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Marbella Ashbrooke had been given the duty of watching her younger sister that day but as usual, Luciella had wandered off after playing in the kitchen garden. Marbella rushed to the gate at the far end of the wall, heart pounding as she shot out into the bright evening sunlight. This wasn't the first time Luciella had vanished but something felt different. Even Lady Ashbrook, a woman not given to panic or nervousness, had all but thrown her younger children to the maids and raced out to join the search. When Marbella had sent a nursemaid back to the bower to report Luciella's escape, Lady Judith had gone wild with worry exclaiming how she had known something was wrong before the maid entered. Father had pulled together every available man, woman, and teenager to search for the girl who had been happily playing at midday and was now nowhere to be seen in the fading light. A small army of people were now racing around the manor and its grounds, striking Marbella like the nymphs and sprites from her books as they darted back and forth. Long shadows had begun to stretch across the grounds from the forest beyond the house and the air had become so tense that Marbella found it hard to breathe.
Suddenly, amongst the shouts of family and servants alike, a woman's scream rang out from beyond the treeline. The shrillness startled Marbella and caused her heart to race faster. Hitching up the layers of skirts, she raced into the forest after the source along with others who had been nearby. She heard men shouting back along the trail for her father to be found and fetched and heard the worried murmurs of women who now feared the worst. By the time she reached the woman who had raised the alarm, a small crowd had gathered in the clearing. They were by the fishpond her great-grandfather had built but she felt no desire to gaze out on the peaceful water. No one spoke, or even moved from where they had come to a halt and the silence was deafening. Forcing her way through the wall of bodies before her, Marbella made her way to the front, only to have her very breath snatched from her by the sight that had stunned the adults.
Luciella was floating, but not in the water. Merely a foot from the grass at the very edge of the pond and surrounded in a vivid blue light. Marbella could not tell if Luciella was still alive and wanted so badly to know she was fine, but fear had lodged itself deep in her breast and she could not bring herself to move any closer to the limp body of the little girl, even the commotion at the back of the crowd.
"Move aside! Let me through! Let me get to my daughter!" Came the gruff voice of Lord Ashbrook from the back of the ever growing throng of onlookers, "let me see her! Tell me she's..."
"Father... Don't..." whispered Marbella, as his voice trailed into silence at the sight. Marbella was suddenly overcome by fear that whatever was keeping Luciella suspended would be dangerous and that her father would be harmed if he tried to touch her. Lord Thomas stared in disbelief before shaking himself to his senses and gingerly moved towards Luciella.
As if anticipating his intentions, the light began to fade and Luciella slowly dropped towards the floor. Even as she settled against the grass, she showed no signs of life and without the glare of the light, it became apparent that she had fallen in the pond. Her clothes were sodden and her hair clung damply to her forehead. A chill went through Marbella as she gazed at her sister, Luciella's skin looked sallow and grey in comparison to her usually rosy cheeks. For all present, Luciella appeared dead and given what they had seen, beyond the grace of God. Many of the servants began crossing themselves and muttering prayers which sounded almost pleading for the soul of the young lady.
Mustering his courage, Thomas knelt beside his child and placed his fingers on her wrist. The slightest flutter of a pulse fluttered past his fingertips. Relief flooded through him as he slowly slipped an arm under her daughter's small, delicate shoulders and lifted her to him. She felt so heavy lying in his arms and no other signs of life flickered in her tiny face.
"Thank god... " he sighed before turning to the crowd of terrified servants and family members,
"she's still alive! Quick, fetch blankets and dry clothes for the child." As if thankfully to be excused, everyone jumped into action to fulfill their liege's order. All but Marbella, who still stood nearby, rigid with fear of what she had seen, too afraid to allow the realisation that her sister wasn't dead to wash over her.
"Father... What was that? Surely she cannot be a witch..." she whispered cautiously, an accusation of that sort often carried the death sentence to not only the accused but all the female members of her family. If this got out, especially connected to such a young child, their mother would be accused of consorting with the Devil and all the daughters would be put on the pyre beside her to rout the evil in their blood.
"Hush girl, the servants will be warned to keep quiet if they would like to keep their employment... And you'll keep quiet about this too if you wish yourself and your family safe," Thomas murmured, brushing damp strands of hair from Luciella's face and gently trying to shake her awake. Nothing stirred in the girl and Thomas began to fear that she was beyond help when Judith arrived in the clearing. Armed to the hilt with as many thick blankets and warm clothes as she could carry, Judith raced over to the three of them and immediately set about drying and changing Luciella. Evidently oblivious to what had really happened, Judith completed her task and sat on the wet grass cradling the child.
"What happened? Why are the servants suddenly giving me a wide berth and shouting information to me rather than come close and tell me in the normal manner?" Judith questioned, looking at the stoic face of her husband and the terror-blanched face of her daughter. She had been searching the bowers lower rooms when she heard the servants shouting up the stairs to her that Luciella had been found at Edwards fishpond. Grabbing what she could, she had flown down the stairs and pretended not to notice how the six women had backed away from her as she passed. Her mind was fixed on the child she had born into the world and God be damned if she was going to let her die. Thomas glanced to where Marbella still stood rooted with fear and looked down at Luciella. Taking a deep breath, he began to explain the events of finding Luciella but found himself unable to look Judith in the eye throughout the telling. He had known since he married Judith, some 18 years ago when she was a mere sapling of a girl at 14, that Judith came from a very long line of supposed witches and wise women, but he had never had cause to believe that the family gift had passed to Judith or any of their daughters. He says it as a gift only because he had been present when Judith's sister Rebecca had saved her from death's claws during the birth of their third child using witchcraft. He knew full well that no-one else would see it this way, that all they would see is a monster and a monstrous brood of witch-born children. It is what the Church told everyone from the day they were born, that witchcraft is the Devil's work and thus with the ability are outside of God's grace and are dangerous.
Judith sat through her husband's monologue, absently stroking the head of her child whilst taking it all in. A small whimper broke the silence that enveloped them when Thomas finished and everyone turned to look at Luciella. Eyelids now fluttered and colour slowly rose back to her cheeks as her mother rubbed her slender arms through the blankets. Judith smiled gently, content that her daughter was coming back to her and turned to Thomas.
"She can never know... We go about life as normal but she can never know what power she has..." Judith stated, locking her husband's gaze with an intensity that he had never seen before. Thomas nodded and raised himself slowly, letting the blood creep back into his long numb legs. He needed to gather the family and the servants and announce the girls return to health and to squash any whispers that would no doubt be making their way around the household. The sooner he acted and made the family's reputation safe, the better it would be in the long run.
"Take her back to the house, my love, before she runs a fever and leaves us from that instead. Bella, accompany your mother and do not leave her side until I send for you," he murmured, regaining his composure as Lord Ashbrook before strutting off to the manor to make his speech
Pretty, gilded, flower-scented cages, that's what Lady Judith's rooms had become. Now seventeen, Luciella was the only one of Judith's daughters still at home and not through lack of trying. Her father had been turned away by every Lord or wealthy landowner he had approached with a torrent of polite excuses. It seemed as if every unmarried man in the country between 16 and 60 was either betrothed, taking vows, or going abroad indefinitely. Even her youngest sister, at only 13, was already happily settled in Devon with a very charming young husband and a baby in the belly. Luciella could sympathize with these simpering suitors and their families if she had been poor or ugly in some manner, but her dowry could rival most of the Kings cousins and it was common knowledge that she was astoundingly beautiful and well educated. It was the stench of witchcraft that followed her name everywhere her father went. No matter how hard her family had tried to silence the servants and no matter that the good standing of her family had saved her and the women closest to her from an awful fate, news of the incident in her youth had travelled far and wide. Her family had tried hard to shield her from the truth as well, only to have all that hard work dashed to wind when an overly talkative cook began telling a new scullery maid whilst Luciella was in earshot. She had been 11 then and the mention of her name and 'the great incident' had piqued her interest so she stole away into the cool room of the kitchen to listen. She had naturally run to her mother in tears, begging for it not to be true but Judith had offered no such comfort. She had merely nodded and told her to never speak of it again. But it hung on her like the smell of the midden clings to the servants who clean it. She was a witch by blood, powers unwanted and unbidden, and she had no idea what she was capable of and no way of controlling it.
"Goodness girl, if you stare at that long enough you'll damage your eyes!" cried Maud, her mother's lady-in-waiting, reaching for the sewing that Luciella had been gazing at for over an hour without making a single stitch. Luciella jolted up against the cold stone of the window frame and looked around the room. Seven women, including herself, were lounging around and chattering like the little birds one could buy from the market.
"Pretty birds in a pretty cage..." she whispered, replacing the sewing tools in the little blue enamel box her father had bought for her birthday. Every day was the same in here. The same faces, the same conversations and the same scenery. Nothing every changed for Luciella. Maud shook her head and wobbled off to sit by the fire, 12 children and an indulgent husband telling on her figure. Sighing, Luciella turned to look out over the road that led to the manor. How she wished that Father would ride up that road, waving a marriage contract high in the air and hollering like a madman that he finally found a match for her. She was even beyond caring if her future husband was below her in the social order, just as long as somebody would take her away from all this and let her be free. Trumpets sounded somewhere in the distance, waking her from the daydream, and the room became a hive of activity as the other women started rushing around. Table's were made presentable, cushions fluffed and hoods replaced over runaway hair. Luciella would've laughed but her mother appeared before her and began to fuss.
"Make yourself right, Lucy, we have an important guest arriving with your father," she snapped, fingers fumbling on the pins that held Luciella's hood in place. Judith was out of sorts, flustered about this unknown guest and it made Luciella curious beyond measure. Naturally, she held her tongue and straightened her skirts, lingering on the soft damask that made up the bottle-green dress. Glancing back at the window, she caught a glimpse of burgundy and blue banners flying alongside those of her fathers, but the livery alluded her memory like something wanted on a shelf slightly too high to reach. Maud clucked over the younger noble maids, making sure everything was just right before snapping her fingers for Luciella to take a seat beside her mother.
Luciella seated herself prettily beside Lady Judith, this much effort meant a suitor and a high standing one at that so Luciella would be pretty and polite. She saw how disappointed her became each time a suitor ran away babbling excuses and how her father blamed himself for not silencing the servants better when he had the chance. How was he to know that in the time it took for him to warn them all to keep their mouths shut, several had already run into town and spread the news over a tankard of ale 'to calm their nerves'. So she would play at being a perfect daughter to hopefully end her parents suffering and snare a decent husband. Skirts had barely stopped rustling when trumpets sounded again and the great carved door of the bower swung open to admit Lord Ashbrook and his honoured guest. The memory of the livery slammed into Luciella like a carriage as she sat and gazed on the face of the illustrious Duke of Gloucester, brother of the newly appointed King Edward. Quickly turning her eyes to the floor, Luciella felt compelled to bite the inside of her cheek to ensure she was really awake. Pain stung her mouth and her eyes wanted to water, but she held herself firm and let her parents and Duke Richard talk merrily over her. Then the Duke asked what she had been dreading, the fatal question that had chased away many eligible men before him.
"And what of these rumours I hear of magick in the blood?" he asked as though he were asking where he could find good sport out on the grounds.
He seemed so unaffected by the notion that Luciella risked raising her head again and found herself caught by his eyes. They bore into her soul and she could not keep a check of herself and a slight smile formed on her face and the faintest nod manifested without her bidding. Her mother and father were stammering their usual lies about it being the ravings of a half-mad servant but he graciously waved them away and stepped towards Luciella. Her breath stopped as a bejeweled hand reached out to her with an offer of freedom. Lord and Lady Ashbrook stood behind him, too stunned to even gesture to Luciella, but she needed no prompting to take Richard's hand. With not even the slightest tremble, Luciella reached up and placed her hand on his, marvelling at how cool his skin felt against hers.
"I believe we have an agreement then, my Lord Ashbrook, so long as your bewitching child does not mind changing her name. We have enough rumours at court regarding the Queen and I doubt Lady Luciella would appreciate the rumours of her youth following her to a place full of forked tongues," Richard remarked, never once taking his eyes from Luciella. Luciella shot a glance at her father, urging him to respond to her silent pleas. All Thomas could muster was a vigorous nod and a muffled assent to the terms. She was free, finally free of her mother's control and now, thanks to the remarkable man holding her hand, free of the stain of witchcraft. And she would become a Duchess in the process, a woman of such importance that she would only answer to the King, Queen, and her husband. She had spent so long hiding in this bower, so long honing the skills every well-bred lady had to learn with no opportunity to use them and now she was being given a fresh start. It was hard to accept that from now on everyone would look at her differently.