A Lady Under Siege - By B.G. Preston
In a clothes chest in her bedchamber Sylvanne found the stub end of an old candle. With a shock she remembered the luxury of fire—the smell of cooking, the sensation of heat in the mouth, warming the throat all the way down to the welcoming belly. Such thoughts had once sparked angry pangs of hunger, but now her belly felt as a void, resigned and resentful of its emptiness. She brought the waxy little remnant down to the Great Hall and found a tinderbox by the fireplace. Fumbling to strike steel to flint, she teased a spark to ignite the tinder, and finally cupped the candle and its delicate wee flame in her hands.
She craved more. A broom of rough twigs leaned by the hearth. She took it, upturned it, touched its tips to the flame, and dreamily watched as a burst of purple and orange leapt from stalk to stalk. So beautiful, she thought, like a suitor’s beaming face at the dance. How my suitors once beamed.
Her maidservant Mabel entered the hall and stopped short at the sight of black smoke curling up to the tall timbered ceiling, and Sylvanne holding the flaming broom like a lover. It wasn’t the fire that shocked her so much as her Mistress’s illuminated face. For a moment she thought she was looking upon a ghost, for it was otherworldly how Sylvanne held the broom so close—it seemed she must surely kiss the flames as they devoured the tinder-dry stalks.
“Madame, what insanity is this?”
She yanked the broom from her mistress’s hands, and stamped the flames out on the floor. Sylvanne’s eyes still shone with fire. “The cooking beyond the walls tempted me, it smells of unfettered gluttony. Like a great feast,” she said.
“Enough of such talk,” answered Mabel. “Hunger’s more keenly felt when the conscience dwells upon it.”
“Do you count the days, Mabel? Do you know how many days this siege has now held?”
“I wouldn’t, Ma’am. I’m not accustomed to counting days.”
“When my husband fell ill and stopped his own counting, I tried to number them, but it’s unnatural for me. In Lent I always left track of days to the Friar.” She hung her head, looking down upon the soot-smudged broom on the floor. “A single day is but a bead on a necklace, given sense only when followed by another, and another. A thousand small suns strung upon a chain of time,” she said dreamily. “The seasons are my truer measure, imposing their changes upon my sisters, the fields and forests.”
“Fields and forests your sisters? Don’t talk strange.”
“The lands beyond the ramparts belong to my husband, as do I. That makes us equals, them and I, like siblings,” Sylvanne insisted. “I rank highest among us, because he would surrender all his lands before he will surrender me.”
“My Lady, I beg you, don’t talk strange,” Mabel repeated. It pained her heart to see her Mistress, once so widely admired for her grace and beauty, now so pallid of skin, and gaunt. The fine velvet daydress she wore, one that Mabel knew as part of her Mistress’s dowry, had become shabby and dirty, and hung from her shoulders like a starveling’s shroud. Her lovely hair was unwashed.
“In this season the fruits of the fields and orchards will be full and ripe, and ready for the harvest,” Sylvanne continued. “I want to look upon my sisters.”
At the end of the hall a staircase led to the ramparts. Sylvanne strode toward it with great purpose. Mabel, weak with hunger herself, had no will to pursue her and only enough energy to cry out after her, “You’re not to do that! The enemy men keep camp there. M’Lord forbids you to look upon that rabble.”
A THIN FOG MADE for a shadowless morning, but for Sylvanne, indoors all these many weeks, even this muted natural light of the outside world blinded her eyes at first. She walked unsteadily along the uneven stone ramparts of the castle. The smell of cooking fires wafting in the open air was almost too much to bear. From below she heard a voice call out.
“Dear lady, dear lady, come down! Descend and join us in some hot mint tea. We’ll gladly share with you our bread and eggs, and the herbs that give savour to such humble nourishment.”
She peeked down over the side through a gap in the teeth of the crenelated parapet. Back from the walls she could make out a ragged encampment, home to the two hundred men at arms laying