Monday, January 28, 2013

Rosemary, Chapter 8

“Why?” Letha asked urgently, “why was my fate fixed here?”

Though she stood before Cederic in the warm solar, she saw again the girl from the town, her face pinched with the cold, dirty, lined; exactly herself, what her fate should have been.
The question burst out of her with more energy than Letha had expected, and it caused Cederic to step away from her, frowning slightly. Seeing that there was no going back, Letha asked the question that had been burning in her mind for the past several months.
"Why did you marry me, Cederic? Why? When you could have had anyone and I was already your possession?"
“Is that what you think of me? You wonder why I didn't simply take you?” His voice was cold with anger.

Letha's short burst of daring drained away in the face of his reaction. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
“Has it ever occurred to you that I might not tell you things for your own good?"

Letha nodded, unable to look up.

"Is it not enough that I have married you?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Then leave it be!"

They sat down to eat, but Letha's tears dripped down onto the dish of venison soup Cederic placed before her.
“God’s teeth, woman, stop crying,” he snapped.
Letha struggled to get her tears under control, but it was no good, and his irritation only made her cry harder. Pushing the bowl away, Cederic rose with an oath and left the room. Letha was left alone with the fire and a table full of dinner that no one wanted.
She thought of Marta coming in to clear and finding no one but herself, deserted. She was a stupid woman who had driven her husband away by her persistent questions and ridiculous tears.
“Nature will put right what’s wrong,” Letha remembered the old woman saying. Letha thought bitterly to herself that she did not have to wait for nature; she was doing a fine job all on her own.
Letha slipped out of the room and up the stairs to her bedchamber. When Greta came much later, to help her undress and comb out her hair, Letha could not look at her.
“What happened?” asked Greta softly, her voice full of concern.
Letha shook her head.
“Don’t worry,” whispered Greta. “Lover’s quarrels are soon mended, you’ll see.” She squeezed Letha’s shoulder briefly.

It took Letha a long time to fall asleep in the empty bed. She tossed and turned, her thoughts giving her no rest. She woke to Cederic saying her name.
“I’ll never cry again,” Letha fervently promised him, when she woke enough to know he was there.
“Letha,” he said tenderly.,“the state of holy matrimony may well be the one place where you and I have an equal amount of experience. What I’m saying is, I'm not entirely sure how to be a husband and may well get it wrong, from time to time.”
The next week, when Letha arrived with the gold coin, the town priest was stunned with his church’s sudden windfall. Letha never saw that girl again, though she watched for her every time she rode into town on good Ellen.
Despite all this: her riding and her learning, her writing and her charity, the afternoons stretched on endlessly. Day after day she spent alone. She wandered sometimes around the empty rooms, or eave’s dropped on the kitchen from the first floor stairs, just to hear some human conversation. When she tried joining them in the kitchen, all such warm gossip evaporated, leaving the atmosphere tense. She didn’t try it after the first few times.
She tried engaging Greta in conversation, but servant girl had her own duties to attend to. Besides, conversations with her tended to remain on the subject of men, a young man in town in particular, and the peculiar fact that his lordship continuously choose not just to visit, but to sleep the entire night in Letha’s bedchamber.
Greta hinted once or twice that she wouldn’t mind knowing what arts held him there, but that was a subject that Letha hardly let herself think about, let alone talk about with someone else. She lit a candle in the chapel every morning, in hopes offsetting the sins she'd committed the night before, though she said nothing of this to Cederic.
But it wasn’t really Greta that she wished to speak to. She wished to speak to Cederic. All the questions that she now tamped down even tighter in her mind still burned there all the same. They troubled her in her sleep, when she searched endless corridors for him, or for a sign of him, and opened books only to find she could not read what was written there.
Her wanderings eventually took her into Cederic’s bedchamber. Breathless at her intrusion, she opened wardrobe and chest, but found only a few pieces of clothing. There was nothing under the bed, nothing placed on the window sills, nothing remarkable woven into the bed hangings, nothing that gave away any clue as to who he was.
She asked Coll what horse was his master’s. Cederic’s horse was no great destrier, such as knights rode heavily armored into battle, nor even a courser, a breed well suited to the joust or the hunt. He merely rode a palfrey such as she did.
Whenever Letha wandered through the third floor rooms, she couldn’t help but notice the open, stone staircase that curved so elegantly up to the locked fourth floor. Sometimes Cederic spent all day in there, only coming down when the sun set, as was his habit.
“Have you read all these books?” she asked her husband one evening.
“Those and more,” he had replied absently, missing her wide-eyed stare.
“Who taught you to read?”
“Ever the curious one,” he teased her, looking up from his book.
“Shouldn’t I know something about you?” she replied, hopeful yet.
“Don’t you?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
She smiled and looked away.
“But I mean everything days,” she persisted, after a moment. “Where’s your mother and father? Do you have brothers or sisters? How much land do you own? What do you do all day?” The questions all came out of her in a rush.
“Letha, you must learn to be satisfied with what I’ve given you,” he said dismissively, returning to his book.
But she could not be. Her knowledge and confidence grew in every area open to her. Her tanned skin faded paler day by day, the roughness of her hands became smoother, and she lost the bone thin, starved look she had had when she first came to the tower.
The worlds within the books slowly revealed themselves to her, but they gave her no explanation of Cederic. The paths around in the woods unfurled, folded and curved back, but they always led back to the place she had started from.
She knew her husband in the evenings, when he sat beside her and they talked of nothing but her day, or things in books. She knew him at night, when he lay in her bed, what gifts of herself most pleased him in the near dark. She knew the sound of his breathing, the feel of his hand, the way his eyes moved under the closed lids when he dreamed, she knew the weight of his arm, flung over her rib cage.
But she knew nothing else. She did not know why he had married a simple peasant girl whom he met one night in the woods.
Marta watched, saw the how the young mistress searched out the corners of the tower, watched her asking little questions of Coll, the men at arms, or Greta, and she guessed why. A plan grew in her mind, a plan that would take only the planting of a little seed to bear fruit.
Her resentment had grown day by day, as she watched how the girl turned the lord’s head, how he dotted on her, gave her whatever she asked for, even teaching her to read and write, which a woman and certainly a peasant girl, had no call to know.
Long had Marta tended the tower for the lord, many long years the only authority in his previous absences, trusted by him. Now, even her own daughter curried the favor of the peasant girl, and the old woman was left at the edge of the fire place, reduced to asking for the keys when she needed spice for a meal, reduced to having her company each time she rode to town. Her life was bitter to her.
“How happy his lordship has been since you came,” she said to Letha, one day deep in winter. She began to clear the dishes from Letha’s mid-day meal, a warm barley soup.
“Has he?” she asked, her sudden eagerness telling Marta all she needed to know.
“Oh yes,” the old woman assured her. “He’d been a long time alone in this tower, with the whole responsibility on his shoulders.”
“Well,” said Letha, “he has spoken well of how you ran it when he was gone.”
“Oh that,” she said, brushing her hand away, but allowing herself to smile a little. “That was nothing, compared to a man’s having his own wife to see to things. I know, for wasn’t I also a wife?”
“Of course,” murmured Letha, surprised.
“There are certain things only a wife may see to,” Marta continued.
Letha blushed.
“Oh, I don’t speak of things in the bedchamber; you are mistress of that, as all can see,” said Marta with a gleam in her eye. “No,” she continued softly, “I speak of the fourth floor.”
Startled, Letha looked up at the old woman. “The fourth floor?” she breathed. “You…You think I should…but he said I was never to unlock…”
“To test you,” said Marta, interrupting her. “I know him: have I not served him all my life? He wishes to know if you care enough to investigate. That’s his way: he waits to see if you will remain always a child. Why else would he teach you to read in Latin, and to write?”
Letha hardly dared breathe. “Are you certain?” she asked Marta. “Are you sure this is what he means?”
“He gave you the keys, my lady. He gave you the knowledge.”
“He did say…he said that many vital things were wrapped up in them; not to fail him.” Letha raised her eyes to Marta, questioning.
Marta leaned forward, whispered, “Can you be certain that you fail him by not using what he’s given you? Think on it, my lady. I think he only waits for you to join him.”
When the old woman left, Letha sat still in her chair, one hand on her chest. What if the old woman was right? How many times had her husband said that her thoughts were too narrow, or laughed at her for thinking like a child?
Perhaps he would be proud of her for taking something into her own hands. He was proud of her progress with her writing, she knew, and just the other night he had said that if she continued on growing in Latin, that he would have to teach her another language.
Heart pounding, she went out to the landing, crept up to the third floor, just to look. No one was around; the silence of winter had fallen over the tower. She heard, faintly, a voice from two stories down and the soft moan of the wind.
She looked up at the elegant curve of the stair, the narrow arched door at the head, with the ironwork curving along the panels. What could her husband keep up there? Maybe his own writing, some key to unlock the mystery that surrounded him. Perhaps even some key to why he had chosen her.
What if he did wait only for her to come to him? What if each day he was secretly disappointed that she had not opened the door? Wasn’t he delighted anytime she came to him of her own accord? She knew he was.
She placed one foot on the bottom step, her hand going to the keys. Hardly realizing it, she drifted up the stairs until she stood before the door. Cautiously, her fingertips went out, brushed the rough wood, lingered. She put her ear to it, listened. There was no sound but the beating of her own heart in her ears.
The lock was a simple one. She touched it. The iron was oddly warm to her fingertips. Before she could think anymore, she brought up the ring, grabbed the first key that came to hand.
It fit, everything seemed to shimmer in light, then the key turned of its own accord in the lock, turned until it clicked and the door swung open before her.
She went in as though pushed from behind, blinking in the sudden wash of light that dazzled her eyes. She stood in a great open space. It was as though there were no walls, or the walls were all windows. The wind and the air moved through freely, the air smelled so fresh it made her lungs ache. It was as though she stood at the top of a great snow-covered mountain.
There was a wide pool sunk into the center, set impossibly deep into the stone floor. Its clear water was as still as ice. Over the still water hung long white paper streamers. They moved in the wind and whispered together like leaves, but there was no reflection of them in the water.
She was drawn up to the edge of the pool, gliding forward almost as though her feet did not touch the stone below. Looking down upon the surface of the water, she saw down in the depths were ruins written in silver, covering all the stone.
Things began to take shape on the surface of the water, at first merely shimmering reflections of light and then taking on color, shape and texture, until they looked as real to her as her own skin.
On the surface of the water rode a great black bearskin, a deerskin, a long, coiling snake skin, the feather of a goose and the feather of gyrfalcon. They rode the surface of the water, but were not touched by it.
Suddenly Letha felt a great fear seize hold of her, sucking out her breath, freezing her heart. She heard a great rush of sound, the wind came on cold at her back and she flung her arms out.
She was falling and everything was falling to pieces around her, dissolving into the light. Stones and steps and doors and bedding and iron, all fell down into the great rush of wind.
She was very cold. Above her the sky whirled, hedged in by the black, reaching branches of the winter woods. It came to her then that she was not dreaming, that her body ached in a real way and that she felt the cold again, as she had not since her marriage.
With a gasp, she sat up. She was in the center of a clearing in the woods. She wore her peasant clothing, clothing she herself had seen burn in the flame of the fire that first night. She touched the rough, soiled wool in disbelief.
About her, scattered on the packed ground, lay a bearskin, a deerskin, a snake skin and two feathers. As she watched, the wind caught the feathers and lifted them up and away from her.
With a hoarse cry, Letha lurched after them on her hands and knees, grabbed and caught them before they blew farther. Turning, she grabbed up the skins as well, and something fell with a thump to the ground.
It was a ring of iron keys. It fell beside a green, growing rosemary plant, its spiky branches reaching up, blossoming in pale blue.
Tears were streaming, unknown, down Letha's face. She began to wail, quietly at first and then with abandon, clutching the skins to her chest. She lay hunched on her side on the packed dirt. She waited, eyelashes still clumped with tears and the tracks of them running all down the dirt on her cheeks.
He would come at sunset, she knew, as he always did. He would be furious with her, put her away from him for a long time, maybe for years. But he would put everything to right again. Whatever she had done, he could fix. If he would just let her stay as a serf who slept in the ashes of the kitchen fire and scoured the pots, she would count herself fortunate.
She passed in and out of consciousness, lying on the cold ground, wrapped in the bearskin with the iron keys clenched in her cold fingers. Her dreams tangled up with her vision of the edge of the forest, the tangled brambles there, the hawthorns and bracken.
Over and over in her head she heard his words, felt his fingers brush her waist. “Don’t fail me in this,” he had said, as clear as day, in his stern, unyielding voice, as he tied her to the keys.
Though she tried to hide from the words, she could not.
“The old woman made me do it, Marta lied to me,” she would tell him. But she knew it wasn’t true. She should have known that Marta would lie. She believed what Marta said because she had wanted to.
He would know this. He was too clever for such a stupid lie. Only she, a stupid peasant girl, would be so weak as to do the one thing her lord, her husband, had instructed her clearly never to do, trusted her never to do.
For a moment she felt a blinding rage toward him. Why had he trusted her, how could he have made himself so vulnerable to such an ignorant child? How could he have handed her the keys when he knew the power in them?
The shadows lengthened, the cold grew knife sharp as the sun began to set red through the black trees. The cold forced her up and she began to hobble around the ground in her bare feet.
The months of soft living made her feet feel the cold cruelly. At last, as the sun set completely, she tore off the lower half of her shift and bound her feet in it. She saw the girl from town again, saw her feet bound in the freezing, soiled cloth, black from the street.
She heard Cederic say soft, “Your fate was fixed here.” And his arms held her close and his voice was in her ear. It was warm, and dinner waited, the soft bed waited, her whole life waited; a bright, warm room that belonged to her.
Sick to her stomach, Letha bent and retched but nothing came up. She waited to hear the leaves crunch, to hear his boot heels fall upon the packed dirt. Turning this way and that, each moment she thought she saw him through the trees, but the image faded, shifted away into the trunk of a tree or a shadow.
The dark fell until she could see nothing past the packed dirt, and all the stars came out. The cold drove her into the woods at last, where she buried herself, wrapped in animal skins, under a pile of leaves at the foot of a great oak tree.
A hundred times she dreamed he came into the clearing, a hundred times she woke with a jolt to realize he wasn't there. The sickness in her stomach grew, spread all through her until her head was dizzy with it.
When the sun rose wavering out of the eastern horizon, and the morning light touched her face, she knew he was not coming, that he could not. She knew it all through her, like the touch of iron.

Spreading out the deer skin, she put into it the iron ring, the feathers, the snake-skin and, at the last, a sprig of rosemary from the bush growing up, cheerful in the first light of morning, no touch of cold on it.
She wrapped herself in the bearskin, picked up her bundle and began to walk into the woods. She did not know where she was going, she did not care.
Cederic was far away from her now, caught when she had pulled down his tower. She had opened a pit for him right under his feet and he had fallen down into it. Only the ghost of him could come back, and stare at her sleeping self until she woke, and saw nothing.  She knew the hardest way forward was the only path that would lead her now where she wished to go.
So she humped her pack and headed deep into the woods, into the heart of her fate. For magic lies hidden in the heart of the unknown and no track leads to it.