry, "and yet I find myself debating theology with a beautiful maiden. God must be enjoying this jest."
More anger, melting the ice from within. "You will not die!" you snap, even as you hear his breathing grow weaker and watch the light in his eyes continue to ebb. "Have you no sense of honor, sir?" you ask challengingly as you lean over him, beginning to remove his armor. "You would leave your family to survive without you?"
"I have no family," he growls, batting feebly at your hands. But his strength is gone, and after a moment he gives up, as if he no longer has the energy to even try and resist you.
"Ah," you say acidly. "No responsibilities, then." For a moment, you wonder about your father. Was his death swift, or had he the time to feel it approaching, the time to face it, to fight it or give in to it. And what choice had he made, if that were true? Surely he would have fought as long and hard as he could, knowing you were waiting for him, praying he would return safely. "I envy your freedom, sir," you say bitterly.
The sudden grief in his eyes robs you briefly of speech. But then it fades, leaving behind only emptiness. "I would trade that freedom in a moment, if it would bring my family back to me, lady," he says stiffly.
"Forgive me," you murmur, bowing your head in regret and shame. "They died?"
"Many years ago." He retreats into himself, then, staring up at the ceiling in silence.
You find what you need behind the altar, as if it had been prepared for you. There is a bowl of water there, too, clean and cold. You tend his wounds to the best of your abilities, seeing by the number of old scars on his body that this man has survived worse. It gives you some hope, but the look in his eyes takes that away almost immediately. A body can not survive when the will to live is gone, when the spirit has faded into the darkness, gone beyond recall.
You finish your ministrations, and stare down at him, feeling a curious grief for this stranger, this man whose name you do not even know. "Do not die," you say softly. "Please."
His head turns, and he looks at you. He manages another faint smile. "What is this place, lady?" he asks in a voice as insubstantial as a whisper of wind.
You feel shock. "You--do not know?" you ask hesitantly.
"No," he says, looking back at the ceiling. "I remember being cut down on the battlefield, lying there among the dead." For a moment, there is a dazed, sickened expression on his face. "The smell, the noise--if there is a hell on earth, lady, I have seen it. I--wished myself away, I suppose, to some place where I could die in peace--"
"Stop," you whisper pleadingly, moving closer to him, lifting his head and cradling it in your lap. "You must not die!"
He does not seem to hear you. He stares up at you, that same ghostly smile on his lips. "You do not know either, do you? How strange. Perhaps we both dreamed ourselves here."
The candle flickers, as if in a sudden gust of wind, but does not go out. You feel a chill, remembering your own thoughts as you sat in the hall, staring by the fire. Your desire to escape, to break free--but how is this an answer to that desire? His wish would seem to have been granted, but your own is unfulfilled. Unless he is your escape, somehow. You fight back a wild laugh and the tears that would have followed. Your path to freedom, this man dying in your arms?
"Why so sad?" he whispers. "Yours is not a heart meant for grieving." He reaches for your hand, holds it tightly. "You should return, lady, to your home and those who love you. You have done what you can for me."
"There is nothing for me there," you whisper, your throat tight. "I am alone. And self-preservation does not a life make, sir."
"A fine pair we make," he murmurs. "Duty drove me to live on after my family was killed. It has been a cold, empty life, but I felt obligated to live it."
You nod. "Duty," you agree tiredly. "I feel like there is nothing but duty, for me. I must safeguard my father's legacy, even if it means sacrificing myself."
He is silent for a long moment. "Your father's legacy?" he finally asks.
"His lands and wealth. He had no other heirs, you see, and when he died fighting before Jerusalem, I was--I was left--" Your eyes fill with tears, and inside, you burn with humiliation at showing such weakness before this knight. At home, the lords would seize on this moment, use it to their advantage.
"Think you that your father would value his lands above his daughter?" he asks softly. "I see in your eyes that you are a woman who knows her own strength, lady. Were you my daughter, I would wish you to honor that, and yourself--" He breaks into a spasm of coughing, but continues stubbornly once he can breathe again. "If he truly loved you--"
"He did." You remember the smile on his usually harsh face when you rode beside him on the hunt, or when he found you in the keep's small library, reading some ponderous tome. The pride in his eyes that he never bothered to hide from you.
The day you asked him, timorous in speaking for the first time in your life, if he had ever wished you had been born male. How he had laughed, and said that he would not trade you for a hundred sons. How he had then grown sober, and told you that no son could ever be so truly a child of his heart as you were. The memories are so clear, so vivid, it is as if you are living them again.
"Then he would wish you to find joy in your life," the knight says wearily. "Rank and station are empty things by themselves, lady."
"I thought only--to honor him," you say uncertainly, beginning to see your mistake. Your father would not wish you to be trapped. Songbirds thrive in cages, he had said once, to a court lady who had expressed disapproval of how he was raising his only child, but hawks must fly free. "I care nothing for rank and station. Only that our family's name, which he brought to such prominence, should not suffer simply because a mere woman was left as the only heir."
Another smile. "The conventional answer," he says with a sigh, closing his eyes. "But you know better, do you not, milady? Even I, who do not know you, can see that you are not a 'mere' anything." A moment of silence. "You are blushing, aren't you?"
You scowl, trying to ignore the rising heat in your cheeks. "You have your eyes closed, you fool. You could not possibly tell--"
He opens his eyes and smiles up at me, a tired, whimsical smile. "A lucky guess, milady."
The two of you sit in silence for a long time. The hours pass, and night gives way to dawn. Rays of golden light, like arrows shot straight from heaven, enter through the narrow windows, growing stronger and brighter as the moments go by. The icons seem to come alive, staring down at you and the wounded knight with a strange wistfulness.
He has been drifting in and out of consciousness all night, murmuring names, perhaps those of his family. You fear that what you have done for him was not enough, that he will die as he wanted. That he has found his escape.
But his eyes open as the dawn-light touches him. "You are still here," he whispers in a cracked voice.
"Where else would I be?" you ask gently. "Especially if this is a dream shared between us. It would be unfair, would it not, to try and leave when some greater power seems to have brought us together?"
He tries to smile, doesn't quite manage it. "Thirsty," he whispers.
You lay his head gently on the floor and rise, searching for more water. The bowl that had been waiting with the other medical supplies was red with blood, not fit to drink. But you do not see any more. Perhaps there is a well outside?
But your eyes are drawn back to the altar, and there, glowing in the sunlight, is a simple earthenware cup, plain and unadorned. You could swear that it had not been there a moment before. Shrugging to yourself, you go over, seeing that it is full. You take a sip. It is water, cold and fresh.
You bring it back over to him, help him take a drink.
"Thank--you," he whispers. "I--was wrong."
"Wrong?" you ask, bending over him. His fever is gone, but his skin is cold to the touch. You can barely see the rise and fall of his chest. He is dying. Everything you've done was for nothing, you think, your heart in your throat. This whole night, nothing but a vigil! You cannot feel anger, for some reason. Only sadness, and a sense that this is not how things should be.
"About--what I wished for. I didn't--want a quiet place--to die." One last spark of light, in those gray eyes. "What I--truly wanted--was to not be--alone."
"You're not alone," you whisper feverishly, taking him in your arms. The ice is gone, now. You feel the faltering rhythm of his heart as if it were your own. "Stay, please--live!"
The chapel is filled with the sunrise, now. And you feel yourself become insubstantial, a shadow, nothing more. Holding him tightly, you close your eyes.
And open them, to see one of the servants throwing more wood on the smouldering fire in the hearth. The woman bobs a nervous curtsy as she sees you.
"Pardon, milady," she says. "I did not mean to wake you."
"It's all right," you say hoarsely, rising. All around you, the hall is as it was. Dark and empty. Had it been a dream? you wonder as you make your way to your chambers. The knight, the chapel? You do not know if you would wish it so, or not.
Taking off your robe, wearing nothing now except a linen shift, you turn back the covers and start to get into bed. But then you see the hem of your shift. It is too long for you, long enough to trail on the floor.
And it had been trailing on the floor in the chapel, too, you remember dazedly. It must have been. For it is wet with blood.
You smile at the merriment around you, as the castle folk celebrate Yule. Mass and its solemnity will come later, but now it is a time for celebration. It is the first Christmas since your father's death, your first as lady of the keep.
You have defied custom, and invited no noble guests to share the holiday with you. A stuffy lot, your neighbours. There is more genuine delight to be found in the company of the townspeople and your own retainers. Many will attend the feast tommorow night, and you expect it to be a joyous occasion. Those you have invited will be bringing their families, too, at your request. For what is Christmas without the laughter of children?
"My lady?" The steward's son runs down the hall towards you, stopping to give you a hasty bow. "My father--I mean, your ladyship's steward--"
"Wulf," you said fondly. "Take a deep breath, child."
"As you wish, milady. There is a stranger at the gate, seeking hospitality."
You chuckle. The child made it sound like such an event. But there had been many strangers, of late, since the cold winter weather had set in, who had come to the keep seeking hospitality. You give it gladly, always eager to meet new people and hear their tales of what is going on in the wider world. You and your lands have been left in peace for months now, since the King returned with the news that your father had died saving his life. Not even the most ambitious of your neighbours had dared to try your borders, once the King had handed down an edict confirming your inheritance. His protection had let you send all of your unwanted suitors packing, as well, which had made your life infinitely more pleasant of late.
"Let us greet our guest, then," you say, taking the child's hand.
You go out into the courtyard, cheerfully greeting those you pass. The preparations for the feast seem to be coming along beautifully. A little girl laughs as she stalks an escaped dove, the bird seemingly totally unaware of her presence, or of its fate should she catch it. One of the cooks comes out to help, curtsying as she sees you.
"I shall come and help in a moment!" you call out, laughing, and make your way across to the gate. The steward bows as he sees you, and you give him a nod of dismissal. Beside him is a tall man in a dark blue cloak, holding the reins of a black warhorse. You stop before him, glancing admiringly at the horse. "Be welcome," you say, looking up at your guest, "to my--"
The words freeze on your tongue, and you stare in shock as the man pushes back his hood. Smoothing his silver hair, he gives you a whimsical smile, his grey eyes dancing with amusement.
"Milady," he says in that deep, resonant voice that still sometimes haunts your dreams.
"My lord," you respond automatically, taking refuge in formality. His smile grows. "You are--you are most welcome to my keep." You draw yourself up, suddenly irritated by how amusing he seemed to find this all. You yourself are wondering if you have not dozed off in front of the hearth again, to be perfectly truthful.
"Thank you, milady," he says, and bows. "I shall not impose on your hospitality for long, I promise." As he straightens, he is still giving you that damnable smile. You fold your arms across your chest and regard him haughtily, ignoring the part of you that wants to weep in relief, knowing that he did not die. This is insane! you think, exasperated. How could it have been real? And yet, here he was. Alive and well, and clearly remembering that night, by the way he is looking at you.
He turns, taking something out of his saddlebags and presenting it to you. It is a silver chalice, studded with amethysts. "A guest-gift," he says.
It is a spectacular piece of work, far too expensive for a simple guest-gift. You tell him so, and his smile changes, becoming warmer, as if the two of you share some secret jest. And so you do, you suppose.
"Indulge me," he says softly. "A woman with eyes like amethyst saved my life, once, when I was wounded in the Holy Land. For a time, I thought she was only a dream."
"Truly," you say, feeling your mouth quirk in a smile despite your best efforts to remain composed.
"Truly," he says, mimicking your tone exactly. "Fancy my surprise when I return home and hear a minstrel spinning a tale of a beautiful lady with raven hair and violet eyes, who rules her estates with as much wisdom as any man."
"That is supposed to be a compliment?" you ask skeptically.
"I believe the minstrel thought so."
You laugh, unable to help yourself. "And so you sought out this lady?" you ask, turning the chalice over in your hands.
"Once I worked up the courage," he says dryly. "It seems that this lady suspects male visitors of rank of aspiring to her hand, and openly states that she will greet prospective suitors with the point of a blade." You laugh again, but he continues with a perfectly straight countenance. "Apparently she has demonstrated her ability with a knife on several occasions, to hear the minstrels tell it. Much to the despair of the poor men whose only desire was to bask in her radiant beauty--"
You sputter in indignation at the sly edge to his words, but he takes your hand and brings it to his lips, kissing it. You feel yourself blush, and wish you had a hand free to slap him. But he doesn't seem like he is going to return that hand anytime in the near future, and you don't want to drop the chalice.
"Are you a prospective suitor, my lord?" you ask him primly, hoping he does not notice the color in your cheeks.
"Me?" he asks innocently. "Oh, no, my lady. I am but a humble man, a mere knight--"
You can no longer hold back a smile. "Somehow," you say softly, feeling that you are completing a circle here, "I doubt, sir, that you are a 'mere' anything."