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The Devil's Well

Chapter 1: The Devil's Well

by Haleth

There was a devil at the bottom of the wishing well.

It kept occasional, contemptuous company with the imp that lived in the hedgerow and the brownie that haunted the nearby farm.

The bottom of a well, wishing or no, seems an odd place for a devil, those beings usually being associated with a somewhat warmer climate. Indeed, once he had aspired to the heights of the fiery order of fallen angels and had striven to join the ranks of those, exhalted and feared, whose names were known to wretched mortals. But his success among the weak sons of men had made him over-confident and his plan had become known before it could be brought to fruition. Those in power had been less than pleased, and he had been exiled to one of the worst places imaginable; the cold, damp recesses of a diabolically enchanted well.

He had been promised release when he had captured a suitable number of souls. In the early days of his punishment, he had anticipated quickly regaining his freedom. Indeed, at first he lured many mortals with his promises of love or riches or power. But those who had accepted his bargain, though they succeeded in varying measures for a time, always came to bad ends. Very soon the place had an evil reputation among the simple, superstitious folk and they avoided the deep, stone well in the forest glade.

With no opportunity to ensnare new souls, the devil skulked in his damp, cold, dark home, wondering which of his infernal colleagues had led to his downfall and plotting his revenge. His only comfort was in tormenting the souls of those he had already ensnared. These he kept in a vial of twisted glass, the transparent vessel allowing him to see their agony. But in time he gained no pleasure from this, either. And no one came to bargain at the devil's well.

It was a day like any other when he sat at the bottom of his prison, chewing on an old goat's bone that he had stolen from the imp and listening to the moaning of the souls he had won, that something hard and cold hit his head and then bounced into the cold water with a faint splash.

The devil, rubbing the bruised spot between his curling horns, cursed sulphurously as he rose from the well, intent upon devouring the soul that had interrupted his mediations.

A ragged, dirty maid awaited him at the top of the well. Her clothes were in tatters and her brown hair hung in stringy, filthy mats. She was quite lovely, beneath the layers of grime and poverty. Instead of the terror he had been attempting to inspire, she was regarding him with an air of mild surprise. Her expression, which intrigued the devil of the wishing well, saved her from an immediate and painful death.

"Why did you summon me?" the devil demanded.

She remained stubbornly silent, making a careful, narrow-eyed study of his horns and tail.

"Are you deaf?" the devil barked, unsettled by the calm, appraising scrutiny. "Or perhaps mute? Or may you're just a fool?"

The girl smiled, her lips slowly pulling back to reveal a line of pearly, even teeth. "Did I disturb something important?" she asked tranquilly. "I could leave."

"Stay. You have already disturbed me. If you leave and then return, you will only disturb me again," the devil snarled, almost managing to keep the desperation out of his voice. It had been a very long time since he had ensnared a soul.

"I truly disturbed you?" the girl asked. The devil could see that her features were quite lovely beneath the dirt and the grime. "I would not have thought there was much to do at the bottom of a well."

The devil raised his hand to blast both the girl and her smug expression into oblivion, but he hesitated, feeling a grudging respect for her bravery.

"What do you want?" he growled.

"What do I want?" she asked, her voice faraway as though she was addressing herself.

The devil inclined his head and assumed a bored posture as he hovered over the empty air of the well.

"People look at me and see a poor, miserable peasant," she began, her voice a low growl. "I was born with nothing, will die with nothing and will have nothing in between. But I want...I am deserving...of ever so much more."

She looked directly into the devil's yellow eyes. "I want power, wealth and influence, the most that this duchy has to offer."

"A simply thing," the devil said, his voice now as smooth as silk. "But how will you pay me for my services if you have nothing?"

The woman looked taken aback for a moment. Then she laughed again, a low, dry, mirthless chuckle. "You are right. I cannot pay you." She turned on her heel and began to walk away, her ragged cloak trailing on the moss.

"But surely you have something," the devil called after her.

"No," she shook her head without turning around. "Nothing that anyone would value."

She had reached the edge of the clearing. The devil, desperate to keep her from leaving, decided to be blunt.

"And what of your soul?" he asked.

The woman paused, as if she had not considered this before.

"What of it?" she shrugged. To the devil's relief she stopped and turned to face him.

"It is the customary payment when dealing with a devil." He smiled, exposing his jagged, yellow teeth.

"And what would you give me in return?" she asked.

"I would make you the most powerful woman in the duchy," the devil replied. "Men would tremble at the mention of your name. You will have wealth beyond imagining and you will have the ear of the duke."

She regarded him suspiciously. "All this in return for my soul?" she asked. Despite her poverty she was a sophisticated woman who did not believe herself to be in possession of an immortal soul.

"If you agree to the pact, yes." the devil nodded.

"Very well," she said slowly. "But you must explain this pact."

The devil smiled again, his yellow teeth in stark contrast to the red of his skin. "What is your name, child?"


They bargained far into the night. In the end, Mathilde signed an X in her own blood onto the bottom of the devil's contract, and both went away contented. He planned to use Mathilde to lure more souls. Mathilde imagined that the entire conversation was a hunger-induced hallucination.

Mathilde returned to her home. Her father was already in his usual drunken stupor, his snores shaking the walls of their rundown hovel. Her mother was by the fire, bent over her sewing, darning a threadbare sock which she had already repaired a half a dozen times. With her white hair small, dark eyes and abrupt, ungraceful movements, the older woman resembled a scrawny, elderly bird.

"Where were you?" she asked suspiciously as her daughter crept in. The old woman's beady eyes strained through the smoke.

"Out for a walk," Mathilde shrugged, knowing that her mother would never raise her hand to her and risk awakening her father.

"Alone?" her mother prodded.

"Mostly," Mathilde shrugged.

"You'll get with child if you're not careful," her mother grumbled. "Then it will be even harder to find you a husband."

"I'm not worried about that, mother," Mathilde said grandly.

The old woman looked her daughter up and down, her head bobbing like a chicken.

"You should be," she muttered under her breath as she went back to her sewing.

Mathilde went into the corner of the hut, pulled the least soiled straw she could find into a nest and drifted off to sleep.

By the cock's crow, she had half convinced herself that the entire episode with the devil had been a curious dream. She grew more certain of it as the day passed without the Duke riding up to her parent's shack and carrying her away. By the end of the week, she had entirely dismissed the encounter as the work of an overly active imagination.

Life continued on its wretched way, offering plenty of back-breaking toil and little return until one day a merchant's caravan passed through their tiny hamlet. Mathilde was weeding her mother's miserable excuse for a vegetable garden when they rode past her, the heavily laden wagons creaking as they trundled along the heavily rutted road.

There as a loud crack just as the largest wagon passed directly before her. The driver leapt to the ground and examined the front wheel while the other driver and the mounted guards jeered and complained at the delay. Mathilde pretended to dig weeds as she watched the commotion. Another driver and a fierce-looking rider had joined the first man. They were arguing loudly while the others shouted unhelpful suggestions. It was the most entertainment Mathilde had had in months.

"Girl!" Her mother's querulous voice cried from the dimness of the hovel. "What are you thinking? Get in here!"

Mathilde silently laughed. Several of the caravan guards had taken a glancing notice of her, a dirty, scrawny figure bent among equally wretched plants. The sound of the old woman's voice drew the attention of the nearby men. Eyes filled with speculative lust lingered over her.

She evaluated them through her lowered lashes, found the man with the best clothing, and flashed him a quick, shy smile before she turned her back and shuffled in the direction of the hovel.

Slow hoofbeats clopped behind her. Mathilde counted to three, then picked up her pace.

"Wait!" the rider called. "Wench! Stay where you are!"

Mathilde bowed her head to hide her smile as the man closed the distance between them. He rode his horse between her and the hut and examined her closely.

"Look up, so I can see you better," he demanded and Mathilde raised her head, being careful to keep her eyes averted.

Through sidelong glances she saw that it was the man she had chosen from among the caravan guards. He looked as wealthy as could be expected for a freebooting mercenary willing to play guard to a small merchant's caravan. He had dark hair which was already flecked with grey, and an enormous black beard. His tunic and cloak were of thick, soft wool and stained with each meal he had eaten for the past week. Mathilde quickly sized him up. He wasn't much to look at, but he must have some money. Judging by the marks on his clothing, he could obviously afford food.

His expression was an unsettling mix of lust and cruelty, but that hardly deterred Mathilde. He would make her life hell, but her existence to this point had been utterly wretched. If she went with him, at least she would be fed.

"Please, sir," she said, her voice barely a whisper. "Let me go."

The guard smiled somewhere beneath his bushy beard. The mirth did not tough his eyes. "And why should I do that?" he mused.

"My mother called me, sir," Mathilde croaked. "Please."

The guard swung off his horse and advanced upon Mathilde.

"Bertrand. What do you think you're doing?" A young man dressed in the richest apparel Mathilde had ever seen approached them. His tunic was a deep, rich red and the cloth was completely clean.

Bertrand stiffened. For the briefest moment it seemed as though he would argue with the popinjay who was spoiling his fun, but they he remembered himself.

"I was just talking to the young lady here," he mumbled. "To pass the time while the wheel is repaired.

On the road, a small group of men were changing the broken cartwheel while most of the stood around idly or lounged along the side of the road. Several watched the scene in the peasant's yard with interest.

"The conversation is over," the rich, young man said stiffly.

Bertrand made as if to argue and then thought better of it. He gave a brief nod, mounted his horse and rode away.

"I am sorry if Bertrand frightened you," the wealthy man said quietly.

"Thank-you, my lord." Mathilde gave him an awkward curtesy. "It was nothing, my lord."

"Indeed," the young man snorted and examined Mathilde closely, his gaze lingering over her features and the slight curve of her hips beneath her threadbare homespun. "I can see why he chose to speak to you."

"My lord?" Mathilde asked, feigning naivety.

"Would you care to join me?" the merchant suddenly asked.

Mathilde, speechless, simply blinked at him.

"I am Emile of Marsielle. I am travelling to Navarre," he said simply. Mathilde noted that he barely seemed to understand his own words. "The road is long and I would appreciate your company."

Mathilde glanced involuntarily at the hut, where her mother still crouched in the shadows, afraid to come outside, even to protect her only daughter.

"You may return at any time you wish," he continued, misinterpreting her expression. "I will make your time worth your while."

Mathilde took in the rich, textured fabric of his clothing and the finely tooled leather of his belt.

"I will come."

And so it was that Mathilde left the only home she had ever known with barely a backwards glance.

It took nearly three weeks for the caravan to reach Narvarre. Mathilde's belly was always filled. Layers of dirt and grime had been stripped away to reveal a lustrous brown hair and a milky white, flawless complexion. Her wardrobe was considerably improved with three dresses of soft wool. Emile had promised her more once they reached Navarre. Mathilde even possessed jewellery; a fine ring of gold which Emile had given her on the night that he had finally seduced her.

At first Mathilde thought highly of her benefactor. Emile spoke with a refined accent and knew of many worldly things. In the evening, after camp had been made and the men shouted their boisterous songs around the fires, he would recite poetry to her. Mathilde feigned interest, as it was obviously important to Emile. Eyes wide, she would hang off his every word while mentally compiling lists of the clothing and jewelry she would one day have.

Throughout the nights they would make love in Emile's fine tent, his body a shadow above hers in the darkness. During the day she would ride in one of the wagons. Any man who dared to look at her too boldly would find himself in quick trouble. Mathilde gloated inwardly whenever Emile took one of them to task on her behalf, though she was always careful to keep her expression hurt and unhappy.

The continual reprimands began to wear on the men's morale. One by one, they began to leave, some not even asking to be paid. The ranks of the guards grew steadily thinner, until one day Emile's partner warned him to stop provoking the men. Their voices rose in anger as the conversation continued while Mathilde watched them with huge, round eyes, as though she did not understand anything that they said.

"Antonio will hear of this if we lose our goods because we lack the men to guard them properly," the partner warned ominously before stalking into the night.

Watching his back disappear through the tent flap, Emile frowned in anger. His expression changed to worry as soon as his partner was safely gone.

"Who is this Antonio?" Mathilde asked as she brought him a cup of watered wine. They were nearing the end of their journey and had not bothered to resupply. "His he your father?"

"Worse," Emile said. He raised the cup to his lips and smiled wearily over its brim. "He is my banker."

"What is a banker?" Mathilde asked in seeming innocence. If Emile had enemies, she felt that she needed to know about them.

Emile's smile became rueful. "A man with a great deal of money and power," he replied.

Mathilde blinked at him while her heart leapt in her chest. If Emile considered this Antonio wealthy, he must be rich indeed.

"A banker is a noble?" she asked slowly, unhappy at having to display her ignorance.

"Good heavens no!" Emile laughed. He placed the wine on the camp table and grasped Mathilde by the waist, pulling her onto his lap. "He's a money merchant."

"I see," Mathilde said distantly. Emile nuzzled her hair and kissed her neck but she was almost oblivious to his advances. She would meet this Antonio. If he showed no interest in her, she still had Emile. Emile was good enough, she supposed, for a peasant girl. A tight ball formed at the bottom of Mathilde's stomach. From the time she had been a little girl she had been told to accept her lot in life without question. While this arrangement worked well for her parents and anyone with authority, it was of no benefit to Mathilde.

As she lay beneath Emile that night, her thoughts were focused on Antonio.

Several days later, the caravan entered Navarre. Emile had planned to visit Antonio the day after their arrival, but the banker had sent a messenger summoning the merchant. Mathilde had smiled prettily and asked to please go with him as she had never before seen a town the size of Navarre. Emile had been hesitant to take her, but Mathilde's lower lip had begun to tremble. He relented when he witnessed the unshed tears sparking in the corners of her light blue eyes.

Antonio the banker's home was an immense construction of limestone. Mathilde had never seen a home so large.

"This all belongs to him?" she whispered as they entered the banker's house.

"Yes," Emile said tersely. "Don't say anything until the business is finished."

Mathilde bit her tongue and nodded quickly. They were led into a garden filled with roses. A dark-haired man sat at a small table. He was bent over a sheaf of papers. The servant whispered something in his ear, unobtrusively announcing the arrival of his guests. He quickly shuffled some papers around and stood in greeting.

"Ah, yes, Emile," Antonio said. "It is good to see you again. I only wish..."

His gaze drifted to Mathilde, who was standing quietly behind her lover.

"Greetings, Antonio," Emile said stiffly. He was unhappy with the way that the banker was ogling Mathilde. "You only wish?"

"I only wish that you would introduce me to this fair creature," Antonio said. Pushing passed Emile, he took Mathilde's hand and raised it to his lips.

Mathilde smiled shyly and looked to Emile for help.

"This is Mathilde," he said sharply. "She could not the reason that you summoned me here today."'

"No," Antonio released Mathilde's hand. He approached Emile and placed his hands on the young man's shoulders. "You have not heard."

"Have not heard what?" Emile demanded.

Antonio shook his head. "Sit down, young friend," he said, motioning to the servant to bring a second chair for Mathilde.

"Your father's ships have not returned to Marseilles," Antonio said.

"What of it?" Emile asked, "Ships depend upon the weather and that is seldom reliable."

"Less reliable than you know," Antonio said. "I am sorry. My reports say that his ships will not ever return to port."

Emile sat in shocked silence for a moment, then his face grew hard with suspicion.

"What do you want?" he demanded, his voice a dangerous growl.

"I bankrolled your father's expedition," Antonio said. "As he will not be returning, I must insist that you make good the loan."

"How much was it?" Emile snarled.

Antonio handed a piece of paper to Emile, who read it, then laughed harshly.

"This is everything that I have. The business, my estates, everything!"

"I know," Antonio said sadly. "If it were only me, I would be willing to take partial payment, but the Medicis will never hear of it."

"Surely we can make some arrangement," Emile sputtered as Antonio shook his head.

"Payment is due at the end of the month, or your property is forfeit to the bank."

Emile leapt to his feet, his hand balled into fists.

"Think better of it, boy," Antonio said calmly as several burly servants appeared out of the surrounding garden. "Better poor and alive than simply dead."

Emile surveyed the grim faces of the thugs and shook his head. He looked directly at Antonio. "I hope you get exactly what you deserve.

"Come, Mathilde," he said. "We're leaving."

Mathilde followed him reluctantly.

"You may stay, my dear," Antonio said.

Mathilde's turned towards her new benefactor.

"Come, Mathilde," Emile repeated, holding out his arm. "We can start again."

"I am very sorry, Emile," Mathilde whispered. "I do not want to start again."

Pain welled up in the young merchant's eyes, though it did not touch his face. He nodded once and left Mathilde to Antonio, never looking back.

The devil sat at the bottom of his well and tipped the twisted glass vial that imprisoned his prizes. He smiled, revealing mottled yellow fangs to the imprisoned souls who slid from the top to the bottom of the vial. It amused the devil to watched the distorted forms of the trapped souls fight and clamber over each other in a race to the top of the vial. As soon as they arranged themselves, the strongest above the weakest, the devil would invert the vial and the scramble would begin anew.

He inhaled the damp, mouldy air of his prison and congratulated himself on his forebearance in not immediately killing Mathilde. In the past year, the girl had drawn half a dozen souls to him. Almost all of the men who had fallen into her tender clutches had ended in the vial of twisted glass.

There had been a few who had eluded the devil's clutches. the young merchant who had started the affair had retired to a monastery. A young, besotted clerk had gone to live as a hermit after Mathilde had used him as a brief distraction. As with all of his kind, these perceived failures rankled out of proportion to the successes.

For now, the devil of the wishing well was willing to be patient. At the rate that Mathilde was sending souls to him, he would have his quota in as little as two years. Then he would set about recovering the souls who had escaped him as well as having his revenge on those responsible for placing him in the well.

All that he had to do was wait and plan. He inverted the vial once again.

Mathilde sailed regally through the wide, airy halls of the hunting lodge. Those servants not quick enough to scurry out of her line of sight bowed to the ground before her, too afraid to lift their eyes to the duke's mistress.

The peasant's daughter had done very well for herself since she had left her parent's anonymous, stinking hovel. As a mistress, she had passed from the banker to a landless baron and up through the ranks of the nobility until she caught the eye of the Duke.

Being the lover of the most powerful man in Burgundy had its advantages. Mathilde's wardrobe was exclusively of silks and rich brocades. She possessed a king's ransom in jewellery and she commonly wore enough of it to jingle of gold when she walked. Her every wish was catered to with blinding speed and her displeasure was enough to ruin a man.

There were two obstacles to her complete happiness.

When she had become the mistress of the duke, all of the casual encounters which she had so enjoyed had come to an end. No longer could she discretely entertain a talented poet or promising young musician. The Duke, for all his generosity, was a jealous man and he had made this very clear to Mathilde. The artists of word and song were free to use the king's mistress as inspiration for their talents, but they risked their hands or their tongues if they dared do any more than regard her from a distance.

Mathilde was quite certain that the servants with whom the Duke had supplied her acted as his spies. She did not trust any of them enough to help arrange a discrete encounter. The enforced monogamy annoyed her to no end, but she was powerless to change it. She had her vicarious revenge by treating like animnal those unlucky enough to be in her service.

The second barrier to Mathilde's complete happiness was the Duchess. The Duke had assured her that he felt nothing whatsoever for his wife; that he only kept her to assure his dynasty. This Mathilde could almost believe as the Duchess was almost continually with child. Her hips were as wide as a broodmare's, which was only right as they now matched her long, homely face.

What the duchess thought of her husband's mistress Mathilde neither knew nor cared. The two women rarely saw each other as the Duke was, as yet, unwilling to publically embarrass his wife by having his mistress openly at court. Mathilde had been wheedling him to bring her to his capital and it seemed as though he was beginning to relent.

She swept into her sumptuous changing room and critically examined the outfits carefully laid out for her approval. A young, blank-faced woman stood unobtrusively to the side, ready to attend to her lady's wishes. Mathilde sniffed disapprovingly at the choices, gowns of forest green and gold brocade and of scarlet red silk.

"Where is my blue dress?" she demanded.

The woman looked uncomfortable.

"If it please my lady..." she began.

"It would please my lady to have my sky-blue gown," Mathilde interrupted. "Fetch it."

The servant cleared her throat nervously and started again.

"But my lady..."

"You dare to disobey me?" Mathilde asked coldly.

"No, my lady," the girl said miserably.

"Then fetch my blue gown immediately or I will have you thrashed."

"Well?" Mathilde demanded when the servant failed to move.

"I am sorry, my lady. Last time you wore the blue gown you said that is displeased you and ordered it to be burned."

An ugly flush coloured Mathilde's cheeks.

"And I suppose you were foolish enough to do this?" the Duke's mistress hissed.

The woman nodded dejectedly and Mathilde drew breath to call her steward to have the unhappy girl beaten when there was a polite knock upon the door.

"Excuse me, My Lady," the steward said with perfect, emotionless politeness. "A messenger from the Duke has just arrived.

The gown and the servant momentarily forgotten, Mathilde followed the tall, lanky steward through the halls.

"The messenger has been given meat and wine," the steward said.

"Yes, yes," Mathilde said dismissively. She had no time for the niceties of behavior practised by the nobles. "What is his news?"

"I do not know," the steward replied, his voice a polite blank.

Mathilde sniffed in disbelief. She would speak to the Duke the next time she saw him. This steward was not treating her with the respect she felt she deserved.

This, too, was forgotten when she sat upon an artfully arranged chair in her private study and the messenger, dressed in the Duke's livery of blue and white, was ushered into the room.

She noted with displeasure that the man stank of horse sweat. If he could take the time to eat, surely he could take the time to make himself presentable? Judging by the way that he looked at her, the messenger was wishing the same thing.

"My Lady," he said, dropping onto one knee. "The Duke sends his most affectionate greetings and implores you to know that he and his guests will arrive here the day after the morrow."

Mathilde smiled thoughtfully at the news. "Very good," she said. "You may go."

"My Lady," the messenger said. Standing, he backed out of the room, keeping Mathilde in his line of sight for as long as possible.

A fragrant breeze from the garden carried away the stench of horse and man. Mathilde remained in her chair and planned what she would wear and what she would say to her lover.

A polite cough drew her out of her pleasant reverie.

"What do you want?" She frowned at the steward and wondered how long he had been standing there, unnoticed.

"If it please My Lady, there are preparations to be made and the staff needs your guidance."

"You've seen to this before," she sniffed. "Do whatever is necessary."

"My Lady." The steward bowed and left as silently as he had come.

Mathilde smiled a secret smile and continued her plotting.

Two days later, in the midafternoon, Mathilde, arrayed in a gown of brilliant yellow, her hair artfully arranged in golden ribbons, waited at the top of the stairs with the welcoming cup in her hands.

The Duke and a large party rode into view. Mathilde almost dropped the cup.

Riding beside the Duke was the most beautiful man Mathilde had ever seen. He was tall and fair to look upon, his broad shoulders tapering to his narrow waist. His most outstanding feature was his hair, which blazed about his head in a firey halo. He and the Duke were laughing as they rode into view.

"Who is that?" Mathilde demanded of her steward.

"I believe that is Pascal, the Duke of Savoy's representative in the treaty negotiations," the steward whispered.

"Pascal," Mathilde echoed, her eyes never leaving the man's face until the party was directly at the stairs. It was not until the Duke dismounted that she forced herself to look at her lover. He compared poorly to Pascal's perfection, with his hair and beard beginning to grisel and his burly frame turning to fat.

She forced a smile of welcome to her face and descended the stairs. Dropping to one knee, she presented the beefy-faced Duke with the welcoming cup.

"Mathilde," he said after he had drank deeply. The red wine dribbled off his mustache. "It is good to see you again." He passed the cup to a waiting servant, raised Mathilde to her feet and, to the approving roar of the assembled company, kissed her soundly.

"Your Grace," Mathilde smiled and dropped her eyes. "Be welcome at your hunting estate."

"Now, now," the Duke said, chucking Mathilde under the chin. "I come here to be away from the stuffiness of court."

Mathilde smiled weakly. She still wished to go to court, but the desire was no longer as urgent as it had been.

"Come," he said, taking her elbow. "You must meet our esteemed guests. This is Pascal, the Marquis of Chambery."

"Your Excellency," Mathilde murmurred, curtesying deeply to the Marquis. He was tall as well as handsome. Even standing a step lower than the Duke his head was still higher than his host's. She slowly straightened and dared to look him directly in the eye, issuing a silent, bold invitation.

The Marquis smiled, nodded briefly, then turned to speak to one of his retainers, utterly failing to notice Mathilde's attraction.

Others were not so oblivious, though.

"Mathilde," the Duke's voice held the slightest hint of menace. "Tell me of yourself and your doings here."

"There is not much to tell. I'm in the middle of nowhere," Mathilde replied, her shock at being rejected making her forget to be obsequious.

The Duke's frown deepened. "Not here, girl," he growled and Mathilde bit her lip in anger and frustration.

That night, as she lay beneath the Duke, she envisioned the Marquis above her.

The following week was sheer torture, with the men sequestered in the main hall and Mathilde exiled to the solarium or the gardens.

Every one of her waking moments revolved around the Marquis. Even her plans to wheedle her way into the Duke's court were forgotten in her blind, burning obsession with Pascal. She tried in vain to have a private word with the Marquis of Chambery, stationing herself where she knew he had to pass, but he always managed to elude her carefully laid traps.

After several days of negotiations, the entire party went hunting. Mathilde rode sidesaddle behind the Duke, but her eyes never left the Marquis. He was exquiste to look upon, as though one of the angels had come to earth. Each of his movments were as graceful as a dancer's and his hair blazed like a living flame.

It was during that hunt that Mathilde vowed she would have him. She would move heaven and earth to be in his arms. She felt more than confident that, once he had sampled her charms, he would go to any length, even fight a war to keep her by his side.

The day finally came that the Duke announced his intention to depart the following morning. Mathilde barely tasted her food that evening as she sat between her lover and the man she would give the earth to possess, forcing herself to smile a the appropriate times and give the expected responses to the conversation.

The dining hall was beginning to empty and the servants were clearing away the wreckage of the mean when the Marquis stood and excused himself.

Mathilde watched him disappear from the hall, then she made some feeble excuse to the Duke and left by the door that led to the gardens.

Her benefactor watched suspiciously. The girl had hardly been discrete in her fascination for his guest. It had taken a great deal of his self-control to not severely reprimand her for her shameful behavior. But each time he began to admonish her, an odd reluctance had stayed his harsh words.

The Marquis of Chambery had saved the entire situation by keeping himself, as much as he could, out of Mathilde's sight. On the occasions that they had to be together, he had been perfectly polite and perfectly indifferent to Duke's mistress. This had rankled slightly. Who was this minor noble to be so unaffected by Mathilde's beauty when the Duke was so besotted by her? Luckily, the Duke was a pragmatic man who rarely allowed himself to be ruled by his emotions; Mathilde had been the rare exception to this.

On a whim he followed his lover into the garden.

Sightless, Mathilde followed the winding garden paths. Pascal was leaving the following morning and she would never see him again. She would remain here, locked away from the world, until her beauty faded and the Duke lost interest in her. Then she would be turned out to live as a penniless peasant. She would die never having known the taste of Pascal's sweet lips. The unfairness of the situation almost choked her. Blinded by tears of rage and frustration, Mathilde lowered herself to the ground and wept openly.

"My Lady?" The voice was as warm and gentle as a summer's day and filled with gentle concern. Hands rested lightly on her shoulders. Mathilde forced herself out of her well of self-pity. Her eyes focused on the worried but still beautiful face of the Marquis of Chambery.

Seizing her opportunity, Mathilde threw herself against his chest and wept all the harder. Strong arms slowly wrapped around her and rocked her as though she was a child as Pascal whispered comforting nothings into her ears.

"My Lady, please tell me what troubles you," he said. "If it is in my power, I will remedy it."

Sniffing dramatically, Mathilde pulled herself back so she could look him directly in the eye.

"You are leaving tomorrow and I will never see you again!" she said, her voice quavering with emotion.

The Marquis cocked his head. "That is how it must be, Mathilde," he said quietly, his voice filled with compassion.

"No, it does not!" Mathilde contradicted him. "I could go with you. We could fly to your kingdom. The Duke would not dare to challenge you."

The Marquis carefully disentangled himself from her. "I cannot take you with me, Mathilde. Your place is here."

Seeing her one opportunity drifting away from her, Mathilde again threw herself against Pascal's chest. He almost overbalanced with the unexpected force of her attack.

"If you cannot take me with you, then at least give me one night!" she whispered.

Pascal made to back away, but she clung to him determinedly.

"One night!" she pleaded. "Is that so much?"

The Marquis shook his head. "I have shared the Duke's bread and meat," he said, trying unsuccess to free himself from her clutches. "How could I violate his hospitality?"

'Damn his hospitality!' Mathilde thought desperately. 'I want you, can you not see that?'

"Then one kiss," Mathilde wheedled, bringing her lips next to his. "One taste of your lips to remember you by."

"My Lady," Pascal said sadly. "I cannot." He released her and stood to leave, his hair a deep russet in the moonlight.

Mathilde sat utterly still with shock for half a moment. A wave of black, unreasoning fury overwhelmed her

"You do you think you are to walk away from me?" she hissed as she climbed to her feet.

The Marquis glanced over his shoulder to find Mathilde following him, her face twisted in an ugly rage.

"Who are you to deny me? Do you know who I am?"

"You are the Duke's mistress," the Marquis answered evenly.

"I am more than that!" she shouted. "I am every man's dream. Not one man can say no to me if I so much as crooked a finger at him."

"You have not met every man in the world," the Marquis said, smiling to try to defuse the situation.

"I have met enough," Mathilde snapped.

The Marquis shrugged and continued to walk towards the house. Mathilde was forced to trot to keep pace with him.

"I could ruin you with a word," she said and he stopped in his tracks.

"One shout and the servants and duke's men will come," she said. "I will tell the Duke that you tried to force me. He will not look kindly upon you."

The Marquis regarded her coldly, all the merriment gone from his face.

Mathilde guessed his thoughts. "Even if the Duke does dismiss the accusations," she said. "How do you think that will affect your treaty?"

"What do you want?" Pascal demanded.

"I told you. I what to go with you."

The Marquis was shaking his head before Mathilde had finished speaking.

"Help! Oh help!" she cried, smiling coldly as she said it.

"Stop shouting. Your help is right here." The Duke came out from behind the boxwood hedge, where he had been eavedropping.

"Chambery, you are a man of honour," he said to the Marquis. "I look forward to completing our negotiations and signing that treaty." The Marquis bowed and, recognising the dismissal, hurried away.

The Duke examined Mathilde from the top of her head to the tip of her shoes. The peasant girl did her best to look contrite.

"What is the meaning of this?" he growled.

"It was not my fault, Your Grace! He cast a spell on me!"

"Cast a spell?" the Duke asked distantly. "If anyone cast a spell it was you, upon me." He spoke with deadly anger and Mathilde was filled with a rising sense of dread.

Muffled shouts and the sound of running feet came from the direction of the house.

"Please, your Grace," Mathilde begged, dropping to her knees and clasping her hands imploringly. "I am just a poor peasant girl."

To her absolute horror, the Duke shook his head.

"Enough. I am free of your spell."

Throwing herself forward, Mathilde grasped the hem of his robe and wept bitter, frantic tears.

"Please, Your Grace, have mercy! Please!"

The first of the men from the lodge ran into the clearing and stopped in surprise.

"Arrest the witch," the Duke said, gesturing at his disgraced mistress.

With her screams ringing in his ears, they dragged Mathilde to her doom.

Within days, her sould had joined the others in the devil's twisted glass vial at the bottom of the wishing well.

The devil, who had been dreaming dreams of grandeur, met her with an anger so great that he smashed the glass against the stone walls of his prison.

The freed souls wailed like a thousand furies as they soared around the confines of the well once, twice, thrice before flying to freedom.

Picking up the shattered end of the glass, he noticed that one, sad, grey soul remained. He grimly placed his thumb upon the sharp edge of the glass to seal it, cutting himself in the process, howled in rage and frustation and cursed his enemies for spoiling his plans.

Far away, in a keep in the town of Chambery, a tall, red-headed man smiled sadly and bowed his head.