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Authors: Alys Clare

A Dark Night Hidden

BOOK: A Dark Night Hidden
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Alys Clare

Also by Alys Clare
Fortune Like the Moon
Ashes of the Elements
The Tavern in the Morning
The Chatter of the Maidens
The Faithful Dead
Copyright © 2003 by Alys Clare
First published in Great Britain in 2003 by Hodder and Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
The right of Alys Clare to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise, circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
Epub ISBN 978 1 444 71668 9
Book ISBN 978 0 340 79332 9
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
An Hachette UK Company
338 Euston Road
For Joey, my mother,
and in memory of her mother Mabel
and all the wise women
Siqua sine socio
caret omni gaudio;
tenet noctis infima
sub intimo
cordis in custodia
If a maid lacks a lover,
She lacks also all joys;
She keeps in her heart
A dark night hidden.
Carmina Burana:
cantiones profanae
Author’s translation
The spiteful wind of a bleak, icy February blasted down the muddy track and around the sparse huddle of buildings as if it hated the world and everything in it. There had been snow earlier in the day, but now it was too cold for further flakes to fall. Even if they had, they would have been blown halfway to the chilly sea before being allowed to settle. The wind was out of the north-east: it could as easily have come from the frozen Arctic wastes.
One of the buildings was a gaol. Inside one of its three cells, a young woman lay on the soiled stone floor. She had spent many hours trying feebly to discover which area of the dank stone was the least wet, but such meagre effort was now beyond her. The damp in part comprised melted snow that had found its way in through the cell’s single, tiny window; too high to allow a view of the forgotten world outside, too small to permit the flow of fresh air, good only, it seemed, for letting in the fast-blown snow. In part, the moisture seemed to be a constant weeping from the very flags of the floor.
In part, too, it was the woman’s own bodily waste. For there was no receptacle put out for her use, and she was now too weak to do anything but let the urine flow out of her where she lay.
She was feverish. She knew, in some part of her mind that retained a little lucidity, that the fearful wounds she had sustained had become infected. Even if the lash itself had not poisoned her flesh, then this filthy cell would have done so, probably the instant she had been flung inside it.
Musing to herself as if it were a matter of academic interest, she reflected on her faint surprise that her back should pain her so much more than her brow. For they had but whipped her back – twenty-five lashes, a lighter penalty because of her sex – whereas her forehead had received the brand.
A letter, they said. Just that, a single letter. Burned into the smooth skin of her forehead with a red-hot iron. A time of terrible agony – she could still hear the echo of her own screams – but now, nothing. It was as if whatever it was in the body that transmitted pain had been excised. It was, she supposed, a blessing. Of a sort . . .
Her eyes closed. Reality faded – another blessing – and she slipped into a state somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness. Her mind, released from her desperate plight, took wing. And her senses filled with the past.
She saw them, those beloved companions. Saw their smiles, their love for her, for each other. She felt the warmth of their arms as they embraced her. She smelt lavender, that scent forever associated with the newcomers who had come from the south bearing the great news. And she heard the joyous sound of their voices raised in song.
The hallucination was so vivid that she thought they were there. That, against all reason, all hope, they had come for her.
She raised her head from the foul sludge on the floor. She said, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’
She believed herself to be shouting. But her voice emerged as a croak, barely audible.
‘Here I am!’ she cried again. ‘Oh, don’t go without me! Don’t abandon me!’
She struggled to her feet, falling forward against the cell wall. Gazing up at the window so far above, she beat her fists weakly against the dripping stones. ‘Here I am! Oh, why don’t they come?’
Perhaps they didn’t want her any more! Aghast, she put a blood-and dirt-stained hand to her mouth as if to stop the terrible thought. But then, why
they want her, she who had betrayed them, who, through her own passion and weakness, had introduced the crack in their defences that had so swiftly and frighteningly led to the downfall of them all?
She sank down to the floor. No, they will consider themselves well rid of me. I am alone. Quite alone.
She tried to pray for them, a prayer of beseeching: please, of thy great mercy, let them be safe. Keep them safe. A soft sob broke from her, but she did not recognise it as her own. Her head shot up, her senses alert.
Somebody is here! she thought wildly. There’s someone – maybe several people – in one of the other cells! Oh, is it, can it be,
She got to her knees, leaning heavily against the wall. Holding on to the hinge of the stout door, she began to beat her fist against it. ‘Are you there?’ she called. ‘Oh, please, answer me! Forgive me! Don’t shun me now, when I have such need of you!’
No reply.
Reaching deep inside herself, she found a louder voice. Some strength with which to thump the door. ‘
’ she cried.
After long moments of effort, she had an answer. But it was not the one she was so desperately hoping for.
Footsteps sounded along the passage outside. Heavy footfalls, from large feet in stout boots. The woman’s heart filled with hope, and she raised herself so that her face was almost up to the small, mean grille let into the wood of the door. ‘I’m here! Oh, thank you, thank you . . .’
The brilliant flame of a torch scorched across her dark-adapted eyes. Covering them with her hands, she was suddenly flung backwards into the cell as the door was unlocked and thrust open.
Hope dying, she raised her head.
Above her stood not a beloved companion but her gaoler. Even as she felt the chill of ultimate despair, he swung a bunched fist at her head and sent her reeling.
‘Stop that bawling, else I’ll give you something to bawl about!’ he shouted, his harsh voice in the narrow cell hurting her ears.
‘Oh, please!’ she sobbed. ‘Won’t you let me see them? Won’t you at the least tell them I am here?’
Her words seemed to puzzle the man. Most things did, for he was not employed for his reasoning powers, simply for his brute strength.
‘Ah, enough!’ he said. ‘God alone knows what you’re ranting about,
don’t. Can’t make out a word of it.’ He made as if to retreat out of the cell. But then, staring down at her as she lay at his feet, he caught sight of a faint glimmer of pale, soft skin. The swell of a breast, white, rounded . . .
The woman’s gown had been ripped from her back for the flogging. She had tried to fasten the torn pieces together but with little success, so that now they no longer decently covered her upper body.
It was to be her final undoing.
The gaoler forced the torch into a bracket high on the wall. Then he fell heavily to his knees and grabbed at her.
Knowing what was coming, she made one last effort. Slipping to one side, swift as a snake, she wriggled out of his grasp. Leaping to her feet – she was small and light, and possessed of the adrenalin-fed strength of desperate peril – she evaded him and made a lunge for the door.
She almost reached it.
But the gaoler had long arms – the crueller of his associates remarked that his knuckles grazed the ground as he walked – and he shot out a hand and grabbed her ankle. Then, with a smile of pure lust, he pushed his hand up her calf, her thigh, until his strong fingers pinched hard into her buttock.
‘Now where d’you think you’re going, my little beauty?’ he crooned. ‘Out into the cold night when you could be nice and warm with old Forin here?’ His other hand was pulling at the front of her gown, reaching in and closing on her breast.
Wrestling, drawing on the last of her strength, she tried to push him away, spitting into his ugly, coarse face.
That was a mistake, for it angered him.
‘Slut! Whore!’ He shook her, so hard that her teeth clamped together, painfully biting her tongue. ‘Spit at me, would you?’ He threw her down on to the floor and her head bounced against the stones with a loud crack. She went limp.
But the gaoler did not notice. Blood lust ran hot in him, and in seconds he had ripped away the remnants of her clothes and pulled down his breeches. Fiercely aroused by the fight she had put up, he was hard and more than ready. Forcing her legs apart, he thrust into her, savage strokes that tore at her; he was built like a bull, and not for nothing did the town whores evade him unless there was no choice.
His climax came quickly, for a man like him had no concept of self-control. Panting, he slumped on the woman. ‘There, now,’ he managed after a while, ‘that weren’t so bad, eh?’ And – thinking that he might again have for free what he normally had to pay for – ‘We might do that again, now, eh? Old Forin might come by again, maybe bring you . . .’
BOOK: A Dark Night Hidden
9.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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