Secrets of The Court: Chapter 9

 December 26th, 1519 - Cadherra

The stillness of an early winter morning swept over the valley. The cold harshness of early dawn saw no sign of life as all creatures kept warm and secure inside their homes. In the castle, perched high on its cliff, most people were still in their soft beds, resting from yesterday's festivities.

Only Tristan Hawthorne was up, clothed in woolen jackets and dark bear furs. Ever since he had left his drunk guests sometime past midnight he had tossed and turned under his covers. Sleep evaded him now more than ever. He needed to get away from it all. Thus, hunting was all he could do. But as the days and weeks progressed, slowly, tediously, the anxiety that ate away at his mind grew. There were so many things that had happened recently. Saxton's warning and Christine's slow change in attitude toward him had him confused and worried. He needed an escape, a backdrop where everything was simple.

Joseph and Lucius were still sleeping as they had been up most of the night, drinking and making merry. Tristan decided to set out, accompanied only by one of his soldiers and two servants he had found wandering around in solitude in the empty corridors.

The morning sky was a dark gray as they set out. The angry clouds looked threatening as they dove deeper down into the valley and into the forest. They had not gotten far before the two servants warned Tristan that the imposing clouds foretold the arrival of a big snowstorm. They did not have enough courage to insist on returning but made certain that their worries were heard. Alas, Tristan ignored them. All he could do was breathe in the chilly air, feeling the ice in his lungs bring him out of his stress and kindle new life within him as he had the group ride further into the forest.

Soldier and servants alike kept alert, not for prey, but for other things that might lurk in between the trees, where no light would touch the ground. They held their torches high, to illuminate the darkness that hung around them like a black, asphyxiating blanket of shadows.

Hours seemed to pass, yet time stood still inside the forest. No light from the sun could show what time of day it was. The men could only see dark, naked trees with crowns weighed heavy by masses of snow.

Tristan bagged yet another rabbit, satisfied. Droplets of its blood had already frozen, mixed into the stirred snow. Slowly, snow fell from the naked crowns. The forest roof let in what little light the dark sky offered. It seeped through like faint beams, weak and barely able to illuminate the dark interior of the forest. With the light came strong winds that stirred the snow from the ground. Tristan wondered how strong the wind had to be outside the thick forest for it to make its way through its thick roof and pillar trunks.

"My lord!" shouted one of the servants as the winds picked up both speed and force. "We should make haste to the castle! The storm will claim us if we do not leave now!" he urged, growing more and more nervous by the minute. It was evident that neither the servants nor the soldiers wanted to remain much longer.

Tristan was not keen to return to Adelton. His mind had remained at peace for a few moments. Not even Christine had managed to invade it as was so usual lately. But safety was more important than his intermingled thoughts. Thus, they all turned their horses. The few rabbits he had caught were safely kept in a burlap sack on the side of his horse. He was certain that their bodies had already frozen, or they would freeze solid before they made it inside the fortress.

The winds picked up more strength. As they neared the tree line, their horses became spooked. Tristan's horse, Cid, reared — casting his owner to the ground and started running in a crazed gallop after the other horses. None of the group had noticed Tristan missing as they were reassured when they saw the outline of his horse behind them, barely visible through the fierce snowstorm.

Tristan found himself thigh deep in snow, several miles from Adelton. He was far from Hayes as well. It took a few seconds for him to register the urgency of his situation. He had to find shelter before the snowstorm completely eradicated him. Tristan pulled the scarf over his mouth, to protect it from the small, icy darts that the wind stirred up. He only wished he had something to protect his eyes with.

The frozen forest and its elements did not favor him as he pulsed through the powdery snow. He did not know how long he had wandered. Tristan felt hope dwindle as he suspected that no one would send help after him. Who would, in their right mind, ride out in this storm to risk their own life for his? The snow reached his waist when he finally collapsed. He did not know if he had walked further into the forest or if he was on its outskirts. Nothing was tangible as the frozen crystals kept shooting into his eyes, obstructing his view. It seemed as if he was in a white, icy inferno.

All he knew was that he had been walking for hours. Tristan was tired. Maybe he could just lay his head to rest for a little while…just to gather his strength. He settled against the comforting blanket of snow, shutting out the roaring winds as his eyelids grew heavy, his rigid posture faltering as he relaxed, there was no image to keep up here. As weariness overtook him, Tristan pondered on the choices that had led him to his particular moment. Maybe he should have never come to Angloa. He loved traveling the world with Sofia — discovering new places, rich cultures, and new ways of life each time. He did not know why he had insisted on returning to Angloa. It had done little for him. Receiving a county, a title, and an unwilling fiancée was not his idea of gratitude. Yet he had been grateful then, hadn't he?

As his tired body slowly sank into the snow, he thought of Christine. Her blushing face from last night managed to coax out a weary smile despite himself. He closed his eyes, letting the sound of the wind lull him into sleep.

Meanwhile, as afternoon fell, the riders that had gone with Tristan had barely made it back to the castle. It wasn't until they were inside that they discovered that the famed general had not made it back with them. The two servants were not particularly worried since they cared little for the masked man. But the soldiers, who respected Tristan, were frantic. Both wanted a search party. They went to find Lucius and Joseph who rested still in bed, with aching heads from the previous night's drinks. As soon as they heard that Tristan was in trouble, they did not hesitate as they raced to the stables.

Christine was walking past the courtyard when she saw them rushing past. Joseph moved with difficulty toward the stables, his injuries had not yet healed completely.

"Where are you going in such a hurry?" she asked alarmed. Joseph frowned, revealing his own worry. It was the first time they had spoken since their confrontation; however, all personal grudges and emotions were set aside.

"Tristan, he went out hunting," Joseph said, displacing all decorum. "They say his horse spooked, and he fell. He is still out there!" Joseph pointed toward the gatehouse. Beyond they could see the raging storm and Christine's eyes widened. She looked back at Joseph, speechless. Lucius mounted his steed, and they both set out with a few soldiers, despite the heavy complaints of the other servants, who argued that it was too dangerous.

She ran back immediately to search for Mrs. Hammond and in rounding a corner Christine almost knocked the older woman over.

"What is your hurry, my lady?" asked a baffled Mrs. Hammond.

"We need to light the fires again in his lordships chamber and have them prepare extra blankets," Christine said while composing herself. How could Tristan have been so foolish? She explained to Mrs. Hammond what was afoot, and the old woman looked carefully at Christine. She had no idea the girl would've cared so much for the masked man.

The winds would not settle down and as darkness fell, so did the temperature. Tristan thought he had passed at first but soon realized that he found himself in a cave, next to a warm fire and with several blankets over him. He stirred, noticing that he was not alone. His whole body tensed visibly as he took in his surroundings. The cave was small, it could probably only fit two or three people. Most of the opening was covered in snow. And there he also saw a figure, facing the entrance.

When Tristan stirred, the figure turned around, pulling down the hood. Tristan was greeted with a pair of charming eyes, a cocky smile, and a tuft of dark brown hair. Of course, he sighed. Out of all the creatures in the world it had to be Henry Saxton that saved him.

Saxton was not his usual easy-going self. Instead, his furrowed brow and tight-lipped smile spoke of stifled seriousness, even worry. He approached, sitting down next to him as Tristan shivered under the furs and blankets.

"Winter grows harsher. This is the worst one I have seen in years," Saxton murmured as he retrieved a small bottle from his inner coat, opened it, and handed it to Tristan who did not think twice and downed the contents of the flask — strong spirits that only served to wake his aching body from its deep slumber.

"Why would you help me?"

"I did it for me, Hawthorne. I am a very selfish man — our last confrontation took a toll on us here in the Grove… if you perish, it wouldn't take long for the next Lord of Cadherra, whoever he is, to finish what you started when you rescued Captain Rogers."

Tristan's lips settled into a thin line. He had not expected more from Saxton, yet he was disappointed with the answer.

"Who is to say that I will not return again to Raven's Grove, with more men next time?"

"The problem with fame such as yours is that you must continue with appearances to keep up whatever good opinion society holds of you…especially considering your…appearance and the rumors now circulating about you.”

“Damned rumors,” Tristan murmured to himself.

Saxton shrugged, his serious contemplation broken by a stray chuckle at the uncharacteristic mutter. “The perceived notion that you are a man of your word would not allow you to go against it, especially when I have kept my word and kept from robbing any travelers going through the forest."

The storm raged outside, on the verge of pushing its way into the small cave. "I sense that there might be more important questions plaguing you as of late," Saxton commenced, looking as if he had read Tristan's mind. "Or…do you always venture into a storm such as this for new exciting thrills?”

"T’was only a hunt gone awry, nothing plagues me," Tristan muttered.

"If nothing plagues you, you would not be wearing that mask," Saxton said with an undertone of compassion lacing his voice as he pointed at the piece of leather that covered Tristan's face and head.

"Have you taken my warning into consideration?" Saxton asked.

The anxiety Tristan had hoped to escape only returned tenfold now, and the growing headache made him wish he had succumbed to the icy tendrils of the storm. He let his head sink further into the furs.

"What… would I do…if I went to Wessport?" Tristan asked after a prolonged pause, the weak voice breaking the peaceful silence between them. It was hard to bear the knowledge that he might be able to stop a disaster before it happened. Ever since interrogating Alan Moore, Tristan knew that it would be best to return to Wessport and unveil who the traitor was.

"Aha! You finally came to your senses then?"

"I never said so."

"If you go to Wessport, you have chosen to heed my warning. Good."

Tristan looked at Saxton as the alcohol slowly warmed his body further, trying to discern the intentions of the man before him. Everything he had heard about Saxton was enough for Tristan to consider him an untrustworthy man. Yet, here, in the confinements of the cave, within the depths of Raven’s Grove, a deep-set intuition told Tristan otherwise. Something in the severe eyes which stared back at Tristan revealed that there was more to Saxton than what he simply portrayed or what was whispered about him in the countryside.

"When you arrive there, anything you have managed to find out is to be informed to Lord Thomas Athar, one of James' closest advisors. I repeat once again that he is the only man you can trust within the walls of the city."

"And what then? Shall I blindly let him guide me to do whatever he sees fit?" Tristan whispered, still too weak to argue further.

Saxton’s features knitted together, revealing the underlying sense of dread slowly pushing through his otherwise composed exterior. "Anything outside of this forest is beyond my reach. I cannot help you in Wessport."

"I never asked you to help me."

"I never wanted to help you. You are arrogant and self-righteous,” Saxton tsked, the words should have come off as an insult, yet the weight added to them made the bandit almost sound annoyingly impressed. “Yet, you are bound by your word and you live by codes of chivalry that died off centuries ago. Your values do not fit in a world of greed, lies, and deceit."

Beyond the cave and through the harsh storm, shouts could suddenly be heard. Saxton rose quickly, his eyes crossing momentarily with Tristan before he ventured outside, returning as soon as he had left.

"It seems your friends have not given up on you. A small group of men on horseback is making its way to this cave as we speak. They must have seen the fire."

Tristan's eyes widened. He never thought that anyone would bother to come and look for him. Saxton was agitated, the bandit knew he could not linger, for the other men might restrain him and bring him back to Adelton. He collected some of the furs he had placed on Tristan, preparing to leave. Saxton said nothing as he disappeared suddenly, leaving the masked man alone with the fire slowly dying out, leaving the inside of the cave in darkness.

The world around Tristan blurred and collapsed, like the dying embers of the fire. He heard the shouts near like a reverse echo, as if he were at one end of a tunnel. Soon, Lucius and Joseph entered the cave, amazed and happy to find their friend alive.

An ensemble of riders made their way tediously through the snow. The snow almost reached the horses' stomachs as the heavy downfall would not stop. Lucius kept making sure that Tristan would not fall asleep, he had great difficulty in keeping the tall man behind him on their horse. Despite the severity of the storm, it did not take long for them to reach Adelton Hall, the lights from within the castle shining like a beacon of hope for the tired men. The horses were weary as well, barely managing to carry their riders to the courtyard before letting their tired heads collapse near their hooves.

George was there to greet them, his frail form almost carried away by the ever-growing winds. He could barely see anything with the snow slashing across his face, getting into his eyes. He had been informed by one of the men keeping a lookout from the guard post in the highest tower that riders were approaching.

As he stepped further into the courtyard, he saw Tristan being supported by Lucius, as Joseph tried to get the lifeless body off the horse. George quickly neared, fearing the worst. The lord of the castle showed no signs of life as his limp form was gently lowered to the ground.

"We have to get him warm now!" Lucius shouted through the snowstorm. George signaled for two footmen to approach with a prepared makeshift litter that they had used for the wounded soldiers only a few weeks earlier. They quickly loaded the limp form covered in furs and carried him to his quarters. Tristan looked more animal than human as he lay wrapped in his furs. Lucius, Joseph, and George followed in haste. Servants that ran up and down the castle tending to the fires looked with wide eyes as the group passed through the decorated hallways and corridors, making their way to Tristan's chambers.

"We need a fire prepared and more blankets," urged Lucius as they neared his chamber.

"All is prepared, someone is already waiting for us." George glanced at the still form, wondering how Tristan could have survived such an ordeal — to be out in the snow for so many hours was indeed a great feat. But, he wondered if it would cost Tristan his life, the mere notion deepening the wrinkles in his forehead. They closed in on his chambers and opened the door. A pleasant wave of heat washed over them. The fire was crackling loudly, a maid was piling as much firewood as she could fit into the fireplace. By a damask screen, there was a larger pile of wood where two women were stacking it, soon to be cast into the fire. They were surprised to find Christine and Maria hard at work.

Christine wiped her forehead from the arduous work. In truth, every maid she had asked to help her carry the firewood and prepare for Tristan's arrival had promptly refused her. Excuse after excuse had sent Christine into a wave of anger until she dismissed the servants. She decided that if it had come to this, then she would help care for Tristan herself.

As the men entered with her fiancé, she was overcome by the strangeness of seeing him so fragile. A motionless Tristan was carried in on a litter, covered in dark furs. His eyelids were so heavy that they appeared to be glued together and his breath was too slow and shallow for Christine’s liking. Lucius and Joseph looked weary as well. Joseph's limp had gotten worse, and he had to take to the wall for support. His and Christine's eyes met a split second, but she quickly paid him no heed, her eyes quickly reverting back to Tristan. Meanwhile, George's face had paled with worry — for how would the Chamberlain of Adelton Hall look if he lost another Count of Cadherra to the everlasting grasp of death?

Christine wrung her hands in uncertainty over how to proceed next. The maid that had kept throwing logs into the fire noticed the company as well, thus excusing herself, not wishing to remain and be forced to tend to Tristan. After the incident with Johanna, resulting in her working alone as a scullery maid for the coming months, the maid had no wish to get on his bad side and meet a similar fate.

"Put him on the bed," murmured Lucius to both footmen. They carried the heavy man over to the vast bed, backing away and leaving the room as well. Christine’s heart dropped, she had always thought that she was the only one receiving a cold shoulder from the servants, but she now understood that her fiancé was treated the same way. Suddenly, Christine realized that it did not matter how much good he had done for them… for Angloa. To them, he was judged not by his actions, but by his appearance, which only prompted the servants to distance themselves from him.

As Maria continued piling on the firewood and checking on the fire, Christine hesitantly neared the still form. Joseph and Lucius started removing the soaked furs with the help of Christine. There was no place for decorum here, what mattered was that Tristan needed to get warm and soon.

The blankets, thick gambeson, wool jacket jerkin, and boots were also removed. The only thing left on his body was a flimsy cotton shirt, worn trousers that needed serious mending, socks with already mended holes, his gloves, and finally his mask.

Neither of them had ever seen Tristan without his heavy wool jerkin and gambeson. Thus, his form was not as bulky as had been expected. He did not present the filled-out form of a man of leisure, as Christine had first suspected. His chest slowly rose up and down with every deep breath he drew. Despite herself, she let her eyes graze over the unfamiliar form and the more she stared, the more she found herself drawn in…a small and unfamiliar voice at the back of her head whispered at her to touch him. That was something she had never wanted to do before.

Lucius and Joseph silently noticed her change in demeanor, and Lucius gently placed his hand on her shoulder.

"Propriety would…have you leave the rest to us."

She snapped out of her trance and her vivid blue eyes suddenly found their way back to reality.

"Aye…I-I also think it is best if I leave the rest to you," she murmured confounded as she noticed the reason for their hesitation in further undressing Tristan.

As Christine and Maria closed the door behind them, Maria showed signs of irritation. “Would you have me stay?” Christine demanded, the echo of her heels hitting the worn wooden floor reverberating throughout the otherwise desolate hall as they approached her chambers.

"We have been scraping together logs and tried to find people ever since Lord Chaeld and Astor rode out…and Lord Hawthorne should know whom to be indebted to for the warmth now in his rooms and the fresh supply of cotton and linen — not from his servants that have so readily decided against him—"

“I should like to think, Maria, that our priority now is his well-being, rather than receiving his gratitude.”

Maria pursed her lips together. “Yes, my lady.”

Lucius and Joseph found themselves alone at last. Lucius realized the situation at hand… what he and Joseph could potentially do if they so wished. They could stifle their ever-growing curiosity and relieve Tristan of the mask, thus uncovering the secret of the thin silver scars trailing up his neck. Were there more scars dotting Tristan’s body perhaps? Joseph hesitated, giving one last glance to Lucius as if asking for permission before his hand reached for the edge of the mask. As soon as he started undoing the laces at the back, Lucius stopped him.

"We cannot. This is wrong."

Joseph removed his hand. “Tristan wouldn’t know,” he said.

“I think he would come to realize what we have done, eventually…”

Joseph chewed his lower lip. “It cannot be as bad as they say, can it?”

“He wears the mask for a reason, if he does not wish to show his face, we should not be the ones to force him.”

“There is no shame in having scars, only hiding them.”

"Help me get him up," Lucius answered tensely, ignoring Joseph’s last remark. Joseph’s moves were curt and quick, revealing his irritation as his curiosity grew. They dragged Tristan’s soaked clothes off him, some more scars trailing over his body, a roadmap to the battles he had fought during and before the war. They placed him under the thick, warmed covers of his bed and placed extra blankets over him. Both men waited but Tristan still did not come too. After a while, the shallow and slow breaths became quicker and deeper as he started moving slightly.

Lucius let out a breath of relief, knowing now that Tristan would recover.

December 30th

Tristan's eyes fluttered open. Once again, he found himself in a situation where he was not aware of his surroundings. Slowly, the memories of the previous night returned. He remembered coming too under a mountain of blankets. Joseph and Lucius had been there, by his side. He had been so weak that he could barely move. His hand quickly went to his face, grazing it. The mask was still there, firmly in place, his rushed heart calming. He lifted the covers and discovered that he was naked underneath.

He was alive. He was thankful, and he was alive. The door creaked open, and someone stepped into the room, carrying with them a cold breeze, making Tristan realize the stifling heat of his chamber.

Christine entered, carrying a folded nightshirt and tray with a cup and a bowl, both with contents that were steaming hot. She stopped when she noticed that Tristan was awake. But then, without speaking, she took a few determined steps to his bedside.

She placed the folded shirt wordlessly next to him and the tray on the small table next to the bed while sitting down by his bedside.

"You are awake," she stated. To his surprise, she seemed relieved.

"You seem disappointed." His voice was deep and raspy as if he was getting over a sore throat. But Christine did not laugh, she only looked at him intensely, straight on as she let her eyes stare shamelessly and cut into him.

"If you have enough energy to jest with me, you have enough energy to get dressed and get some sustenance into you," she said pointing at the nightshirt. Christine turned away, letting him put it on himself, and then moved to help him sit.

"I can sit up myself." His voice had lost its rich, deep tremor. She ignored him and Tristan found no strength to object. Christine put a hand on the back of his neck and another one glided behind his back to support him — her face was brought in close to his to the point where their noses were almost touching. Tristan tried locking eyes with her, frowning as she diverted her gaze. Even if her hands were not touching his skin, he could almost feel them, only a thin layer of cotton between them. Christine froze, her eyes transfixed by the slight movement of his lips. She dared not look up to meet his eyes.

His warm breath touched her face and a golden lock fell out from its constricting bun, brushing across his mask. His eyes wandered to her lips as well, as transfixed by them as she was by his. Her lips parted as her breath caught in her throat, understanding the implication of their unfolding situation. She needed to place some distance between them as quickly as possible. Why? She had yet to justify that answer to herself. Her mind was as detached from the actions of her body as ever, for instead of leaning away, she neared him further.

Tristan brushed the lock away from her face, his touch lingering on her cheek as he forgot himself, his thumb absentmindedly brushing across her lower lip in a strangely familiar manner.

Christine frowned, the prolonged touch waking her from her transfixed stupor. Her cheeks reddened as she quickly pulled away from him. Lavender eyes, wide and startled, took a moment to register her surroundings, and the man laying before her.

She awkwardly cleared her voice as the blush traveled down her throat. She diverted her gaze, wondering if he would have let it go any further. Christine reminded herself that getting to Wessport was her chief priority now, but she wasn't desperate enough yet to surrender her virtue.

Tristan let his hand fall to the bed in defeat. He struggled into a sitting position as Christine pointed at the food, preparing to get off the bed and venture to her own chambers, far away from him.

"I said I could sit up by myself, I did not say I could feed myself." His voice was not as weak as before.

Christine’s hands clenched into fists, but she did not argue. He was still recovering, she kept telling herself. “It did not seem like it a moment ago, my lord,” she mumbled under her breath, but she humored him. Christine reached for the spoon and bowl while sitting closer to him. She guided the warm broth to his mouth, satisfied as he drank the rich liquid.

"We thought you would perish last night," she said while giving him another spoonful.

"Surely… you were not afraid for me?" He almost sounded surprised.

Christine put down the bowl and frowned. "We all were...we depend on you."

"The inhabitants of this castle have little love for me."

"My lord, I will not ignore the way you have been treated by many here ever since your arrival. I… myself judged you wrongly." She put down the bowl and grew a somber expression. "In Angloa, keeping secrets could be your fall,” she mumbled as she gestured to the mask.

"I know." Tristan knew all too well about these matters. He had already been warned of what might come. But it was at that moment that he realized that Christine might get entangled in it too. If someone was really after him, then would they not go after Christine as well?

"No, no you do not. I see just as well as anyone. I perceive just as much as anyone, my lord. I have seen many men lose their footing for a moment, stumble in hesitation, and it has been their end." She stared off into the distance. For a moment she was lost in thought, forgetting where she was trying to lead the conversation as she was reminded of the past. "You have principles that you stand by, and you honor your word. Less can be said for others. Circumstances can be worked in or against your favor."

"You are referring to your father."

"My father was found guilty of treason with plenty of proof." Her words came off as harsh and unfeeling, they sounded practiced, as if she had been repeating them to anyone bringing up her father since his passing. Christine hesitated slightly as she continued, the unsavory twinge of guilt settling at the back of her mouth.

"But… he was my father and to me, he always will be." There was a long pause after she had spoken.

"You have changed your mind about him."

"I have."

Tristan looked at her more intently now.

"I hear your mother had him buried at the foot of Adelton, on a hill facing the mountains."

When she looked up at him, he detected a trace of guilt intermingled with determination and sorrow. She wanted to convince him of something—of what he was yet to find out although Tristan had an inkling.

"He may not be laid to rest anywhere else."

“He was a traitor, as you said,” Tristan reasoned back and noted the rising anxiety extending within her as the conversation took a wrong turn.

“Does he not deserve peace still?” Christine clutched her skirt, the dismay in her voice as earnest as it could be.

"An audience with James might be favorable for your late father," Tristan said in a distant tone.

Christine couldn’t help but light up at his words.

"To travel to Wessport for such a small thing is hardly reason enough," she started — as if trying to brush it off. She thought he would offer her a place on the next ship leaving Coldwick any moment now, he had been accommodating enough thus far.

Alas, Tristan did the opposite of obliging her implied wishes. The look he sent her had a chill run down her spine. “I suppose it is common, in Wessport, to seek approval and favors through indirect means... like that of persuasion.”

Christine swallowed hard; his voice now lowered to the familiar growl she had heard so many times before. The foul mood he has otherwise so known for seemed kindled yet again, despite his current state of weakness.

“You have me mistaken, my lord—”

“Why did you come here?” She could see his jaw tense. “Indeed, it could not be out of concern for my wellbeing.”

Christine frowned. The man that she had slowly gotten to know was gone in an instant. All she saw was an emotionless mask with two deep holes where his eyes should be. It was as if the face of the devil stared back at her.

“I was concerned,” she argued back but the words did not sound convincing. She leaned away from him, his hand roughly gripping her wrist, determinedly pulling her in as a warning to her not to run away.

“Then you could have asked me for passage to Wessport, instead of deceiving me with manipulative stories to get your way,” he snapped back.

Christine quickly tried to put away the bowl of broth and the spoon but the ceramic fell out of her hands and broke on the rug with a muted crash as she pulled away. She tried to find words to defend herself but all she could do was to trip over her consonants and vowels as he still held her left wrist in a firm grip. Her eyes started watering.

“Do not waste your tears on me,” he continued. Even though he was weak, Tristan got out of bed. He did not let the excruciating ache in his body show, nor the sharp, stabbing pain, that went through his head as he stood up. His larger form dwarfed hers as he towered over her.

“I—” she began, trying fervently to find the adequate words. Christine let out a shaking sigh and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. When she opened her eyes, she seemed to have calmed herself. “My intentions toward you, my lord, were not deceitful and I do not believe my actions should warrant this reaction from you.”

“Then tell me honestly that your coming here to me on this morning was solely out of the goodness of your heart and that you had no alternative motive save in wishing to care for my well-being—”

“I…I am concerned for your well-being.”

“Of course,” Tristan snapped, letting go of her wrist. “Whatever happens to me would come to affect you as well.”

Christine’s frown deepened, but this time out of anger. “Of course it would affect me. In taking me as your intended, you accepted responsibility for me and Mother. If you should fall, we would stand alone again.”

His lips thinned and his grip around her wrist tightened but Christine kept her resolve.

“Had I honestly come and asked you for permission to sail to Wessport, would you have let me go?” She hadn’t noticed how her voice rose, fear replaced with a growing sense of irritation.

“Of course not!”

Christine’s jaw tensed, the fear all but subsided now. Hot tears of anger rolled down her cheeks.

“You may claim the title of this land, but you still lack any right to exert authority over me.”

“I do not need the bands of marriage for that. One word to James and he would order you to stay here.” Tristan leaned in. “For he heeds my word, you see.”

Instead of causing her more distress, the words flew by her.

"I am bound for Wessport soon," Tristan continued. His words were cruel, but in all honesty, he could only hear Saxton's warning play in his mind. He did not want Christine with him if he was going to the lion's den. She would be safer in Cadherra, even if she didn't like it.

"And why not take me with you?"

"There is no place for you in Wessport," he growled. Tristan felt his head suddenly turn light, and he knew that he could not keep up pretenses much longer. He did not want to seem weak in front of her because then she would only insist more.

"Get out," he gritted through his teeth. It was the only way to get her to leave as quickly as possible. Christine did not think twice and headed to the door, hesitating by the handle before ramming the door shut behind her.

As soon as she was out Tristan collapsed next to the broken bowl and spilled broth.

January 4th, 1520

It came as a surprise to many when Tristan declared that he was going to Wessport within the month. Both Joseph and Lucius had argued that he should rest a few more days in bed until he started preparing for the long journey ahead. Tristan and Christine had entered the new year on bad terms already. The shy relationship that had been blossoming between them seemed broken now. But while she had been deathly afraid of him before, she only ignored his presence now.

As soon as word had gotten to her that he was preparing a trip to Wessport without her, she ignored it. Instead, she sent her servants to prepare for her own trip. If Tristan would not take her with him, she would go by herself. Alas, her plans were thwarted as she found her belongings unpacked in her chambers, a clear sign from Tristan that Christine was not to leave Adelton. It opened the doors to a heated argument between the two. Their squabble went back and forth, ending with Tristan stating that as the Count of Cadherra, he could do as he pleased. His arrogance only served to further distance them, invoking a sense of desperation within Christine.

Yet, Christine would not give up.

It was afternoon when a courier arrived at Adelton Hall with mail from Coldwick. The small man had requested to speak directly to the lord of the castle. Mrs. Hammond showed him to Tristan's quarters, where he was sitting in his cold study, keeping warm in a black marabou-trimmed coat as the chimney of the study fireplace needed unblocking. Tristan was reading and signing various documents, still somewhat weak from his ordeal in the woods, not that he would ever admit to it. The courier’s mouth turned dry as he caught a glimpse of the new landlord of Cadherra. The courier had heard of Tristan Hawthorne before, of his deeds in battle, of his many feats over his enemies. The tales told by the men who had fought in the war as they returned to their villages had spread like wildfire, and few were those who had not now heard of some impossible feat being done by Hawthorne. The courier was glad that he would never have to meet Tristan on the battlefield, or in any field requiring battle; fighting, or talking. Instead, the courier handed over the letter as he had been instructed to do.

Mrs. Hammond had to escort the courier out herself as the man had stood stupefied after having delivered the letter. She felt bad for him. She knew the reaction Tristan could have on people. She wondered if the poor courier would even have managed to sustain a conversation with his lordship without falling flat on his back.

Tristan had not paid them any notice. He had his mind elsewhere. He was putting together a plan for when he arrived at Wessport. First, he had to invent a cover. Why was he traveling there now? What was he doing there and how long did he intend to stay there? He knew that these questions would be demanded of him over and over again. He was also obliged to inform the king of his arrival in town, something he was not entirely pleased with. After, he had to collect the information he had gotten from Alan Moore and Henry Saxton. He had to uncover truths and lies from the information he had collected. He knew one thing — he needed to find John Fletcher and he needed to speak with Lord Athar. His quest to find out why he had been put under surveillance would take him some time, he figured.

What worried him most of all, was that he might stumble on something larger than he had expected. A creeping sense of dread in his gut foretold that something large was taking place behind the scenes in Angloa, tied together with whoever wished to keep him under surveillance. Tristan wondered if whoever was monitoring him, had to be conspirators and traitors to the crown by their own merit. Or perhaps, the most unfortunate case could also be that it was James himself who had put spies on Tristan. If that were the case, Tristan would benefit from leaving Angloa as soon as possible. Alas, he knew he would not leave Christine and her mother behind to fend for themselves.

As he finished revising his last document, he looked at the letter the courier had given him. When he saw the unbroken royal seal on the bone-white paper, his heart skipped a beat. He did not know how long he sat there, staring at the letter. He did not want to open it.

Tristan could hear Saxton's taunting voice at the back of his mind. If the contents of the letter were anything close to what he expected, the bandit would have been right all along. His gloved hand reached for the letter. He was struck by how ironic the whole situation was. A simple piece of paper with some scribbled ink on it could decide a man's destiny. At this moment Tristan did feel as if his destiny was slowly being rewritten. He broke the seal, feeling his pulse quicken and his face flush behind the mask. His jaw tensed as he slowly unfolded the paper, his eyes quickly skimming through the letters, each word a heavier blow than the previous one.

To his lordship, Tristan Hawthorne, Count of Cadherra.

It is with our utmost respect that we bid you welcome to attend the capital of Wessport, by request of His Gracious Majesty, King James I of Angloa. We inform your lordship that your presence and that of your wife, Lady Christine Hawthorne, is required by personal request of His Majesty. Both of you are awaited at the turn of the first month of the new year. Information as to why his lordship and his wife are required to be present at court is non-disclosable.

Your presence at court is awaited.

From the High Council of the Royal Secretary, Roger Ascham.

Signed, His Gracious Majesty, James I Fell, king of Angloa.

Tristan reread the letter at least five times until he put it away in defeat. He was expected to attend court. Everything he had feared now led to this. The battle, it seemed, was not over for him. But worse yet was that Christine was expected to come. Whatever action he had taken to keep her within the safe walls of Adelton had failed. He would not show the letter to anyone, nor would he tell her what he had read. But his heart sank deep within his chest as he read, in small elegant lettering, at the bottom of the paper:

A copy of this correspondence has been delivered to Lady Christine Hawthorne.

He did not know the world of Wessport’s court as well as the world of the battlefield — that much he could confess to himself. Tracing over the cursive letters, his eyes narrowed when coming to terms that he could not protect Christine. Because, despite it all, until he left Angloa and settled his and her situation respectively, she was still his responsibility. Thinking of the Vega name and its downfall since last year, he suspected Christine would receive anything but a warm welcome, and surely rumors would only serve to further add a stain to her character when it was revealed that they had yet to marry… yet to fulfill the one order they had been given by James. Tristan frowned at the letter, wondering if James was aware of their unwed status, and called for them to come to Wessport to hurry things along. It could be plausible.

Tristan rose from his seat, his body still somewhat weak. He dragged his feet to the door and opened it. Outside stood a footman, always on duty if Tristan had a request. Tristan asked for George. The plans for his upcoming trip would have to be altered now.