Argath Mercer was the squire to the old Lord Vultuff, Sidimund's father. Sidimund had grown up with him as a brother figure as they were only a few years apart in age. I had only met him once before when I first arrived at Highfire as a girl. Soon after, Sidimund sent Argath away to live with his only son on the estate Theodric had inherited from his childless uncle.
Trusted by all the men of the family, Argath was wary of those outside their immediate circle. Particularly the women who were married into the Vultuffs. It was whispered that Sidimund's second wife, who had died mysteriously, was poisoned by Argath at Sidimund's request. But she had died of childbed fever after giving birth to a stillborn baby so that could be a only rumor. However, it didn't make me any less wary around the man.
A fire roared in the study, a few rushlights on the circular table before it. Shadows shivered over the tomes chained to the shelves on the stone walls. The last time I had been in that room, my husband and I had spoken of the very same matter to be addressed that night. Word of an outbreak of the Iron Scourge had reached us and I had come unbidden to speak with him of the matter. Sidimund had eyed me from his high backed chair at the table, papers strewn with business matters before him.
If you fear my death, wife, don't. You will be taken care of properly, I have seen to it.
He had promised me twice and then kissed me. As many times before in the seven years we had been married, I'd closed my eyes and let him have me on that very table. Sidimund left for Primiad the next day and I never saw him alive again.
“Lady Hania.” A deep voice sounded from the window facing the lake.
Shuddering out of my thoughts, I peered through the darkness. Argath was not a large man but he moved as though he were a foot taller with long, silent strides. His silvery black hair was pulled back into a harsh queue from his angular face. Weathered scarring tattered his large hands and harsh lines drew across his forehead. His gaze was direct and piercing, making it difficult to stare down the man as I was used to doing to those around me. Brisam moved behind him, quelling my nerves.
“Sir Argath,” I glanced over my shoulder as Estra entered the warm room and meekly took a seat in the corner, “I apologize for not greeting you when you arrived earlier. I have been indisposed today.”
Argath bowed his head. “My condolences for the loss of your mother and Lord Vultuff.”
“Thank you.” I gestured with a stilted wave towards the table. “I know you must be weary so let us discuss the matter of the will so you may go back to your chambers.”
“Of course, my lady.”
I sat directly across from the man, folding my trembling hands in my lap. Sidimund was a man of his word. He had loved his daughter and was duty bound to me. But as Argath unrolled the secret last testament of my husband and secured the edges with a paper weight and a silver candlestick, my stomach rolled. There was no reason for that document to exist unless Sidimund had other plans for me.
“This will was drawn up soon after your marriage to Lord Vultuff. It reads very simply, my lady.” Argath wet his thin lips and glanced up at me.
I blinked back, heart thudding. “Well? Read it, man.”
“On this day, the advent of the union of Lord Sidimund Vultuff of Highfire to Lady Hania, daughter of Lord Ricimer Sigsar of Ignit Covert, let the dispersing of the lands and goods of Lord Vultuff be as such at the event of his death.”
The wind beat against the side of the castle. In the shadowy windows, ghostly figures flickered as they peered through the glass. I gripped my father's pendant, lips silently chanting out to Dylene for protection.
“Should Lady Hania come to bear a son and heir during her marriage to Lord Vultuff, the estate of Highfire and all possessions will come to her as caretaker until the child is old enough to take ownership of Highfire. If she should be childless or only have female issue, the lands and possessions of the Vultuff family will go to Theodric Vultuff, the eldest son of the first marriage of Lord Vultuff.”
My heart fell at the words I had feared. Drawing a shaky breath, I held my head high. My monster for a husband delivered a final blow from beyond the grave.
“And what-” my voice broke. I avoided Brisam's sympathetic eye and glared down Argath from across the table. “What is to become of me and my daughter?”
“You are to return to Ignit Covert. You may not bring anything from Highfire past clothing and gifts from Lord Vultuff.”
Sighing deeply, I rose to my feet. I smoothed a hand over my braid, the hollowness I had felt at Ignit Covert returning to me. My brother would no doubt have me wed off to to ends of the country by the new year. All my hopes shattered, I turned my chin sharply towards the fire to avoid my tears being noticed. “Thank you, Argath. Brisam Teim, if you will have horses ready by dawn. Estra, you will need to pack Emalia's things this evening. My daughter and I will leave for Ignit Covert at first light.”
“There is another condition of the will, my lady.” Argath's cold voice took on a softer tone that froze me. “The will states that any female issue of the marriage will stay here at Highfire to be raised as a ward by Theodric Vultuff.”
I turned towards him, all tears dried by the anger that exploded in my chest. “My daughter will stay?”
“The child that heathen beget upon me,” I spat, Argath glancing away at the admission, “My daughter's birth nearly killed me and left my womb barren. And he dares to take her from me as well?!”
I strode around the table, hands tingling. I wanted to strangle Argath as though he were Sidimund standing before me, returned from the dead. Brisam moved forward to keep me from committing such a deed. I ignored him and peered into Argath's dour face.
“My lady, I only read aloud what I was told-”
“You are just as responsible as my dead husband for taking a child from her mother!”
“If you will let me finish the reading, you will find that Lord Vultuff allowed a circumstance for you to stay on at Highfire with his daughter.” Argath turned back to the paper. “If the Lady should agree, she may stay on as Mistress of Highfire but only upon her marriage to Theodric Vultuff.”
I stumbled back, rubbing my hands over my face. “Do I understand you perfectly? I may keep my daughter and stay here at Highfire if I marry my husband's son?”
Argath nodded as he rolled the paper and tucked it into his doublet. “That is the idea.”
It was sinful, a barbaric concept that only Sidimund could conjure in order to preserve his line after death. Marrying the man who had been my husband's child. I couldn't think of anything more perverse that Sidimund could have subjected me to upon his death. He had known of this secret testament all the while that he had mounted me that final night in the study. Empty promises dug into my brain. I wanted to claw his dead eyes from his diseased head.
“My lady?” Brisam's voice stung me like a bright light.
I swayed, my vision blurring. My knees collapsed and I jammed my chin on the table before hitting the floor. I didn't remember anything after that except for the sound of the wind carrying voices of ghosts outside Highfire.ns 220.127.116.11da2