"I will marry for love or not at all.” Lady Isella made the vow solemnly to the statue above her. The pale marble face was serene and innocent and she closed her eyes, trying to feel the peace of the Goddess surround her.
“Have a care, girl.” The croaking voice behind her broke Isella’s concentration and she turned, frowning, to see the black crow-like figure of a brother-priest hovering over her shoulder. “The Goddess has more than one face you know,” he continued. “Which one do you pray to now?”
“The Maiden, as you see.” Isella gestured impatiently to the figure above her. It was true that the Goddess of Truth was said to have four faces—the Maiden, the Mother, the Bitch, and the Whore, but she had only ever prayed to one.
“I thought mayhap it was the Bitch you were beseeching.” The brother-priest cut his beady little eyes to the statue at her left. The face was the same as the Maiden’s but the eyes were narrowed in rage and the fine chin was lifted in defiance. “Such willful words are not often directed to the Maiden,” he added.
“I was vowing, not beseeching.” Isella frowned. “And I am here at the behest of my father, good King Roland of Kent. He told me if I felt strongly enough to make my vow to the Goddess, he would honor it and not force me to marry one I did not love.”
“He did, did he?” The brother-priest cocked his head to one side, reminding her more than ever of a crow. “Then perchance it is the Whore you ought to be praying to.”
He gestured to the marble statue to the right of the Maiden. Again, it had the same facial features, but the full lips that looked so demure on the statue Isella knelt before were pursed in a come-hither kiss and the eyes were half-lidded with lust.
“Why would I wish to do that? I am no hoyden.” Deeply offended, Isella rose, brushing at the fine silver sateen of her dress to rid it of dust. The color brought out the grey of her eyes and made her auburn curls glow with muted warmth.
“No, not yet. But love may make you one and that is what you pray for, is it not? True love?”
“No, it is not,” Isella said firmly. “My vow is to remain unwed unless love finds me but I do not go seeking it. Now if you will excuse me, brother, my guards are waiting to take me back to my father’s keep.”
“Take care. The way you must travel is long and twisting and filled with danger.”
There was a strange, faraway look in his beady eyes that made Isella look at him askance.
“Not so very far. ’Tis but a matter of a few leagues, brother, though I thank you for your concern,” she said stiffly.
Truly, all she wanted was to be away. She had thought making her vow to the Goddess would bring peace to her heart but so far it had not been so. The brother-priest’s strange words made her feel restless and unhappy and the odd look on his narrow face reminded her of a mad soothsayer that had come to Kent Keep once when she was a child.
The old woman had gotten the same, faraway look in her faded blue eyes that Isella saw in the brother-priest’s now but all she had said when Isella had been brought before her was—
“Beware the wolf.”
“What?” Isella felt as though all the blood had left her face. “What did you say, brother?”
How did he know the words the soothsayer spoke to me so long ago?
“Beware the burned wolf that comes in the night. He will devour you with his lust if you are not wary.”
The brother-priest’s voice was deeper somehow—hollow and strange.
“What are you saying?” Isella stumbled back a step, a cold collar of fear encircling her throat.
“I do not know. Was I speaking?” The brother-priest shook his head, as though trying to shake off a bad dream. “I am sorry, my child, did you come to beseech the Goddess for something?”
“I…I came to make a vow to the Maiden.”
“Well then, you must make your vow. Come.” He gestured at the statue she had just left.
“I thank you. Mayhap…another time.” Isella backed away from him slowly.
Mad, he’s completely mad. Does he not remember what we were just talking of? Even his eyes are changed.
It was true. The brother-priest still looked like a crow, dressed in his long black robes, but his eyes, so sharp a moment before, had gone milky and mild. In fact, he appeared to be nothing but a kindly old man, seeking to give her spiritual counsel.
But it was not so before. He was different…strange. And the things he said…his voice...
“Peace be with you then, child.” The brother-priest made a sign of benediction. “May She of the Four Faces grant the wishes of your heart.”
“I pray it may be so.” Isella bobbed a hasty curtsy and rushed from the cool marble hall where the statues of the Goddess stood.
Outside the temple it was a chilly autumn afternoon and she spent a moment trying to calm her nerves.
It’s all right. It will be all right.
She lifted her face to the darkening sky and took a deep breath of the fresh air. There was a brisk little wind blowing through the golden leaves of the praying trees, making the soft, plaintive whisper that gave them their name, and the sun was just beginning to set. To her left were the Mountains of Dagmar—the border her father’s kingdom shared with the lands beyond.
The lands of King Baldor.
Isella pushed the thought away. Baldor was the reason she was making the vow in the first place. He had come to her father’s court asking her hand in marriage and he might have been given it too, had she not objected so strongly.
“He is older than you are, Father,” she had begged in the privacy of his chambers. “And his eyes are cruel. Please, I do not wish to be wed to such a man.”
“You have been of age these two years.” The good King Roland had frowned. “It is time and past time you were wed.”
“But not to him—please! You have a son and heir to rule after you. You do not need to send me away to live the rest of my life in misery, wed to such a man.”
“Isella is right, Father,” her older brother, Tristan, had chimed in. “It is said Baldor’s last bride died under suspicious circumstances when he found she couldn’t give him an heir. There is no need to sell your only daughter into such a marriage.”
The king had sighed. “Very well. But Baldor must be appeased somehow—I will tell him you have vowed before the Goddess not to wed.”
“I shall go within the month to make just such a vow,” Isella had promised eagerly.
And so here she was, having made her vow to the Goddess—her promise fulfilled. It should have lifted a burden off her heart but for some reason Isella felt more weighed down than ever.
Lifting her eyes, she looked again at the Mountains of Dagmar. In the deepening dusk, the jagged peaks were bruise colored and silent and a gibbous moon was just rising above the highest rocky crest. A wolf’s moon, the small folk called it.
Beware the wolf!
Isella shivered and looked away. It was past time she was getting home.
Leaving the temple and the praying trees behind, she crossed to where her chestnut pacer, SorrowSweet was hobbled. Her father had wanted to send her in a carriage but Isella had refused. She much preferred riding out in the open to being cooped up in a swaying wooden box. Still, as the chilly wind whipped her auburn curls across her face, she began to wish she had taken the carriage after all.
“My lady, are you ready to go?”
It was Sir Hunsford, one of the four knights her father had assigned to keep her safe on the short trip to the temple. He was a bluff, older man—her father’s senior advisor and like an uncle to Isella.
“I am, Sir. I thank you.” She nodded graciously.
“You l-look t-t-troubled, my lady, if you d-don’t mind m-me s-s-saying so,” said Sir Belkis.
He was her father’s youngest knight, having just taken his oath of fealty a few months shy of his nineteenth nameday and he had a very unfortunate stutter. Being around Isella always seemed to make him bright red in the face.
“I assure you, Sir Belkis, I am quite well.”
She tried to smile and thanked him when he offered to assist her to her horse. Belkis seemed only too glad to be of service, though he wasn’t very good at it. He held her stirrup crooked and shifted about so much that SorrowSweet neighed nervously.
Sighing, Isella touched him lightly on his mailed shoulder as she mounted and took the reigns.
“It’s all right, Sweet. All right, dear one,” she murmured.
The horse gentled at once when it felt her touch and she was glad to be away from the sweating, stammering young knight. Belkis was kind in an awkward way but it was trying to be stared at and blushed over so.
The other two knights, Sirs Lamberty and Trybus, remained mounted and silent. They were lately come into her father’s service and Isella didn’t know them very well so she only nodded at them both.
“Let’s ride.” Sir Hunsford looked at the sky. “I mislike the look of that moon and I’d as soon be back to Kent Keep before it rises much higher.”
Isella nodded agreement and the four ranged themselves around her, making a protective square as they started back.
The journey was peaceful at first—they were well mounted and their horses knew the winding road to the temple well. Owls called softly from the woods on either side and the flicker-flies were out, beaming their miniature lights at one another.
Despite the cool breeze, Isella was soon lulled into a sort of half-doze by the clop of hooves, the jingle of harnesses and the creak of the leather saddle beneath her. She was just imagining the hot bath she would order as soon as she got back to her rooms when the unthinkable happened.