“He's feverish,” Tulin explained where we stood at my brother's bedside, “it looks like something more than the after pains of a night of drinking.”
I took a step back. “It's not the plague, is it?”
“No, no. He would be stiff as a board. The body seizes up like a day old corpse. Thus why it's called the Iron Plague.” Tulin reached out and picked up a flimsy arm, it wobbled as he dropped it back onto the bed. He nodded towards me with confidence. “Thats the primary test for diagnosing plague in a person.”
I sighed through my nose, pressing a hand to my belly as the babe hopped against my skin. Hiccups. Emalia had never had them while she was in my womb. I brushed aside the distraction and turned once more on my brother. “What is it then?”
“From what I can tell, it seems to be pnuemonia. Fever, chills, hard breathing-”
Haneric let out a racking cough, his frail form tensing from the violence of it. I pursed my lips and wrapped my arms around myself. The room was freezing, only a weak fire burned in the bed chamber. Ignit Covert had always been cold in the winter but without proper wood supplies and tapestries to help keep it warm, it would become Haneric's tomb by spring.
Theodric cleared his throat. “A journey to Highfire would be too difficult for him right now but I left Gegar Red in fine condition. He would have food and warmth and servants.”
“He needs someone to watch him,” I murmured, gnawing on my bottom lip, “when a person needs to keep from drinking heavily, it usually takes a few others to help them.”
My mother had frequently tried to rid herself of her thirst. It was never fully successful but the few times she had come close, we had been by her side through the worst of it.
“Would you like to accompany him there, my lady?” Theodric asked, coming alongside me.
The question sank into my gut. No, I did not want to accompany him. Haneric had gotten himself into this mess, it wasn't mine to clean up. We all had to learn to stand alone at some point in life. He had failed at his first test and without any excuse. I needed to travel on to Primiad and pave the way for my son's ascent to power, make my presence known.
“This winter is proving more harsh than we expected when we set out. The road to the royal court will be hard. But we still need your presence at Primiad if you are willing, my lady,” Tulin moved next to me and nudged my elbow. “That is if you can bear to leave your brother.”
I pulled away with a huff. Pivoting on my heel, I turned my back on the shivering body of my brother, perspiration pearling on his broad forehead. I would not sacrifice my future for the sake of someone who was such a waste. Striding from the room and out into the drafty hall, I halted outside the door.
Closing my eyes, I drove back the sting of guilt. He was a grown man, not a little boy anymore. Not the child I would fish out of streams or rescue from tree tops. Spoiled and selfish, he was reaping the fruits of a life ill lived. When he had all the freedom he could hope for as the only son and heir to my father, he squandered his good fortune in being born male. And I hated him for it.
“Lady Hania,” a growl of a voice sounded behind me.
I jolted and peered over my shoulder. Argath Mercer moved from the shadows out into the frosty morning light spilling from a high window. His long strides reached me before I could skirt away, pretending I had not heard him. Despite him rescuing me the evening before, I was still not fond of his strange company.
“Yes?” I swallowed, folding my hands before me and lifting my chin.
“Your brother cannot be alone right now.”
I wondered at his arrogance in eavesdropping on the conversation at the door of the chamber. Gaping at him, I shook my head. “He is none of your concern, squire.”
Argath stood over me and furrowed his brow, leaving little space between us as he lowered his tone. “You are in danger as well if he does not get help, my lady. I implore you to send him to Gegar Red and accompany us there.”
“I will escort you. Lord Theodric has already spoken to me about it. Let he and Lord Odovacar continue to Primiad and when the babe is born, you go there in the spring. But for now, until you have your healthy child in your arms, I suggest you stay close to Highfire till we can get you back into the mountains.”
I shifted my weight on my feet and broke eye contact. “Is there something you know that I don't, squire?”
“I know that Tulin may only favor the side that looks to win the throne. Theodric can handle himself around the man. You can as well but in your condition, it would be best to wait and see if a son will be born and then keep him safe at Highfire until he is old enough to fend for himself.”
Wetting my lips, I clenched my hands into fists. “Odovacar is not to be trusted? Then why was he brought to Highfire?”
“We've only just received news of a deal he has with the Vittamars that puts you at great risk should you continue to Primiad. Believe me, we did not know of it until we had left the mountains otherwise we would not have had you travel with us.” He reached out and gripped my wrist without hesitation. His hold wasn't painful but firm enough to captivate my attention. “Please consider using this as a logical alibi to evade suspicion.”
“Why are you telling me this instead of Theodric-”
The men in the room were moving towards the door. We parted ways quickly. Argath threw his dark eyes to the floor. “He thought it wouldn't pique Odovacar's concern if it were me speaking with you instead of him in private.”
“Argath!” Tulin boomed behind me as they emerged. I shuddered at the sound but did not turn, my hands holding my belly as though my child were in my arms at that moment.
Argath gave him a tight smile and moved past me. Subtly, he brushed a steady hand against my trembling forearm. Strangely, I wasn't struck with the impulse to recoil. The men moved down the hall behind me, their conversation fading as they walked towards the great hall.
I returned to my brother's room. Standing beside the ragged bed, I stared down into his pale face. I didn't think I could ever have Haneric as an ally. His uses had always been few. But as a chance to save myself and my baby, he could prove useful.
Tentatively, I reached out for his hand. His skin was clammy. I gripped his fingers. My heart dropped as he weakly gripped back. I stood holding his hand as I had when we were children and knew I could not leave him.
Eyelids fluttering and squinting in the fresh light coming through the eastern window, he peered up at me. “Sister?”
“Hello Haneric.” I managed without expression.
“So it wasn't a dream.”
I shook my head. “You are in a bad way, brother.”
“I know.” Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes and I looked away, embarrassed by his weakness.
“You will have to prepare yourself for a journey. We are going to Gegar Red and you are going to get well again.”
He blinked up at me in surprise. “We?”
“Yes. We.” I smiled calmly. “And when you are well, you will do as I request. Understood?”
A strange twitch at his jaw preceded his answer. “As well as I am able, Hania.”ns 126.96.36.199da2