Lost among the crooked trees of the black forest, I stumbled over an exposed grave. Bones white and clean of flesh rolled in the rotting leaves. I regained my footing, squinting in the pale light of distant stars.
A hulking shape moved in the shadows.
Unable to move or scream, I stood motionless as the dark figure rose up on it's hind legs. It bounded over and I saw what it was; a massive animal. A demon bear with yellow eyes and claws that sliced through me. I was transparent as a ghost. But I still felt it's hot breath on my face.
I awoke as the flame of my candle was snuffed out, burnt down to a nub. The storm from earlier had passed but the wind gusted across the lake. High in the mountains, we were used to blustery nights.
I closed my eyes to sleep. I thought of my mother, green faced and breathless. Of my husband in his armor at the bottom of the lake.
Rising from my sheets in the dark, I swiftly dressed in a simple gown of black linen. Securing a white cap and veil over my thick, black braids, the stars gave as much light in my waking life as in my dreams to show me out of my solar and down the turret. Highfire was thankfully still sleeping. There were several more hours till the servants would rise in the gray light before dawn.
I picked up a rushlight at the entrance of the chapel and lit it by a torch in a sconce on the wall. I strode down the aisle with my eyes on the altar. Lighting the red offering candles underneath the idols, I knelt and folded my hands. The three Vultuff family gods peered over my head into the darkness.
The figure in the middle was Noar, the patron god of the Vultuff family since they settled in Highfire. Broad, rocky shoulders with ram's horns, he embodied wisdom and honesty. Dour with no use for nonsense, he looked out especially for the men of the family. I bowed my head in reverence and recited a chant out of obligation, fearful he was aware of the hatred in my heart towards the only Vultuff man I had ever known.
At Noar's right was his mother, Tila. Tila was similar to the mother goddess Masra that my mother had worshiped. She protected women with children. In one tale Sidimund had told me, Tila struck down a son who dared dishonor his mother with his words before the royal court. Her storms were as violent as the one from earlier that day. Perhaps the tempest had been sent by Tila as my punishment for reveling in my own mother's death. I uttered a short prayer of thanks and hoped she would take mercy on me as I too had a child.
My eyes traveled up to the final figure. Noar's wife, the dark eyed Dylene with her cloak of bear fur. She had been my safe place, the understanding spirit who dwelt in the deepest parts of Highfire's lake. The dream, the bear hunting me in the black wood, it had been a warning from her. I was certain. Dylene would never abandon me.
As a thirteen year old girl, I had stumbled to the altar in a similar position in the dark of the night. After my husband had come to me again, trying to beget a child in my young body, he had rolled over and fallen asleep in my bed. Too frightened to stay with him, I slept on the chapel flagstones.
Seven years ago, Dylene had revealed herself to me. Faint moonlight had shone through the stained glass and I saw her descend in a holy vision. The kind only childless Sisters saw in their cloisters.
An odd number of years will pass before the banished one will return. When the water freezes in the depths of winter, a new bond will bring forth a line of kings.
The words murmured by gentle eyed Dylene, tufts of willow tangled in her bedraggled hair, I clung to them like a lullaby. I chanted them to her, reminding her of her promise to me.
I had fasted until my ribs rippled over my torso. Until even Sidimund had grown fearful of my devotion to the goddess. I told him it wasn't anything he could understand. So he left me to my fanaticism. It was all I had to cling to, especially after Emalia was born.
Many a night, I had fallen asleep in frenzied prayer, my father's pendant rubbed smooth in my icy fingers. It was a comfort to awake and see Dylene's serene face gazing down at me. She was the kind of mother I had never known, the only good thing to happen to me at Highfire.
Close to dawn, I slumped over on the altar, exhausted by my restless night and the events of the previous day. My foggy thoughts in the early morning revolved around the blood sacrifice of a nanny goat, I needed to honor Dylene for holding her promise and only flesh on the fire would suffice.
Watery morning light washed over me. Boots behind me clapped on the granite. Drawing myself up from my knees, I turned to Brisam as he stopped next to me. Bowing his head in reverence towards the idols, he sought my bleary eyed gaze.
“Gods,” he muttered, running a hand over his face. “Did you sleep here again last night? You are going to catch your death.”
I smirked, blinking the dryness from my sight. “Dylene would never let that happen to a faithful daughter.”
“Lady Hania, breakfast has been prepared. I received word from your family's estate first thing today. They are burying your mother and request your presence. I fear we will have to eat swiftly and then be on our way.”
I had expected such formalities. I still didn't know what we were going to do with my husband's empty sepulcher. There was nothing to put in it. “My daughter will remain here at Highfire. The journey must be made quickly and she will only slow us down. Inform her nurse that they are only to consume bread and water and spend their time in prayer while I am gone. We all must seek guidance from the gods during this time.”
I stumbled as I stepped down from the altar. Brisam caught my elbow and steadied me. I could feel his eyes roving over my gaunt face, his mouth tight with concern. I never wanted to admit it but in the past couple years I had come to depend on the squire. It was he who had taught me to swim the summer before when my husband left for his yearly jaunt to court at Primiad. Truth be told, he had become the closest thing to a friend that I had at Highfire. Now after the shipwreck yesterday, it seemed I owed him my life.
He was trusting and fresh as springtime, expecting nothing but goodness from me. I could never understand why. A person of faith was viewed as a pure soul but I sought the goddess's absolution because I knew my sins all too well.
“Lady Hania, you are unwell. You must eat something, we don't have to rush-”
“Yes, we do. It's nearly a full day's ride to Ignit Covert from here.” I brushed his hands aside.
He followed me, running his agitated fingers through his black waves. “But first to the kitchen, a piece of bread won't offend Dylene, I promise.”
“It won't offend her but I don't need it,” I insisted sullenly, trotting down the stairs. “My faith will keep me satisfied, only prayer will give me what I need to see out this day.”
Brisam reached out and grasped my arm at the landing. I halted in my steps, shocked by his bold behavior. He had never been so untoward with me. I wrested my arm away and glared into his well meaning expression. He still looked like such a boy to me, the same grubby handed commoner who had arrived at Highfire the year after I was brought to the estate. He barely breathed around me those first years and now he was touching me without license.
“My lady, I fear for your health-”
“Keep your fears. I am not worried. Squire, you forget yourself. I am your mistress and you will treat me as such, not like your playmate you can manhandle. Or else I will see that you are sent from here. Do you understand?” My face burned as I spat the words. I swayed, feeling the weakness he feared come over me. Standing straight, I glared into his dour face.
Brisam's eyes cut down to the floor in submission. “Yes, my lady.”
"Very well. I will need my horse readied below. I am going to bid farewell to my daughter then we will leave for the Covert.”
Once I was out of his sight, I halted and pressed my back to the wall. The cool stones grounded me and the hall stopped rocking. Hands tingling, I rubbed my eyes till the spots went away. With a quick prayer to Dylene for strength, I strode towards Emalia's quarters.
The child was still sleeping. Her nurse carefully opened the door to the bed chamber. The little girl was curled up in a mess of linen and fur blankets, blonde curls splayed on her pillow. Emalia had always been small, even as an infant. It had been a blessing. Had she been any bigger, we both would have surely died in childbirth. It had been a traumatic enough birth with a baby who had arrived too early and breach.
I studied her, the steady draw of her breath, as I used to when she was an infant. Most mothers I knew had lost their children by this age. There was still a chance that a fever or an accident could send Emalia to the halls of our ancestors.
Cutting away from the bed, I gave my terse instruction for faithful piety during my absence to the nurse. I then left them without a word to my child.
As Brisam and I rode from the courtyard, my gaze drew up to the window of Emalia's chamber. I saw her little face in the glass pane beside her nurse. Emalia did not wave farewell to me. I turned my back on her and followed Brisam down the mountain road.ns 126.96.36.199da2