The ground vibrated as the bear dropped down onto it's paws. Cocking it's massive head to the side, it studied me. It was the same mannerism I had seen in the beast the night Brisam and I traveled back from Ignit Covert. The same searching, the same need to understand. As though it were human. It was more disturbing than if it had swiped at me and taken the skin clean off my face.
I stumbled back on my numb feet, the early winter ice trimming the shore of the lake. I slipped and caught myself. An echoing crack and the ice gave way underneath me.
In the freezing water, my mind went blank. I kicked but my legs were like rocks, nerves deadened by the deathly cold. Reaching towards the surface, a pair of human hands gripped my wrists and pulled me upwards.
The clouds had parted overhead and a swath of stars dotted the midnight sky. Arms that stung with heat wrapped me against a body. A clean shaven jaw, dark lank hair and weary eyes. Theodric hefted me up and tightened his grip on my icy body.
“Hania, stay awake. Stay awake!”
But I could not. My mind wandered to warm places that my body could not go and I drifted as I had earlier in bed. What drew me out of the darkness were the needles digging into my hands and feet. The discomfort left me breathless as I came to in my bed chamber, the fire in the hearth roaring heartily and the midday sun pouring in through the patched window.
“Well, seeing as you are still alive, would you like to explain what happened last night?”
I winced and squinted at the ornately carved chair by my bed. Teàrlag was smoking her pipe and glaring at me, brow knitted into a dozen wrinkles. My mind swam with the events of the night before. “What was in that tea you gave me?”
“Don't blame all of your poor decisions on the tea. It's been known to alter thoughts but not enough to explain away what you did last night.” Teàrlag slapped my leg underneath the layers of bedclothes and furs. “Running mad around the lake in nothing but your shift-”
“There was a bear.”
Teàrlag blew a cloud of smoke. “A bear? Up here in these mountains?”
“Yes, I have seen it before- it knows me.” I closed my eyes, head throbbing. “Its been following me since mother and Sidimund died. I think I'm cursed.”
I waited to hear her laugh or dispute my claim but heard only silence. Her heavy intake of breath as she mouthed the pipe. I opened my eyes and found her studying me with interest. I would rather she had called me mad, insanity was easier to accept than the possibility that I might be right.
Teàrlag picked up a goblet from nearby. Warm mead steamed from it, the honeyed smell almost making me gag. “Drink, it will warm what is left of you.”
I obeyed. Sitting up in bed, I cradled the cup and waited for her to speak. But impatience got the best of me. “Well? What do you think? Is there such a thing in the lore of your people?”
Shooting me a withering stare, Teàrlag poured herself a cup of the mead. I bit my tongue. She settled back into her seat and comfortably pulled a woolen blanket over her spindly legs.
“When the Tormod first came to these mountains and forests, our wise men learned the power to change themselves into creatures. It was to protect our villages, the wolves and bears and cave lions were so numerous. As time went on, some of the shamans began to use the ability for their own means. A few began to wield it like a weapon and not a gift. When we were overrun by your people from the plains, it was used to curse others with the form of an animal, trapping them in the beast's hide.”
“So these evil magicians, are they still in these parts?”
Teàrlag smirked. “A few. But they only practice their arts for money. They are nothing more than mercenaries.”
The explanation was plausible. I had seen too much of the goddess's power not to believe in the supernatural. But I couldn't understand what a rogue Tormod shaman had to do with me.
“Do you think my bear is one of these shamans?”
“Or perhaps a cursed man trapped in the form of one.” Teàrlag took another drink, glancing towards the broken window. “I wasn't present when they brought you in from the lake. Estra came and fetched me soon as it happened. He wasn't here but I heard that it was Lord Theodric who found you. Apparently he was hunting.”
I scoffed. “Hunting? In the middle of the night.”
Shrugging, Teàrlag stood and moved towards the door. “I believe I will keep my eye on Theodric and his man Argath.”
“Do you think Theodric could be-”
I shifted, swirling the liquid in my cup. All the clues pointed in that direction. I tensed as another thought passed through me colder than the icy lake water. If he was the demon bear, that also made him Brisam's murderer. I took another pull of mead, mind flooding with horror.
“I can't marry him, Teàrlag.” I choked.
“We will see come spring. For now, you are going to have to rest.”
I nodded. “I know, I will stay in bed for the rest of the day-”
“You will stay in bed till I say you are safe to leave it.”
Blinking at her, my heart dropped. “Is the baby- nothing is wrong, is there?”
“For the moment, no. But you had some blood spots after the incident. It wasn't anything dangerous but enough to concern me. You will not leave your room until I see that it wasn't anything to worry about. Do you understand?”
With the glare the woman gave me, I had no choice but to nod my acquiesce. Teàrlag grinned and blew out a smoke ring.
“Very well, Lady Hania. I will return towards dinner time to make sure you are eating what you need and check your bed clothes.” With that she left me to my goblet and thoughts, the fire popping cordially in the hearth.
By evening, Teàrlag hadn't come back to my chambers. A knock came at my door and I set down my tome of prayers for the winter solstice, my mind hummed to a calm by the familiar words of Dylene's hymns. “Come in.”
The door creaked open and Theodric entered. Despite his slumped shoulders and evasive eyes, my heart burst with adrenaline. Teàrlag's words about men cursed with the forms of the beasts reverberated in my memory as he trudged towards the hearth. He seemed tame enough. In this transformation at least. But I remembered the bear I had seen in the dark of the night, lethal claws and raw power. I kept my eyes on my pale hands knotted on my lap.
“I am thankful to see you are well.” He glanced over, folding his hands at his back. “I came by this morning and you were still sleeping. I was worried.”
“Thank you for your concern, my lord.” I kept my tone respectful and distant, hoping I could glean something from the conversation. A hint hovering near the surface of his words.
He chuckled lightly. “I have to know, what was it exactly that you were doing swimming in your nightdress?”
“My midwife gave me a tonic to help me sleep and my mind wandered.” I leveled him with a glare. “What were you doing?”
“I had been hunting and got lost. I was walking home when I saw you out on the ice. It was miracle I happened to be there at that time.”
“You were lost? At Highfire where you were raised?”
Theodric walked towards the chair by the bed. I moved away from him as he settled into the seat. “It has been many years since I walked these grounds. Much has changed.”
“Surely not that much.”
“What are you suggesting, Lady Hania?” Theodric sat up in the seat, his voice turning sharp.
I wet my lips, unsure about angering him. If he was a cursed man, there was no knowing what could trigger the change. If I pushed any further, he could morph into his bear body and slice me open right there in my sheets.
“I didn't say that, I only found your explanation baffling.”
“As I find yours.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “A little gratitude for saving your life would be appreciated.”
I swallowed my pride out of fear. “Thank you.”
Theodric sighed and stood, striding over to the broken window, the shattered pane mended with a fitted piece of wood. The snow outside was falling heavily, driven by a strong wind from the north. “If anything, this gives me the chance to discuss something with you. About your child.”
I ran my hand over the cover of my prayer book in a soothing motion. I wasn't sure if I should mention the danger my child was in because of my actions. The shame of it left me mute.
“If the child should be a boy-”
“Then there will be no more words between us.” I snapped, coming out of my stupor.
He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Your father is of the line of kings.”
I arched an eyebrow towards him. “What of it? He was ruled out of the line of succession after Ervig took the throne.”
“Ervig is dead.”
I gaped. “How-”
“A week ago from the Iron Scourge. We only just heard as we were leaving Gegar Red.”
“But he had a wife and a child, surely they are next in line.”
Theodric meandered towards the bed. “His son is only five years old. And his wife is too weak willed to keep a firm hold for very long. There will soon be a vacancy on the throne I imagine.”
“Are you suggesting that I try to make a play for the throne?” I scoffed. “I've never even been to court.”
“But I have and they know me there. They also knew my father. The reputation of the Vultuff family is stainless. A child born of you and Sidimund would be an ideal candidate.”
I shook my head, the images of him turning to a bear before my eyes were fading as he spoke. My father had been denied his birthright and we had resigned ourselves to it. Now here was the chance to redeem what had been stolen from him. “But if this child is a boy, he would be even younger than the prince is now.”
“But Ervig's prince does not have a woman like you for a mother and is the poorer for it.” He tapped the bedpost as he strode around it. “You don't have to give me an answer now. But I should like to help you if I may when the time should come.”
“Very well. But I want to pray about it before I can give you a firm answer.”
“Please do. Some divine intervention would be welcome. We'll need it if this should come to pass.” He moved towards me. I did my best not to shrink away as he leaned over me and kissed the top of my head. I sat frozen, gripping the book in my lap. “Sleep well. I will visit again. I believe we will find much to talk about this winter.”ns 188.8.131.52da2