Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(6)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)(6)
Robin LaFevers

The faint note of panic is unmistakable now. She is afraid. Afraid of what is coming and her powerlessness to stop it.

“But we are not friends anymore. Surely only friends do these sorts of things for each other.”

“But we are sisters.” Margot’s eyes burn into mine. “Surely you would do this for a sister.”

“You have treated me more like a maidservant than a sister for nearly two years.”

She has the grace to be embarrassed. “Everything is a trade with you—a negotiation. If you will do this, then I will do that.”

I do not understand her frustration. “That is how the world works.”

Exasperated, she nearly stamps her foot. “Will you do it?”

I stare down at the red cord, wanting to shout at her that if she had only listened to me, none of this would have happened. She would not need to invoke Matrona’s help or fear the pain of childbirth. Instead I say, “Tell me exactly what I must do.”

Chapter 7

ell past midnight, when all the others are either asleep or engaged in bedplay, I slip from my room carrying the red silken cord and a small sack filled with all the things Margot said I would need.

No one sees me, and even if they did, they would simply assume I was on my way to meet a lover, for that is the way of things here at Cognac.

At the French court, our lives were constructed to make us pious, disciplined, and obedient. But the court at Cognac is designed around sensual pleasures, self-indulgence, and a great passion for the arts. After my upbringing at the convent and the austerity of Madame Regent, it felt as if I had been plucked from a barren winter tree and set down amidst a vibrant and dissolute summer garden.

I hated it. I still do.

Although, it amuses me greatly to think how Madame Regent would feel if she learned she had installed us in a den of libertines.

Outside, the gray clouds scuttle across the moonless sky. There is barely enough light to see my way through the castle’s courtyard down past the farrier. I cut a wide berth around the kennels for fear of setting all the count’s hounds to baying.

When I reach the castle wall, I let myself out through the small north gate that opens onto the field beyond. The entire countryside looks as if it has been dipped in charcoal dust, naught but shades of gray as far as my eye can see. Luckily, the silver birch is the lightest of them all, making it easy to spot.

The wind picks up, moving through the yellow dying birch leaves so that they sound like ghostly whispers. I ignore the shiver that trickles along my shoulders and kneel on the ground. Using my knife, I begin to dig, stabbing the blade into the earth at the base of the tree, the dirt rasping against the metal.

Of all the ways I had hoped to use my knife when I left the convent, preparing the ground for an offering to Dea Matrona on Margot’s behalf was not one of them.

I stop to push the hair out of my face. Everything about this is wrong. It is so wrong it makes my teeth ache, and my bones want to dance out of my skin. This is not what the convent wanted for us.

And yet, what did the convent want? For they have never, in all the five years, contacted us.

I begin digging again.

Margot comes from nobility, so the transition to the French court was easy for her. She, like the other highborn girls in Madame’s household, were confident enough in their own noble blood that they allowed themselves to disdain the rules occasionally, especially when Madame was away.

I never allowed myself such luxury, afraid my humble beginnings would show through if I relaxed my guard.

The hole finally big enough, I wipe the blade on my skirts, shove it back into its sheath, and reach for Margot’s sack.

It wasn’t until we arrived at the French court that Margot’s contempt for my roots began to show. Something about being among royalty brought all Margot’s snobbery to the surface. Although she still talked to me, she began to act as if I wasn’t good enough to share her table, let alone her bed. As if we were not both daughters of the same god and I was truly naught but a whore’s get and she a grand lady.

And yet here I am kneeling in the dirt, praying to Dea Matrona on her behalf to guarantee the safe birth of her bastard child.

I rip open the sack, remove a loaf of bread, and place it in the hole. Next comes the egg, which I set carefully atop the bread so it will not break. I take the red silk cord, untie each of the knots, then arrange it on top of the egg and bread, making certain no lines cross or overlap, which might cause the birth cord to tangle or wrap around a limb or neck. Once that is done, I use both my hands to shove the loose dirt back into the hole, packing it firmly into place. I uncork the wineskin and sprinkle a smattering of wine onto the tamped-down earth before leaning back to admire my handiwork.

Something is missing. A prayer, mayhap. But surely it is Margot who should be praying?

The wind rustles in the leaves overhead, a dozen dry, raspy voices reminding me that she is not here—only me. And whatever ways she has wronged me—and there are many—I do not know that she must pay for them with a difficult birth.

I bow my head and pray, asking Dea Matrona to bless Margot as she enters motherhood, to bless her babe, so that it will be hale and healthy, and to bless the birth so that both will survive.

* * *

By the time I return to the castle, a sense of melancholy has descended over me. I am unwilling to return to the chamber I once shared with Margot and mope over her betrayal. Instead, my feet carry me to the small altar I have built in the rooms near the dungeon.

This entire floor is only ever lit with one torch set in an alcove, even though many alcoves line the wall. I decided to turn one of them into a place to worship the Nine away from the prying eyes of those who have fully embraced the dogma of the new Church.

Before arriving in France, I had not had many dealings with the Nine. They had always seemed as distant and remote as royalty. For the first half of my life, I knew them only as stories told by my mother. Of the wild, untamed Saint Mer, who ruled over wave and sea. Of Brigantia, whose wisdom was recognized by the Church, her skill and knowledge of healing taught not only in Brittany, but in France as well.

My mother spoke often of Dea Matrona, mother to us all, and her twin daughters, one each for the two sides of love. My mother had little fondness for the fierce huntress Arduinna, patron saint of virgins and love’s sharp bite. Saint Amourna, however, as patron saint of the beguiling nature of love, was a favorite of hers—of all who worked in my mother’s profession. According to my aunt Yolanthe, back in the mists of time, women like my mother and aunts were consecrated to her and their work considered holy.

Of the other gods, my mother had less to say, although they sometimes appeared in her stories. The terrible Camulos, god of war, and the far older and wiser Saint Cissonius, patron saint of travelers and crossroads. She also told tales of Saint Salonius, the patron saint of mistakes, whose tricks played on the other gods were the stuff of myth and legend.

And of course she told me of Saint Mortain and the convent that served Him.

At the convent my relationship with Mortain was straightforward enough. I would believe in Him and serve Him, and He would give me a path to a better life. Some of the girls thought of Him as their father, but for me, the word father conjured up sturdy Sanson, the tavern keeper, with his heavy beard, stained leather apron, and thickly muscled arms.

However, since being in France, I have found great comfort in the Nine. Visiting this altar is one of the few ways I am able to remember my own self, my true flesh and blood and purpose.

Nine short candle stubs sit in one of the alcoves. There is enough food left in the sack to make another offering here. But as my fingers close around a loaf of bread, I realize there is something else I can do with the food. Something that would bring me even more satisfaction than a second prayer for Margot.

Besides, it is a risk, and I am as hungry for those—for action—as the prisoner is for food. I rise to my feet, take the lone torch, and use it to light my path back to the oubliette.

“Hello?” I whisper as I set the torch into a bracket in the wall. “Is anybody home?”

A rustling from below. “You have caught me just in time,” the deep voice rumbles. “I was about to go out visiting.”

“That is lucky,” I agree. “I suppose you have already eaten your dinner, as well, and are not hungry?” The thick silence that meets my question reminds me he is not simply hungry, but starving, and I curse at my careless jest.

“I have recently dined on mildewed straw and a bony rat.” His humor mostly manages to hide the strain in his voice. “I cannot imagine you have anything that can tempt me after such a fine meal as that.”

“I am not one to be deterred by such a daunting challenge.” I follow his tone, but am careful not to overstep again.

“Well, do your best. I will not stop you.”

I cannot help but smile as I set the bundle down. “How far from the grate to the floor?”

“Two men’s lengths.”

I do not know if he is tied up or chained, but with that great a distance, he cannot leap up and grab me, or overpower me in any way.

Unless he is lying.

Just to be certain, I glance around the antechamber until I spy a small piece of stone—a pebble from some past guard’s boot or a crumbling corner of the castle wall. I toss it down through the grate. The length of time it takes for the pebble to hit the bottom reassures me that it is as deep as he says.

“Smart girl,” he whispers. He does not know the half of it. Once I had told him I would return, I began carrying the needle case from my sewing basket with me. I select the sturdiest needle and use it to pick the padlock on the metal grate.

It is old and rusty with the damp air, but within seconds I hear the satisfying snick of a lock giving way. The bolt screeches in protest as I pull it back. I wait, ready should the sound have drawn anyone’s attention. A guard perhaps. Or a jailor. When no one calls out or approaches, I lift the heavy iron grate, wincing as the hinges creak.

“Here.” I toss down a wineskin filled with water. When I hear the slap of it hit his hand, I lie flat on my belly and lower the sack down as far as I can. “And the rest. Ready?”

“Yes.”

I let go.

I do not know what I expect—a ravenous growling as he rips into the food, a gluttonous snarling as he snuffles through it like a pig through slops. Instead there is silence, as if some miracle has been laid before him.

Mayhap it is a miracle, to him at least.

At last I hear rustling as he unties the sack and begins pulling out supplies: bread, cheese, and another apple. When he finally speaks, it is a strained rasp. “Thank you.”

Part of me wishes to sit and listen to him eat—hear every bite he takes, every moan of pleasure the food will bring him. But I also know what it is to be hungry—the relief of having food again. I know that desire to shove it into your mouth so fast you can’t even swallow, so that before you know it, you are retching it back up. “How long has it been since you’ve truly eaten?”

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