or Love Under Siege
“In the name of Mary, the holy mother of God, help us!”
Sir Colm shrugged his heavy leather cloak on and peered out of the tent into the dark and driving rain. He saw a white-faced boy of seventeen or so, covered in mud and leading a horse that looked as exhausted as the swaying figure on its back. As he took in the scene, the rider let out a sigh and fell sideways. Sir Colm leapt to the rescue and found himself holding a young woman, soaked through and evidently faint from hunger and weariness. Her loose square-necked dress was slipping off her shoulders and revealing the top of her bosom, an effect which might have been interesting had there been any flesh covering her ribcage and collarbone.
“Well, come in, stranger,” said Sir Colm, carrying his meagre burden into the tent. The boy tied his horse to a post and followed him. Once the girl was laid down on a bench, Sir Colm demanded to know where they had come from.
“We seek sanctuary in the castle. We have travelled many miles, and, as you see, the lady can go no further. I am afraid she will become ill if we spend this wild night out of doors, and we have not eaten for two days.” The boy was well-spoken, and evidently the now reviving girl was no mere serf's daughter either; her gown was plain and woolen but finely woven, and there was embroidery around the square neck and the edge of the fashionably ample skirt. Her soaked hair was fair and finely braided, her skin pale and unblemished – and a little blue from the cold.
“It would be inhuman not to offer you a night's shelter,” agreed Sir Colm. “But there are things you should know. You must have seen soldiers encamped around this castle. We are under siege. How did you get within the outer wall? Come to that, how did you get to the outer wall at all, through Sir Bruse's men?”
“The rain dulls all sound, and I had muffled the horse's bridle so that it should make no noise. Your guard at the postern gate is not reliable, Sir; he was around the corner kissing a woman, perhaps a kitchen girl, and did not see us come through.” Sir Colm's face darkened at this information.
“It is as well that you were not a company of Sir Bruse's men, then. Or perhaps you are a spy, sent ahead… No matter. If you come within this castle, you do not leave again. We will shelter you and offer you food – we have plenty. The Seigneur always keeps a good larder and we have livestock and some crops within the walls. But until we know clear you are not a spy, you stay. If you wish to leave now, we will accompany you to the enemy camp. Rest assured that the postern gate will be guarded differently from now on.”
“We will be glad to stay in the castle,” said the boy. “I assure you that we are not spies. My name is Roland, younger son of Jacques, liegeman to the Seigneur of Avan. My older brother is a knight. This is the Lady Alys, youngest daughter to the Seigneur and my betrothed. ” There was bravado in his voice as he said this.
“Well!” Sir Colm knew there was more to this story, but he had no time to go into it now. He was a busy man, as the commander of the castle's defense. “I am not sure you do not deserve hanging for the kidnap of the Seigneur's daughter, but it is not up to me to condemn you. Our own Seigneur is not here; we can deal with you when he returns, if we live so long. Sym! Take these two to the castle and see that they are taken care of. Keep an eye on them.”
Once he saw the couple in the light, Sym realized they were older than he had first thought. Roland was about twenty, but looked boyish because of his narrow frame and long gangling arms and legs. The lady was a little younger, quite tall, but so thin that her body was like a twelve-year-old child's, her breasts hardly swelling under her bodice. She was pale as parchment and still looked close to fainting. Both were soaked through and plastered with mud from their ride through the mire. Sym called for hot water, and led them to a tower room where a fire was laid ready.
“You can dry yourselves here,” he said, setting a spark from his flint and steel to the kindling. “Got any dry clothes?” Roland assented, indicating a leather-wrapped bundle, and Sym left them alone in the chamber.
The Seigneur of Avan had had seven daughters before managing to produce a son, and Alys was the youngest. Now that the succession was secure, he occupied himself with marrying his girls advantageously, which became more difficult as time went on. He was a demanding man, and expected his sons-in-law to look after his interests even to the detriment of their own. Worse, the amount of money he felt able to afford as a dowry declined with each daughter, and with five already married, he had matched one with every noble family in the region. Therefore his youngest daughters, Cecilie and Alys, reached the ages of nineteen and seventeen without anyone having offered to marry them at all.
Cecilie was considered a very pretty girl, who would have made an excellent wife if only her father wasn't so difficult. She had fair curls, sparkling blue eyes and a curvy figure, with tenderly plump little hands and rose-petal cheeks. She was also lively and charming. As she reached nineteen with no lordly suitors in sight, a brave young herald announced to her father that he was smitten with her beauty and despite his lack of worldly wealth (he was a nobleman's younger son) he dared to ask for her hand. The Seigneur granted his request (grudgingly, but nineteen was a bit old and he didn't want to be stuck with a spinster to keep). Cecilie was overjoyed.
No such escape seemed to be in store for Alys. The Seigneur doubted if men ever noticed her; she was always off in a corner with her nose stuck in a book of romances, or cradling her lute and plucking out some silly tune or other. That was what came of teaching girls to read and letting them learn music, he mused to himself. He should have stood up to their mother and kept them to sewing and dancing – ladylike accomplishments. Oh, well, if he had to have one spinster daughter it might as well be Alys. Unlike her sisters, she wasn't pretty at all, he thought; so sallow, skinny and sharp-featured, nothing for a man to get hold of. And she seemed to be wasting away even more these days. No wonder none of his knights fancied her. Well, there were always convents if he couldn't find Alys a husband He dismissed her from his mind and went hunting.
Little did the Seigneur know that there was a reason why Alys seemed thinner every day (and nor would he have cared greatly if he had known). Alys was in love. The herald to whom Cecilie was betrothed was in the habit of sending a troubadour to sing love-songs to her every morning, and as the girls shared a bedchamber Alys saw him too. He was a tall thin young man who played the lute as she did, and as the girls stood leaning out of the casement to listen, Alys imagined that he was singing to her, not to Cecilie. Her romantic soul thrilled to the courtly lyrics and his beautiful voice and playing.
The troubadour was Roland, and he was indeed singing to Alys. In truth he was not very sure which girl was Cecilie, and on the first day he had hoped she was the girl who was listening to his music with rapt attention. But by the fourth day, he hoped she was the other, the plumper girl with curly hair, because he knew Cecilie was betrothed and he had lost his heart to the slender Alys and her dreamy grey eyes. He picked out his best love songs for her. Despite his natural shyness, he began to haunt her father's great hall in the hopes of seeing her, and was thrilled to spot her watching him from where she sat with her lute in a corner, playing a tune of her own composition. He heard her father calling her away, addressing her as “Alys”, and his heart leapt. He watched her put her lute away in a chest, wrapped in a silken cloth, and as the hall emptied quickly took a scrap of parchment and composed this:Angel of celestial music,
Listen to one whose heart is true…
Your beauty holds my soul captive;
Soul to soul, I sing only to you.
It was not exactly his best verse, but he hoped it would serve. As he opened the chest and interwove the paper between the strings of the lute, so it would not drop out, he suddenly saw a girl behind him and dropped the lid of the chest with a bang. It was Cecilie. She grinned in a friendly way, and asked him what he was doing. Caught in the act, he had no option but to confess.
“You are a silly fool,” said Cecilie briskly. “Leaving a note between the strings of a lute sounds like something out of a romance. People will see it. Now if you give it to me, I'll pass it on to Alys in private.” She tucked the note down her bosom. “I knew something was on her mind. She's been daydreaming lately – starts if you ask her a question – and at meals she hardly eats, just pushes the food around. What's your name? Roland?” She was off in a swirl of forest-green silk before Roland could say that he hadn't actually met Alys yet.
Alys was standing at her chamber window with a book in her hand – Ovid's Metamorphoses – but she wasn't reading it. She was dreaming of the tall, dark troubadour and wishing it were morning. She had seen him earlier in the hall, and had imagined he might be looking at her.
Cecilie bounced into the room and slammed the thick oak door. “You are a sly cat, Alys,” she laughed. Alys nearly jumped out of her skin and demanded to know what Cecilie was talking about.
“Your intrigue with that skinny troubadour Roland! I've just caught him leaving you a note between your lute-strings. He seems utterly smitten, I must say.” Cecilie fished between her plump breasts and retrieved the verse. Alys read it in wonder, noting that the initial letters of the lines spelled out ALYS – there could be no mistake! It was as though he had read her mind – he was really singing to her? She tucked the note into her sleeve (if she'd put it down her own bodice it would soon have fallen to the floor, as she had nothing to hold it there). Alys revealed to her sister her feelings for the troubadour, whom she had not yet spoken to, and begged Cecilie to help her.
Roland, returned to his mother's house, received a note from Cecilie the next day. My father hunts tomorrow, it read. Alys will be on the castle parapet an hour before noon. At the appointed time he set out, and saw her pale green dress fluttering on the parapet. His heart quickened and he ran to the castle.
In this way Alys and Roland became acquainted over the next two months. Their imaginary passion conceived for an ideal figure quickly developed into something real – they had music in common, and both loved stories and romances. Roland lived with his widowed mother – his father had been killed on a crusade when he was three, and he had grown up gentle and shy. Other boys had scorned him as one who would rather sit indoors with his lute than join them in play-fights, and it had swiftly become apparent that he was not robust enough to make a good squire, much less a knight like his older brother. In Alys he had found someone who did not scorn his gentle nature; she too was quiet, a natural effect of having grown up with six noisy and talkative sisters.
Though Alys and Roland were happy in their brief moments together, it made the rest of their lives harder to bear. As Roland was not nobly born, the son of a mere squire, he could never hope to marry her. He might remain her lover, in the courtly sense; that is, devote himself to her but never hope for consummation. Alys meanwhile had discovered that though she loved reading romances, they fell short of her feelings for Roland. She wanted to be his, utterly; she wanted to marry him. As summer drew on she began to despair, as she did not see how they could ever be together; she could not eat, and quickly became hollow-eyed and sallow. Her thick straight blonde hair looked lifeless, and what little flesh she had fell away, leaving her dresses loose on her. She looked like a living skeleton. Roland was horrified to see what was happening to her, and determined to ask Cecilie what to do.
That young lady was having second thoughts about encouraging the romance. It had been exciting at first, but she felt that Roland was making Alys unhappy, and she told him so. “You have nothing to hope for here,” Cecilie stated definitely. “My father will never let you marry her. He made enough fuss about my betrothed, and he is nobly born, though a younger son.”
“I shall leave, then. Perhaps she will forget me, if she thinks I am faithless,” said Roland, although it was breaking his heart to say it. “As a troubadour, I can get a place at another lord's court, or even wander the roads as a joglar if I must. I shall never break faith with Alys till the day I die, but if you think it would be better to go, I will.”
That evening, as they lay in bed, Cecilie heard her sister crying softly. She went over and asked her what was wrong.
“This place is hell,” wept Alys. “I cannot be with the one who has my heart – the man I'd follow even if we were outcasts all our lives. Every moment I am not with Roland pierces me to the heart – life without him is not worth living.” Cecilie saw that she meant it and repented of what she had said earlier. She told Alys, and begged for her forgiveness. Alys sprang out of bed in her chemise and began to take clothes out of the cedar chest in the corner.
“If he loves me as you say – well, he isn't leaving without me!” As she rushed to and fro, her starved body quickly became exhausted and she had to sit down on the bed. Cecilie tried to calm her down and promised that she would help her to pack. They chose warm clothes, and Cecilie gave Alys a jewelled girdle. It was far too big to fit Alys – it would have passed over her hips – but she could sell it if they needed money. Unfortunately the kitchens were only accessible through the Great Hall, where servants and vassals would be sleeping by the fire – it was just too risky to try to get some provisions. The only luxury Alys took was her lute, wrapped in silk and leather. Fortunately she had had it in her room. She also took a book of prayers.
Once ready, Cecilie and Alys dressed. It was a chilly night; autumn had begun. They went down to liberate a horse from their father's stable, and then crept out of the castle grounds as quietly as they could. Everyone was asleep. There was a smallish back gate in the outer wall which Cecilie knew how to unfasten, and they crept out unnoticed by the guards, who were all dicing and drinking in the main gatehouse by this time of night. A few clods of earth aimed at the shutters of Roland's mother's house woke him, and he looked down to see his love standing there in a woolen travelling gown awaiting him. He was amazed by her audacity, and quickly agreed to leave with her, hardly able to believe her devotion to him. They mounted together, and a ride of three days over rough and barren ground brought them to the fortified castle where they met Sir Colm and where our story began.
In the tower room, Roland held Alys in his arms. She was shivering through her wet garments and couldn't seem to get warm despite the fire. Roland headed out into the corridor to see if the promised hot washing water was on its way yet, but finding nobody on guard, quickly got lost in the unfamiliar stairways and passages. After finding himself in a succession of empty vaulted rooms and then heading up the wrong tower staircase twice, he made it back to the chamber to find the door shut. He pushed it open and saw Alys, naked and standing by the tub of water. His embarrassment was blunted by shock at how thin she was; in the firelight he could clearly see the outline of her pelvis and every rib, and her forearms were thicker than her upper arms. There were fresh bruises on her; she had no fat to cushion knocks from riding. He shut the door quickly and leaned on the other side, feeling sickened with concern. She looked terrible; something had to be done about that. A man came down the stairway and he explained their situation, asking politely if they could have something to eat. The man promised to arrange a meal in the kitchens. Roland knocked gently on the door, was answered, and opened it to reveal a clean and dry Alys, in a baggy green silk dress. Shortly afterwards, they were called down to the kitchen, where a table was set with bread, cheese, a chine of beef and a pitcher of rough red wine.
Looking at the meal, Alys and Roland became aware of just how hungry they were. Drawing up stools to the table, they tore at the simple food like starving wolves. Alys in particular realized that she was hungry as she hadn't been in months; her lovesick condition had destroyed all interest in food. Now she was safe – at least for the moment – and with the man she loved.
Roland, after demolishing a trencher of slices of cold beef and a portion of bread, paused and looked at Alys. She looked a little less tired already. “Eat, lady,” he said. “The journey has been hard for you, and you are so thin. We must bring you back to your usual health. Eat.” Alys smiled, and instead of answering, cut another hunk of beef and fell to. In her eagerness to please Roland, she kept on eating even after she felt full; her stomach had shrunk in the past weeks, and would have to be stretched out again before she could manage normal portions. By the time she had finished, she was more than just full, but she felt curiously warm and relaxed, and as Roland led her back to her chamber she realised she was very, very happy. He kissed her hand, and left for his own chamber: until they could find a priest to marry them, he had promised to respect her virgin state. Alys undressed and pressed her hands to her skinny abdomen, feeling how full she was, and the hardness of her small stomach under the skin. Looking down at herself, she could see it was actually sticking out! She rubbed her fatless midriff and climbed into bed, falling asleep almost instantly.
When they awoke in the morning, Sir Colm came to see them and explained the situation. The castle was surrounded by the men of Sir Bruse “Sans Pittie” – the merciless – that notorious renegade knight whose band of outlaws had terrified the people of several countries. The Seigneur Hugo and his lady, Genefer, had decided to leave the castle at the earliest possible moment, since Genefer was with child and Hugo's other sons were very young. He had a daughter from his first marriage who had gone too. Remaining in the castle were a core force of Hugo's men under Sir Colm, and a few key servants such as the cooks, but not many serving maids; Alys would have to manage without. There were plenty of provisions; Hugo liked to say that the castle was completely self-sufficient in case of a siege, and he believed that well-fed soldiers were more loyal and better fighters.
“So do I,” said Sir Colm, “and so I don't understand why Sir Bruse's troops haven't failed him yet. He keeps them half-starved and they can't live off the surrounding land, because there isn't much to take; almost everything that keeps the local people going is inside the walls. It's said the starvation diet makes the men fierce and reckless, but I don't believe it.”
At breakfast and dinner, Alys again tried to eat as heartily as possible so as to recover her health. She put away two roasted quail and a bowl of frumenty at noon, determined to make Roland see that she was back in the land of the living and happy to be there. He smiled to see her eat, thinking that soon she would have lost her starved and bony look and would resemble the girl he had fallen in love with once more. When she finally stood up, rubbing her full stomach, he took her to her chamber for a rest, telling her she had to husband her strength. They spent the afternoon peacefully, Roland quietly playing his lute, and Alys sometimes joining in the air, sometimes allowing the sweet music to lull her asleep. As they went to supper, Roland decided to take a breath of air on the castle parapet, and said he would meet Alys in the hall. As he headed up the stairs, he heard the guards on the parapet talking. They were discussing Alys and Roland's mysterious arrival.
“There's a story there. More to it than meets the eye,” said one of them. “You can see she's been mistreated, starved and maybe beaten.” Roland was livid. He vowed to make it quite clear that he loved Alys and was doing his best to look after her. He raced down the spiral staircase (making himself dizzy) and down into the hall, where he was pleased to see Alys already seated at the long table, and supper about to begin. He sat down near her, and audibly encouraged her eat more whenever she slowed, eating more than usual himself by way of a good example. Alys, trying her hardest to pack away as much as she could, exclaimed that it was all delicious – which it was – and complimented the cook, who was bringing out the new dishes. The cook, a short dark man, blushed and smiled. Nobody had ever taken any notice of him before. Roland had gained an ally in his mission to feed Alys up.
So the days passed for the first couple of weeks. Alys and Roland were not allowed to go outside the castle, but amused themselves with their lutes, the few books which Sir Colm fetched them from the Seigneur's room, and with dreams about the day they could be married and the life they would have after that. Roland kept encouraging Alys to eat more and more at every meal, and made her rest afterwards while she digested. The cook had taken to offering Alys every dish first, and seemed to be trying more elaborate desserts than a garrison of fighting men had called for before. The result of this pleasurable inactivity and gourmet cooking was inevitable; Alys soon began to look much healthier. Her appetite was now back to normal, and after her long famine she was at last putting on a little flesh. Her face began to lose the drawn and hollow look it had had, and her collarbone no longer seemed almost to poke through the skin. Though she was still underweight, her colour was fresher and she had more energy. She sang more and began to dance around the chamber, like a child. There was a chapel at the castle, but the priest had left with the family, so they still could not marry – the only flaw in their happiness. Roland hoped with a passion that Alys' father did not know where they had gone. He wondered how Cecilie had managed to keep it a secret.
Meanwhile, the cook, glad to have an outlet for his skills, began to bring extra treats up to Alys' tower room. Dishes of creamy syllabub, rich custards, perfumed jellies, and sugared tarts came up the stairway between every meal. It would have been ungrateful not to taste them, and once tried, unthinkable to leave them uneaten. Roland had never tasted of such delicacies, and tried a little of everything, although he made sure not to deprive Alys of nourishment that she needed to recover her strength. He knew he too had put on a little flesh since arriving at the castle, but not enough for anyone to notice. Alys wasn't the only one who had been too thin to begin with.
Alys was aware that she was beginning to fill out once more. Having been starved for so long, she now put on flesh quite rapidly, becoming slender rather than skinny. Her green dress no longer hung like a meal-sack on her bony frame; her breasts had enlarged to the size of apple-halves, and she almost had a cleavage. She liked her new appearance! Her hipbones were less prominent, and it no longer hurt to sit on a hard stool for more than a few minutes. Sorting through her linen one day, she came across the jewelled girdle her sister had given her, hidden in her clean shifts. It was made like a belt, in flat linked golden plates, and was meant to sit just under the breasts, emphasizing the high-waisted, ample-skirted design of a lady's gown. The gowns were made to accommodate the beautiful great belly of a woman expecting a baby, as married women usually were; Alys' gowns followed this fashion, though her own belly was almost flat. She tried the girdle on, just to prove to herself that it was too big, and was surprised to find that it sat on her hips, not sliding over them. She took it off again as she went down to dinner; it looked peculiar at that level.
Winter began to draw in. Alys and Roland had now been at the castle nearly two months, and Alys' recovery had continued. She and Roland had amused themselves by writing a collection of songs together – completely different love songs from those that Alys used to delight in, for these spoke of happy love, love returned, not the hopeless passion which had thrilled her when she was younger. Now she knew what real passion was like, and laughed to think she had once believed that one could be happy, loving an unattainable object. Her nimble fingers caressed the lute as she sang, full of life once more.
Meanwhile, though Sir Colm's men made their best efforts to deter Sans Pittie's band from getting near the castle, they did not go away, though neither did they succeed in breaching the outer wall. The castle was built on rock; all the soil for the kitchen gardens and the animals' pasture within had been brought in on carts by Sir Hugo's forebears, and enriched with the castle's wastes. The walls were founded on rock so could not be undermined from without, nor did siege engines have much success. Sir Colm's archers killed a few men daily, but the majority stayed out of range, and forays into the enemy camp had mixed success; not many casualties on either side, but no enemy retreat.
Within the castle, Alys' looks were improving daily as she continued to eat her fill. Now her breasts were a little bigger once more, and her gown fitted quite closely to them, as it did on her upper arms, which had become rounder. So had her hips and thighs. Her face had become slightly fuller, beginning to lose that sharp-featured look her father had so disliked. When she undressed, she couldn't see her ribs through her skin any more, and her stomach rounded out a tiny bit. She had begun to wear her jewelled girdle, which now fitted up under the breasts as it was meant to do, and when Roland put his arm around her he could feel a difference. In fact, she had more flesh on her bones than ever in her life before – she was almost two stone heavier than she had been before she first saw Roland, and it suited her. She glowed with well-being, to Roland's joy; but he wasn't the only one who had noticed this change.
One evening as she hurried to tidy her hair before supper, she overheard men's voices in the corridor. As a modest girl, she didn't want to be caught alone by the soldiers, so she darted into a side-room, which was empty. As the men approached she overheard what they were saying.
“…you wouldn't have had her when she came here…”
“No, but I would now. Getting a nice little arse, in't she? Pretty face too and a fine pair of bubbies… wouldn't mind giving 'em a squeeze if I could get her in a corner…”
“Not a chance, mate! She sticks close to that troubadour. Lucky bastard. One pretty wench in this place and look at her taste in men.”
“I'd show her what a real man's like. I could take that long thin lute-playing pillock with both hands tied behind my back. Then I'd just turn her skirts over her head and fuck her senseless…” With that, the soldier flung open the door of the room in which Alys was standing with her hands over her mouth. She was too shocked to move, until the soldier, who possibly couldn't believe his luck, made a grab for her and she wriggled past him and dashed for the door, elbowing another would-be grabber in the stomach as she did so. As she fled she heard in the distance, “I told you it was a lusty lass…”
Alys dashed for Roland's chamber and banged on the door. She was completely winded from her unaccustomed exertion, as well as from the shock. Roland opened the door to a pink and breathless vision whose heaving bosom was stretching her neckline, and was glad his tunic was long enough to hide his reaction! She fell into his arms and burst into tears.
Once Roland had managed to calm Alys down, he promised to speak to Sir Colm as soon as he could, but reassured her that he would not leave her to the mercy of the soldiers again. She had had a real scare. Such a thing had never happened at her father's court. Roland would have challenged the soldiers straightaway, but Alys couldn't tell him who they were.
“Are all men like this?” she sobbed. “Are they all led by lust and sin?” Roland assured her that this was not so, though he felt in his heart of hearts that he was lying. His own thoughts were not free of lust at all. He bathed her face with water from a ewer and took her down to supper. He knew she had not entirely recovered from the shock; she was unusually silent, and seemed to be keeping her mouth full as much as she could in order not to be asked to talk. She ate as ravenously as if her life depended on it. As Roland sat opposite her, watching her tear apart her fourth roasted quail, he felt blood beginning to course through his loins once more and (to his shame) an erection beginning to lift his tunic. Soldiers and knights began to drift away from the table to their duties, but Alys and Roland sat on, Roland not eating anything at all but utterly transfixed as Alys stuffed herself with slice after slice of thickly buttered bread, all the mashed swede that was left in the dish, and enough of the rich dried-fruit pudding to have made a meal or two by itself. She was breathing hard and seemed focused entirely on her task.
Alys' appetite had been developing steadily since she got to the castle, but this was something else. You would have thought she was starving again. He waited until she slowed down – the servants were already clearing the lower end of the great table and sweeping the rushes from the floor, while the Seigneur's dogs had been let in to clear up any bits that had been dropped. They would have slim pickings at this end, thought Roland, looking at the several empty dishes whose entire contents he knew had gone into his lady. Watching her pack all that away had been highly erotic. He did his best to think about some complicated lute-fingering before he stood up. Alys, finally sated, stood up too with a groan, and he nearly undid all his good work by noticing how her stomach, stuffed beyond fullness, was actually pushing the front of her gown out a little under her girdle. She caught up the skirt at the front in order not to step on it as she slowly climbed the stair, and he could no longer see the effect.
At the door of her room, Alys paused. “Roland, I cannot be alone tonight. Will you sit by me until I go to sleep? I am afraid.”
“Why are you afraid? The men are either asleep now or in their tents beside the outer wall, or on duty.” Roland entered the room with her and barred the door.
“It is frightening that they even find me worthy of their lustful attentions. I have never been desirable in men's eyes before… Have my looks changed, do you think?”
“I think you are beautiful, as I did when first I saw you,” Roland anwered. “But you are even more beautiful now that you look healthy, not half-starved as you once did.” Alys leaned her head against Roland's chest and closed her eyes. He could feel her bloated stomach pressing against him.
“Roland, do you think it is a sin if you stay while I undress and go to bed?” Alys asked. “You are my betrothed, so it doesn't matter if you see my nakedness. You have already seen it once by accident, and I am already your wife in the eyes of God.” Roland agreed, though he felt it would be a strain. She was evidently desperate for him to stay with her. Alys unhooked her girdle and put it away, then unlaced her gown and drew it over her head, following this with her shift. Her breasts were revealed, the size of apples now, plump and perfect. Below them, a little potbelly rounded out, evidently swollen with Alys' massive supper, but even so looking quite soft and yielding. Lower still, an arrow of silken gold led to the part of a woman that Roland had never seen, and she had acquired a perfectly tempting rounded backside to complement her soft belly. She was unrecognizable from three months ago. He took a deep breath, as she pulled a clean linen shift on and climbed into bed.
It took a long time for Alys to go to sleep. “I'm not comfortable,” she sighed. “I had too much to eat this evening.” That was putting it mildly, thought Roland; you ate enough to feed four or five people! Alys tossed back the blankets and rubbed her aching belly through the linen chemise. Propped up slightly as she was by the bedclothes, it looked rounder than when she was standing. Roland took the initiative and massaged it for her, as she lay back, groaning pleasurably. Just below the skin it was indeed soft and squashy, while underneath he could feel the hardness of the vast amount of food that was stuffed in there. He longed to climb into the bed with her, but managed to restrain himself. After a little while, she said she felt better, and turned over. Once he was sure she was sleeping, Roland blew out the taper and left. His first act when he got to his chamber was to get down on his knees and pray to God for strength to resist temptation.
The next morning, when they broke their fast, Roland was astonished to see that Alys seemed unusually hungry again; she took almost an hour over the porridge, cold meats and bread and honey. “I did not think you would want to eat much this morning, lady,” he commented. Alys looked up from her thick slice of bread.
“It is strange! When we came here I could never have eaten so much, but now I cannot be satisfied with less. I am still hungry now, in fact.” She spooned honey over another slice and bit into it greedily, rubbing her grumbling stomach with her free hand.
Roland noticed, during the days that followed, that Alys was hungrier than ever and starting to get increasingly plump. Advent had begun, and every Sunday was a feast day, following prayers led by Sir Colm. The cook and his workers surpassed themselves, roasting geese from the flock and bringing out smoked meats and sausages, boiled puddings and sweetmeats. The wintry weather made everyone eat more anyway; the castle's stone passages were cold, and a hearty meal helped to keep the chill off. Alys wrapped a mantle over her gown to keep out the cold, and took to sitting on her bed fully dressed with her legs under the bedclothes. It was quite a challenge to force herself to get out of it in the mornings, too – it was so warm in there and so cold in the rest of the castle. Roland, when not with Alys, fought the cold another way, by trying to keep moving as much as possible. He was still not allowed outside, but walked briskly along the passageways and ran up and down the stairs. He helped the servants to move the benches and tables in the Great Hall. Those with legitimate work to do looked at him as if he were mad.
One Monday halfway through Advent, Alys leapt out of bed all at once, and stood shivering in her shift (she didn't know that this made the extra flesh she was now carrying in breasts, thighs, backside and belly all quiver sensuously). She took her warmest gown and pulled it over her head. It was now very tight going on to her upper arms and over her bosom, and as she gave a final tug, she was startled to hear a ripping noise. Not a little concerned, indeed, for she only had three gowns with her. Lifting her right arm, she ascertained that the stitching had given along the sleeve, and also down the side of the gown where her round breasts now strained the material. As for her other arm, she could feel that the sleeve was uncomfortably skin-tight and the stitching was about to tear there too. She wrapped her mantle around her top half and went to Roland's room to seek his advice.
“I've torn my gown,” she said, showing him where the white of her shift showed through. “I suppose I must be fatter now than I was when it was made last year. Cecilie would be surprised!” Roland smiled at her. How could she not notice? He found her so alluring to look at that he noted each new curve as it arrived. She had regained the twenty pounds she had lost by the end of September, and since then she had put on almost four stone of soft fat, with another layer likely to be added by the Yuletide celebrations if she kept on eating this way, he thought happily. Her hands and arms were as plump and dimpled as Cecilie's – or plumper – and the contours of her now buxom figure were now clearly visible under her dress when she stood, her belly sticking out a couple of inches even before a meal. Her face was rounder as well, and Roland would have expected her to notice that when she dressed her hair in her little silver looking glass. However, she needed a gown to cover her. He went to ask among the servants if there was a woman still at the castle who was good with her needle, and came back up with Johanna, a sturdy dairy girl.
“These gowns do have some spare cloth in the seams, my lady,” said Johanna, who did not usually have much to do with the people who lived inside the castle, particularly not ones who sat around in just a shift and a mantle, and was not at her ease. “I can let them out a bit, but not much. Are you with child, my lady? You'll need some new gowns mayhap if you are.” Alys blushed and said that she was not. The girl made a start cutting the seams on one dress and showed Alys how to do it on the others, for they too were very tight and would probably rip if she tried to move in them. It took all day, and both Johanna and Alys had sore fingers and red eyes from sewing in the declining light by the time they were finished.
At supper that evening Alys did not eat very much, and seemed downcast. She pushed a little food around on the trencher to make it look as though she were eating, just as she used to do at home. She did not look Roland in the eye. He hoped sincerely that she was just tired from sewing, but feared she was going to return to her old habits.
That night, as Roland slept, he was awakened by a knocking on the door. It was Alys, in her chemise with her mantle wrapped over it and holding a taper. He stumbled towards her in his shirt. “Alys! Lady, are you all right?” Was she sick?
“Yes. But I'm so hungry, I can't sleep.” As they made their stealthy way to the castle kitchens, Alys explained that she was worried about outgrowing her clothes, because Johanna had said there was not enough material in the seams to let them out again if her arms and chest-measurement became any bigger. This was why she had eaten so little at suppertime. However, her empty belly had other ideas, and it was sending her a message she couldn't ignore. When they reached the kitchens, Alys swung herself onto the edge of the great oak table, and Roland went to forage in the vast larders for something he knew how to cook. He found a few pounds of sausage hanging in links on a hook. Placing a great black iron pan to heat in the fire, he cooked the sausage until it was browned, savory-smelling and spitting fat, then carefully brought the pan over and fed it bit by bit to his lady. It was hot, greasy and delectable. She ate greedily, licking and even biting his fingers in her eagerness to feed. There were sixteen large links of sausage and only too soon, it was all gone. Gasping slightly for breath, Alys looked down at herself in the fire and taper-light, and saw that her linen shift was stretched tightly over her abdomen; it tucked itself into the fold that now formed at her waist when she sat, skin-tight from there to her lap over the bulge of her belly, and she could see her navel pressing against the cloth. She really didn't have a waist any more – she hadn't noticed a point at which it vanished under a layer of fat, but vanished it had. Her belly, projecting a few inches out on to her spreading thighs, looked so round and full… Glancing up once more, she saw that Roland too was gazing at her bloated midriff with a look of fascination in his eyes. As he noticed she was looking at him, he looked up with such a guilty expression on his face that she was seized with laughter.
“I'm sorry, lady,” he began in some confusion. “I only stared because…”
“Shhh,” Alys broke in, placing a finger on his lips. “I know.” She slipped down off the table, her shift relaxing around her bulge as she straightened up, and gathered him in her arms, holding him very close. She knew this was not maidenly behavior, but neither was voraciously eating sausage from a man's fingers while wearing only a shift. The embrace seemed to go on for hours, but eventually a snap from a burning log on the fire jolted them out of their trance and they headed up to their separate bedrooms. “If I burst out of my shift,” Alys whispered as they parted, “it will be a secret between you and me… and the girl who does the laundry.” For some reason this set them both off laughing again.
With the approach of Yuletide Alys seemed to have decided that she just could not limit her growth at the cost of restricting her appetite. There was so much delicious food around that she couldn't resist, and she certainly couldn't make a habit of midnight sausage feasts. Better to listen to her hunger at mealtimes; Roland was always there to encourage her to eat her fill. The cook continued to send new delicacies up to the tower room to be tasted, ever more elaborate in the run-up to the Yuletide Feast. Roland came in one morning to take Alys to breakfast and found her struggling to fasten the clasp of her girdle under her bosom. He helped her and it did fasten, but it was digging in to the layer of fat on her back, creating a roll above and below; and when she sat, it was nearly lost beneath her breasts at the front… Strange to think it had once been larger than her hips – even stranger that this was only four months ago. She was plumpening further every day. Roland gave the girdle a week before it became just too small.
In fact it was five days. It was Christmas Eve, and the grandest feast of the year was being prepared. Alys' dress was tight on the arms and bosom again, and she had given up on the girdle that morning, as it just wouldn't reach around her blossoming midsection any more. She felt a little melancholy, knowing her gown, already laced as loosely as possible, would not last much longer; when she outgrew it, she would not fit into the others either. What was she to do? Sitting by the fire in the Great Hall, she rested a hand on her belly, which stuck out further than her breasts now. It had grown noticeably larger since the sausage incident, fattened by a constant stream of Yuletide sweetmeats and marchpanes. She thought that if her dresses had been cut to fit the cloth as the servants' were, without such voluminous skirts and high waists, they would have become tight over her growing paunch several weeks ago. She shivered in a cold draft, and decided to go to the Castle chapel and pray for a way out of her trouble. If the gluttony she knew herself to be guilty of was a sin, perhaps she should pray for the strength to resist it.
As the company prepared for the feast that evening, Roland missed Alys, who was still in the chapel. She slipped into the hall just as prayers were beginning and knelt beside him. As they rose to take their places at the great table, near Sir Colm at the head, Roland saw that she looked beatific, totally freed from care and worry. He smiled at her and took her hand to kiss it. As they took their seats she whispered to him, “I have been praying, and I feel now that we shall be all right.” Roland quickly stole a kiss from her soft cheek before anyone could notice, and the feast began as the chapel bell tolled six strokes.
It scarcely needs to be said that the cook and his crew had surpassed themselves that night. The table groaned with roasted geese, stuffed capons and smaller fowl, joints of pork and beef, pies and made dishes, with rich sauces and the best of the winter's stored vegetables. The wine flowed and the company became very convivial, from Sir Colm and his knights at the top of the hall, through the soldiers (those not on guard duty) and the servants and vassals at the far end. Everyone was enjoying the lavish meal, and for once Alys' appetite did not seem much more marked than that of her fellow diners. She felt relaxed and happy; this was one night of the year when everyone had a license to indulge themselves as much as they wanted. And she was going to. Oh yes.
Sir Colm, at the top of the table, was enjoying himself. This was the first night for months he had not spent patrolling the castle and checking defenses. The Seigneur Hugo had sent a message to authorize the night's festivities, and Sir Colm felt freed from his responsibilities. Glancing along at Alys, he said jokingly to his right-hand man Sir Gawin, “It is as well for young Roland that the Seigneur is not here just now.” He might have spoken more quietly had the hall not been so loud with voices and the wine less good.
Young Roland, hearing his name, asked, “Why is that? Were he here, the siege might be lifted.” Sir Colm realized he'd been indiscreet, but there was no way back.
“Well, firstly, he has the power to decide whether or not you abducted the fair Alys. And secondly, he might fancy the fair Alys for himself; she is just his type…” The knights at the top of the table laughed, sharing a private joke.
Roland demanded to know more. “The Seigneur,” Gawin explained, “likes women to be… fair of flesh. He likes to see a girl with a healthy appetite become fairer and fairer in that respect, in fact. Which I would say your Lady Alys is doing, would not you? I'll grant she didn't look promising when she arrived.” Roland glanced over at his chubby sweetheart, who had evidently not heard a word of this, engrossed as she was with a large and possibly rather chewy slab of roast beef, which was resisting the blade of her knife. Gawin continued, “Have you not heard tell of his young wife?” Roland shook his head. “She was just a plump little thing when she arrived here, but now… well, who knows? We haven't seen her for months either. But when she left the castle, two of your little Alys would not have outweighed her. They call her Genefer La Grosse!” Gawin held his hands out to both sides to indicate the breadth of the portly Genefer – evidently about three and a half feet – and launched into a rather rambling tale of how the Seigneur had first increased the bulk of his wife, before she died giving birth to his daughter, then several low-born mistresses and finally Genefer, the master-work. It might have been more coherent earlier in the evening, Roland thought. He finally tore himself away from the rambling narrative in order to pass Alys a dish of buttered parsnips, which she emptied in short order, pausing only to rub her filling belly with satisfaction from time to time. The feast would continue until midnight; she was determined not to eat too quickly lest she become sated too soon. There were still two hours to go.
By the point at which the company was ready to move on to the sweet dishes, Alys felt full, but not unpleasantly so. She had eaten a large amount of several joints of meat and roast fowls, and tried as many of the side dishes as lay within the reach of the gentlemen to either side of her. There was little competition as most of the company had moved on to drinking healths, and some already slumped drunkenly on the benches at the side. Rubbing the arc of her belly with satisfaction, she took a generous second helping of spiced mincemeat pie, and poured heavy cream over it before lifting the slice and taking as large a bite as decorum and the size of her mouth would allow. It was magnificent, rich and tangy. Once that was gone, she had her eye on the bowl of figgy duff, which was just a little out of her reach. She stretched for it and was afraid for a moment that her already-let-out gown would rip under the arm. But it held, and she drew the bowl nearer to her, aware that nobody but Roland was paying any attention to her now; they were all too engrossed in drinking. Roland himself had found that as usual, once Alys got into her stride he forgot about eating and drinking himself, so fascinated was he by her appetite and capacity. She had dealt with almost a third of the figgy duff already, scooping it out expertly, not getting her whole hand sticky as some did. No matter what Alys ate, she always did so neatly, wiping her fingers thoroughly between courses. She took a wine jelly next, wondering whether she could keep going until midnight; she was stuffed already. She could feel her laden belly actually resting in her lap, pressing her chunky thighs under her shift.
It had to be nearly midnight now, thought Roland as he saw Alys' eyes light on a honey syllabub, and he pushed it nearer to her. There was no way of telling the time until the man in the chapel saw the last sand drop through the hourglass and sounded the twelve strokes which would herald Christ's birth. As the hour came nearer and nearer, a silence began to fall in the hall, and it was almost possible to hear Alys' mastication as she finished the creamy syllabub and began to polish off the remaining figgy duff. Roland could see that she was very nearly at her limit. Her face looked flushed with effort in the taper-light, and her hair was beginning to work loose from its coiled braids at the back. He smiled at Alys, and she smiled back as well as she could with her mouth full. Her belly was so full that Roland could see its mound clearly under her silk dress, pulling the bodice ever tighter around her ribcage. She finished the last spoonful of rich pudding just as the first stroke of midnight sounded, and as she stood up to take his hand across the table, over the noise of the bells Roland heard the side-seam of her gown burst with a crack like a whip. That night he would have to massage her groaning gut, which was testing the fabric of her chemise, before sleep would come to his overstuffed darling.
The next morning after prayers, Roland asked to be taken to Sir Colm, who was back in his tent by the walls, apparently not feeling quite himself. He looked embarrassed and began to apologise for whatever his knights might have said the evening before.
“No need,” said Roland. “Fair of flesh, I think the expression was; it doesn't sound insulting to me. In fact, I need to consult you on this subject. The lady is becoming so fair that we have need of some new clothes for her. I think it was mentioned that the Lady Genefer is of a stately build, and I wondered whether any of her old clothes might have been left here.” Sir Colm promised to send a servant to find out for him. He was worried that Sans Pittie was planning something to take advantage of the season of feasting and celebration.
Alys was still in bed when Roland entered with an armful of garments, followed by a serving-man equally laden, who laid his burden on a bench by the window and left. Alys climbed out of bed, her shift stretched tightly over her expanding hips, swelling belly and round breasts, and sorted through the clothes. She held up a rich gown in golden damask, and pulled it over her head. It was just a little roomy, but suited her fair skin and golden hair. It would do perfectly. Some of the others were of a similar size, some a little larger, and some much bigger. Roland explained that the castle's lady had put on flesh following her marriage. “Perhaps it is a sign of being happy in love,” mused Alys. She herself was now about twice the girl she had been when she arrived, after all.
The days of Christmas continued with prayers interspersed with feasts, and the kitchen was working constantly to ensure that a few dishes were ready at all hours in honour of the season. Most of the castle's humbler inhabitants looked forward to this as a chance to live it up, but Roland and Alys were usually to be seen in the Great Hall too, ensuring that Alys did not go hungry. They did not miss a feast, and as they walked to the hall the day before the year turned, Alys whispered to Roland that she had needed to slit the seams of her shift at the hips, in order to fit it over them. Needless to say, this was a stimulating thought: he imagined her standing wearing nothing else, with soft pink flesh showing through the gaps she had made. He looked down on her round and pretty face, with its hint of a second chin developing now, and could not resist stealing a kiss. She kissed him back with equal ardor, and he embraced her, feeling his arms sink into the warm padding of her sides until they heard the footsteps of the other revellers approaching, and drew apart before entering the hall. They noticed that Sir Colm was not there; he must be attending to his duties elsewhere.
Several hours later, there was a sudden sound of running feet, and a herald burst into the hall. “Sir Bruse's men have breached the outer wall!” he yelled. “We need all the men we can get! They must be driven out before they take the keep!” All the soldiers and knights present took up the weapons from the benches at the side and filed out. Roland made as if to follow them, but was told he must stay in the castle. Meanwhile, as the fighting men poured out, all the people who lived in the buildings between the walls and the castle hurried into the hall, carrying as much of their possessions as they could. The herald organized the men into teams in order to bring as much of the castle's stores inside as possible, and they headed outside once more. Roland and Alys were left with the women and children, who came to the table and began to eat. Realizing that they were not to be allowed to help, Roland encouraged Alys to finish her meal as usual. She knew they might be in grave danger, but complied for Roland's sake, so as not to let him see she was afraid. She did not disappoint him, eating five big bowls of stew, almost half of a grilled black pudding, a heaping quantity of mashed turnip and a large dish of sugared curds. It was nearly midnight by the time they left the table, Alys rubbing her well-filled belly, and mounted to her tower chamber. From the casement, they could see men with torches running about in the dark, but it was impossible to see who was ahead in the struggle. Some of the thatch on the low wooden buildings was alight, and they felt thankful that stone walls now lay between the attackers and themselves. That night Roland slept on the floor in front of Alys' door, ready to leap to his fat sweetheart's defense should the castle be taken.
In the morning, it became apparent that Sir Bruse's men had been repelled for the moment. The breach in the castle walls had been repaired temporarily with some balks of timber, and was well guarded. Roland went to wake Alys – he almost did not have the heart, she looked so like a plump child, soft and innocent, smiling in her sleep. He was stiff and tired after his cold and uncomfortable night, and longed to climb in and curl up against her warm flesh. He imagined how soft and comforting her fat would be, and felt consumed with longing. She stirred, and opened her eyes to see him smiling down at her.
Down in the Great Hall, Sir Colm was not happy. The numbers of men who had invaded last night indicated that Sir Bruse Sans Pittie had a bigger force he had thought – and some of them must be newly arrived, for they did not show the signs of several months of exposure and short rations. The breach had been made by lighting a fire against the stone wall, causing the stones to split and part of the wall to collapse. Surely someone should have seen the fire and driven them off – but none of the guards would admit to a dereliction of duty; perhaps they had been getting complacent, after Sir Bruse had failed for so long to find a way in. Nor did Sir Colm believe that they had repelled the attackers permanently, though some of Sir Bruse's men had been killed. The timber blocking the hole was a weak point – a bucket of pitch and a well-aimed torch would remove it once more, and he did not think they could prevent another attack. He wondered whether they should surrender, before the castle was destroyed and they were all killed.
Two weeks later, Sir Colm saw no reason to feel more optimistic. They had sustained four more night attacks, and many of the buildings round the castle had now been destroyed. Each time, the enemy had been repelled, but at an increasingly greater human cost. Morale was very low. Sir Bruse could send for more men, but Sir Colm could not; the castle was completely surrounded and he would not risk sending a messenger alone through the enemy camp. Snow had fallen, and even at night a man would stand out against the moonlit whiteness.
“Sir, you cannot surrender.” Sir Gawin was adamant. “The men will never give up until the castle is taken, and the Seigneur would never accept it as honourable behavior.” Sir Colm was longing to say that running away was hardly honourable behavior either, but he restrained himself. He had sworn to be the Seigneur's liege man, and could not go back on his word. He decided to move to another topic of concern.
“Sans Pittie's men are raiding the granaries and stores. We have enough to last everyone here for three months or more, and we are trying to get it all into the castle, but what good will that do us if the keep is taken? We will merely have provided stores for Sans Pittie's troops.”
Sir Gawin rubbed his nose and thought about it. “I have heard of besieged parties setting fire to their storehouses of food when they knew capture was inevitable, but let us keep that as a last resort. In the meantime we would do better to eat it ourselves.”
This planted an idea in Sir Colm's head. He went to consult the kitchens, and the next morning a proclamation went forth that in order to restore a measure of cheer, there would be a feast that day. It was to begin early, and only small beer would be served, not wine, so that the soldiery would be fit to perform their duties. This announcement did do something to restore morale. Because of the night attacks the Feast of Twelfth Night had been a poor thing, and everyone felt uncertain and jittery.
Roland and Alys met Sir Colm that morning as they came from the Chapel. He greeted them, not having seen either for some days, and noted that Alys was now beginning to fill out the gold brocade dress that had hung loosely on Christmas Day. “How is the defense holding out?” asked Roland tentatively.
“Badly,” said Sir Colm in a resigned tone of voice. “I won't lie to you; I think we can keep it up for another month, perhaps, if our luck holds out – no longer. We have already lost twenty men to the night raids, and we cannot afford to lose many more, even if I were happy to send them to their deaths. I don't know if I trust you, Roland, but I do not think you are a spy; the enemy's success has had nothing to do with intelligence about what is inside the walls. You know that I have announced a banquet, to begin at noon?”
“Yes. That should cheer us all up.”
“That, and I am unwilling to leave any stores uneaten for Sir Bruse and his men to commandeer. We may burn the last – we cannot eat three months' stores so quickly – but if we are going to die, we may as well cheat him of some plunder. I plan many more feasts.”
Everyone in the castle, with the exception of half of the soldiers who were outside on alert, filled the Great Hall at noon. The tables were more laden with food than at Yuletide, for there were twice as many to feed now that the peripheral population had moved within the keep as well. Not everyone could sit at the table; some sat on the floor and used a bench as a table, or held the food in their hands. Nobody cared. Roland and Alys had secured places at the table, next to each other on a bench. As the last prayers were said Roland squeezed Alys' dimpled hand and whispered in her ear: “You know what Sir Colm needs us all to do, and you know how to do it.”
She did. Grinning at Roland, she patted her well-padded front and without another word took a loaf of bread, cut hunks off it and began to butter them…
Several hours later, Alys was so full that Roland had to help her upstairs. She had performed a miracle of gluttonous abandon, eating so fast and so voraciously that heads turned to look at her. Roland, mindful of Sir Colm's words, ate a good deal himself – he couldn't remember feeling this full since the night they had come starving to the castle – but Alys easily outpaced him, accustomed as she was to eating as much as possible. With so much food available, she crammed herself as full as she could bear; two pounds of sausage, almost half a roasted capon, three huge beefsteaks, mashed parsnips with butter, potatoes roasted in dripping, cabbage in a cream sauce… she ate five times as much as anyone else, then moved on to the rich puddings and sweetmeats. Her stomach already felt brimful, but she was determined not to stop. Four bowls later, she was once more the only person left seated at the table. Everything had been eaten. She leaned back to rub her belly, which was pushing forward on to her lap, her legs parted to accommodate it. It was a tightly stuffed ball of flesh, as hard as wood beneath her gown. She could almost feel the stretchmarks forming under her clothes, her skin seemed to be pulled so taut. Now that they were alone, she let out a loud belch and sighed with relief. At that point, the cook came from the kitchens, bearing a syllabub flavored with honey, nutmeg and rosewater “specially kept for you, lady.” Alys couldn't believe it – how could she possibly eat any more? But equally, it would be ungrateful to refuse. Catching up a spoon, Roland began to feed it to her as she leaned further back and kept massaging her straining gut, moaning with mixed pain – she was so very, very full – and pleasure, for it did taste wonderful and there was something exciting about the way she was feeling, so glutted she could hardly move. As she staggered to her chamber, supported by Roland's arm, any observer might have guessed she was about to give birth. As she lay on her bed, Roland having helped undress her, her belly rose up in a tightly-packed globe, pulling the slits in her shift wide to display her stretchmarked hips, which overflowed it at each side. Roland was almost overcome at the sight, and Alys grinned weakly as she saw how much bigger she had become since morning.
The next day a feast was announced to celebrate the fact that Sir Bruse's soldiers had been repelled that night with no casualties from the castle. And so it went on. There was a feast every day, and the reason was altered to suit the events – either to raise morale, or to reward the soldiers for some brave endeavour, or to celebrate a day that had passed without an attack. Soon everyone got used to spending most of the day sitting at table. The soldiers only attended one feast in three, smaller rations being given to those men on duty so that they should not eat too much to keep fit for their duties.
Alys of course was in her element. Now that she knew that she would not be left without a gown to fit her, she felt no regrets about her increasing size, and it was easy to tell from the way Roland looked at her that he found her more beautiful with every added pound. Between noon and five each day, she did nothing but eat, her only exercise the walk from her tower room to the hall and back again. The cook provided her with an evening meal later, which few in the castle now had any stomach for. She continued to push herself to eat more and more, and if she had been more than buxom before, she now began to gain with a vengeance. By the end of the week, her full round belly had ceased pushing outwards and begun to form an overhang, creasing deeply above her sex. Her double chin became visibly larger and softer, and her thighs touched fully to her knees as she stood, while her plump arms began to fill the wider sleeves of her borrowed gowns. After the second week, she had to admit that the gown had become too tight around chest and arms, and she selected two slightly larger ones from the chest in her room. Her hips too seemed to widen daily, and her shifts were little more than sheets of fabric hanging from her shoulders as she had had to unpick the side seams almost from ankle to underarm to get them on. She would have to acquire some larger ones, but at least nobody could see them. She took to sleeping naked, her own cocoon of flesh keeping her warm.
One morning three weeks after the feasting had begun, Roland was running along the castle corridors to keep warm. Even with his constant activity, Roland was having difficulty in working off the increased amounts of food they were all eating, and seemed to be developing a stockier build. His tunics were slightly tight. Unable to help in the castle's defense, for the past few weeks he had been helping the miller to move sacks of grain and other provisions to the store, and was beginning to notice muscles starting to develop in arms, legs and shoulders which before had been skinny and weak. He ran up the stairway and knocked gently at Alys' door. She called out to him and he entered. She was playing her lute sitting by the fire in a beautiful crimson gown, her long fair braid falling down her back. And what a back… it was broad and soft-looking, with three rolls of fat visible beneath the silk gown. As she sat on the stool, the flesh of her wide backside clearly overflowed it on all sides. He walked round to face her and saw that she was resting her lute not on her lap as it would have last summer, but on the lower roll of her magnificent belly, which spread out over her padded thighs to reach halfway to her knees.
He knelt behind her and put his arms around her vast soft waist. Holding his breath, he wondered how long this could go on. Sir Colm had said weeks ago that he thought they could hold out another month, not more. The days were passing like a magnificent dream, he sitting across the table watching Alys grow larger before his eyes, but he knew that time was speeding apace. It was almost six months since they had arrived at the castle; six months during which they had not stepped without the walls, nor seen sky over their heads except on the parapet or in the courtyard. The siege had been a mixed blessing; they would not have chosen to be kept near-prisoners, but they had been fed and sheltered, and it was probable that their seclusion had prevented Alys' father from hearing where they were. And now the end was near; he had heard Sir Colm and Sir Gawin discussing ways in which the enemy might make its final attack. The walls were breached in a dozen places and it was impossible to guard them effectively. More soldiers had been seen approaching the castle; it seemed that a show of strength from Sir Bruse was inevitable within the next few days.
At the banquets he started to look around him with the eyes of a man who knows what he is about to lose. The castle's people had become familiar; he knew most of them by sight. They had become accustomed to the splendid food that was daily prepared for them, and the rumour that they were trying to cheat Sir Bruse of the castle's provisions had spread. Perhaps Sir Colm should have announced it openly, for it did not seem to put people off their food; some ate from true enjoyment of the unaccustomed luxury, some from spite against Sir Bruse, some from loyalty and some from misery at what the future likely held. Most of them were carrying a little extra flesh from nearly four weeks of solid indulgence, with the exception of the soldiers and those with strenuous work to do. But none could challenge Alys, whose ballooning belly held more at every meal, and constantly added to her ample figure. Roland estimated that she must now weigh three times what she had a year before, and it was a wonder to him that she still moved so gracefully. There were other large women among the castle's inhabitants – he wondered if they were the fattened mistresses of the Seigneur – but next to his Alys they looked like cows (he looked with the eye of true love, which is blind to beauty anywhere but in the beloved object). He led Alys upstairs, she holding in both hands her packed stomach which protruded way out in front of her, her crimson dress looking like a sail blown out by the wind as it outlined her billowing body. As she rested for a couple of hours before supper, he imagined all the food she had eaten gently melting into soft and luscious fat...
At dawn the next morning, Roland was awakened by the noise of trumpets, yells and crashing outside. Leaning out of a casement, he could see that an army of men on horses seemed to have arrived at Sir Bruse's camp, and there was fighting within the inner wall. An arrow hit the wall a foot from his head, and he ducked inside and closed the shutters. His heart sank; how much longer did they have before the keep was taken and all within it killed? He ran down to the hall to see if anyone knew what was going on, then up to the parapet, which was lined with archers. Crouching, Roland asked the nearest man what was happening.
“The Seigneur has returned! We have seen his standard, and he has brought at least two hundred horse with him, perhaps from the King.”
Crouching by an empty arrow-slit, Roland looked out at the battle. It was hard to tell, but it appeared that the horsemen were splitting Sir Bruse's camp into isolated groups, and faced with an enemy which suddenly had an overwhelming advantage as far as numbers were concerned, some were running for their lives. Others, less demoralized, were heading for the castle, determined to make a last attempt to penetrate the defenses, but Sir Colm's men were managing to keep them out, chasing them back through the walls where they were rounded up by the horsemen. It was a bloody battle and Roland was soon sickened. He tore his gaze away from the scene of havoc below and keeping low, headed below stairs in order to check that Alys was all right.
The thick walls of the tower and the heavy shutter over the casement were keeping most of the noise out of Alys' chamber. She was miraculously unawakened; she made a soft mound under the coverlet, her plump face and rosebud mouth relaxed in sleep, her long lashes brushing her full cheeks. Roland grasped her fat, creamy naked shoulder and shook her awake, causing her to start up, the coverlet falling and revealing her big breasts and the top of her large belly. She grasped the cover and concealed herself with a blush, but not before a wave of longing had shot through Roland. He shook his head and tried to attend to what was important.
“We may be saved – the Seigneur has arrived with reinforcements. Dress, and we will go to the Hall; if they are defeated, we will be better trying to escape from there.” He tried not to picture the possibility of having to flee – he could not see Alys' bulk moving quickly after months of indulgence and inactivity, and they could hardly ride one horse as they had on the way here. “If the enemy are routed, we will hear about it more quickly from there.”
“Is there really hope?” asked Alys, sliding to the edge of her bed and embracing Roland through the coverlet (he almost shot his bolt at the touch of all that unrestrained soft flesh, even with the cover between them). She stood up and clutched the cover around her like a toga; it did not conceal the form of her body very much. Roland sent up a brief prayer for continency and a clear head; after all this time, she was innocent of the effect she had on him. She proved this by dropping the cover to put on her slit shift, revealing her wide soft buttocks, each lusciously round and creasing at the base of her back and the top of her thick and dimpled thighs; her belly which rounded out from just under her breasts, jutting out eight inches at least before subsiding into a hanging apron which now hid the silken gold leading to her sex completely. Her navel, once almost sticking out of her starved stomach, had deepened into a mysterious cave, leading back into the soft, soft layers of fat, unmarked by creases when standing; no garments had ever constricted this belly's tendency to expand in perfect roundness. Her back and sides more than made up for her stomach's lack of rolls. Pale rose-coloured stretchmarks were visible on the creamy whiteness of her skin, and every breath caused all the tender fat on her torso to tremble. Her arms mirrored her thighs, wide and soft, with delicately chubby forearms and deep dimples at elbows, wrists and the root of each finger on her plump little hands. Her feet were similarly chubby, and her calves soft and yielding. Roland was gripping the bedpost until his knuckles showed white under the skin… the moment seemed to go on forever; then she pulled her shift and gown down over all that tempting, quivering avoirdupois and Roland released a breath he had not realized he was holding in. She tied her corded girdle under her breasts, stepped into her shoes and followed her betrothed (still breathing rather heavily) down the echoing stair to the hall.
There was nothing to do but wait. The hall was lined with worried people, none of whom knew what was going on outside. Roland thought of going to the parapet once more but knew he would merely hinder the defenders.
It was almost evening when trumpets sounded without, and the Seigneur Hugo and his men entered triumphantly into the hall. Sir Bruse and his men were routed utterly; not a sign was left of their long occupation but bare patches where the grass had been churned to mud by the horses. The Seigneur proposed a feast and the cooks complied willingly– wondering how Sir Colm was going to break the news that over two months' worth of extra supplies had already been eaten in the orgy of feasting.
Sir Colm, exhausted from his weeks of constant vigilance, was too happy that it was all over to worry about that just now. However, he knew his duty. He found Alys and Roland and approached the Seigneur, now sitting at the top of the table enjoying the food and wine.
“We have been offering shelter to the Lady Alys, daughter to the Seigneur of Avan, and this man, who claims to be her betrothed. I believe you should hear their story.”
The Seigneur Hugo listened with interest as Roland related the tale of how they had come to the castle, his eyes on Alys, who stood blushing and with downcast eyes. When Roland mentioned that they had needed to stop because Alys was faint from starvation, the Seigneur's eyebrows shot up. He glanced at the round young woman before him, who looked rather far from starvation.
“How long ago did you come to this castle?”
“Six months, sire; just at the beginning of September.” The Seigneur looked at Alys with mingled admiration and lust.
“And you left the castle of the Seigneur with his daughter, without his blessing or a formal marriage?” Seigneur Hugo attempted to form a stern expression. He too knew his duty. “My wife will be arriving tomorrow or the next day with the rest of her retinue. They will take over care for the Lady Alys while we summon her father to decide what your fates shall be.”
The Lady Genefer did indeed arrive within three days, in a litter borne on stout poles, which were carried by four horses. It was brought very near to the castle. Roland and Alys were both astounded when the lady was helped to dismount. Roland had had some warning about her stature from Sir Gawin, but had nonetheless not expected what he now saw. Dressed in flamboyant orange damask, the Lady Genefer was as much larger than Alys as Alys was larger than her former self. She was shorter, but much, much wider, almost pyramid-shaped, her face with its several chins subsiding into an expansive bosom which in turn rested on a vast belly that stuck out three times as far as Alys'. It continued to fill out the Lady Genefer's gown to a point halfway between her hips and her knees, and swayed dramatically with each waddling step she took. And the gown still had to stretch itself around hips four feet wide and a backside which rivalled her belly for prominence. The lady was not old, and her dark eyes sparkled goodhumoredly over her puffed cheeks. A nurse followed behind her carrying a swaddled bundle and with two small boys following after. From a smaller litter, there dismounted a young girl in a rich gown whose size was similar to Alys'. His heart leaping, Roland noticed that a priest was among the followers who accompanied them into the castle.
As soon as he could absent himself from the crowd, Roland made for the chapel where he sat down to wait for the priest. Roland wished to confess and to make arrangements for his marriage to Alys. Once the priest arrived, he unburdened himself of all his feelings for Alys, and confessed that he was finding it harder and harder to keep his vow respecting her virginity. The priest listened carefully, then stated, “I think you should marry as soon as possible, before you are led to sin.”
“There is a further difficulty,” Roland told him. “The Seigneur believes I have taken Alys from her father against her will, though we have told him she came willingly – indeed I did not ask her to. Her father has been sent for and will probably arrive in a couple of days.”
“That is a concern,” the priest mused. “We are told to honour our mothers and fathers, but Scripture also mentions that it is better to marry than to burn. I still think that you should be married at the earliest opportunity, for if what you tell me is true, you love the lady truly. You are not yet guilty of any sin, nor indeed of any real dishonour to the lady's father, and once you have been married no earthly power has the right to divide you.”
Roland ran to find Alys, who was seated morosely holding a silent lute. She was afraid of her father's return. Roland told her what the priest had said. They made their way to the chapel and as soon as the priest had heard Alys' confession also, he blessed their union. Alys however had to return to the ladies' chambers before she was missed, as the Seigneur had decided that she and Roland should spend no time alone together until her father had pronounced what was to be done.
Alys spent the evening in the company of the Seigneur's fourteen-year-old daughter Margrete, four years younger than she, though no less rounded in figure. Margrete considered Alys' story to be very romantic, and was lost in admiration for her looks. She was pleased to tell Alys that the dress she was wearing was one of her own, not her stepmother's. Genefer had not fitted into such a small dress since a year after her marriage. The castle was returning to normal and the young ladies were served a private meal in Margrete's chamber, a simple affair of roasted chicken and wine jelly. Unfortunately, the quantity was insufficient, and once both girls had eaten their share Margrete was forced to send one of her waiting women to fetch more food for Alys, who was still hungry indeed. Margrete watched her eat with saucer eyes. “You can eat more than my stepmother, I believe. I cannot manage that much in a day!” Fear of the future seemed to be creating a void inside Alys and no matter how much she ate, she could not fill it. When she had to admit that she could physically eat no more without being sick, there was still an empty feeling inside of her. She did not enjoy her food as she usually did. Afterwards she held her lute once more, resting it on the bulging dome of her front but not playing a note.
Two days later, she was woken in the morning by a waiting-woman, and was told that her father had arrived. She submitted to what was still the novelty of having someone else to comb and dress her hair and to help her to dress in Margrete's blue silk and a borrowed shift that actually fitted around her girth. The blue dress and blue ribbon binding her hair set off her grey eyes and pink cheeks, but her heart was heavy as she descended to the hall and took a seat on the dais at the end with Margrete and the other ladies.
Roland too was waiting in the hall. All the people of the castle were there, curious to see what would happen. He took his place in the crowd lining the walls. It was midmorning before the Seigneur arrived, and every moment his apprehension grew. He did not believe that the Seigneur had no power to separate them. He would surely take Alys away with him and lock her in a tower, where she would waste away unto death with sorrow… Roland shook his head to rid himself of his tragic visions. Sir Colm entered, stood beside Roland and whispered, “They are at the gates.”
There was a sound of trumpets and the familiar burly choleric figure of the Seigneur of Avan entered the Great Hall with Seigneur Hugo at his side. As he walked slowly along the ranks of watchers, he picked Roland out of the crowd. “There you are, troubadour,” he snarled. “If you have married my daughter, only your death can pay for this insult to our name!” Roland made as if to speak, but the Seigneur interrupted him. “Silence! I shall hear the tale from my daughter's lips before I believe your excuses, you cur!” He strode on up the hall.
Alys, on the dais, had her heart in her mouth. She had heard what her father said, and believed him. As he drew near to the place where she was sitting, she somehow managed to stand and to dip a curtsy as deep as her bulk would allow. She was trembling with terror as she looked up at him.
The Seigneur laughed. He turned to Seigneur Hugo and said in a tone of scorn, “This is not my daughter!” Hugo was so astonished that he was quite speechless. The Seigneur of Avan continued, “This is an impostor who has presumed on your hospitality. Look, she is shaking with fear – and so she should, for her lies have found her out! This great fat dairy-maid bears no resemblance to my Alys, save that her hair is fair. Alys had sharp features, and was as thin as a rail.” He strode back down the hall, leaving an astonished Alys to stand with her mouth open, unable to speak a word.
The Seigneur marched up to Roland once more. “If you know what has really become of my daughter, speak!”
Roland's mind was working at double speed. “Seigneur, it is true that I loved your daughter, and that I harboured hopes of marrying her. We left the castle together, but the first night we stopped at an inn. There was a knight passing the night there also, a tall man, broad, muscular and handsome. He and Alys had much talk that evening, and in the morning, both she and the knight were gone, I know not where. They were seen leaving together but I could not find which way they went. This maiden, whose name is Alys too, I have promised to marry because although she is not your daughter, her colouring and name remind me of the love that I have lost. She is a good girl and loves me truly, though she is not of noble birth.”
The Seigneur's face darkened with anger. “The whore!” he exclaimed. “I shall not look for her, for the bitch has disgraced us all. I shall give out that she is dead. Never shall she come within my doors again, though she should beg in rags at my gate.” He stormed out of the hall with a bitter laugh. Hugo followed after, with a meaningful look at Roland as he did so.
A silence remained in the hall for a few moments, soon broken as everyone hastened to discuss what they had just seen. Seigneur Hugo returned and closed the doors behind him. He sought out Roland and took him up to the dais where Alys was still sitting, in a state of shock.
“This is the Seigneur's daughter, is it not?” he asked. Roland took Alys by the hand.
“She was his daughter, and she is now my wife. No man can part us now.”
The Seigneur smiled. “Her father is a fool, unable to look beyond first impressions or to see that where there is no change, there is no life. I will not try to part you. Mind you, lady, you did well not to speak, or he might have recognized your voice, despite the… improvement in your outward appearance.”
“No,” said Alys. “He never listened to anything I might have said in any case. I doubt if he would know my voice from any other lady's.” She smiled and laid her other hand on top of Roland's, and he relaxed, seeing that she was not sorrowing because her father had disowned her.
That evening, there was yet another feast to celebrate the marriage between the Seigneur's new troubadour and his lady. Naturally the cooks surpassed themselves in producing an ever-rolling succession of delicacies, and Roland and his bride were seated with Hugo and his lady, where they were able to see for themselves the feats of gormandizing which the Lady Genefer La Grosse was capable of, which in truth surpassed even Alys' best efforts. The two husbands watched with pride as their ladies vied to stuff themselves fuller and fuller…
For the first time in some months, the fair Alys was not the last to leave the table, but stood up first of all, ready to accompany her bridegroom to the tower where she had slept alone for six months. There, Roland unknotted the girdle which bound Alys' gown under her breasts, letting them fall forward, then lifted the gown itself over her head, leaving her standing in a loose cambric shift so fine that her skin was mistily visible beneath. He removed his own tunic, hose and shirt and stood naked before her, while she beheld his strong limbs and springy build. She kicked off her shoes and began to raise her chemise upwards, revealing round, full calves, dimpled knees overhung slightly with flesh from her soft thighs, then the bottom of a drooping apron which was perhaps hanging a few inches lower these days, pushed down by the weight of all the pounds and pounds of food she had recently consumed. She turned for him and he saw her backside, broad and full, forming a shelf of flesh above her hips. Her back was a poem of undulating flesh and as she raised her arms to draw the shift finally over her head, he saw the new rolls on her upper arms fall back, and her whole body jiggled softly as she pulled the shift off. Now he could see her in her entirety – from her round sweet face to her plump little feet. He buried his face in her ample breasts and felt the softness of her huge round belly envelop his narrow hips. Kissing her ardently, he walked her backwards to the bed, where they set about educating one another in the pleasure for which they had waited so long, exploring with sensitive lute-player's hands each other's longed-for flesh and losing themselves to sweet voluptousness…
Nine months after, a son was born to Roland and Alys, the first of five children. Alys continued to expand with every pregnancy until she rivalled the size of Lady Genefer. Roland and Alys passed the rest of their lives at the castle, happily surrounded by their children and the friends who had given them a home.