We traveled swiftly for most of the day till we reached forests I knew well despite the harsh light of winter. The sun was full and free of clouds, rays reflecting off the downy layer of new snow. I kept the skins of my litter closed most of the day to shield my eyes more than keep out the cold. I had been raised in this land, the cold suited me. Perhaps my nature had always been more inclined to it, long before Highfire and the pangs of life had chilled my heart.
As the glow against my enclosure faded, I peeked out into the world. We were close to Ignit Covert, the skeletal groves of my childhood were elegant despite their death. A rider from the front of the caravan trotted towards me. The man's face was tinged with white along his eyebrows and the fringes of his dark hair. Theodric removed his collar drawn over his mouth and nodded towards me.
“We are making camp for the night up ahead, if you don't mind,” he announced.
“Very well,” I shrugged, unsure why he felt he had to ask my permission.
“I didn't know if you wanted to keep travelling the next couple miles to take shelter at Ignit Covert?”
I winced at the thought. The state of the place had been so pathetic several months earlier, I could only imagine it had fallen into further disrepair. Unless Haneric had managed to snatch himself an unsuspecting bride and pour her dowry into the place, which I doubted. Haneric had always been more mouthy then proactive.
“No, let us rest up here. I am weary of the road.”
I swung the curtain back to hide the heaviness that fell over me at the thought of Ignit Covert. I swore if everything we hoped came to pass and I became Queen Mother, I would take my father's estate back from my brother and restore it. Haneric could be tidied away in some distant marriage to a plain bride, maybe a widow without a need for heirs. Either way, my brother would be taken care of, I would see to it.
The men raised two canvas tents, their clean walls blending in with the drifts around them. I was given the smaller one to myself, the floors soft with fur and a small cot made of bone in the corner. The ride in the litter had been miserable but would have been worse if I hadn't been pregnant. Thankfully, being with child was akin to living with a roaring oven inside.
Layering my legs in another set of wool stockings and tightening my stays over my swollen waistline, I emerged at the scent of food. My repulsion to the smell of cooking meat had thankfully faded over the past week and left me voraciously hungry.
“Have you traveled much outside of Highfire, my lady?” Tulin asked beside me as we were handed plates of venison by the fire.
I sat down on a log next to the flames. “My husband did but after I married, I only visited Ignit Covert a few times.”
“And before you were married?”
I lifted my chin and stared down my nose at him. “I was still a girl before then, thirteen years old. I didn't have much of a chance at anything. Surely, I thought you'd remember that as it was your scheming that sealed my fate.”
The protruding knot in Tulin's throat bobbed as he swallowed a bite of meat, his eyes skittering away towards the ground. “Oh yes.”
“Did you forget so easily?”
“Clearly you have not.”
I gave a harsh smile and blinked, “How could I?”
“We are not far from Gegar Red,” Theodric interrupted as he sat down next to Tulin. His eyes darted back and forth between us, sensing the tension. “My estate. These are my lands actually, they run abut to Ignit Covert's. And it was all originally Tormod land. Isn't that true, Argath?”
The dour squire nodded where he stood on the border between the firelight and growing darkness. He met my eyes and I looked away.
“Argath is half Tormod on his mother's side,” Theodric continued.
I shuddered. Perhaps not Theodric but Argath was my bear, a crazed shaman seeking revenge for the loss of his people's land. But then again, he was also the bastard son of a Vultuff and Sidimund's half brother. Theodric was his nephew and one to whom he was clearly devoted. The living contrast in the man left me more wary of him, a puzzle that could not be ciphered.
Tulin lifted his cup towards Argath. “So what they say of these woods, is it true? They were cursed by the Tormod with beasts?”
Argath smiled softly. “The beasts were here when my mother's people first came to this land. We merely learned to hunt like them, live with them. Your people did not know or try to find how to exist with them. And so, they have made game of you.”
Tulin chuckled weakly, his eyes scanning the treeline. “Is that so?”
A skin of wine was produced and the men passed it around. I declined. Wiping the grease from my fingers, I retired to my tent. The low rumble of masculine voices lulled me into a light doze on my cot. 609Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡKcEI7FeW75
The cold from the outside world frosted my dreams so that everything I saw had a sheen of ice. My bear kings, the two men in battle for a crown, appeared, one dark and one golden. They stood in the turret of a castle with one banner over their heads. I could not see what symbol adorned the waving flag but it heartened me to see them unified.
One of the bear men was my son, the child I carried. I had no doubt. But the other, I wasn't sure. It was frightened to think it was Estra's unborn child. I feared I had made the wrong decision and allowed a contender for the throne against my son to be born.
But perhaps it could prove in our favor. Estra was strong willed, I saw that now. But she was also malleable and under my authority. Together, we could work to drive our sons into power. Then nothing could touch us ever again. We'd be safe. All of us.
I awoke in a cold sweat, my racing thoughts driving me to the surface of sleep. A few murmurings could be heard outside. Twisting back my swath of hair that smelled like pine smoke, I swallowed a mouthful of watered wine and rose to my feet. It was frigid inside the tent so beyond it's walls, I could only imagine the chill. But I needed to relieve myself, a common impulse those days with my child's heels ramming into my bladder.
I tugged on my practical boots and ventured out. I did not know the two men by the fire. They barely glanced at me as I stumbled through the snow outside the ring of light. A shift of shadow near a hollowed tree made me halt. Argath Mercer emerged into view and I drew back.
“What are you doing out here?” He scoffed.
I gathered myself with a huff. “I'm hunting squirrels, squire. What do you think?”
Argath chuckled and extended a hand to help me over a larger bank of snow. I ignored it, striding past him into the dark. Facing the unknown stillness before me, I paused and threw a glance back over my shoulder at him.
“Is it safe out here?” I asked, hedging the edge to my tone to avoid sounding frightened.
Argath nodded. “It should be. I can follow you further out there if you wish, my lady.”
I shook my head, wary of his presence more than that of a fanged monster. “No, thank you.”
The snow dragged at my footsteps. A ring of sweat formed around my neck with the exertion. In the dim light of the stars and moon, I found a tight trio of birch that offered suitable privacy. After finishing, I strode back towards the faint light in the distance. I hadn't realized how far I had walked.
A horse neighed and screeched, the others joining in. Men stirred, their conversation a buzz of incomprehensible voices. I picked up my pace, the hairs along the crown of my spine rising in alarm. I didn't like my back so exposed to the dark abyss of wood behind me.
The scurry of feet in the black, the thudding of many paws and a howl. Then a blood freezing roar. I halted, unsure if crying out for help was wise. I took a breath but something slammed into me from the side. I landed in a pile of snow, a body pressing me down and a large hand over my mouth.
“My lady,” Argath growled in my ear, “Be still.”
Terror seized me. He could be trying to kill me or worse, the thought seared past my better judgment. I was going to bite his palm and scream when the scuffle of heavy paws drew closer. We both lay motionless as a trio of massive wolves thundered past us. They should have caught our scent and killed us but they were running as though for their lives. What came behind them answered that riddle.
I had expected to see the bear in those parts but there was something different about it's look here beyond the mountain. Scruffy and mad with heavy pants, roving eyes. It lumbered on past us, intent on it's chase. I rummaged in my thoughts for any time I had heard of a bear attacking a pack of wolves. Much less, a pack of wolves terrified of a lone bear. It made no sense. Unless magic was involved.
Argath hauled us both to our feet in one motion and hooked an arm, heavy with chain mail, around my waist. We didn't speak and barely breathed as we struggled through the snow towards camp. As we came into the firelight, the men were swiftly taking down the tents. Theodric and Tulin were readying the horses as one of the men doused the fire. It was then I realized Argath's hand was still steady at my back.
“I fear we are in danger if we linger here, my lady. We will have to seek shelter from your brother at Ignit Covert.” Theodric explained as he mounted a horse.
In the hurry and confusion of our flight, the tents and cots were packed into my litter. Argath whistled sharply through his front teeth and his horse obediently trotted towards us. Without asking permission, he lifted me onto the animal. Mounting it behind me, he snapped the reins and we rode hard into the center of the company.
I searched the forest, my sight swimming with the sharp wind. No figures of demon bears or wolves with their dripping fangs gnashing, only snow glowing in the moonlight. Through his doublet and chain mail at my back, Argath's heart beat hard into my shoulder blades. It calmed me to feel his terror was as acute as mine. It made him more human to me. 609Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡSAk2Yl2TZj
Without thinking, I relaxed my spine into the curve of his chest. Argath pulled back, his arms locked in front of me as they gripped the reins, his breath stirring my hair. Had it only be a few months that I rode with Brisam in such in a position?
We clattered into the broken down courtyard of Ignit Covert. Tulin and Theodric dismounted while Argath tried to calm our nervous steed, letting the horse clack back and forth before the steps. Theodric pounded on the door. It was a goodly time before it opened. Old Tubor stood in the faint light of a single candle.
“The master is unwell,” he snapped.
“We are company of Theodric Vultuff of Gegar Red and his sister, Lady Hania Vultuff. We are desperate for shelter-”
“Lady Hania?” Tubor lifted his candle and squinted into the night.
Without waiting for a hand from Argath, I slipped from the saddle to the ground. Striding up the stairs, the light illuminated me. “Tubor, tell my brother we are staying here. The woods are too dangerous this night for us to remain exposed out there.”
I pushed the door open but Tubor shoved it back. Anger seared my brain at his presumption. Eyes flashing with indignation, I turned towards him but found his expression strange. He was frightened but not of me. I shouldered the door open and the rickety old man fell back into the wall. Something was wrong with Haneric.
“Where is my brother?” I demanded.
Tubor lifted a bony hand towards the great hall. Marching past the stripped walls of my former home, I entered the hall. A weak fire burned at the end of it. As I neared the hearth, I noticed a body on the bear rug before the flames. Empty bottles of liquor were strewn around him. He was naked from the waist up with a soiled woolen blanket draped over him. Drunk asleep. It seemed my mother's curse had been passed down to Haneric.
“Let him be,” Theodric chuckled behind me. “Let him sleep it off.”
Bitterness festered in my heart. It was offensive, embarrassing to see the last of my father's line so ragged and shameful. I kicked him sharply in the ribs and he jolted awake with a gasp. “Get up. Your sister is here.”ns 184.108.40.206da2