A Lady Under Siege
Author:B.G. Preston

1

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 siege to her husband’s small castle. She saw a soldier wave toward her, and others turn their heads to look up at her. One held up a plate upon which fried eggs and boiled potatoes steamed. She ducked back out of sight.

“Come out my pretty, don’t be shy! Grant us a glance at your lovely visage. Why the delay in revealing yourself? Our master longs to gaze upon your celebrated beauty, to possess it for himself, which stands as the sole reason for these many weeks of fruitless siege.”

Sylvanne showed herself again, leaning out from behind the parapet. More soldiers had abandoned their morning tasks to gaze up at her.

“That’s better,” said their spokesman. “Oh, you are a beauty indeed. Pity you’re imprisoned by your own choice. Double’s the pity, for there’s grumbling of mutiny within those flinty walls of yours, or so we hear from the deserters who’ve descended to surrender themselves to our mercy. Is your husband wavering at last from his stubbornness, is he finally giving way to common sense?”

“Speak you not ill of my husband,” Sylvanne cried out, but she was shocked that the words sounded little more than a whisper.

“Pardon me? Didn’t catch that,” was the answer from below. “I am sorry, m’Lady, but your dainty voice took wing on the wind. Unpractised, is it? And by the way, my name is Kent, and I am very pleased to finally meet you.”

“I said, speak you not ill of my husband,” Sylvanne repeated, in the loudest voice she could muster.

“I speak ill of no one, Madame. I pity the man, is all, and I pity you too, and ask that you pity us the same—we have our homes, and a harvest to attend to—please don’t keep us any longer. Our wheat and barley plead for the scythe.”

Another of the soldiers piped up, “And our wives plead for the prick!” The rest laughed heartily, and muttered things Sylvanne could not make out.

“Shut it, boys,” Kent shouted. They grudgingly fell silent, and he turned his attention back to the lonely figure high on the parapet.

“M’Lady, this siege has attained forty-seven days. The mind can but imagine the loveliness you must have owned when it began. Many say it was your haughty beauty that sparked our master’s obsession, but now you’ve grown thin and pale, my dear. Your beauty is a gemstone in need of polishing. You’re curling up like a worm in vinegar, desiccating like those flowers we call annuals, when autumn brings finality to their natural cycle. But we humans are not annuals, ma’am, mortal though we may be. We’re meant to be hardy perennials, to survive many a season in cycle, to bloom again each spring. Before autumn capitulates entirely to winter, can you not act a sweet, benevolent Lady, and entice your husband to waver from his obstinacy? Can you not convince him to surrender you to us?”

Sylvanne felt weak, and dizzy. She summoned all her strength to answer. “We stay behind these safe walls with good reason, with righteousness as our ally and solace. We do not intend to dismiss these days, forty-seven by your count. A timid surrender now would make mock of our forbearance.”

“But you look so tired, my lovely,” Kent pleaded. “Won’t you come down to the fire and share a morsel? We know you’re eating cold sup these many nights, it’s been weeks since a wisp of smoke has risen from your chimneys. Have reason, Mistress. Think of the suffering you inflict upon the loyalists locked up there with you. Is it your ambition to watch them die, merely for the sake of your own modesty, or your husband’s wounded vanity?”

“I worry more for my husband’s wounded heart. His love for me is what keeps him from parting with me.”

“Fa! And so your husband will die a starveling, and you too, you’ll all die for love, you and everyone else cooped up within. And you, Madame, could save them all. You alone are the singular source of misery within those walls, and the source of ours without. We have no quarrel with your people. We’re neighbours, near enough. Look how we’ve spared the free men, and the villeins, the thanes and tithing men, their wives and children, all citizens of your husband’s modest dominion, who we’ve left in peace to live on as normal, even as we encamp in their midst. That’s on orders from our Lord. We’ve been on faultless behaviour.”

Another soldier, a fat oafish fellow, interjected, “Bloody torture, it’s been, too. A siege without spoils is like dinner with no meat! What point in soldiering without the rape and pillage?”

Kent swivelled about and shouted at him. “Shut it!” Turning back toward Sylvanne, he called out, “Now Madame, if you—Madame? Madame!”

But she was gone.