“And this is the wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!” And opening the window with one wrench of his terrible hand, he flung out the glass, which was shattered into a thousand pieces on the stones of the courtyard far below.” —- Bram Stoker, Dracula
The doors of Briarwood Manor slammed shut on poor Giselle, banishing her to the icy
doorstep. She pulled the fur collar of her coat close around her shoulders and stared
across the snow-glazed forecourt to the gate. Beyond the gate, the forest loomed, and the
mountainside climbed into the mist. Somewhere out there was a village, but it was
rumored that a plague walked there, making it no refuge.
Her badly shod feet were already numb.
Tears spilled down her face; she dashed them angrily away. It was her own fault,
after all. She wouldn’t call herself a thief, but like a magpie she was pulled toward bright
objects: jewels and bangles, rings and beaded sashes, embroidered reticules and fans. The
mere sight of a pair of earrings lying unattended on the dressing table would set her
fingers fluttering to enclose them, secretly, in the palm of her hand, to be nonchalantly
dropped in the pocket of her apron. Only cleaning up, she’d tell herself. My Lady
shouldn’t leave valuable things lying around like that.
At night, in the privacy of her little room under the stairs, she would admire each
object: the gleaming softness of silk, the strings of beads, bracelets of diamonds and fine
kidskin gloves… Pilfered gems sparkling in the light of her one meager candle, inspired
fancies of things magical and strange, beauties never meant for one as destitute as she.
In due time, she’d gathered quite a hoard.
It was inevitable that Lady Cira would catch her. Screaming that she should drag the little wretch to the dungeon and leave her nasty, selfish, lazy little soul to rot out of existence, her ladyship chose the more expedient path, and threw Giselle out. Out into the dark, the morning dark, at the edge of the shivering world.
Giselle set her jaw and took her first steps towards the lofty, black curlicues of the gate. The sky had grown so heavy it seemed to be sinking the entire world under its clouds. A few snowflakes drifted down. Contemplating the endless vista of the wilderness, the dungeon seemed a mercy. And it was so early she hadn’t even broken her fast.
Tears welled up again. Why did God punish her so? The rogue knights, raiding, killing everyone: her mother, her father, her brothers, sisters… all were put to the sword. The kind Baron taking her in as maid to his beautiful, young wife, Lady Cira, with her gleaming midnight braids, and violet eyes, had seemed a blessing. But why be spared one death only to be shoved toward another? She didn’t mean to steal. There was just a hunger in her soul that couldn’t be fulfilled. Everything had been taken from her. Everything. Leaving a void inside that hungered for things of beauty.
The gate was weighty as she pulled it against the snow bank, silent on its well-oiled hinges. More silent yet the cushioned earth, quieter still the tapering green of the pines, and other, barer, branches reaching up as if to beseech the higher powers for mercy. A breeze poured frost around her neck. She gulped her terror down and prepared to blend into the white as if she’d never been. Perhaps she never should have.
Giselle did not know how long she walked along the strip of whiteness that was the only evidence of a road. It led deep into the trees, under cathedral branches arching over, groaning with the weight of accumulating snow. Her stomach growled. The hunger pains would pass. She’d fasted before, many times. Denying food was Lady Cira’s favorite form of punishment.
But the cold was another matter. Cast out so abruptly, all she had on under her coat was her nightgown, woolen leggings, and her shoes.
The sun rarely rose in winter. Yet the sky was white, as was the earth, as was the road that had long ago dwindled down to a narrow path on which her footprints could no longer be seen. Giselle’s eyes grew blurry with exhaustion. Where was she to go? There was nowhere.
Half asleep, she trudged on. There had to be a place to lie down. A warm place, an inside place with a fire and a big, cozy bed. Sleep dimmed her eyes. Everything appeared as in a dream, and as in dreams where sometimes wishes come true, she saw a royal gate splayed open, and across the courtyard, a castle.
“Dear Holy Mother in Heaven, I thank thee,” she whispered, falling on her knees in the snow.
Walled with silvered stone, rows of spiky towers and long pointed windows black with emptiness, gave the castle a forbidding aspect. But it held the greatest gift of all: inside.
Entering through the gate to the outer courtyard, Giselle felt a sense of dread. The stillness of the snowy day-night intensified here; the whole place seemed hard and pitiless. Shadows ran in streams of light, but there was no life in this place.
Still, she needed to get inside. So weakened was she already that when she finally found the alcove of the secret door, she fell against it and crouched there in the swimming darkness. Her hand instinctively reaching up for the latch aroused her.
“Let me in!” she shouted though she knew no one would hear her.
The door pulled away, and she slipped in through the crack.
The inner courtyard was cobbled; the outer walls a ring of whitewashed pillars and arches. The entrance to the castle was flanked with marble torchbearers whose lights had been extinguished centuries ago. The doorway was as deep and black as a burned out fireplace. Yet embers winked through the chink of the open door. Snow gusted in on the sweep of her coat, adding to the drifts already encrusted over the floor.
It wasn’t much warmer inside, but the cold was more bearable. Rich furnishings gleamed in the darkness. Though cobwebs hung from the vault in veils and dust rotted the tapestries, collecting in the crevices of purple draperies and gilded picture frames, the castle hall was a masterpiece of grandeur.
Wavering between hope and dread of a response, Giselle called into the vastness, “Hello?”
The only voice that answered from this sculpted cavern was Giselle’s.
Accustomed to seeing in the dark, she wandered for a while, amazed at the unmolested treasures displayed about the hall. What had happened to the people here? Did rogue knights slaughter them as well? Maybe that was why she felt so bad in her belly, why she kept turning around as if someone were coming up behind her. Why did the castle seem so ghastly? It reminded her more of a necropolis than a home. It reminded her of death.
Death. Was that why the path had ended here? Was this to be her tomb?
Two grand staircases flared up to a gallery decorated with coats of arms, shields bearing three black dragons flying over a red ground. Up among the beams of the ceiling, more dragons wheeled on outstretched wings. Their mouths were open infernos.
What a great, gory prince he must have been. A warlord, she thought. Perhaps one who sent his knights abroad to slaughter innocent peasants.
She was about to climb the stairs when her stomach heaved. She stumbled, fell on the step, and leaned her head against the banister. Was there food somewhere? There had to be a kitchen, a dining hall somewhere. Didn’t princes throw lavish feasts on long tables sagging under platters of venison and pheasant and all kinds of steamy savories and wine? The thought of food revived her. Giselle ran across the hall like the Old One was chasing her. The cellar. There had to be a cellar. No one could survive the long winters without food stores. Not even royalty.
She stumbled into the dining hall.
The high table was surprisingly austere. Only one place was set among the tall, black candles. The food, visible under layers of dust, was barely eaten, the velvet cushioned chair draggled with the time-stiffened ornament of a lady’s veil. The dishes were gold, the goblet jeweled. The candelabra in the corners held many more candles than Giselle had ever seen in her life.
“How bright it must have been. How gorgeous!” she whispered.
Yet the sight of the lonely place setting saddened her. In her mind’s eye she saw a lady grieving, heard the creak of a rope and, faint and far away, a bell darkly tolling.
Was there food? Giselle tried to pull the cobwebs away from the table, but her stomach curdled at what she saw: a pig’s head eaten by maggots, and serving dishes filled with grey ashy paste.
Hands over her stomach she turned around and around. There were two sets of archways going into the outer dark. There had to be a kitchen back there. And stairs to the cellars. The thought of going down a rickety stairway into the dark was too frightening to contemplate. What if a step broke underfoot? And what would she find at the bottom? It wasn’t worth imagining.