“I’m sorry your night was spoiled.” Merra pulled her shawl tighter as she sat on the bed next to Eslaveth.
Eslaveth continued staring at a nail hole, only closing her eyes when Merra wrapped an arm around her shoulder to pull her close.
“I kissed him,” she said. “I nearly lost him, and I kissed him.”
“Danger does have a way of clarifying what and who is important to us,” Merra said.
Eslaveth kneaded her hands. “But love isn’t cruel. And it feels cruel to give him hope when I’m not certain…” She sought out her aunt’s eyes. “Is it right to lift up his hopes when I’m afraid I might dash them?”
“Love is a very delicate thing, Eslaveth,” Merra said. “Fear will choke it out faster than anything. You can’t know what it will blossom into if you don’t allow it any chance to grow.”
“But why should it have to grow?” Eslaveth asked. “Shouldn’t it just be there?”
“Sometimes it is,” Merra said. “But there are all sorts of loves. Often the deepest love is the one that creeps up and surprises you. Not all are born of passion like the ballads. Sometimes love is an emotion and other times it’s a choice. Your uncle’s stubborn streak will drive me to distraction, but at the end of the day I love him so much it hurts.” She put her hand on Eslaveth’s leg, squeezing it. “If you knew that you wouldn’t break his heart, that you’d end up happily married to him, would you regret that kiss?”
“No.” She surprised herself with the instant answer, “But I’m still not certain I should marry him.”
“Who else would you marry?” Merra asked. “Is there someone you’re thinking of?”
No, but there was something else. Some part of her that would be lost or tied down if she chose the life of a smithy’s wife.
“That’s just it,” she answered softly. “There isn’t anyone. There’s never been anyone. If I were forced to marry someone tonight, it would be him. I would choose him.”
“Well, that says a lot,” Merra answered.
“I know.” Eslaveth reached for the ring around her neck. “But what if there is someone or something else out there?” She nibbled her lip, then spoke the thought that had lingered since Lord Yarboron had swung his eyes toward Breon. “If I truly loved him, maybe I wouldn’t marry him. Perhaps I’d marry someone who could run an estate–someone who could protect him. Perhaps that would be the truer choice made from love.”
“Maybe,” Merra answered. She separated Eslaveth’s hair in three parts, braiding them loosely as she spoke. “Marriage cannot be rushed. Once you take a man’s hand, there’s no letting go of it. You will rise together, or you will fall together. Don’t try to protect anyone so much that you fail to protect yourself and end up with a bad choice.”
It was a lot to think about, and Eslaveth pressed her clasped fingers to her mouth.
Merra dropped a kiss on her head. “In the meantime, you don’t have to choose your life’s path tonight. For tonight, he is the only man you care for. Even if you are unsure of forever, give both of you tonight. Tonight, you are loved, and he knows he is too. And that’s more than you both had before.”
Eslaveth tipped her head back to peer at the woman. “Sometimes you are the wisest woman I know,” she said.
Merra scrunched her nose with twinkling eyes, then climbed off the bed. “Well, I don’t know about that. But I do know a thing or two about love.”
After her aunt left to find her own husband, Eslaveth flipped back onto her worn sheets, hoping they’d purchase another set for the best room in the inn, and she could inherit the next of whichever pair was nearing the end of its lifespan in the rooms. Danel wasn’t back yet, and she wondered if he was still with Maglacia or if he’d stayed at the pub to aid or drink. He’d been gone a lot lately. She watched the sparks rise from the fire, remembering when the flames were larger, licking out of the doorway and the windows of her home. Her father had told her to run home, to warn her mother. She wondered what would have happened if she had only run faster, if she’d gotten there before the soldiers, but it didn’t matter.
She’d screamed for her mother until Master Fergon pulled her against his chest, whispering, “She’s not inside. No one is inside.”
And no one had returned. She’d stayed with the old man until Magar and Merra came. She hadn’t shown anyone the ring. Her father had said to hide it, to give it to her mother. And her mother wasn’t there. Was that why she still wore it around her neck? Was she still hiding it, still afraid if she left it, it would disappear on its own? And now she knew. Her mother had been in prison, sending letters to her father because they never saw each other again.
The cause with worth it and she was no longer scared.
Eslaveth bit her lip, squeezing the tears out of her eyes. What cause could possibly be worth dying in prison? She studied the marking of the seal, but she’d never seen the sign anywhere. It wasn’t from her father’s family, and peasants didn’t have family crests, so it couldn’t be from her mother.
She let her mind wander back, trying to remember every detail of the day she’d spent so long pushing away. How her mother had packed lunch – but it was a lunch for one, not two. How tenderly she’d kissed her, like she’d be away for a long time instead of only a few hours. How she’d watched from the doorway when she normally laughed and waved as Eslaveth rode off with her father, then went about her business. Had they known something? Had they suspected? There was more to the story – far more – but who would know it?
She closed her eyes. Fergon didn’t live nearby, not close enough to see the flames from his doorway. He was a regular guest, but how had he known the house was in flames? Had he come to warn them, too? Was he even still alive? He’d been the oldest man in the village even ten years ago.
She sat up half the night and dozed the rest of it until the sky was light enough to leave without the aid of a candle. She couldn’t be gone long, but if she walked very fast, she could return with the vegetables after only a slight delay Merra wouldn’t question. She pulled her hood over her head to block the cold, frowning at the black cloth that draped over the doorways of two of the villagers’ homes. When she passed the house of the newlyweds, the flowers were missing from the window and a black strip of material drooped over the door. Husband or wife, one of them had died, either trampled beneath hooves or run through by boys who had no reason for their crime. There would be no child, and someone was alone.
She hoped Darryn choked on his breakfast.
Following only a distant memory, Eslaveth hiked to the cluster of homes outside the village where a small house sat tucked in the overgrowth. Shutters covered the windows, and parts of the roof had caved in.
She knocked anyway, calling, “Master Fergon?”
“Who is there?” A voice croaked from inside the dreary hut.
“I am Eslaveth LonCrae. I am Mauran’s daughter!”
She waited, trying to rub warmth back into her hands as a chair squeaked inside. Feet shuffled to the door. A bolt pulled back, then another, followed by a scrape of wood that indicated he was further unbarring the door. When it cracked open, the man’s eyes were slit so narrowly that his rapid blinks completely hid their color.
“Are you alone?” he asked.
The question hurt. Had he expected her to be otherwise? But she answered, “Yes.”
Wrinkled hands reached out to cup each side of her face, feeling her cheekbones and nose. He nodded. “You look like your father.”
Yet, her coloring belonged to her mother.
Eslaveth swallowed as he opened the door to allow her inside. The room smelled like rotting wood and earth and potatoes boiling over the fire with only salt for seasoning. She blinked, trying to allow her eyes to adjust to the dimness.
“I need to ask you something,” she said. Perhaps she shouldn’t mention it. But if she only asked if he knew why her father died, he had too much leeway to lie and say he didn’t know. “What was the cause my parents were fighting for?”
Master Fergon flinched, turning his back to her as he felt his way to the table. “First,” he said. “Please sit. I haven’t had a guest in a long time. Would you care for a drink? All I have is ale.”
She winced at the seat. Even with the dim light of the fire, she could see a coating of animal hair and filth, but she sat anyway. “No, thank you. I’ll tell whatever you wish to hear about, but please first, I need to know what he died for. The day the house burned, he told me we were going to meet someone we were supposed to protect. Something about a kingdom. Do you know what that meant?”
Master Fergon set the jug down, leaning against the table before he released a slow breath. “I do,” he said. “But you don’t realize what you are asking.”
Was her father a plotter? Did she even want to know?
Eslaveth took a breath, then pressed onward. “I need to know.”
“The kingdom is invisible,” the man spoke slowly. “Your father died because he knew too much about it. You seek answers which are binding when you find them. Your father didn’t want you to be bound.”
She studied her thumbnail, shining in the firelight. “My father left me with a task I cannot fulfill. I can’t protect someone when I don’t know who he is.”
Fergon moved toward the fire, holding his hands to its warmth, then whispered, “Tell me, child. Is the fire high?”
It was maddening to have her questions derailed, but Eslaveth glanced at the flames finding them more blue than gold. “You’ll need to add more logs soon,” she said. “I’ll help you carry them in after you tell me.”
He shook his head, taking the shovel by the hearth to scrape the ashes over the logs.
“I could tell you the secrets,” he said, “but they cannot be untold. Every secret is a burden that you carry inside for the rest of your life. Every step you take into the kingdom is a step that carries you farther away from everyone without. Your father wasn’t meeting the young prince to take him to the kingdom. He was meeting him to keep him from it so the boy was free to choose whether or not he would fulfill the legends. But he was taking you from it as well, so you would also have a choice.”
Eslaveth squeezed her hand together asking, “Then my father didn’t believe in the kingdom?”
“Oh, he believed in it,” Fergon said. “He died for it. The kingdom is good, and the coming king will be pure, but not everyone in the kingdom is safe. The men who sought the child would have taken him by force, they would have cut him off from his family and raised him in isolation. That is what your father was trying to prevent. But as for the secrets, I cannot tell you.”
He’d told her some of them, giving her too many things to think about already but Eslaveth asked, “Why not?”
“Because the kingdom is created by Fate and protected by Fate,” the man said. “If I were to tell you, then you too would be watched by Fate. If you told someone who was not meant to know, Fate could destroy them. It is not cruel, but it will protect those involved in the legend at any cost. If you were not meant to know, it would destroy you and perhaps me for telling you. The secrets burn slowly but they consume your life, and I will not be responsible for that.”
“Then you won’t tell me anything?” Eslaveth asked. “Am I to be left for the rest of my life, wondering if my father was good or bad?”
“Your father was good,” he said. “Rest in that knowledge and leave. He wanted you free.”
“He wanted me to look after a prince!” Eslaveth snapped.
“And if you are still meant for that task, you will find him,” Fergon said. “If you are meant to be in Sentarra, Fate will bring you there.”
Not Erilerre. Not Kael.
Eslaveth blinked as the man started, realizing he’d given her the name he’d previously concealed. He swallowed, waving her away. “Go! Go now!” The legs of the chair came down with a thud as he stood. “You must forget all of this. You mustn’t seek out the secrets. Leave! Leave, while you can.”
His eyes bulged, glazed with a white film that glowed in the firelight. Eslaveth stumbled toward the door, frightened by the sudden panic.
But he caught her hand, hissing, “Don’t you see? You came to me. Fate’s already drawing you. And then you pressed me, and now you’re bound!”
The cold hit her back as she jerked her arm away from him, wondering if anything he had told her was true or if he’d lost his reasonings in his last years. But the door slammed, nearly hitting her face, leaving her on the doorstep, gasping for air.
The ring hit her chest as she ran from the door, stumbling across the damp peat that sucked at her shoes. This bronzed ring she’d saved at the expense of her parents and the home that had gone up in flames. Who had set the fire? The king’s men? Or this Fate entity that was ruthless in concealing the secrets. Had their home held secrets it sought to conceal?
Flash of fire…
Her father’s voice came into her head, one line sung. She stopped running, clutching the ring, closing her eyes to block out everything except the refrain. He’d sung it in another language, but she remembered the meaning.
Flash of fire. Sound of steel.
Steed of white on untod ways.
She’d laughed back then, petting the neck of the horse they rode.
Now she repeated the words, searching for the rest that filled the same melody.
Ring of bronze, seal of gold.
Life… for honor.
She sank onto the peat. Had he died? Had he died for his honor?
She sang the words to herself again, searching for meaning. Sound of steel could be a war, swords clashing. Steed of white was obviously a horse. She wore a bronze ring. He gave his life for honor. What was the last part?
Silver gaze. That couldn’t be right. That didn’t make any sense. Gazing at silver or…
“Perhaps it’s the silver which makes them seem different.”
“No. What is silver, but a shining gray? And gray eyes are not so very uncommon. It’s rather what is behind the silver eyes that intrigue me.”
Why hadn’t she thought anything of Tehveor’s strange eyes? He’d asked her about the ring. The queen had warned her not to show anyone. Tehveor was so guarded, but he would have been eight years old–and he knew her father. Was he the cause?
He’d given her the letter. He’d asked about the ring. Had he been testing her, trying to see if she belonged to the kingdom – his kingdom – the place the voice had scolded him for not going?
And she’d failed it. She’d responded in ignorance, failing to protect him. But did he need protection? Even if she were a lady, there was no way she would move in close quarters with him. Likely she may never again cross paths with him, unless…
She turned away from the direction of the inn, glancing back into the direction of the hut where a man claimed secrets would bind her forever to an invisible kingdom. Suddenly marrying Breon seemed the most comforting and safe option.
Had that been why she was so drawn to Tehveor? She closed her eyes, shaking the thoughts from her head. Master Fergon was right? These secrets were already consuming her mind.