They didn't notice me as I inched into the kitchen. It was early evening, the distant sun having simmered in the west till it gave into the long night. All the lamps had been doused and only the fire burned in the hearth, the shadows of the two women dancing off the shelves of spices and herbs.
Teàrlag and the cook were bent over a clay bowl at the end of the table. The Tormod woman was holding a candle over it, the other woman wafting the smoke. A lazy drip of wax dropped into the bowl. Their faces were heavily shadowed but I could see traces of surprise light their features.
Scrying. An art only practiced by useless, old women with nothing better to do with their time according to Sidimund.
I tapped my knuckles on the door frame. The women sat up and stared across the dim room. Their eyes were strange. I squinted, breathing hard. Teàrlag's gaze flashed red then shifted to black before returning to pupils surrounded by white.
“My lady,” Cook blurted and bobbed a curtsy. I realized I didn't know her name but always referred to her as 'Cook' in my mind. I didn't bother asking for it now.
Perching my hands on my hips, I moved towards the end of the table. I glanced down. It was only a common bowl of water, wax drops like pearls at the bottom. Scoffing, I crossed my arms over my chest.
“What were you looking in there for? Bears and fates of babies?” My tone came out dry but I genuinely wanted to know.
Teàrlag sensed this and leaned back in her seat with a clandestine grin. “A wise girl waits until her elders tell her what they see, my lady.”
I jutted out my jaw and dropped into the chair beside her. “Fine, I'll sit here till you speak then.”
Cook glanced back and forth between us, clearly uncomfortable with our banter. I didn't see Teàrlag as others within my employ. She was an adviser and friend, not just another anonymous entity scrubbing floors and mucking stalls. She had pulled my child from my body and breathed life back into her delicate body. There wasn't much she could say that would incur my censure.
Teàrlag smirked and set down the rushlight in the candle holder between us. She picked at her nails while Cook put more wood to burn on the fire. “What do you think of your daughter's nursemaid? Estra?”
“You don't think of her at all?”
“There is nothing to think of her. She serves our family well and Emalia seems to like her,” my voice sharpened with envy, "I have no quarrel with her.”
Teàrlag chuckled. “It certainly sounds like you don't.”
“Why do you ask?” I glanced over at Cook where she was slowly stirring a cauldron, pretending not to listen.
“She was sleeping with your husband, was she not-”
“Of course, I knew it,” I snapped. “I wish you would speak plain instead of rambling on about some nervous slip of a nursemaid.”
Teàrlag nodded slowly, exchanging a look with Cook who glanced over her shoulder. We met eyes and I glared. Cook looked away. Wiping her hands on her apron, she excused herself and left Teàrlag and I alone in the kitchen.
“I sensed two unborn children of the house of Vultuff, two branches of the tree in a vision when you called me here. I thought it was because you might be carrying twins which is why I have been so strict with you.”
I snorted. “Strict? You didn't let me out of my room for a week after I fell in the lake.”
“But I was wrong. There are two children of the Vultuffs because there are two mothers.”
I blinked. “What are you saying? That Estra-”
“Estra is pregnant with your husband's bastard.”
I slunk back in the chair, mouth ajar as I stared in shock at the candle. Sidimund certainly was busy in the last few months of his life. No children for years and now two.
“What does that have to do with me?” I managed after regaining my composure.
“She has asked me to help her get rid of the child.”
“Then do it.” I stood and paced towards the hearth, the rich smell of root vegetables in the pot over the flames calming my nerves.
Teàrlag clucked her tongue. “But you see, I believe her child had a destiny entwined with yours. They are siblings after all, the three of them.”
I whipped around with a harsh laugh. “My children have nothing to do with the illegitimate brat of a servant girl.”
“Except the same father who passed on his gifts and sins equally to all three. Four really, counting the eldest, Theodric." Rising from her chair, Teàrlag hobbled towards me. Her eyes were intent and I watched for their color to shift to shadow once more, her stare was so consuming. “It would be in your best interest that you speak with her.”
Her expression was rife with warning, eyebrows narrowed and mouth pursed. It gave me pause. “What can I do?”
“She is scared of you, Cook says. She fears repercussions for being mistress to your husband.”
Ebony skirts swishing across the rushes on the floor, I strode away towards the door. “I will do no such thing. If she has any honor in her, she will seek me out.”
“Hania!” Teàrlag called out and I stopped hard without turning towards her. “You will come to regret this choice if you don't talk to her. I have seen it.”
I didn't want to know any more details. Whatever she had seen in the bowl, she wasn't telling me. Secrets were frightening. Especially if they had anything to do with the future of my children. I didn't turn towards her but left the kitchen without another word.
Of course the servants had gossiped and I had heard about Estra and Sidimund sharing a bed. She even slept all night with him, something I had never been able to do in our entire marriage. At first, I was surprised it had taken him this long to find himself a mistress. Then I was relieved that he had someone to occupy him and would leave me alone.
I could not understand why this news disturbed me so. It wasn't as though her child would have prior claim over mine to anything of Sidimund's. I was his legal wife, not the stupid country girl who had jumped into his bed.
Wrapping a dark green shawl over my head, I strode towards the chapel after I had eaten. Entering the holy place, a solitary figure in one of the pews near the front didn't turn to look at me. A white veil covered her head. I did not see that it was Estra until I reached the altar. We made brief eye contact but she turned away, her fists clenched in her lap.
I dropped in front of the effigies and chanted a hymn to Tila as well as Dylene. I hoped she would listen to me despite my obvious failings as a mother. Any help I could receive from them would be needed.
Estra came up behind me and sunk to her knees at the altar, an arm's length between us. She peeked over at me. I lifted my eyebrows, daring her to speak. Of course she did not. She only locked her eyes on her fists and prayed fervently. I sighed. Clearly, this was as brave as she got.
“Your eyes are red,” I commented dryly, “Are you sleeping well?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“That's a lie.”
Estra fidgeted with the edge of her veil, evading my gaze when I looked over at her. Like me, she wasn't showing yet. If she wanted to end the pregnancy with the use of plants and potions without any surgery, it was possible. But for only a little while longer.
“Did you love my husband?” The question had been burning in me since I grew suspicious of their relationship.
The blood rushed out of Estra's round face, her delicate lips drew into a tight line. “What are y-you-”
“Don't lie to me, I have no use for anything but the truth these days. Well? Did you?”
A change washed over her. Her back straightened and gaze shot into me with a strength I hadn't see before in the nursemaid. “Begging your pardon, my lady, but I don't see how my feelings have anything to do with you.”
Mildly amused by her stand, I couldn't help but grin. “But your feelings for a man that wasn't your husband are my business. Seeing as I was married to him.”
“You never loved him.”
Her boldness was refreshing. I almost liked this version of Estra. “You are correct.”
“So what does it matter if I did?”
“It matters because I know your secret.” I arched an eyebrow. “It seems Sidimund was very busy with the women in his life before he died. He left behind both a potential heir and bastard before he died. More than he managed to father in the last six years, I would call that progress.”
Estra jumped to her feet, wrapping herself in her veil. “Well you won't have to worry about that for much longer.”
She strode away down the aisle. I kept facing the altar. Tila, mother goddess and protector of pregnant women, sneered down at me. I groaned.
“If you could keep the baby, would you?” I shouted over my shoulder without turning around.
Her footsteps silenced. I stood and marched towards her slight figure. We were built similarly, petite in height and bone with figures that resembled girls more than grown women. It was another reason why my first birth had been so difficult aside from my young age. No doubt Estra's first would be just as trying.
“Yes I loved him,” Estra breathed as I came to stand next to her. Tears stained her cheeks. She was crying the tears for my husband that I would never be able to conjure. It was almost comforting. “And I want to have his child but I am afraid.”
“Afraid of what? Childbirth?” I snapped.
“You,” she growled and glared over at me. “I could not mourn him though my heart was destroyed and now I must mourn the death of a child I will never know. And it's all because of you.”
I pursed my lips. “Why me? Because you are afraid I will be cruel to you and send you away?”
“I have nowhere else to go.”
As her eyes welled with long hidden grief, a cruel punch of understanding left me breathless. I thought of Brisam, buried without my tears. I could not mourn the man for the whom I cared. Neither of us were able to speak of our devotion or the pain from the loss of it. It was a hell I never thought I would share with another. Especially not a milky eyed, weak willed nursemaid.
Perhaps there was more to her than what I had originally thought. After all, bastard children could be just as useful if they were claimed by the family. Estra and her child might serve some purpose to buy us our freedom.
“I must ask you again, would you want to keep the child if you had the chance of a life here and the security of your position?” I moved in front of her and gripped her wrist.
Her mouth gaped open and a feather light line of confusion etched across her forehead. “What are you saying?”
“I will recognize the babe as the bastard of my husband so that he may take the name of Vultuff. You will stay as a member of my household.”
Estra scoffed in disbelief. “At what cost?”
“The cost of our freedom. We need all the pieces we can play and two heirs are better than one. If we pray fervently, perhaps we will be blessed with at least one boy to gain us some ground. Are you willing to accept?”
Her mouth snapped into a grimace and she glanced towards the dark end of the chapel, candle light flickering off the stained glass. I had nothing to lose if she refused me but she had everything. I decided to be charitable.
"You needn't give me an answer now but remember that your time is short to end the pregnancy without surgery. If you wait any longer, your survival after such a procedure is slim.”
I let go of her and reset the edges of my shawl over my head. I marched towards the door and pulled it open.
“Yes,” Estra murmured. I turned towards her but she evaded my eyes. “I accept your offer.”
“Very well. I will have your quarters located near mine after I publicly acknowledge you as my late husband's pregnant mistress.”
“You are too generous,” she replied coolly, her head lifting and eyes filling with the fire. I was grateful to see a little spark and spit in her.
I smiled back but kept my eyes hard. “Yes, I am well aware of that.”ns 126.96.36.199da2