As promised, the door was unlocked when I pushed it open the next day. I had spent the morning pacing and picking at the tray of food placed by my bed before I awoke. The hinges on the old trunk of clothes cracked with rust, specks of dust swirling like snow in the harsh light from the window. A gown of forest green with dark leather stays seemed the least worse for wear. After cinching the waist best I could, I wrapped my hair in a thick braid around my head.
It took several minutes of treading the furs before the hearth before I gained the courage to leave my tower. Lifting my head and clasping my hands at my waist, I strode down the hall towards my brother's room. The door was ajar. I pushed it open to find him sleeping peacefully, his breathing not as ragged as it had been when we'd found him.
“My cousin is the son of a wise woman, he has a goodly knowledge of plants.”
I turned towards Éibhear in the doorway. He looked well rested, something I certainly didn't appear. He bowed his bright head, a few red strands of hair brushing over his thick shoulder. I strode out of the room and past him. “I watched from the window as you suggested last night.”
He followed behind in a stitled silence. “I should not have. Argath would not like that I did.”
“I'm glad. I appreciate honesty. Something Argath Mercer clearly has no knowledge of.”
“But my lady, Argath is an honest and honorable man.”
I scoffed and stopped at the stairwell, my stare hot so that he retreated slightly and turned his eyes to the floor. “Then pray, tell me why he chose to keep such dangerous secrets from me?”
Éibhear shrugged. “For your protection, my lady. I would think that would be obvious.”
“Well he needn't have concerned himself. I don't want to be protected. I want to be dealt with directly. He didn't have to cloister me away as though I were a child.” I tore down the stairs towards the great hall.
Tubor rose to shaky legs as I paused in the doorway, a half gnawed loaf of bread in his hand. He bowed his balding head. “My lady-”
“Where is the squire? Argath Mercer?”
Tubor swallowed his bite. “Out in the stables, mistress.”
“Thank you,” I replied, shooting a glance around the great hall. It had a vaulted ceiling with dark wood beams, a massive hearth that I could stand upright in at the far end. A raised dais for hosting nobles at feasts that were never held there anymore. I wondered how many years Gegar Red had been used primarily as a sanctuary for bear men under Tormod curses.
As I had suspected in the faint light of the evening before, the rumors were true about the red stones. In daylight, the walls of the castle gleamed the color of my father's roses. Pausing to catch my breath at the sight, I studied the high walls. The stones were cut so perfectly, the edges could slice meat. A whiny from the stable broke my awestruck distraction.
The wooden stable was build into the eastern edge of the castle. There were only a few steeds present but there were stalls enough for twenty animals. No wonder my father had been jealous of the estate. It was far more impressive than Highfire and I had always thought my castle in the mountains to be enviable.
I moved down towards one of the horses. Absently, I reached out a hand and let the animal nuzzle into my palm. A silhouette appeared in the doorway. Argath lumbered in carrying a saddle. He gave me a curt nod as though my presence were as important as a scullery maid's.
“I saw from the window last night,” I blurted, crossing my arms over my chest, “I saw what was happening.”
He slung the saddle over one of the horses. “The Changing?”
Pulling the straps around the belly of the black mare in place, he walked over to the gate holding the two of them in and rested his forearms against it. His sleeves were pulled up, revealing his dark red Tormod tattoo. I cut my eyes away from it and he smirked. “I thought with your Tormod midwife at your side, the existence of our people was not offensive to you.”
I stiffened and looked away. “Of course not. I grew up around Tormod midwives. They worked with my mother. I have just never met any that could change their shape into beasts.”
He pushed the gate open, leading the horse out of the stall. He stopped in front of me, his eyes bold on my face. A smile flashed, his bright teeth straight as an arrow. The same smile as his brother and nephew, reminding me he wasn't full Tormod. “This is interesting. You are frightened.”
“Of course!” I fumed, clenching my fists at my sides. “Last night, I watched three men morph into bears in the moonlight.”
“I have heard you had witnessed more fantastic visions from your goddess, Dylene. Those did not frighten you.” He shifted his weight, studying me. “Could it be because you simply do not understand our ways as you do your own?”
“Dylene sends me divine counsel, those visions are a gift. What I witnessed last night was a curse.”
“A curse to some may be a gift to others.” He clicked his tongue and led the horse out of the stable. I followed, determined to receive simple answers instead of riddles from the man.
Abbán, the younger huntsman, gave me a clumsy and unnecessary bow as I emerged into the courtyard after Argath. The older squire chuckled at the sight and Abbán reddened as he donned his riding gloves. I stood off to the side as his mounted the horse.
“Be back by nightfall or stay where you are. Do not camp in the woods this night,” Argath ordered the young man.
The horse danced over the snow, nickering with anticipation. “Very well, cousin. Farewell, my lady.”
He galloped past the gate and out into the woods. Argath narrowed his eyes as he watched the horse and rider disappear around the corner of the forest road. I came to stand next to him, wrapping my arms around myself against the cold.
“So this gift, I'm assuming the three of you here possess it. Three figures in the moonlight, that would be you and your two cousins. Is it a family trait among you Tormod.” I sneered, sniffing with the chill. Argath turned without looking at me or giving an answer and strode towards the castle. His cheek was infuriating. I marched behind him. “I am speaking to you, squire.”
“And I hear you. I just refuse to reply to your arrogance.”
I halted. “You are nothing more than a bastard and a squire. I will speak to you how I see fit.”
He stopped on the stairs and smirked over at me. “And you are nothing but the widow of my brother who could not produce him a male heir. You have no fortune of your own. No relations except for that scarecrow of a brother-”
“I am carrying the next possible King of this country!”
He trotted down towards me and gripped my forearm. “But not yet. You are so blinded by your pride, you are missing the opportunities presented to you. The Changing is a gift but only to those who see it as such. It can be used to great purpose.”
I tore my arm away but could not take my eyes from the fire in his expression. His confidence was stirring. “Are you suggesting that I learn this gift.”
“It is not something that can be learned. Only inherited through the father if the spell was set upon him and his seed. But what you carry in your womb may very well possess the gift. That is why Theodric and I wanted you here, to shield you from Tulin's treachery and teach you what your son may come to be.” His eyes dropped to my stomach. He lifted a hand over it and glanced up at me. “May I?”
Struck dumb by what he was saying, I managed a nod. He pressed his hand to my belly, I took a sharp intake of breath. He waited, staring at the snow. The babe moved in me towards his palm. Argath smiled and I trembled.
“Well?” I choked.
He let me loose and sighed. “If you set your heart to learning our ways, your son will be a King with the gift.”
My dreams swallowed my memory. The two men on the battlefield turning to bears. I couldn't know which one was my son, but it was a true vision. Just as Dylene's words held true from her visitation when I was only a girl at the chapel in Highfire, a new bond will bring forth a line of kings.
“A bear king,” I breathed. "But how? Sidimund was not Tormod. And Theodric, is he-"
"I will have him explain how this came to be to you. It is not my story to tell." Argath reached out and grasped my hand. “The Tormod have prayed for such a day when a son of their teaching will rule the land. If you are willing, Theodric and I will do everything in our power to see this come about for your child.”
I blinked up at him. A realization tore through me and I ripped my hand away. “Tell me then. Brisam Teim, my husband's squire. I believe he was killed by one of these who you claim have this gift. Who is his murderer?”
Argath wet his lips, the fire dying in his eyes. “I cannot say.”
“Do you know?” I demanded.
“No.” A muscle twitched in his jaw. “But I swear, I will not allow such a tragedy to occur again. There are men who living with the Changing as a curse and cannot control themselves when they are under it. We are working to bring these men into the light or kill them.”
“Do not bring such a beast into the light as you say,” I snarled, gathering up my skirts. “I will learn your ways. But only if you kill the one who murdered Brisam.”
I strode past him and up into the castle. Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes. I couldn't allow myself to think it, it would drive me mad. But there was the change I was living under the same roof as the man with Brisam's blood on his hands.ns 22.214.171.124da2