I started writing this early last summer. It began as a simple concept: I wanted to write a Sleeping Beauty retelling that focused on the spindle, namely how it could prick someone without having any sharp edges. So I did a tedious amount of research about sheep and the medieval wool industry. When I felt I could talk about the wool-making process from start to finish, I launched into the story.
And hit a wall. About two chapters in.
I'd forgotten a key part of the storytelling process: namely, ever step that isn't research. I struggled some more with the story, but finally, with Governor's School a few days away, I shelved it, I thought semi-permanently, until the muse struck.
Oh, she struck, readers. She struck hard.
One day in choral class at Governor's School, we sang this. This strange, weird, curling-in-on-itself poem by James Joyce, set to the odd, sad music of Eric Whitacre. It's noisy, cacophonous, atmospheric, and utterly lovely. And as I sang its half-mad words, I saw a very clear image: a green, drizzling swamp; a silent voice calling endlessly through it; and a body floating beneath its dark waters.
For those of you who distrust links, here are the words to James Joyce's incomparable poem, She Weeps Over Rahoon:
Rain on Rahoon falls softly, softly falling,
Where my dark lover lies.
Sad is his voice that calls me, sadly calling,
At grey moonrise.
Love, hear thou,
How soft, how sad his voice is ever calling,
Ever unanswered, and the dark rain falling,
Then as now.
Dark too our hearts, O love, shall lie and cold
As his sad heart has lain
Under the moongrey nettles, the black mould
And muttering rain.
Singing these words, I learned something vital. My story took place in a swamp, filled with the silent calling of trapped spirits.
But who these spirits are, and how they came to be trapped... Well. That's a different story.
Enjoy, dear friends.
Of the Wood
“O where have you been, Lord Randall my son?
O where have you been, my handsome young man?”
Every night, the Lady of Wychwood had the same dream.
Her body lay in her four-poster bed, swathed by woolen blankets. Rain lashed the walls of her tower. The floor hummed with the sound of machinery.
But in her dream, she was back in the bog on the night of her wedding, floundering through the dark water in a tangle of creamy silk. Her bare feet sank into the mud as she tried to run, and branches caught at her hair and veil. Her hands were cold and locked around the hilt of Papa’s sword, the one he never used.
She wasn’t scared, not yet, because she still thought she could save him. She hadn’t realized there had never been hope, not while the Faire still lurked in the reflection of moonlight on water.
From somewhere in the bog there came a voice, drifting through the silences, as pale and grey and nonexistent as cobwebs, so soft she couldn’t tell if she only wished its presence.
She knew that voice.
“Abelard!” she screamed and threw herself forward. Chains as fine as spider webs trailed from the branches, and small, delicate watches hung from them. But they were rusted shut, barely ticking. She was almost too late.
Part of her was not afraid. It stood back and watched as the young bride slipped, and the dark water caught her. Her hands struck the surface; she screamed, water gargling in her mouth as she sank in billows of silk.
Every other night, she spent a few horrible minutes drowning before she awoke in a cold sweat.
Lightning crashed, deafeningly loud and frighteningly close. The lady stirred uneasily, eyes moving sightlessly behind closed lids as, for the first time in years, the dream changed.
A few miles away, rain fell on Wychwood Bog, glimmering in the moonlight.
The bog was lovely on the surface. Beneath it, strange, many-legged creatures scuttled through the hidden currents of rotting leaves and drowned sheep. It was torpid and gross—but above, it was peace. Even the stagnant water seemed to hold its breath. Not a night owl or marsh bird cried. All was still.
Until the water exploded into black mist, and what had only moments before been a bleached, floating corpse sat up and took a deep breath.
He spat out a mouthful of water and felt less dead than he had any right to be. He was in the bog, sitting in the too-warm water. It was either late winter or very early spring; a raw, bitter cold nipped at him, but decay warmed the bog. He couldn’t remember being here before, but then, he realized he could remember nothing at all except moonlight, shadows, and dancing.
“What happened?” he asked. Moonlight spilled across the dark water. It didn’t answer.
But a woman in green, perched high and dry on a half-fallen marsh tree, did.
“So you’re awake,” she said. “I wondered how long it would take.”
She stood, green dress fluttering in the motionless air. She looked human only shallowly, like if you rubbed hard you could catch a glimpse of whatever lay beneath.
“I hope you can walk,” she said. “We have a way to go before morning.”
“What,” he said experimentally. Then: “Who?”
“No,” he said and shivered. “Am I?”
Her cold face softened. “We’ll get to that. You can call me Anaïs, and you may as well call yourself Abelard.”
“Is that my name?”
“It was.” But he’d already lost her attention; she hopped to the next tree, skirts trailing in the water, and he saw that she didn’t have hands. Dead, beaten skin ringed her wrists.
He looked up to her raised eyebrow.
“I’m sorry,” he said, blushing. “I didn’t mean to stare. W-what happened to your hands?”
He could see her weighing the question, tossing it from one bruised and beaten, nonexistent hand to the other.
“I was in a prison,” she said. “For a long time.”
“What did you do?” he asked apprehensively.
Her smile was a white slash in the darkness. “I cursed someone.”
He stammered, “Please, can you tell me—how did you find me?”
“You were hard to miss. A mortal, trapped in a Faire bog, always calling out soundlessly, repeating the same name over and over? You cried out—“
“Elizabeth,” he said softly. He had stopped, his eyes raised to the moon.
Anaïs stopped as well and looked back at him. He shivered when her gaze pierced him. It was like she had snatched his soul from his body and was running it through her lost hands. But no matter how intently she gazed, he sensed it was not he she was looking at.
“Come on,” she said, deciding something. “We need to go.”
“Go—wait!” Abelard said. “How did I come to the bog? I can’t remember!” He staggered after her, but he did not know the way; he sank deeply in a hidden marsh, tangling in the weedy grass with his face near the water. For a moment, instead of his reflection, he saw a ballroom, full of creatures with nocturnal eyes, strange, hungry mouths, and too many knuckles on each finger to count. He cried out and drew away, but the reflection had already faded, and only his own face watched him.
“There are people in the bog,” he said in a strangled voice.
“There were,” Anaïs agreed, glancing curiously at the pool, but the vision did not return. “They are the Faire, and Maelӱs is their queen. They were shepherds of men once, long ago. You won’t see them again. That was their last gasp, and now they’re finally gone.” Almost to herself, she said, “Unless they find another way back.”
“Who are they?” he said. “Why can I see them?”
“That’s a complicated question,” she said. “The people here call them the Faire. They’re craftsmen, master artisans. They devour people in ways they think no one notices. And you can see them because you spent four years of this world’s time in the Faire Court.”
Abelard made a strangled noise.
Anaïs added thoughtfully, “But they can’t come here. They’re creatures of magic, and there’s too much science now, too much innovation in this world. When men have iron weapons, they can keep the wolves away. They don’t need the Faire to do it anymore. So they die out, slowly.”
“I don’t understand,” Abelard said, shaking his head. “Who are you? Who am I?” He staggered through the peat after her. “Please tell me; I have to know. Elizabeth—I loved her, didn’t I?”
“Oh, besotted,” Anaïs agreed. “You two were positively nauseating to be around. Watch your step; there’s a hole.”
But he had already stepped past it, as his body remembered the subtle details that escaped his brain.
“Elizabeth was my love,” he said softly. “Did… she betray me?”
Anaïs hesitated. It had not been in her plan to talk with him. But she felt that he deserved an answer.
“I don’t think it’s my place to say,” she said. “It’s complicated.”
“Well,” he said. “We’d better go ask her, then.”
He slogged through the deep water, Anaïs climbing beside him.
“Yes,” she said. She stopped and gazed, unfocused, at something the young man could not see. It sent cold whispers up his spine. There was something wrong with the air where she looked. It bent and wavered as though an unseen hand held a flame to it, and it burned.
“We’ll definitely have to see Elizabeth,” she agreed. “After all, she’s in grave trouble. Her sister’s dying, she’s lost her ancestral home, and the Faire are trying to kill her. Oh,” she added, “and she thinks she killed you.”
The Lady of the Wood gasped, jerking awake among sweaty wool blankets, the taste of magic sharp in her mouth.
She sat up in bed, nightmare forgotten, dark water and dank trees curling from her mind. She would never forget that taste: the sharp acidity of lemon that somehow crept through her mouth, into her thoughts. But it was impossible. There was no more magic. Papa had driven it away.
The two clocks on her mantle both read four in the morning. She couldn’t go back to sleep now. She stumbled out of bed and into her study, where a treadle spinning wheel waited amid the desk and papers.
The lady felt raw and bleached, like a shorn sheep. She dropped down beside the wheel, gathered up wool in the grease with shaking hands, and began to spin. Some part of her whispered, you ought to be afraid, you’re cursed, you’ll prick your finger… But the greater, more sensible part of her retorted that it was the silliest curse she could imagine. You couldn’t prick yourself on a spindle. It didn’t have sharp edges.
But that didn’t matter anymore, because the magic was gone.
Her hands danced across the wool as the hours crept by until morning. And under her breath, she muttered, “Anaïs, Anaïs, Anaïs….”
“And that, Lady—pardon me—Miss Lawley, will be all,” the mayor said, gathering up the paper. “On behalf of Lawley-under-Wychwood, I thank you for your—Miss Lawley?”
You’re making a mistake, Anthea had said.
She had been so furious with her sister that she could taste blood and tears. You’ve known about it for months. Did you have to speak up now? On my wedding day?
It’s not too late to back out, Anthea had said.
But it was. Elizabeth didn’t understand why everyone had such trouble grasping that. It was years too late. Four years, to be precise.
The nightmare curled through her mind, all dark water and magic. She would need to check the Spinning Jeannies to be absolutely sure--
She realized she had been staring broodingly out the window, toward the bog, and forced herself to relax. What she looked for could not possibly be there.
“I’m sorry, Mister Mayor,” she said. “Where do I sign?”
She did. The swipe of her pen felt innocuous for the massive change it wrought.
“Very good, my lady,” the mayor said. “You have officially ended the title of the Lords of the Wood. The power associated with that position now reverts to the town of Lawley-upon-Wychwood. And may I wish you well in your upcoming marriage. I must say, it will be good to see you out of mourning clothes.”
Now that the decision was made, she was tired. Her head was heavy. She wanted to let it sink to her chest, fall out of the chair, and lie unmoving on the floor. In a way, she was relieved that she was disappointing her sister. Maybe now Anthea realized that any trust placed in Elizabeth had been foolish.
“Thank you, Mister Mayor,” she said. “I trust I will see you at the ceremony tonight? Fulence and I hoped you would carve the roast.”
“I would not miss it,” the mayor said. He hesitated, and Elizabeth’s chest tightened. “Elizabeth—it is not too late, nor will it ever be, to change your mind. You are the last in a line of ancient warriors, dedicated to keeping Wychwood safe. Do you truly wish to lose that heritage?”
“Ancient is the right word,” Elizabeth said, forcing a laugh. “The Lords of the Wood are an antiquated tradition. There are no more Faire, Mister Mayor. Papa drove them out, and they are never coming back.” With a stamp, she sealed the document. “Thank you.”
“It’s your decision,” the mayor said, shaking his head. “I’ll leave you to your tea.”
Shaking out her black skirt, she moved to the window until she heard the quiet click of the door closing behind him, and then the click again as Flavie came in with tea.
Once upon a time, there was magic in Wychwood Bog. The Faire, one-time guardians of Wychwood County, dwelled just beyond every reflection. Their poison crept into the water, until sheep who grazed by it died, and shepherds who gazed in too long thought that it became green pastureland, led their flock in, and drowned.
Now, years after the Faire had finally succumbed to the iron in the air and water, the bog was a fertile green place: a spot of color and growth among the miles of moorland, scrubby with purple heather and flocks of the famous Wychwood sheep, grazing on the endless grasslands.
And closer, just down the sweeping lawn of Lawley Place, was the town, Lawley-under-Wychwood. For hundreds of years, the town trembling in fear of the enchanted bog, slave to wolves and the protection of the Faire, constantly frightened of the world beyond the town. For a considerably shorter time, Elizabeth’s home.
But everything changed. Even the immortal Faire.
“Tell me, Flavie,” she said, because the study was too quiet, “will you stay when I’m gone?” She added weakly, “Please put it down—“
She heard the scrape of china as Flavie slammed down the tea tray with enough force to slosh the tea and stain Elizabeth’s papers. She winced. Lightly.
“Yes, miss,” she said. And then surprisingly, because Flavie did not pretend to enjoy Elizabeth’s company, “The mayor says he wants to turn Lawley Place into a museum about your father. They’ll still need someone to clean it.”
“I hadn’t known that.” Elizabeth glanced around the small room. It had been her father’s study, and his father’s before him, on and on through all the Lawleys back to a knight-errant who styled himself Lawless. Papa would’ve been disappointed that she’d given it away, had he known. But then, Papa would have ample disappointments to choose from.
Flavie excused herself with her arms full of books, ready to pack for the move to Brittany, and the door slammed shut. The study was now empty of personal effects, save for a sword above the fireplace, Elizabeth’s treadle wheel, and two mismatched clocks on the mantle. It would’ve been unbearable if they ticked on slightly different beats. But they, as in life, worked perfectly in sync. The Spinning Jennies spun quietly from the floor beneath her. It was a soothing sound, straight from her childhood. They had been Papa’s pride.
He’d been so proud when she’d taken to the practical side of defending a town. She liked accounts and figures. She had a natural head for numbers, especially when arranged in tiny columns with a sum at the bottom, especially when the sum was money. She could make numbers jump through hoops with a defter hand than Papa could.
Sometimes, at his big desk in the tower office with Elizabeth on his lap, he said that she was teaching him. And she had believed him, which was foolish, because her Papa was the wisest, best man she’d ever known, and the proof of this was on the wall behind them, where his sword of office hung above the fire.
It was the sort of sword that was made by banging one piece of metal to another and sharpening the result. Looks could be deceiving, Elizabeth knew; she had a dim idea that the quality of a sword was judged by the balance, but she never had a chance to find out, because in her lifetime, that sword never left its place above the fire.
“It’s a symbol, Elle,” Papa explained when she badgered about fencing lessons and warrior-like portraits. “We live in a civilized world. The wars here are fought with paper and numbers and words, not with steel. But I keep my old sword, because it reminds me how lucky I am to have this world.”
He glanced sadly at the sword. Something about the firelight always made it glint red, even though Elizabeth knew Papa had not used it for years. “And it reminds me of the cost it took to win this. And how far we still have to go.”
He never talked about the days before he’d married Mama, when he had to use that sword against the Faire of bog and wood, to hold back their slow, insidious creep into the town and the wolves that inevitably followed for the spoils. By the time Elizabeth was born, those days were long past, and the sword hung unused above the fire. When she was young, the peace Papa had brokered with Maelӱs, queen of the wood, still held firm, and the town profited from the Faire’s exquisite craftsmanship. It was never absolute—people still went missing in the bog, babes in winter were snatched from their cradles, and sometimes men brought home brides with strange golden eyes and predictably short, unhappy, and bloody marriages. But the old days were gone. They didn’t have to fear the Faire anymore.
That was what they’d thought.
There had always been a lord at Lawley Place who could hold back the Faire. Until today.
She had almost finished the stack of papers when a furious knocking rained on the door. Her flinch left an enormous blot on a particularly diplomatic letter and bled onto a beautifully worded report.
“Yes?” she snapped, dabbing at it with her handkerchief.
It was Flavie, unexpectedly. Her voice was high and panicked when she said, “Your fiancé, miss! He’s here!”
Fulgence! Elizabeth thought, dragging a surcoat over her head. Of course it would be Fulgence, her husband-to-be, whom she did not love, but whom she was prepared to marry if it meant leaving her town and tower. She found significantly more love in her last engagement, the one that ended with her as an unhappy spinster and inspired the plot of a particularly popular ballad. She was prepared to bet that even a loveless engagement would be better than that.
But she really wished Fulgence had not sprung himself on her when she was not ready.
“Where is he?” she asked Flavie as the other fixed her hair.
“In the teahouse,” Flavie said. She brushed Elizabeth’s hair with enough force to pull her head back; Elizabeth bit down on a complaint. “He said he wanted to absorb local color.”
Elizabeth stared at her in horror. “And you let him!” With her luck, someone had already sung the Cold Lady ballad to him.
“There wasn’t much I could do, lady,” Flavie said despairingly. “He’s a lord.”
Well, yes. There was that.
Elizabeth stuffed her feet into boots. She knew she was a mess. She had ink on her nose and calluses on her hands, some from the pen, some left over from shepherding, because even the lord’s daughter was not spared at shearing the prized Wychwood wool. She was not a perfect figurine of a lady, like Fulgence’s mother and sisters.
Despite this, he still wanted to marry her. She had no idea why.
“Flavie, please do something in the way, shape, or form of lunch,” she said, squaring her shoulders. She doubted Flavie would. Most of the time Elizabeth felt as though she were waiting on her. She wished she had fired her long ago. But she let her stay, because the townsmen already thought her cold, and they would’ve said it was typical that the lady fire the girl who had been her best friend.
Elizabeth froze when she thought this. It had been many years since Flavie had claimed that title, and she’d nearly forgotten. But yes: once she and Flavie had been the closest of friends. The girl had practically adopted the lord’s daughter, who was unapproachable to the other children. They had spent all their time together, bringing food to the shepherds, standing together at shearing, moving their looms side by side. How had she forgotten?
“I’ll be back soon,” she said muzzily.
The sonorous clock in the ballroom rang the breakfast hour, and she ducked her head and ran from the ancient rooms of Lawley Place, down the long, straight drive to the main road.
The town was made of the same yellow-brown stones as Lawley Place, piled and mortared into place over a century ago. The sloping-roofed homes and the narrow stone lanes had been worn by countless feet, countless families passing into obscurity to be replaced by others. It was so old and comfortable and worn that it looked like another copse of oaks or another streambed, part of nature.
Elizabeth’s breath rose in the crisp air. Just once, she thought. Just once I would like to have something that is mine alone. That hasn’t been passed up from Anthea, or down from my parents, or down through the centuries like Lawley Place or the bog.
I want something new.
It was too much that she expected the townsmen to pay her their taxes and look to her for leadership when she was so much younger than they, and small wonder they only did half. There were no quarrelsome neighbors or peasant insurrections anymore. They did not need a lady in Lawley Place; they could live their lives without her clumsy help. She was an antiquity, as sure as the old pews in the church or the treadle spinning wheel in her study.
In Papa’s day, men had needed a lord. First he was a warrior, and he fought off the wolves, cleared Wychwood, and made it safe to farm and hunt. Then he was a diplomat, and he made peace with the Faire and set up the careful restraints that let Lawley-under-Wychwood thrive without subjugation. And then, of course, that peace had proven false, and he’d had to be a warrior again.
But they were gone now, Faire, wolves, and Papa all. Wychwood County could jolly well get on without her.
She swallowed, slowly and deliberately. Her memories tasted bitter. They bothered her more than she cared to admit, but she couldn’t think about it now, because her hand was pushing open the door to the teahouse.
Silence descended on the merry tea-drinkers.
They couldn’t forgive her for it, she thought. None of them can. The heroine of a ballad can’t just stroll into the store and buy milk. She has to gallop into the sunset and live happily ever after. You can’t step out of immortality and come back to practical things. But you had to, or there’d be no milk for breakfast.
It was only because Mama and Papa died, and then Abelard. And someone had written The Cold Lady ballad, and her life went downhill from there.
She felt cold now. Cold, protected, and not caring, not really, what the townsmen thought.
She put her coat firmly on the coatrack and ignored them.
The bronze glittering of guitar music streamed through the teahouse. Elizabeth allowed herself to enjoy the crisp, warm sound for almost a full moment before another joined it: a high, cutting voice, not unpleasant but certainly unusual. It was the voice of Anthea, Elizabeth’s sister.
Her heart sank. She should’ve known this day could get worse.
A thin, treacherous voice whispered, she loves ballads. They’re her life. And she’s written ever so many of them. What’s to say it isn’t in her repertoire?
Stop, Elizabeth told it firmly. There were any number of horrible things she was prepared to believe about her sister, but that was not one of them.
Anthea perched on a tea table, guitar cradled in her lap. Her head was tossed back so her dark hair fell away from her face for once, and she was smiling gloriously at a townsman playing the violin and another with a hand drum. Anthea tossed her head back even farther, gulped down air, and sang a ballad. Irony of ironies, it was the one about Papa, commemorating his work as Lord of the Wood.
And there was Fulgence, lounging at the nearest table, with a wide smile like the cat who hasn’t got the cream yet but knows it’s coming. He was not particularly handsome, but there was something about his smile that made her forget that. Elizabeth liked his smile, despite herself. It was not nice, but certainly interesting.
Elizabeth was proud of her home, but she wished it did not show off its local color quite so proudly. Red-faced, she sat down, ordered a cup of tea, and listened while the wicked Faire caught souls and fed them into their work, giving their gold that beautiful luster, their gems that sparkling radiance. Then Papa emerged and put together a rather good speech about justice and iron and progress, which he certainly had not been capable of composing in life. But it got the part about him building hospitals, schools, roads, and, above all, those clever Spinning Jeannies, so that the new progress and iron might drive off the Faire. That wasn’t entirely right, Elizabeth thought. He had also done that because he was a good man and loved the county more than reason. And he had done it because, no matter how foolish her curse, he had not wanted it to come true.
The lemon in her tea tasted like magic.
Anthea’s high voice sang the final stanzas, how Papa lived forevermore in happiness and prosperity. Not quite forevermore, Elizabeth thought sadly. Papa had struck too solid a blow against the Faire for him to ever live, he and Mama both. They had disappeared on a fine summer’s day, long after the Faire had faded away. But there could be no doubting it was Maelӱs the Clockmaker’s work. She left her signature as a present for Elizabeth.
She breathed a sigh of relief when the last chord died away. Fulgence, only a few seats away, heard it and laughed.
“Why the long, long face, my own, my love?” he said, grabbing her hand. “Aren’t you proud of little sister?”
“Of course I’m proud of Anthea,” Elizabeth said patiently. They seemed to have this discussion every time they met. He was much more pleasant in his letters. “I am a little less proud of the subject material. I don’t like dwelling on it.”
“You should be! Proud, that is,” he amended. “Although even Lord and Lady Lawley can’t measure up to their daughter’s exploits, eh?”
She stiffened. Something in her eyes must have changed, for Fulgence dropped her hand.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. “You weren’t supposed to come until tonight.”
“Oh. You know.”
Coolly, Elizabeth expressed the fact that she did not.
“Well, I found myself in the county. I woke up early. Was woken, in fact. And who’s to blame a man for wishing to gaze upon his beloved’s face?”
A tongue like molten gold, had Fulgence. Elizabeth knew this was not the reason, but she didn’t pry. She didn’t want to turn into a nagging wife before she was even married.
“Well, you’re here,” she said, forcing herself into cheerfulness. “I’ll set Flavie to cleaning out one of the guest rooms.”
“No, no fear,” Fulgence said hastily. “I’ve already found lodgings elsewhere.”
A line creased Elizabeth’s forehead, but Fulgence grabbed her hand again.
“Come on,” he said, “I want to compliment Anthea.”
“You want to flirt outrageously, you mean,” she muttered, but she allowed him to tow her to the table.
Anthea laid her guitar in its case. Any softness which had come into her face while she sang was gone, replaced by her usual blank expression, slightly touched with either annoyance or anger. It could not be pleasant, Elizabeth thought, to look upset all the time.
“Oh, hello, Fulgence,” Anthea said. “You’re early.”
“Only to see you, darling sister-in-law,” he said gallantly, bowing over her hand like he would kiss it. “You play gorgeously. And your voice! It’s like the chorus angelorum!”
“Thank you,” Anthea said patiently.
And there went all the civil conversation Anthea and Fulgence were capable of having on their own. Normally, Elizabeth would have mercy and chime in. But today, she let her attention stray through the teahouse. While Anthea played, it filled up with townsmen, but they slowly trailed back to their work as shepherds or weavers. A young man sat at a table in the back with a woman whom Elizabeth didn’t know. The first time she glanced at her, she thought she was old; but then she looked again and saw she was mistaken. Her pale hair looked silver in the lamplight.
Fulgence distracted her by taking her hand.
“What are you doing today?” he said, gazing down at her. When he gave someone his full attention, those golden-brown eyes were mesmerizing.
“Working,” she said automatically, but that wasn’t true, because she didn’t technically have a job anymore. She swallowed down something that felt like loss. “Packing.”
“Do you want to come with me to the inn for lunch?” His grip was tight. “Or for a walk? I think we ought to talk before tonight.”
Her stomach fluttered, and now, unhappily, she had precisely no idea how she felt. She missed Abelard keenly, but she liked Fulgence.
Her stomach fluttered, and now, unhappily, she had precisely no idea how she felt. She missed Abelard keenly, but she liked Fulgence.
“Thank you,” she said, feeling ill. “But I need to finish packing before tonight.”
His breath smelled like cloves and was warm on her face. “You’re not nervous, are you? After all, you’ve gone through this before, not too long ago.”
Their relationship was a war, each encounter a battle for dominance, and there were very few barbs Elizabeth couldn’t believe Fulgence would say. This was one. For a long moment, she couldn’t breathe.
“Abelard and I were never married,” she managed to say. “He disappeared right before the ceremony.”
“Well, I assure you I’ll be present for it.” Fulgence grinned cheekily at her.
The clock in the town square, bronze and glass glittering in the sun, rang midmorning. Maelӱs had made that clock, Elizabeth thought dimly. Even now her presence lingered.
She managed to say something about needing to pack, gathered up her coat, and headed for the door. Her hand barely touched the knob, however, when the song started.
Someone who was clever with words and could write a melody so lively it practically sang itself had written a ballad about Elizabeth, called The Cold Lady. They sang it in the town when they thought she couldn’t hear. It was too good a story not to put into song alongside True Thomas, Isobel and the Elf Knight, and the Cruel Sisters: a little girl pushed into power, her gilded romance, and then the shock when everyone realized that she had never deserved him. She should’ve been flattered by it. It lumped her in with Margaret and Isobel and Janet, none of whom, when you thought about it, had really had happy lives.
This was how her ballad went.