A/N: Happy Halloween Guys!
Betad by the lovely Michelle Renker Rhodes (although I make changes until the very end, so any remaining mistakes are on me).
Most characters belong to S. Meyer. The rest is mine.
Chapter 2 – Castle Swein
At length, I was granted permission into the great hall of the castle. Despite the words of reassurance earlier spoken to my wife, my heart drummed in my chest as I walked the damp and dim corridor leading to the grand room where a celebration was underway in honor of the baron's return after a four-month absence. White pillared candelabras scattered about the great hall imparted meager light to the innate darkness of the hall, casting long, malformed shadows upon the paneled walls. The tables abounded with all manner of fare: bowls of exotic fruit and platters of savory dishes alongside pitchers overflowing with wine. The castle musicians circled the room with their flutes and psalteries, regaling diners with stringed diversion while they feasted. At the center of it all sat Lord Karles, the Baron of Castle Swein.
As his daughter described earlier, the baron was a choleric, implacable man. A Norman noble, Lord Karles was once a great warrior who was granted his fiefdom by William the Conqueror after the Norman conquest of our Anglo-Saxon lands. Upon their arrival into our shire, most people were forced into servitude on parcels of property once their own. My father, along with a host of our strongest men, was trained as a masson by the conquerors to assist in the construction of Castle Swein as well as the construction of defensive walls around the city. Father's skill, in addition to his might, set him apart and earned him Lord Karles' respect; therefore, the lord gifted him with the return of a parcel of his own land which lay within the defensive walls.
Bellaria was born and raised within Castle Swein. She was daughter to the baron and his only true remaining heir after the death of his wife, Lady Resmae, during childbirth and the death of Bellaria's older brother, Lord Emmot, in a hunting accident, now one year prior. Following Emmot's death, it fell to Bellaria to produce sons of noble birth set to inherit the fiefdom. By marrying me, a man of common blood, Bellaria's worth to her father diminished, and I could not be sure what form his punishment would take. He would revoke her birthright and name his cousin heir instead; of that, there was little doubt. Yet neither she nor I cared for such titles.
What I did not want was for my wife to live a life of peril and daily struggle beyond the protection of the defensive walls. I did not fear a struggle for myself. As a knight, my blood sang while in battle. As a tenant farmer, I worked with pride what was once my father's land. Nevertheless, I did not fear the possibility of having to abandon either. This display of contrition before her father would be for my Bellaria's sake. We did not need to live in the castle itself, but if he would allow us to remain within the walls, my wife would be safe.
As I approached the dais where the baron sat at table surrounded by his highest nobles, my footsteps resounded in my ears, louder than the music of the flutists or the din of merriment. His guests now partook of fresh meat from a hunt which likely occurred on the ride back from London. Hunting was forbidden while he was away. They chewed with open mouths while their goblets overflowed with drink, and their red lips glistened with animal fat. In the past few years, Lord Karles had grown portly and slothful. His long neck, set over a round frame, gave him a peculiar, beast-like appearance. In any case, his once powerful warrior frame was now a thing of the past.
"My lord," I said, bowing deeply.
At first, he continued feasting with no acknowledgment of my presence. Nonetheless, I was prepared for this treatment, as well as for the wrath sure to follow. As long as it earned my wife's safety, I would stand quietly and bear all form of punishment.
The minutes passed. The flutists played, the nobles laughed, ate, and drank while I waited. A servant walked in and approached Lord Karles, whispering into his ear. The baron nodded and waved the servant away. Finally, Lord Karles set down his large hunk of meat and set his gaze on me. The rest of his noblemen followed suit.
"Ah, Sir Edward, I see you have decided to join us."
"Aye, my lord, by your leave. I trust your time in London went well and that the king is in good health and spirits."
"The king is hale and hearty. I will pass along your regards when I see him next. As a matter of fact, it was as I sat council with him that I was delivered the most…interesting news – that you and my daughter were wed. I suppose this was why you could not join us for this session." He spoke with a softness which belied his previous disapproval.
I nodded and responded with similar equanimity. "Yes, my lord. I regret the need to disobey my liege, but in this matter, I could do nothing but obey my heart as master."
"Aye, matters of the heart often lead us astray, do they not?" He grinned.
"I do not know that I would qualify my marriage as astray, my lord, but it is true that the heart cannot always be overcome."
His features hardened, yet the grin remained in place. His eyes, in some ways similar to those of his daughter, were devoid of the warmth in hers. Instead, his were cold as ice and dark as an abyss. He gestured toward a chair left empty before him at the large, wooden table.
"Pray, take a seat, Sir Edward, and enjoy the fruit of our hunt."
"With all due respect, my lord, I am not-"
"Sit," he commanded in a hiss.
The room went suddenly still. The musicians set down their instruments, and the nobles stopped eating. All the while, I reminded myself that the aim here was not to prove my actions correct and Lord Karles' decree incorrect, but rather to convince him that my marriage to his daughter could still work in his favor.
Slowly, I took the seat opposite him. I gave my thanks in his Norman tongue. "Gramercy."
"There." He grinned again, snapping his fingers toward a group of servants. "Serve our young knight meat and mead."
The music resumed. While one servant poured me a goblet, another placed a plateful of fresh meat before me. Lord Karles and the rest of the nobles returned to their meals, chewing audibly and lustily.
"Sir Edward, I have some people with whom I wish to acquaint you."
Without pausing in his ravenous consumption, he waved a hand toward the man on his right. He was an unremarkable nobleman, of about eight and twenty years, who appeared of average height and build with dark hair and eyes black as coal. I recognized him from two years earlier when he attended a tournament held in honor of Bellaria's sixteenth birthday.
It was at this tournament, while Emmot and I rough-housed in preparation for the joust, that I noticed Emmot's young sister's eyes continuously straying toward us. I also noted that she appeared more woman than child that morn. Her red velvet tunic hugged full breasts I would have sworn on my sword were not there the day before. Her hair appeared as dark spun silk from the East, the braids like jewels crowning her noble head. And her fawn-colored eyes no longer held the sort of infantile mischief better confined to a nursery; rather, they held a hint of mischief I was suddenly eager to explore. When Emmot and I mounted our horses, she blew her brother a kiss…and tied her kerchief around my lance. Emmot laughed good-naturedly, even after I dismounted him. And Bellaria bestowed on me a smile so glorious I was sure the angels above must have chanted in harmonious chorus to witness it.
That day, I was a knight of two and twenty years, in my physical prime, and armored to the hilt. Yet I was struck with a force of love so powerful, it left me breathless.
That was also the day I bested the black-eyed lord now before me.
"This is Lord Jakob - my cousin, our neighbor, and up until four months ago, my daughter's intended."
I met the nobleman's murderous glare head on. "Lord Jakob, we have met." With you at the losing end of my lance.
"Sir Edward," the man sneered.
Next, Lord Karles waved a hand to the man on his left, a tall and well-built man in about his early thirties with light hair and eyes so blue they appeared as if lit from within. "This is Lord Giraut, a good friend of mine visiting from Normandy."
"My lord," I said with another bob of my head. He inclined his head as well but said not a word.
"I am not sure if you know this, my young Sir Edward," Lord Karles said casually, "but Lord Jakob's fiefdom, which borders our own, extends halfway to London. The land is rich and fertile. If joined with our own lands, both fiefdoms would create a small kingdom in and of itself. Ever since her childhood, Bellaria has known it her duty to marry Lord Jakob in her eighteenth year. Today was to be the announcement of their betrothal. In fact, Lord Giraut traveled all this distance in anticipation of a wedding and the festivities which were to follow."
"We fell in love," I said plainly.
He continued gluttoning on his meat. "Cousin, how much do you know of our young Sir Edward?"
"Very little, my lord," Lord Jakob seethed.
"Very little?" Lord Karles laughed. "Come, cousin, it must be your envy speaking, for he has been our finest knight nigh on six years! But I shall tell you more if you wish. Edward the mason was an Anglo highly skilled in masonry. In return for his fine work on our castle, he was rewarded with a decent-sized parcel of land within our walls. When Edward the mason was killed in a construction accident, I pitied his young son, then twelve, who like my Bellaria was left motherless at birth. Therefore, I brought him to live in the castle. Soon, young Edward, son of the mason displayed such strength and agility that I thought it a waste for him to continue in his father's trade, and I had him trained as a squire instead. His skills in battle were such that only my own son, Emmot, ever paralleled them. Despite his low birth, young Edward earned his knighthood on the field, with blood and scars as badges of honor, and I dubbed him so. Now, at the ripe age of four and twenty, he is my ablest warrior. He has inherited his father's land within the walls, which of course, is truly my land, for everything belongs to me. Yet for all I have done for Sir Edward, for all my encouragement of his strength and bravery, he is still quite unfamiliar with the concept of loyalty."
"I am loyal, my lord. Bellaria and I fell in love."
"He seduced Bellaria-"
"'Twas not seduction. 'Twas love."
"-right inside my castle. When he sought her hand, I denied it, for an Anglo peasant is an Anglo peasant no matter to what rank he rises, and I would never bind my noble daughter to one."
"You would bind her to a man she did not want. She is a person, not a pawn."
"She is a woman. Her wants do not signify, and you swore allegiance to our family."
"Her wants signify to me, and I swore allegiance to you, my lord, not to him."
Lord Karles banged his fat fist against the wooden table, causing it to bounce on its legs. "It is me you have betrayed!"
"Nay, my lord." I spoke as evenly as possible. "I have not betrayed you, for I love your daughter. I adore her, and I will serve and offer you my eternal allegiance through her. You single me out as your finest knight and your strongest warrior. It was a title I once shared proudly with your son, Lord Emmot, whom I loved as kin. And though I am not your kin by blood, I will fight for you as if I am. I will fight for you and our king until my dying breath. My abilities up until now have been nothing compared to how I will serve you with Bellaria as wife. She will make me invincible, and that can only benefit you, my lord. Our sons will have my strength; our daughters will have her wit. You may acknowledge them or pass them over as heirs in favor of Lord Jakob; that is your choice, and neither Bellaria nor I will ever contest it. Either way, you will have their allegiance."
Lord Karles licked the grease off his fingers. "Do you deem this offer to be above that which Bellaria's marriage to my cousin would have yielded?"
"Can he offer you such strength and devotion? Can he swear to you that with Bellaria by his side, he will never stray nor disregard his loyalty to you in favor of a stronger baron with a larger fiefdom? I will swear it in blood. No man could ever offer you what I can because no man could ever love her as I do – with all my heart and soul."
For a long, interminable moment, the baron simply studied me. Out of my periphery, I saw Lord Jakob's hate-filled gaze, but I did not acknowledge it.
"It all comes back to matters of the heart, does it not, my young knight?"
"Indeed, it does, my lord," I nodded slowly.
"The heart...loyalty…blood, you have spoken of all three. Now let us test their ties."
With those words, Lord Karles gestured toward the doors sealing off the great hall. When the guards pulled open the heavy frames, Bellaria was dragged in.
She screamed and kicked her legs, struggling to free herself from the guards who held her bound. Behind her, Jasper, my apprentice was pushed in. His face was bloodied and bruised, and as I watched, a blow was delivered to his stomach with the hilt of a sword while he fought to free himself from his captors.
"My lord! My lord, they arrived under cover of darkness, in numbers and with swords drawn! They have slain the rest! Forgive me, my lord, for failing to defend my lady!"
As he shouted his regrets, my mind attempted to make sense of both his words and of the heinous sight before me.
Her name erupted from between my lips in part growl and part horror. In one motion, I lunged from the table and reached for my sword, but my hand came up empty.
As the guards rushed me, I smashed one in the face with my elbow and then another. I fisted the grill of another's helmet and rammed my knee into his groin, simultaneously relieving him of his sword before kicking him backward and into two more behind him. Swinging the sword, I slashed through the weak chinks in the chain mail of all three, slicing through their intestines. When the first two returned for me, I took their arms.
Many more I slew, but Lord Karles' guards fought together with those of Lord Jakob, and there were too many against one. They felled me in unison, disarming me and pushing my face into the cold stone of the castle's floor. Their knees dug into my spine while over a dozen arms and legs held me prone.
"No! No! Release her!" I howled as I struggled. "Release my wife!"
"Edward!" Bellaria cried. "I pray you all, do not harm him!" The sound of her pleas was like a lance speared through my heart and soul. "Edward!"
"Release her, or I will kill you all like animals! Let her go!"
I struggled in vain, for the harder I fought, the more were called to subdue me. Lifting my head, the only unbound part of my body, I watched them restrain my beautiful Bellaria while I thrashed like a beast in impotent savagery. They wrapped their filthy hands around her noble arms like manacles around a thief.
"By my troth, I will cut off every single one of your COCKS AND FEED THEM TO THE PIGS! RELEASE MY WIFE!"
Beside her, Jasper received a fiery beating, but it could not signify while my wife was constrained. Blinded by fury, I failed to note Lord Karles' presence until he was standing between my wife and I. He crouched low, his expression as serene as if he were watching the sun set behind the rolling hills.
"Do not distress yourself, Edward, son of the mason. You are unquestionably strong, yes, but you and your thirty men could not possibly match two armies combined. Do you see why your offer fails to be the better one? Now, there is no need for more bloodshed. I will release Bellaria as soon as you vow to renounce her. On her heart and soul, vow to me that you will renounce her as wife, as lover, and as any sort of companion, so that she may be free to marry Lord Jakob. Renounce her, and I will forgive your shared duplicity. It is as simple as that."
"You bastard, I will not!" I bellowed. When I tried to lunge for him, a medley of armored knees drove like spades into my back, chasing every last breath out of my lungs.
"No, Father!" Bellaria screamed. "I will never renounce my husband! I love him!"
"Love?" Lord Karles snorted derisively, shaking his head. "Ah, my daughter, you are young and naïve, but I shall open your eyes. Bring in Lady Cateline."
As I continued the struggle to free myself so that I could free my wife, the doors to the hall opened once more. In walked a noblewoman of lower birth than Bellaria, who up until our marriage, was my wife's lady-in-waiting and friend. Yet unlike my wife, Lady Cateline was not dragged in kicking, screaming, bound or confined in any way. She stopped when instructed, head bowed low. Nonetheless, I saw the tears which spilled over the stone floor and the terror in the way her body quivered.
"Sir Edward, as you know, Lady Cateline is a distant kin to me. She is a fair, young woman possessing a noble bloodline, with long flaxen hair, full breasts, and hips capable of carrying many fine, strong sons. But perhaps I need not laud her virtues to you, for I am told you have sampled them, have you not?"
"I have not. We are friends and nothing more!" I growled through clenched teeth.
"I am also told that a se'n night ago, after you were wed to my daughter, you were found behind the horse stables with your cock in Lady Cateline's mouth."
"That is a LIE!" I roared. "She was Bellaria's lady-in-waiting and friend to us both, nothing more! Cateline, speak!"
Lady Cateline cried silently, her shoulders shaking with her muffled sobs, but at no moment did she refute the baron's claims. Instead, from where I lay on the ground, I saw her mouth move around inaudible words, a prayer seemingly only for herself.
"They are lies, Father," Bellaria hissed. "I know what you attempt with your cruel lies, and it will not work. You will not shake my faith in my husband."
Lord Karles went on serenely. "Consider here carefully, Sir Edward. Even as Bellaria's lady-in-waiting, Cateline is still a noblewoman far above any expectations your father could have ever entertained for you while he lived. But you may have her. You may have her and in doing so, have this entire mess forgotten."
"I do not want her! I am married to Bellaria, and it is Bellaria I love!"
"We were married before God!" my wife added.
"Before God, you say?" He spoke to her, but his dark gaze remained on me. "Send in the priest."
Through a hazy fog of disbelief, I watched the castle priest meekly walk into the great hall and past the gathered crowd, who simply sat or stood by watching and waiting.
"Father Michel, four months ago, while I was away in London, you married my daughter to this traitor in the castle abbey. Now we wish to annul the marriage."
"For Christ's love," I choked. "You cannot do this!"
"No!" My wife hollered at the top of her lungs, fighting in vain to free herself. "I will not agree to it!"
"Father Michel, what need we to accomplish the annulment?"
The priest stuttered through his response. "You need…you…I need an assurance that the union was never consummated."
"We have consummated the marriage!" my wife screeched defiantly. "We have consummated it repeatedly and in every manner imaginable!"
Ignoring her, Lord Karles pressed the priest. "Father Michel, as lord of this castle and fiefdom, you have my assurance that their union has not been consummated. Now pronounce it annulled."
The priest swallowed. "I…If you wish it annulled, my lord, then…it is so."
"Nooo!" my wife screamed.
"NO! No, you cannot! She is my wife!" I howled. "She is mine for eternity! You can command your godforsaken priest to say and do what he will, but she will always be my wife! Neither of you possesses the power to separate what God has joined!"
Lord Karles turned around quickly and drove his heavy boot into my face. Bellaria screamed again as blood filled my vision, pooled within my mouth and nose, and then threatened to choke me. He crouched before me once more, fisting my hair in his beefy, greasy hand, yanking it until spots of light danced before my eyes.
"I possess the power to do all!" he spat through clenched teeth, his spittle spraying and mixing with my blood. "You swore allegiance, yet you went behind my back and disregarded my wishes, and not only as regards my daughter! I know how you and my son helped and fed the peasants with the hunt from my forests! His misplaced beneficence ended with him at the losing end of a boar's tusks, yet you continue the pointless acts of charity! You disgust me, you Anglo maggot! Did you truly believe I would allow this? Did you see yourself as lord of this fiefdom along with your bastards as heirs? Did you believe I would allow you to soil my noble bloodline whilst you use my daughter as your whore?"
"She is my wife, not my whore!"
"She is mine to do with as I wish! She is mine to use to increase my wealth and power! If I say she is your wife no more, then she is your wife no more! If I say she is still maiden, then maiden she is still! If I give her to Lord Jakob-"
"You cannot give me to Lord Jakob, for I am with child!"
Every remaining particle of air escaped the room in a rush, taking with it all sound and sense. No one moved. No one spoke.
"I am with child," Bellaria repeated through tears. Then she looked at me and smiled, her dark eyes sparkling. Despite everything, that moment was the happiest of my life. "I am with child, Edward - our child."
"Bellaria…" I choked. "We will have a child."
"No, you will not."
Lord Karles pulled out his dagger, and I waited for him to slice me and make my wife widow. Instead, he stood and lunged for Bellaria, slashing her throat from end to end and freezing her features in a smile distorted by the blood, which rushed from her long gash. The crimson fluid dripped onto the floor like dark wine spilling from one of her father's goblets.
Somewhere, a woman's scream was quickly silenced.
I prayed for madness. I begged any being from above or below to steal away my senses, for I could not exist with the knowledge of what my eyes beheld. I could not live with the image of my wife's knees buckling as she crumbled to the cold, hard stone ground like a marionette without a puppeteer. My wife…the mother of my child.
"Release him," Lord Karles ordered sedately.
On hands and knees I crawled, slipping on her warm, thick blood. When I slid my arms under her and cradled her body against mine, she looked up at me through dull, glazed eyes - eyes once so dark and expressive.
"You did this to her, Sir Edward. When you took her as wife, you sealed your fate. When she refused to renounce you, she sealed her own. Her blood is on your hands, not mine."
"I am sorry," I sobbed, palming and staining her smooth, pale cheek. "I am sorry, my Bellaria."
She opened her mouth, but only blood poured forth.
"Wait for me, my wife." My words were garbled by the tears streaming down my face, yet I prayed she understood. "Wait for me as you promised - as always…for always. I will find you, Bellaria, wherever you go, and we will be together for eternity."
A small smile spread across her ensanguined mouth as her eyelids fluttered closed, and…she left this world.
For a long while, there was naught but silence in the great hall. Then sounds erupted which were not human, wails of agony so torturous they were like a thousand arrows to the soul. Rocking my wife in my arms, I did not immediately realize they were emitted by me. I threw back my head and cursed the heavens.
The guards did not expect it. I moved so swiftly that one was not able to defend his sword, and I unsheathed it, swinging in an arc and beheading him. Limbs quaking, I sliced through the air, taking various limbs with me in my search for Lord Karles' head. But grief toyed with my aim, and as he shifted, I took his right hand instead - the hand with which he murdered my beloved wife and our unborn child…his daughter and his grandchild. Screaming like a maiden, he fell to his knees and grabbed his bloodied stump.
In the confusion, Jasper freed himself and secured a weapon, cutting through two more guards before a sword ran him through from lungs to heart. Jasper of the white locks fell to his knees, crumbling to the ground as my wife did. The remaining guards surrounded me, the sharp tips of their swords all aimed at my now empty chest.
"Forgive my failure, my lord…Edward," Jasper pleaded with his last breaths.
"I dub thee, Lord Jasper, my truest knight."
When his eyes closed, I turned away from him and toward the rest.
"Mark me well, all in this room: God's teeth upon you, for in this life or the next, you will all pay for this evil - from the faithless priest to the simplest flute players to you, Lord Karles, the high-necked fowl." I swiped my blood-soaked hand across my face and cheeks, mixing it with my own blood, then down my neck and over my breast while those in attendance inhaled sharply. "I am no longer bound by man or god. Her blood will be my strength, and my soul will not rest until I finish all of you. That, my lord, is a vow I will not break."
Lord Karles did not cease whimpering and moaning on his knees like a whore, cradling his bloody stump to his fat chest. When I sliced off my right hand, the people convulsed in an uproar.
"My right hand is now gone in every way, as is yours. Either face me like a man on even ground or give the command to kill me, for I cannot live this life long without her."
"I will give the command, Sir Edward," he breathed raggedly. "I will give the command. Kill him."
I did not feel the multiple blades plunging into me as a physical pain - more like relief. It spread and intensified with every consecutive thrust, for soon I would be with my wife. With only vague awareness remaining, I was hefted up and carried out of the castle. In the dark of night, while the full moon's many eyes kept watch, they threw me into a horse-drawn cart and deposited me in a pit far beyond the walls. There I was left for the woodland beasts to feed on me like carrion.
As I lay dying, I recalled her screams, her pleading, her defiant cries. They grew louder and louder in my head, sharpened in their emotion, so fiery they burned through me like hot pokers staked through my heart. They continued on and on until I wondered and then begged for their end. I began to doubt I would ever meet with her. I believed the unimaginable agony in my head and chest would never cease. The excruciating burn within my soul would never recede.
It took me time to realize that the painful howls were not memories of her...but cries from me for mercy. It took me time to see that the jagged holes left in me were no more and that my right hand was no longer missing. It took me time to see that I was no longer in the wooded forest, and both Jasper…and Emmot, were uninjured and beside me.
It took me time to realize all these things because the first thing I felt as I awoke….my first instinct…my most immediate need….
…was to quench the ravenous thirst growing like a voracious leach deep within my throat.
So when I said dark…
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See you guys next Monday. Enjoy the rest of your Halloween.