When Marchioness Lamberico fails to conceive a child, she solicits the help of Imelda, the village witch. Nine months later, she gives birth to a baby girl. Biancabella. Though perfect in every other way, the infant is born with a snake wrapped around her neck. To the relief of the marchioness, the creature vanishes at once and, in the joy of motherhood, is soon forgotten. When Biancabella is a young girl, the snake reappears and explains their uncommon sisterhood. Samaritana helps Biancabella unlock her magical gifts and asserts that so long as they are together, all will be well. Their close, though secret, relationship unites them above all others. Years pass, the sisters contented, until the day King Ferradino of Naples arrives, seeking Biancabella’s hand in marriage. What follows shatters the sisters’ bond, leading to misfortune and betrayal, which forces them to grapple with not only the loss of their connection, but leaves each fighting for her life. Loosely based on the Italian fairy tale Biancabella and the Snake, the story explores how the love can transform from a domineering and covetous power to authenticity and, ultimately, redemption.
Exclusive Sneak Peak of Chapter 1 Below
The day was perfect, a warm spring sun in a cloudless sky. Yet from the castle balcony, Marchioness Lamberico stared at the city below with a heavy heart. Rays of light reflected off the buildings which stood in orderly fashion down the hillside, red-tiled roofs like well-placed bricks aligned by a child. Off to the north, against the backdrop of the white-capped Alps, the cathedral steeple soared proudly, a tall sentry against the imposing peaks. In the shadow of these majestic mountains, the city’s inhabitants made their way through the everyday tasks of provincial Italian life.
Voices buzzed from the markets, its stalls a riot of color against the dull gray stones of the square. The earthy smell of overturned soil from newly plowed fields lingered across the air. In the higher pastures, cows and sheep lowed, eating their fill of the tall grass while their shepherds lazed under the nearby trees. The neatly lined vineyards blossomed with tiny fragrant flowers destined to ripen into fat juicy grapes. Monferrato burst with life, the beckon of spring calling forth bud and grass. All around her, the fruitfulness of the season grew. In every place except her own womb.
With a sigh, Adeleta returned to her chambers, leaving the cityscape and its accusatory fecundity behind. She dropped into a chair and rubbed her forehead. Three years had passed since her marriage to the Marquis of Monferrato. Three long years where every sliver of hope for a pregnancy had been snuffed like the flame of a candle. Her two sisters, one younger than herself, had already delivered multiple offspring to their husbands. Though her spouse held the most authority of these men, the rank of marchioness did nothing to assist her with the production of an heir.
The marquis tried his best to encourage the marchioness and keep her filled with purpose on the mission to conceive, visiting her bed nightly. Although considered cold by many who knew him, Marquis Lamberico’s heart ached for the misery of his wife and no words of praise or gift of gems healed her sense of despair. Many days she went to sit in her private garden alone with her thoughts, only to return with red-rimmed eyes while the couple sat through an uncomfortably silent supper. The entirety of her failure tormented her mind; an agony sleep did not alleviate but magnified with taunting dreams of babies in her arms. A heart ready to burst with happiness, merely to awaken to cruel reality.
Whispers filled the castle and the whole city, no doubt, of the marquis’ need to cast Adeleta aside for a more fertile partner. The laundry maids murmured behind their hands each month when her lack of conception became apparent on soiled sheets. Whether they thought the marchioness did not notice or they did not care if she did, only added to her suffering. After all, her primary job was to provide Nardo with a son. His nephew, Piero, birthed by his brother’s wife, waited in the wings to grab the title of Marquis. How she hated the smug expression the boy’s father always wore in her presence. Sadly, the boy’s mother passed in childbirth.
Adeleta, with the assistance of her head maid, Tessina, tried a number of herbs and elixirs, none of which brought about the desired outcome. Tessina, the only confidante of the marchioness, felt the pain of her mistress each time she crossed a failed attempt off a list of suggestions to induce a pregnancy. Today, the maid put a line through the last entry on a piece of paper once filled on each side with ideas. Every possible option Tessina ever heard of had been exhausted, with nothing to show for it. Every option—except one. She shuddered at the unpleasant thought and buried the idea, adamant not to mention it to the marchioness. In the end, her silence was for naught. Adeleta suggested it on her own.
“Your hair looks so lovely after the infusion of oils in tonight’s bath,” Tessina said, stroking a brush through Adeleta’s chestnut tresses one evening.
Another servant wiped down the tub and picked up the wet towels from the dressing room floor. Once gathered in a tight bundle across her chest, she left maid and mistress alone.
The marchioness stared at her fingers, deep in thought, while her hair was braided. A warm breezed flowed in from the open balcony doors and crickets chirped their nightly serenade. She looked up and met eyes with Tessina in the mirror’s reflection.
“I bet they will all be mocking me in the laundry when those towels arrive.” Her voice held such sorrow, the maid put down the brush and took her hand.
“Don’t worry about what any of them say. I’m sure more time is all that is needed. One day soon, you will be holding your own baby, and all this petty chatter will be but a distant memory.” This was the same assurance she gave her friend each month, and by now the words rang hollow.
“Tessina, I need your help,” she declared, a resolute expression on her face.
“Anything, my lady.” Tessina had no power to deny any request from her mistress, but their close friendship made it unlikely she would ever wish to, whatever the demand.
“I must visit with Imelda as soon as possible.” Her voice was soft, but still determined.
“Are you certain that is . . . wise?” The same sense of dread that arose whenever Tessina considered this alternative consumed her, and the marchioness tightened her grip.
“I have run out of choices. You know this as well as I. The meeting must be done with all secrecy. Can I count on you to help me?”
The maid saw the pleading in Adeleta’s eyes. Though Tessina feared this avenue, she did not have the heart to refuse the woman who had been so kind and generous to her since the moment they met three years ago. Almost the same age, they each had been sent from their respective homes to a strange city when the marquis married, one to be a lady, the other a servant, but true friendship had formed. In truth, the maid’s heart ached nearly as much as her lady’s, who deserved to experience the joy of motherhood, not this constant life of disappointment. She had aided Adeleta in every other attempt and would not leave the marchioness on her own despite the dire lengths this course of action required.
The stories of Imelda were legend. Some called her a witch, others a sylph. Only the most desperate sought her help for if given, it came with a catch—an outcome the asker did not foresee, perhaps for the better or perhaps not. No one spoke of receiving help from Imelda, but gossip spread in Monferrato as noxiously as any other populated area of the globe. If all went well, heads were turned in the other direction. However, if misfortune occurred, retribution followed.
Two springs ago, a woman went to Imelda for pus spots on her face. Whatever remedy she was given, the boils cleared almost immediately. Not a week later, the city was beset with grape berry moth larva. The pests destroyed nearly the entire vineyard production of the city, a serious financial blow. Rumors circulated it was because of Imelda’s witchcraft. Citizens burned down the house of the woman who received the witch’s medicine before they chased her out of town. She barely escaped with her life. No vengeance was ever carried out on Imelda for fear of her powers.
Secrecy of their visit would be imperative. If word spread, the marchioness visited Imelda and some sort of calamity followed, Adeleta would take the brunt of the punishment. A tingle ran down the maid’s spine, but she straightened up tall and, with a squeeze of her mistress’ hand, said, “I will do whatever you ask of me, my lady.”
“So be it,” Adeleta proclaimed, hope forming anew in her heart.