An evening storm swept in with the barge carrying my husband's body. It had been an unseasonably hot day for autumn. We spotted the bulbous clouds, black like infected boils, as the sails of the ship on the lake came into view. From the turrets of the castle, we could see to the other side of the bottomless mountain lake. But not on that gray day. I waited by the stained glass window in the chapel as the vessel crept closer, my view glowing red and green with the colored glass.
Sidimund had left for the royal court at Primiad a month earlier to pay homage to our king. The week before we received news that an outbreak of the Iron Scourge had occurred and Sidimund was quarantined within the city limits.
Perhaps the ship was bringing him home. But Sidimund would never travel home by water when he could go by land. My husband couldn't swim. He was terrified of drowning.
I jolted from my thoughts and glanced over towards the door of the chapel. It was my husband's squire, Brisam Teim, a man who was my age but seemed so much younger. The weak light slanted through the window behind me, tinting Brisam's rosy cheeks blue. Like a corpse.
I gripped the edges of my cloak to keep my hands from trembling. “Brisam, I wasn't expecting you from my mother's estate for several days. At least not until she sent you to fetch-”
“Mistress, I am afraid I bear...ill news.” He had not shaved in several days, stubble shading his dimpled chin. His leather jerkin and chain mail battle dress made him look more mature than usual. “Your mother was visiting King Ervig's court when the outbreak happened. Her servants received word...she died.”
The words passed through me like water. I took a small step back. “Very well. Thank you, Brisam. Send someone for me when the ship grows near.”
Brisam wet his lips as though he were about to speak. I turned away before he could. I didn't want to hear hollow words of comfort. I needed solitude. His armored boots clicked as he strode away, leaving me alone in the sanctuary.
Sinking in front of the altar, I peered up at the red candles burning beside the idols of my husband's family gods. The three dieties who watched over the house of Vultuff peered down from the wall, rich oaken effigies soaked in the glow. The air was stifling.
I folded my hands to pray for my mother's soul, that the gods would show mercy on her and bring her to their halls of blue sky and fresh rain. The golden eyed, fertility goddess Masra would certainly want my mother for her midwifery skills. If I prayed hard enough, perhaps my mother's spirit would sit with my daughter Emalia when she grew up to birth her children.
But I didn't want Emalia anywhere near that woman, in life or death.
“Thank you. Thank you for taking her.” I broke down, relief flooding my being.
She was gone. My mother. I wanted to dance a jig on her grave. I wanted to laugh, so I did and the blasphemous sound bounced off the pillars. I laughed till I cried and praised the gods for killing my mother. My hand went to my neck where my family pendants lay, emblems of my young life before I had been shipped off to Vultuff's Highfire estate to be wed.
There were two, one for my father and one for my mother. With no more ties to my mother's side, her pendant's protective powers were useless. The delicate chain snapped as I tore it off. Rising on weak knees, I wiped my eyes as I walked over to the window. I unhooked the iron latch and dropped the necklace down into the mountain chasm below.
Peering around the edge of a gargoyle's snarling mug, I caught sight of the ship. It was almost to the dock outside Highfire. Emalia was playing by the water, her nursemaid's skirts whipped by the brewing tempest.
From what I could spy, the deck of the ship was vacant of Sidimund. However, if he were alive, my husband would most likely be below deck. But the burgeoning hope for another round of good news bubbled in my heart. Picking up my skirts and covering my dark head with the hood of my cloak, I swiftly tread from the chapel. My foot was lighter than it had been in seven years.
Seven years I had been Sidimund Vultuff's wife, sold in marriage when I was only thirteen by my scheming mother who sacrificed me to pay her debts following my father's unexpected death.
Seven years as the last wife to an old man who had been married twice before. The second having died under mysterious circumstances.
But I had outlived the Lord of Highfire. And if my prayers were answered, I would become the sole heir of the estate just as Sidimund had promised me.
I met Brisam on the twisting staircase of the turret. Breathless and red faced, I hoped he would believe me to be in mourning for my mother. He pursed his lips and nodded his curly head at the sight of me in respect. The pity in his honest gaze would have stung if I wasn't dizzy with this new freedom.
“The ship is being moored, my lady.”
“Very well, lead me to it. I am ready.”
I had been ready for seven years, I could only hope I wouldn't be let down.
Brisam lead me past the front gate of the castle. The bare yard leading down to the water was speckled with stray raindrops. Emalia's nursemaid picked up my squirming daughter and looked towards me for direction.
“Bring her inside.” I barked impatiently. Emalia whined but the nursemaid held her close as they raced the coming storm inside the safe walls of Highfire.
A gangplank slammed down on the stone dock. The dark water gushed over the blocks of the wharf and soaked my slippers. The few sailors manning the ship were desperately trying to pin down the sails as they rocked with wind. Brisam paused, peering up onto the deck.
“Wait here a moment, mistress. Let me go first and see-”
“No,” I shook my head violently and pushed past him, walking up towards the deck. “No, I will see for myself, Brisam.”
Striding onto the deck, the captain removed a soaked cap from his balding head. He bowed, his jaw slack and gaze wary. Hope swelled in me at the sight of his uncertainty. “Mistress Vultuff?”
“I am she.”
“My lady, I fear I bring ill news,” he echoed Brisam's sentiment from earlier. My heart burst against my breastbone. “Your husband is below deck. Well...his remains-”
A crack of thunder shuddered into my body. The sailors around me pulled their whittled idols from their pockets and prayed for deliverance. All while I was receiving mine. “Show me.”
The man blinked. “My lady?”
“Show me his body. I want to see for myself.”
“My lady, it's not for feminine eyes. The Iron Scourge is a horrible death.”
I strode towards the ladder leading down to the hold without waiting for his word. I had to see it for myself, the physical evidence of my salvation. Brisam called out my name but it was lost to the storm as it came to sit right over the estate and the vessel. The ship rolled heavily back and forth. I was knocked to the ground at the bottom of the ladder.
“Lady Hania, are you well?” Brisam called out as he climbed down after me.
Brushing my skirts of the lake water seeping in through the planks, I walked towards a black wood casket in the corner. It was sealed shut, as it was with Scourge bodies. Brisam and the captain came to stand beside me.
“Why didn't they burn him?” I spat.
The captain coughed into his fist. “It was the King's orders that visiting nobles and gentry be shipped home whole. So they could be interred without offending their family gods.”
According to my mother's correspondence, King Ervig was an idiot. Apparently this was true with him sending diseased bodies across Arven to appease spoiled nobles. The moron was the illegitimate son of the old king's brother, keeping with the family line. And holding the other bloodline from the throne. The one my father had been born from. Had he lived past his fortieth year, he could have become king.
Brisam strode forward and gripped my upper arms. His assertiveness surprised me. Brisam had always been weak willed around my husband. Sidimund's passing was freeing for more than just me. “Lady Hania, that will let the bad air from the body out in the open. We will all be infected.”
“That hasn't been proven true. I don't plan on kissing the man. I just need to know.”
Brisam sighed and glanced over at the white faced captain who was wringing his cap in wrinkled fingers. Brisam nodded, expression barely visible in the faint light of the swinging lanterns. The captain hesitated, shooting me a poisonous glare before inching towards the coffin. Picking up a discarding metal pick from nearby, the cover squeaked as he pried it open.
It shuddered away and broke in two pieces on the floor. The captain turned around and retched over the soaked floor. The acidic stench of the rotting flesh burned my nostrils. My senses filled with elation as I stepped closer to the coffin.
Bloated purple fingers, family rings barely visible underneath the swollen flesh. His hands were folded over his chain mail clad chest. The flesh on his neck had exploded, tendrils of useless veins curling around the rot. Coins covered his eyes. His face was distorted and green. I had heard the skin of all Scourge victims turned green right before death.
The ship bucked with a strong surge of water. The coffin tipped and my husband's body tumbled out. His body, soft with decomposition, mashed like ground apple into the captain's puddle of vomit. I jumped back as a trail of bile trickled down the planks.
An explosion on the deck above broke the horror of the moment. We all looked up and saw sparks descending. The mast creaked and broke, the force of the lightning strike tearing a hole in the prow. Before I could move, Brisam grabbed my shoulders.
“Quick, Lady Hania!” He shouted above the din and shoved me up the ladder.
I glanced down as my hands slipped on a rung. The hold was flooding, the captain screeching as he kicked away my husband's floating remains at the bottom of the ladder. When the three of us made it to the top, rain whipped my hood from my head. The ship had broken away from the wharf, waves crashing it away from shore. Men were throwing themselves into the water.
Brisam and I raced towards the head of the ship that faced the looming shadow of Highfire. He grabbed my waist and swept me up in his arms. “Lady, you must swim! Just as I showed you!”
The water was freezing. As deep as the lake was and as high up in the mountain where it lay, it never got warm even in high summer. A wave crashed into me as I came up gasping. Sputtering a lung full of air, I sank beneath the turbulant surface. In the muted peace underwater, I unhooked my cloak and kicked off my shoes.
A pair of arms pulled me up and hooked under my armpits. Gargling the frigid current and desperately swiping the pelting rain from my eyes, I looked over to see Brisam. He had shed his chain mail before following me into the water.
We reached the wharf. Brisam hauled me up from the lake and we collapsed onto the stones, coughing up puddles. The storm was moving north over the mountain, the rain letting up. I sat up and peered across the water towards the ship. The mast was still burning as it floundered, the remaining men swimming hard for shore. I was thankful to see the captain among them.
“His older brother drowned when he was a toddler in this lake. That's why Sidimund never learned to swim. He told me he was afraid of ending up at the bottom of it.” I stated calmly as the ship disappeared.
Brisam sat up beside me, perching his arms on his knees and hanging his head. “I am so sorry, my lady.”
“His soul will not go to rest with his family now, not without his body in the crypt.”
“I don't know what to say.”
I lifted my face towards the dusting rain. “Please don't say anything, Brisam. You'll spoil the moment.”
Laughter filled me again and I obeyed until my sides hurt. The men of the ship and Brisam stared down at me dumbly, whispering of madness. I wondered if I had gone mad. I wondered if joy could drive a person insane as easily as grief. Or hatred.
All I knew was that in one day, seven years worth of prayers had been answered.ns18.104.22.168da2