Kern knew it was time to tell Ashren the story of his family.
‘Ashren, your father was the son of Darena Greenbough of the Forest Domain. Everyone called him Felling Greyfall, for that was the name Lord Wintren gave him the day after he was born; but it wasn’t his true name, it wasn’t the name he should have had.’
Kern reached over and touched Ashren’s hand, saying, ‘You know about hard and difficult lives, Ashren, you’ve seen people suffer. You might think Felling’s life must have been easier than yours, but despite being Lord Greyfall’s heir, his life was as hard as anything you’ve ever seen or experienced.
‘Darena, was the wife of Lord Fernren Greenbough of the Forest Domain, and their love for each other was strong and true; but Wintren Greyfall had set his greedy eyes on the Forest Domain, partly because he was unwilling to pay Lord Greenbough for his timber; but also because he had seen Darena during one of his visits to the King’s Court, and he desired her.
‘He’d laid his plans before his father Shadowren fell ill, and once the King had installed him as the new Lord, he began to put them into action. He conducted a slow and careful campaign which, under the guise of friendship, joint ventures and mutual support, gradually wore away at the strength of Fernren’s forces and undermined his land’s powers.
‘You must understand that the people of each Domain have particular skills and powers which they use in their daily lives, but which, when necessary can be combined, and are then capable of hindering or stopping in its tracks any attempt on their lands. Wintren knew he couldn’t just march his forces into the Forest Domain in an open attack; not only would he be easily defeated, the King and his men would immediately respond with corresponding force. But regularly taking his men in to train and exercise alongside Fernren’s troops disarmed the Domain’s powers; and when the time was ripe Fernren became the victim of a terrible accident, and died in Darena’s arms three days later.
‘There was no heir, no one to take over the Lordship, so once Fernren had been given a full ceremonial burial, Wintren Greyfall, in the name of friendship annexed the Forest Domain and carried Darena back to Greyfall, as he said, “To comfort and protect her.”
‘Little comfort and no protection did she find. Despite being housed in luxurious rooms above Wintren’s own in the Great Tower of the keep, within a month the women who’d been brought to care for her were moved elsewhere and her only attendants were Greyfall servants, who at first didn’t understand either her grief or her needs. To all intents and purposes she was a prisoner, only riding out with Wintren when he was in the mood to take her, and once or twice being taken to the Court, where she had to be seen to be well and happy. If her performance wasn’t convincing she was beaten for it on her return, something she learned the first time she met another Lord and failed to look as cheerful as Wintren demanded.’
Kern paused, uncomfortable about what must come next, but Ashren, who’d already seen cruelties no protected lordling could have born, nodded for him to go on, so he swallowed, and continued.
‘Within a week of her arrival at Greyfall, Wintren arranged a marriage ceremony, after which he came to her room each night and forced himself upon her. Despite his anger at her refusal to give him any pleasure, “You’re as unresponsive as a log,” he snarled, “you might as well be one!” she wasn’t afraid he would kill her, not even when she wished he would. He needed her to give him a son. But once the servants confirmed she’d missed two monthly bleeds and was with child, he was satisfied and stayed away, after which apart from the weekly visits of his physician, she was left quite alone in her rooms.
‘Of course Wintren had made sure it was known across the Twelve Dominions that she’d accepted his proposal of marriage, that they were happy and expecting a son, but this was mere show, and the truth was far otherwise. Enraged by her refusal to speak to him or entertain him in any way, he made her the constant target of his bitter recriminations. For months her life was one of grief, loneliness, boredom, and anxiety for the child she was carrying.
‘When she was finally taken into the birthing room he outraged custom by insisting on being present. Such was his determination not to be fooled by any women’s tricks or to lose control of the situation, that he stood close by, a wet-nurse of his choosing at his side and two Hounds posted outside the door. As soon as the baby was delivered and the cord cut, he took it from the hands of the birthing woman himself, and handed it to the wet-nurse, who was immediately escorted to the nursery suite which had been prepared in another part of the keep.
‘Within minutes of his birth he was stolen from his mother; Darena neither saw nor touched her son from the moment he emerged into the light.’
Kern’s voice broke and he lowered his head into his hands. When he regained control he looked up and met Ashren’s brown eyes, drowned deep in tears. He opened his arms to him and Ashren climbed onto his lap to press his face against Kern’s, where for a while their tears mingled. Eventually Ashren smiled sadly at him and kissed his cheek, before sliding back to his place, and with a sigh, Kern continued his sad tale.
‘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 previous 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. 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 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’ll bear me more children to make the line of Greyfall sure and certain.”
‘What Wintren never told her was that he’d been dismayed 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 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.
‘For the next four years Darena stoically suffered his increasingly violent attempts to get her with child, the bitterness of his growing desperation, and his vicious anger at her continuing childlessness. Again and again his skin turned grey-blue with the rage which expressed itself in ever more severe beatings. Her attendants, who by now had become very fond of her, were appalled at her treatment. Only one thing was left to her, the ability to deny him a son, and they secretly aided her to achieve it. She even made herself lose a child before the potions she took became effective, and she could say in all honesty, “My Lord, forgive me, I am no longer able to conceive a son for you.”
‘Once he realised she was speaking the truth – he had his Physician confirm it – she was of no use or interest to him. He no longer visited her, and in petty revenge he had her moved to two small dank, dark rooms below ground level, reduced her food, and took away the servants on whom she’d come to rely for human contact. Two months later, seeing no glimmer of hope in her future, she determined to end her life, and refusing to eat even the meagre fare provided died shortly thereafter.’
. . . . . . to be continued.