The cold reflection of the white sun wrinkled on the steely waters of the lake. It was still early as we rode up on our separate horses into the estate. I had insisted that it would set tongues to wagging if we arrived on one, even if I was spent. Brisam hadn't argued, rather patted my knee after helping me onto my steed and quietly got back onto his horse.
We both knew that whatever game we were playing, it would have to be kept a dead secret. If any knew of my interactions with the squire of my recently dead husband, the scandal would certainly reach Primiad. I would stain my father's and late husband's names. I owed Sidimund nothing whether he was dead or alive, but my own honor was important to me. It was the one thing no one would ever be able to take from me.
We trotted into the courtyard and up into the stables. My knees wobbled as I dropped to the ground. Though I had slept a few hours in Brisam's arms, I was still weak. The feeling frightened me. I had gone days with little food or sleep before when Dylene's feast days were celebrated in the new year but never had I felt so sickly. I could only assume it was due to the tiresome past few days.
“I'm going to rest,” I strode over to Brisam as he was taking the saddle from his horse. The servants were tending mine, swiftly going about their work on the other side of the stable. He gave me a quick, weary smile. He needed sleep as much as I did. “Please tell me you are going to your chambers for a few hours as well?”
“Yes, mistress. I don't have your stamina. If I go much longer without sleep, I will most likely fall down dead.” He smirked, taking his riding gloves off and tucking them in his leather doublet.
I gave him a subdued smile and glanced over my shoulder. There was only one stable boy left mucking out a stall. I stepped forward and laid my hand over his where it rested on the gate. He gripped my fingers and in a swift motion, brought them to his mouth and kissed my palm. I shivered, unwilling to let any see us but relishing his touch too much to let go.
“Sleep well,” he loosed me but did not look away.
I rubbed my hands over my face and down my stiff neck, squinting in the raw daylight. As I entered the castle through the kitchen, I picked up an apple and a dry piece of bread. I had finished them both by the time I ran into Emalia and her nursemaid in the great hall. Emalia was playing with my husband's hounds by the fire, combing their wiry fur and singing to them softly while her nurse mended in a chair nearby.
“My lady!” The nurse called out.
Her name was Estra but it usually escaped me. She was new to the estate after Emalia's old nurse, a woman who had raised most of the babies of the Vultuff family, had died a year earlier. My husband had chosen this girl especially. With golden red hair and eyes like gooseberries, I had known immediately why. She kept his bed warm for me though so I only had to visit his chambers every once in a while. If anything I was indebted to her for keeping the man busy in his last months of life.
“Yes?” I tossed the apple rind into the fire and brushing off my hands.
“My lady, may I speak to you in private?” Estra eyed Emalia who was still preoccupied with the dogs.
I nodded and she drew me aside, wringing her freckled hands. I had no patience for a nervous servant girl. “Well, what is it?”
“The young mistress, she is asking for her father.”
My stomach dropped. I hadn't told her yet of Sidimund's death. For all his faults, Sidimund had doted on the young girl. Though his initial reaction to her birth was disappointment as she was female, he had quickly been won over by her easy smiles and gentle nature. In my opinion, he had spoiled her but I didn't argue. My own father had treated me similarly. Seeing them together had hurt me deeper than I ever told.
“My lady?” Estra broke me from my thoughts.
“Yes. I will speak with her. Thank you, Estra.” I strode over to the fire, holding my hands at my waist.
Emalia looked up to see me approaching and leaped to her feet. She gave a clumsy curtsy, her eyes hungry for attention. “Lady mother.”
Motherhood would not have been my path if I had been given the choice. Learning to love the little creature that had almost torn my body apart had been a challenge. I did care for my daughter but as she grew older, I became more concerned with her well-being rather than making sure her feelings were coddled. Our world was ruthless to women, old and young. I wanted to raise her to a woman who could hold her own even while her fate was being decided by others.
“Your father...” I held my head high and looked past her eager face into the fire, desperate to gather my thoughts.
“Papa said he would return soon. And that next time he will bring me to Primiad. I want to see the palace-” Emalia rambled.
“Your father will be a little longer.” I cut her off short, unsure of how to gently break the news.
Her expression fell. Nodding, she rested a hand on a dog as it sat up next to her. “Oh. The ship didn't bring him?”
I hated lying to her but it had to be done for now. “No.”
Emalia sighed and peered back up at me. “Please tell him I must see him as soon as he comes home.”
Giving a weak smile, I turned and walked out of the hall. The conversation had taken the last of my energy. My limbs were tingling by the time I made it to my rooms. I barely made it out of my gown and boots before collapsing in my shift onto the bed.
A light knock at my door roused me. The windows were black with night. I had slept most of the day and still felt weak. Head spinning, I picked up a pelt of wolf fur at the end of my bed and stumbled into the solar. I pulled my mussed braid over my shoulder and tugged open the door. In the light of the torches outside my door, Brisam's face came into view.
“I am sorry to disturb you, my lady,” he apologized formally with a short bow.
I shook my head, unable to tear my eyes from him. My heart pounded at the thought that I could invite him into my room under the pretense of business. No one would question that as long as we weren't long. “No matter. Come in.”
Brisam hesitated, glanced both ways down the hall to make sure we were alone. As I closed the door, he moved towards the hearth. Tossing kindling on the dying flames, he crossed his arms over his chest and swivled towards me, his brow furrowed in thought.
“What is it?”
Brisam jutted out his scruffy jaw. “A man, Argath Mercer, he arrived late this afternoon from Theodric Vultuff's estate. He brought with him Sidimund's will and is acting as executor of the estate.”
I scoffed, striding forward to the fireplace. “But that's ridiculous. Sidimund kept all his important papers here in his study. His will would certainly be there and be read aloud by the head Priest of the Vultuff family. It's the way its always been done.”
“It seems that Sidimund had other plans.”
My pulse picked up. I breathed deeply to quell the panic in my veins. Sidimund had told me himself that I would be cared for if he were to die. But this secret will left me questioning that promise. Sidimund liked to make things easier for himself by glossing over the truth with a handsome smile. I detested his charm and he never understood why I had never fallen for it.
I paced away towards the table at the center of the solar and poured myself a glass of red wine. Taking a strong pull from the goblet, my hands began to steady. I inhaled and closed my eyes. Brisam approached from behind. A hand wrapped around my hip and he brushed aside the stray strands of dark hair at my neck.
“I am certain it is only a formality, love.” He pulled me to him, his figure steady and sure. But my mind was elsewhere. Even as he brushed his mouth over the hollow behind my ear, his breath warm down my neck.
“I must see him tonight. Summon Argath to the study, it will be read as soon as possible.” I pulled away from him and marched towards my bedchamber.
Brisam followed shaking his black curls. He paused in the doorway. “It is near midnight-”
“I don't care,” I barked, brushing out my black linen dress and pulling it over my head. “I won't sleep otherwise. I must know what Sidimund has fated me with, fated his own daughter to- gods! Why can't I get-” I fought with the laces on the back of my dress.
Calmly, Brisam walked forward and settled my hands at my sides. Turning me around, he cinched up the back of my dress. “Very well, I will seek him out.”
“Call on Estra to attend as a witness. As she is Emalia's caretaker, she should know what is to become of us."
My nerves steadied with his touch as he pulled me to his chest in a firm embrace. I buried my face in the crook of his shoulder, absorbing the warm scent of oiled leather.467Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡw21wFDxlfP
Brisam drew back and cradled my face in his hands. “Please don't fret, Hania. Whatever that paper says, I'm sure Sidimund will not leave you bereft. He was not that kind of man.”
“You didn't know him the way I did.” I shivered.
I shut out the shameful memories of Sidimund's hands on my young body. He hadn't cared how his actions would effect me then as long as he got what he wanted. Sidimund was fair with all the men in his world so his reputation was spotless. But women were entertaining play things, whether it was sleeping with his thirteen year old wife or spoiling his daughter.
Brisam brought me back to the present as he pressed his lips to my forehead. I gripped his wrists and prayed our small heaven wouldn't be destroyed in one night. Dylene would not be so cruel as to deny me a little happiness.
“I will meet you in the study in the next hour. I can only hope Argath won't be ill tempered for being awoken in the middle of the night.” He winked at me and strode from the room.
After he closed the door, I dropped to my knees and clasped my hands to my chest.
Dylene, gentle mother of the lake, hear my prayer and show mercy. Your daughter desires your protection. Fend off the wolves, strike back any threat.
The fire popped, wind howling down the chimney from across the lake like a benediction. As long as Dylene heard me, I would be spared whatever lay in that will. Feeling peace rush over me, I know it was in her hands. I was the beloved daughter of the goddess. She would never leave me bereft. I would never be abandoned by her.467Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡKoWjhVqYRfns188.8.131.52da2