This is a story I started a while back but never finished. I'm hoping that some feedback will encourage me to write again on it. I only have the prologue finished so far, and I don't know if I'll continue it. Let me know what you think!
Lord Harcourt, one of the richest and most powerful lords of Elyria, had never quite gotten over the insult of nature giving him daughters instead of sons.
When he had married his wife twenty-five years before, it had been expected that she would give him an heir. After all, they were both young, with him at the prime age of twenty-eight and his wife, at the age of sixteen, at a ripe age for child birthing. They had many years left to them, and Rhea had come from a large, fertile family, so the idea of her not giving him a son was inconceivable. Nature, it seemed, had laughed at them.
When the first daughter came, Lord Harcourt, though slightly disappointed, welcomed her all the same. After all, Rhea was only seventeen. There was time enough for sons, and daughters were useful too. There were several lords with whom he could arrange a profitable marriage for his daughter.
When the second came, Lord Harcourt was still hopeful, and even when the third daughter came, he tried not to be too bitter. But when the fourth girl came, he couldn't hide his disappointment any longer.
"Another daughter," he said as he stared down at the bundle of blankets in his wife's arms. "Will I ever have a son?" he asked no one in particular.
"Come, Edmund, it's not her fault she's not a boy," Rhea said, trying to hand the infant to him. His wife was pale, her hair sticking to the sweat on her forehead, and her arms trembled as she held the baby out. "Hold her."
Lord Harcourt stepped back. "Perhaps once I've gotten over the disappointment … for the fourth time."
Rhea grew angry then. "I'm sorry," she said coldly, "that I have failed as your wife. But don't take it out on her. I am still young, Edmund. There's no sense in acting this way."
He couldn't explain the anger he felt. He didn't think it was directed at his wife, or even at the infant in her arms. He looked down on Rhea's white face, and knew he was angry with himself. He was the last male of the Harcourt line; if he did not produce a son, the family name would die and his lands and titles would pass on to his sister's sons, should she have any, or his daughters' sons if they should have any before his death. Would his family die out because he was unable to father an heir?
"You're right," he said. Rhea looked relieved, but an unfathomable darkness had risen inside Lord Harcourt, a cruelty he had never known he was capable of before, and before he could think it over the words were on his lips. "You've failed as my wife."
With that, he turned and left the room, slamming the door shut behind him. As he stalked down the corridor, he heard the wailing of his newborn daughter echo in the tower.
He never regretted anything more for the rest of his life, for that night he was woken by his physician.
"Her Ladyship is ill with fever," Coulson whispered in the dark; Lord Harcourt could just barely make out his silhouette in the dark room. "You must come at once."
When Lord Harcourt lit his candle and saw the physician's ashen face, he knew it was worse than had been let on. The lord tied on a robe and followed the physician without a word, back to the tower room where he'd left his wife hours before.
The room smelled of sweat and blood and sickness. Rhea lay on the bed, so pale he thought she must be dead already, but she stirred feebly as he approached.
"Edmund," she whispered, her voice so faint he had to strain to hear it. He knelt at her side and gripped her hand; she squeezed weakly back. Her skin was hot to the touch; he could feel the heat rolling off her. He realized he was trembling almost as much as she.
"Rhea," he said. There was a horrible sinking feeling in his chest as he realized she was dying. Guilt filled him when he remembered how he had last left her. He should have realized then that she was ill. He remembered how pale she had been, how weak she had seemed. Lord Harcourt leaned over and pressed a kiss to her sweaty brow and held her hand in both of his. "My love," he said, "forgive me. I was cruel to you."
"You … you are forgiven," Rhea said. Her eyes were glassy as they fixed on him. Her breath was coming in shuddering gasps. "Edmund … you … you must not … blame her."
"The child?" he asked, another wave of guilt consuming him as he thought of the baby who had so disappointed him with her gender. "I don't, my love."
"You … you …" Rhea closed her eyes and took a steadying breath before opening them again. "You must love her. For the both of us. She's such a sweet angel, Edmund, so … so innocent ..."
"Don't speak this way." He tried to say it in a stern tone, but even to his ears it sounded like a plea.
"She's … going to look just like you. I … I can tell." Rhea gave a faint smile.
"Let's hope not. She'd be better-looking if she took after her mother," Lord Harcourt said, forcing a smile onto his face. "We'll decide when she's grown up who she looks like, my love," he said, telling himself that Rhea would make it; she had to. Rhea was the one thing he had in this world that made him truly happy. "For now, you need to rest and conserve your energy. Our daughter will want her mother in the morning."
A small smile curved Rhea's lips, but then the light went out of her eyes. The lord stared at her, refusing to believe it, but the sounds of her labored breathing had gone and the room was silent.
"Rhea?" he said, squeezing her limp hand. Her green eyes stared unseeingly at him. "Rhea?" he repeated, touching her cheek. It was still hot, but the heat was quickly leaving her. He repeated her name one last time, but this time it was a sigh. He pressed a kiss against her still lips, bowed his head, and let himself cry.
Lord Harcourt sat with his wife's body for the rest of the night, and when the priests came in the morning to take her away, he refused to let them until his sister arrived and gently pried Rhea's hand from his.
"She must be buried, Edmund," Eleni said.
"I know," he said hollowly. "I don't want her to go." But he let Eleni lead him out and he watched with resignation as the priests carried his wife from the birthing room. Once she was gone, he went to his own bedchambers and locked himself within.
He stayed there until Rhea's burial two days later. He attended the ceremonies and watched with eyes as dead as his wife as the priests put her to ground. He left as soon as it was over and locked himself in his room again. He did not leave for a fortnight.
His council came to pound on the doors and beg him to attend meetings; his physician bade him to eat and drink something other than spirits; the servants timidly asked if they could clean his rooms, but he refused them all. He brooded in his window seat and stared listlessly out over the rainy courtyard, drinking wine by the bottle. He did not even open the door for Eleni's soft knocks.
Finally, after nearly three weeks of grieving, as he sat staring into the empty fireplace in the dark bedchamber, Lord Harcourt remembered the baby girl Rhea had left behind. He hadn't forgotten her, exactly, but he had dwelt on his wife so much he hadn't spared her a thought, because the thought of his daughter filled him with shame, and not shame about her sex. His behavior just hours before Rhea's death haunted him. Though he knew a fever had taken her, part of him wondered if she would have lived if he'd been kinder, had been able to rein in that terrible dark bitterness. It was his fault, a voice whispered to him. It wasn't the loss of blood or an infection that killed his wife, it had been his poisonous words. Coulson would disagree, of course, but no matter who was right the lord knew it would weigh on him for the rest of his days.
He tore his thoughts away from Rhea and turned them to the child again. The newborn infant was probably in the nursery. She will never know her mother, he thought with a pang of sadness. And her sisters will forget what she looked like soon enough. He hadn't even seen his other daughters since their mother's passing; the wet nurse had come by to tell him they were crying for him, but he hadn't answered her, and he hadn't allowed them to attend the burial. He felt ashamed as he imagined his four daughters, alone and motherless in the nursery with no father to comfort them.
Disheveled and smelling of sour wine, and wearing the clothes he'd been wearing for three days, the lord rose from his chair by the empty grate and went to the door. When he stepped out into the corridor his guards snapped to attention at once, but he paid them no mind. He encountered no one else on his way to the nursery, and when he entered the dark room it was full of the deep, steady breathing of sleeping children. His three eldest daughters were abed, and Eleni sat in a chair by the fireplace with the fourth in her arms.
Eleni did not even look up before she spoke. "You've finally left your rooms," she said.
"How did you know it was me?" he asked.
Eleni looked up and smiled sadly. "No one else in this castle smells as bad as you."
For the first time in weeks, Edmund felt himself smile, but it was fleeting. He stepped toward his sister and looked down at the baby she held.
"Do you want to hold her?" Eleni asked.
Lord Harcourt hesitated, but Eleni handed the child to him before he could decide. He looked down.
She had been born early, the physicians had told him before he entered the birthing room weeks before. She was smaller than his other daughters had been, so delicate he feared he might hurt her simply by holding her too tight. He wasn't sure what Rhea had meant when she said the child looked like him; it was too early to tell if she looked like anybody. She had the typical scrunched-up face of newborns, but a small rosebud-shaped mouth that reminded him of Rhea's. When she opened her eyes and looked at him, they were the blue all babies were born with.
But he immediately loved her with all his heart, like he'd never loved his other daughters. When she squirmed in his arms and made a soft whimper, he could almost feel his heart swell with the emotion.
He sank down into the chair Eleni had abandoned and held her against his chest. He couldn't take his eyes off her; he didn't even notice when his sister left the nursery.
He pondered the girl in his arms, and decided on a name. "Evalina," he said. She cooed up at him and waved her arms around. He smiled.
The next morning, his council entered the meeting room to find their lord standing at the end of the table. He had bathed and was wearing fresh clothes. The stench of wine was gone and he looked alert.
He raised an eyebrow when they all looked at him in surprise. "Well, gentlemen," he said, gesturing to the chairs around the table. "We have work to do."