by C. J. Lavigne
My dear Clarinda,
They tell me that when you heard of my wedding, you shattered a goblet, fell to the floor in a swooning fit, and did not arise for three days. I hear that the entirety of the manor was wreathed in black. Really, darling, it seems a bit much. I’m fine.
I know it’s not the choice you would have made. If it’s any consolation . . . in the moment when I found myself there, caught between the noble prince and the eternal night, I did think of you. It was all very dramatic, Jordan standing there in a shaft of brilliant light, his hand outstretched, begging me to leave Gareth’s side. I was glad he’d thought to break the window boards, or that whole scene would have been significantly bloodier; I could feel Gareth, pressed against my back, and his fingers were gentle on my shoulder but his teeth were bared.
Your voice was there, I promise. I heard you say think of the sunlight and death is what gives life meaning and he has loved you since childhood and, yes, all of it was true. So please don’t feel guilty; don’t think “if I’d only been there” or “she was confused” or “I could have changed her mind.” I wasn’t confused. You didn’t change my mind. But I know you, and I knew you would have tried.
We are very different people, you and I.
I hope, though, that we can still be friends. I assure you, I retain all of our life’s affections, and I wish you only the best. I won’t visit; Gareth tells me it will take time before the bloodlust abates, and I do not wish to frighten or harm you. But write back! Just give the parchment to a spider, or a bat — leave it on the windowsill, if you like. They will know it’s for me.
All my heart,
You wrote! I shall be delighted at that instead of worrying about exactly how many exclamation marks you used, and — Clarinda, I didn’t know you could be so vulgar. I have clearly had more of an influence on you than I thought.
You have so many questions. I can’t be surprised about that.
First of all, no, it doesn’t hurt. It’s strange; I don’t miss the sunlight, but I do occasionally miss the oddest things, like the taste of roast beef with gravy or the smell of strawberries. I suppose I could smell strawberries if I wanted to; there just aren’t any here. It’s mostly stone and wind. I’ve been ordering weaving from the village — honestly, who goes three centuries without once changing the drapes? It’s not that I’m particularly fussy; it’s just that all the bat droppings are a bit much.
Second, I do regret that Jordan is sad. Please make sure he eats, and gets out on his horse, and goes to those jousts that he likes. You’re not wrong: I did love him. He was warm summers and stolen kisses in the stables; he was my first dance. He gave me my first sword.
He stood there bleeding and bruised with his whole heart in his eyes, and I won’t lie to you: I almost ran to him.
But please understand that Gareth was behind me, poised there in the shadows with all of his broken edges and his terrible, beautiful smile. Jordan will smile for anyone. Gareth smiles only for me, and his teeth are so delectably sharp.
Truthfully, though — you act as if I were simply choosing a man. I can find lovers anywhere. Eternal life is harder to come by. And you know I never wanted children.
I know Jordan thinks I did it to save him — please disabuse him of that notion. He needs to move on.
I promise, whatever you would have had me do, or not do, it is too late now. I sleep, and dream of blood; I wake with the night’s music. Write again and tell me how you are. Did you enjoy the fall festival? And I hear best wishes are in order! You cannot hide such things from me. The spiders say your veil will be almost as fine a weave as theirs.
I’m so pleased to receive the official notice of your wedding — I’m pleased about the marriage, of course, and also that you have told me. Of course I’m not surprised; you and Barrett have been mooning over each other since you were old enough to speak each other’s names. I know you will be happy.
I shan’t be offended at my lack of an invitation. I know I would have frightened the guests, and it would seem terribly odd to have a wedding after dark (well, if you’re not me). But I have been working to control myself, and I do hope I can see you soon. We can be married women together, and talk of housekeeping, and gossip about our husbands and friends. And . . . embroider? This sounds less appealing the more I write; I do wish to see you, though. Clarinda, just tell me when. Never mind what Gareth forbids me. Leave a window open and I will come to you.
P.S. Please don’t worry about the spiders. They really aren’t very reliable for news. They only gave me descriptions of bunting in the halls, and you resplendent in white. They were very preoccupied with the lace. It’s much nicer to hear everything from you.
Clarinda my love,
I think I have frightened you. I didn’t mean to. Please write. The garlic you’ve hung won’t stop me, but I’m not going to come through your window if you don’t want me to. I never would. And the spiders are only spiders; the dear things are perfectly innocent. All they want to do is make the finest webs. And gossip a little, like tiny maiden aunts. Mostly, they just keep the flies from your halls.
Please tell Jordan to stop crushing them.
Gareth and I are going north for a while — far north, into the mountains. He tells me that the snow is silver on the trees; the wolves will howl for us, and we will run with them until our tracks run deep in the drifts and we are panting with beauty and a terrible deep hunger. I am eager to see the night sky painted with emerald.
I hope for your letter on my return.
I suspect I’ve been absent longer than intended — it is so difficult to keep track of time now, and the nights in the north are so long, but then so short; I know it has been many seasons, because the spiders tell me of small feet and grasping fingers and night-time wails. Congratulations! I know how much you wanted this. Is it two? Three? My little spies are bad at counting.
The snow was beautiful, and I assure you that my howl is now so well-pitched as to echo satisfyingly through the peaks. I cannot describe to you the sheer pleasure of running for its own sake, or — I must confess — for the hunt, which is even more delicious. Hot blood on cold snow, my dear; oh, don’t be concerned. I promise they were rabbits.
We climbed the highest peaks to see the stars, and stood under a jewelled sky; before I lived in darkness, Clarinda, I never knew the stars had colours. They are opals and mica scattered on infinite velvet. Gareth put his cloak over my shoulders and his hand at the small of my back and murmured poetry in my ear. His teeth were so razored, but it was the wind that bit. There was a cave lined with wolf pelts where we slept for a long time. I dreamed of you, I think — a yellow ribbon woven into chestnut braids, and a field full of daisies. How strange, to have dreamed of the sun all during that dark hibernation. Less strange to remember your laugh.
I am sending you a gem I dug out of the glacier; the glitter in it reminds me of the Arctic sky. I had it cut down by a jeweller in Oslo but know that it shone even in the ice.
You haven’t written. I’m sure you think that I’m trying to ensnare you — that my voice will coax you to take the crosses from your halls, that the slightest whisper will open a crack through which I will seduce you away. Oh, my dear. I let Gareth in because he asked so nicely, and his smile was so wanting, and his eyes were so sad.
You are the only part of the daylight that I miss. I hope the children are well.
P.S. I did return to several increasingly incoherent messages from Jordan. Kindly tell him to stop. I hope he finds happiness, but it does not lie with me, and the tone of his last letter was not appreciated. Barrett should not have told him how to reach me.
I am thrilled to receive your missive at last, battered though it is; I can tell it has been creased and folded and refolded, and I see the burn mark at one corner. I know you anguished (so unnecessarily!) over whether to send it. I am so heartened at your choice.
I am less thrilled that you would, even with a single line, choose to plead Jordan’s case for him. How long has it been? I’m not ensorcelled. I’m not stolen. I’m not coming back.
Two children! Already — and the oldest learning letters? I hope you are helping to teach her. You were always so patient with me. You will be happy to know that your hard work paid off; I read frequently now in the library, with its tall shelves and dusty spines. I have discovered that in among the very dull historical treatises and political texts, Gareth has secreted a surprising number of adventure novels about pirates. I have also discovered how much I enjoy pirates.
Here, I am sending you one of my favourites. Perhaps if Isabella has similar tastes, it is something that will encourage her endeavors.
I am content to know that Barrett is good to you. I want your life to be everything you dreamed. Perhaps some secret part of me is a little jealous of your descriptions; I do not wake in my lover’s arms. He does not kiss me to coax me from dreams. To be dead is to sleep alone. We have our nights together, though, and the nights are so long, and they will go on forever.
Last night, Gareth and I danced for hours; the ballroom here is rather empty, though, and there’s a hole in one wall that’s terribly drafty. I think I shall press him to take another trip soon — Paris, perhaps? — but we won’t be gone long, not like last time. I just want to feel a little life around us again.
P.S. I accept your terms. Your windows are safe. Your little ones were always safe. Only write again, and I am satisfied.
I’m so pleased that you and Isabella enjoyed the book. Here: I am sending more, and some lace for you, and a few small gifts for the children. There are wooden swords for both Isabella and James. There are many toy shops in La Belle France, and some are open late.
We have been and returned; see, only a few months. We are at a bit of an impasse sometimes, Gareth and I — I want to see everything, and he has already been. He is happy with stone walls and dusty books and the howls of his pets, but I have not been to Istanbul, and something in Spain calls me. Ah, do you remember the places we used to talk about? I have time now, and no shortage of diamonds. I must just work on my husband a little. I am young yet, as he reminds me, and it would pain me — literally, I regret to say — to be too far from him for long.
Maybe the age difference between us is more troublesome than I’d expected? He swore I was an old soul, that I made his steps lighter, but Clarinda, it is such a chore to get that man out on the town. Barely a hunt a week and he’s . . . ah, I don’t mean to complain. We’re always told everything will go happily ever after, though; are you and Barrett purely content, all the time? I am vexed with Gareth more often than he knows — the way he speaks, my dear, all “you are but a child of the night” and “master knows best.” If he would only let me wander a little more. Still, last night he brought me a fresh serva actually never mind what he brought me, the point is it was a lovely gesture and I do like a man in dark velvet.
Additionally, he has still proven far superior to Jordan, who has either threatened to send me his body parts or Gareth’s — I am not certain what to make of his last message, which was rather smeared. Why on Earth would he think I am impressed by something inked in blood? Has he forgotten?
Your prompt response was much appreciated. I’m . . . is it strange to say ‘glad’? I’m not happy that you and Barrett have disagreements; I’m happy that the world is imperfect and that we can talk about these things, that we are not alone. For the record, no, he shouldn’t be leaving his socks there. That’s disgusting. If it makes you feel at all better, I can’t count the number of times I’ve almost slipped in viscera because someone can’t be bothered to clean off his boots before he walks through the hall.
The spiders tell me the children have grown tall, and that you have the first strands of silver in your hair. They assure me it’s quite fetching. I would like to see it, though I am also afraid; for you, time passes and for me, everything is still. I think we would alarm each other. I know, though, that you have only grown more beautiful with age; I knew, when we were young, how regal you would be when you grew into those wise eyes.
I assure you, I haven’t changed since you last saw me. At least, well — I have difficulty, these days, seeing myself in mirrors, but Gareth assures me that I am as the night he met me. Paler, I expect, and with a tendency toward redness in the eyes, but ah, Clarinda, you would know me. I would smile for you. I would be certain not to show any teeth.
Thank you for warning me about Jordan. The spiders had told me he’d left the manor — they were very grateful for it, in fact — but they do not know the meaning of swords or garlic. For you, my dear, yes, I will try to send him home, but I cannot promise. I wish he would let me go.
I’m sorry; Jordan will not be returning to you. I have arranged to have his effects shipped with this letter.
Forgive me. I did not have a choice.
Thank you for understanding. I wish Gareth would do the same. He has worked himself into a lather thinking that Jordan set the gates ablaze, sword in hand, shrieking of betrayal, because I had somehow encouraged him.
He thinks I did it in letters. I only write those to you.
At any rate, now I’ve dealt with one fool and the other has locked himself in the tower, raging at the bats. Honestly.
I am unharmed, and thank you for your concern — really, thank you; such a thing is far beyond my expectations, all things considered. I am spending my evenings in the library and the woods, though if Gareth doesn’t come out soon, I may see exactly how far I can travel.
Tell me good things, I beg you. Has Isabella tamed that horse? Does James have his first real blade? Have you convinced Barrett to take you to London at last? Tell me what you’re dreaming of. Tell me what you had for dinner. I don’t care. I want to have a conversation that isn’t just screaming.
Ah, such an anniversary already! I understand the traditional gift is china; please accept this milk and sugar set, which I believe is in fact from China, and forgive my tardiness. I have not been keeping track of the years.
As always, I hope you are happy. I confess there was much about Jordan that startled me — his hair suddenly thin, and him so grey! — but I wish I could see the lines that time and laughter have etched into your beauty. I am thrilled to hear that you enjoyed London, and thank you so much for the lovely hat; I particularly appreciate the feathers. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to appreciate birdsong, and this has brought the memories close.
I trust that you and Barrett are not having too much difficulty in covering for Jordan’s untimely disappearance. I expect that he was a popular man, still; he had that smile! I suspect it is his compatriots you are protecting, rather than any concern for my tainted safety, but I concur — I should also hate for anyone seeking him to come to an unfortunate end. It’s best that his obsessions end with him.
I do, in a way, find myself distressed. Only in moments — and it’s not guilt. He showed up frothing, his fist full of communion wafers, and the things he said! The stake, as though he would . . . he deserved what was coming. But I remember a boy of fifteen, somewhere in time’s distance, rings on his fingers and a song in his teeth. It’s lost, somewhere in darkness and water, with the girl I used to be.
Oh, but I don’t mean to be maudlin. You asked about Gareth; he has at least come out of the tower, though he spends a great deal of time stalking the halls or flapping about. He burned my stationery; this is written on vellum I had one of the village boys smuggle for me. Spare me the tediousness of the devil’s tantrums. Still, he spoke to me the other night — if only to ask me to pass the serving girl — so it’s a start, I suppose.
This is a grim letter. I assure you, I’m overall quite well. I have been spending more time with the spiders, and with the horses; the mountain pass is most beautiful in the dark of the moon. I do love the night silence, and all the years stretching ahead.
I’m so sorry! Gareth and I had another disagreement, and I decided to sleep off my anger, which apparently took significantly longer than I had planned. I have awoken to a stabbing headache, continued disgruntlement, and three of your letters; I apologize for making you worry. I appreciate that you did not, in fact, send soldiers to the gates — or at least, I hope you didn’t. Gareth is no longer here to tell me.
It’s fine, really; we’re taking some time. He has gone to Hungary, I believe. We will find each other again eventually. The years stretch long. I’m not angry that he left — I think we could use the time apart. Just the two of us in these weeping halls grew a bit much, if I’m honest, after the fifteenth or twentieth turn of the seasons.
It does seem terribly convenient for him; how many times did Gareth swear that I was too new, too young a fledgling, and that I would die if I so much as strayed too far from his call? How often did he claim he would wither without me? How quickly his insistence vanished, once he wanted space to himself.
It isn’t as if I hadn’t suspected; I have, if I am honest, tested a little through the years. I have gone a village or two past my destination, stayed out a little longer than I promised, heard my own footsteps whisper on cobblestones I had pledged never to explore. You know me, Clarinda. You will not be surprised that I dared, though perhaps you are disappointed that I trusted. I certainly am. He murmured so nicely, my dear; his hands were so smooth, so gentle and cool.
There is no need for me to stay in this crumbling pile of stone. I am going to Spain. I will write to you as soon as I’ve found a residence to which you might reply.
P.S. This entire letter has been about me, and I am horrified. I did read your messages; I must gently suggest to you that James is old enough to know his own mind, but I grieve with you that he has chosen such a martial life. We all make rash decisions in our youth; I hope for his safety, but I also hope that he finds the adventure he seeks. Do not worry, my darling. You have raised him well, but he must do as he wills.
You were right to speak with the spiders. They don’t understand you, but they understood your tears, and the portrait you held before them. They have seen the colours in the flag. I am seeking James’s platoon. Be patient if you can.
James is returning to you. He is wounded, but alive. I suspect this note will arrive first.
It may be some time before I can write to you again. Be well.
I rise again to a new night, a new country stretching before me. You can reach me here for the next while; I have a place in the mountains that is all carved wood, golden and worn, and it pleases me more than drafty stones ever did.
I know you guessed that I slept. The spiders say that you speak to them now — to me, I think — and that the corners of your halls have grown heavy with the webs you no longer let the servants clear. That is sweet, my darling; my leggy friends appreciate you, and so do I. They tell me that James is home, though he is slower than before — I think they have tried to tell me about a chair, and certainly blood, but also the sound of laughter. Your braid and Isabella’s skirts.
I am glad. You must never hesitate to ask me for anything.
I have not heard from Gareth, but I expect he can find me anytime he likes. In the meantime, the walls here are carved with gargoyles, and I am delighted to find new ones each day. One has a little hat. One has a bell. I hear there is a night market in the village, and tomorrow I shall go down and walk among the crowds. I shall smell the mulled spice of the wine and the yeast of fresh bread, and drift my fingertips along the pulse of this new place. I have a new language to learn.
Your thanks are unnecessary. I remember childhood promises when we dabbled our toes in the pond and tied ribbons around each other’s wrists. You are my memories of sunlight, and I will not abandon you, nor your children, nor your children’s children, for as long as I may guard them. I am glad that James is doing well — and, yes, I expect the nightmares will subside with time. He may be a quieter man than he was a boy, but he will at least be safer for it.
I do beg you, don’t let Isabella join any armies. I have seen one battlefield now, and it was enough. They are drenched in blood. I could very easily be someone I do not wish to be.
I love the locket you have sent; the portraits are so well done, each detail so cunning, and now that I have seen James with my own eyes, I can only assume Isabella’s likeness is as accurate. She is lovely, like her mother. Send me something of yourself? A painting, a lock of hair — anything. It has been so long.
I am well here. The villagers do not fear me as they might, and while Gareth always advised cultivating a certain air of menace, I find I prefer it greatly when people wave to the carriage and bring fresh meat to the gates. It is only a matter of hunting sparingly, and . . . considerately, shall we say. I won’t write to you of those adventures, but I am enjoying the chance to make my own path.
I will keep this lock of your hair next to my heart always. You won’t believe me that it smells of you; I assure you, it does, and I remember brushing out your tresses when we were sixteen, just before you put on that emerald velvet and I wove flowers through your braid. You have the lightest scent, my dear, of cinnamon and soap. You jest that the colour of your locks has changed, and certainly that’s true, but what a charming silver.
I am sending you embroidered towels, which I recently purchased on a foray through a village just north of Milan. I have ranged far since my last missive, but I do return to my little home; I find I like it here. Please enjoy the towels; the threads are dyed with local flowers, and I have not seen their like.
The spiders are not the same as your letters, but they whisper to me, here and there, and they are concerned. What news of Barrett?
I am so sorry. There is nothing I can send you but silence — the wolves will not howl in your valley this year. The bats will not squeal. Even the whispers of the spiders will be hushed in his memory. They would weave in black for you if they could.
In my mind, we are all still young; nothing changes, here in these endless nights. I remember Barrett’s face the first time he ever saw you with your hair up. I remember it, too, when he tried to impress you and fell off his horse instead. He was a man with an impressive ability to huff, and I always appreciated the way he looked at you, as though you were a blossom he might shelter from the wind. You looked at him as though he was the wind. Ah, I wish you none of this grief, but I take solace in knowing that you were happy.
My love to the children.
I have been waiting to send you this for a long time, and yet at the same time, I worry that I have not waited long enough; I know Barrett’s loss was a blow. The spiders tell me that the black has gone from the manor, except from your veils and skirts. They tell me you weep at night.
My dearest, your hair is white now; you have two strong children; you have known the life you wanted, with a man you loved, in the warmth of the sun.
What else awaits you?
Take this vial.
I have never broken my pledge to you; I will not come close. I do not test the boundaries of your lands. But I reach to you, all the same.
Drink this, and come to me. Jordan was not the one I chose. Gareth is not the one I am waiting for. Your mortal life has been rich and full of love, small hands and golden light, burned cakes and broken dolls, all the things you wanted. It is time, now, to see everything the night offers.
I await you, in hope, and I do not breathe but I am breathless all the same.
My dear Isabella,
It was very kind of you to write.
You are correct that the spiders told me; I have known, and grieved in silent halls. The webs they veiled her with were theirs alone — a last tribute. Mine will be the flowers that grow above her; plant these seeds. They have soaked in my heart’s blood, and they will only bloom at night, but they will bloom forever.
I am not surprised that your mother never told you about me. I am a little surprised that she kept my letters. I wept, Isabella; I will not lie.
I told her I would be there for her children, and her children’s children. I am here for you. I know you have questions. Ask.
About the Author
C. J. Lavigne is a Canadian speculative fiction author. Her urban fantasy novel In Veritas was published by NeWest Press in 2020; her short fiction has appeared in On Spec, Fusion Fragment, and Augur Magazine.