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The title might be temporary - I am never sure it is the right one. If I do change it, I will warn you. If you have suggestions, they are most welcome.
Disclaimer : Everything here belongs to me, muhahaha ! Err, sorry, I'll try and keep my machiavelic intentions turned off for a moment. More seriously, this story and its characters belong to me. If you want to put it up on a website, EMAIL ME or PM me first, and please wait to have my permission. Any intent at plagiarism will only get this story off FP.
This chapter has now been beta-read by Comical Epiphanies. I wish to thank her for the hard work.
From the Longman's Dictionary of English Language and Culture:
1 - a stone at the side of a road, on which is marked the number of miles to the next town.
2 - an important event which changes the course of someone's life, or of history.
1442-1463, Fifth Dynasty
A lone figure padded softly on the hard earth. She walked in the dark with ease; she knew the path slithering between the birches all too well. She could even have found her way had the waning moon suddenly disappeared behind the heavy, threatening clouds that marred the sky, but as it was, the moonlight lit the way and gave an ethereal glow to the white bark and the silvery leaves of the trees surrounding her. Though it was nighttime, the forest was far from silent. Hungry hoots from hunting owls, the repeating calls of nightingales, the slight ruffle of wind in the branches, the swift shuffle of the bushes as a mouse darted past and the constant stridulations of crickets mingled together, creating a unique song which only her footsteps spoiled. She thought the woods to be enchanting, though maybe it was the cause of her coming that made it so.
Come, he had said in his note, in that sharp handwriting of his. Come to the house tonight. I have something to tell you.
"Well, that's good" she had mused. "I have news for you too." And so she had waited patiently for nightfall and, when midnight had finally gone past, she had slipped silently outside and dashed eagerly on the trail that would take her once again to his loving arms.
A sudden movement out of the corner of her eye made her jump, but from the sound the thing made running away, it must have been a mere badger and not, as she had feared for a second, a wolf or a fox. Relieved, she put a hand on her still racing heart and laughed aloud at her own stupidity. She shook her head, causing long, silky locks to dangle in front of her face, and started walking again. She was close; she could see the dead fallen tree that served as a marker. After that, there would be a turn to the right and she would be there.
She was so excited she almost ran the last meters. She just couldn't wait to tell him the good news. He would be overjoyed, of course, and he would flash her his dazzling smile before sweeping her in his arms and swinging her in the air like the little girl she had ceased to be fifteen years ago. She could picture the scene in her mind very clearly and she grinned in anticipation.
The house emerging between two birches felt like a long-awaited dream. It was a nice little house, made of grey stone, that they had found a year ago, shortly after the beginning of their romance; a secret place where they could meet regularly without anyone spreading word and creating a scandal. Their relationship was frowned upon by society, and as such, kept quiet, but that would soon change. She would be made his legal wife.
"And good thing that is," she thought, smiling again at the idea of the news she had to tell him.
She hastened herself to the door, knocked twice and waited. There was no answer. She entered and automatically closed the panel behind her. Warm candlelight greeted her and she had to blink a few times to accustom to it. "I have been walking through darkness but his love has brought me home." The thought made her grin. Even though this wasn't really her home, it felt more like it than the huge, lonely manor in which she had grown up.
Her eyes took in the room, the cold, empty chimney, the undisturbed chair resting neatly in front of the table, the thick, discreet carpet; but above all, she noticed his absence. Disappointment filled her before she reasoned that he had to be in the bedroom. She made her way to the door, which stood slightly ajar, and pushed.
And sure enough, he was there, sitting on the bed. He looked up when she entered, and her beam came back in full force as she finally met his impossibly green eyes. She loved every inch of him: his handsome face, his broad shoulders, his strong arms, his blond, neatly cut hair. A simple glance at him filled her with unconditional love and a sense of longing for his embrace that didn't stop until he had her in that reassuring hug of his.
Lord Aldéric Laogher gave her a tired smile, and it was only then that she noticed – not without a twinge of annoyance – that he was nervously twirling his wedding ring. She did not like to be reminded that he had a wife. She quickly shoved the feeling aside, put a knee on the bed and a hand on his torso.
'Can I distract you from your troubles, maybe?' she teased with a smile, her fingers slowly inching downwards towards his pants, stopping here and there to unbutton his shirt. He pushed her hand away and got to his feet.
"So, not in a playful mood."
She stood, too. The open door cast a square of light across his face, but it didn't dissipate his shadowy expression.
'What is it?' she asked softly, feeling compassionate but somewhat miffed he had rejected her.
'Listen, Ryllias… I told you I had something to tell you. It's, um… it's delicate.'
She stayed silent, but his sentence had wiped the smile off her face. A dark, foreboding feeling was creeping up on her. Her heart beat faster with fear.
'My wife is pregnant. We will finally have an heir. I… I can't leave her now.'
He glanced at her and frowned.
'No… I mean, I can't leave her, ever.' He took a shaky breath, and his beautiful green eyes grew watery. 'So I'm leaving you.'
She stood there, frozen in place. She couldn't make out the sense of his words. It seemed as if her whole world had exploded and she, miraculously alive, just stood there in the deafening silence that remained.
'I'm… I'm sorry' he went on. 'I want to start anew with her. I love her, you know.'
I love her. The words pierced the ice of her stance and she jerked her head to look up at him, still numb, reacting mechanically to what he was saying. When she spoke, she was surprised that her voice didn't sound above a whisper.
'And you don't love me? You never did?'
Pain flashed in his gaze. 'Of course I did. I still do, Ryl. But it must come to an end. Nobody would ever have allowed us to be together. I love you, but it is a sin and I cannot keep living it. I swore an oath in the Divine Lady's temple to be faithful to my wife and to remain alongside her forever. That is what I intend to do.'
He strode to the door and paused, a hand on the frame. Embarrassment and sorrow marred the handsome features of his face.
'Please don't try to reach me. If you love me, allow me to live my life as per the Lady's way.'
He left. The sound of his footsteps reached her, then the door opened and closed, but still she didn't move, and he was gone.
Her hands flew to her stomach as her eyes filled with tears that spilled on her cheeks. Her throat closed and she let out a pitiful sob. Lady Ryllias Esderill hadn't even had time to tell him that she was pregnant with his child.
'At the beginning of times, the Divine Lord, master of Chaos, and the Divine Lady, mistress of Order, created the world. The reliant land, the humbling mountains, the infinite ocean, the singing rivers, the fertile fields and the lush forests bloomed into existence by the Lady who has command over water and earth. The Lord, who controls fire and air, brought into being howling winds, terrible storms, scalding volcanoes, scorching deserts. Then the Lady conceived us men and women – she made us out to be purely good. But the Lord was angry that he had had no part in the creation and jealous of his wife. He granted upon us what has been our curse ever since: dark feelings, ugliness, sins. He gave us a part of the wickedness that he is.'
The priest paused to catch his breath. He was a man of approximately fifty years. He was not very tall, thin as a twig and his elegantly embroidered robes, too large for him, gave him quite a strange air, but on his gaunt face, his dark eyes shone with such conviction that it was almost frightening.
'As soon as we were created and given life, Fate appeared. Our destiny was decided and death was established. The Divine couple could not let their work go to waste and disappear. Therefore, they created the afterlife: Heaven for the Lady and her enlightened followers, and Hell for the Lord and his spiteful minions.'
Ryllias sighed. It wasn't that she didn't believe what the man said, but she had heard that same speech each time she went to a ceremony. Besides, the baby in her stomach was kicking. Still, she couldn't help but wonder at his words, like she did each time: why did the Lord's followers serve such a wicked god, when they could find mercy in the Lady's cult? It just didn't make any sense.
'The Lady gave us night to relieve us from her husband's harsh glare and a time of respite from our daily toil. She gave us rain that our crops may grow and the raindrops are the tears she is shedding in sadness at her spouse's iniquity' quoted the holy man.
She blinked at the sudden poetry. It seemed familiar, somehow. She frowned, trying to remember where she had heard it before – then she remembered. It had been the first time she had seen Aldéric; he had been reading aloud the verses to his father. Feeling almost sick at the thought of him, she focused on the priest who was gesturing wildly as he went on with his sermon. "If he were to die on the spot, I bet he'd be going straight to Heaven for his fervor," she thought with no little amusement, but it was short-lived as a new kick in her belly caused her to gasp.
'The Lady gave us life and…'
Ryllias's attention suddenly wavered as her stomach exploded in pain. The baby had hit so hard that tears flooded her eyes and she grasped the wood of the bench in front of her in a crushing grip, her knuckles slowly turning white. The midwife beside her gave her a curious glance that softened into an expression of compassion. She took her free hand in hers and squeezed it, silently offering support. After a moment, she stood and helped Ryllias to her feet – they had to be standing for the last part of the Ceremony. They were the only ones in the room save for the cleric and his novices: it was a private service, something which the noblewoman had paid for, to be granted blessing for herself and the baby.
'Remember that peace, love and compassion must be in your heart…'
That wasn't really the case for her right now. Peace and love had fled along with Aldéric, to be replaced by disgust, anger and hate. As for whatever compassion she may have felt, she was acutely conscious that she was in no position to feel some in her situation – she was actually more of an object of compassion than anything else, with a baby in her belly and no husband to play the father.
'…and may the Divine Lady bless you and your child with a safe birth and a happy life.'
Ryllias heaved a sigh of relief; she had received the benediction she was looking for and service was over. Now, she had to go into hiding with the sole company of Eileen, the midwife, before any of her esteemed peers noticed her pregnancy, her lack of spouse, and started to add two and two together.
Ryllias had returned to the house in the woods to give birth. After all, nobody knew about it but her and Aldéric, and he would never set a foot in there again. The baby turned out to be a girl; the birth had been hard and tiring but both of them were alive and that was the most important. Every day, under the watchful supervision of the faithful Eileen, she would breastfeed her baby. She couldn't believe how much she loved her, how much tenderness she felt at the sight of this tiny little body, those miniature feet, those small fingers that curled around hers and the even smaller nails, proof of her detailed perfection. Being a mother was a joy she had never suspected and a whole new experience.
Of course there were times when it didn't go so well. Sometimes, she would refuse to grant the newborn her food because she was so exhausted she didn't have the courage to get up; or sometimes, she would resent the child's very existence and cry her heart out over Aldéric's absence. However, with Eileen's assistance and counsel, she gradually overcame her grief to nurture and cherish her love for her daughter.
After a while, the midwife asked Ryllias what name the baby could be given, so that she could at least be registered in the Empire's archives, if not as Lady Esderill's offspring, then at least as an existing child. After some thought, the new mother came up with Renadora. A couple of weeks passed before, satisfied that both were fine and that Lady Esderill had bypassed her sorrow, the midwife had left with the task of putting Renadora's name for census. The noblewoman, however, decided to stay a little longer in the house, just long enough that when she came back with a child in tow, the lie that she had been adopted could be accepted as true.
Exactly nine weeks after Renadora's birth, her mother woke up at the newborn's cries. She tiredly got on her feet, passed a hand on her face to wipe away the weariness and walked to the cradle. She gasped and stepped back, a sense of horror coursing through her.
There, on her beautiful baby's face, her former lover's eyes were staring out at her. In the weeks before, Renadora's eyes had varied from blue to black – yet now they were of the exact same shade as Aldéric's: this dark, emerald green associated with the man she had come to hate, the man that seemed to haunt her wherever she went.
And now he was haunting her through the most precious thing she had left: her child.
That was the last straw for Ryllias's naturally weak mind and she was engulfed in the gaping hole of madness. She screamed.
"No… No, I can't bear it. I won't tolerate it!"
Renadora ceased to cry and blinked away her tears, startled by her mother's shriek.
'He left… You left… Why are you back? Why?' Shaking, she looked at her daughter, seeing nothing but a remnant of her lover.
'No – NO, you won't torment me any longer!' she yelled, and desperately looked for something – anything – to stop her trouble. Crying hysterically, she took a pillow and approached the cradle. As if sensing the threat, the little girl started crying again.
'No, no more! Shut up! Shut up! Leave me be, leave me alone!'
Ryllias pressed the pillow unto her baby's face, and stayed that way until deafening silence met her ears. As if in a trance, she let go of the pillow, picked up her daughter's dead body, opened the window and threw it out.
As she was in no state to deal with what she had done, her broken mind hid the ugly truth from her and buried the incident deep into her unconscious, replacing it with a fake episode, and Lady Esderill left the house for the last time, firmly convinced that she had undergone a miscarriage, and resolved to take revenge on Lord Aldéric Laogher in any way she could for being its indirect cause.
The Divine Lord had watched the proceedings. His whole being revolted against the passionate murder of a newborn, and though it was Fate's decision and therefore impossible for him to oppose, he couldn't accept that such an innocent child had to die to please a sadistic entity. Then he saw the immense chaotic potential the girl possessed and knew he had to save her. It would be going against Fate, but if he did it well and took care not to confront her directly, she wouldn't even discover it until it hit her in the face.
He captured Renadora's soul just as it was leaving her body and forced it back into flesh. He instilled life into the corpse and once again, the newborn's green eyes flipped open, her tiny chest rising up and down with her breath. The Lord checked on Fate, but the entity was entirely blind to the little girl, convinced she was dead and totally unaware that it wasn't the case.
Now the only thing left to do was to put his Mark on her. She would be his Chosen.
Then, he willed the baby on the steps of an orphanage and left her there, alive. The girl smiled and waved her arms, all but ignorant of the three burning gashes on the left side of her neck.
The orphanage was a stony building that was not very big, but that was to be expected from the poorest province of the empire. Lichen stubbornly clung to its façade, only retreating around the large windows. Even though wood panels had been installed to ward off the cold, the wind easily slipped inside in winter, and it was in winter that Renadora arrived.
At first, the mistresses of the orphanage had been afraid of the three large gashes on the left side of the baby's neck, and the fire burning inside the wound, so they hadn't dared touch her and had left her there, on their doorstep, wrapped in her blanket. However, her cries soon aroused their pity, and while one superstitiously refused to be near the child, the other took her in, puzzled as to what could have caused such a dreadful injury and how she was supposed to treat it. But after a few days, and no expression of pain from the little girl, the mistress surmised that it didn't hurt her and left it at that.
When she had looked inside the thick, red blanket that had covered the newborn for a name, she had found it delicately embroidered in gold thread on the cloth. No trace of a last name, though. She sighed. As was so common in this house, the child would grow up with no idea of who her parents were.
Renadora didn't stay there very long. One day, a very pious woman who had given birth to a boy who hadn't survived, came with her husband, and despite the fact that they had at first been put out by the three-gashed wound, she decided to adopt her.
And so the mistress watched Josef, Aretha and Renadora Denker walk away, feeling satisfied with herself. Later, she would sometimes wonder about the fate of this particular girl, but she would never take the time to check on her, confident that anywhere was better than the orphanage.
Taking care of a newborn so soon after her pregnancy allowed Aretha Denker to lactate and so she breastfed Renadora for a little over ten months. Though she still suffered from the loss of her own baby, who hadn't had a chance to grow, the infant made her happy. She was very different from what her child had been, calmer and more silent, yet so similar in everything babies meant: the eagerness to suck from her breast, the little smiles she gifted Josef and herself, the babble of nonsense that somehow seemed to make sense to her, and the sense of wonder etched in her every feature and blazing in her green eyes each time she caught sight of something new… The woman had also become fond of the cute way she cocked her head to the side as if listening to someone.
Every day brought with it more love pouring from Aretha's heart into that of the small girl, and she couldn't wait to see her grow up into a beautiful young woman, while at the same time treasuring all the moments she spent with her daughter, all the while thanking the Lady profusely for this gift.
But her happiness was not to last. Soon after her breastfeeding ability ebbed away, she discovered that it had hidden an ugly truth from her: she had a lump in the right breast. She and Josef appealed to the Lady's priests for help, since they never refused to heal anyone no matter their wealth. Their answer was clear: while it would have been benign for them to treat had she come sooner, there was now nothing they could do. The months she had spent nurturing Renadora had allowed the lump to grow past the point where it could be addressed.
These news sent Josef in a panic, but she took it quite calmly, as something long decided by Fate, and her faith in the Divine Lady eased her acceptance and sweetened her death, which was, as she said, 'the only step left to Heaven'.
She grew weak and, though it would leave a gaping hole in the already poor family's finances, Josef stopped working to take care of her and Renadora. Aretha often insisted that he attend to the baby instead of her, but he would have none of it. It wasn't him who had wanted to adopt a child after they had lost theirs; all in all, he had cared little for the infant other than it made his wife happy. Inwardly, he couldn't help but feel resentment towards the girl, because it was her presence that had hidden the illness until it was too late. However, his spouse's anger flared and she yelled at him for his inconsiderate and unreasonable behavior, drawing a promise out of him in the end, that when she died, he wouldn't abandon Renadora.
During the next eight months, Aretha seesawed in and out of health. For a few weeks, it even seemed that she was back to normal, but then the illness came back fully, leaving her bedridden and delirious. More agonizing days passed for the three of them, and finally, on a cold evening, death spared her further suffering and she breathed her last breath, holding her husband hand.
As Josef was prostrated over his wife's still corpse, heartbreaking sobs rattling his own body, Renadora started to cry, as if she understood the passing of her adoptive mother. He ignored her completely, but the next day, after his numb, dazed state had passed, his grief sought an outlet and who better than the little girl? It was her fault, after all, that they couldn't treat the growth – or so he thought. It wasn't a huge leap for him to assume that the lump had appeared precisely because Renadora has sucked off her breast. Her horrible wound only added to his delirium. The conclusion dawned on him: she was evil. And those three gashes which had never scarred, and in which fire still burned hotly, could only point her out as a demon.
He would have turned the infant right out of the house, but his promise to Aretha bound him.
"So I will keep her," he thought, his overwhelming grief channeling in anger and hate. "But I will make sure that she knows her place."
Author's Ending Note : Thank you for reading thus far ! Reviews are always appreciated... ^^