|Echoes Of The Past
© Gemma L. Holliday
It is winter here now; the seasons, once again, have caught up with my tortured soul. Storms tear across the land and lightning dances before my eyes as I gaze from my lofty perch. It was not always like this. Once I had a life. Once I had a soul.
My tale starts several centuries ago. I was born on a dark, stormy night in the depth of winter, to the ruling family of a fairly small land. I was the only daughter, and the youngest of four children, but only my eldest brother, Edwin, and I survived past infancy. By the time I was born, my brother was eight years of age, and already showing signs of being built like an ox. He would eventually be over six feet tall and exceedingly well muscled. I was born a sickly child, not expected to last out the night, but the fates seemed to take a perverse pleasure in letting me live. As if my future would become a great joke to them, but I jump ahead in my tale.
After the first year or so of my life, I began to take after my brother. I grew quickly and soon graduated to being a gangly youth. The general populace considered me ugly, they said I was not likely to get a husband and thought me a freak. In general, I was thought of as a disappointment to all but my family. I knew what the people thought of me, but I never let it bother me. What my family thought was all that really mattered. I was content practising swordplay with my brother, following the same path as him, and I was encouraged to do all that he had.
By the age of sixteen, I had almost lost all the gangliness of youth and was starting to develop as a young woman. This could not have depressed me more. I did not want breasts or the attending problems of puberty! At the age of sixteen I was as good as Edwin at almost everything, I could shoot an arrow straighter, always beat him at swordplay and could ride better than him. The only things he bettered me in were the academics, I could only speak three languages to his five, but academe never really interested me. I much preferred being outside.
By the age of eighteen, I was the commander of the army and actually considered a beauty. It was said that my long auburn hair, which curled around my shoulders, and piercing emerald eyes never failed to turn heads. That my pale complexion, when mixed with the coiled strength of my muscles, gave me a strange sort of ethereal beauty, often likened to the kind of beauty that blue steel possesses. I did not see it myself, but then I never have considered myself beautiful. The only thing I ever agreed with people on was that I move with a deadly grace, the strength of my body barely restrained in all that I do.
Both my parents and brother continually tried to make me see myself as something other than ugly. There was a continual stream of beautiful women at court, roughly divided equally between my brother and me. It seemed that my parents knew I would never find happiness with a man, so never bothered to play matchmaker in that area. However, that did not stop them from trying with eligible bachelorettes. They all said they found me attractive, but I could never believe them, for the same women also praised Edwin, who did believe them, but then, why not? He was a handsome devil after all, but I felt cheated. Not by the fact that the same women were fawning over both my brother and me. I mean, who would not want the attention of beautiful people. However, I could never help wondering, how many of them only saw the stature? The wealth? The prestige of marrying into the ruling family?
It was two years later that my parents died in a hunting accident. Foul play was suggested, but I never believed it. For me it was just a terrible tragedy. In private, both Edwin and I grieved deeply for their senseless loss, but put on a brave face in public. He had a country to run and I had to support him. Between us, we ran an efficient and equitable kingdom, but only one year later, it all started to go horribly wrong.
I had spent that summer in a neighbouring land helping its lord, who was without an army, to put down a rebellion. The campaign was a fantastic success and I was riding back to great celebrations. The lord had sent his daughter back with me as the official attaché, if I had known what was come, I would not have been as pleased with the prospect as I was then.
His daughter, Fenella, was an amazing specimen of femininity. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, with long black hair, full rosy lips and soft brown eyes framed by delicately arching eyebrows. The thing I noticed the most, however, was her hands. They were long and elegant yet deceptively strong. She was an amazing conversationalist, incredibly intelligent and was actually interested in what I had to say. In the three-week journey back to my home, we talked constantly.
I was entranced. She was the brightest star in my world at that point, shining before me like a goddess, but I could not bring myself to let her know of the feelings I was developing.
We talked about politics, history, the flora and fauna, everything about anything. Except ourselves. I still fail to remember which of us first put the unspoken taboo on personal issues, but it effectively started us all on the slippery path.
I never learnt much about her in those conversations, but she did tell me she was interested in warfare and the mechanics of it all. I was more than happy to indulge her, although I think she got more information than she actually wanted. I told her about my campaigns and what I had learnt from my family. At the time, I thought I was boring her, she had a kind of glazed look in her eyes, but I could not seem to stop talking. Her presence was like an elixir, changing my leaden life into pure gold. Those three weeks were the happiest I had experienced since the death of my parents, and for that I was extremely grateful.
We got back to our castle late on Midsummer's Eve. The sun was just setting in a fiery blaze of glory. The whole sky was cornelian red with wispy clouds creating the illusion of flickering flames. We each commented on the sublime splendour of the display, neither one of us interpreting it as an omen of the impending doom that was soon to befall us all.
My brother was waiting for us at the drawbridge and as we neared, I noticed a lazy smile creeping across his face as he completed the count. I had brought back every single man who had ridden out with me. I heard him shout out "You have gained one, Sis!"
"Aye, special envoy from Lord Beverwijck." I replied.
I was silent as we rode up to him, but he must have seen something in my eyes. He smiled at me softly, and did what he always had if I captured the attention of a young lady first. He effectively handed her over to me. "You picked a beauty there, Sis, good luck with her."
By the time he finished speaking I had gone bright red and was sure that Fenella would never speak to me again. As I turned to her with a pleading look in my eyes, I thought I saw an outraged look on her face and my heart sank down to the very bottom of my boots. "Sorry." I muttered quietly, before I turned my attention back to my duties.
I was embarrassed. I felt sure she could never even like, let alone love, someone like me, so I determined to hide myself in the official nature of her visit. How little I actually knew. She watched me in silence as I went about my duty, but I refused to actually look at her. My brother observed all of this quietly, frowning slightly at me.
Finally, we entered our home with Fenella sandwiched between us. I walked in silence, withdrawing into myself completely, but Edwin chatted away, happily covering for my silence. We showed her to the guest suite, situated between the suites of my brother and myself. It was three rooms, a reception room, bedroom and bathroom and the cold stone floor was strewn with sheepskin rugs. The curtains were velvet and a deep blue colour, which matched the general décor of the room. As soon as she saw the rooms she was delighted and effused over them extensively. My brother soon excused himself and I tried to do the same, but she called back to me. "Stay a while, Tera." I stopped without turning around, squaring my shoulders. Slowly, I turned to face her setting my face into an emotionless mask. "Why are you angry with me?" She asked quietly.
"I am not," I replied tersely. "I am angry at myself." I moved closer to the door as I spoke.
Unfortunately for me, she was not going to let me get away without explaining myself and she placed a restraining, yet gentle, hand on my shoulder. "Why?" she asked softly.
I sighed, trying desperately to ignore the feel of her hand where she touched me. I could feel the heat radiating from her and it was starting to sensitise my whole body in an entirely new way. I could feel every particle beginning to come alive. I also began to find myself much more sensitive to my surroundings. "I am angry because my brother saw something I was not letting myself see, and proceeded to point it out. To everyone!"
"I see," she replied, still obviously confused. "But I do not understand what he saw."
"That I like you." I snarled as I tore myself from her comforting hand. "You are the first woman who has actually talked to me as if I am another human being." I had started pacing and was getting progressively distraught. "As if I am actually more than a title! More than my wealth! More than an infernal trophy!" My voice had risen in volume and I refused to look at her. Suddenly I spun on my heel to face her. "Watch them at the feast tomorrow night and you might understand." I was so upset with myself that it never actually occurred to me that she might have undergone a similar experience, and with the final comment flung her way I stalked off, hurt beyond belief. I thought I had lost what little friendship I had to begin with. I was seething. I thought I had ruined everything again.
When I returned to my room, my brother was waiting for me. As soon as I saw him, I dissolved into tears. "Oh Edwin, I have ruined everything, she will never like me now." I felt heart broken. I could not quite explain it. I had known her but a few weeks. I had never let myself entertain any notion of love between us, yet here I was, grieving for something I would never, could never, have. He smiled gently at me as he gathered me into a comforting embrace.
He let me cry on him for a while. He pushed the hair from my face and smiled down at me. "Do not give it up yet, Sis. Let me talk to her." He gently wiped my tears from my eyes. "Get some sleep, you must be exhausted." With that he left, and I soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I arose late the next day and managed not to see her at all. That evening, however, would be difficult. I sighed as I stood in front of my mirror. I was in full dress uniform and had made sure to display all my honours. I smiled wryly, not quite sure why I was trying to impress. Soon the time came for me to make my entrance and I strode confidently to the great dining hall. When I arrived Edwin was waiting for me, we linked arms and strode in, side-by-side. Everyone turned to face us and a huge roar went up from the tables, accompanied by a cacophony of mugs and utensils banging on the wooden tops. As we strode down the long hall towards the high table, my name was taken up in a chant. We reached the high table my name ringing in our ears and Edwin raised his hands. A sudden silence reverberated around the hall and he began to speak.
"Friends, we are here to honour our great commander, and my loving sister. Who has once again returned with every single man that she rode out with. Never before has that been achieved in our history with such frequency. I ask you to join me in giving praise to her name." Again, my name was taken up in a roof raising cheer. As soon as the noise had quietened down once more, Edwin continued to speak. "Finally friends, I would like to introduce you to Lady Fenella Beverwijck, special envoy between her land and ours." He paused once again. "All that is left to be said is: Eat drink and be merry!" Again, a cheer went up and the feast began in earnest.
The feast passed in a blur for me, I never drank and so could only sit listening to the drone of noise around me, nursing a tankard of water. I was seated between Fenella and Edwin and continually battered by conversation, which ranged from battle strategy to how we tended the land. I was duty bound to stay until the majority of the guests had either left or passed out, and my head was buzzing by the time I was able to go. I quickly made my way to my rooms. I could feel a headache coming on and wanted nothing more than to collapse into a large, ungainly heap in my bed. I was just tugging off my uniform ready to crawl into bed when I heard a knock at my door.
I sighed as I went to open it and before me stood the most gorgeous sight I had ever beheld. Fenella was framed in a golden glow from the hallway behind her and was clothed in an almost sheer dress. I thought it was the one she had been wearing that evening but could not be sure. As I stood there transfixed by this vision of loveliness, she smiled crookedly at me and gently pushed her way into my room. Leading me where she wanted by placing a soft hand on my taut stomach and pushing gently. I was becoming breathless. My body was responding to her mere touch, I could not believe it. I could not believe she actually wanted me. There were no words that night; every time I tried to speak she pressed her lips to mine. The night was filled with passion and love.
After that night, we spent every moment together that we could. I was in seventh heaven for half a year. Then it started to change.
The change was slow at first, every so often she would break an engagement, or give some excuse not to come and see me. At first, I thought it was simply our honeymoon period ending, but things progressively deteriorated. She started spending nights away from me. I was becoming worried. What had I done? What had I said? Was I no longer good enough, causing her to see someone else? Soon she was not spending nights with me at all, and my paranoia was becoming fully fledged. I was deeply in love with her and was utterly devastated by the treatment I was receiving.
One night, about a year later, I decided to follow her when I heard her leave her rooms. I opened my door a crack and silently watched her pass. I think she actually saw me, but at that stage, I did not really care what she thought of me. I was desperate and I had to know. She passed my rooms and then entered my brother's!
My volatile temper flared instantly. How dare he! I could not believe he would take my happiness from me. That he would actually deprive me of the first woman I had ever loved. Tears were streaming from my eyes, falling freely. I angrily wiped them away, and quietly pushed my door closed. I needed to do something about the situation, but what? I wondered desperately as I lay dejectedly on my bed. Tears of angry hurt and betrayal streaming down my face. After a while I heard a scratching at my window and I stood slowly, puzzled. My window was near the top of the north tower; it was the safest wing of the castle so that was where we stayed. I pulled back the heavy curtains and found myself face to face with a small, black cat. I blinked and rubbed my eyes but when I looked back, it sat there still.
"I have an offer for you."
I fair jumped out of my skin. It spoke; an animal actually spoke to me. I thought I must have been dreaming. Animals do not, as a rule, speak.
"I said, I have an offer for you. Are you interested?"
I thought, why not? It being a dream, it cannot hurt anything, so I replied, "sure."
"Confront your brother. Ask him what is going on." It said. "If he does not give you a satisfactory answer, I will give you your revenge."
"I am not sure I trust this. What do you mean that you will give me my revenge?" I asked.
"I will wait for you. I have given you the offer, it is up to you to accept or refuse. I will be back in two nights time." With that last, singularly unenlightening comment it simply disappeared into the dark night. I was in a state of extreme confusion by now. What did the creature mean? Was it actually a dream? Would any of this actually make sense in the morning? I decided that it did not really matter, I might wake up to find that it had all been a terrible nightmare, so on that thought, I crept into my bed and fell into a dream haunted sleep.
Needless to say, the whole episode turned out to be as far from a dream as the moon is from the earth. The new morning brought it all into perspective. I woke up to an empty bed, my face swollen with so much crying the night before. I dragged myself out of the bed and went through my morning routine woodenly. Walking into breakfast with my head held high despite the fact that I knew I was a laughing stock. I thought I was completely ruined. Who would want to serve under a general who could not even keep the love of her woman? I continuously fought the tears back and weathered the good-natured advice of my companions.
Shortly, my brother came down in a very happy mood. He came to join me and smiled at me. "Good morrow Sis, how are you this morning?" I was about to reply when he asked me to hold for a minute. "Friends, I have good news. I am to be married. The Lady Fenella agreed last night to be my bride. The ceremony is to take place in seven days."
All of a sudden, my world dropped through the floor. It spun out of control and I could feel the anger boiling just below the surface. "How could you?" I hissed at my brother. "I love her and you steal her from me. I hate you." I knew I sounded like a recalcitrant child, but I just could not help it. He looked at me with hurt and confusion in his eyes. "All this time I think you are supporting me and here I find out you are secretly undermining me!" I could not seem to stop and my voice was increasing in volume. "I was going to ask for her hand in marriage for myself, and then she stops talking to me except when she must. I now find out it is because you have poisoned her against me! You are despicable. Beneath contempt. I never want to speak to you again!" I threw the hateful words into his face and stormed out. The room was deadly silent behind me. I could feel the shock radiating from it. I did not turn back, or wait for the recriminations to start. I stormed off and eventually found myself in the practice yard. I wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes before picking up a pair of swords and going though a calming routine.
Edwin tried to speak to me several times over the next few days. I think he even tried to call off the wedding for me, but she persuaded him that I was not worth the effort. Besides, I was not paying any attention to him. I was waiting for another visit from the creature. I was relatively content in my work, my men were on my side, and I even heard mutterings of a rebellion and dethroning him in favour of me. Secretly I agreed with them, but forbade them to carry out any of their plans. I would deal with it in my own way.
On the night that it promised, the creature returned. This time I was ready for it. I was waiting at the window and as soon as it appeared I whispered harshly, "I want him to pay." It never once occurred to me at the time, that he was being as thoroughly deceived as I was. That this was just some elaborate plot to tumble our kingdom making it ripe for the taking.
"Very well." It replied. "There is only one way to make him pay, he must die knowing how much you hate him. Bring me the last drops of his life's blood and I will know that it is done. You shall have the love that you had before and your revenge. But it must be done tonight."
I agreed to this and rushed off to perform the deed. I was so angry that I never questioned what I had been told. I was too far-gone to care, to realise that as soon as I had agreed to the creature's demands I had lost my soul. That night I killed the only person who had ever stood by me throughout my entire life. That night, I killed my brother, and in doing so, I killed my very soul.
I did as the creature had told me and all it said was "done and done." I quickly went around to where Fenella was staying and told her what I had done. She was not shocked, sad or angry with me. She just laughed. "Thank you," were her first words. I just stared at her blankly.
"You have saved me the inconvenience of doing it, and by the way, conveniently ruined your reputation into the bargain." She laughed, and at that moment, I wondered how I had never noticed the cruel nature of her laughter before.
Again, all logical thought escaped me. "You..." words failed me. The enormity of what I had done suddenly came crashing down on me and I felt a deep, primal keen erupt from the bottom of my being. I let it out and lunged at her, killing her in one swift motion. I walked from her rooms in a trance. I had just killed twice, both in the heat of the moment, and in killing those two people, I had effectively killed myself.
I turned myself into my men at the garrison. I was bloodied and the tears would not stop falling. I told them the whole, sordid story and what I had done, and they forgave me. They told me that I was now their leader and they would follow me through whatever was to come. I stared at them incredulously. How could they believe that I was in the right? My spirit was bereft and broken. I could not function. My mind went blank. I found myself drawing my sword and falling towards it. Falling into darkness.
I awoke the next morning feeling strangely refreshed. I was about to get up and start my day as usual when the whole tragedy came crashing down on me. The tears started to fall once again as I remembered what I had done. I wondered why I was not dead; had I not fallen on my sword? I should not be with the living. I finally rolled out of my bed and went to find my second in command.
When I eventually found him, I was shocked to see how old he was. "What is going on?" I asked.
"You do not remember?" He asked incredulously. "You have been out of action for going on ten years. Every night you would wander the halls and try to kill yourself. It has been terrible to watch you destroy yourself like this." He smiled at me, "but it is good to see you back to something resembling normality. We need you right now."
"Ten years. Why do I not remember? What is going on?"
"Lord Beverwijck invaded shortly after Edwin died and started doing what he liked with the land. We eventually had to move you to a safe location to protect you from him." He paused, "I think you ought to know that Beverwijck has cursed the land. It is dying. The crops failed this year and nothing will grow. All we produce breaks. We are slowly dying."
"Why bother protecting me?" I was truly curious, I had killed their rightful lord and been, from what he was telling me, a walking corpse for almost ten years!
"We were told to." He replied simply. "I was visited by a white cat and told that you had a job still to do. To atone for what you had done."
"But why still support me?"
"Edwin lied to us and deceived you in the worst possible way. Our loyalty has always belonged to the commander of the armies, not the king. It is the way it has always been, and it shall always be that way."
I let my shoulders slump forward. I was relieved that I did not have to fight for the respect of my men again. I now knew what I had to do. I had to take my land back, give it back its life. I could not die, for which I was truly sorry, but I was damned if I was going to let my land die before me.
It has taken me many centuries and much hard work to return my land back to its former splendour. This morning I was visited by the little white cat again, it told me that my job was done. I had atoned for my sins and that, soon, I would be released from my earthly body.
And so, it all comes back full circle. I had been lured by the evil of this land and had succumbed to its temptation. My character was tested and found to be lacking. My life turned upside down. My loyal and trusted brother, who had stood by me through thick and thin, had been killed by my very own hand. For what? For jealousy, what was but a few moments of an eternity. In a short few seconds, I had killed all that I loved. I had destroyed my soul, by killing my own brother, who did nothing but fall for the devil. I let her take all that I was, all that I would have been, and rewarded her with victory, albeit a short lived one.
Well, it is now over. I have atoned for my sins. I have removed the curse from my once fair land and in doing so I have breathed new life into my own soul.
The seasons will, once again, turn as they did before. This land will recover. I have carried out my last duty as this land's custodian, and now I go to my eternal rest.
As I watch the storms roll across my homeland for the last time, I know that I have reached the end. As I gaze at the lightening dancing before my eyes I feel myself drift away from my lofty perch. I no longer feel the bonds that tied me to my earthly body. I am free at last, on this dark and stormy midwinter's night, an echo of where my tale began.