The nanny goat bleated once as I held it's head back. Baring the neck, I closed my eyes and slit it's throat. I laid it down on the stones by the lake. Blood trails ate through the snowy gravel and stained the dark water like tea. I dipped my finger in the wound and dabbed it on my forehead, shivering with the early morning chill.
The priestess beside me raised her hands across the lake and scattered ashes from the sacred fire we had burned before the sacrifice. Emalia's stifled weeping was carried to me on the breeze but I knew she wasn't crying for her father on the lake bed. She had never liked the sacrifices we offered to our gods on the new year, festival days and when a person died. She had wailed at the sight of the skinny goat being led to the altar.
“May you lead Lord Vultuff to the halls of his fathers, gentle Dylene. Accept our offering and show him mercy, we pray.” The priestess called out across the calm water.
“Show my love the way home,” I uttered aloud, grief choking me and the scent of fresh blood filling my nose, “Show him to the halls of his fathers.”
Brisam's body had looked nothing like Sidimund's. He was as peaceful in death as he had been in life. Even the claw marks on his neck hadn't been too gruesome. We had buried him in a humble ceremony the night before after the arrival of Theodric Vultuff's party.
As they had shoveled the icy earth over his shrouded body, I didn't cry. I took in the cold like a tonic. I willed myself into ice. I wanted to dissolve into snow.
I needed to feel nothing.
As we prayed for the salvation of my husband and sacrificed animals to appeal to the gods for his sake, anger sizzled through my veins. The priestess and I faced the gathered crowd of servants and nobles. I lifted my eyes, my gaze settling on Theodric. I needed someone to blame for everything that had occurred and he was such a tempting target.
Hatred left me wilted, vicious as adrenaline in my heart. I knew my place though. I would never act with aggression so it would only rot in me until I turned bitter as the winter wind.
The priestess concluded the ceremony and we trudged up the incline towards the estate. I followed the majority of the crowd, loneliness wrapping me in it's talons. A hawk flew overhead, a mouse screeching helplessly in it's break. I watched in morbid fascination as the bird lighted onto a bare tree by the lake and decapitated the rodent.
I glanced forward. He was standing in my path, head bowed and mouth turned down. In the short time I had known him, one thing was for certain. Theodric appeared to lack his father's charm. He was as interesting as peasant's horsebread.
“Yes my lord?”
“When we arrived, you have mentioned that you needed to speak with me on a matter. Yesterday evening was...hectic. What with all the messy business-”
“A man was killed. Please don't demean it with casualty.” I cut past him, gathering my black skirts in my hands. My fingers were gray with cold.
“My lady, I wasn't finished speaking.”
I halted in my steps. Though his tone wasn't demeaning, his words me feel like a child. Like his father had made me feel many times during our marriage. I kept my eyes on my hands clenched together in front of me as I turned.
Theodric sighed. “I did not mean to offend you. I fear our situation is a difficult one. I only want you to know that we will marry when you feel ready. You are only newly widowed and in mourning. I don't want you to feel coerced.”
“Lord Theodric, your father's will dictated that I marry you or lose my standing and my child. I don't feel coerced because I don't have any other choice.” My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I hadn't eaten breakfast. The cloud of grief that had haunted me through the night made me forget the growing child in my womb. “I will speak with you at another time.”
I turned my back on him, blood running hot. Rage was easier than sadness, it made me feel powerful when I was really quite pathetic. I pressed my hand to my stomach and breathed deeply. I still had my last piece to play. It was a gamble but it could pay off. I wanted to tell him of it when I was calm and in control of the situation.
Lost in my thoughts, I tripped over a protruding rock beside the castle keep. I caught myself against the wall and glanced down at the snow. A animal print strange to the area was impressed in the fresh drift. I knelt down and traced my finger along it. My heart dropped to my stomach.
A bear paw.
Perhaps my dream from goddess had been a warning. A phantom was haunting me. The demon bear could be a spirit from the next world sent by my vengeful husband. Perhaps he had heard me laughing on the wharf as he sank into the lake never to see the light of day again. Maybe I was cursed.
“Yes?” I sobbed a gasp and peered upwards.
Argath Mercer hung over me. His voice was kind but his expression was wolfish, his direct gaze flashing with warning. I recalled the rumors of the death of Sidimund's second wife as I allowed him to help me to my feet. I pulled my arm away and hid it behind me.
“May I escort you inside, my lady?”
“No-” I blurted, drawing a quick breath to calm myself, “No, thank you.”
I stumbled away, feeling his eyes on me as I carefully trotted across the cobblestones. Whenever I did speak with Theodric, it would be when he was alone. Argath couldn't be near. He was not for me and therefore could not be trusted.
And so, I did not visit my husband's son until later that night.
My prayers were fervent on the cold chapel floor. Brisam had been my only friend and ally, the only man who could speak for me in a place where the voices of women were not heeded. Without him, the absence was more painful than I could bear. I couldn't think on it or else I would lose focus. I hoped that the grief that hollowed my cheeks and dulled my eyes would be attributed to the loss of my husband and mother.
After leaving the chapel, I cut down towards my husband's study. I had a feeling he would be there rummaging through Sidimund's documents. I had seen him in the windows of the study, pacing as he read, when I had gone for my walk earlier that afternoon. If he was so curious about my husband's dealings, I couldn't understand why he had been so distant while Sidimund was alive.
I knocked on the door. If Argath was with him, I could excuse myself and say I felt faint. I hoped the two of them would be there but Theodric opened the door alone.
His face was too subdued and tired to be handsome. I tried to remember how he had looked as a youth the one time I had seen him at Ignit Covert. Perhaps he had seemed fresher except for his amber brown eyes. Even at fifteen they had seemed drained of verve. Like a man under an evil spell. Perhaps it wasn't me who was cursed.
“Lady Hania, you are still awake?” He opened the door further, revealing that he was in only his shirt sleeves, the linen edges tucked loosely into his trousers. A book was in his hand, his finger holding his place.
I shifted my weight, pinning my hands to my torso. “I hope I am not disturbing you.”
“You are but it is a welcome distraction. Please come in.” He waved me inside the warm room.
I almost recoiled at the sight as he moved around the circular table before the hearth. It was as though Sidimund stood before me once again, papers splayed out and figures being worked. A silver ink pot had tipped over and black pearls stained the stones beneath it.
“You upset the ink.” I pointed out awkwardly, glad for a moment to gather myself as he fussed over it.
“I am so clumsy with these hands sometimes. It's as though they don't belong to me.” He shrugged, dabbing the ink from the floor.
I furrowed my brow at his strange comment but plastered a cool simper as he straightened his posture. “Lord Theodric, I wanted to know if your man informed you of the details from my husband's will?”
Theodric folded his arms over his chest and nodded. His left forearm was wrapped in a bandage. He noticed when the wound caught my eye. “I am a hunter. A wild boar caught me with it's tusk a week ago.”
“A blessing you were not gored to death.” I spat, my poisonous tone betraying the cool I wanted to portray.
Theodric gave a breathy chuckle and glanced away. He poured two goblets of red wine from the canter on the table and held one out to me. “Yes. Well, it was too close for my comfort.”
“I'm sure.” I took the wine and moved towards the fire, gathering my wits. “My husband's will stated that if I had children, the conditions of the inheritance would be amended.”
“Not just children, my lady, but male issue. You have only a daughter, correct?”
“Yes she is only a daughter.” I scoffed, whipping towards him and leveling my glare on him. “I will be direct with you, Lord Theodric. I cannot marry you yet.”
He did not cow under my stare as others had. If anything it only strengthened my reserve. “I told you, my lady. You may wait as long as you need.”
“Or as long as needed. It will be a few months for sure.”
“Not until late spring if nothing goes wrong.”
Theodric narrowed his heavy eyebrows. “What do you mean, my lady? I would prefer you not to speak in riddles.”
“My husband left me a parting gift before departing this world. It seems I am with child.” I blinked slowly and gave a tight lipped smile.
Theodric smirked and scratched at the angle of his jaw. “His child?”
The presumption was insulting. I gripped the goblet. “How dare you utter such slander-”
He shook his head and laughed, a true smile that looked too similar to my husband's breaking forth. The Vultuff charm that Sidimund had possessed in spades took hold. I prefered the man dull and tired. “I apologize, I was only-”
“Making a joke at the expense of a widow?” I barked. “Have you become wooden headed locked up in that manor of yours?”
I refused to stand there and be insulted with all I had endured. I splashed the contents of my goblet on him, red wine dribbling down his chin like blood. “I bid you goodnight, my lord.”
I wanted to sneak into his room that night and smother him in his sleep. I seriously considered it as I strode back to my chambers. However, the memory of Argath's wary glare scared me away from such a temptation.
In the quiet of my solar, my hand went to my neck but there was no pendant for me to pray with. My father's pendant hadn't been on Brisam's body when they brought him in, cold and blue. The shock of the loss broke through my defenses and I collapsed in a heap by the door. I fell asleep there until dawn when I finally dragged myself to my chilled bed. I dreamed of Theodric's face dripping with blood.ns 184.108.40.206da2