Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Tuesday Tease - Ravenfold by Kath Middleton

This week's Tuesday Tease comes from Kath Middleton's wonderful debut novella 'Ravenfold', I enjoyed reading this a lot and we have a little taste of it below:


Maude Bolt continued with the difficult and thankless task of turning her leggy, tomboy daughter into an elegant young lady. She told Romelda that she would have a maid to help her to keep her glossy, dark locks looking their best and to keep her clothes clean and tidy – in the linen press and not in heaps on the floor, as was her usual method of dressing and undressing. There would, of course, she declared, be no more romping about outside with that filthy black bird on her wrist like some small and determined huntsman with his hawk.

It took more than this to prevent Romelda having her way, though. Raven accompanied her in her new role as a young lady. She felt rather depressed at the thought that she’d have to conform, but realised that it was all part of the process of growing into her allotted role in life – that of a real lady. She had no idea to whom her parents would marry her but it would be someone at least on an equal social footing and, if they could manage it, someone even higher up.

Gradually, though it felt more suddenly to the girl, her mother put an end to her outdoor play and gave her items of domestic sewing to do, not merely occasionally, but on a daily basis. She had table linens to hem and undergarments to stitch and sometimes embroider. Maude was a hard taskmistress; she ripped out anything not up to standard and Romelda would bend to the task again with a sigh. However, things distinctly looked up for her when her mother appointed the cottager’s daughter Meggie as the new lady’s maid to Romelda Bolt. The news, from one of those heart-dropping moments of dread, turned to pure delight.

The two girls had difficulty stifling their glee when they realised they had merely exchanged the fold yard and the forest for the bed chamber and great hall in terms of their playground. Romelda missed Guy though. Both girls missed the outdoor games, the tree climbing, sneaking into the stables and mews to play with the animals. It wouldn’t be considered suitable for her to meet or speak to a young man now that she was officially no longer a child. She had reached that point in life when she was at last, even in her own estimation, grown up. Her monthly courses had begun and she had need of a lady’s maid at that time of the month, to prepare the linens for her and to launder the used, bloodied ones.

The feast of Pentecost was approaching when Maude announced that they were to have a visitor. Lord Oswald de Sutton, their overlord, to whom all those in the surrounding lands owed fealty, was to come for the feast and eat dinner with them. This news, for some reason, seemed to put everyone into a flap. They often entertained local lords and their entourages and her parents were entertained in their turn at many a manor or lodge within riding distance. Admittedly, Lord Oswald was as high ranking as anyone else for many miles but Romelda saw little reason for all the hysterical dusting and baking and stewing and roasting that seemed to be taking place. 

For the day before the visit she and Meggie busied themselves in her chamber. They got the obligatory sewing out of the way, Meggie assisting gladly. Her stitching was almost as good as Romelda’s. Then they giggled and sniggered their way through some troubadour songs which her mother had taught them. Maude saw them as beautiful and poetic, a suitable pursuit for the daughter of a gentlewoman. Meggie and Romelda looked for – and occasionally found – another layer of meaning in them. 

Then the blow fell. Harold called Romelda down to the great hall mid-afternoon, just before Lord Oswald and his retinue were due to arrive.

“Romelda, what on earth are you wearing?”

Her face fell. She couldn’t recall her father ever noticing, let alone caring how she was dressed.

“Just a house-dress, Father. And an apron over of course. Meggie and I have been…”

“Never mind that! Go and get your best dress on and make a bit of effort with your hair, would you? Lord Oswald is almost here and you look like the milkmaid! I want you to look your best.”

“Certainly, Father. I’m sure he won’t care what I’m wearing though. I’ve only met him once and there’s no reason he would notice a child.”

“He will notice you this time, Romelda. He is coming especially to see me in regard to you. He has offered you marriage, my dear.”

Marriage! A stone landed in her stomach. Of course, she was fourteen now. It was inevitable that within the year she’d be someone’s wife, but Lord Oswald? Her heart felt like lead. He was old. Not twenty-five-or-thirty old. Forty-five-if-he-were-a-day old. She had never spoken to him herself but she knew more than enough about him. She could scarcely hope now that she would be allowed to marry the good looking young man she occasionally allowed herself to dream of. 

When your marriage was organised for you, whether you found the man attractive or not was of no concern to anyone. A woman’s place was to do her duty. That had been to obey her father and mother. Soon it would be to obey her husband. Oh please, God, let him be kind, gentle. She couldn’t help thinking though, that you didn’t get to be overlord to thousands by gentleness.

She retired to her room and Meggie got her best dress from the linen press. She unfolded it carefully on the bed, and gently removed the sprigs of lavender and tiny dried rosebuds which she had wrapped in with it, to keep it fragrant and to fend off the moths. Romelda dressed carefully and Meggie brushed her dark hair and twisted it into curls which she anchored under a small lace cap. Another starched white apron covered the front of her dress, as was fitting for a young girl, and she allowed herself to be led downstairs again. During the whole time neither of the girls spoke a word. They were both filled with a heavy dread.

Romelda joined her mother in the great hall and sat nervously on a settle by the fire. She fingered her gown with hands suddenly sweaty and shaking. Harold had gone out to the yard, to receive the visitors and ensure the stable lads took care of their mounts. It was second nature to the boys and their seniors to ensure guests’ horses were well looked after but Harold wanted nothing to go amiss. If he played this right, today could be the day his fortune was sealed. 

Past the front of Molton Hall and into the stable yard came a flurry of men and horses, all puffing and steaming in the chill air. Maude and Romelda were indoors and unable to see the figures who threw themselves down from horseback and hurled the reins towards Guy and a couple of other lads. Harold gushed effusively and clasped Lord Oswald to his chest in a manly hug that didn’t seem to be reciprocated. Oswald shook him off and marched ahead of his host to the main entrance.

Three figures burst into the hall and stomped over to the fire to warm their hands. Romelda, eyes downcast, could not immediately tell which one was her intended husband, though she stole the occasional glance at the group. All were large men and were wrapped warmly. Even their faces were obscured by scarves. Her heart thudded till she thought it would burst from her slight chest when they all unwound their thick clothing. Oh, no! Lord Oswald de Sutton stood before her, unashamedly staring. He stood over six feet in height and looked as if he were built of barrels. Big barrels - full of pork.

His presence filled the chamber. He was a little taller than the other men in the room, including those who had entered with him, but it was his breadth which was so astonishing. He gave the impression of being as impassable as the great oak double doors which barred the room from the elements. He said nothing but walked up to the family group with blazing eyes and a greedy countenance. Romelda gradually raised her face from the floor and gazed at the man her parents had effectively sold her to. 

He was so old. He was older than her own father. She looked imploringly at her mother. Surely Maude must remember what it was like to see her husband for the first time? What had passed through her mind when she had first set eyes on Harold Bolt? Romelda was aware that her father had his failings, but he was still her hero and she of course was his darling. He still had the dark good looks which he had passed down to his only daughter, though the back-swept raven wings of his hair were dusted now with grey. Romelda imagined her mother had met the sight with relief. Of all the men she could have been presented with, Harold de Molton was, at the very least, a gentleman. Her mother felt he was too understanding, letting people get away with things in negotiations when he could have pressed home his advantage. 

Romelda’s first sighting of her future husband was coloured with terror. It was not only his age that gave his young future wife pause. His figure was gross, his complexion florid and his features ugly from their apparently permanent sneer. He stood, hands on hips, and swept his gaze arrogantly around the assembled company, lighting at last upon the trembling Romelda. Her very terror seemed to spark his interest further. She shuddered at the realisation that he enjoyed her discomfort; that her anxiety and fear aroused him. It did not augur well for a happy partnership.

“Ah, there she is! The Raven of Molton.” He crossed the few strides between them and roughly grabbed her chin in his hand, turning her face toward the light from the window. He dropped his hand but her cheeks remained pink where his fingers had grabbed her. 

“Pretty little thing, aren’t you?” 

Romelda, lost for a reply, bobbed him her courtesy. His eyes bored into hers until she tugged her gaze away and dropped it to the floor, like a modest young woman should.

“She’ll do!” he said to Harold, breathing sour wine fumes into her face. Romelda held her breath so as not to screw up her nose, or worse still, throw up into the fireplace.

So that was it? That was her courtship over in a few brief and unpleasant seconds? So much for her romantic ideas of troubadour songs, of gifts brought from far-off lands to woo her. There had been no time here for the niceties. No time for poems, and sighs, for roses and shy walks in the moonlight. What a foolish child she had been. Gone was any girlish notion of a handsome, or even half-way good-looking man close to her own age.

He was almost a grandfather figure, but this was the grandfather from hell. Broad of body, he was also grossly fat in the face. Tiny malevolent eyes seared into her from between folds of flesh. He had red cheeks which seemed to carry on past his creased mouth and straight down to his shoulders. He had no neck, like her father’s prize bull. She could barely contemplate looking upon him without revulsion, let alone enjoying his company or the touch of his hand on hers. And the touch of body on body? Romelda shuddered.

She could barely breathe for shock. This couldn’t be happening. Her mother was going to hear about this! Nightmare scenes ran amok in her fizzing brain. He could crush her in an embrace. Surely he’d kill her if he threw himself upon her in bed! The whole idea of a petite, dark-haired dot of a child smothered nightly by the huge, humping, smelly brute of an old man made her skin crawl, made her want to heave, want to... No! She would not cry! She was now, as her mother never sickened of telling her, a Lady!

Maude nudged her daughter in the silence that had suddenly fallen on the room. From the side of her mouth she whispered, “Greet your husband-to-be, Romelda!”

With a huge effort of will, the girl dropped her eyes again and said, “My Lord Oswald, I bid you a good evening.”

“Oh, I’m having one, my dear,” his voice assured her in lascivious tones. 

Romelda wanted to be sick.

Lord Oswald held his huge arm out to accompany Maude to the dining table and Harold escorted the lily-pale girl. When they were seated, the servants brought out bread trenchers and carried slabs of steaming meat to the centre of the board. Oswald lurched greedily forward and cut a thick hunk of meat for himself. He was the highest ranking noble for many miles and he evidently considered precedence his right. He had the manners of a pig. He snatched at the jug of wine too and upended most of it into his own goblet. Discreetly, Harold signalled for more. 

The others helped themselves to the meat and wine in turn, Romelda being served by her mother, who kept kicking her under the table. She cut a small portion of the meat with her knife, put it into her mouth and chewed. And chewed. She reduced it to stringy threads in her mouth but she couldn’t bear to swallow. She thought she would gag, watching her future husband chewing open-mouthed, with grease shining on his chin and in his sparse beard. He filled and refilled the goblet in front of him. It was like watching the swine in the sty.

“You’re not eating much,” he snorted, spraying food on the cloth before him. “You’ll have to put a bit of meat on your bones if you’re going to give me an heir. I want a fat healthy son out of you!” 

Romelda tried to swallow both the wad of chewed meat and a huge sob. Both stuck in her throat and she blacked out. Her mother rushed to fuss over her, declaring it to be the excitement of meeting her new husband for the first time. She patted the girl’s cheeks until she returned to consciousness, hoping to assure Lord Oswald that he would not be taking on a silly slip of a girl but a woman capable of giving him a son.

About Kath Middleton

Kath Middleton is no stranger to the writing world, having had several of her short stories published in anthologies and many of her drabbles published online and in Beyond 100 Drabbles, a collaborative book alongside author Jonathan Hill. Ravenfold is Kath’s first foray into longer fiction, a book which she describes as mediaeval noir. She studied geology at University, and Archaeology later in life. Her many hobbies and interests include reading, gardening, patchwork and quilting, and keeping chickens. And, of course, she continues to write. Her second novella is effectively finished and the third book is in the process of being written.

Click here to purchase Ravenfold from Amazon (and it is an excellent read)

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