The following is something I wrote ages back. The story I’d had in mind – something very loosely based on Thomas the Rhymer – never properly coalesced and so this fragment is all there is. Maybe I’ll revisit it some day.
The candle burned clear and steady; no breath or draught in this dry room to make it flick or falter. She set it down beside the door and let her eyes seek out the shadows, find the shapes, the lines, the patterns. The men had gone away into the dark: only their bones remained, and silence. Nothing more. Even so, she traced her finger across the curve of a skull, remembering the flesh that had lain over it. She shaped her lips about his name, a word, a breath, a whisper. So had she whispered in the night time to the warm bulk of him sleeping beside her, slipping her hands ’cross his smooth skin to make him turn to her and answer, I am here. Such sweetness. Such desire. Her whisper died to silence and she laid the skull back into its place. His name had slipped its meaning, sure as dry bones had sloughed their skin.
She took three paces ’cross the room to lay her fingers over the delicate fragments of a hand and conjure a man’s touch against her skin. She had loved him for his music, he had caressed her as he did his lute, but he was not here. None of them was here. All that was left was bones and the bittersweet ache of memory, of a word, of a touch, of a night time’s pleasure. She looked around and empty eyes stared back from every niche in every wall. She had loved them all. And each had loved her in his turn, even knowing what she was.
The dead were gone and left no weight upon the world, only upon her heart. The room was full of bones, her mind of memories. So many men across the years, and all of them were dead. She turned herself about, whispering a litany of names. Men’s faces swam behind her eyes, men’s voices filled her ears, and, for a long, long moment, she saw herself surrounded by soldiers and sailors, by liars and princes, by musicians and magicians and thieves. She forced her mind to stillness and found herself again alone. They were not here. What purpose then to linger in this place of bones and silence? In the world above, the living were waiting in the sunlight, waiting for her smile, for her favour and her promise. Young men, strong men, vying each with another to join her dance. And yet she paused upon the threshold, unwilling to rejoin the hum and thrum. Men died, they slipped away into the dark and left their bones behind them. So many ways for a man to die and in her time she had surely seen them all. They died in their youth, with a sword between their ribs. They died in the ripeness of midlife, racked by fever, cankered and rotten. They died, quietly in their beds with their years heavy on them. Each time, she had been left behind to live and to remember. How many times could a broken heart be mended?
She did not know, and so she let the door close quietly behind her and climbed the stairs towards the sunlight. The candle she left, to burn and burn and light the dead a little time. There were yet many men within the world might love her. All would die, leaving behind their bones and her memory. That was as certain as the sunrise.
A whisper and a rustle, a stirring and a shuffling, then silence as she walked through the open door into her hall, hiding her thoughts behind her smile. She passed by the formal bows of men and the graceful courtesies of women to take her seat upon the dais. Sunlight, stained by coloured glass, poured through high windows to pool upon the floor and wash the court with crimson, with yellow rich as sulphur, with emerald and amethyst, with sapphire blue as the summer sky. No shadows here, no stillness.
The chamberlain inclined his head to the first petitioner, and the audience began.