‘Darena was returned to her own suite, where with difficulty she recovered from the birth, but never from the loss of her son, a grief far worse than her first bereavement. At least she’d held her husband in his last moments, and knew he was now at rest, but of her child she saw nothing. Her life returned to its monotonous routine for another month during which Wintren visited her three times, firstly to tell her of her son’s given name, secondly to assure her of his wellbeing, and lastly to urge her to pull herself together and be glad for him.
‘ “If you wish Felling to be cared for and loved, then you must play your part,” he declared. “You’re being kept away from him because I don’t want his spirit contaminated by your mewling weakness. Make yourself strong, woman, for I shall come to you again. I promise you one thing, you will bear me more children to make the line of Greyfall sure and certain.”
‘What Wintren never told her was how dismayed he’d been to find Felling darker of skin and hair than himself, and that the blue eyes of birth, rather than fading to grey, as he’d hoped they would, had darkened to a rich, deep brown. Was the child not his? Could he be Fernren’s? It had never once occurred to him that Darena might have conceived him with her husband the night before he’d left for his assignation with death, and the thought of their joyous and mutual loving filled him with a jealous rage.
‘If Felling wasn’t his, it was vital that Darena bear him a son of the true line of Greyfall, otherwise it would fail at his death, and the Ruling King would choose a new Lord for his Domains after Wintren was gone; and that was something his pride could not endure.
Being of the line of Greenbough, [Felling’s] spirit was attuned to the Forest Domain rather than to the High Hills where it was impossible for him to be truly at ease. His gifts and skills when they developed could only prove to be alien to Greyfall.
. . . . ‘The various senior men who were required to teach him their skills also became exasperated at Felling’s limited abilities. Even the stable-master, who was more patient than most, began to wonder if he was simple-minded or a coward when he refused to train his horse in the way he showed him. When the boy said, ‘Can I not just tell him what to do? I don’t like to use the whip,’ he laughed in scornful astonishment at the ridiculous thought. However, a few days later he overheard him in the stable talking to his horse, and intrigued, listened and watched unseen. He wasn’t stupid – he’d not have risen so far if he were – so he allowed Felling to train the horse in his own way, and to his surprise he made a good job of it and Lord Wintren’s displeasure was turned aside for a while.
‘The stable-master’s report of this success made others more willing to give him his way, so he became skilled in many pursuits including falconry and riding to hounds, but he remained disastrously hopeless in the management of hill farms or the warlike arts.
‘So life went on until the summer he was twenty-five. One day he went out riding, and when he came back he was thirsty and for quickness went to the well outside the kitchens to get a drink. One of the kitchen drudges was there, and in fright she tried to curtsey to him and almost fell over. He caught her arm to steady her, and she looked up at him in gratitude. Perhaps you can imagine their amazement when each found themselves looking into a pair of dark brown eyes, though hers were reddened and sore from the smoke of the kitchen fires.
‘ “Lord Felling,” she gasped, “forgive me,” and she would have hurried away, but he led her out of sight of the main bailey and asked, “Who are you, and why are you here? You don’t belong to the High Hills.”
‘She trembled, and tears spilled from her eyes, but with his encouragement she finally told him the little she knew of her story. Her mother had been one of the three high-born Forest women who’d been brought to Greyfall with the Lady Darena.. . . .
‘Felling gazed at her in horrified astonishment, but all the while his spirit told him here was the one person in the whole of this Domain to whom it was attuned, and as the moments passed he felt her spirit responding to his. Forest had met Forest, and the result was inevitable.
‘She knew enough to know he could no more rescue her than he could set himself free, but they arranged to meet again, and this they did a number of times, until on one precious occasion when Lord Wintren had gone away and not taken Felling with him, they found a secure hiding place and enough time to consummate the hunger and need for each other which now filled them.’
‘The first consequence of this consummation of love between Forest and Forest was that a confidence awoke in Felling which his entire upbringing had contrived to smother, and it wasn’t long before he began to show a strength of mind and a stubbornness of will which no one had ever dreamed he possessed. But, as Wintren had half expected, his new-found confidence was alien to the High Hills, and his attempts to use it with the Domainsmen under his command only caused aggravation and confusion.
[As time went on] Felling grew stronger, and unknown to Wintren, he met more often with [the drudge] Loosie, until one day she told him she was expecting his child.
‘Her news drove him to desperation, and he began to make plans for them to escape. But their luck had run out, they’d been seen together more than once or twice, and someone had told someone, who passed the word on, until one fateful evening it reached Lord Wintren’s ears.’
‘Wintren, blue with the extremity of his fury, appeared in Felling’s high, tower room, carrying his double-handed sword. “What is this I hear?” he whispered, and his hoarse whisper was far more terrifying than his usual roar, “Can it be true that you have dared to dishonour the name of Greyfall and the High Hills Domain by fornicating with a filthy slut of a kitchen drudge!”
Felling, though furious at this description of Loosie, and daunted by the inhuman look and colour of Wintren’s face, stood firm. There was no going back from this moment, and only one way forward – to his inevitable end, which he determined to meet with his new-found courage. For the last time he turned his deep, dark eyes on the man he’d come to loathe, and with a calm disdain made his answer.
“Lord Wintren of Greyfall, I am certain that to join in freely given love with the daughter of a high-born Forest Lady; someone you consigned to your kitchens when a baby, is no dishonour to my Forest blood. It’s a great deal more honourable than pleasing myself at the expense of some innocent, and probably unwilling, young housemaid, as I know you are wont to do.
‘Every day of my life I give thanks that I am no get of yours, a fact you know well, you whitened slug; you murderer of my father; you ravisher and killer of my mother. I am the true Heir of the Forest Domain, and to the depths of my soul I despise you!” ‘
Ashren made a tiny muffled chuckle. If he hadn’t been so afraid for Felling he’d have cheered at his speech, but then he tightened his grip on the arm Kern had put round him, and waited for the end.
‘With a scream of hatred and despair which was heard throughout the castle, Wintren lifted his sword, and a second later Felling’s body lay, headless, in a growing pool of blood.
. . . . .to be continued