Monday, 11 May 2009
The Red Gate
"Speak to me of love," she said and, seeing me blush shook her head brusquely;
"I don't mean that I wish you to tell me you love me. I am sworn off of that. Speak to me about love. Why do you love and what do you gain by it?"
For a while I was unsure of what to say. I struggled when I gazed into the dark depths of her eyes set into the gentle heart-shaped face. I struggled gazing on her soft, full-lipped mouth and the dark tendrils of her hair that fought loose and curled softly about her ears and over her brow. Her brows furrowed and she leaned forward, snapping her fingers.
"Speak, I dare you, speak of love!"
I leaned back in my chair afraid that with her face so close to mine I would be tempted to kiss her. That most certainly would not do. Lady Serena Talladia was not to be kissed by a mere baron such as I. I considered her request for a moment and her laughter broke into my thoughts.
"You cannot speak of love then? Well then I am answered. Love is a trivial thing made much of and I need have no interest in it. Better I should be interested in - in the red gate to the stables than love," she answered.
At last! I had my answer and told her so.
"My Lady you do not know the story of that red gate then?" I asked her teasingly.
She frowned again and sat back, the silk of her dress rustling softly. An elegant eyebrow lifted and she admitted she had not.
"Well then my Lady, until the Lord of Zamorna returns I shall speak to you of love," I answered.
"Many years ago in the reign of the good queen Jane of the House of the Lion this great Hall was owned by the Duke of Ollancote. Not the old man who fought at the battle of Liscard, but the grandson. He had a beautiful daughter, almost as beautiful as yourself my Lady. It seems that this young lady loved to ride, indeed she loved to hunt also and was quite a markswoman with the long musket. She made, I am told, quite the figure riding out on her fine steed Ixander with her hair fluttering out behind her and her long musket over her shoulder. She could load her musket faster than a soldier and she was as brave as a battalion of them. Her name was Sidonie tho' everyone about this Hall called her Sidonie the Brave. It was said that bandits had once tried to abduct her for ransom. She let them... then she escaped and slaughtered them all, returning with their horses, weapons and spoils. The wealth they had stolen she returned, their weapons and horses she sold and gave the money to the poor.
One morning she rode out, so the story goes, and in the wild wood of Ashdun came across a black stag with golden antlers."
"Golden antlers? What nonsense! Are you telling me...?" Lady Serena began her eyes flashing.
"My lady I merely relate the tale, I make no claims as to its veracity. In any case, Sidonie instantly chased the stag through the woods all the day long. She was forced at times to pause for Ixander could not continue to run endlessly. Still she pursued the stag through the trees until day was pursued by night and sought refuge over the horizon. It did day no good it seems for the poor sun bled all across the evening sky. Then she saw that the stag had changed into a great black wolf with streaks of gold and now it pursued her. Sidonie the Brave was, as I have said afraid of nothing. She loaded her musket and fired upon the wolf. Imagine her surprise when the wolf caught the bullet in its teeth and spat it out on the snow. Then Sidonie turned Ixander for home and dashed away. She fled through the trees with the wolf in pursuit and only at the last as she rode out of the trees did she fire at the beast again. She heard a howl and then turned and fled up towards the red gate. Just inside, she threw herself from the saddle and flung the gate shut, barring it shut. Then she took Ixander to his stall and made sure he was fed, soothed and relaxed before she went in to supper.
It seems that a gentleman had called, Duke Wormwood his name. A distinguished gentleman with black hair and now she saw that he wore a bandaged leg. She had heard of werewolves from her nurse and wondered at the gentleman. But it seemed that he had fallen from his horse while out riding. He had been hunting a black stag with golden antlers. Sidonie said nothing and kept her face neutral. The gentleman was polite and genteel as one would expect, but she never remembered his name after he had bid the family farewell.
Later she went to bed and had strange dreams all night until she woke in a sweat. She shook off her sleep, bathed and went down to break her fast. Yet she did not wish to ride that morn and instead went into the nearest town with her father. While there she visited the library of her dear friend Lady Aelflin and talked to her about stags and wolves and the like. Lady Aelflin bid her wear her mother's crucifix and have silver bullets made.
While they talked, a young man entered the library and Lady Aelflin introduced him as her nephew, Lord Waldmyre. He was a handsome young man and Sidonie was much taken with him. He was fond of his books and loved to hunt also, but would not kill if he could help it. Sidonie went home that afternoon with the handsome young lordling in her mind and in her heart. She could not forget his dancing dark eyes and his gentle bearing or the knowledge with which he spoke on subjects familiar to her.
Everything about him seemed to fill her heart and her mind. Her very thoughts whirled as if a storm had burst in her mind. Now she forgot her wild dreams of the previous night. She sang and laughed as she prepared herself for bed. Gazing from her window however, she was sure she caught a glimpse of gold in the far trees among the blackness of shadows. She shuddered and went to bed.
As before, strange dreams haunted her sleep. Something nameless pursued her through dark trees that seemed to reach out to her. A deep sense of being hunted filled her and she fled in only her nightgown, a white ghost amid the frightened haunted trees. Something followed, something she did not know, something that she felt sure intended her harm and even death. Something silent and somehow everywhere. Not merely behind her, but around her - in the trees and the darkness of the woods, in the very ground she trod. A terrible thing that longed to rend her flesh and limbs. She awoke then breathing hard, her eyes wide with terror, her bedclothes scattered and wound about her legs.
Sidonie was not one to fear so easily. I have said that she was unafraid and this dream had provoked her anger rather than her fear. She arose and sitting at her escritoire, she began to write down the dream. She would turn it into a mere tale for children, so she told herself. But gazing from her window she saw by the pale light of the nearly full moon something moving across the lawns of the Hall. It was the work of a moment to grab her musket and load it. Flinging open her casement, she aimed and fired over the head of the dark thing that loped with casual grace towards the Hall. The shot rang out and the dark shape paused before running towards the Hall and now she saw it was a black stag with golden antlers that gleamed in the pallid light. She reloaded her musket and fired again. The stag lowered its noble head and her bullet glanced off one antler and sped away harmlessly.
A twinge of fear in her brought forth her rage and reloading with speed again, she fired. It was no use, this time the stag reared up and caught the bullet in it's teeth, chewing it up before spitting it out upon the lawn. Now the lights had come on and in the corridor behind her, people were wondering who was shooting. The stag looked up at her then with flashing eyes and turned away slowly before galloping back into the trees. You may imagine my Lady how furious Sidonie was at this. She was a fine markswoman and rarely missed her mark. Yet this magical beast as it seemed had bested her. The pounding on her bedroom door brought her back to her senses and she soothed her father with the news that she had seen an intruder and frightened him off.
She returned to her bed, this time vowing to hunt the stag or wolf down and kill it. She was not afraid now, but burning with rage. Still, she slept and wakening, she rode out of the stable yard through the red gate. This time she bore not only her musket, but also a short bow and four quivers of arrows tipped with silver points. Again she rode into the trees and before long the stag came into her view. Now she pursued it, firing her musket and reloading as she went. Not one bullet struck the beast and it led her deeper into the forest until she saw it change and become the wolf that turned at bay. Now, through the trees the clarion of a hunting horn was heard and a rider dashed through the trees. The wolf narrowed its eyes and growled at Sidonie, slowly pacing towards her. Her horse reared, but she fired her musket anyway. The wolf bounded behind a tree and ran off. Sidonie yelled at it and followed until she saw a man running through the trees as if for his very life. When he turned his head she saw that the man was the handsome Lord Waldmyre. This made her pause and as she did so, he turned into a wolf and leapt at her. Ixander reared in terror but Sidonie kept her seat and her composure and loosed off an arrow at the beast who was forced to swerve and fell to earth. Sidonie drew another arrow and fitted it to her bow, but the wolf sprang aside as the other rider arrived and drew his sword. Sidonie loosed her arrow at the wolf but it ran away and began to howl.
Duke Wormwood, for it was he turned his horse and told Sidonie,
"He calls his terrible brood and we must for home!"
Sidonie shook her head with rage, but the Duke drew alongside her and said softly,
"If you love your father, Sidonie the Brave, be Sidonie the Prudent and I beg of you ride home!"
"I will not fly before this damned beast," Sidonie answered stubbornly.
The Duke shrugged his shoulders and turned to face the onrush of the wolf pack for he would not abandon Sidonie. The wolves sprang at their horses throats and Sidonie loosed her arrows at the wolves. Many fell and the Duke cut them down bravely with his blade until it became clear that they were outnumbered and now Sidonie drew her loaded musket and beat the wolves back before firing at the black wolf. Her bullet struck his flank and he yelped before falling back. She shouted to the Duke to ride and turning Ixander, she fled followed by the Duke and the wolves. Through the trees they thundered, the branches seeming to grasp at them. They bowed low over their saddlebows and every so often Sidonie would turn and fire her musket. With every shot a wolf fell back, yet still they came on.
Within moments they broke free of the forest and rode across the lawns of the Hall towards the stableyard. Only at the last, Sidonie flung herself down from Ixander and loosed arrows at the wolves as they came on. The Duke rode his horse within the gate and dismounted. He turned to shut the gate and Sidonie ducked within as the gate was pushed shut and barred. The wolves sprang with frustrated fury at the gate, but the red gate held."
"And what has that to do with love sirra?" Lady Talladia asked dismissively, though her eyes sparkled and she gripped the arms of her chair.
"My Lady, thanks to the Duke Wormwood, Sidonie of Ollancote was safe and this formed the basis for their love and eventually their marriage. A visit to Lady Aelflin put a stop to Lord Waldmyre's behaviour. He had wanted Sidonie for himself but his wolfish nature intended to make a meal of her. Lady Aelflin spoke certain words to him and he fled in terror across the world never to be seen in our beloved nation again. Wait, is that not the sound of horses?
My Lady, that carriage bears the crest of the Lord of Zamorna. I can only hope that I have amused you a little and that you will speak well of me to his Lordship."
She laughed then and leaning forward, she placed a warm soft hand upon my face and kissed me gently. For a moment I gazed into the dark deep pools of her eyes and could have drowned there. Then she patted my cheek softly and arose. Gazing down at me she murmured,
"One day you will find one who shall love you as you deserve my dear baron. I can only regret it is not I, but I shall love you as the truest friend if you will let me."
I stammered something, I know not what and Zamorna entered the room to take her hands and bid me take my leave. I did so and went out of the Hall into the stableyard where mounting my good horse, I rode out through the red gate towards the Palace of Snows and my dear mother, Sidonie Wormwood.