I roused at dawn. Bleary eyed, I gingerly touched the bruise on my jaw. I peered across the dimly lit room and saw Estra dozing in a chair by the fire. Rising wearily from the sheets, my senses spun as the blood rushed to my head. I breathed deeply and took to my feet, walking towards the looking glass at the vanity by the fire. My bottom lip was fat and red from splitting it when I had fainted the night earlier.
The only good thing such a display had given me was more time to think. I hadn't needed to give my answer to the conditions of Sidimund's will. He had given me a small mercy in leaving the choice to me.
Estra stirred in her sleep and brushed a hand over her pert nose. Though she had a head filled with cotton, Estra was a loving nursemaid to Emalia. More than I had ever been. Though I would be allowed to visit Emalia, soon Haneric would have me married far and away to keep me from spreading word of his inability to father children. I couldn't abandon her, not with a man I had never met. For all I knew, he possessed the same depraved nature as his father and Emalia would become his lover as soon as she was of age.
A groan of terror blossomed from my chest as I paced before the hearth. I couldn't leave her to such a possible fate. No matter how much the other option repulsed me.
I wrapped a dark blue shawl around my shoulders and neatened the veil on my head. I rubbed the edges of my pendant as I strode towards the chapel in the turret. The only place I could think clearly was in Dylene's presence. This had to be a part of her plan for me, the goddess would never leave me to such a fate.
Sinking before the altar, I choked out a chant to Noar and Tila. The other two dieties peered down at me with contempt and amusement. Only Dylene was sympathetic to my plight.
“Gentle mother of the lake, hear my prayer,” tears were gathering in my eyes and I did nothing to stop them, “I plead your guidance. Hear my petition. Keep me from such a blasphemous fate, I beg of you.”
My stomach clenched. Nausea rose up in me. I jumped to my feet and raced to the window facing the mountain. Retching up what little was in my stomach, the bracing breeze off the lake cushioned my burning face. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply through my nose. Opening my eyes, the morning sun broke through the hazy white layer of clouds. Light rippled off the lake.
A figure moved in the depths beyond and I squinted. A swan surfaced from diving below, a silver fish caught in it's black beak. It rose up from the water and scattered shining drops as it took to the air. In the mess of water and light, a vision appeared.
I gripped the edges of the window. It was her, Dylene. Just as she had appeared to me when I was a girl. Her lithe feet hovered above the surface of the lake, tangled dark hair falling to her knees and over the thick bear fur covering her bare shoulders. With dark knowing eyes, she nodded her head to me. Folding up like a bird wing, she splashed back into the lake. I stumbled back from the window and sank onto a pew.
“My Lady?” Brisam entered the chapel.
I shook off the shock of what I had witnessed and glanced towards him. He stood in the aisle between the pews. Clad in a leather doublet and chain mail, his curls wet from a bath and neatly combed back. He hadn't shaved but neatened the beard growing on his chin. His mouth pursed in barely concealed sadness, eyes crinkling as he looked away from me.
Dylene had given me her answer, despite knowing of my heart's desire. I had dreamed of a quiet life in the mountains as sole mistress of the estate, raising my daughter with Brisam at my side. All those hopes were now in the past.
I strode towards him, the taste of our last kiss still ringing in my brain.
“Lady...” his voice faded as I came to stand before him. I reached up and rested my hand on the side of his face. I sensed his shock as I kissed him hard. He responded almost violently, roughly grabbing me.
Brisam pushed me away, his breathing ragged. “Mistress, I leave with Argath Mercer in the hour. We are returning to Theodric's estate to discuss the marriage. I cannot leave without knowing your answer.”
“I cannot leave Highfire.”
He nodded calmly as though he expected such a decision. “Then I will tell him you will take him as a husband.”
I paused. “You were trusted and respected by Sidimund. These men know it. You are wise and know when to say your mind or hold your tongue. Perhaps...”
Brisam narrowed his eyes as me and jutted out his jaw in thought. “I might be able to persuade Argath to speak with Theodric about amending the will. Theodric is the only one who can release you now.”
“Or perhaps you can appeal to the man himself. It's a small hope but its something.” I whipped away from him to face the altar. Keeping my eyes on Dylene, I reminded her in my heart that I was trusting her. “Otherwise, tell Theodric that I will wed him as soon as he arrives at Highfire.”
Silence followed footsteps. His breath stirred the hair at my neck, hands clutching the sides of my waist as he buried his face into the crook of my shoulder.
“My promise holds true to you, Hania. I will remain at your side whether you are married or not until the day I die.” He brushed the edges of my hair from my face as I turned to him. He pressed our foreheads together.
My hands went to the back of my neck. Unhooking the latch of the necklace, I pressed my father's prayer pendant into his hand and held it there like a vow. “Keep this. It's all I can give.”
Brisam tucked it into his doublet with a shaky breath. “I wish I had a token in return for you.”
“These last few days, you have given me more than you will ever know.”
In the courtyard, the horses for Argath, Brisam and two of Theodric's men who had accompanied him were waiting below. Estra and Emalia stood off to the side, the little girl's hand resting on the head of her father's giant hound.
I moved to stand before them, the air frigid with the promise of early snow. Argath bowed to me, Brisam avoiding my eyes behind him.
“My lady, your squire informed me of your decision. Lord Theodric and I will return in the next few days, the rest of his household will follow.” Argath straightened, his gaze wary as he studied me. “I trust the estate will be ready to receive us.”
I offered a cold smile. “Squire, I have been mistress of Highfire since I was thirteen years old. I know how to handle my own house.”
Waiting a beat, Argath tucked his hands into his gloves and gave a curt bow. “Very well, Lady Hania.”
The men mounted their steeds. Emalia hooted a farewell which quieted when I shot her a look of censure over my shoulder. She folded her hands over her skirts and kicked the dirt. I stepped forward, watching as the horses bounded out of the estate.
Brisam didn't look back. I hadn't expected him to and was glad he spared me the pain of it. I stood staring after them as they disappeared around the curve of the lake and down the mountain road.
“Lady mother.” I glanced down to find my daughter at my side. Her hands perched on her hips, she glared up at me. “I requested to see my father when he returned. Where is he? He said he would return a fortnight ago.”
There was no longer avoiding the subject. I faced her, my hands clasped before me and knuckles turning white. “Emalia, your father took sick in the capital. He died before he could return home. Your half brother Theodric will be arriving soon to take control of the estate. Do you understand?”
Emalia's face blanched, her jaw trembling as she shook her head. I stood inert, frozen by conflict. I hated myself for not being the mother she needed at that moment. But she had to learn that life wasn't a beautiful fairy story. Someone wasn't always going to be there to catch her.
“So-” she gulped, wiping her cheeks with her hands, “So I am now an orphan?”
A pang of rejection punched into my gut. “You have me still so no you are not.”
Emalia sniffed, narrowing her dark eyes up at me. “It's not the same.”
Her sobs broke and she crumpled to the ground. I stared down at her, tears chilling my own cheeks. Estra moved forward but a wave of anger at her presumption overtook me.
“Don't.” I barked at the nursemaid.
Kneeling to the ground, I picked up my daughter. As I did, I realized that I couldn't remember the last time I had.
Her tiny body trembled against mine as we walked towards the kitchens. The three of us entered the warm scullery, a fresh loaf of wheat bread and a jar of honey waiting on the table. The cook, a stick thin woman who adore Emalia, fussed over her as she slathered a slice for my little girl. Estra sat down next to her, looking at me warily. I ignored her.
“But- but we were going to go to Primiad, papa and I-” she hiccuped, taking a bite of bread.
Her grief was too familiar to me. I had been older but the pain had been shattering when my own father's body was brought back from a hunting excursion. Clawed to death by a giant animal, we never knew if it had been a wolf or bear. That was the last and only time I had seen Theodric. He had been apart of the same hunting party and had been knocked unconscious by the beast before he was able to get a good look at it. My father's face had been unrecognizable. At least Emalia was spared the pain of seeing her father's body disfigured by disease.
The cook and Estra coddled her as I stood behind them. The cook shot me a side glance as she rose and moved towards the hearth. The servants thought I was cold and sorely lacking in my ability as a mother. I couldn't disagree with them. I clenched and relaxed my fists, wishing I knew how to address my daughter in the way they did, with the same ease and warmth.
The spit over the fire creaked as the cook turned it. A roast grouse crackled, skin peeling back and dripping fat over the flames. The smell hit me as it sizzled on the coals. Empty gut twisting, a strong wave of nausea sent me running towards a clean cauldron nearby. I heaved up bile from my hollow stomach.
“My lady!” Estra cried out, running over and pulling my hair back from my face.
Even Emalia's weeping quieted. I glanced over at her as she chewed her bread, eyes wide and red rimmed. The unusual weakness I had been feeling, the vomiting and now the repulsion to the smell of meat. It all rang too similar to what had happened to my body six years earlier.
The cook wiped her wiry hands on her apron and turned to leave. “I'll go fetch the physician.”
“No.” I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “It's not him I need to see. Please go fetch that Tormod woman from the woods, the midwife that oversaw Emalia's birth. I need to see her as soon as she can get here.”ns 188.8.131.52da2