Secrets of The Court: Chapter 5

 November 29th, 1519 - Cadherra

Heavy gray skies had opened up around noon, letting yet another shower of snow paint the valley. Thick fog descended from the mountaintops. As it crept down the steep rock formations, the inhabitants of Adelton Hall found themselves blinded in an icy inferno.

George, the Chamberlain of the castle, sensed how each winter became harder than the previous one. His back had grown slightly crooked from years of carrying heavy objects and items up and down the slippery stairs of the fortress. His eyesight was not as good as it used to be. His limbs grew excessively tired whenever he used them too much.

He was surprised that he had not perished from his fever. Alas, it had left him weak and bedridden for a while. He strolled through the ornamented corridors of Adelton with Mrs. Hammond by his side who was getting him up to speed on the latest events that had occurred during his absence.

"I have the receipts of the latest dealings with the merchants from Coldwick. I am uncertain if the prices have risen because this winter is growing harsher or because they were dealing with me this time," Mrs. Hammond sighed while handing over a neat stack of papers kept in a leather binding.

"I am certain all is in order, Mrs. Hammond, but paperwork is paperwork." George did not bother with looking at the documents and instead changed the subject to something that interested him more. "I would like to know a little more about this new lord of ours," chuckled George. Mrs. Hammond grew red with apparent irritation at the mere mention of Hawthorne and defiantly turned her head up, flaring her nostrils in the process.

"I have done as best as I have been able! I am only grateful that the responsibility no longer lies with me," she spat without considering she was addressing her superior. However, the relationship between George and Mrs. Hammond had always been a relaxed and friendly one. The Chamberlain had never been much for upholding the norm of rank and courtesy. He was polite indeed, and the servants and the other inhabitants of Adelton loved him. His treatment of every person — be they of low or high birth — was with respect and friendliness. That was probably one of the reasons he had been Chamberlain for more than fifty years and never lost his position.

"His lordship cannot be that bad, Anne," noted George as he patted her on the shoulder.

"He skulks around the castle and frightens the daylights out of the staff. He is arrogant, boorish, and ill-tempered, and he finds it amusing to vex us. And he does this looking like a complete ruffian, someone unfit to be the new Count and less in the good graces of His Majesty!" Mrs. Hammond drew breath after her little outburst and proceeded to regain her composure.

"The worst thing in all is that Miss Christine will be the one to suffer. Her complexion and general health have been failing ever since she and her mother arrived from Wessport." Mrs. Hammond frowned. "The girl is dear to me, George, and I have watched her grow up. It would indeed be a hard blow to us all if God were to take her from us now after all she has endured this past year."

George fell into deep thought as Mrs. Hammond continued with her lamentations.

"May God strike me down but it would be a miracle to us all if his lordship were to fail on his venture in Raven's Grove," Mrs. Hammond whispered and received a glare from the Chamberlain.

"Never speak such words, Anne. Even if his lordship might be an irritating and impossible man, I have not heard even one reason for anyone to wish such a demise upon him." George paused as he weighed the words Mrs. Hammond had just spoken. "Raven's Grove? That bandit-infested place?" he suddenly realized.

"Aye, he rode out with over twenty strong men this morning and has yet to return," Mrs. Hammond managed to say. Then suddenly, as if by some extraordinary coincidence, shouts were heard from the direction of the courtyard.

"Perhaps they have returned?" mumbled George and headed in the direction of the tumult. Mrs. Hammond quickened in her pace as well and followed suit to the courtyard.

"Look!" shouted one of the stablemen. In through the gates came a handful of horses in wild gallop and were only stopped when footmen and stable boys jumped forward to calm them.

Those who had arrived from Raven’s Grove first were the ones who had escaped severe injuries from battle. They bore only mere scratches which they hadn't even noticed. The more fortunate ones had ridden with the fatally wounded men.

"Prepare beds for the wounded and have the kitchen staff boil water. Prepare spirits and gauzes, we are expecting the physician at any moment," said a soldier with a rather large gash on his forehead that he had yet to care for. Shortly after the first wave had arrived, came the most wounded of the lot. They could barely hang onto the horses. As the animals — frightened by the smell of blood that dripped down their flanks — were calmed down, a man fell dead from the beast that had carried him.

"Where is the physician?" demanded George in a commanding, but calm voice. When no one answered him, he took charge instead of waiting for Hawthorne's return. It was like he had always done ever since the death of Charles Vega.

"Let us get these men inside and away from the elements. All those who can walk will help us to carry them inside. I believe they will prepare provisional beds in…" George paused and looked at one of the servants who had just come running out from the main doors of the castle.

"The Palas, in the east wing," she spoke timidly.

"Bring them there – straight ahead and then to your left until you reach the end of the corridor."

Without a minute to lose the wounded men were carried swiftly toward the main building. Two other soldiers who had died during the ride were left behind. There was no time for the dead when the others were still breathing.

"Sir Joseph!" exclaimed Mrs. Hammond and walked alongside the wounded man that was being carried inside. Her forehead wrinkled with worry. Joseph had one arrow in his shoulder and a nasty slash on the outer part of his left thigh. His skin had a grayish tint and he was unconscious.

"Make way, make way!" came the agitated voice of another man entering the courtyard amidst all the chaos. He was what appeared to be in his mid-fifties with white streaks running through his brown hair and trimmed goatee. The man was riding Tristan Hawthorne's gray stallion.

"Where are the rest of the wounded?" He looked around, jumping off the horse and rushing to the Chamberlain.

"This way and make haste, Victor!"

George led the physician to the Palas, taking long and quick strides, making the younger man run every other step due to his shorter stature. As soon as the physician entered the Palas, he went right to work on the wounded, soliciting help from the servants that were available. He had them disinfect and bind the easiest wounds while he personally treated the more severe ones.

Victor Blake of Hayes — the residing physician of the small town — worked tirelessly for the following hours. The whole household helped him as best as they could to take care of the eleven men that lay on improvised cots in the hall. Nothing had been heard yet from Tristan and it wasn't until nightfall that he and the rest of the soldiers entered the castle on foot. George was made aware of his lordship's presence and wasted no time in running to greet him. He was pleased to see that his current master upheld all the praise and rumors that had been said about him. Tristan Hawthorne was more than he expected as he entered through the courtyard with little ceremony, covered in blood, with a few cuts here and there.

"My lord," George said as he neared the younger man and bowed as deep as his stiff, old limbs allowed him to. "I am George Adamson and Chamberlain of Adelton Hall, at your service."

Tristan eyed the old man and gave a stiff nod. "Where have my men been taken?" Tristan looked past George and into the castle. There was a twitch in the corner of George’s lip, he liked how impatient his lordship was to see to the wellbeing of his men.

"We have taken the worst of the wounded to provisional cots in the Palas, the inferior hall. The ones that had lesser wounds were taken to the kitchens and have been sent to their barracks to rest."

"Take me there."

They all, together with Lucius and the rest of the soldiers, headed to the temporary infirmary where the physician was still tending to the wounded. When Lucius and Tristan entered the small hall, they were surprised to see that Amanda and Christine were helping too. The women were too occupied in their tasks to notice the remaining soldiers and their leader returning. Christine was giving water to a bedridden soldier, her white apron had been stained with blood, and there was even some splattered in her hair and on her cheeks.

"Blake," said George as they neared the exhausted man, "Allow me to present the master of this household."

Victor Blake dried his sweaty brow with the back of his hand and glanced up to meet Tristan. He had to blink several times for he thought he was seeing a malignant apparition. But after a few moments, he regained his senses and promptly saluted the younger man.

"How many casualties since we sent them from Raven's Grove?" asked Lucius while Tristan looked around — as if searching for something or someone. His looming figure frightened away the servants as he walked down the rows of the provisional beds.

"Three did not survive the ride and another two had lost too much blood here, I could do nothing for them," lamented Blake. Lucius pursed his lips into a thin line. They had vanquished the bandits but at a higher price than expected.

"What of Joseph?" asked Lucius.


"The young dark-haired lad with the arrow and that nasty thigh wound," added George as he saw the confused look on Blake's face.

"Ah yes, I believe he is over there," pointed Blake to the cot right where Tristan stood. Christine sat by the bedside, giving water to a very wounded but very much alive Joseph.

Christine had first heard of the wounded soldiers when Maria had been asked to come to the kitchens. They had wanted her to help the kitchen staff with the meal preparations as some had to prepare what was needed for the physician. Christine followed suit, getting out of her room and down to the corridor that was next to the courtyard. There, through a window, she had seen a man fall dead from his horse and had grown faint as she held a hand over her mouth. After having regained composure, she rushed to her mother and informed her of the situation. Both had rushed to Mrs. Hammond that stood in the courtyard and later followed her to the Palas. It was there that Christine saw Joseph, so pale and so still, and she feared that he was already dead.

The hairs at the back of Christine’s neck rose and she suddenly noticed a large shadow looming over her shoulder. She put down the wooden cup and turned around to see who was disturbing Joseph's well-needed rest. She was ready to send the looming intruder away when she came face to face with Tristan. His bloodied and torn clothes made her mouth drop slightly in surprise. Their faces were so close that she could feel the warmth of his breath touch her features. The hall was too dark for her to perceive his eyes, but she could feel his gaze rest on her. Christine froze, unable to move away from him. Her eyes wandered again to his lips — for it was the only part of his face that she could read. They were in a thin line as if angered or displeased by something. Christine grew uncomfortable at his sudden closeness and grew further alarmed when she suspected he was in a foul mood. She flinched, standing up and backing away a few steps while her hands went for her apron. She grabbed the bloodied fabric in her closed fists and tried to regain her composure.

"M-My lord." Her pulse was rushing, like that of an animal hearing the horn of a hunting party. It did not go unnoticed by Tristan — nor Joseph who was secretly watching them — that Christine grew agitated and tense.

Tristan turned to Joseph, ignoring her. Christine might have felt insulted but grew relieved and grateful that he had diverted his attention away from her. She took the chance and escaped to the other side of the room, to seek shelter with Mrs. Hammond and George.

"I see that you have been well taken care of," stated Tristan as he sat down next to Joseph.

"Yes, I..." whispered Joseph, too tired to speak. However, he made an effort to continue, despite his battered state. Tristan put a gloved hand on Joseph's uninjured shoulder.

"Rest, Joseph. You need your strength so we may return to Raven's Grove."

Joseph smiled at Tristan's joke — a rare thing. He let his head sink deeper into the pillows and soon sleep overtook him, dreams washed away the pain and he held a peaceful look on his face.

December 1st

Word had spread throughout all of Hayes about Tristan's miraculous defeat of the bandits and their leader. It spoke little of the men that had been lost, or that more than half had been wounded. Instead, people remarked on the foolhardy bravery of their new Count of Cadherra. Indeed, was it bravery or recklessness that Tristan had shown them?

When Victor Blake returned from Adelton the following day — after making certain that his patients were stable and well taken care of — he was bombarded by inquiring townspeople. Even the local gentry that lived in small estates on the outskirts of town made up illnesses to lure the physician to them. They tried to coax him to speak of his time at Adelton. The interest quickly diverted to Tristan himself, rather than his defeat over Saxton. The people of Hayes had never seen this new Count of Cadherra, they had only heard rumors and some of them were more flattering than others. Some said that he was a famed fighter, for how indeed would he otherwise have survived the war and confrontation with Saxton? Others said that he was a charismatic fellow that held great and fine dinners every night at Adelton Hall. Alas, other rumors told of a very different man, a recluse that hid his face from insight and that was appalling and vicious to those close to him.

It was soon that the people of Hayes started speculating about the engagement between Christine and Tristan and why they had not yet gone through with the nuptials. If the favorable rumors were to be believed, many of Hayes lamented that a traitor's daughter would marry such an eligible man.

After having come face to face with Tristan and seen that she could be of service to those who needed it, Christine dared to venture out of her room. Her main excuse was that she could see Joseph and care for him and his wounds. She realized that he was one of her few friends left, besides George and Mrs. Hammond. Christine’s old friends would never acquaint themselves with her again as a traitor's daughter, which she begrudgingly accepted. However, she grew dismayed that even the servants — like the maids of Adelton — would consciously make her life harder than it had to be. Christine was bothered even more when the same people started bothering Maria.

It was late afternoon, just before supper. Christine was walking to her chambers to get dressed for the meal when she found that her door was locked. She thought it strange — she never had her door locked unless she was sleeping. Christine did not like standing there in the corridor, so close to Tristan's room.

Two servantsw were coming from the other direction.

"Who locked this door?" asked Christine kindly and smiled. The two women eyed her and then continued walking away.

"Do you have a key?" she asked. Again, no answer came as the women passed her.

"Where is Mrs. Hammond?" Christine figured that the old woman would take a kinder stance regarding her problem. The servants stopped and one looked down at the ground as if in shame while the other drilled her eyes into Christine's. It was clear that at least one of the women wanted to give her a piece of her mind, but she was smart enough to hold her tongue. They walked away after Christine looked down in defeat.

It was not the first time it had happened. Ever since arriving, both the new and old servants of the household — with some rare exceptions — would treat her and her mother differently.

However, Christine was used to at least having her questions answered and not being ignored. Maria wouldn't say it but Christine already knew that there were rumors about her and her family. Gossip could be a normal occurrence as well. Servants lived so close to their masters that they were bound to be curious or talk about what they saw. But Christine was indeed saddened that the only subject on their lips was her father's treason. She had overheard quite a few whispers about it at first before locking herself up in her room. Christine thought that her family had gone through enough, but she would not start a fight over it. She kept quiet, knowing that standing up for herself or punishing them would only make it worse. Thus, she looked away, ashamed of her weak will, and let it go, as always.

"Unlock her door."

Christine recognized the rasping voice of Tristan as he neared. The servant who had glared at Christine turned white as a ghost and dug around in the pocket of her apron. There she had a set of keys, and she promptly unlocked the door to Christine's chamber. Without a word, she and the other woman curtsied deeply and started leaving.

"Next time do as she says or be flogged and relieved of your charges." Tristan appeared composed when he spoke, but it was unnerving for it seemed like the eerie calm before a storm. It was a storm that neither of the servants wished to experience. They apologized to him and then to Christine before they left, the echo of their footsteps gaining in speed as they rounded the corner.

Christine watched in silent astonishment as the women left, her brow furrowed in confusion as she remembered herself and nodded a quick thank you toward Tristan, not trusting her voice enough to speak. She turned the handle of her door and opened it, another heavier hand suddenly resting upon hers, stopping her from entering. Christine quickly withdrew her hand from his touch as if she had been burned.

"How long has this been going on?" he asked nonchalantly. He backed away to give her some space while she protectively brought her hands in front of her, hugging herself.

"What do you mean?" Christine looked at the cold stone floor while the light of the setting sun started disappearing behind the tall mountains, filtering in through the windows facing west.

"I'll not allow such treatment under my roof."

Tristan seemed more determined now to get the truth out of her while Christine only wanted to slip away from his prying eyes.

"You must know why they treat me so, my lord, for is it not their right to suspect me?”

He did not answer.

"The blood of a traitor runs through my veins. They have every right to question my motives and my character."

Tristan knew that she had locked herself up in her room ever since her arrival. He also knew that she rarely ventured outside, although lately, she seemed to be progressing in that area, and he had Joseph to thank for that. But he thought that her chosen seclusion stemmed from her unwillingness to wed him — which was why he had never pressed for them to go through with the wedding ever since arriving at Adelton. Tristan sighed inwardly; he had been self-centered believing this all to be about him. But maybe it was all wild guessing on his part.

He sneaked another glance at her from behind her mask. Blue eyes got clearer as pain shone through them and her fists slightly clenched, suggesting that the acts of her father indeed weighed heavily on her shoulders.

"The acts of those who share our blood do not define us. Our own thoughts and actions do, my lady." His voice took a softer tone, and she was surprised to find a small amount of friendliness in it. But that could not be, she did not want Tristan Hawthorne's pity. She looked at her door again and then back at the floor.

"I could never redeem my family, even if I married you. The only thing I would do is taint your good name, my lord." Christine looked up and defiantly met his gaze.

"Do you wish to break our engagement?"

"No I…I will not go back on my word." She seemed worried as she frowned.

"There is a handful of people here who do not judge you. I cannot speak for your father, but I choose to believe that the circumstances surrounding his case were more complicated than we are led to believe... you should too."

Christine’s eyes widened. How could Tristan so blindly trust in someone he had never known when she, after having known her father her entire life, had abandoned the memory of him after his death.

"P-Please… I… let me get back to my chamber, my lord," she begged in a broken whisper, trying in vain to keep her composure.

Tristan clenched his jaw and respectfully stepped away with a nod as she disappeared behind the door.

Christine locked the door behind her and once in her room, she sank down on her bed in confusion. Tristan Hawthorne was either very noble of character or completely foolish. It was almost like he had blind faith in her.

How silly.

Tristan had, for the first time and very vaguely, shown a semblance of friendliness and care toward her. She had never believed him capable of such a thing before.

Meanwhile, as Tristan returned to his own chambers, he threw off his coat and doublet as he loosened his shirt and sat down to have a glass of Madeira on a bed that was too large for one person.

For a slight moment back there, the walls between them of pride, fright, and pretense had been slightly lowered... their words and actions had been true. It was only for a split second, but it made him hope that maybe… one day they might enjoy each other's company without fear or burdensome façades.


December 3rd

Adelton Hall stood out as a rare beauty in the Cadherran valley, but it seemed void of any warmth that a family would usually bestow upon its home. There was only a feeling of sadness, despair, and duty here. Mother and daughter hardly spoke anymore as they slowly drifted apart. Lady Amanda felt that she was not worthy of such an exemplary daughter. Many in Hayes and even in the castle whispered amongst themselves that Lady Amanda had sold her daughter to Tristan in marriage to reclaim her previous, more luxurious life.

Although Joseph had managed to coax Christine out of her chambers, he had not managed to improve her relationship with Tristan. But then again, Tristan had not made an effort either. At least, that was how it looked to everyone else.

Christine had just left after visiting Joseph and tending to his wounds. She came frequently and helped the soldiers that had a few nights earlier left in the infirmary. Sometimes, Christine and Joseph would sit in silence while she took care of him. Other times, they would speak, yet their conversation was void of any substance. Christine’s countenance was still frail, and she still held an air of sadness about her.

Joseph understood quite quickly Christine and Amanda’s standing with the staff in Adelton. He overheard several interactions between joking footmen or gossip-hungry servants. Joseph knew it was weak of him to listen to the simple words of a ditsy servant girl, but some of it did hold a grain of truth. However, when their gossiping started touching unsavory territory, Joseph interrupted and scolded them. He did not wish for anyone to paint Christine in a bad light.

Rumors were now spreading throughout Adelton that Christine refused to proceed with the marriage. Joseph grew afraid that such a thing might truly occur unless Tristan took action and cemented his claim as Count of Cadherra through the marriage while also securing Christine’s future. Joseph, while young, understood very well that the agreement had nothing to do with each individual’s happiness. Joseph had voiced his concerns earlier that day without taking his time to further analyze the situation, instead, he spoke directly, from his heart.

"I know my opinion is unwanted," Joseph started when Tristan had come to visit him later in the afternoon.

"Then do not give it." Tristan's mouth turned into a thin line.

"I will when it affects someone I care about," Joseph mumbled. Tristan sighed, getting up to leave.

"Please, Tristan." It was the first time Joseph had used Tristan’s name so informally. It surprised Tristan enough to make him stay a few minutes more.

"Whom do you care about then?" Tristan inquired.

"Christine has grown to be a friend of mine and you must have noticed that she is not well," Joseph mumbled while looking down.

"If she is such a close friend, maybe you should talk to her."

"She will not listen to me," Joseph muttered.

A smile tugged at the corner of Tristan's lips. Christine had opened up to him, even if it had just been for a moment.

"She is stubborn that way," Tristan said while his gaze drifted off into the distance. "She is stronger than you think, Joseph."

Joseph, on the other hand, had no idea that the man before him had perceived so much about his fiancée. He wondered if there was something he was missing. Maybe there was something between the two that he could not yet see. If that was the case, he felt foolish for having thought otherwise in the first place.

"I just thought that perhaps, if the two of you grew closer, it would be easier for her," Joseph murmured and sighed, not knowing what to think anymore.

"That is not up to me to decide," said Tristan, who was surprised that it had been Joseph of all people who had risen to push him toward Christine even more. He had suspected that the two of them had developed a sort of young romance. He did not feel obligated to stop it. If that was what would make Christine happy, he would not get in the way.

Suddenly, he stopped his train of thought. Since when did he know so much about Christine?

Since when did he care about her happiness?

December 4th

It was a wonderful morning in the valley. The sky was rid of any clouds, and the air was cold and crisp. There had been a heavy snowfall during the night, painting the landscape white once again. The horn of a hunting group could be heard on the outskirts of Raven's Grove. A big group of riders made its way into the woods, following the deer that they had been trying to catch the entire morning. Tristan and Lucius rode ahead, following the sounds of the dogs as they tried to catch the scent of the frightened animal.

The horses carried their riders deeper into the forest and suddenly Tristan caught something in the corner of his eye. A hooded figure appeared to be standing deep in the forest, amongst the tall trees. Tristan stopped, thinking that it was the bandits, but the figure was gone when he looked back. The sudden loud barks of the dogs suggested they must've caught on to the scent again. Tristan saw Lucius ride ahead with his newly acquired pistol, ready to shoot the animal. The deer was cornered and made desperate noises, knowing that its life was about to end. It pressed against a tree, trying to get away from the hunters. The dogs were biting ferociously away at its thin legs, wounding it to the point that it had difficulty standing. Tristan heard the loud boom of the pistol and saw the animal fall. It was dead before it hit the ground. Its blood — its life source — escaped the wound and seeped into the snow under it.

The rest of the group closed in and some of the servants started loading up the deer behind a horse while another took care of the dogs. Tristan congratulated Lucius with a simple nod. He would have liked to have killed the deer himself, alas Lucius had robbed him of that triumph. But seeing the lifeless eyes of the dead animal staring deep into him made Tristan think twice.

It brought back memories of war, for some strange reason.

Even though he never wanted to think about it, death affected him to a disturbing level. His world was much like that deer. It was better to be the hunter than the hunted. But that meant that he had to carry a heavy burden. In war, he had killed many men, and outside it a few as well. That was how it worked. He had forgotten how many men had fallen due to his blade or pistol. But sometimes, when the stress overburdened him, he would wake up in a cold sweat, thinking about those fallen in battle.

The walls he had built around him — the shell in which he lived — protected him not just from the threats of those around him, it protected his mind as well. He had managed to live with himself until now and that was how he wanted to continue. Therefore, the talk he had had with Joseph the day before had been disturbing to him. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that Christine Vega was no longer just some girl that amused or intrigued him. He had never noticed it himself, but he cared for her well-being, he cared for her.

Did that mean that he liked her? No, it surely couldn't. Maybe his newfound fondness for her was just an instinct of protection. She reminded him of himself, to some degree.

"Are we headed back to Adelton?" Lucius's baritone voice interrupted Tristan's train of thought and snapped him back into reality.

"You go, I will take Cid for some exercise," Tristan answered while looking down at his gray horse. He needed some time in the forest to sort out his thoughts. The wilderness was more freeing than the dark and cold corridors of Adelton.

"What about Saxton and his men?" asked Lucius.

"If they know what's good for them, they will not attack me." There was a slight tone of arrogance in Tristan's deep voice.

Lucius did not question him further and started following the servants. "Don't blame me if they catch you!" he shouted when he was a bit further away. Tristan chuckled and set out further into the woods.

There was something in Raven's Grove that pulled him in, maybe the air of mystery it held. Or maybe it was the peacefulness that he could only find when he was amongst the tall trees that resembled wooden pillars, holding up the impressive forest roof.

He let Cid grace the forest for a while, reveling in the stillness, taking a few deep breaths of fresh air. He didn’t know how much time had passed, it could have been a minute or an hour, he didn’t care. It was, he decided, time to return. As his horse marched through the deep snow, Tristan felt watched. He sensed a pair of eyes were digging into the back of his neck, and he swiftly turned around in the saddle. There was nothing there, only the eerie quietness of the forest. When he turned around again, someone stood in front of him. Tristan’s reflexes processed the situation faster than his brain. Feeling the impending threat, his hands went for his pistol — which was loaded — and his dagger which he had hung on the left side of his hip. He cocked the pistol and was ready to defend himself when his brain finally functioned, discerning the figure.

It was Henry Saxton, standing nonchalantly before him.

"A bit jumpy, are we?" asked the outlaw as he pulled the dark cloak closer around him to protect him from the cold morning air. Tristan's eyes immediately scanned for more men, but he saw none. They had to either be very well hidden or not present at all.

"Have you heard the rumor that there is a witch residing deep within this forest?" Saxton continued while casually strolling over to a large stone. He proceeded to dust off the powdery snow and sit on it.

"I have one shot, Saxton. I care not if the rest of your men kill me — but know that you shall be dead before I am," Tristan gritted through his teeth, still aiming the gun at Saxton. Saxton raised his hands in defeat with a serious expression on his face.

"I am here alone, thus I am in fact more vulnerable right now than you are, Hawthorne." Truth rang in Saxton's words. Alas, it did not make Tristan lower his gun or sheath his dagger.

"I see I will have to earn your trust," stated Saxton.

"You have come here seeking me out?"

"I was on my way to Adelton, but it seems luck smiled upon me when I discovered your hunting party. I was even luckier that you decided to stay behind. Maybe it was fate that brought us together, my friend," said Saxton, smiling.

"I am not your friend." Tristan seemed almost disgusted at the idea and looked down at the man before him. He could kill him now — honor Saxton's dead wife and son and the world would be rid of one more evil. But an unknown force within him stopped him from pulling the trigger.

"I know, but I sought you out to warn you, nonetheless." When Tristan didn't answer him, Saxton continued. "You form part of the court now. No doubt there was some strong objection to you being given Cadherra."

The masked man slowly sheathed his dagger but still kept the gun aimed strictly at Saxton's chest. Tristan's actions showed that Saxton's words interested him enough to make him listen further. Saxton on the other hand let a breath of relief escape his lips. He would not lie to himself and say that he did not find the man before him imposing, further strengthened by his impatient gray horse, stomping its feet, urging his master to go forward.

"Why trust in the warnings of a murdered and an outlaw?"

Saxton sighed at Tristan's words. How could he make Tristan consider what he was about to say?

"I have my reasons, and I think that someday they will make sense to you." He made himself more comfortable on the hard surface of the rock. "You form part of the nobility now. Heed my warning, Hawthorne. There is much intrigue and conspiracy in this kingdom. The war has been won, yes, but now a much harder war will be waged where wit and words will be your weapons. You are lucky to have been allowed to come to Cadherra so soon after receiving your title, it has bought you some time. But you shall see. Soon they will demand that you return to that forsaken city — to Wessport."

Saxton held a look of disdain and hatred at some old memory that seemed to be emerging from within the depths of his mind. "You can trust no one there, not even the king."

"You speak treason," stated Tristan, but he hesitated to continue. He knew well that James Fell was weak, that he listened more to his advisors than to reason itself.

"I can afford to say these things for I have nothing to lose," said Saxton. He had no one he loved that could be taken away from him, and his life was worth little to him.

"Power struggles always form part of kingdoms, in that Angloa is no different. The golden days of King Philip are long gone. We do not have the luxury of having a leader that knows how to rule this land on his own accord while still listening to his people. And James’ father Magnus may have been a tyrant, his wife even worse, but he still held a firm grip on Angloa. James does not do either his uncle or father any justice," sneered Saxton and Tristan noticed some personal resentment in his words.

"Now that Angloa recovers from the war there will be a power struggle, and I think you have already started to notice it. Whoever wants to seize power sees you as a threat. Tell me, have they perhaps sent someone to watch over you?"

Tristan’s eyes widened, thankful that the mask hid the rest of his shocked expression.

Alan Moore. He had been sent by someone to watch Tristan and report everything he did.

"Your silence tells me that they have."

Tristan lowered his pistol. Saxton had his full and complete attention now.

"You see, that is what they did with me as well, that is how it all started. I warn you so that you do not make the same mistakes I did. When you go to Wessport you must guard your tongue at all times, trust no one and listen to no one. If they really see you as a threat, they will try to do everything in their power to get rid of you." Saxton's expression was solemn, and Tristan had an unsettling feeling in the depths of his stomach. Why was it that he believed these words? He didn't want them to make sense, but everything Saxton had said thus far made sense to him.

"Who are they?"

"I never got that far. I was sent to Cantabria before I got any vital information." Saxton neared the masked man and looked up, he needed the man before him to understand the importance and power of what he was about to say. He didn't know why Hawthorne of all people would be the one to receive this information, yet here he was, telling him.

"It is vital that you understand what I am about to tell you. You are a man of many talents and I have hope that you will survive in Wessport. They will send for you and when they do, you must try to uncover these people. I do not know exactly what they want, who they are, or how many they are. I have very limited information. But I do know three things. The only man you can trust in Wessport — and probably in all of Angloa — is Lord Athar, the King's main advisor. Secondly, there is a secret guarded by the court that you must find out. It is vital for you to unmask these conspirators."

Tristan felt all his thoughts tangling in his mind. In under an hour, he found himself talking to an outlaw who was pushing on treason. And meanwhile, Saxton was implying that he now had to become a spy and try to take out an unknown organization of supposed conspirators. His peaceful ride with Cid had backfired on him.

"Lastly, I do not know how much you care for that fiancée of yours. But if you do, you best leave her out of all this, cancel the engagement if you have to. Something is starting Hawthorne, people will get hurt and some may even die." It was evident to him that Saxton took his own words very seriously.

"Why are you telling me all this?"

"It was not by my own accord. There is someone who wishes to remain anonymous that is looking out for you, Hawthorne," Saxton said enigmatically.

Both of them stood there a long while until Tristan gathered the reins of Cid and his thoughts as well. He frowned down on the outlaw and spoke in a degrading tone.

"Why should I trust a man that is known for killing his own family? Who robs and who speaks treason? You may consider yourself lucky that I have decided to spare you a second time. Next time I see you I will not be so benevolent” He sent Cid into a wild gallop, pushing Saxton out of the way. He wanted to get far away from there, feeling how the words of the outlaw pursued him furiously.

"Seek up Lord Athar and you will see!" sounded the strong shout of the bandit leader. The words died out as Tristan got further and further away from him until he was finally out of the forest. But he had not managed to outrun the worry that had now festered within him.