The streets of the township that surrounded Castigale Keep were quiet at night. Though a few taverns kept a light in their windows to welcome revelers in for ale and companionship, the people were properly somber in respect to the recent death of Baron Kelleman Castigale’s daughter, Evelain.
Sandia gazed at the silent houses without much emotion as she walked along next to Sir Maligard DuVania. She had heard rumors of Evelain’s death back in her village a few days ago, but it had always been a far-and-away affair to her. What lay closer to her heart was both the death of her mother at the hands of mysterious marauders and then her forced exile by the other villagers.
Her mother had never been overly popular in Aerberry, and by extension, few of the villagers cared for Sandia. After the senseless attack that had razed many of the village’s humble buildings, the village elder had been only too happy to give up care of the girl so that they wouldn’t have another mouth to feed. She resented the elder and the villagers for their decision, but she hated the knight for giving them the option by offering to take her.
DuVania gave her another sidelong glace as they walked along. Annoyed, Sandia met his eyes and glared at him. He looked away, as if embarrassed. She could not fathom why the knight had taken her, and what angered her more was that she guessed he couldn’t fathom it either. After leaving the village, the knight had ordered her tied to his saddle so she could not jump off the horse and escape. He and the villagers had all ignored her protests and crying. They had ridden for the rest of the day and stayed in a local noble’s house where Sandia had slept in the barracks surrounded by soldiers. The next day, she hadn’t bothered to complain, knowing that it would do her no good, and so the knight had allowed her to ride her own horse — albeit with its bridle tied to his saddle, so she couldn’t ride off. They had ridden all day and into the night, finally stopping at Castigale Keep, where DuVania had gone to make a report to the captain of Castigale’s guards that he suspected the marauders were from Gribbane Barony.
Sandia had only heard of Gribbane from stories. She had been told that Gribbane was a mountainous land to the west, beyond the Darst Range and in the neighboring duchy of Narragan. She had heard some say that the people there were demons and the baroness was a wicked temptress who was jealous of Castigale. Of course, her mother had told her not to listen to the people — or rather, to listen to what they’re not saying — and so she had heard that none of the people who spoke ill of Gribbane had ever actually been there. A few who had been there years ago simply said that the land was as just as Castigale was, but harder to live in: with thin soil, poor for growing crops or feeding livestock.
While Sir Maligard was giving his report, Sandia and one of the soldiers were sent to the keep kitchen to wait. Two scullions were working there — children just a shade younger than her, perhaps ten or eleven years old. They had told her the prevailing rumor: that Evelain’s death had been the result of an assassination plot by the baroness of Gribbane.
So now it seemed that the far-and-away affair of Evelain’s death was somehow tied to the death of Sandia’s mother and this journey against her wishes. Her mother had taught her many things, but most prominently she had said to control one’s destiny. “You only need to lose control of your life once, child,” her mother had said. “You let someone else make a decision for you, and you regret it. Then you’ll never want it to happen again. Learn from me: make your own decisions in life or you’ll live like a string puppet at a festival.” Sandia hadn’t understood her mother’s words then, but she did now.
As they walked through the streets, Sandia thought of her mother. She had loved her, and she missed her now, but she knew their relationship had been different than the relationship between most mothers and their children. Her mother had been aloof to her, almost cold at times, and always teaching and training and drilling her. She had tirelessly manipulated the other people of the village, finding ways to wheedle coins and food from them, playing one against the other, making enemies here but allies there. If her mother were here now, she would not hug and comfort her daughter, but would say, “What have you learned from this? How can you control this?” Still, Sandia would have given anything for that harsh love against this unknown fate she had acquired.
She was thinking of this when the knight stopped and turned towards one of the houses. They had walked from the main gate of the keep and around its outer wall to a street filled with houses much larger than most of those in the town. And of those houses, the one at which they stood was the largest, standing three stories tall with high, vaulting rooftops that looked like mountains to Sandia. There was a high wall around the house and yard, mostly covered with ivy, and an imposing looking gate made of black iron and wood. The knight stood at the gate for a moment, as if gathering his thoughts and courage, then pushed it open. They walked through the darkened yard to the main door of the house which DuVaina pounded on. For several moments, nothing happened and Sandia looked up at the knight quizzically. He had a particular expression on his round face that she had seen before when he had tied her in his saddle: one of stubbornness. Without looking at her, he knocked again.
They waited after the sound had echoed through the home for several moments until the door was opened by an old man in a mauve vest. “Yes, what –?” he said, then stopped, his eyes widening. “My lord,” he said, more respectfully. “We had not expected you to return so soon.”
He opened the door fully and stepped aside, then closed it with a boom when they had entered. “I’ll have the cook fetch food for you, if you are hungry,” the man was saying as he hurriedly lit several candles. “Let me have your bedclothes set out. And a suit for tomorrow morning, I presume?” He spoke in a panicked rush as he took DuVania’s bags and dashed off.
The room Sandia stepped into was larger than her whole home had been. It was filled with curious antiques on shelves, including an ornately carved sword, a cloth with the crest of a swan beneath a crescent moon, and a jeweled helm. All of the walls around the room were filled with doors, and in the center a grand staircase led up to a balcony on the second floor.
After the butler had disappeared into one of the doorways, DuVania and Sandia were alone for nearly half a mene. Then, servants began to fill the room, many of them with hair a mess as if they had just woken up. They curtsied or bowed to the knight and welcomed him back. A moment later the butler appeared again. “All is arranged, sir. Welcome back to DuVania manor!”
“Have a guest room set up for Sandia,” DuVania said with a nod to her. She realized she had been gaping at the display and quickly closed her mouth with a scowl. “And bring her food and drink if she desires it. We’ve had a long ride.”
The man looked Sandia up and down with a slight frown. She returned his look darkly. He reached for her hand as if to lead her away and she pulled back. He looked defensively at DuVaina, but the knight was busy asking another servant, “Is my wife awake?”
The voice that answered him came from above and boomed through the room like the voice of god. “She is.”
DuVania and Sandia looked up in unison, but the servant quickly lowered her eyes. On the balcony, wrapped in a pink shawl, stood an older woman, a scowl of deep displeasure on her slightly plump face. “So the errant knight returns in much the same manner as he left.”
DuVania sighed and began climbing the stairs. “Friana,” he said. “I had hoped not to disturb your rest.” The servants scattered under the woman’s gaze like frightened forest animals. The butler grabbed Sandia’s hand quickly. He led her stumbling down a dark hall and then up a staircase where she stubbed her bare toes several times. She could hear the knight and his wife talking loudly even across the house. The butler did his best to talk to her over them as he lit the room’s few candles, “Well, young madam, would you care for anything to eat?”
“No,” she said defiantly.
If the butler was offended, he didn’t show it. “I will send a maid up in a few menes to see to you. I’ve much to do. If you’ll excuse me?” And without waiting for her answer or giving any clue that he cared what it would be, he turned and disappeared out the door.
Sandia looked around a room finer than any she had ever imagined. A bed with a straw mattress filled one corner, and a table with a large bowl filled another. There was a tall window against one wall opposite the door she had entered. Fancy sconces with candles in iron holders lit the room against the dark of night.
She could still hear DuVania and his wife talking, their voices raised in argument. Curious, she stepped out of the room and into the dark hall to hear better. The voices came from around a corner. DuVania’s wife was saying, “All of my sisters have homes larger than this, Maligard. All of them. I’m the laugh of the family. They said to marry a noble; they said to marry a man from a rich family.”
Sandia walked down the hall in the direction of the voices. She saw an open doorway roughly at the top of the stairs. The voice of DuVania’s wife bellowed from within the room. “But I married the dashing knight with no family, not even a name that anyone knew!” Sandia reached the edge of the doorway and peeked in. DuVania faced his enraged wife with his back to the door as she poked him in the chest and shouted in his face. “I gave you a name! I gave you a family and a home and some dignity! And you just keep running off to sleep in tents with soldiers and commoners and horses. I’d think you’d rather live in the stable.”
DuVania grabbed his wife’s wrists roughly. Sandia could hear him snarl in anger and for a moment she thought he would hit the woman. Her chin was tilted upwards at an angle as if she dared that abuse, her blue eyes flashed angrily and she did not turn away from him. Sandia suddenly wondered what her mother would do in that situation. She had never known her father, and her mother had never spoken of him, but Sandia was fascinated by this argument as if she were watching a piece of her own history.
The woman twisted out of DuVania’s grip with a grace that belied her girth. She paced across the room, her steps short and heavy, as if trying to trample her frustration underfoot. Finally, when she reached the opposite wall of the room and stood framed by the huge window between flowing white silk curtains, she spun around again. “So tell me, dashing knight, why you’ve returned at this bell if not to wake me and throw my servants into an uproar.”
“There’s no uproar necessary, Friana,” DuVania said. “Every bloody servant in the place doesn’t have to come out just because I’ve come home.”
Friana threw up her hands. “Just what do you expect them to do?” she asked. “Ignore you? You are the lord of this house, Maligard. My father granted you holdings when you married me; the baron of Castigale granted you this house to settle in this forsaken wasteland of a barony. All this you’ve received, and you have no respect for your duties towards it! Servants have a place, and that place is to greet their lord every time he returns. They are here for you! Do you want them to treat you like a guest in your own house?”
“I have other duties, wife!” DuVania’s voice was finally raised in open shout. “I am a knight! I was a knight when you met me, and I am a knight still. This is what I’ve always been and all I’ve ever wanted to be. All this noble rot is yours, not mine. Your father and Baron Castigale may have granted this house to me, but when I’m here I feel like a guest.”
“Fine,” Friana DuVania said. “Then if we are agreed that you are a guest in this house, I will have a guest room set up for you, for I won’t have you sleeping in here.”
“Fine.” DuVania’s posture looked stern and final, but the word had come out sounding more weary and relieved than anything else. “I’m leaving on the morrow anyway –”
“And while we are on the subject of guest rooms,” his wife said, “may I ask why you’ve decided to install a peasant in one of them? Is it not rustic enough here without you bringing farmer’s children to live with us?”
“She is my ward,” DuVania said. With a start, Sandia realized they were talking about her. The illusion that this was her mother and unknown father arguing shattered, leaving her feeling lonely rather than angry.
“Then I expect she’ll be leaving with you tomorrow?” the woman Friana asked.
“No. I have to go alone. She will stay here until I return.”
“What?” she screeched. “You pick up some orphaned peasant girl and bring her back, then you dump her on me while you gallivant off to herd sheep or whatever it is knights do in this backwater squandry. I won’t have it, Maligard! I won’t! You take that trash from my home or I’ll toss her on her ear the moment you leave.”
Her fury seemed to surprise the knight, but he stood his ground. “You’ll do nothing of the sort, Friana!” he shouted. “The choice to take her as my ward is my own. I’ll be back in four fortnights to retrieve her and then you’ll never see her again.”
For her own part, Sandia felt a strange detachment from this argument over her fate. She didn’t like being called trash, but she could no longer summon any anger at the situation. Decisions on her life were being made by others, and she knew her mother had been right. She would rue whatever they decided, whether she stayed here or was left in the streets or journeyed with the knight, it was all the same.
“This is outrageous; shameful!” The woman was screaming in near hysteria. “Of all the madness I’ve endured as your wife, this is by far the worst. Take that creature from my home or so help me –”
Sandia had had enough. Stepping forward into the light, she said, “I’m not a creature,” in a small but firm voice. She could not control what they decided, so she would not shout, but she would make herself heard.
The two adults fell silent as Maligard turned away from his wife to look at Sandia standing in the doorway. The surprised woman stared at her for a moment. Sandia met her eyes without flinching.
Finally, DuVania’s wife spoke to her husband in a much quieter voice, “And what of your own child, Maligard? What of the daughter you haven’t seen in months? Have you forgotten her and just procured a peasant as substitute?”
DuVania sighed. “Go to bed now, Sandia,” he said with his back still to his wife. She looked defiant for a moment but he said, “Go,” again more firmly and she walked reluctantly down the hall.
A young woman in a plain dress, whom Sandia took to be the maid that the butler had promised to send, was waiting at the corner of the hall with a candle. She reached for Sandia’s hand but the girl shied away. “Be at your own, then, girl,” the maid said with a shrug. Her voice was rough despite her youth. She led the way back down the hall to Sandia’s guest room. “That was right foolish, interrupting the lady of the house like that. You’ll learn better in days to come.”
Sandia ignored the woman, straining to hear the rest of the conversation now that they were speaking rather than shouting. She could hear DuVania say, “Where is Emegrie?”
There was a moment’s pause before his wife answered. “She is staying over in the keep with other noble children from the area. Tutors there instruct them in court manners.” Her voice rose slightly. “It was Dagny’s idea since there aren’t enough knowledgeable people in this region to supply each child with her own tutor.”
“Give her my love, then,” DuVania said. “I won’t be able to seek her out in the morning, there won’t be time; hopefully I’ll see her more during the winter months.”
“So that is it, then? So you go and find yourself a peasant to carry your sword, then you leave her here under my foot while you abandon your true daughter completely.” Her voice rose again with anger.
“I’ll return in two months,” DuVania said forcefully. “No one is being abandoned, Friana. During that time, I’m sure my daughter will fare just as well as she has during the past two months. As for Sandia …” There was a long pause and Sandia wondered if they were now speaking too quietly for her to hear. The maid hummed slightly as she set out clothes on the bed.
Straining, Sandia heard DuVania’s voice like a growl through the thin walls. “If I return to find you’ve turned her out or harmed her,” he said, “I’ll spread word of your cruelty across the city. It won’t take long, I assure you, for everyone in the barony to hate your name.”
“Scandal,” Friana said, her voice also hard to hear. “You wouldn’t dare.”
If there was any more to the conversation, Sandia could not hear it. The maid, with a sardonic glance at the girl, blew out the candles in the sconce and walked out of the room, closing the heavy door and bringing utter darkness.