This story is by Lesley McGill and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Come away sister, it does no good to watch him so.”
I shook off her gentle hand and crept behind the pillar. I stared as he walked with her, arm in arm, this new beauty, this woman I had never seen before with hair of shining auburn. My sister pulled me into the corner of the passageway, she took both my hands in hers.
“Sister, you must accept it. He went away and now returns with this new beauty. He has left you, forget him. Many a young lord already looks your way.”
I shook my head and craned over my shoulder to catch a further glimpse. I heard their laughter, hers, low and from the throat, his, louder, happy drifted towards me.
“How dare he laugh sister? How dare he laugh at me,” I said.
“Eris how do you know they mock you? Is it not just your fancy?”
I dropped her hands and turned on her. My brooding face pushed closer and I swiped away the tears from my eyes.
“Clemencia, he mentioned my name. I heard him. He holds her arm and kisses her cheek. I have watched him. He loves me not. Nor does he have the grace to tell me, to set me free. No, he parades her through the court for all to see and for all to laugh at me his erstwhile mistress. His first love, his honeyed love, as once he called me.”
She sighed and folded my arm into hers, we walked towards the garden.
“But what can you do Eris, he is a man. He does as he will and you dearest sister will find another.”
I fell silent. She led me into the orchard, and we sat where warm sunshine made dappled patterns on the grass. The birds sang a mocking song and even the flowers dipped their heads as if they shared some jest. I heeded them not. My tormented mind played the scene of happiness over and over. The way he caught her arm and smiled at her eyes. At length my sister left me to my reverie, and I picked up a rotting apple from the ground. A maggot crawled from the centre and dropped onto the path, another followed and yet another.
When the moon journeyed high into the clouds, I pulled my cloak about my shoulders and allowed my feet to follow the path to the narrow street. Hidden amongst the candlemakers, weavers and tanners the apothecary could be found. His window boasted numerous cordials, syrups and medicines. Bottles of every different size sat on the wooden shelves and beckoned me in.
“Good Sir, I wish to purchase…”
He stopped me with a hand.
“Mistress, you wish to find a poison, swift and true.” His ancient voice and whispered words came unbidden to my ears.
“Do not waste my time Mistress, it is true is it not?”
“Then watch and wait, it will be but a short time.”
He busied himself among the bottles and my interest piqued. I took a step nearer and watched the smoke curling above me. He ground the leaves, poured in a thick gum, and lit the substance with a taper. The aroma drifted across the ceiling, cloying and lingering, it hung above me, a blue tinged veil, which in moments faded from sight. The potion, for that is what he made, was dark in colour.
“Good sir, would you lighten such a liquid? It must be intense and appealing.”
He turned his dark eyes towards me, reached for a brown bottle and removed its heavy stopper.
“And this Mistress, this is to your liking?”
I looked into the bottle, the liquid, a swirling mix of green and yellow beckoned me nearer.
I nodded, fascinated by the churning saffron strands and green chartreuse, I reached towards it. He snatched the bottle back.
“Not yet mistress, there is more to be done.”
Three drops he added to the waiting potion.
I glanced through the misty window as the moon hung low in the sky, hiding her face from the deeds he undertook at my bidding.
“Will she suffer, good master apothecary?” I moved around his cell, picked up the red jars and tawny glass bottles.
“Aye Mistress, this remedy blisters from within and as such the victim hurts. Such pain you cannot imagine Mistress. Is this what you craved?”
I felt his discomfort as I touched his treasures. The vapour drifted about the shelves.
I nodded, my eyes shining at the torture she would endure, and he, when watching, unable to give aid, he too would suffer.
“Good Sir is it ready?”
“Aye my lady, you have the coins?”
I passed him the bag, he weighed it in his hand and nodded.
“A goodly sum. And you were never here Mistress?”
“No good apothecary, I was never here.”
I took the precious phial, swept out of the tiny room, and breathed in the cool night air. An owl hooted as its dark shape crossed the moon. I walked back to my chamber, cradling the liquid in its amber flask. I could wait another day.
The next evening, I dressed with care and tied my mask behind my curls.
At the Masquerade Revels, I moved close to the young woman who was my prey. Her glass stood empty and when he had refilled it, they smiled and moved to dance the Galliard.
I stood close, passed my hand over its lip and emptied the lethal amber drops into her glass.
“There you are Eris, my dearest love, come, I have looked for you these past three days, where have you been? No matter, I wish you to meet my sister, Trista.”
He took my hand and placed it into that of the woman I believed to be my rival.
“But I …”
“Dearest Love, did you think I had forsaken you? What a foolish one you are, I told you many a time, there can only be you. But my sister is my sweetest friend. Since childhood she alone can make me laugh at the simplest things.”
Under my mask my face paled and I looked back at where the goblet stood. I moved to reach it, pour its toxic contents into the sewer. His hand caught mine.
“Come dance with me, Eris, let me hear your news. Trista, your dance is the next …yes?”
‘Yes, my brother.’ She smiled at me, the gentlest expression of fondest grace.
He whirled me around, and all I saw was her slender figure moving towards the fatal drink.
“My lord, please, we must stop… she mustn’t …drink,”
I gazed towards her hand as she reached towards the goblet.
“No.” I screamed the word, too late.
Trista dropped to the ground; her body racked with pain. I groped my way to the garden, tore my mask from my eyes and stumbled over the pathway; my body froze and my eyes wide and staring recoiled from the fragrant honeysuckle, and the shocked stare of the moonflowers. My breaths came in shaky gasps and I dared not return to the milling guests who gathered around her tortured body.
A hand gripped my shoulder, pulled me round and I faced my lord.
“You knew, how did you know…?”
His hate washed over me.
“Why?” the spittle from the word hit my face. I dropped to the ground and clutched at his hand.
“Forgive me, I thought… I thought…” The words useless, trapped, would not form as his hand connected with my face and I fell backwards. Two guards caught hold of my arms and dragged me away.
I sit in the cell that is to become my home. Wracked with guilt and tortured with an ache I cannot lose; the guard opens the door.
I dare not look at the disgust and pain on my sister’s face, she the gentlest of souls who finds good in everyone.
“They will not kill you sister, you will not hang, or burn, nor will they behead you. He has asked that you be left to rot. Allowed to starve until your body yields up its life,” she says.
“No more than I expect.”
I crouch in the corner and reach towards her robe. She twists away then drops down, grabs my chin in her hand and glares at me.
“Live in pain sister, its more than you deserve, you evil wretched soul. God will not show you mercy, do not hope for it. You will not see me again,” she says.
My tears soak into the dirty straw and my body aches from the sobs I cannot stop. I scratch at my face and arms, but nothing stops the dread, and the self-loathing at what I have done.
And in the dark corners of the night, when the moon refuses to look at me, and the owls tell of my deed, the nightmares begin, and I know they will never end.