Sunday, October 09, 2011
When Maidens Mourn, Chapter One...
Camlet Moat, Trent Place, England, Sunday, 2 August 1812
Tessa Sawyer hummed a nervous tune beneath her breath as she pushed through the tangled brush and bracken edging the black waters of the ancient moat. She was very young—just sixteen at her next birthday. And though she tried to tell herself she was brave, she knew she wasn’t. She could feel her heart pounding in her narrow chest, and her hands tingled as if she’d been sitting on them. When she’d left the village, the night sky above had been clear and bright with stars. But here, deep in the wood, all was darkness and shadow. From the murky, stagnant water beside her rose an eerie mist, thick and clammy.
It should have wafted cool against her cheek. Instead, she felt as if the heavy dampness were stealing her breath, suffocating her with an unnatural heat and a sick dread of the forbidden. She paused to swipe a shaky hand across her sweaty face and heard a rustling in the distance, the soft plop of something hitting the water.
Choking back a whimper, she spun about, ready to run. But this was Lammas, a time sacred to the ancient goddess. They said that at midnight on this night, if a maiden dipped a cloth into the holy well that lay on the northern edge of the isle of Camlet Moat and then tied her offering to a branch of the rag tree that overhung the well, her prayer would be answered. Not only that, but maybe, just maybe, the White Lady herself would appear, to bless the maid and offer her the wisdom and guidance that a motherless girl like Tessa yearned for with all her being.
No one knew exactly who the White Lady was. Father Clark insisted that if the lady existed at all—which he doubted—she could only be the Virgin Mary. But local legend said the White Lady was one of the grail maidens of old, a chaste virgin who’d guarded the sacred well since before the time of Arthur and Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table. And then there were those who whispered that the lady was actually Guinevere, ever young, ever beautiful, ever glorious.
Forcing herself to go on, Tessa clenched her fist around the strip of white cloth she was bringing as an offering. She could see the prow of the small dinghy kept at the moat by Sir Stanley Winthrop, on whose land she trespassed. Its timbers old and cracked, its aged paint worn and faded, it rocked lightly at the water’s edge as if touched by an unseen current.
It was not empty.
Tessa drew up short. A lady lay crumpled against the stern, her hair a dark cascade of curls around a pale, motionless face. She was young yet and slim, her gown an elegant flowing confection of gossamer muslin sashed with peach satin. She had her head tipped back, her neck arched; her eyes were open but sightless, her skin waxen.
And from a jagged rent high across her pale breast flowed a rivulet of darkness where her life’s blood had long since drained away.