Six round towers were silhouetted against the purple gray of twilight. I slipped aside the shade of the litter with a heavy sigh. Tapping my gloved fingers on the frame, I glanced over at my brother in the seat before me. He was layered in wolf and bear fur, the remaining skins we could salvage at Ignit Covert.
Grimacing, I drew my thoughts away from the castle of my childhood. It had been in worse condition than I could ever have imagined. Birds roosting in main rooms, walls collapsing, most of my grandfather's fine weaponry and grandmother's jewelry missing forever. I fought the impulse to kick Haneric as the memory burned through me. It was as though those things had meant nothing to him. For the hundredth time, I wished I had been born the eldest son of my parents. I never would have let such a thing happen.
“Are we almost there?” He croaked, sunken eyes still shutting out the world.
I shifted in my seat, neatening the collar of my cloak to give my hands something to do. “Yes.”
“Have you ever seen it? Gegar Red?”
He smirked. “Father was jealous of it.”
I rolled my eyes and stretched my legs. “Sleep now. I don't want to talk anymore.”
Haneric settled down deeper into his furs, his thin lips still wearing that maddening smirk. I opened the curtain again for another glimpse of the castle while the sun was present. The towers rose over the treeline, looming like the sharp pinnacles of mountains. I had heard that the stone was a rare rose color, the roofs black as charcoal.
It had been the home of Theodric's mother in her childhood. Upon the death of her father, it had come into the possession of her eldest brother, Theodric's uncle. Sidimund had told me the man had taken Theodric into battle during the civil war for the throne. They had fought for Ervig and won. But his uncle had died childless in combat and left the castle to teenage Theodric. Soon after, I was married to Sidimund and Theodric took up a permanent and lonely residence at the red castle.
By the time we arrived, it was too dark to see if the rumors of the red stones were true. Thick wooden doors creaked open as we rode into the keep. I was thankful we were at the end of our journey. The muscles in my back were stiff with cold and my stomach was unsettled, acid climbing up the back of my throat. Heart burn had been a common ailment for me in my last pregnancy. I had hoped I would forgo it this time.
The courtyard was dim with only a few torches. Aside from Argath, two of Theodric's men had escorted us to his home. They were silent, cloaked figures with watchful eyes. As one helped me from the litter, a hint of a tattoo peeked out from the sleeve at his wrist. It was similar to Teàrlag's, a Tormod mark. Strange that Theodric would keep Tormod men at his castle when his father had been so vehemently prejudiced against the people. I could only assume it was because Theodric had always trusted Argath's judgement more than Sidimund's.
My limbs were raw with cold. We had traveled all day and after the previous night, I was riddled with aches. I meandered through the dark towards the open gate doors and peered out into the forest beyond. The flicker of glowing eyes shifted among the shadows of trunks, snow shushing in curls under silent paws. The wolves were out. A howl rose towards the cloudy sky but I did not shudder. I was too weary to be frightened.
“It's dangerous out here, my lady.”
I turned towards Argath who stood at a respectful distance from me. His direct stare was unreadable. The only thing I could understand about the man was that he wasn't afraid of me. Even Brisam had been and Sidimund in his own way. My own brother, for all his cheek, danced around my presence. But not Argath Mercer.
“I am safe in the goddess's hand.”
“Like you were last night?”
I smiled coolly. “You were there to rescue me, weren't you?”
“But that was by my doing, not your goddess's.”
I prickled at his dig but only moved slowly past him. “If you say so.”
The men were trying to get Haneric from the litter but he was insisting on walking himself. He was much too weak but protested. “I am a grown man-”
“Then why haven't you started acting like one before now?” I demanded, coming alongside the litter. “Argath, carry him.”
The man moved silently. One look from him and Haneric went silent. I could have laughed at the sight as Argath scooped him up like a disobedient child into his arms and carried him towards the doors of the keep. I was also stunned by how skinny my brother had become even in the few months since I had last seen him. We had brought Tubor along to help with the horses, as much as he could. Truth be told, the old man was reaching an age where he was proving unserviceable. It would have been a mercy to put him down like a decrepit dog.
Tubor tripped nearby as we made our way across the dimly lit ice. I reached out and steadied his elbow. He blinked over at me and bowed his head. “Thank you, my lady.”
He was as bony as my brother. I wondered how long the two of them had been starving there at Ignit Covert. “Before you go to the stables, get some food with the men. We can't have you keeling over.”
“Yes, my lady.”
Upon entering the keep, the great crest of Theodric's mother's side hung on the outcrop of wall over our heads. Stone antlers crowning a shield with two oak trees sprouting rocky blooms and leaves. It looked like it had been carved just days before though I could only guess it had been there atleast a century. The men lit torches in the sconces down the hall, showing the tint of crimson in the stones.
“My lady, we only have part of the castle opened right now as the master is away. There are several bed chambers, most of them are modest but will heat better than the larger rooms.” One of Theodric's servants explained, the fellow with the hidden tattoo.
“Tell me, are you full or only half blood Tormod?” I asked casually as I removed my gloves, unable to quell my curiosity.
The young man hesitated, his hands itching at his sleeves though his secret had already been found out. “Half. My father.”
“Like Squire Argath then?” I noticed Argath's head twitch as my voice carried forward. “Are any of you full blood?”
“Aye, my lady.” The other man boomed nearby, his hair flaming red and build like a giant.
I scoffed. “My, you are quite a specimen. What are your names?”
The giant cleared his throat. “We are Lord Theodric's huntsmen. I am Éibhear and this nervous lad is my cousin, Abbán.”
Honestly, I thought the both of them appeared equally nervous. Éibhear fiddled with the hilt of his sword as he and Abbán bowed as we passed the broad door leading to the great hall. I nodded my dismissal of them to go eat and continued after Argath as he carried Haneric. We climbed a set of stairs to the second floor.
Even without fires burning in the rooms, it felt warmer than it had at Ignit Covert. The construction of the castle was cleaner, the dark frames around the windows tightly knit to the stones. Argath set Haneric on the four poster bed in one of the chambers and moved to light a fire for him in the hearth. I paused by his bed as he situated his furs. He blinked up at me, bruises of fatigue painting his cheeks. He let out another violent cough and I shuddered.
“I will send food and warm honeyed mead up after I get settled in my own room.” I cut my eyes to the threadbare rug under my feet.
Haneric drew a ragged breath. “Thank you, sister.”
“I beg your pardon, my lady, but I already requested it be done. The scullery maid will be up shortly.” Argath explained behind me. “If you will follow me, your room is the next floor up.”
Climbing the stairs, he cut past a landing and towards another door. I peered up the stairs in the dark. They twisted up one of the towers. I scoffed. “I am being quartered in a turret? Like a prisoner?”
Argath didn't stop but kept on climbing. “You will be more comfortable up here.”
“I would prefer to be closer to my brother.”
“I am merely following the request of my master, Lady Hania. I believe you will find your rooms quite suitable.”
Too weary to argue, I decided to move my rooms the next morning myself. I would not be cloistered away as though I were a Sister in a nunnery. It was ridiculous.
The circular room had a broad hearth upon entering it. Argath started a fire as I removed my cloak. Light danced off the walls revealing a bed and a wash stand. By the window was a loom and embroidery stand with a basket of threads. I narrowed my eyebrows, wondering when the last time a woman who did needlework had been at Gegar Red.
“This room belonged to Lord Theodric's mother before she married Sidimund Vultuff. Nothing has been changed since she left it,” Argath answered my silent question.
Meandering towards the embroidery stand, I ran my fingers over the sun stained cloth pulled tight in the hoop. I ghosted my fingers over the figure in black sewn there. Though faint from the years, the massive curves of muscle and fur formed a bear, claws extended and teeth bared. She had left it undone, the borders blank. The animal battled itself in a lonely sea of yellowed white.
“I will have your food sent up here in a few moments.” Argath bowed and turned towards the door.
“I would rather go down and fetch it myself,” I snapped, our entire arrival making me wary, “stretch my legs a little-”
“No, my lady. You are tired.” He nodded towards the trunk by the window. “You will find clothing in there, Theodric said you fit his mother's gowns well. Your own belongings will be brought up tomorrow.”
I shifted nervously on my feet. “You give orders very well, squire.”
With a wisp of a smile across his unyielding face, Argath turned his back on me. “Good night, my lady.”
A key in the closed door and the lock snapped shut from the outside. My heart dropped to my stomach. Striding over, I banged my fists against it but his footsteps faded down the turret. I was trapped. Panic threatened to course through my veins. Breathing deeply, I sat by the fire to think.
Perhaps the evil intent towards me and my child was not from Tulin Odovacar but Theodric. I stood and paced. I couldn't fight my way out, not in my condition. My brother was ill and of no help to even himself. The key in the door clicked and the Tormod huntsman, Éibhear, entered with a plate of dried meat and peasant bread.
“I demand to know why this door has been locked,” I shrilled, my cheeks hot with anger, “who do you think you are here? Imprisoning guests?”
“My lady,” he held up a hand and set down the plate, “Its for your own protection. And only at night. During the day, you are free to roam where you will.”
“Protection? What do you mean by that?” I snapped.
He sighed and glanced towards the window. “Telling you won't be enough. You need to see it. Watch by the window this night if you are brave enough.”
He bowed and left the room. I watched him, confounded by his answer and frozen where I stood. The lock snapped shut and once again, I was captive. With a huff, I grabbed the piece of bread and strode over to the window. From the turret, only wintry woods reflecting faint moonlight could be seen. I waited.
After a half an hour, I sat down at the embroidery stand. Despite my agitation, the day's exertions soon caught up with me. Warm in the well insulated room, the ornate tapestries of unicorns and lions reflecting gold in the firelight, I drifted to sleep.
Snarling and sniffing broke through the darkness but my dream would not set me free. I was thirteen and underneath a body, underneath Sidimund. Trapped. I swallowed back a whimper, even as a girl I was too enraged to show fear. Vicious hatred raced through my veins, replacing any chance of affection for the man. I wanted to grow claws and fangs, tear his pink body to pieces. But I was captive in the union to which I had been sold. No better than chattel.
The snarls rose to a throaty howl. I shuddered awake. The sounds were not in my dream. The fire had died down and a strange chill filled the room. The moon was misty with cloud, riding low along the trees below my tower.
Against the white snow a figure writhed. It was a man. Two others stood alongside him. Their shadows jerked, limbs elongating and snapping the joints. The man on the ground howled as his head cracked back, canines sharpening to fangs so large that I could see them glint with saliva from my window. I gripped the embroidery stand beside me.
What the old Tormod midwife said was true. Cursed men losing their shape to the night and becoming beasts. Three huge bears, larger than any I had seen in the woods, panted white breaths in the moonlight. I peered down at the figure on the cloth.
I wasn't trapped up there, just as Éibhear had said. I was being kept safe.
Unable to look anymore upon the monstrous figures below, I strode towards the door. Barring it with the locks on the inside of the door, I threw more logs on the fire as though the light would drive away the demon bears. Fully clothed, I laid on the bed and listened to them rustling and roaring below.
I finally fell asleep towards dawn and again my dreams found me underneath a body. But this one had fur and hot breath that filled my nostrils. Sidimund was gone, but I was still trapped.ns 188.8.131.52da2