Secrets of The Court: Chapter 7

 December 21st, 1519 - Cadherra

Joseph's wounds had vastly improved with sufficient bed rest. Little by little, he started leaving the bedside, first by standing and then by walking about his room. Alas, there was little that tempted him from leaving the warm furs of his bed.

Christine did not visit anymore.

It was midday when Mrs. Hammond stumbled upon Lucius as he was taking a stroll from the chapel. At first, she could not recognize him under his thick cape lined with furs, his hood up, and a wool scarf draped around his face. She thought Lucious to be his foul-tempered friend. However, as she looked closer, she noticed that he did not quite stand as tall as Tristan, nor as broad across the shoulders.

The fog weighed heavy around them, and Lucius crossed the courtyard, casting a worried glance toward the main gate that led down from the cliffside and Hayes. If it snowed any more, they would become trapped until the weather got warmer.

"Baron Chaeld," curtsied Mrs. Hammond as they met at the entrance of the first court.

"Mrs. Hammond," acknowledged Lucius with a nod and looked puzzled at the old woman. Despite the cold, she wore her regular gown in thick wool, a white apron, and a cap with nothing but a thin cape draped around her frail shoulders. How she was not wasting away from the chill was beyond him.

He was on his way to meet Tristan. A few tenants had trekked through the fog to Adelton in hopes of food and shelter. Their own homes were not enough to shield them from the harsh elements. Come spring they would need support in strengthening and insulating the walls and roofs of their homes. However, as Lucius ventured through the freezing corridors of Adelton, something else manifested in his mind, something quite removed from the tribulations of the Cadherran farmers.

"I tell you that never has Cadherra seen such a winter, sir," muttered Mrs. Hammond, bringing the collar of the cape closer about her neck with a shudder. As they entered, Lucius pulled the scarf down from his face, the cold air numbed his features, turning his nose and cheeks red instantly.

"I do not think I have ever seen such a cold winter in the whole of Angloa. They must be far worse up north. No wonder we have tenants asking for shelter."

"Tenants, here?”

“Aye, some farmers on the trail to Coldwick.”

“And asking for shelter? Then we are indeed facing hard times."

"These are the aftereffects of the war. There remains little food and provisions left from summer. Due to the high taxes, the people have suffered, they have little left. But after Hawthorne hears of this, I am certain he will help them," said Lucius.

Mrs. Hammond scoffed, not afraid to show her dislike for her employer.

"He will offer them the shelter they need — he may surprise you yet, Mrs. Hammond."


They continued walking, still heading in the same direction.

"I received uplifting news of young Lady Vega and her returning health." Lucius felt uncomfortable walking next to Mrs. Hammond in silence. Mrs. Hammond's mood, however, did not improve at the forced conversation.

"Perhaps her health and disposition would never have declined if she did not find herself so alone here."

"Her disposition has been of her own making,” Lucius answered. “She was never encouraged to lock herself into her own rooms.”

“Perhaps not openly encouragemed, my lord.”

“She might not feel so inclined to hide should she come to know her fiancé better. Lady Christine may be surprised.”

“There has been little effort on that part as well… concerning common courtesy and… civility,” Mrs. Hammond huffed. “He knows of his appearance—” She abruptly stopped herself. “I did not mean to offend, my lord.”

“My words may weigh little in this conversation or in this matter as a whole, but I have known and fought beside Tristan Hawthorne for almost two years now. No one in my acquaintance can boast of a higher degree of loyalty or indeed honor, if he would ever boast of it, for in his own feats he is the most humble man I have ever known.”

"Perhaps," stated Mrs. Hammond and her features softened. "Alas, we cannot force either Lady Christine or his lordship to spend time with each other when the mere thought seems unpleasant to them," she said, promptly excusing herself. Here they parted ways for while Lucius headed for the upper parts of the castle, Mrs. Hammond was heading for the kitchens. As she left him standing alone, digesting her final words, she would never come to know how deep an impression they left on Lucius. Maybe, with a push in the right direction, Christine could come to know her fiancé better. Tristan had saved Lucius many times on the battlefield, it was only wanting that Lucius repaid the favor.

There was a soft acknowledgment inviting Lucius to enter as he knocked on the doors to Tristan’s rooms. The walls had been lined with more heavy fabrics, hanging behind heavy tapestries, and the floor had more rugs, to keep the warmth inside. It was probably the warmest room of the castle, causing Lucius to shed his furs and cloaks. He sat down in one of the more comfortable chairs by the blazing fire where Tristan was sipping on a glass of mulled wine in a pensive state. He stared intensely into the fire as if in deep thought and did not look up as Lucius sat down in the chair next to him.

"What I would give right now for the warm beaches and the palm trees of the south," Tristan sighed.

"We are in the south," chuckled Lucius.

"I wasn't speaking of Angloa."

Lucius arched an eyebrow.

"Care for a drink?" Tristan pointed to a pitcher. “It should still be warm…if there is any left.”

Lucius shook his head. "No, although I would like it, I am not here to get drunk."

"Here to escape the cold, then."

"Some of your tenants spent the entire morning on a perilous trek from the eastern Coldwick road.”

Tristan glanced at the storm raging outside. “Foolish.”

“They are here seeking shelter and provisions for the winter although, with this storm, I believe they will also need lodgings until it passes. Their farmsteads will not provide the protection they need and lest you help them, they will starve and freeze to death if this winter continues in the same fashion."

Tristan took another sip from his cup and sighed. He rested his head against the soft cushion of the chair.

"They must be truly desperate, to come to Adelton Hall seeking help."

“They have come to their landlord, regardless of who he is.”

"Do as you see fit, Lucius," Tristan continued, taking another sip.

"It is your estate and your resources. They are your tenants. I cannot speak for you.” Lucius glanced at the cup. “Have some water to wash down the wine and I will have them meet you in the Singer's Hall later this evening. There you can decide if you will allow them here or not," said Lucius, rising from his seat, gathering his coats and furs, and heading toward the door.

Tristan downed the rest of the cup, once more looking out the window, the panes rattling as the storm caught on.

He sighed.

Outside of Tristan’s rooms, Lucius stumbled upon Maria in the corridor.

He stopped her, "Maria, is it?"

She curtsied deeply and smiled. "Yes, my lord? What can I do for you?”

"Mrs. Hammond needs your mistress' presence in Singer's Hall later this evening. An hour after the sun has set, she is to meet her there, I believe the matter concerns the remaining wounded men still residing in the Palas."

Maria looked puzzled. "I thought the Chamberlain took care of such things?"

"He has his hands full trying to keep this fortress from turning into an ice palace. Also, Lady Amanda has not wanted to take care of such things, as she is not the mistress of this household anymore. Mrs. Hammond thus believes that Lady Christine's help would be most prominent in this matter, especially since she has been the one to most frequent the Palas and help with the wounded," Lucius lied through his teeth, without a care in the world.

"Of course, my lord, I'll inform her immediately." Maria curtsied deeply and quickly headed toward her mistress' room.

Lucius walked away with a smug smile on his face, hoping he would be forgiven for the white lie he had just told.

The Hall of the Singers was located in the eastern court-side wing of the Palas, on the fourth floor under the lord and lady's lodgings. It had been designed several hundred years ago as an amalgamation of two rooms: The Hall of the Singers and the Ballroom. It was one of the most decorated halls in the castle and the interior reminded more of a royal palace than an old-fashioned fortress.

The rectangular room was decorated with themes from medieval Angloan tales. But due to the English influence, there was also a strong presence of the Arthurian legend and other English myths and tales. Its longer side was terminated by a gallery crowned by a tribune. The eastern narrow side was terminated by a stage, structured by arcades and known as the Saengen.

The Hall of the Singers was never designed for court festivities of the early kings that once had used the castle for their summer escapes to the mountains. Rather, like the Throne Hall, it served as a walkable monument in which the culture of knights and courtly love of the Middle Ages was represented. From the roof, with its richly carved pieces in different hues of ash, oak, and mahogany to the walls, painted in rich colors, depicting different religious and mythological scenes, to the vast tapestries and the slick, smooth sand-colored wood floors, the room was like a storybook where the people who were lucky enough to enter could stare for hours at all the intricate details and still discover something new each time they entered.

From the ceiling hung three thick wheel chandeliers made in fire gilt copper. Although there was still light outside, the candles in the chandeliers had been lit as had the ones in the many candelabras that were placed in the room.

The long southern side of the rectangular room was made up mainly of windows that allowed a view of the lands south of the castle. It was mainly a continuing flatland that stretched toward the horizon. But if one looked very hard, one could see the smoke that came from the chimneys of Coldwick, a hard half-day's ride away.

Christine had arrived early. She was supposed to be there an hour after sunset, but she loved watching the land and sky before her change in color as the sun descended. The fog that had been hanging over the valley for the last few days had cleared by the stormy winds which themselves dispersed toward the evening. Christine got to see the sky turn into a mix of pink and orange hues as the sun started setting, bathing the entire room in its warm and comforting light. Although she could not see the orb disappear behind the mountains, she was content enough with watching the myriad of colors change in front of her. Soon, the crescent moon appeared, and together with the vast network of bright stars that the night sky held, they lit up the land under them. The flatlands were bathed in silver and the snow twinkled brightly, lighting up the night even more.

After a while, a set of heavy footsteps echoed as someone entered. Christine had been so lost in her contemplation of the impressive scenery that she had lost track of time. She tore her gaze from the windows and turned around. She was surprised to find Tristan standing in the hall, right by the door. He was just as surprised to find Christine turning from the impressive view the tall and broad windows offered. But even if the starry sky was beautiful, to him it did not compare to the woman that stood in front of it, bathed in the dull golden light of the wax candles.

Her constitution appeared healthier than before — not as frail as it had been for these last few weeks. Her features were made soft by the flickering candle lights and as her inquisitive eyes met his, his throat closed up. A sweeping long cream-beige coat of crushed silk velvet hugged her form. It tapered into a full skirt with a small train at the back. He could still see a hint of red under the coat, suggesting more layers underneath. Her sleeves and neckline had a marabou trim in light brown, and she wore light brown gloves to further protect her from the chill that penetrated the old castle.

"My lord," she said, surprised at first as she curtsied. A stray lock of hair had fallen into her face. Her eyes nervously looked at the door from which he had entered.

However, Christine understood that if she wished to ever get to Wessport, she should not be running from the man that could render that possible. A better situation could not have presented itself to her even if she had imagined it. She took a deep breath and steadied herself, there was no waiver in her as there had been before, no shyness, only determination.

Tristan realized why Lucius had sent him to the hall and he equally wondered what lie Christine had been told to coax her presence.

He was taken aback when, for the first time ever, she met his eyes without hesitation as she spoke. Her voice ran like sweet honey, it was soft and gentle — he had never noticed that before.

"I did not know you were coming as well, my lord."

Tristan folded his hands behind his back and stepped into the hall while letting his posture relax. At least she did not seem to shy away from him as she had before. He wondered what had changed since they had last seen each other. His mind, dull from the effects of the alcohol, made him less suspicious than he should have been of the woman before him.

"Yes… I thought it best that way." Tristan had no inclination as to what she might be referring to.

Christine kept a comfortable distance between them, still careful around him. He did not make any move to near her further, something which surprised her. Christine broke the strained silence after a while. She had to force the words out in the beginning. Her soft voice gently echoed in the grand hall.

"I do not really know if we should relocate the wounded or not. The Palas must surely be too cold now, and the physician thought them well enough to be moved." As Christine let her mind wander, the words came easier and her worry for the well-being of the soldiers shone through.

"What do you think we should do?" asked Tristan, his tone was lighter and his countenance more relaxed. However, the effects of the mulled wine were still making themselves reminded.

"You wish for my opinion?"

"You have been caring for the comfort of my men since our return."

Christine did not know if she imagined it, but she might have seen a twitch in the corner of his lips. Had he smiled? To her own baffled surprise, her eyes cast down as a blush overcame her. The dark and gloomy aura that always surrounded Tristan had softened — the carefully crafted walls had lowered for an instant.

"In that case, and following what the physician said, I think it best we move them to share guest rooms… Adelton has more than enough rooms. Moving them away from the Palas would also use less firewood to keep them warm. The workload on the servants would lessen, they would not have to run through the castle constantly."

This time Tristan fully smiled. Christine was intrigued, she had never thought him capable of such an act of joy. It lit up his whole person — a most uncharacteristic yet welcoming trait she had just discovered. Her interest and curiosity increased for him now as she slowly peeled away at the many layers.

The smile faded as he caught her staring. However, the way she looked at him seemed different now. Caution and apprehension were no longer the main emotions present in her eyes. They had been replaced.

By interest.

"I shall have a word with George." When she did not offer more conversation, he felt unnerved. Tristan gave a curt bow and started leaving, their strange and short interaction was bizarre to him. He did not know what Lucius had expected luring them both here, the outcome could be nothing besides what had just transpired. Tristan and Christine were, after all, two people forced together by circumstance. He understood her reluctance in being in his presence and he would not be the one to push toward any more similar interactions.

However, Christine remained in place, surprising even herself. Now that she wanted something from him, her reluctance to remain in his presence had subsided. Indeed, she had a purpose to fulfill, and her resolve strengthened even more as this purpose was not only due to her but to another person as well. To gain a pardon for her father she needed to travel to Wessport, to beg for an audience with the king. She still had some friends at court. Lord Athar would lend an ear in her direction and help her, as best as he could. But to get to Wessport she first needed to convince Tristan. And to do so she needed to close the gap between them, for what she was asking was not an easy request.

“My lord!” she blurted out, her voice strained and her brows knitting together as she forced herself to near him.

Tristan turned around, facing her as she continued to speak. 

"I believe I never thanked you the other day,” she murmured. Christine did not really know what else to say. She had been so apprehensive and distanced herself so much from him that making it seem like she had a more positive outlook on him would be hard. And, yet, her words managed to sound sincere.

"You do not have to thank me," responded Tristan, masking his own surprise at Christine’s willingness to linger longer than necessary in his presence.

"Then allow me to ask for your forgiveness for my impertinent attitude these last few weeks."

He pondered her words before speaking. “There is nothing to forgive,” said Tristan slowly, looking through the windows. Growing ever pensive now — as if his mind had strayed. Something in the depths of his eyes glinted.

"My lord?" she asked, his profile sorrowful — lost in time and thought, looking into the distance, waiting for someone perhaps? Or reminiscing on better days? The small tension in the room broke as he regarded her once again, for the first time nearing her.

"You do not need to ask forgiveness," he said, almost in a whisper, the space between them shortened considerably. Christine felt his breath hit her face as he spoke, the sweet scent of spice filling her nostrils, making the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Her eyes wandered up, curiosity gaining the upper hand. She wished to speak, to answer him — to say anything which would serve to break the awkward tension that now extended within her. She didn’t want his attention  she didn’t wish for his closeness. But she could not bring herself to demand he distance himself from her. Indeed, what mixed signals would that send? He would never take kindly to her then.

Tristan inclined his head in a stiff bow, leaving her standing dumbfounded in the Hall of Singers, a strange confusion extending within her.

Christine frowned after their brief interaction, placing her hands on her hot cheeks. Her blood pumped furiously through her veins and her heart was racing as if she had just run to Hayes.

December 23rd

While the lord and future lady of Adelton Hall had come to terms with the changes that were so apparent in their new situation and growing relationship, George and Mrs. Hammond were up to their ears in tasks to complete while stressed servants ran up and down in the castle like small elves. They were securing the final preparations for the Yule feast that would take place the coming day.

Joseph was well enough to walk around the castle with the support of a crutch. Lucius kept going back and forth between the dungeon, Tristan, and the library. He was determined to squeeze more out of Alan Moore, but it seemed that Alan would only talk whenever Tristan appeared before him.

Amanda and Christine helped Mrs. Hammond with the decorations, telling the servants how the Hall of the Singers should be dressed up for the eventful dinner. It was the tradition that every year the lord of Adelton Hall held a big feast. Other important families from Hayes and its outskirts would attend as they always had. This year, however, Adelton would finally have a new owner residing thus rendering many of the guests that would attend curious, as was expected.

Tristan kept busy exercising. If he did not ride out on Cid, he was either fencing or practicing hand combat. Lucius would fence with him here and there while Tristan had managed to find a worthy opponent in one of the stablemen.

After his rendezvous with Christine, Tristan had grown solemn on the prospect of their relationship. She now showed signs and inclinations of accepting the task the king had bestowed upon them both — accepting the idea of marriage. Tristan had hoped, that after enough time had passed, she would ask him to annul their engagement, a request he would have happily obliged. He hoped it would have given him the freedom to someway secure Adelton to her name or have her wed someone more suitable to her and eventually leave Angloa. Alas, Tristan knew there was likely none that would ever have Christine, but he hoped that she would at least have had the chance to keep Adelton herself, living out the rest of her days an old maid, albeit in some comfort.

Tristan and Lucius were in their third round of fencing. Tristan kept trying to push away the worry that had been gnawing at him ever since he had spoken with Saxton. He knew that his worries would come true the day James asked for him at Wessport, and what would he do then? Would he simply watch his foretold demise with his own eyes, knowing that he could have stopped it at some point? Or maybe he should listen to Saxton and do something about it now, like send someone he trusted ahead to Wessport and investigate.

That was his best option.

"Yield!" shouted Lucius as he rejoiced in his victory. Tristan's sword flew out of his hand, clattering as it collided with the stone floor. Lucius's blade was pointing right at Tristan’s heart. Pearls of sweat ran under Tristan’s shirt, and he raised his hands in defeat. Lucius's glee was quickly replaced by a frown.

"Were your thoughts someplace else again?" Lucius muttered. Tristan shrugged innocently as he picked up his sword. The white shirt he was wearing had unbuttoned at the top, exposing the upper part of his chest. Lucius detected a couple of thin, white scars running across it, slithering like thin serpents up his neck, eventually hidden by his mask.

"Never," Tristan tsked, looking offended at the idea, but he quickly grinned. "Again?"

Lucius sighed and had one of the servants rush over to give him some water and a piece of cloth to wipe his face. He cast aside the protective vest and let the cold air hit his torso. He handed the footman the sword and shook his head.

"Enough is enough. Although I've beaten you three times, I think your mind has been with young Vega this entire time."

"Don’t be ridiculous, Lucius."

"Admit it, you appeared quite taken with her after your encounter in the Hall of Singers," Lucius teased.

“Your attempts at matchmaking are pointless.”

“You underestimate yourself… her as well,” Lucius said.

Tristan handed the servant his sword and protective vest as well, tying his shirt shut, and both men walked out of the hall toward their respective quarters.

"I would have no qualms leaving Adelton and Cadherra behind."

Lucius grimaced. "For her?”

“I did not fight for Angloa to win a title. Cadherra was never mine.”

“She would never be able to retain Cadherra without your name tied to it, James would see to that.”

Tristan grew solemn. “I cannot stay here.”

“Then why haven’t you left yet?” Lucius asked.

Night had fallen when the heavy footsteps of a man could be heard as he descended to the lower grounds of the castle. It was a damp and dark place, not fit for a soul to live, yet here were the dungeons. No natural light reached between the dark, thick stone walls. The torches that had been placed on the walls did little to illuminate the passageways that stretched under Adelton Hall. The damp, dark dungeons did little to keep the chill of the outside elements away. And so, they had turned into an icy hell for the poor prisoner that lay freezing on the floor, with nothing but an old blanket and some hay to shield his bruised body.

Alan Moore had been dehumanized and broken. Lucius had been the one to interrogate him since their arrival, usually using mind games to turn his senses against him. But whenever Tristan stepped foot into the dungeon — which was not often — Alan would turn into a sobbing mess. This time Tristan would try something different.

He unlocked the cell doors and stepped into the block as Alan sat eating a piece of bread with some dried meat. A rancid smell emanated from the room that made Tristan wrinkle his nose under the mask. When Alan saw the tall, dark silhouette make its way into his lodgings, he dropped his food and scurried to the corner like a dog hiding its tail between its legs. Alan curled into a ball and hoped for the best.

Tristan walked up to him and kneeled before him, giving him a blanket and some mulled wine.

"Tis' a cold night, I would not want you to freeze to death," Tristan whispered. Alan’s wide eyes stared at the wine and blanket. His instincts told him that if he accepted the blanket, he would suffer for it. But the pressing cold made him reach out desperately for something that would warm him.

"T-Thank you." His whisper was barely audible.

"You know why I am here."

"Yes," Alan sobbed, hiding his face in his hands. He wished for it to end, wondering what the outcome would be of his unfortunate interactions with Tristan. Every night, he was plagued by nightmares of Tristan. Alan did not comprehend what he had seen behind the mask — understanding he would probably not live to tell another soul.

"John Fletcher is not the only person you know that conspired with the English," Tristan stated.

"I cannot give you a name!" Alan said desperately. “Death would be the sweetest release now, Lord Hawthorne!”

"Death would be too easy for you. I will not allow you to find peace until you speak," Tristan whispered as he neared, his face mere inches from Alan’s. In the flickering light of the blazing torch, Alan perceived Tristan’s piercing gaze, burrowing their way into his very soul. Sobs escaped Alan as he forced his eyes shut, shaking his head and begging God for mercy in strangled whispers.

"God cannot help you here," Tristan growled.

Alan pressed his hands to his eyes, his body shaking, the feeling of regret coursing through him as it had ever since being discovered by Tristan and Lucius. Had he known what kind of mission he was getting himself into, he would never have accepted. Alas, he did not wish for more suffering, he wished for nothing more than peace of mind and to be rid of the man before him, even if for a moment.

"All I know," Alan commenced as he removed his hands, still keeping his eyes shut, not wanting to see the man before him, "is that someone very powerful in Wessport wanted Angloa to fail this war. Ask me not whom it was, for I do not know other than it was someone close to the king. It is a person that has tried to achieve this for a few years now. This person sees you as a threat and that is why I was sent by John Fletcher at Castell to reveal our position to the English. That is why I was sent to Adelton Hall… to report on you."

There was a long silence where Alan could only hear the fast beats of his heart. When he opened his eyes, Tristan was long gone, and he found himself yet again alone in the darkness.