Disclaimer: I own nothing but Cloakward's cloak and a guilty conscience for taking so long to post. The rest belongs to Stephanie Meyer.
A/N: This chapter is for Packy Pie from Twitter who was so sweet I couldn't not update for her.
Thanks for all the alerts for the story. I'll do my best to update more consistently but real life is a demanding mistress who never leaves me alone. Thank you for your patience. :)
Servatis A Maleficum
I slept fitfully, my rest disturbed repeatedly by disturbing images of a faceless woman, who ceased to be a stranger the moment I awoke. It was painfully clear who she was to my conscious mind as the scenes from my nightmares played over and over. I cringed as I finally redressed in my uniform, pulling the tunic emblazoned with the Royal Standard over my chain mail. The only way I could dispel the anxiety that had built up in my chest was to see her again, to try to force myself to believe that the flashing pictures of her being tortured were not real.
Shivering, I pulled on my cloak and shrunk into its warmth, knowing that as cold as I was now, it was going to be so much worse when I got back down to the dungeons.
Thinking of the cold, dank prisons immediately shifted my thoughts once again to the single prisoner under my guard. I had yet to see her face, but it was plain that she was small and completely at our mercy. If she really was a witch, why didn't she use her craft to free herself, to get away from the situation she found herself in?
Lost in my thoughts, I barely noticed the passage of time as I sat on the end of my new bed, until the deep tolling of the bell reminded me that I was due back on duty and had almost no idea how to find my way back to the dungeons.
Navigating my way back was more difficult that I'd imagined, until I spotted a familiar tapestry and, sighing with relief, managed to find my way with some daylight still to spare.
The cells looked ever so slightly less menacing and a tiny bit more pleasant in the fading daylight that managed to find its way down there, but the small stool I had spent the night occupying looked less than appealing so I stood and waited for any sign of movement on the stairs. I was eventually rewarded by the familiar clanking sounds and then the sight of two unfamiliar guards with the prisoner, once again restrained and hooded, carried between them. A third guard, walking behind them, stepped around and opened up her cell, then the guard who held her simply dropped her to the ground where she landed with a painful thud but made no other sound. It wasn't until they stepped back that I realised why. She was unconscious.
The restraints remained on her wrists and ankles, but the hood had been removed from her head. Seeing her face for the first time, I wanted to cry. Her pale skin was marred by painful looking cuts and her right eye was swollen almost completely shut with an ugly bruise flowering above it. Dressed only in a torn shift, it was easy to see that it was not only her face that had been hurt. Her arms were a patchwork of bruises and I could see raw, red marks around her wrists where the manacles had been forced on too tightly.
The keys were roughly thrust into my hands by a young looking guard. "You'll want to get the restraints off her before she wakes," he offered as parting advice before they left me alone with her once more.
"Right," I said to myself and the emptiness around me. "Right."
I stepped forward cautiously, unlocking the cell as silently as I could and stepping in, pulling the door closed behind me but not locking it. The last thing I wanted was to be locked in a cell with a witch, if indeed that's what she was.
Crouching down, I fumbled with the keys, starting at every sound her unconscious body made. I tried each key in the locks of her ankle restraints until I found the one that fitted. The thick, unyielding metal jumped apart with a click that echoed off the walls and I pulled the irons free of her legs that almost immediately curled up towards her body, as though she was protecting herself, even while unconscious. I shuddered at the sight of dried blood that had run down her legs, trying hard not to think about what could have caused it as I moved up to her wrists, working to find the key to free them. As I did, I could see her face more clearly and could have wept at the sight.
Her lips were dry and painfully chapped, as though she hadn't had enough water to drink, and the small areas of pale skin on her cheeks that remained un-marred were dry and peeling. Her eyes were pulled tightly together in a frown, even while unconscious and there were dried tear-tracks running down both her cheeks.
"I'm sorry," I whispered, my finger reaching out and tracing her sore lips absent mindedly. Witch or not, and there was no guarantee that she was, nobody deserved to be treated this way.
Seeing her shivering gently, I felt compelled to remove my warm cloak, forsaking my own comfort for the night, and wrapped it around her small body carefully. She began to stir as I pillowed her head on the blanket she had hidden behind the previous night and, at the small comfort, the tiniest smile appeared on her lips before the painful chapping caused her to wince and woke her sharply.
One eye flashed open immediately, the other straining against its swelling to open, too, and I was held in her gaze for the longest moment before I remembered Alec's words of the previous night and instantly averted my eyes.
I could feel her watching me as I slowly backed out of the cell and locked it behind me, keeping my gaze firmly on her covered body and not the eyes that seemed to scream to me for help. As much as I wanted to, I couldn't see a witch lying there. All I could see was a young woman who was beyond terrified and in more pain than I could possibly imagine.
The moment I sat down, tentatively, on the small stool, she began to attempt to move, her eyes still fixed on me as though she expected me to stop her. Each movement she made was followed by a soft yelp and her whole body seemed to wince in pain. At each pained whimper, her eyes shot up to mine, as though awaiting some admonishment for the sounds.
"It's okay," I offered in a whisper that seemed to freeze her whole body in alarm. "You can stay there. I won't hurt you, I promise."
Telling myself to stop being a coward, I forced my eyes to meet hers once again, and saw no evil there, only fear and distrust.
"You have my word," I reiterated, realising that promises probably meant very little to somebody in her position. She continued to watch me warily, but allowed her head to fall back down onto the make-shift pillow I improvised for her and pulled my cloak up more tightly around her, still shivering in the cold.
"Will you tell me your name?" I ventured, wondering if maybe some conversation would make the night go by faster. Her eyes remained on me but she didn't utter a word. Her expression was more one of confusion than anything else.
"I'm Edward," I offered hopefully, nodding and holding out my hand to her to tell her it was okay to speak, but that small movement made her flinch away so violently that I immediately retracted it.
I was just giving up hope of her providing me with any sort of company and resigning myself to another night of counting bricks when the smallest whisper of sound uttered from her lips. It was so quiet that I barely heard it but, encouraged, I sat forward, and asked her to repeat herself.
"Isabella, sir." Her voice was soft but I heard her this time. Her eyes had finally left mine and were looking instead at the stone ceiling above her, an expression of hopelessness filling every corner of her countenance.
"Isabella." I turned the name over and over on my tongue, earning myself confused glances from the cell. "Forgive me, miss, but you don't exactly look like a witch." I was on dangerous ground; I knew that. But as tired as I was, I couldn't stop the words from tumbling out of my mouth.
She didn't answer that, merely looked at me curiously, with confusion written all over her face, almost incredulity.
"Yes," I said with a laugh, reading her expression since she didn't appear inclined to speak. "I suppose you're right. What do witches look like?"
I couldn't be certain in the dim light, but I would swear that I saw the hint of a smile twitch at the corners of her mouth at that. Maybe she didn't look like a witch, but I was starting to see how people could believe themselves bewitched by her. I was certainly having trouble taking my eyes off her. Was that what they were warning me of? Was she enchanting me right now? Was she casting her spell over me, lulling me into thinking she was harmless so she was able to overpower me easily when an opportunity struck?
Almost as though she could read my thoughts in my eyes, the smile dropped from her face as quickly as it had appeared and I cringed with her as she attempted to roll to her other side, to face away from me. I stood, almost from instinct, as she turned her back on me and heard a frightened little whimper as she curled even more tightly into herself.
I deflated slightly, my shoulders sagging as I realised that I had both offended and frightened away my potential company for the evening.
About to drop back onto the stool, resigned to another night of dull solitude, I stiffened at the sound of voices at the top of the stairs then footsteps making their way down towards us. A sudden scuffling from the cell beside me caught my attention and when I looked, Isabella was standing, her eyes averted to the ground my cloak held out to me in a shaking hand.
"What?" I questioned, confused and conscious of the footsteps coming closer.
"Please," she begged, her good eye flashing to me, pleading with me. "Please. You must take it. Please."
Unable to bear the desperation in her voice, I took the cloak from her outstretched hand and watched as she retreated fearfully back into the shadows. My eyes stayed on her, alarmed at the terror in her expression until the footsteps landed at the bottom of the steps.
A young woman stood there, carrying a small tray with a plate of bread and cheese, a small wooden cup and a pitcher of water. Hesitating, she looked around before spotting the stool, where she deposited the tray, offering me a small smile. Amazed by her friendliness, the first I had experienced since arriving there from anybody but the person I was sent to guard, I almost forgot to thank her. She was already making her way up the stairs when I remembered myself.
"Thank you," I said, causing her to turn on the steps and face me with a smile. "Thank you...," I said again, hoping to learn her name with the question in my voice.
"You're welcome, sir," she replied, still smiling pleasantly. I had started to believe that smiling was against the law in this castle. She left me then, not offering her name, but her smile had at least warmed me a little.
I hadn't even realised how hungry I was until, scenting the simple meal on the stool, my stomach growled loudly in the ringing silence.
Tearing into the bread, I began to eat greedily, almost forgetting I wasn't alone until I felt her eyes on me again. Turning, I saw her watching me from the shadows, her eye focused not on the food I was eating but the pitcher of water left untouched on the tray. Looking between the pitcher and her gaze a few times, I could easily identify the look of longing she was watching it with, as though it was some sort of mirage that would disappear if she took her eyes off it.
When I reached out and lifted the jug by its handle, her eyes dropped immediately to the ground and she shifted back impossibly further into the wall.
Filling the small cup with water, I put the keys down on the tray and walked slowly to the bars of her cell. I could picture vividly the dry, chapped lips and sore, peeling skin of her face that spoke of dehydration and thirst and my conscience would not allow me to sit and drink before her as she suffered.
"Here," I said softly, holding the cup through the bars for her. She eyed me with distrust for several moments before turning from me and sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest. As she turned, the light caught her eye and I could see the tears that glistened there.
"Take it," I urged. "It's water. You must be thirsty."
Though she was facing away from me, I could clearly hear the soft sob she let out as she buried her face in her knees, her head shaking slowly from side to side.
"I won't hurt you," I said softly, trying to coax her back out of her corner, but she remained there, motionless. I could see the tension in her arms that held her knees to her chest, forcing her to stay where she was and it occurred to me that water may have been offered to her before.
"I won't hurt you," I repeated, "And I won't take it away from you. Here," I said, then placed the cup just inside the bars where she could retrieve it, and then walked away.
She didn't move for the longest time and, just as I was beginning to think she would never take the water, her head twisted around, still on her knees, to look at the cup. She eyed it and then me suspiciously several times, but it was easy to see the look of longing she appraised the cup with.
I stayed quiet and motionless, my back pressed against the bars of the cell behind me, as far from her and the cup as I could get without leaving my post, and watched her hopefully. Finally, painfully slowly, she began to uncurl her body, falling down to her hands and knees and crawling towards the cup cautiously, never taking her gaze from mine. Her slender fingers closed around the cup as I watched, a small smile tugging at my lips as she began to lift it.
Staying silent, I watched as the cup slowly left the stone floor, but shook so violently in her trembling hands that most of the water spilled out onto the ground, leaving her with only the smallest drop left. Without even thinking, I moved forward, picking up the pitcher to refill the cup and plucking the keys from the table. As I let myself into her cell, she scrambled back to get as far away from me as she could, the cup abandoned on the ground where she dropped it.
"I'm sorry," I started, holding my hands up with the pitcher still clutched tightly in my right hand. "I didn't mean to alarm you." She didn't respond, just curled tightly into herself, face down on the ground so that only her back faced me. I could hear her whispering something, repeating the same words over and over, but I couldn't make them out.
Crouching down, I refilled the cup and shuffled my way forward until I was right beside her. I could clearly make out her words now as she whispered on and on, seemingly to herself.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." The words went on and on in an endless loop, shattering my heart as she whimpered and cowered away from me.
"Isabella," I whispered softly, placing my hand lightly on her back, making her jump slightly but garnering no other response. "Here." I leaned forward, running my hand down her arm and pulling it gently from under her then placed the cup in her shaking hand, holding it steady with my own. She remained motionless, but for the trembling that seemed to roll through her entire body. I could feel a painful rattling in her chest under the hand that remained on her back as she breathed slowly in and out and wondered how much longer her lungs would stand up to the cold and the damp of the dungeons.
Her small hand felt like ice under mine, its trembling muted by my grip as I spoke gently to her.
"Isabella, I'm going to help you to sit. Then I will help you to drink the water. I won't hurt you, alright? I just want to help."
She didn't say anything in response, but neither did she fight me when I twisted my arm around her shoulder and pulled her up lightly until she was kneeling beside me, swaying dizzily. Her hand was still under mine, gripped around the cup and my arm stayed around her shoulder in an attempt to steady her.
Lifting our hands around the cup to her lips, I helped her to tilt it and she began to drink, slowly at first in tiny sips, then, when she realised I wasn't taking the cup away from her, she started to take great gulps, her eyes closing in pleasure as though she was drinking the sweetest nectar and not mere water.
It wasn't enough. I could see that from the dejected expression on her face when the cup was empty. I had no idea how long she had been left without water and I knew better than to think she would tell me, so I reached for the pitcher, standing a few feet away and refilled the cup, bringing it to her lips once more.
She hesitated again at first, turning to face me with questions in her expression, but I merely smiled reassuringly and nodded to the cup for her to drink while she had the chance. She did, and once the cup was once again empty, she gazed at me as though I was the messiah himself.
"Thank you, sir," she whispered, looking at me through her one good eye as the other strained to open against the swelling there. Her eye was the deepest brown you could imagine, wide and soulful, and I could only imagine how beautiful she must have been before the beatings marred her face.
"You're welcome. Are you hungry?" I enquired, beginning to stand and leaning her back against the bars gently. "I'm sure you must be."
She didn't answer me for the longest moment. She just sat there with her head leaning back against the bars of the cell looking painfully tired.
"Here," I said decisively, leaving the cell and returning with the bread and cheese. "Share my meal and then you can rest. No harm will come to you while I'm on duty. Take my cloak for warmth and I will wake you before they return."
She looked up at me, her mouth open in surprise as I pushed some bread and cheese into her still shaking hand.
I wanted to ask her so many questions. I wanted to know how she came to be here, what she could possibly have done to earn herself such treatment. Had she no family? No friends to vouch for her?
She stared at the food in her hand as though she didn't know what to do with it, as though food was a long forgotten concept. It tore at my heart to think about the possibility of that being the case.
"Why are you doing this?" Her voice was barely a whisper, only just audible above the dripping of the water down the stone walls and her eyes did not meet mine as she asked.
I crouched down before her, leaning my forearms on my knees and trying to ignore the way she flinched at my proximity.
I didn't know how to answer her question. How did I tell her that I felt drawn to her, that despite what I'd been told about her, I failed to see the powerful sorcerer I had been warned of? All I could see was a frightened young woman who had been hurt horrifically.
"You need somebody to help you. Here," I said, pulling my cloak once more from around me and handing it to her. She eyed it carefully for a moment, her expression full of longing, but she turned, shaking her head slowly.
"Do you know what they will do to you if they find out what you're doing?" she asked, refusing to meet my eyes. I couldn't fathom why, but I needed to see her face. I needed to see the innocence there that had me convinced she was no witch. I reached out, slowly as to avoid startling her, and touched her cheek lightly. Her breathing hitched and her eye went wide, but she didn't look at me.
Curling a finger under her chin, I nudged her face up until she grudgingly met my eyes, still looking so afraid.
"I'm aware," I finally answered her, holding her stare. And I was. I knew all too well the possible penalty for going against my orders and helping a prisoner of Lord Aro's. What I couldn't work out was why, somewhere deep inside myself, I felt that she was worth it. That the possibility of being led to the gallows as a traitor would be worth what small comfort I could give to this desperate woman in need.
Sitting down beside her, taking an obscene risk with the cell door standing open, I motioned to the food in her hand, encouraging her to eat, depositing my cloak on the ground before her. Her eye remained on me as she brought the food to her mouth and took a small bite, as though she was waiting for me to rip it away from her.
"How long have you been here, Isabella?" I asked, not sure I wanted to know the answer.
She looked confused for a moment before she replied. "I don't know."
I could understand that. Day looked very much like night down there and with as much sleep as I imagined she was getting, it would be easy to be confused. It was hard to distinguish the dark circles beneath her eyes from the bruises that littered her face, but I would have wagered that she slept very little in that cold, hard cell with no comfort from anywhere.
"What happened?" I wanted to know everything about her, but more than anything, I wanted to know how she found herself down here, a prisoner, accused of witchcraft. "How did you end up here?"
She looked frightened for a moment, suspicious, as though she believed I was interrogating her somehow, trying to trick a confession out of her. I wanted to be hurt by her distrust, but I had no idea what she had been through; I had no right to be offended.
"You don't have to answer. I'm just curious, that's all."
She watched me for a moment, searching my face as though hunting for the truth there. She appeared to find it as she sighed heavily, looking down at her hands before speaking softly.
"My father, he survived the great sickness. People were dying all over and I thought I would lose him, too. I nursed him. I was so sure he was lost when the terrible sores appeared and the fever was raging in his head, but he came back to me. He came back to me." Tears were streaming down her face now and small sobs interrupted the flow of her words. She wouldn't look at me, but she kept going, her hands rigidly clutching one another as she fought to keep her composure. "I didn't do anything extraordinary. I swear it. I'm not a witch. I don't know how he survived, but now I'm not even allowed to be happy that he did. All they saw was that I nursed him and the sickness left him."
Her hands started shaking as she finally looked up at me, her expression pleading with me, but for what, I didn't know.
"They came for me that night. My father was barely able to sit, but they forced me to leave him. I didn't... I'm not..." She trailed off, crying hopelessly as her head fell back against the bars behind her with a small bump.
"Isabella," I whispered softly, my hand touching hers lightly. She looked down to my hand on hers, tears still falling silently down her face. "Isabella, look at me," I urged, squeezing her hand gently.
She hesitated for a moment, her eyes squeezing tightly shut against her tears, then she took a deep breath and slowly met my concerned gaze.
"I believe you," I said firmly, holding her hand just a little tighter. "I believe you, and I'm going to do everything I can to help you."
"You can't help me," she answered, looking back down to our joined hands. "I'm not simple. I know there's only one way out of here for me now." The complete lack of hope in her voice pulled at my heart, and before I knew it, I was holding her, her head against my chest and my arms circled gently around her small form.
"You can't think like that," I said softly into her hair. "You must not fall into despair. Let me help you. At least let me try."
Her body trembled in my arms as she remained silent. My hands moved up to her head, softly stroking down the length of her horribly tangled curls. My fingers tried to pull the knots apart but at her first gasp of pain, I stopped instantly, apologising quietly.
"Let me try," I said again and felt her head moving minutely in a small nod. "Thank you," I breathed in relief that maybe, just maybe now she wouldn't give up hope.