A Lady Under Siege
Author:B.G. Preston

4

Gerald lay upon his bed, sickly, unconscious. Sylvanne sat on the edge beside him, holding his hand. A maidservant stood fretting beside her. Over the maidservant’s shoulders a trio of menservants strained for a good look.

“He gave the appearance of such renewed vigour just this morning, ma’am,” said the maidservant, a nervous young girl named Ethelwynne. “He told the valets that he intended to go out, to palaver with the enemy, to negotiate terms as it were.”

Sylvanne shot a sharp sceptical look at her, then the men.

“Did he really? He said nothing of it to me. Or could it be, now that he no longer speaks for himself, others are putting their words and wishes into his mouth?”

“It’s true, I swear ma’am,” insisted the taller of the men, Carl by name. “You were sleeping then, he insisted we not sever your repose. It’s been many hours now since he rose. He demanded his most distinguished robes be brought to him, the same princely garments as what he clothed himself in to marry you four summers ago.”

“I can see that for myself,” said Sylvanne, for he wore a blue tunic she had first seen on her wedding day. The blue suited his eyes, and she remembered that he had almost looked handsome in it. Almost—she had often teased him that he had the elongated face and wide-set eyes of a donkey, and now that hunger had hollowed his cheeks and stretched the skin of his face, the resemblance was even more pronounced. She loosed a button on his tunic, and undid two buttons of the white linen shirt beneath. She watched his breathing. His breast barely rose and fell.

“I say he did what’s possible to look his best, ma’am,” said the maidservant. “But it almost broke my heart to see him, thin as a reed and the colour of dea—” she caught herself. “The colour of a winter’s sky, ma’am.”

Sylvanne held her husband by the chin. His flesh felt like parchment stretched over the jaw bone. She leaned in close and whispered.

“Gerald. Gerald.”

His eyes remained closed. Suddenly she slapped his face, hard. Then again, harder, then a third blow, almost vicious. Without taking her eyes from his face, she asked, “What more did he pronounce?”

“When he was dressed he looked upon himself in the mirror, and it seemed to give him a shock, ma’am,” said Carl. “He faltered, as it were, and stumbled to the floor. We lifted him to the bed as one would cradle a wounded bird, so careful were we. Then we set him in this dignified pose, and called for you. He hasn’t so much as moved a digit since.”

Sylvanne watched his still, silent face.

“I wish he would speak to me.”

There was silence, and then Ethelwynne spoke up, timidly. “Should I fetch the Friar, ma’am?”

Sylvanne’s eyes flashed angrily. “Is that what you hold? Has his condition attained that severity?”

The young maidservant lowered her eyes and said nothing. The men didn’t know where to look.

Suddenly another servant rushed in the door, wildly agitated, holding before him a long pointed stick with a scrawny dead rat skewered on the end. “Here lookit what I caught, the last o’ them I’m certain.” He caught sight of Sylvanne. “Pardon, m’Lady, didn’t know as you were present. I’ve brought meat I myself cornered and killed, as sustenance for my Lord.”

Sylvanne surveyed the ratcatcher and his prey. The rat was truly a pathetic specimen, and the catcher for the first time seemed to recognize that sad fact. His enthusiasm faltered.

“I only wanted to help, m’Lady.”

“I do admire your strength in denying your own belly satisfaction,” Sylvanne told him. “But my husband would need awaken in order to eat.” She turned again to look at poor Gerald’s mute, ashen face. “Appetite gnaws at the rest of us,” she said wearily, “but he feels none of it. Perhaps he dreams of bread and eggs. And hot mint tea.”

“If I could trouble you for something of wood to burn, m’Lady, perchance a chair, or a bench from the Great Hall, I could rightly cook this creature, and the smell of hot flesh might rouse your husband.”

Sylvanne was silent for a moment. Gerald coughed lightly in his sleep. “Has it come to this?” she murmured. “Eating vile rodents to stave off death?”

“It’s not the first,” young Ethelwynne said, with a boldness she immediately regretted.

“What do you mean?” demanded Sylvanne.

“It—well, we had no choice but to—we cooked all we could capture for m’Lord and Lady in these devilish times,” she said. “Songbirds and starlings in a soup, bugs and beetles in a paste, and even mice and rats God help me, disguised and served as rabbit stew. M’Lord knew all about it, but told us to keep it as a secret of sorts from m’Lady.”

Sylvanne felt herself too weak to be shocked. She let out a sad solemn breath that was almost a cry.

“But that’s all past anyway,” said the maidservant. “It’s been many long days since even that poor meat was to be found. The best that can be said is now we all share the same burden of suffering.”

Again the room fell silent. The others waited for their Lady to speak. She stared long and hard at her husband’s mulish face.

“Fetch the ratcatcher a chair or stool to burn as fuel, and let him cook that thing in the fireplace here,” she said at last. “But also summon our priest. I fear he’ll be needed—I wouldn’t want my dear husband to pass from this life without the incantations that guarantee God’s protection in the next.”

“I’ll find him, m’Lady,” said one of the menservants. A crush of people had formed in the doorway, and spilt across the threshold into Gerald’s room, pushed forward by those in back craning for a better view. What a motley bunch, thought Sylvanne, rendered as they were so gaunt and ragged by their loyalty through the siege. She couldn’t hold against them their natural human urge to gather and gawk, to be present at the spectacle of their Master’s passing.

In short order the priest arrived, and took up his chant by the bedside. Sylvanne found it difficult to follow the words he spoke. She realized she felt faint and craved a sip of water, but didn’t dare interrupt to ask for it. “May Christ appear to thee with a mild and cheerful countenance,” the priest recited, “and give thee a place among those who are to be in his presence forever. Mayest thou be a stranger to all those who are condemned to darkness, chastised with flames, and punished with torments. At thy approach, encompassed by angels, may the infernal spirits tremble and retire into the confusion of eternal night…”

The priest took hold of Gerald’s wrist, and after a moment announced, “He pulsates faintly, so he lives still.” He stood and made the sign of the cross. “Should he take leave of us now, our Lord in Heaven has assured a place for him in the firmament. His spirit will know eternity.”

“I thank you,” said Sylvanne. “I must ask you a question, concerned not with his soul and spirit, but with earthly legality.”

The priest nodded.

“Since we are childless, and he has no brother, am I not his heir? And as he is now incapable of action, am I not the person assigned to act on his behalf? Might I do what I deem necessary to save his life?”

“This hunger has affected my mind,” the priest responded. “What is your point, exactly?”

“I wish to surrender to our besiegers, those soldiers and vassals of Lord Thomas of Gastoncoe who surround our walls. I’ll throw myself at the mercy of their Lord Thomas, and thereby spare my poor husband’s life, for he would surely be tended to, and fed, and revived, if I were to act in time.”

“But your husband has forbidden it, and this entire siege is a result of his refusal to convey you to Thomas.”

“He is no longer capable of forbidding anything. It is my wifely duty above all to prevent his death, and I can do so by proceeding in his place to the enemy, so that terms might be negotiated.”

“I make no moral judgement,” the priest said. “Despite the promises of paradise, I myself am in no haste to leave this earth before my time, and would welcome an end to this damnable, ungodly siege.”

“Then I won’t let you die,” said Sylvanne. “And foremost, I will not let my husband die.”

She brought her hands to her lips in a praying gesture, and noticed how filthy her fingernails were. Scraping a black rind of grit from under a nail, she called out.

“Mabel!”

The maidservant pushed her way through the bottleneck of onlookers in the doorway. “Yes m’Lady.”

“I have need of a bath. A proper one.”

“The water will be cold, ma’am.”

“The better to shake me sensate.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The crowd of gawkers parted for Mabel to take her leave. Sylvanne spoke again.

“Wait. On second thought, make the bath hot, and lay out my best clothes. I’ll want to look my absolute best.”

“But how shall I heat the water, ma’am?”

“I don’t care. Burn all the furniture in the place if you have to.”

Mabel hesitated. “But how shall I decide which pieces to start with, ma’am?”

“Jesus Christ, woman!” Sylvanne cried angrily. “Have I not enough on my plate that I must attend to every detail?”

“I’m sorry ma’am,” said Mabel.

“Here’s a suggestion,” said Sylvanne, calming herself. “Start with the chairs and tables in the rooms intended for my children. It looks very much now like those will never be needed.”

The young maidservant Ethelwynne burst into tears. The priest tried to put his hand on Sylvanne’s shoulder but she shuddered and pushed it away. She told herself she would not lose her composure. To the young girl she said, “Run along and help Mabel with her tasks. All of you run along. I wish to be alone with my husband.”

WHEN THE ROOM WAS at last cleared she locked the door, then sat on the bed and stroked his cheek gently. All was silent but for the light wheezing of his breath. She thought of her life the first time she had seen him, a mere five years ago, when she lived under the roof of her father, a respected farmer and tithing man. Sylvanne’s mother had died in childbirth, giving her life, and the attending midwife, who herself had been recently made a widow, took on the task of caring for the helpless infant. Soon enough Sylvanne’s father and the widowed midwife found cause to marry. They would have five more children together, but Sylvanne never felt that she was treated as anything less than a true and beloved daughter by her stepmother, whom she always called Mother, and thought of that way. As the eldest, she assumed a heavy load of responsibilities in the family, not least of which was caring for the dairy cows, and transporting their milk to market every day, in a little cart pulled by a bulldog.

One spring day in her eighteenth year, as Sylvanne brought milk as usual to barter in the bailey of this very castle, she was spotted by Gerald, son of the Squire. For him it was love at first sight, he was indeed smitten, and boldly told her at that first meeting that she would be his bride. She was not nearly so taken by him, for he was not handsome, and walked with a limp, the unfortunate result of a childhood fall from a horse. Yes, he was certainly less than perfect as a potential husband, but bold and confident none the less, and articulate too—he wooed her with extravagant phrases, all to the effect that she was the most beautiful creature he’d ever laid eyes on. She accepted his compliments with modesty, having heard similar things from the young men who worked the fields with her father, and most especially from the soldiers loitering by the castle gate, who were always enthusiastic, if more crude and less poetic in their remarks. She was known to one and all as a radiantly healthy, honest, openhearted milkmaid, and therefore had no shortage of eager suitors—farmers’ sons, handsome young carpenters and broad-shouldered blacksmiths among them—although none had yet won her heart.

Gerald was the most persistent and prestigious suitor she’d yet met. When Gerald proposed, her father, keen on improving his standing, insisted she accept. If she didn’t precisely love the man she was to marry, at least she could be excited at the prospect of a more adventurous life than could be hoped for as a blacksmith’s or carpenter’s wife.

Before any wedding could take place Gerald needed approval from his own father, who a few months previously had set off to the Holy Land to fight the Infidel. Word was sent, and after several weeks an answer was returned, but of a tragic nature: a typhoid epidemic in Sicily had killed the father en route, and suddenly Gerald, his only son and heir, was Master of his Lands and Dominion, modest though they were—an old, out-of-date motte and bailey castle in great need of repair, and a squire’s rights over the peasants who worked a sliver of lands wedged between the larger holdings of the Earl of Apthwaite to the south, and a vast forest belonging to the Baron of Flechevile to the north. As well, Gerald’s father had taken with him much of the best armour and the finest of his horses, along with a large retinue of servants and retainers, on God’s mission to liberate the East. Left behind in the depleted castle, Gerald, a young man head over heels in love, threw all practicality to the wind in his desire to please his bride. He emptied his storehouses and granaries, and sold the stockpiles to buy his love precious stones set in gold and silver, and supply her with the kind of dowry a Lady of higher standing was expected to bring to such a marriage: rolls of damask and saraset silk to make kirtles and dresses, and gowns lined at the hem with mink and ermine. Her father, ever-practical, had mocked her the first time he had seen her clothed in that style: “You’re wearing that thing upside down,” he had teased her. “That’s a fine fur to keep your neck warm in winter, yet you drag it through the mud like a mop.”

The wedding itself was another extravagance, and Gerald had gone into debt to pay for it, borrowing heavily from the Earl of Apthwaite to throw a party for the hundreds of guests invited from far and wide. It was a three-day festival of wine, music, and every kind of cooked meat, wild and tame. Sylvanne had been overwhelmed, and although everyone was gracious to her, and praised her beauty and deportment to the heavens, still she wondered what they really thought of this simple country girl marrying into an old and noble family, especially after overhearing a notoriously opinionated Baroness describe Gerald as “a young fool without proper counsel.” The grand old woman had been pontificating to a gaggle of other ladies in the coolness of the garden between dances, not realising Sylvanne had slipped out for a breath of air herself, and was listening from the shadows. “The aim of any marriage should be to solidify alliances with families of equal or greater power,” the esteemed Lady had asserted. “Poor Gerald has let love’s poison-tipped arrow lower his good name and water down his bloodline, mating with a mere milkmaid, however prettily clothed for the occasion.” A murmur of agreement had arisen from the ladies, and not a single voice had risen in her defence.

The dutiful daughter had agreed to marry Gerald under intense pressure from her father, and after marriage she transposed that sense of obligation to her husband. She became the dutiful wife. Did she love him? She told herself she would, with time. There were reasons to love him, for he was tender with her, and kind-hearted, though he had an impetuous streak and was terribly unwise with money. She scolded him for it, but he laughed it off as none of her concern. As a year of marriage turned to two, then three and four, and they remained childless, cracks began to show in his kindness toward her, for he expected from her the son that was essential to keeping his bloodline intact. Sylvanne’s mother, with her expertise as a midwife, gave her all manner of herbal concoctions to help her conceive, but to no avail. In all corners of Christendom a barren womb could only be spoken of in public as a woman’s shame, but in private, in a rueful whisper so soft God might overlook it, her mother put the blame on a caprice in Gerald’s bloodline. Such a failing called for discreet cures, and the remedies she concocted to make the husband more virile had to be slipped by Sylvanne into his food and drink surreptitiously. Each remedy in turn raised her hopes and expectations, only to disappoint. She remained childless.

Her marriage, forged in great expectations for happiness, had slowly begun to metamorphose into one wherein happiness grew ever more elusive, as the essential contract at its heart was neither fulfilled nor satisfied. She lived in a kind of stasis, awaiting resolution. Then one day, out of the blue, came a messenger, an envoy from Thomas of Gastoncoe, a powerful Lord with abundant lands two days ride to the east. Lord Thomas wished a private meeting with her, an unheard of thing for any man to ask of a properly married woman. The request had aroused in Gerald a horrible suspicion, and for the first time he had struck her in anger. Lord Thomas was denied, yet persisted in his demands for a meeting, and Gerald in his jealousy could not be placated. She took this as a sign that he truly loved her, and loved him a little more in return. She worked hard to regain his trust, for she had done nothing wrong, and fully supported her husband when he rudely dismissed each new entreaty from Lord Thomas.

The strange desire of this Thomas to meet with another man’s wife then took on the appearance of single-minded insanity—he raised among his subjects a sizable company of soldiers, and sent them to lay siege to Gerald and Sylvanne in their little castle, with its granary still not properly replenished since the wedding, its larder nearly bare. Thomas’s soldiers encamped outside the gates, and poor Gerald, “the young fool with no proper counsel,” had no powerful ally to call upon. He and Sylvanne and their loyal retinue became prisoners of the worst sort, prisoners without provisions. Rationing was required almost immediately, food was scarce and poor. A few weeks later Sylvanne missed her monthly cycle, and she had rejoiced at first, and rushed to tell her husband, who was greatly pleased that she had finally conceived him a child. Shortly thereafter she came to realise that every female besieged alongside her was suffering a similar symptom, for severe hunger makes a woman cease to menstruate. When she told Gerald, it was the most painful admission of her life, and it seemed to break something inside him. An unnamed illness began to sap his will to live, his resolve to endure and prevail over his besiegers. From that day forward she never heard him express confidence, or optimism, never saw him smile, or even look a little healthy, for his every word and gesture spoke of fatigue and resignation. Then his very body began to waste away, much more obviously than the rest of them, who also suffered hunger and deprivation. And now he lay upon the bed, unspeaking, looking as much like a corpse as a living being. “Live for me,” she whispered to him. “Please live for me.” She told herself now that she loved him, but more than that she could not imagine life without his protection. And she could not imagine what strange obsession could have compelled Lord Thomas to perpetrate this siege that was killing her husband.

YOUNG ETHELWYNNE POURED A pitcher of lukewarm water over Sylvanne’s shoulders. She shivered as the water ran down her naked body. Mabel, sleeves rolled up, scrubbed her skin so harshly it hurt.

“You murder me,” Sylvanne muttered.

“I’m sorry Madame, I’ve never seen dirt so well-entrenched.”

“Concentrate on the parts of me that will show when I’m clothed,” Sylvanne said. “All that matters is my hands, forearms, my face and neck, and as much of my bosom as the dress displays.”

“You’ve lost weight, ma’am,” Mabel remarked. “The display won’t be so ample as it once was. Luckily, I’m an expert in the artifice such an occasion calls for.”

“Just get me clean, Mabel. Stop scraping at my thigh with that course soap, and attend to the principle places.”

There was a loud knocking upon the door. Ethelwynne went to investigate and came back wide eyed.

“Ma’am?”

“What is it?”

“He moves.”

There was no time to get properly dressed. She ordered Mabel to wrap her body in one of the white linens used for drying, then to drape her in two finer sheets from the bed, one over each shoulder like sashes. To hold it all together they took the first belt that came to hand, meant for a lavender dress, and tied it snug under her breasts. Thus arrayed she hurried toward her husband’s room, little caring that one of the sheets had slipped from her shoulder, and that her long hair hung loose instead of coiled and hidden beneath the barbette expected of a married woman. At the doorway it seemed that virtually the entire remaining populace of the castle had assembled. They parted like cattle, deferentially, but without hurry.

The room smelled of meat cooked on the flame. The ratcatcher was busy by the fireplace. At the bedside, the priest rose to give her his place. Sylvanne knelt, grasped her husband’s hand, and held it to her breast. His eyes were open. He studied her with an immense weariness. He was trying to speak, she could tell, but no words came.

“Has he said anything to anyone?” she asked.

“No,” said the priest. “Yet his eyes move about. He sees.”

Sylvanne leaned close and kissed him on the mouth. He seemed to draw strength from it, and ever so weakly, he whispered her name.

“I hear, my love. Speak to me.”

He looked up at the ceiling as though it were the sky.

“So he’ll have you after all,” he said finally.

“I’ll die first.”

His eyes met hers.

“It is I who am dying,” he whispered.

“They’re cooking you a rat—a mouse.”

He laughed a feeble, soft cough. A faint twinkle shone in his eye.

“Likely it’s as skeletal as I,” he mused.

“I should have told you it’s rabbit,” Sylvanne attempted in a light, jaunty tone. “Apparently that’s been the protocol around here for some time.” But she was fighting tears.

“I’ve no appetite,” Gerald murmured.

“Taste it first.”

He shook his head. His body shuddered, and when he spoke again it was with great effort.

“Do you know your Bible?”

Sylvanne began to cry. She wiped her tears on the white linen and pretended a laugh.

“You know I never troubled with it. Many’s the time you scolded me for that.”

“Ask the priest how Judith slew Holofernes.”

“You tell me,” she said.

His eyes grew wide for a moment, as if he’d seen something beyond this earth. A faint wheeze, the soft rattle of death, issued from his mouth.

“Tell me,” Sylvanne pleaded. “Tell me. Tell me!”

She took his hand, pulled it to her breast, and began to weep. The crowd in the doorway pushed closer for a better look. Mabel lifted a corner of linen and wiped her Mistress’s eyes, then her own. The ratcatcher, oblivious to all but the fireplace and the skinned carcass cooking there, now turned and announced excitedly, “It’s ready, Madame, it’s ready!”