FREE FICTION :
THE LORD OF FEATHERS
(The following, one of my first published stories, originally appeared in Reflection's Edge web magazine.)
Isabella first saw the Lord of Feathers in the early days of spring.
Knights from all the reaches of the north had come to joust for cups in the courtyard of the castle of the Fourfold Baron, her father. Isabella watched the Lord of Feathers arrive, late in the afternoon, from where she sat with her mother high in the stands. He wore a close-helm and full armour, and the armour and helm were the red of sunset when he rode in the light and of rust when he rode in shadow. The insignia on his banner was a single magpie, and his horse was black.
Isabella's mother was leaning towards her and didn't see his entrance. "Is the Lord of Seven Hills not handsome?" she said. "One day soon he will inherit his father's lands, which are considerable. I'll introduce you at dinner this evening."
"Who's that?" asked Isabella, pointing to the rider in red.
Isabella looked at her mother when she didn't reply immediately, and found her expression strange and unreadable. When she finally answered, "That is the Lord of Feathers," her tone was just as indecipherable.
There were two jousts left that day, and the Lord of Feathers won them both. He rode with such measured grace and struck with such casual ferocity that it was hard to imagine his victories involved any effort at all. After each event, he walked to where her father sat and received his reward, and each time he removed his helmet for just long enough to exchange a nod and take his prize. His face was younger than she would have imagined, although his beard and hair were grey, longer and more unkempt than was fashionable, and even his eyes were grey. Nevertheless, she thought he wasn't much older than her. After he received the second cup, he replaced his helmet, reclaimed his banner, and rode away in the direction from which he'd come.
He had been in her world for no more than an hour, but Isabella had seen enough. She had never been in love before, with anyone or anything, and in falling now she fell completely.
Nevertheless, she said nothing at first. Through the night's festivities, she was courteous to the seemingly endless parade of young men to whom her parents introduced her. She even danced a little. She ate modestly, drank two glasses of wine, and excused herself early.
That night she dreamt of a forest, of darkness, and of grey eyes that swam in the darkness like water.
When she woke, she dressed quickly and went to seek out her parents. They were breakfasting in the gardens, beneath a trellis of climbing red roses.
"Good morning," her father called; but her mother said nothing.
"I've decided I must leave to seek the Lord of Feathers," Isabella began without preamble. "When I find him I will offer him my heart. Father, will you grant me your blessing?"
"My blessing would do you no good, and I couldn't give it even if it would. However I know you, child, and know that if I deny you, you'll go regardless. Go with my permission, if not my blessing."
Isabella's mother looked at her husband with an expression that, again, Isabella could not fathom.
"When do you intend to leave?" he asked her.
"I would only like to take a little breakfast first," Isabella replied.
In addition to her own belongings, dresses and jewellery and books, the Fourfold Baron gifted Isabella a coach and horse, a driver and a purse of gold. It was also agreed that her maidservant Madeleine would accompany her. "If you should ever wish to return, know that you're welcome here," he said.
Her mother turned and walked back into the gardens without a word. Watching her go, Isabella doubted herself for the first time since she'd fallen in love with the Lord of Feathers. When her mother disappeared from sight, she turned back to her father and said, "I don't even know which way to take."
If he had asked her to stay then, she might perhaps have changed her mind. Instead, he replied, "Travel north upon the main road, asking directions each night to a village known as Lantern. There is an inn there called the Hag. Its landlord will be able to direct you."
She nodded. She would have liked to embrace him, but found that she couldn't. She said, "Thank you, father," and stepped into the coach. The horseman, who had heard the Fourfold Baron's directions, began to drive.
She didn't look back as her home disappeared behind her, but she did cry quietly to herself.
Isabella insisted that they travel without break, and before long, she'd grown tired and sore. Nevertheless, as she put aside the sorrow of leaving home to dwell instead on envisioning her future, so she became happier with each passing mile. Madeleine, who adored her mistress, was a great help in this. As Isabella narrated how she would find the Lord of Feathers, how she'd offer him her heart, how he would be overwhelmed and would fall in love, so Madeleine embellished the tale, furnishing any missing details. By the evening, their shared imaginings had assumed the weight of prophecy.
Nonetheless, they were weary, and glad to find a wayside inn where they could rest. That second night, Isabella was too exhausted to dream.
When they recommenced the next morning, her entire body ached, and her legs and back were bruised. Though it was uncomfortable, Isabella didn't allow it to bother her unduly. The landlord had told her that Lantern was only two days' journey away by single horse. In two days she would see her love again, and what did it matter if she ached a little? Still, the conversation was more subdued that second day, Madeleine was less cheerful than usual, and they did stop at dinner and again late in the afternoon.
When three days later they still hadn't arrived, Isabella was beginning to feel disheartened. The unaccustomed journeying was taking its toll. The further north they travelled, the wilder grew the land through which they passed, and the poorer the roads; they'd had to replace a wheel and one of the horses had become lame.
Madeleine, unused to such hardships, was poor company, even in the evenings. Each day she had become less prepared to indulge Isabella's fantasies of their eventual arrival. By necessity, their stops had become more and more regular. Even once they arrived, Isabella would not be able to begin her search for the Lord of Feathers immediately. It might take them days to recuperate.
Still, she found it easy to reassure herself. What did delays and adversities matter compared with the lifetime of happiness awaiting her?
They'd been travelling for a week when they finally came upon Lantern late in the afternoon. They'd been told in advance of the beacon that gave it its name, but the village was small and isolated, and had been hard to find. Lantern nestled high in the hills, amidst bleak countryside of gorse and copses of warped pine. There were no more than a dozen buildings, all dilapidated and little more than hovels.
Even the Hag, the ancient inn set apart from the rest of the village, was in desperate need of repair. The place wore such an air of hopelessness that it took all of Isabella's courage to go inside.
She didn't have the strength left to ask about the Lord of Feathers. Instead, she paid for rooms, went to her bed, and fell asleep fully dressed. She slept without dreaming, as she had every night since they'd left - or if she did dream, her sleep was so fathomless that she remembered nothing when she woke.
The two weeks that followed their arrival in Lantern proved desperately hard. Madeleine had become ill during the journey, and not wanting to burden her mistress had said nothing, hence her uncustomary silence. Now that their travels were over, she fell into a fever, and for two days couldn't so much as lift her head. Isabella looked after her as best she could. There were times when she really believed her maidservant and only friend would die, and then she was overcome with guilt and fear.
However, Madeleine did recover, albeit slowly. By the end of the second week, they were both in reasonable health, though ashen and worn from the unaccustomed poverty. Isabella had her money but there was little to buy, and in any case, she was careful about showing her gold.
Upon Madeleine's recovery, she went and spoke with the landlord, a small, twisted man with skin like sagging leather. He seemed uncomfortable when she spoke of the Lord of Feathers. "What would so pretty a lady as yourself want with the likes of him?"
"I seek employment in his court," Isabella lied, bargaining that the landlord would know little of such things.
"He's served only by men. He would not have a woman in his court."
"He will have me," she replied haughtily.
"Very well then, little miss, if you're so sure. There's a trail to the northwest, leading up past the forest. Follow it and you'll come upon his castle after three hours' hard walking."
Isabella's first thought was to take the coach. However, there was unusual warmth in the wind, and the air was fresh, smelling faintly of pine. The walk would do her and Madeleine good. If the Lord of Feathers couldn't offer them his hospitality, they would have more than enough time to travel back to Lantern before nightfall. They packed bread and cold meat in a hamper and set off in the mid-morning.
They found the trail easily enough. It was wide and well travelled, hiding amongst the low hills only to resurface as a charcoal thread strung over their crests. It was also badly potholed, and the recent rain had turned whole sections into torrents of liquid mud. It was hard going for Isabella and Madeleine, who had spent the last two weeks in the inn doing little. After an hour, they took an early lunch and rested.
Soon after they set out again, they discovered the forest the landlord had spoken of. A steep climb brought them out on a hilltop and there it was, stretching on their left for miles ahead, a vast woodland of crooked, grizzled pines. Below, the trail ran down to meet it, continuing along its edge.
Isabella noticed that beside the path grew a wealth of small flowers, bluebells and snowbells, celandine and peony, and a thought occurred to her. As they continued she gathered small handfuls, and sought out any berries and fruits she could find. It wouldn't do to arrive empty handed, and a meagre gift was better than none.
She'd almost filled her basket by the time they found the castle of the Lord of Feathers. They came upon it early in the afternoon, unexpectedly, for it was hidden in a dell, with great old trees gathered round like watchful sentries. It wasn't what Isabella had expected. She'd imagined towers and minarets, and statues of bronze and ivory. Instead, she saw a squat building of ancient grey stone, with a slanted slate roof and high walls all around.
Two guards stood on the gate, armoured in the colours of the Lord of Feathers, with his magpie badge upon their breastplates. As she walked towards them, she could see a cobbled yard beyond, past which two more guards stood to either side of great wooden doors. Nothing was how she'd imagined it. The castle was bleak and unwelcoming, the soldiers unkempt and even somehow savage. With each step her heart sank, however much she tried to clutch onto her hopes.
She stopped before the leftmost guard. Not allowing her voice to shake, she said, "My name is Isabella, daughter of the Fourfold Baron. I have come to speak with your master. I have come to offer him my heart. I've brought this gift, which I ask that you give him. Please tell him also that I await his answer."
The guard, who was at least a head taller than Isabella, looked down with an expression so disinterested as to border on contempt. His eyes were the strangest colour, almost yellow. However, when she proffered him the basket he took it, without even a glance at its contents. He turned and walked across the courtyard, pushed open the great doors and disappeared inside.
He was empty-handed when he returned. He resumed his post without the least acknowledgement that Isabella stood waiting.
Finally, she asked, "Does your Lord send any answer?"
He only shook his head.
Isabella, though her optimism had been tarnished by the hardships of their journey and their stay in Lantern, had not for a moment expected a reception as terrible as this. Her mind was reeling as she walked back to where Madeleine sat.
Madeleine, while her face was full of pity, said nothing. There was nothing to be said.
Isabella sat on the grass bank and hung her head. Had the guard not passed on her message? Perhaps the Lord of Feathers was out on business. Maybe he was offended by her paltry gift, which she realised now would have been laughable coming from a maidservant, let alone the daughter of a baron. Had he seen her from a window, and thought her too unappealing to be worthy of a reply?
With no answers to offer herself, Isabella sat wrapped in silence. The sky darkened, grew red and gold with sunset and sank into blackness, and she didn't see it. When something finally roused her from her stupor, she looked up to see liquid stars glittering. She didn't understand at first what had caught her attention. Then she saw that the guards were leaving their positions, in unison, as if according to some invisible signal. Together they filed through the great wooden doors into the castle.
Beside her, Madeleine was wrapped in her shawl, asleep. Isabella struggled with guilt at the thought of waking her; but just then a sound echoed from the direction of the castle that froze her in place, and Madeleine sat bolt upright, staring at her mistress with wide eyes.
It was the howling of wolves, long and low, fierce and melancholy. As the first moment of fright passed, they leapt to their feet, and in the same instant saw them - five huge beasts of shaggy grey, tumbling through the gloom towards them. Despite her fear, despite the darkness, Isabella could make out every detail: hungering yellow eyes, bared wet teeth, muscles rippling effortlessly beneath sleek coats.
Then Madeleine had caught her hand and suddenly they were running back down the trail, not daring to look behind. The air reverberated with howls that seemed right upon their heels. Isabella ran until she was out of breath and long after that, until the pain in her chest became unimaginable, and she fell to the ground to lie panting, not caring if she were torn to pieces.
Slowly the pain subsided. When finally she looked up, there were no wolves. There was only the rough path disappearing into the darkness, jagged pines stretching above her, and Madeleine sat clutching her sides.
They stood together. Without speaking, Isabella picked the direction she desperately hoped would take them back to Lantern.
Isabella woke in her bed the next morning, fully dressed, caked with mud and unsure where she was or how she'd come to be there. Abruptly, memories crowded in on her, and it was all she could do not to cry. She clutched her head and rocked back and forth, hopeless and desperately alone.
Even through her sorrow, however, she was aware of something drawing her attention, and eventually she had to look up. Then she saw the state of the room.
Every cupboard stood open, every object was scattered and out of place.
On the night they'd arrived, she had found a loose floorboard and hidden her gold beneath it. She fell out of bed and crawled to it on hands and knees, tore it up, and began to cry.
Isabella scrambled frenziedly around the room, inspecting everything, silently adding up losses. Her money was gone, her dresses, her jewellery, everything that might hold the least value. She searched over and over, almost believing she would find her lost things if only she looked hard enough. When at last she had to surrender to the truth, she curled into a ball and sobbed for a long time.
When Madeline came in and found her, Isabella looked up and said, "Everything is gone."
"Your gold is gone?"
"Everything is gone, and the Lord of Feathers does not love me."
"We should go home, mistress. There's nothing here."
"But ... the Lord of Feather's doesn't love me."
"Then we should go home."
"We can't. We can't go home. I must make him love me."
Isabella sold the coach and three of the horses. The gold was a fraction of their worth, but enough to keep rooms for her and Madeleine, and for food. She sent the coachman home with the fourth horse and a letter for her father that read simply, 'All is well. I will call for you when we're to be wed.'
Then, for days that became weeks and months, she locked herself away, giving in to despair so absolute that nothing could pierce it. She remembered her first sight of the Lord of Feathers, remembered the guard staring down at her with cold eyes. One thought recurred. What would a knight want with flowers and berries, what gift was that for one as fierce as the Lord of Feathers? Perhaps he'd thought her some lunatic local girl, who imagined that she could win him with the preposterous lie that she was really the daughter of a baron.
It had been a dreadful miscalculation. No wonder she'd failed.
The more she came to understand this, the more she knew what she should do. She should take him a proper gift, one worthy of a lord and worthy to be given by a lady. But she had no gold. She had nothing, and nothing to give.
Then, one night, she dreamt: of a forest, and of darkness beneath the trees that the full moon could hardly penetrate, of a wild face with grey eyes that returned the pale light.
When she awoke, she saw the pile of books beside her bed, which - being of no value to ignorant thieves - were one of the few things left. They were her most treasured possessions, and she'd taken some small comfort that they hadn't been stolen with her other belongings. She didn't doubt that the Lord of Feathers would recognize their worth, or that the beauty of the gift would draw his attention to the beauty of the giver.
Isabella went out alone, without telling Madeleine what she intended. She hadn't left the inn in days, or perhaps weeks, and was surprised to find that summer had come, alarmed by the green of the hills and the warmth of the sky. She felt hopeful for the first time in what she realized must be months. How foolish she'd been! Probably the Lord of Feathers wouldn't even remember her previous visit, and the opportunity she'd sought had been beside her bed the whole time.
The walk seemed easier this time, even pleasurable. She came upon the castle early in the afternoon, and was surprised to find it less austere and intimidating than before. She recognized the guards to either side of the gate. Did they even seem less stern?
She strode over to the one on the right and said, "My name is Isabella, daughter of the Fourfold Baron. I have come to speak with your master. I have come to offer him my heart. I've brought this gift, which I ask that you give him. Please tell him also that I await his answer." She handed over the parcel of books, which she'd tied with a white ribbon. Then she retreated to the bank beside the path to wait.
As before, the guard went in with her present, returned without it, and resumed his post, without so much as a glance in her direction.
"He will come, he'll come soon," she whispered. But with each passing instant, she was surer he wouldn't. What had she done wrong? She'd given her greatest treasure, how could it not be enough? When there could no longer be any doubt, she nestled her head in her arms and wept silently, lost in her pain.
A noise disturbed her - the howling of wolves. The sky was dark and it was no longer warm. The guards had left their posts, leaving her alone.
Only for a moment, though - for sudden as lightning five wolves tumbled from the doorway of the castle and leapt in a mass towards her, their fur bristling, their fangs bared. She didn't have the strength to run or to stand, or even to fear for her life.
As the great beasts closed on her, she saw how the one in front was larger than the others, and its eyes grey rather than their topaz yellow. The closer they came, the more the others held back to let this largest take the lead. It slowed abruptly, just before her, so close that she could feel the warmth of its breath as it inspected her.
Then it turned and ran into the forest, the others following; and Isabella was alone again, except for a long howl vibrating in the air.
She was woken the next morning by Madeleine, leaning over her with tears in her eyes. Isabella's tattered, mud-soaked dress beside the bed was evidence enough of where she'd been, and that she'd returned proved her failure. "Mistress, there's nothing here for you. We must go home."
"Go home? The Lord of Feathers doesn't love me. How can we go home?" Isabella turned her face away and closed her eyes again.
Their small supply of money was almost gone. Part of her didn't care, would not have cared if she were to starve to death here. Another part still clutched to a sliver of hope. The present had not been right. If she could only understand why, perhaps she could still claim the love of the Lord of Feathers.
So Isabella went to the landlord of The Hag and - although she suspected he was the one behind the burglary of her room - asked him for work.
"Can you cook?" he asked her. "Can you serve ale? Can you sweep floors and wash dishes?"
"I can learn."
"My wife and I are all the work I need."
She didn't have any answer to this, and hung her head.
"But you're pretty, I suppose, and the men would like to see you. Perhaps you could learn, after all."
The work was terribly hard. The landlord took advantage of Isabella's desperation, and as soon as she'd grasped one thing would force a new responsibility upon her, until she was doing everything and the landlord and his wife next to nothing. Because she was receiving board and lodging, he paid her only a pittance. The men who visited would jeer and mock her in the lewdest ways, and clutch at her as she passed. Her hands became calloused, her complexion red and mottled, her body thin and angular. She'd been wearing Madeleine's dresses since her own had been stolen, and no-one, seeing her, could have imagined what she'd been a mere six months ago. Still, she hardly cared. She was lost so deeply in her dejection and in thoughts of the Lord of Feathers that she moved through the days like a sleepwalker.
Madeleine would come to her sometimes, in the brief interval between her finishing work and sinking into oblivious sleep, and plead with her to return home. She paid no attention, or screamed at her to get out, or at her lowest points would answer simply, "He doesn't love me," and collapse into tears. It came as little surprise when one morning she found a note at her bedside that read, 'Mistress, I am going home, if I can find the way. I beg you, follow. There is nothing here for you.'
She threw it into a corner. It was for the best, and she'd be glad of the money she'd save on Madeleine's small room.
She ate sparsely and refused to replace the dresses Madeleine had left her, however ragged they became. The more parsimonious her life became, the more she found she could save a little money. Increasingly she was obsessed with a certainty that if she could only find the right gift then the Lord of Feathers couldn't help but acknowledge her. She understood now that her books had held value only for her. They would have no meaning or worth to one as wild as her love.
Despite that realisation, she had no idea what he would value. The months passed, her supply of coin slowly accumulated, and still she could see no end to her suffering.
Then, one night early in the autumn, she dreamt: of a forest of skeletal pines, of a darkness hardly broken by the bulbous moon overhead, and of a savage face with eyes of deep grey that swam with reflected light.
Waking, she gathered her money, searched out a dress less ragged than the others, and went to the landlord. She instructed him to slaughter and cook as many beasts and fowl as her money would afford, and to take them and her by cart to the castle in the forest.
Though he laughed at her, he accepted her coins. Early in the afternoon, they drove through the dying colours of the autumn wilds to the castle of the Lord of Feathers. As before, two sentries stood at the inner door, and two watched the outer gate.
She selected the one to the left and said, "My name is Isabella, daughter of the Fourfold Baron. I have come to speak with your master. I have come to offer him my heart. I've brought this gift, which I ask that you give him. Please tell him also that I await his answer." She couldn't hide the sorrow in her voice, nor did she try.
The four guards left together, each taking up a plate. Immediately the landlord turned his cart and drove the horses at a canter back towards the village, without so much as offering to take her with him. Meanwhile, three of the guards placed their plates on the steps before the castle's great wooden door, while the fourth went inside. When he returned, he still carried his platter. He set it down with the others before returning to his post.
It occurred to Isabella then that she wasn't expecting the Lord of Feathers to come - that she had deluded herself. With that realization, something inside her died. She went to her place on the verge, curled up with her threadbare shawl around her shoulders, and went to sleep.
She was woken, as she'd expected to be, by the sound of wolves baying. When she looked up, the five great creatures were tumbling through the castle doorway. She sat and watched, feeling strangely distant, as they proceeded to devour the banquet she'd brought. She was faintly disgusted by the way they tore meat from the carcasses and tussled over scraps; yet she understood that there was order to it as well. They allowed the largest beast to take its share of each dish first, and to pick the choicest portions.
When every bone had been picked clean, they turned together and jogged towards her, too glutted to manage their usual swift pace. As always, the largest wolf, with its cold grey eyes, led the way. Those eyes never left her as they came closer. Finally, it stopped in front of her, its jaws hung open before her face, its forepaws straddling her chest.
Isabella wasn't the least afraid as she gazed into its eyes, for all the savagery she saw there. She didn't try to move or to make any noise. She was content to watch the bestial face poised above her. Finally, the jaws opened a fraction wider. The wolf's breath was warm on her face and reeked of meat. With a tongue as big as her hand, it licked her face, almost delicately, from chin to forehead.
Then it turned away, and in a single bound was through the tree line, with its brethren close behind.
They found Isabella the next morning, sat beneath the beacon that gave the village its name, curled up and singing nonsense songs to herself, oblivious of the cold. She wouldn't respond to any of the villagers' questions, or so much as acknowledge them. The consensus was that she'd lost her wits. They took her to the landlord, by the logic that she was more his problem than anyone else's.
Whilst there was no doubt Isabella had gone mad, the landlord discovered that she would still work, so long as she was given precise instructions. She did so slowly, methodically, without the least interest. Nevertheless, she was useful enough to justify the outlay of her small room and a little food. At first, the men continued to abuse and grope her, but they soon lost interest. There was something alarming in her unresponsiveness. She was indifferent to cruelty and kindness alike, and as the weeks passed, they increasingly ignored her. To the people of the village she became 'Mad Bel' - but no-one spoke of her much.
Isabella was more aware than they realized. There were thoughts and memories aplenty in her mind, though they were cluttered and confused, and she couldn't be sure which were real or meaningful. All of them related to the Lord of Feathers. She had forgotten her life before her arrival in Lantern. Somewhere beneath her conscious mind, the same questions were being asked: What did I do wrong? Am I unworthy? Is there any gift that could win his heart?
But she was incapable of answering, or even of understanding her own questions. Instead, she drifted through the days as the oblivious slave of the landlord, and weeks and months passed by.
Then, on the night of the first snow of winter, she dreamt. Isabella couldn't remember the dream the next morning, but could feel it just beyond her reach, almost tangible and alive within her. Looking out her window, she saw it was still dark. She pulled the bed sheets over her ragged nightgown and set off into the night.
It was light when she arrived at the castle in the forest, and the trees were crested with white. Though she was mud-stained and wet, and wore her sheets trailing behind her like a bridal train, the guards paid her no more attention than they had on each past occasion.
She selected the rightmost and said to him, her voice frail from lack of use, "My name is Isabella, daughter of the Fourfold Baron. I have come to speak with your master. I have come to offer him my heart. I've brought this gift, which I ask that you give him. Please tell him also that I await his answer."
The guard only looked at her with bright yellow eyes. She turned and walked away, past the verge where she'd sat before, through the periphery of the forest and into the darkness within. Then she selected a place, wrapped her sheets around her and settled down to wait.
She might have slept, or she might not have. There was little difference by then between her sleeping and waking. Nevertheless, she was suddenly aware of darkness, and of howls echoing between the close-set trees.
She had just time enough to look up at the full moon, cracked and fractured between the branches - and then the wolves were on her. The four circled around, cutting off her escape, though she made no move to flee. The fifth, the greatest, came unhurriedly forward, his head turned up to stare at her, his grey eyes reflecting the dim moonlight. When he stopped, she let the bed-sheets drop from around her. She pulled her nightgown over her head and laid it beside them.
Though there was still snow on the ground, she didn't feel the cold at all.
The Lord of Feathers dismissed his servants with a low growl. As one, they turned and disappeared into the shadows.
He came closer - so close that she could feel his fur against her skin, could smell his breath, so close that the hum in his throat sent shivers through her. He nuzzled her once, rubbing his head against her breast, gazing with grey eyes that showed no hint of cruelty.
Then, with a small push of his hind legs, he leapt up and tore at her throat with his teeth. She tumbled backwards into the pile of her clothing and lay quite still.
When he was certain she was dead, he set about devouring her body. He ate slowly and with care, until there was nothing of Isabella left but pale bones and what remained within him.
But out of respect for her great love, he left her heart until last.