When Theodric arrived home a few weeks later, I didn't leave my tower room to greet him. I had relocated to my original quarters. Though it had felt like a prison when I had first arrived, the tower now suited me.
I pierced the cloth in the hoop and drew it through, the thread red and creating a vein of crimson across the field of white. Roses in bloom, my father's garden in summer, bled across gray stone. The bear of Theodric's mother was still standing on it's hind feet and batting at the sun. I tore the string with my teeth and glanced out of window.
Winter was waning. Spidery trails of sharp pain erupted across my belly when I moved, the muscles and ligaments straining as my son grew. A few times in the past couple days, my belly had cramped up in preparation for when labor would begin. Teàrlag would click her tongue, measuring my growth with her expert eye.
That was all I could get from her. Soon I would hold my son as Estra held her two babes. The boy was small and dark with otter eyes that gaped out at the world. He was quieter and more comfortable sitting in Emalia's arms at the window. The girl was a whirlwind. Estra was constantly pacing her room, cooing and singing to calm the child. I had given her a break several times, carrying discontent Riona down to the courtyard and letting her gaze up at the falling snow. The fresh air calmed her almost instantly every time, her bone white head completely clean of hair.
“She likes you,” Estra would grumble as I brought her Riona, quiet and sleeping.
Emalia watched me with wide eyes as I would hold the baby. She'd clutch baby Ebben to her and whisper more to comfort herself than him. A prick of guilt left me breathless at her turned back. I knew what she was wondering, if I had ever held her so tenderly and introduced her to the brisk winter wind.
I had rarely cuddled Emalia when she was a baby. It had taken me months to look at her, my bruised body still recovering from the difficult birth. She had scared me more than anything, even Sidimund. At fourteen, I had very little to recommend me as a mother. And the threat of loss loomed so close, especially after she had been born blue with the cord around her delicate neck. Attachment to my daughter had felt as dangerous as making friends with an asp.
Now a child of nearly seven, I regretting holding her at a distance out of self preservation for all those years. Her eyes spoke of my selfishness. Terror struck me that she would see me the way I saw my own mother.
“Lady Hania,” Estra spoke from my doorway.
Breaking out of my thoughts, I glanced over at her. Even after days of little sleep, she was still lovely. In a frail, gentle way, her beauty wasn't immeadiate apparent. Slim nose and thin lipped with eyes like plates, the shadows in the hollows of her cheeks showed her wear. Her thick strawberry braid tumbled over her shoulder as she entered the room.
“Lord Theodric has returned. He is requesting your presence,” she commented coming alongside me and peering down at the needlework. “This is lovely.”
“It passes the time.” I brushed the wrinkles out of my forest green skirts as I rose.
“He is asking about your health.”
Gritting my teeth, I neatened my veil around my chin. “How gallant.”
Estra sighed, tapping her slender fingers on the stone window sill. “My lady, may I be so bold as to suggest you give him a chance to apologize. He couldn't have known that Tulin Odovacar would be so vicious as to make an attempt on your life here at Gegar Red.”
“He knew the man was in the palm of the Vittamars even as he stood as our own ally. He played both sides of the fence and Theodric ignored that danger.” I strode towards the door. Pausing at the threshold I peered over my shoulder at her. “Why are you concerned for him? Is it because of his taking part in the birth of your children?”
She shifted uncomfortably under my stern gaze. If she were stupid enough to become the devoted mistress to Theodric as she was to my husband, it could prove to be a weakness. Estra lived with her heart, guileless in all her relationships. If she had a keen mind for plotting, I would have encouraged her to sleep with my husband's son, the man who could still potentially be my groom come spring. But Estra's loyalties would fall with him entirely.
Theodric's conduct with Tulin left me unsure of him. Either he was gullible or he wasn't all he claimed to be, an ambitious Kingmaker for the Sigsar line to the throne. I had no way of knowing his business dealings at court and it was a maddening variable.
I didn't respond to her silence but left her standing by the window, the light giving her bright hair a halo. My stride had turned to a waddle over the last few days. One hand on my back and the other under my protruding middle, I heard Emalia's tingling bell of laughter through the hall. It was coming from Estra's room.
Hesitating at the doorway, I watched Emalia clap her hands as Theodric held up baby Riona, his profile to me. Screwing his features into grotesque poses, the baby furrowed her brow as she struggled to focus. Emalia squealed as Riona cooed. No wonder he had won over Estra, he was a natural with her children as he was with mine. I wasn't so easily convinced.
“Emalia, shouldn't you be getting ready for a wash?” I broke the moment.
Emalia's shoulders fell as she remembered, her curls lank since her last bath. I jerked my chin towards the door, patting her shoulder awkwardly as she passed me. Theodric had his back to the door as he gently placed Riona back into the cradle next to her sleeping brother.
As he turned his face to me, I stared back in shock. No one had told me he had been wounded during the attack that killed Odovacar. A thick red scar ran down the side of his face, a smaller one along the edge of his jaw. It was a wonder he hadn't been blinded.
His hand went to the mark and he gave a weak smile. “It still hasn't faded. Though Teàrlag said it would in time.”
When he didn't smile, the weariness in his eyes and now the scars on his face made him look more like a knavish highwayman than a noble. I supposed it was to be expected in a noble that could change his shape into a bear.
“Before you tell me what you called me here for, I wanted to ask,” I started, wobbling towards a nearby chair and sinking into it to give my back a rest, “Argath said you would have to be the one to tell me how you came into the Changing, how the Vultuff line is now under that spell including my son.”
Theodric bit his bottom lip and leaned against the edge of a rich, wooden table. With his free foot, he rocked the cradle where the babies slept. “A vengeful Tormod cursed me while I was hunting as a young man, I was only seventeen.”
“What did you do to earn his vengeance?”
“I attacked him, shot an arrow in his direction. Unfortunately I missed. If I hadn't, I would be your husband to this day and my father never would have taken you as his own bride.”
A log cracked in a spray of sparks on the fire. I jumped at the sound and rubbed my arms. “Why do you say that?”
“When it became apparent that I was...forever changed...Sidimund saw me as damaged goods and changed the particulars of our engagement. He betrothed himself to you and sent me to live at Gegar Red with Argath as my caretaker. I guess he assumed I would eventually run mad as most men who were not of Tormod blood did under the Changing. But thankfully, I had Argath.”
“And Argath has the gift.”
“Yes, he taught me how to use as a strength. And I was happy here, ready to live my days as master of my own estate and far from the serpents at court. Until the day the will was read.”
I rose, holding out my chilled hands to the fire. My head spun with paths of what could have been had he never been cursed. No one had ever told me why my betrothal to him had been broken. Now I knew why Sidimund had kept it secret.
“My lady,” Theodric stated, drawing close to me, “I wanted to make sure you knew I never meant for Tulin Odovacar to harm you.”
Pressing a protective hand over my belly, I leveled him with a glare. “You expect me to trust you with the welfare of my son, to get him onto the throne. And here I am, poisoned under your own roof by our enemies-”
“I- I know you are mad,” Theodric reached out and grasped my hands, his eyes round with pleading, “but you must know I will do everything I am able to keep you and your children safe.”
“Even betrothing my daughter to the son of a family as vicious as the Vittamars?”
“Yes!” He exclaimed with a breathy laugh. “You must see that I care for your daughter as though she were my own. Such an arrangement wouldn't come to be until she is eighteen and the boy is seventeen. Though with the son you are certain you carry, she won't have to worry about that at all.”
I relaxed. He seemed so sure of himself. So much so that he would make a marriage pact with the Vittamars all the while knowing he would break it. At least it would buy us some time for my son to grow up a little before we made our play for the throne. So many years though, so much could happen between now and then.
A cough came from the doorway. Argath stood with his ramrod posture and harsh gaze, his heavy lidded eyes fixed on Theodric. My face flushed and I pulled my hands from Theodric's grasp. Theodric perched his fists on his hips.
“My lord, there is a matter that requires your immediate attention,” Argath rumbled in his deep bass.
Theodric turned to me and met my eyes. “Please don't concern yourself with these matters for now. Wait until after you have given birth, then we will discuss these things in deeper detail.”
Theodric strode towards Argath, clapping him on the shoulder before turning the corner. Argath still didn't acknowledge me or even meet my eyes as he turned to leave. I took a step towards him.
“Squire,” I called out formally.
I only had seen him in passing since I had woken from the poison's grasp. We hadn't spoke at all. I shifted on my feet, wringing my hands over my belly, unsure of how to tell him that I missed his company.
“My lady,” he clipped, giving a curt bow.
I moved towards him and he stopped from turning to leave. “I haven't seen much of you in days.”
“We both have had much to occupy ourselves.”
“I just-” I forced a smile, “I didn't want our last conversation to make you uncomfortable around me-”
“Not uncomfortable, my lady.” He met my eyes, his mouth a harsh line. “Only concerned.”
I scoffed, “Concerned? Why?”
“You need to learn now how to stand on your own. When I first saw you all those months ago at the will reading, you were with another man. Your husband's squire, the one who was killed.”
“Brisam Teim, yes. What of it.” I snapped.
He inhaled through his nose and cut his gaze over my shoulder. “You have always had someone at your shoulder. I have merely come to take his place. But as with him, you cannot learn to depend on that. I could be gone tomorrow and then where would you be?”
“I'm not desperate for you, if that is what you are implying-”
“Of course not. But if you are going to make a play for the throne with Lord Theodric, you can only depend on yourself, your own wits. I would only be a burden to you and keep you from your destiny.”
I retreated a step, quelling the sting of rejection. I lifted my chin. “Very well. So be it. You may leave.”
Argath looked up at me briefly, wetting his lips as though he were to speak again. A sharp cry came from the cradle, Riona waking and perturbed with the lack of attention to her person. I pivoted and walked towards the cradle, picking up the baby. His heels clapped against the stones as he gave me a rough bow and strode away. A mettalic ting followed his retreating footsteps.
Holding Riona to my shoulder, I peered over towards where Argath had stood. A gleam of a coin laid on the threshold. Squinting, I patted Riona's back and shushed her as I walked towards it. I knelt down, studying the worn circle of iron. I picked it up.
The well worn edges were familiar, rubbed in fervent prayer. My heart burst in my chest as I turned it over in my fingers, Riona's weeping reaching a frenzied howl. My father's prayer pendant, the one I had given Brisam before he had left for Gegar Red. A smear of red stained it. His blood. His death marked it and the one who had it in their possession. It had been with Argath all along.ns 188.8.131.52da2