A/N: I can't decide what to write next, so I'm going to post the first chapter/synopsis of a few stories, and wait one week to see which one gets the best response. There is a poll set up on my profile page.
The following is based off an old fairy tale of the same name.
The Selkie Wife
By Lissa Bryan
There were many who felt that Edward, Duke of Cullen, had gone mad since the death of his wife. Certainly, his behavior had launched a tidal wave of gossip. He'd dismissed most of his household and closed his doors to visitors. His manor house stood practically empty. Its great hall used to ring with laughter and the minstrel's music at the nightly feasts, but now echoed with only the sounds of his lonely footsteps.
Particularly odd was his habit of walking. His tenants reported seeing him all over his lands, alone, on foot. That a member of the nobility would go anywhere unattended was bizarre, but on foot? He wasn't hunting. He wasn't surveying his lands. He just wandered aimlessly, his eyes on the ground, lost in whatever thoughts it was that tormented him.
Edward wasn't mad, but he was compelled. When the memories swooped at him like angry birds protecting their nest, all he could do was walk.
He'd lost his wife, Mary, two years ago in childbed. They'd been married since shortly after his fifteenth birthday, a rare love match. he had known from a very young age that he was betrothed to Mary and the very first time he saw her, at the wedding, he knew that he would love this woman until the day he died. Over the ten happy years they had been together, the only dark spot was Mary's inability to give him an heir. He had resigned himself that they would be childless, that Emmett and any children he had would inherit the title. Mary suffered miscarriage after miscarriage. He could see how they weakened he and he tried to abstain from her bed, but Mary was a loving woman and very ... persuasive in that regard. And miracle of miracles, her final pregnancy had held. They were to be blessed, finally, with an heir. His joy was now a bitter memory. He should never have touched her.
Two days after the birth of his daughter, Mary was dead of fever and so was his heart.
The baby was a girl. Edward was the recipient of much pity. That his wife had died was sad, but it was worse that the baby she had died from birthing was a girl. A girl was naught but a drain on a family, who had to clothe her according to their station and provide a dowry to marry her off. The only way a girl could benefit the family was if her marriage brought useful connections.
Edward had held his daughter for the first time after the funeral and he was tempted to hate her, to blame her for her mother's death, but he simply couldn't. Elizabeth was so sweet and lovely. She looked like Mary, but instead of Mary's blond hair or Edward's auburn, little Elizabeth had brown, curly hair, probably inherited from her grandmother, just like Emmett's. She had been bundled in her swaddling bands, her limbs wrapped tightly in white cloth to ensure that she grew up with straight limbs and all he could see of her was that tiny face, a replica of her mother's. How could he not love her?
Edward's steward, James, already had a wet-nurse hired for the baby. (Even had she lived, Mary would not have nursed her own child.) Often, people sent the baby to live with the nurse until the child was old enough to be weaned, but Edward refused that suggestion.
Rosalie came from a good family, the daughter of a minor lord who had gambled away all of his wealth and left his family impoverished. Rosalie's husband and infant son had died in a house fire, leaving her homeless and destitute, and deeply grateful for the position of caring for Elizabeth. Edward had thought she was an excellent choice, especially since her child had been a boy. The milk of women who had boys was said to be stronger.
But something was missing. Poor little Elizabeth clung to her father when he went to visit her in the nursery. Rosalie was not the maternal sort and Elizabeth was starved for affection.
He should remarry. His young cousin, the king, had tried to arrange matches for Edward until the day he'd died, a month ago. Edward was wealthy, close to the throne by blood, and had no male heir, a situation which could not be allowed to continue. But Elizabeth needed a mother, and he would not gain one through a cold, calculated dynastic match.
He'd gotten word yesterday that the young king's sister, Mary, had deposed Jane Grey. It was what Edward had expected to happen. Jane was unknown to the people and had little support. Most people felt that Mary was the rightful heir and the young king should never have tried disinheriting his sisters and leaving the throne to his cousin. The dying young king had worried that Mary would undo all of his Protestant reforms, and he was right. But he had no legal right to name Jane as his heir, since his father Henry VIII had established the succession through an Act of Parliament that couldn't be overturned by a simple will. Despite the fact that the people were leery in regards to Mary's fervent Catholicism, they felt she had a moral right to the throne and rose to her call when she marched to London, an army of peasants armed with pitchforks and scythes.
Edward sighed. He liked Jane. She had once been proposed as a wife for him, but Jane's mother had higher ambitions than a duke. Jane was quiet and studious, with deep Protestant convictions, which is why the young king had attempted to leave his throne to her instead of his sister. She didn't have much of a sense of humor, but life had given Jane Grey very little to laugh about. Her parents, her mother especially, were abusive, and Edward was pretty sure that Jane's new husband was, too. They had forced the girl into accepting the crown, but what they hadn't expected was that once Jane took it, she would assert her independence by refusing to crown her husband as king.
Now, she sat in the Tower, Mary's prisoner. Mary had written to Edward that she had no intention of executing Jane because she understood quite well that the girl's treason had been unwilling. She would keep her imprisoned in the Tower until things were settled and then quietly release her to return to her life in the country with her beloved books.
Edward carefully picked his way down the steep path to the beach, one of his favorite places on the estate. There was something about the constant, ungovernable nature of the sea which quieted his soul. Men scurried about, worrying about their petty troubles and the sea cared not one bit. It had been there for thousands of years before his time and it would be there thousands of years in the future, its waves still pounding the shore.
He froze in his tracks when he heard something. He cocked his head. Yes, there it was again. The sound of a laugh. Pirates? he wondered. Piracy and smugglers had always been a problem on this part of the coast. Edward shifted his hand down to his belt and clasped the jeweled handle of his knife.
He followed the faint thread of sound. There was a tiny peninsula which jutted out into the water, with high rocks in the center. Edward slipped to the end and peeked around. Shock made his jaw drop, froze him in his tracks.
Two nude women were sunning themselves on the rocks, their creamy skin gleaming in the warm sunlight. Edward couldn't look away from the mesmerizing sight. He'd never even seen his wife completely unclothed. The smaller of the two had long, dark brown hair, which the other woman was combing for her.
As he watched, a gray seal popped out of the water, its clumsy body flopping on the stone beside the women. To his astonishment, the seal seemed to split down some invisible seam and another naked woman appeared.
Selkies! Edward had heard the stories, of course, but had never imagined seeing one. Had he been born a few hundred years later, Edward would have questioned his sanity at what he was seeing, but he lived in an age in which the existence of witches, demons, sea-monsters, ghosts and fae-folk was widely accepted.
The selkies' realm was supposed to be far to the north of here, in the cold seas off the coats of Ireland and Denmark. Selkies were shape-shifters, some said sea fairies, others said the souls of those who had drowned. They were supposed to be immortal, never aging once they reached maturity. Their pelts were what allowed for the transformation. If their pelt were lost or destroyed, the selkie would be trapped in human form, and if it were stolen, they were beholden to their captor until it was willingly returned. Beautiful when in that human form, they were said to have great powers of seduction over mortals. The men were supposed to be incredible lovers, the answer to the prayers of many a dissatisfied wife and lonely spinster, summoned by shedding seven tears into the sea. The women were said to be excellent wives and mothers because of their gentle nature, but for both male and female, their first love would always be the sea and they could pine away for it if kept trapped on land for too long.
Strange, he thought, that beings who could live forever might die of grief. Time and sickness could not fell them, but their emotions could.
The new arrival had gray hair flecked with black, matching the pelt she had worn as a seal. She held it dangling from one hand as she greeted the other women. He watched as she folded it carefully and tucked it into a crevice in the rocks.
The women embraced, chattering excitedly. The one with the dark hair leaned back her head, a dreamy expression on her face. Edward was captivated by her beauty, her lushly rounded figure and that dark sable hair that streamed over the rock beneath her. One of the women pointed to the beach and gestured to the others, who jumped to their feet and scampered off with her to play in the edge of the surf, as innocent and unconcerned with their nudity as Adam and Eve must have been before the Fall.
A thought echoed in Edward's mind. Excellent wives and mothers. His breath caught. This could be the solution. He could capture himself a selkie wife to care for Elizabeth and would no longer have to figure out a way to politely refuse marriage offers. When Elizabeth was old enough, he could release the selkie woman and claim that she had died, leaving him an eligible widower once more. His heart pounded in excitement.
He crept closer to where he had seen the gray-haired woman stash her pelt, keeping one eye on the frolicking women, lest they catch him in the act. He found the crevice and pulled out the gray pelt. A small part of him had hoped he would find the one which belonged to the dark-haired woman and at the bottom of the pile, he saw one which matched her sable hair. It was amazingly light and small and as warm as a living thing. He couldn't resist stroking the silken-soft hair with his fingers. Such a little thing, not much larger than a dinner napkin. How did she fit inside it? Magic, he supposed, the magic of the fae-folk.
He put the others back and tucked the dark sable pelt inside his doublet. He crept carefully down from the rocks and took a seat on the sand to watch them play. He envied them. They had the carefree innocence of children, playing in the afternoon sunshine. When had been the last time he genuinely enjoyed something? He didn't recall ever playing as they were, for even as a small child, he had felt the weight of his responsibilities.
The women chased and splashed each other, giggling, diving and rolling in the gray waves, flashes of creamy skin in the gray water. The gulls circled and cried overhead, swooping to join in their games. The dark-haired woman jumped and caught one, releasing it with a laugh when it lolled in her arms. The bird took off again, soaring up into the sky to turn and dive at her. She sank beneath the waves and leapt at it in an explosion of water. It veered off at the last second and she fell back into the water, laughing. What a beautiful sound that was.
The sun was settling low in the sky when they finally tired and returned to the rocks to retrieve their pelts. One of the women spotted him and gasped, pointing. In a flash, the pelts were snatched from their hiding places and donned. Two seals slipped into the sea, but the dark haired woman was left behind. She frantically searched for her pelt, patting inside the crevice and searching the rocks below, her huge dark eyes watching warily as he approached. A seal's head broke the water a few yards out, a heartbreaking cry came from it, seeing its friend still standing on the rocks, a look of panic twisting on her features.
Edward approached slowly, his hands held out to his sides. "Fear not, Selkie. I will not harm you."
She let out a whimper and redoubled her search efforts, her hands scrabbling at the rock as if it would open to reveal safety.
"I have your pelt," he announced.
She sat as if her knees had given out. "Please," she whispered. "Please, give it back to me." Her huge, dark eyes pleaded with him.
"No, I think not." He studied her for a moment.
"I'll do whatever you ask of me," she said. "Please, just give it back."
He shook his head and tears pooled in her eyes. "I have need of you," he said.
She eyed his doublet as if she could see her pelt hidden below, but even he knew that she wasn't able to take it back. Once it had been stolen by a mortal, the pelt had to be willingly returned by the one who took it.
"What is your name?" he asked.
She looked confused for a moment. "I don't have a name-word."
How could they communicate without having names, he wondered. "I'll call you 'Bella'," he declared, for she was beautiful, like the untamed sea from whence she came. Isabella had been the name of Queen Katherine's mother, he remembered. He'd simply claim she was Italian or Spanish.
"Follow me," he ordered. He led her to the base of the cliff below his house and removed his doublet, revealing the loose white linen shirt he wore below. She gave a soft cry when she spotted her pelt, but he kept a firm grip on it. He handed her the doublet. "Put this on, Bella." He couldn't bring a naked woman back to the house. She stared at it in confusion, so he took it from her and draped it over her shoulders, threading her arms through its sleeves and fastened the gold frogs up the front. The doublet hung only to her thighs and she somehow looked even more naked wearing it than she had in naught but her skin. Her arms were swallowed up by its sleeves and the high collar poked up past her chin. She looked like a frightened child and he felt a strange stab of guilt, which he pushed away hastily.
He took the journey back to the house in stages, hiding his new selkie wife behind trees, the gate, a parked wagon, to try to avoid being spotted from the house. He opened the servants' side door and nudged her inside after checking to ensure the path was clear. He led her up the narrow steps, tugging at her hand whenever she slowed to stare at unfamiliar objects. Had she ever been in a house before? Edward wondered.
He took her into the lady's chambers, the rooms his wife had occupied. Dim, dusty and disused, the rooms had a grim, forgotten air to them. He went to the chest in the corner and used the key on his belt to unlock it. He had to take a deep breath and close his eyes for a moment when he saw one of Mary's gowns, his favorite, folded on the top layer. It was a moss-green velvet, the bodice cut lower than was currently fashionable, but it would have to do until he could clothe Bella properly. He tucked the separate sleeves back inside the trunk. She had no lady in waiting to sew them on and it never crossed his mind to do it himself.
"Put this on," he ordered, pushing the gown into her hands. He unlocked the second chest, which held chemises, stays and stockings, his back to Bella to allow her modesty. She would be improperly naked beneath the gown, but he didn't want to overwhelm her, nor have to play ladies' maid in assisting her.
He turned back in a few minutes and saw that she had donned the gown backwards and was tugging with a grimace at the constricting cloth over her chest. He sighed. "Pull your arms inside," he said, and tugged it around on her body until it was facing the proper direction. Mary had been larger than Bella and the gown fit loosely, pooling on the floor at her feet.
"Stay here," he commanded. "Don't touch anything."
She nodded, tears reappearing in those dark, limpid eyes. He felt another irrational surge of guilt, and it made him slam the door behind him as he left. He went in search of his younger brother, Emmett, hoping, but not expecting, to find him home. Usually, Emmett was out drinking and whoring by this time of the day. Edward sighed. It was something he really ought to address, but he simply hadn't had the energy. Emmett had always had a wild streak, but since Mary's death, and his brother's subsequent neglect, Emmett's behavior had gotten a lot worse.
He was pleased when Emmett opened his bed chamber's door after Edward knocked, but not as pleased to find Emmett swaying on his feet in a cloud of alcoholic fumes. "I have something to show you," Edward said.
"Oh?" replied Emmett, without much interest. He shut the door behind him as he stepped out into the hall.
"I found someth- someone," Edward said, correcting himself in mid-sentence. "A girl."
Now, Emmett was interested. "Good to see you returning to your old self," he commented. "I've been worried for you."
"It's not that," Edward said impatiently. "I'm going to make her my new wife."
Emmett blinked. "Congratulations. Who is she? The Earl of Hale's daughter? I know he's been pushing you to accept her."'
"No, she's ..." Edward hesitated. "She's a selkie maiden."
Emmett burst out laughing. "You had me going for a moment, there. It is good to hear you jest again. I was beginning to worry that you'd buried your sense of humor with your wife."
Emmett blinked. "Perhaps you should start from the beginning."
Edward told him about spotting the nude women on the beach. "No wonder you like to walk there," Emmett said, with the air of someone who has solved an irritating mystery.
"This is the first time I've ever seen them," Edward replied. He pulled the pelt from inside his doublet and handed it to his brother. Emmett stroked it, turning it over and over in his hands, and Edward felt a bizarre spurt of jealously which he roughly squashed. "It seems like an ordinary fur," Emmett commented.
"Aye, and a small one at that," Edward agreed. "Yet, I saw it with my own eyes. The other women donned their pelts and turned into seals right before me. The one I took belonged to Bella."
"That's what I'm calling her. She has no other name, or so she says."
Emmett considered. "I've heard that the fae-folk don't like to tell others their names, for they say it gives others power over them."
That made more sense that not having one. The poor lass was already in his power, so perhaps she feared giving him anything more to hold over her head. "What do you know of selkies?" he asked his brother. They headed down the hall toward the lady's chambers, Emmett still weaving a bit from his over-indulgence in ale.
"They're said to be kind-hearted and they make excellent wives," recited Emmett. "And they have great powers to tempt a man with their flesh."
Edward considered. He'd certainly been attracted to her before she had even known he was watching. If she focused that power intentionally on him ... He found that he wasn't exactly opposed to the idea and was faintly surprised. He hadn't had the appetites of a man since Mary had died.
He opened the door of the lady's chambers and found Bella exactly where he'd left her, her hands clasped around her arms. She was shivering though the room was not cold. She looked from him to Emmett, her eyes growing even larger when she took in the sight of his brother. Edward knew that the sight of Emmett could sometimes be disconcerting. His size alone was enough to intimidate, even without the scar that branched across his cheek. Emmett was looking carefully elsewhere. He'd learned not to watch people's initial reaction to his appearance.
"Bella, this is Emmett, my brother," Edward told her. "If I am not here, you are to obey him as you would obey me."
"You can't leave her in here," Emmett said, his eyes flicking around the dismal room. "You need to have this chamber cleaned and aired."
Edward felt irritated. That meant she would have to stay in his room, for none of the others were prepared to receive guests. This was already turning out to be more trouble than he had expected. "Follow," he said to Bella and headed for his own chamber. She froze int he doorway, her eyes huge and round. "Come," he commanded, gesturing at her to enter.
She shook her head, her hand going to her throat.
"She's afraid," Emmett said.
"I won't hurt you." Edward took hold of her arm (her skin is so soft!) and tried to pull her inside. Bella clamped her hands around the door frame and refused to budge, and her eyes had the same look as the doe he had brought down during his last hunting trip. "What's wrong?" he demanded.
She was staring at the fireplace. He tried to see what it was that alarmed her so, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary to him.
"Fire!" Emmett said, clapping his hands when the answer occurred to him. "Selkies are afraid of fire. I'd forgotten."
"It's contained," Edward said impatiently. "It won't hurt you." He put his arms around her and dragged her inside. Bella's soft, warm body wiggling against his woke hungers that he hadn't felt in years, so he released her as soon as possible. She bolted for the door. "God's teeth!" Edward muttered. What was he going to do now? Tie her to the bed? (That had interesting possibilities that he'd never before considered.)
"Fret not, little selkie," Emmett said cheerfully and seized his water pitcher, flinging the contents on the flames. The room went dim and Bella visibly relaxed.
"You're going to have to get used to being around fire," Edward warned. "These old stone keeps get cool at night, and I won't live in darkness just to indulge you."
"You might have to," Emmett said, lowering his voice to a level only Edward was intended to hear. "The more stress she feels in her new life, the more likely she is to pine away for the sea. She could die."
"Your grace?" Rosalie, Elizabeth's nurse, tapped at the door. "Supper has been-" She cut off, staring at the new arrival.
"This is Lady Cullen," Edward said. "My new wife."
Rosalie blinked at him.
"Yes, we married very suddenly," Edward babbled, trying to come up with a lie on the spot. "I've been waiting for her to arrive from her homeland to announce our marriage."
"Your Grace," Rosalie said, sinking into a curtsey.
Bella stared at her.
"She ... ah, she has different customs than we do," Edward explained.
Rosalie said nothing.
"She, um, she is from the New World," Edward said as an idea rapidly formed in his mind, "brought back on one of the Spanish ships. In her land, she is a princess." This last bit was a flash of inspiration. He did not want his new wife to be an object of derision and if people felt she was of sufficiently high rank, she would be spared at least some of it. In a time when a letter could take months to reach its destination, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to be able to disprove his story. There had been cases in which people pretended to be royalty for years before anyone caught on, and Edward intended to keep his new selkie wife hidden away from the eyes of the public as much as possible.
"Let's go to supper, shall we?" Edward said, extending his arm to Bella. She took it, watching Rosalie timidly from under her lashes. Oddly enough, Rosalie seemed to scare her more than Emmett had.
Edward looked at Rosalie who stared pointedly at Bella's bare arms.
"Oh! Yes, perhaps you should assist Her Grace."
Rosalie was not happy about it, but she took the sleeves when Edward retrieved them for her and swiftly attached them, muttering all the while about Bella's scandalous lack of undergarments. It was beneath the dignity of a duke to acknowledge the muttering of a servant and Rosalie frequently used this method to air her views. Bella stood as still as a statue. Edward didn't think she even breathed. As soon as Rosalie had finished she bolted over to Edward, as if he offered some sort of safety.
The high table in the great hall had been set as it was every night, guests or no, with the finest of Edward's silver. Beside his plate sat the gold goblet which had been a wedding gift from his uncle, Henry VIII. The seat to his right had been set with Emmett's favorite goblet, which Edward hastily switched for the one on his left, the seat Emmet would occupy now that Edward had a new wife to take the honored position.
He pulled out the chair for Bella and motioned her to sit. She obeyed, but looked very uncomfortable, as if she weren't used to utilizing such strange furniture. She gaped at the table's centerpiece, a mountain of flowers on which a gilt bird cage was perched, containing two live birds. Bella appeared to sympathize with their plight.
The servants brought in the first dish, a haunch of veal that had soaked overnight in salt and spices. It was covered with a sugary pomegranate sauce with juicy plums. One of Edward's favorites. Accompanying it was an eel pie, a roasted peacock, covered in gilt, its feathers artistically replaced, and a roasted chicken that had been stuffed with a dove that had, in turn, been stuffed with a lark. Edward had a skilled carver, who could deliver a slice containing flesh from all three birds.
"Mmm, brewet!" Emmett said as a dish of thinly sliced meat caramelized in cinnamon was presented. "You'd best get a serving now," Edward advised Bella. "Emmett has been known to eat the entire dish himself."
Through the three courses of the meal, over twenty dishes would be served. The nobles would have a small bit from each of their favorites; some dishes went untouched. After the family had finished eating, the higher-ranked servants would have their meal from it, and the leftovers would continue to be passed down until the entire household had eaten, ending with the "broken meats" being distributed to the poor who lined up at the kitchen door in hopes of a meal.
A large fish was brought out, beautifully posed in blue aspic, its scales gilded and its mouth stuffed with figs. The server sat it on the table in front of Bella, whose face was one of slowly dawning horror. She let out a choked cry, pressing her hands over her mouth. Tears welled in her eyes. She jumped up and grabbed the fish off the platter and ran for the door. The servants stared at her retreating form, then bent their heads to whisper. Edward ground his teeth. This was why he had reduced his household.
Emmett burst into laughter. "Maybe it was a friend," he gasped.
"This isn't funny, Emmett," Edward said, rising to follow his strange little bride. The guilt returned, and with it came an equally strange desire to protect this poor creature from distress. He had done enough harm as it was, stealing her away from her life, her family. A terrible thought occurred to him: what if she had a selkie husband? Children? He hadn't asked.
But why should he care? She wasn't a person. She probably didn't even have a soul. She certainly wasn't Christian because no Christian woman would play naked in the surf on a beach. That would be something he had to correct and fast. Queen Mary was bound to bring England back into the Catholic church and she was eager to stamp out heresy.
He followed Bella down he steep, thin path to the beach. He found her on her knees, sobbing, burying the roasted fish in the sand. He crouched down beside her as she patted the mound of sand over the small grave. "Bella, can you explain to me why you were so upset?"
"All of the dead things," she whispered. "Dead things everywhere. Decorated. And you were going to eat them."
"You don't eat meat?"
She shook her head.
"Surely you see creatures in the sea which eat others."
She stared out at the expanse of water with longing written in her eyes. "Yes, that is the cycle of life, but they do not ... dress up and parade the poor things."
He could see that she was struggling to find the right words to express what had troubled her so. It was the macabre, festive presentation of the dishes, the birds re-adorned with their feathers, fruits stuffed in their mouths.
"I will have to tell my cook to prepare more vegetable dishes for you," Edward said. "I'm sorry it bothered you, but this is something you will simply have to get used to. I am a duke. Do you understand what that means?"
"Well, it entails a great deal of pageantry, even when I dine only with my family. And and furthermore, being a noble means a great deal of people watching your every move. You cannot do something like this again, Bella. The people will forgive a bit of eccentricity because they believe you are from a far-off land with different customs, but you must try to adapt to life here."
"You won't let me go," she said in a small voice, her eyes still affixed to the sea.
"No. I need you. I have a daughter, Elizabeth, who needs a mother badly. That is why I took you as my wife." The guilt was back and it made him awkward. "I ... I will try to be a good husband to you, try to make you happy," he offered. "I won't make you ... that is, I will not force my ... ah ... attentions on you."
"But you will let me go?" she insisted.
"After Elizabeth is old enough to not need a mother," he agreed.
"Do you swear it?" she asked. Her eyes shifted from the sea to lock with his and he had the feeling that this was no ordinary promise. She was binding him to a vow. Edward's spine tingled in warning. A promise made to the fae-folk was not to be taken lightly.
"I swear it," he said and felt a strong breeze ruffle his hair.