Secrets of The Court: Chapter 4

 November 23rd, 1519 - Adelton Hall

A small caravan of people made their way from Hayes to Adelton Hall in the early hours of the morning. Although the white castle appeared so near — perched upon its high cliff within the valley — it was at least an hour’s walk away in the deep snow. The caravan was made up of servants from the village — people who worked long and tedious hours within the castle walls for small pay. They did not have the luxury of living within the fortress. They had to settle for their small townhouses within the village of Hayes.

The group of people traversed the same road every day as they had done for many years. It was a wide, dirt road, now covered by thick layers of patted-down snow. It led them through a vast meadow that made up most of the valley. The road continued up toward the cliff where the castle stood mighty, surrounded by snow-covered pine trees and standing just on the edge of the Durun Mountains. Gray clouds hung low and already thick flakes were drifting to the ground as morning beckoned. The rays of the sun managed to break through the thick carpet of snowy clouds and lighten up the villagers that walked chatting on the road.

The light of the sun shone on the white castle as well. The first rays of daylight hit Tristan’s face and his eyelids fluttered open in an instant. Tired eyes scanned the room and he ran his hand through his hair, collapsing further into his soft pillows. The chill of the morning burrowed through the warmth of the cotton covers and furs that had protected him during the night.

The vast room was still foreign to him — he would never get used to such luxurious surroundings. In the fireplace, on the other side of the room, lay the dying embers of last night's fire. Every time he exhaled, a white cloud of smoke from his warm breath escaped his mouth.

Tristan stepped out of the bed and onto the soft rug, its intricate details and design in red, black, and gold covered a great deal of the floor under him. The room was shaped like a square, with the left upper corner shaped diagonally. It had a door in the middle that led to a sitting room that Tristan had decided to change into a study. Thick, long red curtains framed the tall windows. He opened one of them to breathe in the fresh morning air.

The window faced east, displaying the Durun Mountains and the gardens below the castle. The low clouds had started to disperse as the morning slowly progressed and he saw mighty mountain peaks covered in snow. Below the castle, beyond the garden, snow-covered pine trees dotted the rocky landscape.

Tristan could hear the castle come to life. The smell of freshly baked bread wafted through the rooms and the distant chatter and laughter of the servants made the fairytale-like castle seem more human. Tristan went to the windows facing west where he could see Hayes in the distance and people making their way from and toward the castle.

The maids and footmen ran around preparing everything that might be needed for the day and settled into a well-practiced rhythm. Mrs. Hammond took in the quietness of the winter morning as she crossed the courtyard, making her way to the lord's chambers to wake him — as he had asked of her the previous evening.

On her way to the west wing, she crossed paths with Lucius who was heading the same way. After a quick exchange of polite words, Mrs. Hammond left Lucius who went to Tristan's rooms by himself. The old woman was not too keen on being particularly near the master more than needed. Her dislike for him had only grown ever since he had moved in.

As Tristan looked out through the window and glanced at the lands before him — his lands — there was a knock on the door. He guessed that it was Mrs. Hammond.

"Are you awake?" came the baritone voice of Lucius, surprising Tristan. Lucius was usually the one to sleep in as long as he could whenever he had the chance.

A grunt of acknowledgment prompted Lucius to open the door. Lucius entered and tossed Tristan an apple while sitting down in one of the leather-cushioned chairs placed by the fireplace. As Tristan looked at the red apple and then at Lucius who himself sunk his teeth into another one, he arched an inquisitive eyebrow underneath the mask.

"They just came from Coldwick, fresh off from a Portuguese merchant ship that arrived yesterday."

Tristan started nibbling at the sweet fruit while making his way to the other chair by the fireplace. It was a rare luxury few could afford — to have fresh fruit in the middle of winter.

"What news of Alan Moore?" asked Tristan, discarding small talk, as usual. 

A small chill traveled up Lucius’ spine just thinking about the man who had seen the face of Tristan and lived to talk about it.

"His mind comes and goes. I just saw him this morning and he appears more cooperative today. But until now he hasn't said anything new… anything of use to us." Lucius frowned as he cautiously continued. "Whenever I mention your name, he turns quiet he does. There is raw fear in his eyes…"

Tristan remained silent.

"Did you really…you know…" It was a question Lucius had wanted to ask ever since the interrogation. But he could not bring himself to complete the sentence. No one knew about Alan Moore. Tristan and Lucius kept him a secret, locked away in a deep, dark dungeon since they did not know whom to trust yet.

Tristan took one last bite of the apple before tossing it into the dying embers, stirring up some sparks as the wet fruit collided with the black, burning coals. He looked away from them and directly at Lucius.

"Yes." The masked man before him showed no hesitation as he confirmed Lucius’ suspicion. Lucius grew afflicted by the confirmation. It only served to fuel the speculations he had about the face behind the mask. He could only guess that the face had to be so scarred that it invoked terror in a grown man. The only visible areas were the two small holes for Tristan's eyes and a larger one for his mouth, and there Lucius saw no scarred or deformed tissue. The skin looked normal, healthy even, now in the light of day. Lucius was not superstitious, and he did not believe in the rumors that there was a curse on the face of the man before him. However, people speculated about everything. Some argued that Tristan had broken the heart of a witch or a gypsy and received a curse from her. Others said that he had slain a sorcerer in battle and had a spell put on him in doing so. Some even went as far as saying that he had sold his soul to the Devil to win the war for Angloa against England. But those were superstitious speculations that the servants of the castle gossiped about when they thought no one was listening.

"Lucius," Tristan said, interrupting his train of thought and changing the subject. "Have you heard anything from the group of soldiers we sent to Raven's Grove to find Saxton and his bandits?"

"No, they were supposed to report back to Captain Roger yesterday evening, but they never arrived. Roger said that if we hear nothing from them today, we should think about sending another patrol."

"Maybe I should have sent more than fifteen soldiers." Tristan grew pensive, wondering if he had perhaps sent his men to an early grave.

"Let's not jump to conclusions yet. They might still arrive today, unharmed and with information to give us. I heard from Mrs. Hammond on my way here that young Lady Vega and her mother are expected to arrive later this morning. Let me handle the soldiers for now while you worry about receiving them. And... maybe... you should change clothes before she comes."

Tristan perceived his worn attire as formal enough.

"I’ll not pretend to be something I am not," he murmured back, masking the anxiety at the thought of having his fiancée and her mother coming to live in such close quarters.

Lucius let out a small sigh and got up from his seat. "I'll be by the stables, the courier should arrive with news from my own home this morning."

"Oh, my lady, I can see the white towers from here!" Maria burst with joy while looking out the window of the coach that had just passed Hayes a few minutes ago. "It is as splendid as I imagined!" she exclaimed, practically hanging out of the window while the coach went full speed.

Christine did not feel the same bubbly excitement as her handmaid did. She pulled the grey furs closer around her while staring down. Their voyage seemed to have gone by too fast and now she was back to a place she thought she would never see again.

"Soon we will be home again, all will be as before my sweet," her mother said while resting her gloved hands on her lap. Christine did not respond, but she knew that nothing would ever be the same after the death of her father. As the coach climbed the hill that led up to the gatehouse, she felt no joy in returning and thought that perhaps their return was a mistake. But she did not voice her feelings, she only smiled and took her mother's cold hand in her own.

"We are finally home mother, you and me. We will not have to worry about anything anymore." They were empty words to her, with no promise. But they managed to bring a sad smile to her mother's lips. Christine knew her mother was not fooled by her.

"Maybe someday we truly will not, and his… death will be behind us," murmured Amanda.

The coach passed in through the gate and into the familiar courtyard where Christine had played as a young girl. A footman opened the doors and aided the three women out of the coach while a familiar face stood before them with open arms. Mrs. Hammond smiled through held-back tears as she went to embrace both mother and daughter. When she hugged Christine, she lingered a bit longer, pouring all her heart into the embrace.

"We have missed you, our little Christine," Mrs. Hammond whispered in her ear. Christine hugged her back and the nostalgic feeling of being home again coursed through her.

"I have missed you more," Christine whispered back. They broke their embrace, reminiscing about the life that had once been, perhaps hoping the normalcy of the past might happen upon them yet understanding it would never be so. Without little ceremony and wishing to rest after their long journey, Mrs. Hammond led them to their respective rooms. Maria could not help but notice the stares of disdain and malice her young mistress got from the other servants as they entered the castle. Maria was glad that Christine did not notice.

"His lordship has taken the main chambers, as is to be expected," sneered Mrs. Hammond, showing her clear distaste for the man. "We have prepared the purple room for you, Lady Vega. Your old room is as you left it, Miss," said Mrs. Hammond as they stopped outside the purple room, close to the center of the castle. Christine's room was close to where her parents' had been, where Tristan now resided. It was in the same wing and even the same corridor as him.

"And where might his lordship be?" asked Amanda.

Mrs. Hammond only scoffed but quickly remembered her place. "Well, he seems to be more busy chasing bandits in Raven's Grove than properly receiving his fiancée and his soon-to-be mother-in-law after such a long journey."

"Bandits? Oh, how exciting!" said Maria with her golden eyes shining brightly as she turned to Christine. Mrs. Hammond lifted a thin eyebrow and her lips pressed together, holding her tongue while being in the presence of the ladies of the house.

"It seems Cadherra has changed much in our absence," remarked Amanda. She turned to her daughter and embraced her. "We are home now, Christine. Go, rest." Amanda turned to Mrs. Hammond. "I hope that his lordship will at least have had something decent to eat prepared for us, we have only lived on salted meats and mead during this long journey. I think that both my daughter and I could do well with a refreshing cup of Madeira and something green for once."

"But of course, my lady, I will call for you myself when all is prepared. You will dine with his lordship and his acquaintances tonight," Mrs. Hammond explained. Amanda nodded haphazardly, trying to force a smile. But she never managed one at the thought of having to sit at the same table as Hawthorne.

Mrs. Hammond took Christine through the open spaces of the castle, through many familiar rooms and corridors. The tall windows allowed for the evening light to shine through. As Christine silently followed Mrs. Hammond, with Maria close behind, she looked around at her old home. They walked past the library — the doors that had once always stood open were now closed as they continued making their way to her room. The promenade became a sort of tedious task for her. Christine thought that she would feel nostalgic but relieved to be home when she returned. Alas, there was only a heavy burden now on her shoulders. Adelton Hall evoked memories she did not want to recall, for they reminded her of what she did not have anymore. Both Maria and Mrs. Hammond were aware of Christine's gloomy countenance, and they decided it best not to push any conversation.

The closer they got to her room, the more anxious Christine grew. When they walked past the chambers that had once belonged to her parents, Christine looked away from the sturdy doors. She had no idea if Tristan Hawthorne was currently behind those doors, and she did not wish to know. But the thought of being in such close quarters to him made her even more uneasy.

"I hope you find it as you left it, my lady," came the high-pitched voice of Mrs. Hammond. Christine snapped out of her thoughts and found herself standing in the doorway to her chambers. She was transported back once again. The chamber before her could indeed not be hers. It looked childish, as if it belonged to the young girl that still thought unicorns grazed the meadow by Raven's Grove.

By the window, next to her bed, there was still a carved bench into the stone, made more comfortable with cushions and a mattress. There, someone could sit and read. Her bed still had the thin, muslin draping flying like a halo around it. The wall facing north was covered in tapestry except for in the middle, where a very ugly portrait of her family hung. She had painted it when she was eleven. It was framed by her father who had proudly declared his daughter an artist.

Her vast, white dressing table still had her old trinkets — useless things she had picked up in markets in Hayes whenever Mrs. Hammond would take her. They were mostly carved figures, made of wood that had then been hand-painted by a boy she had been infatuated with at the time. There were a few dolls that had seen better days that sat framing the lower part of the mirror. Most of them had been a gift from her father whenever he returned from his trips, usually from Wessport or New London. The south wall of her room was lined with bookshelves and all of her books still stood there, now collecting dust.

"I shall have them fetch your belongings here, my lady," said Maria as she and Mrs. Hammond left the room to give the girl some much-needed space.

Christine barely heard them leave as she walked to the small bookshelf. She ran her fingers across the binders and let the fragrance of old paper fill her nostrils. For the most part, the shelves were lined with trinkets and silver. But what she appreciated most were the handful of books that stood neatly in the middle. Christine picked out a smaller tome with a dark green leather binder. It had been her diary once. The book had served as her place to gather her thoughts ever since she got it from her mother on her ninth birthday. She was about to open the book but suddenly put it back again, she did not want to reminiscence on something that had passed. She went to her bed instead and lay down in it, hugging the covers close to her, pinching her eyes shut, and wishing herself away.

It was dark outside when Amanda walked behind Mrs. Hammond who held the candle steady, careful not to let the wax drip. The click of her heels against the floor echoed harshly through the dark corridors as the long, woven rugs that served to line the stone floors had been sold off after her husband's death. The candleholders that lined the walls stood empty as she'd had their supply of wax candles sold a year ago to save money. It appeared that Lord Hawthorne never bothered with buying new ones, or he simply had not noticed how dark Adelton Hall was now.

Amanda descended the all too familiar staircase that led to the main dining room. She was surprised when she entered to find that the room was lit up. The fires blazed away, and the table was filled to its brim with plates of delicious food. Her daughter was nowhere to be seen.

By the table sat three men, one of them she recognized instantly. Tristan Hawthorne looked threatening as ever with his dark garb and rugged appearance. He did not dress for the occasion, his clothes were worn, dark, and unkempt. He wore a loose black shirt with a dark brown leather jerkin. The man had not even bothered to lace it close and it only served as a reminder to Amanda that even if Lord Hawthorne bore the title of a count, he was still of low birth. He sat at the head of the table. On either side of him sat a man. One of them had sand-colored hair and bright eyes. He looked wise for his age although Amanda could not guess how old he was. He was the better dressed of the three, tastefully matching a doublet and breeches in red, with a light-colored jerkin over it.

The man to Hawthorne's left looked younger with raven locks and inquisitive eyes. He smiled at something the well-dressed man had just said. Tristan was the first one to notice Amanda's presence. He gave her a slight nod, and while doing so alerted the other two men of her presence. They followed in Tristan’s manner and rose as well while the lady was shown to a seat next to the younger man on Tristan's left.

"Serve Lady Vega some refreshments," said Tristan while gesturing for a servant to pour some wine into her metal goblet. Amanda nodded stiffly, insulted at his impolite treatment of her. He had not even risen to stand—but then again what could she expect from someone who had risen from the ranks? The way he looked at her made her uneasy and instead, she turned her head toward the door, waiting for her daughter to show.

Christine entered only minutes after her mother had sat down to take her first sip of wine. The men around the table were quicker to rise this time. Christine dressed modestly for the evening, her hair braided away from her face and her gown cut in a modest square neckline, the color a soft light green — the same green that could be seen in the moss that grew in Raven's Grove. Christine was wearing a white woolen shawl, draped around her bosom to keep warm. She scanned the room and as soon as she saw her mother, she fixed her gaze on her as she was led to her chair by the table. Tristan had, in turn, fixed his eyes on her. Joseph and Lucius stole a few extra glances as well.

When they were all seated, they commenced eating without a word. Tristan did not bother introducing his two friends or asking about the health of the women. Lady Amanda found the stale reception arrogant and rude on their host’s part. Lucius caught Tristan's eyes and urged him to say something to break the ice.

"It seems we are in want of introductions," Lucius said as Tristan failed to act—or did not wish to. Tristan placed down his goblet of wine harsher than was needed as he glared at Lucius. He wanted to be there as little as the ladies present.

"Allow me to present Lucius Chaeld, baron I believe the title was?” Tristan muttered. Lucius gave an awkward nod to the rest of the party and forced a smile toward mother and daughter.

"It is indeed a pleasure, ladies, to make your acquaintance," Lucius said.

"Allow me also to introduce Joseph Astor," Tristan paused, thinking, "the third son of the Viscount Rudolph of Bannria."

"Actually, I am the fourth child. But since one of my oldest brothers decided to take the cloth, General Hawthorne has ever only met my two older brothers," Joseph joked. It served to break the tension for it coaxed a small smile from Amanda and even a twitch in Christine's lips.

There was not much more said by Tristan during dinner after that. Christine remarked that he scarcely touched any food that was on his plate. Instead, Joseph was in charge of most of the conversation, and Lucius chipped in here and there. Joseph asked both Amanda and Christine about their trip and about Cadherra as he had not been to that part of the county previously. Soon, Christine managed to feel more at ease in the strange new company. She and Joseph found that eventually, they were the only ones speaking at the table. When the final round of plates had been served and taken away, Christine excused herself and retired for the night. Amanda followed suit and as soon as both women left the room, the tension of the evening loosened.

"Well, I think that went extremely well, don't you?" Joseph encouraged merrily, trying to lighten the mood.

November 25th

Christine remained enclosed in her chambers the following days, wishing to avoid her fiancé at all costs. Somehow, she was relieved that their impending marriage had yet to be brought up. She surmised that as long as she avoided him, there would be no talk of nuptials and she would be able to drag it out, even if only for a little longer. Instead, Christine sat surrounded by furs, with the fireplace lit, reading every book she could get her hands on. It made her immerse herself into another world where her own problems disappeared for a few hours. She lived adventures and discovered exotic new places that she knew she would never visit otherwise.

Tristan, on the other hand, had kept busy preparing a small army of men. The group of soldiers he had sent a few days earlier to Raven's Grove had returned in smaller numbers. Captain Roger had been taken hostage by Saxton and his men. It was a blow to Tristan's pride — a second blow that he would not let pass this time. He wanted to see the bandit leader rot away in one of the cells in the dungeons of Adelton Hall together with Moore.

He remembered well the words Saxton had said to him, that he was a known bandit in these parts, but Tristan did not know for what. When they had made it out of the woods, he had sent a curious glance at Lucius, but he had shaken his head. At that moment, Tristan started wondering if they had not been taken for fools by a simple villager who pretended to be otherwise.

As nightfall descended slowly upon the castle, most of its inhabitants were still working hard to prepare for the coming day, as per usual. Only a select few, the lord and his guests, sat back and relaxed in the upper-east drawing room. It faced southeast and was adorned with themes from the Arthurian legend. The walls had tapestries depicting the tales of old and courtly love. The furniture like the sofa, table, armchairs, and seats, all in a northward alcove, were comfortable and made out of dark mahogany wood. The seats, sofa, and armchairs had geese feathers stuffing, and the fabric was of a light blue, and it made it very comfortable and homelike.

During the day, the drawing room received a lot of light from the sun as the windows were big and tall. There was a grand fireplace where the flames of a fire danced away, bringing light and warmth to the room as the sun had set a few hours earlier. A rug in white, dusty yellow and reds lined half of the wooden floor of the room, to better isolate the warmth.

Tristan sat in one of the armchairs, going through the report one of the lieutenants had written earlier that day. It talked about the attack in Raven's Grove. The mask did not show it, but he frowned the more he read. Lucius sat by the fire, opposite Amanda, playing a game of chess in good spirits. Amanda squealed in delight whenever she managed to knock another piece off the board. Joseph sat opposite them, reading a book, looking quite bored while he tediously flipped the pages. Christine was nowhere to be seen.

Mrs. Hammond walked in through the door with a tray holding cups. She commenced placing them next to each person as a maid next to her poured a warm ruby beverage into the cups. It was spiced wine that Amanda had asked for earlier that evening after dinner. As the maid poured the liquid into Tristan's cup, he put down the stack of paper and stared at the cup.

"Who is Henry Saxton?" asked Tristan absentmindedly. The maid paled and spilled a little of the liquid on the blue mantle that lined the round table next to him. She immediately apologized and started cleaning up. Alas, she never answered his question, nor did Mrs. Hammond. Tristan locked eyes with the maid and repeated the question, making her grow pale. He did not know if it was because he had only spoken to her or if the name of Saxton invoked such a reaction.

"Thank you, Mrs. Hammond, that will be all. You may leave," came the sudden and stern voice of Amanda. Mrs. Hammond sent a grateful look toward her ladyship and made haste together with the maid. As both women left the room, Tristan looked over at Amanda, who'd stopped her chess game with Lucius and met the irritating gaze.

"I did not say that they could leave," Tristan remarked, pointing toward the door where both servants had left. He stood up, slowly walking toward her. Amanda gathered her wits and stood up as well. She was not too keen on talking directly with Tristan, but she gained a boost of courage in the presence of his friends.

"Of course, my lord, it was disrespectful of me, and it shall not happen again. After all, I am no longer mistress of this…" she trailed off, a melancholy expression settling over her features as she was reminded of the passing of her husband.

Tristan was faced with two wide eyes and frowning brows as Amanda awaited further chastising or dismissal from his part. Indeed, she thought the very worst of him, it seemed. He settled on keeping his remarks to himself, returning to his chair albeit not pleased by her answer.

"Perhaps you know of whom I'm speaking," Tristan said as his dark voice cut through the tense silence that had now settled within the room. Amanda was thankful that her daughter kept to her chambers. She was positive that Christine would have spoken out to defend her mother from further verbal inquiries.

"I do indeed," she answered, collecting herself as she sat down and placed a hand over her bosom. Amanda sighed, her eyes wandering to the dancing flames in the fireplace, the sadness extending within her. She folded her hands in her lap, enticed by the flames.

"Saxton, as he is known by the locals now, used to be Henry Saxton the Third, Duke of Sorossa. He was coveted in Wessport, and once part of the General Assembly, my lord." Amanda paused.

"When the war broke out with England three years ago, he was first in line to defend Angloa. While out campaigning, another prominent lord claimed that Lord Saxton had tried to strip him of his lands. Unfortunately, the evidence against Saxton was overwhelming. He was consequently stripped of his title by the king, even after one of his advisors tried convincing him that further investigation was necessary. When Saxton found out that he did not have any home to return to from the battlefield the rumors suggested him to be furious. All of this had happened while he was away and he blamed it all on his wife and young son, who had not lifted a finger to defend his name in his absence.” Amanda frowned — she must have known Saxton personally, for recalling the events appeared painful to her. “I shall not venture to suppose the confusion and desperation Lord HenrSaxton had to go through, my lord," she quickly corrected. "I will not say what he did was justified, of course it was not, but he had been cornered and the events that unfolded are of such an unfortunate nature that speaking of them here, even in the absence of my daughter, ails me.”

“Then, my lady, we should not trouble you by making you recall such horrid—” Joseph began.

“I think it my right to know with whom I am crossing blades,” Tristan interrupted.

Amanda forced a smile, but it never quite reached her eyes. “Quite… It is said that Saxton left his duties in the north and returned to his home, got past all the guards, and slayed his own family in a frenzy. Saxton tried then to kill the man who had received his lands without success. His Majesty proclaimed it an act of treason and madness and imprisoned him on the island of Cantabria. He escaped and went on a killing spree while he made his way to Raven's Grove. There is where he currently resides with his band of thieves. Now those who pass through Raven's Grove are robbed and killed by him." Amanda had grown white as a sheath.

The fire sent violent sparks up through the chimney, causing her to jump in her seat.

“And,” Tristan asked in a murmur, “what do you believe?”

He too had directed his gaze at the fire. “For indeed you knew him, it seems.”

“The Saxtons and Vegas have always been close,” she whispered back. Amanda stole a few glances from Joseph and Lucius, as if begging them to intercede, but she was left to her own devices. “The evidence of his deeds were overwhelming,” she finally quivered. However, Tristan noted a shadow of hesitation in her voice, mayhap because she suspected or rather wished that Saxton’s deeds were not what they seemed. "But how is it that you know of this man?" she asked. Tristan had not yet arrived in Angloa when this sad affair had transpired and it had been hushed down at court ever since.

"We were robbed by him, madam," said Lucius without thinking. Amanda looked shocked, both at Lucius and Tristan. Joseph as well, for he had not known of it either. Tristan had made sure that none of the group spoke of it to anyone.

"Then how come you are still alive?" she exclaimed. Tristan wondered if there was not a hint of disappointment interlaced with the initial shock of her statement.

"We had enough men to defend us from such a fatal end," Tristan growled while looking at Lucius. "But it seems our valuables were not as lucky." He knew that any more information about Saxton would be simple speculation. He had gotten a general idea about Saxton — it was enough to go on for now. The man might have been impulsive when and if he had indeed killed his family, but now he seemed clearer of mind. The ambush in Raven's Grove had required a great deal of planning.

Tristan rose from his seat, grabbing the report and motioning for Lucius to follow him. He was determined that Captain Roger would indeed need rescuing now more than ever if he wasn’t already dead — Tristan never left anyone behind and he would not start now.

November 26th

Christine woke later than usual. It was a gloomy morning when she looked out the window. The rain that fell in big droplets from the sky washed the remaining snow away and turned the valley into a muddy mess. The landscape did well in reflecting her countenance, that of a gray gloom.

Ever since they had arrived, she had tried to keep to her chambers. Maria and Mrs. Hammond were the only ones she interacted with on a daily basis as they brought food to her chamber and tried to keep her company throughout the day. Mrs. Hammond would speak of the intrigues of the castle, and she would complain about Hawthorne's arrogance. Maria on the other hand was more perceptive. She noticed that whenever Christine did venture beyond her chambers, the other servants looked at her in silent disdain and judgment. They would sneer and whisper when she was near. In Adelton, Christine and Amanda were now a traitor’s daughter and wife and no marriage, with either a war hero or with a titled nobleman, would ever change that. Her situation, to the new staff, had some of them arguing that it was divine justice — trapping the daughter in a marriage with someone like Tristan.

Sometimes, when Maria passed Christine’s chambers, she would hear the faintest sounds of sobs, but whenever she rushed in to comfort the girl, the tears had already been dried.

Christine chose to suffer in silence and to shut herself off from the rest of the world. Maria had no idea why she chose to suffer like that, for Christine still had her and her mother. But whenever she brought the subject up, Christine would shut her out even more. In one year since the death of her father, the bright, headstrong girl she once knew had turned into an empty shell of a person. She was a frail, thin thing and both Maria and Mrs. Hammond were afraid that if nothing happened soon, she would waste away.

The nights were the worst. When Christine lay her head to rest, her dreams constantly reminded her of happier days. She saw flashes of her father and mother, all in bright and vibrant colors. Sometimes she could hear the heavy steps of Tristan in the corridors as he ventured to his chambers. Tristan had never bothered seeking her out and she was grateful for it.

A soft knock sounded, three silent taps and then a fourth, much stronger. It was Maria and Christine asked for her to come in. The blonde girl entered with a big stack of folded blankets toppling over in her arms. She motioned for Christine to get off her bed so she could change the sheets.

"My lady should dress more warmly today, it looks like it might snow later," Maria said while removing the white linens and spreading fresh ones out on the vast bed.

"I will not go out today, Maria. I shall be fine in my rooms." Christine wore nothing more than her nightgown. It was a white simple dress with long sleeves and a low-cut neckline. She wore a deep red robe over it, sleeveless and no fastening in the front. The neckline was lined with red fox fur to provide extra warmth.

Maria left the half-made bed and placed her hands on her hips. She gave Christine a stern look, golden eyes judgingly taking in the frail figure before her.

"Seeing you wasting away like this saddens me, my lady. You have overcome much this last year, why should you succumb to sorrow now? I will dress you myself if that is what it takes, and I will take you wherever you please, as long as it is not your chamber or the library." There was a determination in Maria's voice that did not falter. For even if she spoke to her mistress, she was not afraid to voice her opinion, even if that meant she had to insult her.

Christine's hands turned into two shaking fists as she kept back an unladylike retort, but there was a spark of irritation running through her eyes.

"Finally!" Maria exclaimed, raising her hands and letting out a dry, sarcastic laugh. "Some emotion." She did not wait for more and went to the wide wardrobe and proceeded to pick out clothes.

"I did not say I would go out, Maria," Christine said, angrier by the minute. "And you will not speak so informally when you are with me!" She rushed over to her handmaid and pushed her away from the opened doors and closed them in a swift motion.

"Leave me be and do not come back." Christine pointed at the door and Maria looked at her, baffled. She went to the bed, placed the last of the sheets and covers, and headed for the door. Before leaving, Maria turned around and looked at her mistress with pity.

"If you continue pushing away those who care for you, you will soon be left with no one, my lady."

Christine was left to stand alone and as soon as the door closed, she collapsed on the rug, cursing her foolishness. She understood that her situation had greatly improved now, thanks to Tristan. However, even if she kept telling herself that, she could still not fool herself, nor drive away the hollowness and frightening anger that resided deep within her. After a while, Christine glanced at the windowsill and decided that perhaps, what she truly needed, was indeed a breath of fresh air.

She dressed herself in a front-laced dark green gown with black trimming. She confined her fair tresses in a black net. When she was garbed for the day, she went to the door and listened carefully so that she did not accidentally happen upon anyone outside. When the coast seemed clear, she made her way to the library first.

The library was grand indeed, with books lining a vast and tall room. Three storied shelves lined three sides of the room, the short side furthest away had a pleasant fireplace. Most of the books in her father’s old library were tomes. There were also many books filled with courtly love and tales of knights and their ladies. She quickly found her favorite, the Chant of Roland, and sat in one of the chairs closest to the fireplace while she commenced reading.

Christine had yet to finish the first page when she sensed a pair of eyes on her. She put the book away and turned around coming face to face with two pale blue eyes that smiled at her as she put the book down.

"Please, do not let me disturb your reading," Joseph said as he neared and sat in one of the armchairs next to her.

"You did not disturb me."

"Yet you are not reading anymore," he retorted jokingly. Christine remained silent while looking at him with an expressionless face. Joseph rose from the chair and bowed lightly in an apologetic manner.

"Forgive me, my lady, it seems I intruded where I should not have. I will leave you to your books and adventures," he smiled and started leaving.

"Wait!" came her soft albeit hesitant voice. She put down the book and moved so that she was facing him.

"To be honest, I could not get into the story as I was quite bored. But please do not think that I find your presence unwelcome," she mumbled. Joseph gave her another boyish grin.

"I have tried in vain to find amusement in these books. But I find myself as bored as anyone who is not used to the quiet provincial life." He extended a hand toward her in an inviting motion. "How about a stroll in the gardens? Most of the snow has washed away from the rains and it will be easier to walk there now."

Christine did not answer directly at his request, she thought that, perhaps, retreating to her chambers was best. She also worried, she knew of the disdain the castle servants had for her and what possible scornful gossip might arise at the sighting of her unchaperoned in the company of someone like Joseph.

However, against her better judgment, Christine put away the book and followed him. All the way to the gardens, Joseph kept a tasteful distance between the two. She was someone else's betrothed and he respected that. He talked most of the time while Christine listened. She was lulled to a sense of peaceful awareness by his tenor voice. He spoke mainly of his admiration for Adelton Hall, Hayes, and Cadherra and of how different it was to his home in southern Angloa, near Zafra.

As they left the castle, they descended into the lower grounds. There, a small path led them through the trees that dotted the steep hillside and took them to a secluded garden. In summer it was a splendid sight, hidden amongst the trees. It housed a grand variety of marble fountains depicting scenes from Greek mythology. There were naked hedges and carpets of dead grass lined with various empty earth plots where flowers would bloom in spring. But now all that flora and fauna would not emerge for another five months, and the gardens were lifeless. Yet Joseph kept remarking on the peace. Sensing Christine’s mellowness, he gave some crass remark on one particular fountain that depicted three little cherubs. Joseph pointed out the likeness they bore to his brothers whenever their mother was angry with them. A lighthearted laugh escaped Christine at the thought.

"I thought it was prohibited to laugh in this household," Joseph blinked.

Christine gathered her wits and cleared her voice, her reddening cheeks revealing her state of embarrassment.

"How could anyone ever prohibit laughter?" Her voice grew subdued as she spoke, her eyes lowering as the laughter left her eyes.

"I will not pretend to know what ails you. But, your state of mind is obvious to us all here in Adelton. I… can only offer encouraging words. As far as I see it, your mother, Mrs. Hammond, and that handmaid of yours do nothing but worry for your well-being."

Christine glanced down at the cold, frozen ground. The chilly winter air swept past them. She was surprised that it was Joseph — this man that she hardly knew — that would be the one to stir some laughter in her when she had found the act impossible for months.

"I do know of their worry and affection for me," she said.

"And… and Hawthorne might seem intimidating at first, but if you give him a chance, he might present himself as more amicable," Joseph paused, noticing how Christine was shivering in the cold. "Give it time," he said before suggesting that they return. On the way back they did not speak more, but it felt good to have silence between them, to have time for contemplation.

When Christine closed the doors to her chambers, she let out a strained sigh — she did not need Joseph to worry about her as well.

November 29th

There was quite a stir in Adelton Hall during the early morning when Tristan Hawthorne and Lucius Chaeld were rallying twenty men. Tristan had fastened a torn cape diagonally across his back as it was commonly worn, and he had his sharpened sword and knife close next to him. Lucius and the other men were dressed in soldiers' garb, just as he was. They sported dark colors and many layers to keep out the cold.

They were armed to the teeth, like the mercenaries of old, with swords, arrows, knives of various sizes, and plenty of lances. Tristan had seen to it that they were prepared as they were riding toward Raven's Grove, to end Saxton once and for all.

"What is all this commotion?" came the familiar high-pitched voice of Mrs. Hammond. Her short little legs had taken her to the courtyard where the small army stood. "Oh… my," she said under her breath at the sight of the men. Many of the servants had gathered to witness the train of soldiers ride to their end. For, indeed, they were certain that Tristan’s party would face death within the Grove. But the sight was indeed an impressive one. They felt taken back to the days of old, when feudal lords would ride out all the time, defending their lands from other invading lords, thieves, bandits, or enemies from the east.

Tristan mounted his gray stallion in a swift motion, the action graceful even though he wore plate armor covering his chest, shoulders, and upper arms. The armor was painted black with golden details on the edges and with ornamental embossing—an expensive ensemble passed down to him from his old commander, Field Marshal Melkeer, upon his untimely death during the war. Underneath he wore a gambeson in dark blue, a padded jacket constructed out of wool, to warm him in the chilly weather. Tristan took in the sight of his men, growing satisfied — these were the best men that the castle held. He noticed Mrs. Hammond in the corner of his eye. She stared at them with her mouth in a thin line and at the time he wondered what she was thinking about.

"Formation!" shouted Lucius. The ones mounted on horseback formed a column with a width of three horses. Tristan and Lucius kept to the front of the column while Joseph kept to the back. They set out from the courtyard in a trot and made their way to the east end of the forest, where there was no path. If they went by Hayes, the bandits might be warned of their approach.

As they neared the tree line, a familiar rush of adrenaline coursed through Tristan's veins. His body tensed at the impending fight, and he started taking in his surroundings. Raven's Grove was an entirely different sight when one strayed from the main path. It was wilder and darker than before. As soon as they crossed the threshold and wandered into the black depths of the forest, the surroundings became gloomier, and the men grew more alert. It was almost as if an unnatural force was present there. Many huddled together and gripped their steel weapons in fear of the unknown, feeling eyes drilling holes into the back of their necks. There was no song from the birds, nor even the faint sound of the wind that had been so strong that morning. To their better judgment, Raven's Grove was a tomb that was incapable of housing any life. The soldiers wondered how Saxton and his men could bear living under such circumstances.

Tristan was on the lookout as well. The plan was simple enough. As soon as they had ridden into the forest, the group split. Ten soldiers that marched on foot slipped in between the trees, without any armor so they could move more silently. Joseph was amongst them, having some experience as a scout and ranger during the war. The scouts would hide amongst the trees while Tristan and Lucius, together with the rest of the group, would be the bait and lure the bandits out.

There was some movement up ahead and Tristan signaled the men that they might be watched. He got off his horse, letting it roam free as he made ready. The wind howled ominously through the naked crowns as the small group of men waited with the blood rushing through their veins. It did not take long for the bandits to come charging out of the trees and the battle commenced in the blink of an eye.

The soldiers fought fiercely, but the bandits were superior in both fighting style and strength. When more than half of Tristan's men had fallen, Saxton himself emerged from the trees, and their eyes crossed. Tristan, covered in blood from the men he had slain, picked up his sword and walked toward Saxton with determined steps. Saxton smiled and unsheathed his sword as well. The battle surrounding them seemed forgotten and, in their eyes, they were the only ones there. The sound of their steel clashing rang through the forest. The masked man and the bandit fought on for what seemed an eternity.

"Judging from the rumors about you, I should be lying dead on the ground by now!" shouted Saxton in between the clashing of their blades. Tristan did not answer and continued attacking. His sword was lighter than Saxton's, and his grip was different. Saxton carried a heavier broadsword, which required both hands and tired him faster.

"I confess I did not think you sparred so well with the sword," Saxton said in between breaths. He was getting tired, and it showed in the sweat dripping down his forehead. "You are a great fighter indeed—"

"Never have I known anyone to talk so much while fighting for his life before," Tristan growled, interrupting the other. Saxton grinned through the fatigue — he found Tristan a worthy adversary after all.

"Don't take offense! I take our fight very seriously — but a little conversation can never go wrong!"

Their blades locked in one moment and both pushed against each other while their faces neared. They stared, eye to eye, Tristan frowned while Saxton grinned — showing off his pearly whites.

"You have fought honorably friend, but you have lost again," Saxton said and pushed Tristan away. Up in the trees stood more men, aiming their crossbows at the remaining group of soldiers fighting for their lives on the blood-covered ground. Saxton had played all of his cards.

"It is you who has lost," Tristan retorted and rose his sword in the air as a signal.

Out of nowhere, arrows flew through the naked trees, hitting the men that stood in the barren crowns. Those who were hit fell to the ground receiving fatal injuries as their soft bodies collided with the frozen ground. During the tumult, Tristan and Saxton clashed blades yet again as Joseph and his men burst through the trees, fighting off the brutes and turning the tables on the battle. Tristan now had the upper hand, just as he had planned it. When Saxton realized that he was losing, he sneered.

Then, to Tristan's surprise, he grinned once more. "I always thought they overestimated you. I was wrong."

In one swift motion, Tristan disarmed Saxton, who had loosened his grip on his sword out of fatigue. The surrounding fight went on still, the thin blade of the masked man pressed against the throat of the bandit leader.

"Yield here, and I will spare your life," growled Tristan, feeling the familiar adrenaline of victory. But Saxton remained silent, only staring back defiantly, almost as if asking Tristan to kill him.

“Yield!” Tristan shouted, the tip of his blade pressing deeper into Saxton’s neck.

"It seems that I hurt your pride more than I thought," Saxton struggled to say.

"If this were about pride, I would have slain you the moment I saw you, Saxton," came the arrogant voice of a man that knew he had won. Tristan looked down at Saxton and pressed the tip of his sword further into the neck, drawing blood. "I leave no man behind."

"Ah yes, Captain Roger and his men."

"Release them and I pardon your life," said Tristan. He had to hurry, as they were speaking many more were falling in battle. He did not want all of his men to fall and the whole mission to have failed just because the man he had defeated was talkative. Saxton's indifferent attitude and sly grin were stripped from his face and replaced by a pained and hateful expression.

"I would rather die here by your sword than rot away in a cell until I die of disease or hunger," he spat, rising to his feet and staring defiantly into the eyes of the other.

"Aye, the confinements of a cell would not allow you to escape being faced with the actions of your past,” Tristan sneered.

“Whatever actions you are thinking of, they are my own to worry about,” Saxton growled back as a spark of pure, yet contained, anger emerged in his eyes. "I take from those who can afford it to feed my men and I, but I do not kill women and children.”

“Not even your own?”

“Do not speak of things that are beyond your comprehension, Hawthorne!"

Saxton believed in his own words, of that much Tristan was certain. But he had no time to pursue his intuition further as the surrounding men were falling like flies. If he had to, he would let the thieves go this time. Tristan was certain that if he and his men went in for a second attack, they would completely vanquish them.

"If you feel that way about your family then maybe you care for the lives of the men that fight with you," Tristan said. “Stand down and I will let you go.”

“What assurances do I have.”

“My word.”

“Your word is no good to me.”

“I always keep my word.”

Saxton glared at him. “Then you are a bigger fool than I gave you credit for.” He shook his head with a sigh. “Very well.” He reluctantly called his men to surrender. There had been a significant bloodbath and many of Tristan’s men had been severely wounded in battle and needed acute medical care.

Saxton had one of his men run to their camp, disappearing in between the trees. This was only after hearing from Tristan that if the thief brought more men, Saxton would be the first of many casualties that day. Thus, the frightened man ran as fast as he could, bringing Captain Roger and seven other men back with him. Roger stared at the bloody scene before him in awe and then at his general and bowed in deep gratitude. When all seemed in order, Tristan kept his promise and let Saxton go with the rest of his men.

"Today I keep true to my word, should I hear of you causing trouble in this forest again, I will not be as benevolent,” Tristan threatened. The bandits felt the dark eyes on them, sensing the promise would indeed be kept by the fearsome general. There emerged, strangely, an undertone of respect for Tristan, for having returned and fought to get back his own men.

"Then you truly are a man of your word, Hawthorne," Saxton said as he suddenly closed in, talking in a low voice that was only meant for Tristan to hear. "They will squash you like a bug if you are not careful," Saxton whispered. A quick and tense glance was exchanged between them and, then, Saxton and his men disappeared in between the trees. Tristan stared after him and had no idea of what he was referring to.

"My lord, quickly, come!" came a voice from one of his younger soldiers. Tristan turned away from the bandits, rushing over to his men that were tending to the wounded.

"What?" he asked.

"Tis Joseph m'lord, he's been badly wounded!" said the soldier, while pressing on a deep wound, blood continuously oozed out of it. Indeed, Joseph looked badly hurt and pale as a ghost due to so much blood loss.

"Have the worst wounded put on horseback and taken to Adelton and make haste," Tristan said calmly, he could not show worry now. However, he knew from experience that many would not survive the night lest a physician was called soon to the castle.

"You." Tristan pointed to one of the men he knew to be a native of the valley. "Take my horse and go as fast as you can to Hayes and bring the local physician back with you to Adelton."

The man said nothing and rushed to the great stallion and was on his way. Meanwhile, the rest of the group made it slowly back to the castle, to lick their wounds and rejoice at their victory.