One evening, they forgot to lock the door to my tower room. Or perhaps it had been done on purpose, I wasn't sure. As promised, I was only kept cloistered in my room during the day. But every night, the key clicked shut while I was at prayers or sewing my time away by the window, finishing the embroidery that Theodric's mother had begun many years earlier.
My stomach growled. Though I hadn't fasted since that day Argath had reprimanded me, I was growing hungrier as the babe grew inside me. An intense longing for venison jerky filled me. I was only glad my craving was for something I could obtain. Especially now with the door unlocked.
I threw a sleeveless, green linen robe over my shift, the edges trimmed in rabbit fur. Tossing my heavy braid over my shoulder, I approached the door. The howls I had heard my first night at Gegar Red had not occurred again for some time. But those monstrous figures in the moonlight still haunted my waking thoughts.
The babe kicked and my appetite spiked, stomach clenched in hunger. Perhaps if I were only a few minutes from my room, it was still early in the evening. There was a chance the beasts in the men had not yet awoken.
Snapping back the bar over the inside of the door, I peeked down the silent curve of the stone stairs. The torches in the sconces on the walls had been doused. A snowy wind blew against the tower, whistling through the cracks in the stones. The storm was picking up strength. Even if there was a bear roaming the woods outside, I would never be able to hear it over the gale.
Retrieving the rushlight from beside my bed, I tip toed down the tower steps. The halls were dark. My brother had been bed ridden for days but seemed to be getting better. The door to his room was shut but golden firelight peeked out from under it. I drifted past it, careful to keep my footsteps light.
The great hall was dark except for the glowing embers of a dying fire in the hearth. A small archway in the corner led down to what I assumed were the kitchens. I drifted down them, peering around the edge of the wall to make sure I was alone. From what I could tell, there were no servants there. Theodric kept a small household so it was rare I ran into one.
I entered the warmly lit scullery, the log in the roaring fire popped with heat. It sent sparks onto the hearth stones. A fire was also burning in the oven, the aroma of freshly baked bread filled the room. The golden loaf was steaming in the middle of a sturdy table before the hearth, a bowl of dried meat sitting next to it. A canter of watered mead caught the gleam of my candle as I set it down next to it.
My stomach lurched at the smell, hunger pains striking like iron to anvil inside me. I couldn't wait till I was back in my room. I snagged a knife from nearby and cut into the bread. Picking up the crumbling slice with a ragged strip of venison, I sat down by the fire to eat.
I was about to slice another piece of bread when a rumbling vibrated through the door leading to the courtyard outside. I froze, hands hovering over the table. It could only be the storm outside. Another rumble and then a throaty growl. I couldn't move.
Scratching at the flagstones outside, claws scraping the icy rock. Then a knock. I scoffed despite my terror. Three sharp taps like a man rapping a cane against the wood. It was such a human sound, it left me puzzled. Three more knocks. My curiosity over rode my terror.
Grasping the bread knife at my side, I edged towards the door. The iron ring was freezing under my fingers as I tugged the door open. Peeking out into the dark, I sensed a looming mass huffing with cold. Hot breaths rose in the frigid air as snow whipped around the heaving body. A huge head lifted, golden eyes shining out in the half light. The scream rose from my gut but was stopped short as the bear studied me, cocking it's head to the side. Such a human gensture.
“Please, open the door, Lady Hania. The snow is brutal out here.” A rough growl formed words and left me dumbfounded. I gaped back at the talking bear. It grunted and nudged the door. “Please.”
I opened the door and the beast lumbered into the room, it's black fur caked with ice. Rolls of snow were balled up around it's paws and thick neck. It shook it's head, droplets scattering across my face, stirring me from my spell. I closed the door to the night and pressed my back against it, my knuckles white as I clenched the knife.
The bear shook it's fur again, pacing in front of the hearth. It grunted and shook. I blinked. The fur was smoothing out to skin, muscles shrinking, paws melding to human hands and feet. Snow dripped into puddles around him as Theodric's huntsman took shape. Where a bear had stood moments before, now Éibhear huffed, naked and trembling. His thick red locks were plastered wet to his bare shoulders. He sank to the floor, his breathing hard with the exertion of the moment.
“My lady, it is cold,” he panted.
My eyes snapped over to a heavy woolen blanket on the table that I had overlooked. A neat pile of clothes were laid out on the chair beside it. I shook out the blanket and laid it over his shaking shoulders, turning my back out of decency. Fiddling with the knife in my hands, I heard him struggle to his feet and dress in the loose, white tunic and trousers.
Bare feet slapped the stone floor towards the table. I turned to find him sitting crossed legged in front of the fire and devouring what was left of the bread, a tankard of mead at his side. My mind reeled. Only moments before he had been a beast and now looked more like a starving child, crumbs littering his full beard.
“I know this all must be so strange to you. Its funny for me to think of that now, how the Changing can look to someone who has never seen it,” he mumbled out the side of his mouth. Éibhear swallowed and smirked up at me, his blue eyes twinkling with memory. “I recall the first time I saw it. I thought I was dreaming.”
“Can you tell me about it?”
His gaze shot down to my hands. He chuckled. “Only if you will disarm yourself, Lady Hania.”
I flushed red, glancing down at the bread knife still clutched tight in my hand. Not much good it would have done me against a real beast. It was dull as chalk. I set it down on the table, wringing my hands together as I edged towards the fire.
Éibhear motioned to the chair. “Please seat. You look tired.”
I obeyed in a daze. “When did you first see it? When you were a child among your people?”
“Yes, a summer night. It had been hot that day and I had gone swimming. The air was so heavy, my hair was still damp from the stream. We lived north of here, on the border between the forest and the base of the mountains. I wasn't sleeping as I should have been but looking out the window of my loft at the stars. The summer constellations are my favorite.” He smiled to himself at the memory. “My sister was asleep though. She was always so good. My parents' favorite and I couldn't blame them-”
“Where is she now? Your sister?”
Éibhear met my eyes thoughtfully. His lips parted as though he were about to tell me but he shrugged off the notion. “It doesn't matter. Anyway, I heard rustling in the wood. The moon was full and gave enough light for me to see. It was a bear but unlike any I had seen before. In it's jowls it carried a rabbit carcass. The earth shook as it moved. It came into the clearing before our cottage and...well, changed. The bear became man. It was then I noticed a change of clothes sitting outside our front door. The man dressed and opened the door of the cottage. I scooted over to look down below and saw my father greeting Argath.”
“When did you first change?” I shifted in my seat, stiff from sitting captivated by his story.
“When I was thirteen. Its common for Tormod families with the gift. The men who inherited it come into the ability along with their voice growing deeper and beard growing fuller. Its as natural for us as the changing of the seasons.”
He rose to his feet and retrieved a pipe sitting on the mantel. He lit it and blew a perfect ring that hover up towards the dried herbs hanging over our heads. Éibhear held out the tankard towards me but I declined. I wasn't hungry or thirsty anymore. Fascination had driven those impulses far from my mind.
“When you change, does it hurt?”
He shook his head, damp hair steaming with the heat from the fire. “Not at all, my lady.”
“What is it like then?”
“Like breathing, eating. Like your heart beating but you don't have to think about it for it to happen.” He smiled, the apples of cheeks gleaming pink with warmth. “Though when I am in the bear body, I feel a richer man than when I am only the Tormod huntsman of Theodric Vultuff.”
The door creaked open to the outside and Tubor bustled inside, shivering violently. I guessed he had been out finishing the last of his chores in the stables. Remembering I was still dressed in my night shift and robe, I rose to my feet.
“I must bid you good night then, Éibhear.” I nodded a farewell to Tubor and moved towards the stairs to the great hall. “Where is Argath, by the way? Has he returned from...his own excursions?” I could only assume he was still lumbering about in the forest, leaving clawed tracks and hunting rabbits as he had when Éibhear was a boy.
“He is on an errand to Primiad. He received word from Theodric to join him there. I'm sure he will be back by tomorrow evening.”
I nodded slightly and walked back up towards my tower. My conversation with Argath from the other day resurfaced. If the Changing was as easy for those born with the gift as Éibhear said, certainly it wouldn't hold my son back from his destiny. If anything it would be a strength, just as Argath had predicted. I could only pray to Dylene that he would return with good news from the royal court concerning the future of the bear king growing in my womb.ns 188.8.131.52da2