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The Fairest Beauty
By Melanie Dickerson
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2012 Melanie Dickerson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSophie kept her head bowed as she waited for the duchess to speak. She started to clasp her hands together but stopped. Clasped hands presented an image of idleness, the duchess often said, and the gesture sent her into a rage every time. Sophie let her arms hang limply at her sides.
Carefully, she peeked through her lashes at Duchess Ermengard. The woman's skin was unnaturally white, her hair dyed ebony using black hickory hulls. Her lips were stained red from berries, and her teeth were so white they made Sophie want to shade her eyes. Did the duchess ever think of anything besides beauty? The irony was that she was naturally beautiful and would look better without all the powder and dye.
The duchess stood unmoving, not making a sound. The silence began to crowd against Sophie's ears. Duchess Ermengard liked to draw out the waiting, knowing it only increased her victims' apprehension. Having to stand and wait to hear what her punishment would be was perhaps the worst part.
At long last, when the duchess addressed Sophie, her hoarse voice sent a chill down Sophie's spine.
"So this is how you repay my kindness to you? You, an orphan, and a girl at that. I could have let you starve by the roadside. Others would have done so in my place."
No one but you would be so cruel. Sophie's breaths came faster—she was dangerously close to speaking—but she forced the words down.
"How could you be so audacious as to think ... when I rightfully punish one of my servants ... No. No, I want you to confess what you have done. You seem to enjoy prayer. Surely you enjoy confession as well. Now confess." Sophie's skin crawled as the duchess's voice lowered to a slow, quiet whisper. "What ... did ... you ... do?"
Sophie almost wished the duchess would scream instead. A dark feeling of oppression, of an evil presence in the room, came over her, as it often did when the duchess was interrogating her. Jesus, help me. Take away my anger.
The oppressive feeling subsided.
Following the rote formula required by the duchess, Sophie began, "Duchess Ermengard, your servant Sophie confesses to sneaking food to your servant Roslind while Roslind was being punished in the dungeon." Sophie curtsied humbly. Oh, God, please, please, please let it be enough. Let my confession be enough to appease her. And let me appear meek before her.
Silence. Again. With a churning stomach, Sophie waited for the duchess to speak. Her hands trembled but she dared not hide them behind her back. The duchess had a rule against that as well.
Sophie waited so long for the duchess's next words that her mind began to wander, imagining what her friends, the other servants, would be doing now. But she pulled herself back, bracing herself for what the duchess would say or do next.
"You confess as though you're not truly sorry for what you did."
"Please forgive me, Duchess Ermengard." Sophie suppressed a shudder. This was not going well. It was no longer a matter of if she'd be punished, but how severely. She bowed her head lower, hoping to appear truly repentant. Even though she wasn't.
"And there is more, isn't there?" Once again, the duchess let the silence linger.
What would the duchess accuse her of now? Sophie searched her mind for things she had done that the duchess may have uncovered. She had given food to some starving children who had come begging at the kitchen door, but that had been days ago. She searched her memory for something else ...
Then she remembered. Yesterday she had followed a guard into the woods, and after he'd heaved a sack of squirming puppies into the river, against her better judgment, Sophie had dived in after them. Dragging the heavy cloth bag from the bottom of the shallow river, she'd dumped out all five creatures on the riverbank, wet but alive. Someone must have seen her and told the duchess. She couldn't read minds, could she?
"Nothing to say? You know what you did. You defied me." The duchess's voice sounded like the hiss of a snake. "You followed the guard to the river in order to save those worthless, mongrel puppies. You are a disobedient, deceitful, horrible little wretch." She spat out the words as if they were venom.
Sophie's mouth went dry. Duchess Ermengard hated dogs, especially lap dogs. Anything small and helpless incited her hatred. And these puppies would never grow anywhere close to the size of hunting dogs, which the duchess gave to Lorencz the huntsman to use in his deer hunts.
"I expect my orders to be obeyed. I don't expect my scullery maid to defy them." She said the words scullery maid the way she always did, as though they were a curse.
Sophie thought about the tiny dogs she'd saved and remembered their soft fur and the way they'd whimpered and licked her hand. For a moment she could almost feel the little brown-and-white one snuggled against her cheek. The feel of his furry little face against her skin had made her feel loved, as if he knew she'd saved him.
"You are a wicked ..." The cold, hard edge of the duchess's voice tore Sophie out of her pleasant memory.
Sophie closed her eyes. I will not listen. I will not listen ...
"... rebellious, disrespectful girl. You will learn to respect me. You were nothing, a changeling orphan, an ugly child. You wouldn't even be alive if it weren't for me."
I am not wicked. I am not ugly.
The duchess was snarling now, her voice growing louder. "You will learn not to treat my rules with contempt. You will be disciplined."
Sophie didn't have to open her eyes to see the malicious glint in the duchess's eyes or to see her lips pressed into that tiny, pinched, cold smile, the smile she always wore when doling out punishment.
I am not wicked. I am not rebellious ...
Sophie longed to touch the wooden cross that hung from her neck, to squeeze it and feel comforted by the thought of her Savior's suffering, his compassion and forgiveness. But she didn't dare. If the duchess found the cross that was hidden under her dress, she would tear it away from Sophie and destroy it.
"For your wickedness," the duchess went on, slowly, as though savoring each word, "you shall spend the next two days and nights in the dungeon with no food or water."
Two days and nights. Sophie's heart seemed to stop beating. But at least, maybe, the duchess was finished with her.
Sophie curtsied, keeping her head low. She focused on replying according to the duchess's rules. "Let it be as you say, Duchess Ermengard. I am your servant Sophie."
Two soldiers came forward and grabbed her by her arms.
Just as she relaxed slightly, Sophie heard, "Wait! Bring her here."
Sophie's stomach dropped. What would the duchess do now? Sophie determined not to show panic as the two guards dragged her forward. Any expression of fear would only make things worse.
"Look at me," the duchess ordered.
Sophie lifted her face, preparing herself for the black emptiness of the duchess's eyes.
As soon as their gaze met, the duchess lifted her hand and slapped Sophie across the face.
Stunned, Sophie closed her eyes against the sting, tasting blood on her teeth. Her eyes watered but she refused to cry. She took deep, slow breaths to drive away the tears as the duchess kept up her cold stare. I mustn't show weakness.
Time and silence hung heavy in the air. Then Duchess Ermengard ordered, "Take her away."
The guards pulled Sophie, stumbling, across the stone floor toward the dungeon.
* * *
Gabehart hurried down the corridor with his father, Duke Wilhelm. The slap of their boots on the flagstones echoed against the walls. An old woman had been brought in the day before, feverish and unconscious. Gabe had paid the visitor little mind until their healer, Frau Lena, sent for him and his father, saying the woman had awakened and was telling a tale they needed to hear firsthand to believe.
Of course, if his older brother Valten hadn't broken his leg a few days ago, keeping him confined to his chamber, she wouldn't have sent for Gabe at all.
Gabe and his father entered the healer's tower and strode across the room to the sickbed. The mysterious traveler lay still, her white hair plastered to her head, her wrinkled eyelids closed. Her lips were white and her cheeks gray. Is she already dead?
Frau Lena, their tall, red-haired healer, curtsied to Duke Wilhelm. "Your Grace"—a nod to Gabe—"my lord. Thank you for coming."
"Are we too late?" Gabe glanced from the healer to the old woman on the bed.
Frau Lena smiled. "She's only sleeping." The healer's expression grew thoughtful as she stared down at her. "She'd been mumbling since she was brought in, but her words made no sense—something about saving someone before the evil one kills her." Frau Lena shrugged. "She was so feverish I didn't pay attention. But this morning, she awoke. Her fever had lessened, and she begged me to send for 'the young lord who is betrothed to Duke Baldewin's daughter.'"
What? Gabe glanced at his father. Duke Wilhelm's forehead creased.
"Go on," Duke Wilhelm said.
"When I told her Duke Baldewin's daughter died as a small child many years ago, she said, 'No, it's a lie. She lives. Tell the young lord to go to her, posthaste, and save her from ...'" Frau Lena hesitated.
"From?" Gabe found himself leaning toward the healer.
Frau Lena let out a deep breath, then whispered, "From Duchess Ermengard."
Gabe sank back on his heels. Visiting merchants often told stories about the queenly duchess, claiming she never left her castle in Hohendorf, dabbled in black magic to the extent of placing curses on those who crossed her, and even poisoned people. But Gabe had never seen her. Rumors said she never left her castle.
If Duke Baldewin's daughter were still alive, it made sense that she could be in danger from the shadowy Ermengard; Duke Baldewin's daughter would be sixteen, maybe seventeen years old, making her a threat to the duchess's rule. Though surely someone would have corrected the erroneous report of her demise by now. The truth would surely have leaked out and spread to Hagenheim. Or so one would think.
And if Duke Baldewin's daughter were still alive, that would mean Valten was still betrothed. His brother was going to be awfully surprised to find out he had a bride.
A strangled croaking sound came from the bed. The old woman's faded blue eyes opened and locked on Gabe's face. She lifted an emaciated hand toward him, beckoning him closer with a crooked, skeletal finger.
He looked back at his father, who nodded, so Gabe stepped forward and dropped to one knee by her bedside.
* * *
He was handsome, though he looked quite young. There was something so pleasing in his features. Such gentleness, an earnest look in his eyes. If only he were strong enough, clever enough ... God, help him.
Pinnosa's voice was weak, along with the rest of her, and she willed her words to reach the young man's ears. He was Sophie's only hope. "My lord, I am an old woman, soon to look my last on this earth." She paused to breathe. She was here. The one she had journeyed to find knelt before her, and she would soon impart her secret to him. If she weren't so feeble, she'd laugh with joy.
The man picked up her limp hand and pressed it gently. Such kindness to a poor, old woman on her deathbed.
"And you are Duke Wilhelm's son?"
"The secret I have to tell you has cost the lives of more than one person." Pinnosa spoke haltingly, stopping frequently to draw in another shallow breath. "You must be brave, strong, and highly favored by God to escape the same fate. Are you willing to hear my tale?"
"Aye, frau. Proceed."
"I was a servant in Duke Baldewin's castle when his daughter was born. The poor mother died, and His Grace was heartbroken. His wife had been exceedingly fair—her skin, pure and perfect as new-fallen snow; her eyes, the bluest blue; and her hair, black as ebony and silky as a waterfall. The baby girl was the very image of her."
Pinnosa closed her eyes to rest for a moment. Her strength seemed to be ebbing away with every word she spoke. She must impart only the most pertinent information. After managing to take in a little air, she opened her eyes and continued.
"The duke remarried. His new wife was beautiful, but heartless and cold. I believe she killed the duke."
Shock flickered over the young lord's face. He was sheltered and seemed inexperienced, but at least the surprise was quickly replaced by anger. Stoke that fire inside him, that sense of outraged justice I see in his eyes.
"People would tell me I shouldn't say such things. But I am old. It doesn't matter what happens to me if I can save Sophie."
"Did you walk all the way from Hohendorf?"
Pinnosa tried to laugh, but all she could manage was a wheeze. "You can look at my feet and legs if you don't believe me." They were swollen to twice their normal size. "I would walk much farther for Sophie."
The only way she'd been able to get away without raising the duchess's suspicions was by faking her own death. She'd taken a bit of one of the duchess's sleeping potions, which slowed her heart and breathing until people thought she was dead. She had bribed the mute son of a farmer to dig her back up after dark. It had been risky and terrifying to be buried alive beneath the cold earth, but if Pinnosa had left the castle any other way, the duchess would have sent her men after her to kill her. Duchess Ermengard was too powerful, too clever. Pinnosa was one of only two people still alive who knew that Duchess Ermengard had faked the death of her stepdaughter. The duchess had long ago killed everyone else who could have revealed this secret.
"Who is Sophie?" the young lord asked.
"Sophie is a servant in Duchess Ermengard's service. A scullery maid. But the truth is she is the duke's daughter." Pinnosa managed to squeeze his hand. "I saw in a dream that the duchess will kill her soon if someone doesn't intercede. Please ... save her. If you don't hurry, Duchess Ermengard will destroy her. She delights in tormenting her. Sophie ... so kind and gentle ... may God ... watch ... over her."
It was done. Now she could sleep.
Chapter TwoThe moment the woman stopped talking, her hand went limp in his. Gabe waited as Frau Lena examined her. After a few minutes, Frau Lena shook her head.
"Her heart has stopped. She's gone."
A chill passed over Gabe's shoulders and he shuddered. What if it were true? A beautiful girl, born to be a duchess but being used as a scullery maid, tormented by her own stepmother. How would he feel if such a thing happened to one of his sisters? His chest tightened at the cruel injustice.
He couldn't stop staring at the old woman's body, trying to divine the truth from her features. But what reason did she have to lie? Someone had to at least investigate the old woman's claims and attempt to help this Sophie.
Valten should save her. His brother Valten was the warrior, always excelling in tourneys, in jousting and sword fighting with the best knights of the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. But right now, Valten couldn't even walk without help.
"Gabe." His father touched his shoulder, pulling his gaze away from the face of the dead woman. "Come. We must discuss this with Valten."
Gabe followed his father through the castle corridor to Valten's chamber. What would his brother think of this woman's claim? Would he believe it? And who would their father send to uncover the truth in Hohendorf?
Gabe should go. His father had too many concerns and duties at home to go cantering off on a wild chase after a kitchen maid who may or may not be a dead duke's daughter. And Gabe couldn't imagine his father sending one of the knights out to handle something so intimately connected to their family.
He also had to admit that the thought of saving this girl himself was strangely appealing. No one thought of Gabe as a warrior. He was a rambler, a fun-loving friend, but certainly not a knight. He had never cared for fighting or jousting and left the tournaments to his older brother and his father's knights. As the second son, Gabe should have trained as a knight or applied himself to a trade such as a master mason or even joined the church. But none of those things appealed to him—a life of chastity least of all. He preferred roaming the countryside with his friends, sometimes drinking too much and doing other activities he was glad his parents knew nothing of. His few skills included flirting with fair maidens, playing the lute, and archery. In fact, archery was the only war sport in which he could best Valten.
Excerpted from The Fairest Beauty by Melanie Dickerson Copyright © 2012 by Melanie Dickerson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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