The cane served Uncle Cuthwyn well. The exotic ash whitewood and intricately carved silver handle showed how much of a proper gentleman he was to anyone important enough to take notice of such things. Uncle’s cane made a solid ringing sound against the stone floors of the hallway. An unhurried tap-tap-tap drawing closer. That sound was a warning. He was coming.
I flinched as the door swung open. The cane preceded his arrival as Uncle stepped into the room without breaking stride for permission.
“Keziah.” Uncle spoke my name with a soft rising inflection that made me feel twelve again instead of twenty-two.
Uncle Cuthwyn became my guardian after a year of heartbreak that began not long after I turned seven years old. My father died, my mother ran, and my grandfather fell ill; so the Earldom and I became Uncle’s possessions.
I lowered my eyes and gave a quick bobbing curtsy. It was the type of response a Lord might expect of a servant, but Uncle expected it from me at every greeting and order given. A cute show of complete obedience.
I imagined a world where I flipped him a rude hand sign and ran. I would go as fast and as far as I could. Until I was down the hall and out of this crumbling castle. I would run until my lungs burned and my feet bled and I was lost in the wilderness far, far away from him and all his little spies. I could live like a mad witch in the woods, build a little hut and cackle at the moon in happiness for finally being beholden to no one but myself.
But the only freedom I had the courage for was a quick side glance out the window to the craggy moors and fields of mottled brown and green. The wet greenery and gray rocks had their own kind of beauty. However, it also had its own smell that tickled my nose and infused every inch of this castle with mildewy dampness.
This will not be my home.
These words had rolled over and over like a wagon wheel through my mind as everything progressed quickly around me.
“This will not do,” Uncle spoke softly, as a concerned parent might speak to a young child. It was the voice he used when he wanted to make me small. “How can you be presented as the lovely bride when you still look like a rat that scurried out of its hole.”
A bride. I had to bite my tongue to keep from scoffing. Uncle had told me of the marriage to Marquis Erving only three days before when he joyously declared he had sold me off. He then locked me in my room under guard with the pretense of needing to pack.
He clicked his tongue, eyeing my damp and wrinkled riding dress with disapproval. After two days of traveling on horseback to reach the Marquis’s fortress I hardly looked like a ready bride.
It had not been my plan to spend the afternoon shivering in damp clothes. I asked for a bath to be drawn an hour ago when I was first dumped in this room upon arrival. My request had been met with excuses and delays. All three maids continued to ignore the small things I asked for, their eyes sliding past me as if I were merely a nuisance. So I had sat and waited, I was in no hurry to be wed.
It wasn’t all wasted time. The maids gossiped like I wasn’t even in the room while they busied themselves organizing ribbons and dusting already clean furniture. Apparently, I was merely the fourth bride they had attended to and the Marquis had already buried all three girls that came before. They had lasted a combined six years.
No wonder they had no respect for me when no one expected me to last.
From the look of impatience on Uncle’s face he was waiting for an answer. “There is so much to prepare for, Uncle,” I said, choosing words with care, “time has simply passed us by.”
“Indeed.” He glanced at the maids, who upon his entrance, had stood in a neat line awaiting his orders.
Uncle had never been a man who could be ignored. He took great care in his appearance to always look the role of a neat and proper Lord. He was approaching his forties, but looked younger. His tidy brown hair always styled in the latest fashion of the court. This season appeared to be a short cut slicked back and oiled so that it always appeared wet. He wasn't big, tall or muscular, but he was a powerful Weaver with a presence that made others instinctively shrink around him.
“And what say you?” he asked, casting his oppressive presence over the room. It felt like the heaviness in the air before a storm breaks. His presence made it just a bit harder to catch your breath.
The maid in the middle with light brown hair and freckles across her nose gave a little hop forward when one of the others gave her a pinch. “Milady…” she paused to search for something to say, “...did not ask for anything, we have been waiting for her orders.”
There was no surprise in having the blame pointed at me with such a blatant lie. I had repeated these types of moments over and over again. It was only surprising when it didn’t happen. Uncle did not need a logical reason anyway. This was his last chance to punish me and he would simply not miss it.
“Keziah.” There was that belittling inflection again. “Tsk, tsk. We cannot have these little rebellions on your big day.”
He tapped the bottom of his cane on the floor and, on cue, my body began to shake.
“On your knees. Hands in the air.”
When woven his words were not orders to be followed, but a force that took control. His power bent my body into awkward puppetted movement. I fell to my knees on the hard stone floor, hands already in the air and unable to cushion the fall.
He shifted out of view behind me, probably so he could watch the faces of the maids as he punished.
Uncle had a magical way of striking his cane just under the rib cage that made it feel like that beautiful ash whitewood wrapped all the way around me.
The air rushed out my lungs as the pain rushed in racking spasms that shook everything. But the worst was the inability to control my hands. They hung in the air helplessly. No amount of force or will I could muster would bring them back down against their invisible bonds.
He struck down again. On the left side this time to even out the pain. It wouldn’t be a proper punishment if I were to grow numb to it.
He crouched down until he was face to face with me. The cane rested in his hands atop his knees. “You will bathe. You will wear the pretty dress. And you will marry the ugly man all without speaking another word.”
It was an order, but as a slow jackal grin grew on his face I realized he hadn’t wove his will in it. He knew the pain was all he needed to control me into giving my life away.
I nodded, eyes down so I wouldn’t have to see his satisfaction. What use is there in fighting a man who could use your own body and mind against you with a few words? I had fought a thousand tiny rebellions against his domination and all I had gotten in return was a familiarity with his cane and my pending nuptials.
At least being married to the ugly and possibly wife-murdering Marquis Erving meant I would no longer be under Uncle’s constant control. There was some small hope I could find a way to escape after playing the role of the good wife for a bit.
“Excellent.” Uncle sprang to his feet with a light step as if everything was right and jolly. “Carry on then. I expect her to be as pretty as a princess the next time I see her.”
He strode out of the room and the tap-tap of his cane on the stone floors rang down the hall growing quieter. Distance lessened his presence until his hold on me released and my arms relaxed into my control again.
I gently touched my sides to assess the damage. Tender and aching but the skin wasn’t broken and my ribs felt whole. Uncle was a master of inflicting pain that bruised and followed you for days, but left little or no lasting physical consequences. With breath back in my lungs and moderately assured of nothing broken I moved to stand and was surprised to find gentle hands helping me up.
It was the freckled maid who had spoken up earlier. She said nothing as I got to my feet. With the sheepish way she turned her head and hurried away she must have felt a bit guilty.
The maids began to move in earnest and in silence. Quickly drawing a bath, peeling off my wet riding clothes and helping me into the large copper tub. It wasn’t the steaming bath of my dreams, but it was enough to pull the worst of the damp chill from my bones and clean off the dust from travel.
No one spoke and the air hung heavy in the room. Uncle still loomed large even in his absence. They served the Marquis and were not used to Uncle and his antics. They had only seen him as the jolly gentleman that gave them kind smiles as they took his cloak or poured his drink. They probably did not know what to say now, and I was too tired and in too much pain to try to make them feel better.