Author’s Note: This story is partially inspired by a poem entitled “My Last Duchess,” by Robert Browning. The further inspiration arises from a scene in Veiled Rose. The action occurs approximately 20 years, (as mortals count time), before the events of Heartless and Veiled Rose. I hope that you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. God bless you all.
Cordelia stared forlornly down the vast expanse of Chiara Bay. The thunderous laughter of the waves burst upon her ears, and a playful breeze caressed the blond ringlets that cascaded down her back. A trill of birdsong surrounded her, causing a spark of joy to wing its way into her soul:
Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling.
When all appears to be lost,
Won’t you trust in me?
Cordelia felt her cheeks warm with a blush of pure pleasure. She had heard that wondrous song ever since childhood. It had filled her dreams and awoken her each morning. Now, at sixteen, and having recently married, she needed that mysterious song more than ever. “What am I to do?” she murmured. “He is unbearable!”
Patience, child. I will be with you.
Slowly, Cordelia bowed her head in submission. “I will try, but it is so very hard.” She turned and began to hurry toward the duke’s house, the blush in her cheeks growing as she increased her speed. Her graceful run resembled mountain gazelles, beautiful creatures who could climb to dizzying heights and never fall. Running gave her such joy, and, although she did not relish time under the duke’s roof, she was resolved to take as much pleasure from life as possible. There were so few carefree moments to enjoy.
Upon a high hill, a stout man peered down at the graceful figure. His face was flushed from a successful hunt, and his eyes glimmered as he observed the vastness of his dukedom. As he stared at the running woman, a mirthless smile curled the corners of his lips.
“So, m’dear? Had a good run, did you?”
The tea table was covered with a damask cloth embroidered with grotesque hunting scenes—blood red depictions of strange beasts being slaughtered. Similar pictures and tapestries adorned the library walls. Cordelia’s stomach clenched in revulsion as she tried to focus on anything other than the carnage surrounding her. A memory of her first day in the duke’s house rose unbidden to her mind. She’d resolved to remove the garish cloth and replace it with one her mother had made, a charming cloth embroidered with a skillful hand. The cloth bore a picture of a young man and woman seated beneath a cherry tree. The luscious fruit appeared so lifelike that all who saw the cloth blinked in wonder. Upon a bough of the magnificent tree perched a wood thrush, his beak open in continuous song. White cherry blossoms fell in graceful profusion upon the seated couple. The duke had been furious. Cordelia had watched in horror as his massive hands ripped the vibrant cloth and threw it into the fire.
Cordelia’s face crumpled as she thought of her mother. A long-limbed woman with a graceful bearing, she had always exuded strength and dignity. She had instilled a love for the seemingly insignificant pleasures of life into her daughter--a love for a meal, for a glorious sunset, for the music of the Sphere Songs. Now, her mother was gone, and there was no way Cordelia could tell her that she was sorry.
“Asked you a question, woman!” the duke barked, breaking into her reverie. He was eating a plum tart, thrusting handfuls of the pastry into his mouth. Crumbs and juice fell in grotesque profusion from his lips, dirtying his shirt. “Had a nice run, did you?”
Cordelia pushed away her uneaten dish of currant pudding. “Yes, Your Grace,” she murmured. “May I beg leave to be—“
“Excused? Is that your wish?” The duke leant forward, fixing upon his young bride a deep stare. His eyes were fathomless pools of emptiness, totally lacking depth. Only anger could be discerned upon his flushed face. “Does my company displease you? You rarely do me the courtesy of remaining by my side. You may not leave until I say so. Is that clear?”
Cordelia bit her lip to prevent it from trembling. Swallowing, she said, “I do not fancy eating a meal with someone who talks of nothing but himself. Besides, I have a riding lesson to prepare for.”
The duke inclined his head. “And who, might I ask, is endeavoring to teach a shrew like you to ride?” Without warning, his hand shot forward, upsetting platters of tarts, and fastened like a vise onto Cordelia’s wrist. “Confound it, girl! I payed good money to have you brought here! Why I wasted valuable coin I’ll never know! I can only assume your worthless parents wanted you out of the way as quickly as possible. Perhaps that is why they settled for such a low bride price.” He paused for a moment, his face growing pensive. “I should amend my statement. Your father was the worthless one. I seem to recall your mother expressing some resistance to my suit.” He snorted with contempt. “The sniveling fool! Now, who is teaching you to ride?”
Cordelia gasped at the pain and feverishly tried to wrench herself from the duke’s grasp. “You tricked us all!” The bitter words gushed forth as if from a shattered decanter. “Father would never have given into you if he’d known your true nature. You are a heartless devil!” Tears rose unbidden to her eyes. Angrily, she tried to hold them back. She would not allow this oaf to see her cry. He had seemed so kind in the beginning. A bit boisterous, perhaps, but always lavishing gifts upon her. Her favorites had been a book of poetry exclusively devoted to the verses of Sir Eanrin and a book of creamy paper upon which she could sketch.
Her father was a nobleman of little significance, yet he held ties to prestigious people. Cordelia should have known that her father’s acquaintances were what had drawn the Duke into their lives. Her mother’s family history was less well-known. Only small tidbits of gossip seemed to indicate that she had come from a family with no pedigree. Cordelia still flushed with anger when she thought of the village women and their piercing stares. The whispered words still flooded her with embarrassment.
Cordelia recalled her mother’s trembling hands and piercing look as she prepared her daughter to wed. “I cannot stop you, love,” she murmured, “though I would move mountains to do so were it within my power. Take this, my child.” She had pressed the tablecloth into Cordelia’s hand. “It holds my love and the love of your father. As long as you keep it, a shield will surround you. Though he might try to harm you, he will be unable to do so. Should this talisman fail, remember the One of whom I always speak, the One whose voice calls to you everyday.” Cordelia had accepted the gift and, fool that she was, had recklessly allowed it to be destroyed the next day. Her love for the beauty of the cloth and the desire to display it had robbed her of the forethought to take precautions. She still was unsure what her mother had meant about protections, and she wasn’t sure she liked the thoughts that winged their way into her mind. Could the village women speak truly? Had her mother indeed been a witch?
Now, Cordelia breathed a sigh of relief as the Duke relinquished her wrist. His face flushed scarlet, and his harsh intake of breath filled Cordelia with dread. Did he intend to strike her? “You pathetic creature! Get out, girl! You put me off my food.”
Cordelia fled the room. She bolted toward the stables, the tears falling in continuous rivulets down her burning cheeks.
Inside the stables, Cordelia halted at a wooden stall. A joyous nickering greeted her ears, and she smiled in spite of herself. “Hello, Barley,” she murmured.
Gently, she reached through the stall door, her hands caressing the lustrous mane of a chestnut stallion. “Want to ride today?”
Barley neighed in excitement. He thrust his head forward, playfully biting at Cordelia’s hand. She laughed in delight. “I couldn’t sneak away to the larder today, but I’ll—“
Hurried footsteps stole upon her ears, and Cordelia turned in time to see a tall, ruddy-cheeked boy rushing to her side. She grinned. “Hello, Randolph. I am ready.”
The boy smiled and held out his hand. “Good day, m’lady,” he said. “Not that you need me no more. You’re gettin’ better each day.” He proffered a lump of sugar in his muscular fist. “Saved it for you to give him. He’s been excited all day.”
Cordelia took the precious lump of sugar, a rare treat that she knew Randolph had risked his neck procuring. The duke kept careful accounts, and he always knew when things were missing from his larder. She held out the sweet, laughing as Barley consumed it with appreciative snorts of pleasure. “You must be more careful, Randolph. You remember his look the other day when you brought me the paints and parchment. I cannot allow—“
Randolph grinned cheekily. “Ain’t ‘fraid of him, m’lady!” he said stoutly. “’Sides, I’ve seen you drawin’ in that book of your’n. You like makin’ pictures, don’t you?”
After a moment of hesitation, Cordelia nodded. What was the use of denying it? One of her wishes was to paint something of value that would make a difference. Although she was a romantic and longed for home and family, she also knew that her artistry was a gift she longed to share. “I cannot imagine how much you paid for—“
Randolph blushed. “Do you wanna ride, m’lady? Times a-wastin’.”
Cordelia sighed, yet she could not help smiling. She nodded. “I am ready.”
The ride across the vast expanse of meadow was exhilarating. Barley trotted at a steady pace, his hooves barely creating a stir in the lush grass. Randolph galloped along beside Cordelia on a scarlet mare. His face was flushed with exertion, yet he grinned. Cordelia laughed as her hair flew behind her. This was true freedom, the glorious beauty of flight. The—
A wall of fire materialized before her in a thunderous roar. Heat slammed into her face, and she gasped in pain. Barley emitted a harrowing scream and crumpled beneath her. The scarlet mare staggered and bucked, sending Randolph flying from the saddle. She snorted and tried to run, but the heat intensified, and she crumpled to the ground, her sides heaving. Cordelia fell to the ground in a shuddering heap. A large presence towered over her. “Well met, my dear. It is a lovely day for a ride, is it not? Escaping with your young love, perhaps?” The voice of the presence rolled over her like liquid fire, seeping into her soul. “Your husband is none too pleased with your conduct, you know.”
Gasping, Cordelia raised her head and peered into the roiling red eye of a gigantic Dragon. She did not have to have seen a Dragon to know who this beast was. He embodied all the horrors of life, those experienced in nightmares and upon waking. Oddly, he was beautiful, yet no amount of beauty could hide this monster’s true nature.
The Dragon smiled down at her. “Not to worry, my sweet,” he murmured. “I do not believe for a moment that you harbor disloyal feelings. Or, at the very least, you will not act upon those feelings. You are too great a weakling for that. However, your husband believes otherwise.” The Dragon’s smile grew. “I have no quarrel with you personally, but I must keep up appearances. Your fool of a husband believes that he controls me.” The monster’s eyes gleamed with anger and contempt. “The pathetic idiot! He is needed by me, however, and he believes you to be a thorn in his flesh. You see, you frustrate him, and that, naturally, interferes with me. I will make this as painless as possible.” His voice was so gentle, like the purring of a great cat, yet his eyes gleamed with malicious pleasure. His mouth opened wide, and he bent low over the prostrate girl.
A thunderous gust of wind shattered the stillness. Cordelia gasped as strong arms wrapped around her. Strong hands lifted her into the air, and she had just enough time to glimpse a deeply white face, the face of an albino. The figure that held her was long-limbed and ran with astounding speed. Cordelia felt as if she rode on the back of a wild wind, one that blew with insistent urgency, yet which could also run through the grass in gentle caressing steps. Unbidden, her mother’s graceful form filled her mind. What was happening?
The strange creature deposited Cordelia upon a grassy bank. The meadow stretched before her in a graceful path. Flowers and fruit trees lined either side of the expanse. “Gentle creature, I saw that you were in need.” The voice was strong yet soft. “This is a safe Path.”
Cordelia gaped in shock. “Wh-Who are you?”
The creature inclined his head. His face wore a kind smile. “One who serves my Master, gentle one. Also, I have watched you. I will admit that, mortal though you may be, you stir something within me. I know the one who bore you, the graceful sylph who dared to love a mortal man. Although not related, we were always known by the other. Ah! The races we used to run! She would always win.” He laughed, a joyous, wild sound that reverberated through the still air. Then, his face crumpled and great tears flowed from his large eyes. “It takes someone of a supremely unholy nature, one who communes with Death himself, to kill a sylph. I do not know what charms that man used, but he will one day pay for his crimes. The one he thinks is his servant will turn upon him. I understand the feelings that your mother felt toward your father and toward you. You are something special, mortal one. Now, go.”
Cordelia tried to speak, but, before she could do so, the mysterious creature had vanished. She stepped forward onto the strange Path, not knowing where it would lead, but somehow knowing she would be safe as long as she followed it.
Suddenly, a scream of pain erupted around her. Before her eyes, she saw the majestic creature who had rescued her. Now, however, he lay in a crumpled heap, his body quivering with convulsions. A collar of iron was clasped around his neck. The Dragon bent over him, his horrible laughter piercing into Cordelia’s heart. “You fool! You insignificant fool! From hence forth, that is what you will be!”
Cordelia cried out in pain and horror. She still stood on the Fairie Path to which her rescuer had brought her. If she turned back now, she knew that she would be hurt. However, the mysterious creature needed help.
Suddenly, a trill of birdsong filled her mind. A beautiful wood thrush appeared on the bough of a cherry tree beside the Path. What would you have me do, my child?
Cordelia gazed at the snow-white bird in wonder. He shone with glorious golden light. “I-I would ask you to please free that poor creature. He is hurting because of me. I-I also need to know about the stableboy, Randolph. Please, tell me that he lives.”
The wood thrush sang gently, the comforting notes somewhat abating her fear. My faithful servant, the sylph, shall be set free. His story is interwoven with that of another, one who is a Fool as well. This does not mean that he will not endure pain. Love causes great pain. For a moment, the wood thrush’s song grew unbearably sad. However, I will be with him always. I can ease his pain for a time. I have transported Randolph to a haven of safety. One of my knights attends to him even now. He has breathed in lots of Dragon poison, yet he will be well. I will help him. And, I will help you, too.
Cordelia watched as the wood thrush used his powerful beak to pull a resplendent bough of cherry blossoms from the tree. Inclining his head, he allowed the bough to fall to the ground. This is the very tree beneath which your mother and father met, my child. Your father had wandered onto a hostile Path, and your mother led him to this very tree. Retrieve the branch, my child, and walk before me.
Cordelia hesitated for a moment. She knew that the Dragon pursued her, yet something told her he could not venture onto this Path. She reached for the cherry tree branch. It shone with a wondrous white light, and a sweet fragrance emanated from it. The wood thrush sang with mellifluous notes as it flew ahead of her. Following close behind, she was surprised to discover that she was being led to a thatched cottage that stood on the edge of the Faerie Path a few yards away.
Inside, she discovered a table and chair. A lavish meal was spread upon the makeshift table, andCordelia’s eyes widened as she saw that her mother’s beautiful damask cloth rested beneath the platters of food. I restored her gift to you, my child, the wood thrush sang. Anytime you desire food, you simply ask, and I have enabled the cloth to provide it for you. Also, the cloth provides a barrier around the cottage, one which Death-in-Life cannot penetrate. Your mother did not merely embroider with needle and thread. As Cordelia gazed at the resplendent cloth, she saw something she had never noticed before. Interspersed among the silky threads were white bird feathers, ones that were identical to the vibrant plumage that adorned the magnificent bird before her. Small drops of crimson dotted the tips of the feathers, precious droplets of blood. She gulped as she realized that the cloth had been woven at a heavy price. The protections had caused great pain to her guide. My gift to her and to you, my child. She did not want to pluck the feathers, yet she knew the necessity of doing so. Now, look at what else I have given you. I have much work for you to do if you are willing.
Cordelia gazed around the small cottage. She spied the most wondrous object she had yet seen, an easel standing ready in a corner. A simple canvas was stretched across it. There were no brushes or paints that Cordelia could see. She blinked in surprise.
This is a haven of transmission, my child, the wood thrush sang. Here, you can create as you were meant to. Nothing will hinder your work, and I will be with you.
Cordelia nodded, but her face still registered puzzlement. “There are no paints or brushes. How am I to—“
The cherry tree bough, my child. It is your instrument.
Cordelia thought for a moment that she was going mad. However, she was safe from the duke’s tyranny and the Dragon’s malevolence. The wood thrush had never led her into danger. Shrugging, she walked to the canvas. Tentatively, she ran the bough over the white expanse. A profusion of colors burst upon the canvas, and Cordelia gasped. “Wh-What should I draw?” she stammered.
Whatever you wish, the thrush sang. Your work will please many, and, as I sing to you, you will convey my song through your art.
After a moment, Cordelia began to paint a sketch of the glorious expanse of Chiara Bay. Color flowed onto the canvas in a stunning array of beauty. Far away in the Duke’s dungeons, the breathtaking image seeped into the mind of a captive creature dressed in gester’s motley. Comfort seeped into his soul along with the beautiful images.
As the wood thrush prepared to take flight, a final thought winged its way into Cordelia’s mind, Your mother is safe. She rests beyond the Final Water. The Asha Lantern guided her well, and she has reaped her just reward. A true servant just as you are, my child. Well done. I am with you always.
Cordelia created countless paintings, many that were borne away by the wood thrush to be distributed throughout all of Goldstone Wood. Stories that he told her sprang to vivid life on her canvas, and each picture grew more beautiful than the last. One of her earliest works was a depiction of a lakeshore scene which was taken by the wood thrush to Oriana Palace in the land of Parumvir. Cordelia never knew who saw her work or the empact it had upon others. She was simply a transmitter of beauty who had been rescued. She was free.
A few years later, a sylph who had sacrificed so much in the name of love would be liberated. He would follow the song of the wood thrush to a seemingly unimpressive cottage where a woman waited. Thus, the Duchess of Shippening would become the bride of a sylph. However, the story of the sylph’s liberation and of his marriage to a mortal must be told another time.