Secrets of the Court: Chapter 16

 February 11th - Wessport Palace

"He should hope Alistair does not choose the sword," said a pensive Rajac as he stroked his chin. Fawkes, Simon Rajac, and Joseph Astor all sat in Rajac's parlor in the palace. It was an impressive room, decorated in tones of beige and coffee; slightly more worn and older than the one Tristan and Christine had gotten. It reminded the three men who sat there of forlorn days. Light sifted through the windows and shone brightly on them as the fire in the big fireplace crackled. It could well fit two or even three boars for roasting. It might as well have been a kitchen fireplace, from its sheer size. But Rajac had asked for just such a thing, in order to keep them as warm as possible. His wife, Amalia, got excessively cold, and he wanted her to be as warm and comfortable as possible. Dark brown tapestries, faded yet elegant, lined the walls. He had never guessed their age, but they had to be over two centuries old, at least.

They sat around a polished wooden table, an elegant piece of furniture that, just like the cushioned chairs, clashed strongly with the rest of the interior decoration.

They were discussing preparations for the duel. Tristan had not joined them—as was expected. He had excused himself with being "occupied". He would be back during the afternoon though since Fawkes wanted to spar with him. However much Tristan refused to accept it, the truth was that he didn't want to think much about the duel. He also didn't wish to be in close quarters with Fawkes after discovering Athar's involvement in a possible coup.

"Tristan can defend himself with a sword," argued Joseph heatedly. “I have seen it.” He had recovered after a good night's rest and more food in his belly. His color had returned and the dark circles under his eyes had almost disappeared.

"He won't be able to choose the weapon either way. He was the one who challenged Alistair," retorted Fawkes, his hands clasped in front of him as he leaned over them.

"But he could at least make a request. I am certain Alistair would listen," began Rajac, cut off by a heated Fawkes.

"My boy, if you were to duel another man — and you knew yourself to have the upper hand — would you throw away that upper hand?" he snapped, his jaw tensing and bushy brows furrowing together angrily.

Joseph held his tongue. The previous day he'd sent a trusted messenger to ride through the island with no stop for rest, only for a change of horses at pinpointed waystations. If all worked as it should, the messenger would reach Lucius in a matter of days to relay Tristan's message. Lucius would finally come and help with this mess they now found themselves in.

"But Hawthorne did lead the men into battle up north," Rajac confirmed. "The soldiers always boasted of his skill on the battlefield." There was a long pause as none spoke. The mood in the parlor steadily grew more and more gloomy as they all worried about the fate of Tristan. It seemed only Tristan himself had given little thought to the duel; at least not openly. "Either way, he cannot let his nerves rule over his mind in a matter such as this one," Rajac murmured.

"I know he is capable of brandishing a sword…but he has not had the advantage of a good tutor, how could he when he comes from the ranks?

The mere fact that Fawkes doubted Tristan disgusted Joseph more than it should have. If Tristan was unsettled by something, he was sure he had a good reason for it. After what he had found out about Athar — and the papers confirming plans to overtake the palace — Joseph understood where Tristan’s thoughts may find themselves presently.

"I have seen Tristan alone up against five men, my lords," Joseph muttered.

"But those were foot soldiers. Foot soldiers have barely any training. Lord Alistair is much more than a common soldier, he has had training since infancy." Rajac's hand pushed his hair out of his face.

"Tristan won fighting Henry Saxton in Raven's Grove when we arrived in Cadherra," Joseph said. "If he has his mind elsewhere, it is for a good reason. I assure you he is not nervous about Matthew Alistair," Joseph said, dismissing all doubt in the other men.

"Astor is right, Rajac. We give Hawthorne little credit when we should never have failed to trust him in the first place." Fawkes got up and paced around the room. "Funny that, wherever I go, men seem to doubt Hawthorne…and in the end, he always surprises them," he laughed. He looked over at Joseph and Simon sighing.

"He has proved you wrong before?" asked an amused Rajac, despite himself.

"Joseph, you were not yet up in the north when we fought against the English. You, Simon, you were in Coldwick at the time. But I remember like it was yesterday, the day when I first saw Tristan Hawthorne." Fawkes looked into the distance and his eyes shone with nostalgia.

Joseph and Simon perked up in their seats. It was known that Fawkes was one of the first high-ranking officers that had accepted Tristan's ascension to an officer during the war, but the story of how he had met the masked man had never been shared and it was not readily coaxed from Fawkes, as if he wished to keep the story for himself.

"You were there when he arrived?" Joseph asked.

"Of course I was, lad. I was the commander of the armies of the north then. But I never thought that he of all people would come to take my position. And I thought even less that it would be I myself who would willingly give him that position." When neither Simon nor Joseph spoke, Fawkes took it as a sign to continue.

"We thought him very strange at first, and quite mad," he said. "I was overlooking the field one day and there I saw him, arguing with his commanding officer after having lost the battle at Haven's Beach. We had had bigger losses, but we still lost one thousand men that day, barely killing half as many Englishmen.” Fawkes’ eyes crinkled at the edges as he remembered. “Hawthorne had some poor officer nearly dirty his breeches but the arguments he presented to him were sound… It was Field Marshal Melkeer to saw the true potential in him, of course." Fawkes sat down wearily, a trace of sadness lacing his voice at the memory of a very old friend. "I thought I saw an angry apparition at first, for there stood a man dressed in black rags and a sack of burlap upon his head."

"Rags?" Joseph questioned.

"Aye, like he had run through a forest of thorns. He dressed even worse back then; if you can imagine it. And the mask he wore, unsightly." Fawkes shuddered at the memory, chuckling at his own reaction. "He could barely see a thing in those bags. I think it took Melkeer a few months to convince him to accept new clothes…you can say what you damn will of Hawthornelad’s always been prideful."

"I suppose Hawthorne never mentioned this to you," Fawkes asked as he beheld their astonished expressions.

"During the war, he spoke of Melkeer a few times," Joseph said.

"I can see why, the only one who would listen to him at first was Melkeer. He took him under his wing, of sorts. And it was the moment he listened to Hawthorne that the war turned around." Fawkes turned quiet as more memories rekindled in his mind, bringing up both joy and pain within him.

"Marcus Melkeer was a good man," Rajac murmured, having known him himself. "His end came too quickly."

"He was a good man indeed..." Fawkes said, his eyes staring emptily into the black fireplace.

Joseph looked down at his hands, a small smile tugging at his lips. "Tristan has many reasons to fight for survival, he knows what to do."

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three months since my last confession." The small Roman church was colder inside than outside. The great blocks of stone trapped the chilled winter air and never let it escape.

The cross-shaped building was in the middle circle, in a quiet section and away from prying eyes. It was a modest church with little decoration afforded to it. Most of the money donated went to the poor. What little remained served to feed the three friars that stayed within its walls. It was one of the oldest churches in Wessport with foundations dating back to the Roman Empire. The original builders had not wanted to completely tear down the Roman temple that had once stood in its place. Therefore, part of that old temple still remained, with marble pillars supporting the weight of the church. One section of the floor had been spared as well, showcasing an exquisite mosaic of the sun. It reminded the churchgoers of the craftsmanship from the forgotten days of the past.

There wasn't enough funding for incense or sufficient candles. An impressive rose window was at the end of the short nave, high over the altar. It let in the sunshine as the candles could not light up the darkness in the house of God.

Maria had been the one who insisted that Christine go to confession. She had never been devout, but she knew that sometimes, not even a close friend could help with the inner troubles the soul held. The young maid had scoured the city for a peaceful and secluded area for Christine to go—where she knew she would not be spied on. Maria had given her mistress a set of her own clothes and taken her there. Maybe Christine might find some peace of mind in prayer, something she rarely did anymore. Maria stood guarding the entrance while Christine kneeled by the confessional, next to the friar.

"What are your sins, my child?" asked the rotund friar. It seemed that even though money was scarce, he found some way to keep his belly full. But his kind face and relaxed demeanor calmed Christine.

"So many I do not even know where to start, Father." The truth was that she had no idea whom she could divulge her problems to. Maria already knew all she needed to. Her mother, although understanding, didn't need to hear her daughter's problems and insecurities. Tristan was out of the question. And Christine doubted that a divine being, that the Lord himself, would care to listen to what she said.

"You may speak freely here, none will judge you in the house of God," the friar said kindly. The man was wider than he was tall, and he had brown hair, cut close to his scalp. His eyes were big, brown, and kind, reminding Christine of a deer. He smelled of honey and freshly baked bread and his pudgy fingers clasped the wooden cross hanging around his neck. She found him already a better confessor than any of the friars at the chapel in the Palace. She did not trust them, for she had no idea how they would treat her confession—if they would divulge the secret to anyone else.

"I have lied. Those lies have hurt the ones I care about. I have been prideful as well," Christine confessed. Those were small sins, but it felt good to get them off her chest.

The friar got a pensive look on his face.

"I see." He settled back in the chair and his face softened as he chuckled slightly. "You come here to unburden your mind, my child. Yet, I believe there is more than just these sins which trouble you."

"There are burdens I do not yet wish to explore, Father."

"We all carry those, life throws challenges at us and it is up to us to deal with them as best we can. If you continue to carry them as you have, they will continue to grow until you one day can no longer carry them," he said distantly.

"I only wish to know my penance," Christine urged, not wanting to delve into the real reason she was troubled. He sighed but did not push the matter any further. He gave Christine her penance and absolved her of her sins. Before she left, he placed a heavy hand on her arm.

"I will be here, ready to listen to any other burdens that might weigh down your soul," he smiled kindly. As his lips widened, her heart grew warm at the bright gesture.

"Thank you." Alas, her heart was as heavy as before, she knew then the truth the friar spoke. There were problems within her that she had ignored for quite some time. Christine wanted to believe that all her fears and sorrows would fade away the moment she set out to seek redemption for her father, but such was not the case.

"Are you done, my lady?" asked Maria as she reached Christine. The words echoed through the building and turned the head of the friar.

"Do not call me my lady, not here," whispered Christine as they left the small modest church. Once outside Christine breathed in and regretted it immediately. The stench of the city filled her nostrils and made her cough.

"We should return to the Palace and the inner circle, my la—miss," Maria said, still refusing to call Christine by her Christian name.

"No, not yet. Let me enjoy being out a bit more," Christine argued. She wanted to savor the little freedom she had. She wanted to wander around carelessly and go to markets and look at the exquisite things they sold. She wanted to get lost in the city, avoid her fiancé. Christine did not want to face him yet. Nightmares about his impending duel had plagued her sleep last night.

Christine did not doubt Tristan as a fighter at all. She knew well of his accomplishments in battle and his capability of brandishing a sword. But she was not so certain of Alistair. He was an excellent fencer. She had seen him duel before. It had barely lasted five minutes before the other man fell dead to the ground. She had seen the dirty tricks Alistair used. There were no rules for dueling, it was usually until first blood was drawn, something that could be very openly interpreted. Alistair's opponent was dead before he had even hit the ground. He had been a good fighter, maybe even better than Alistair. But Alistair had played dirty, void of honor in the ring. Christine knew that Tristan prided himself in being honorable, he would not fight dirty, not even if it meant saving his life.

"If we are not to return yet, then let us go to that bakery down the street. I can smell the pastries from here," said Maria in an attempt to cheer Christine. Christine let herself be dragged through the throng and toward the sweet fragrance that wafted through the air.

"Good, again!" shouted Fawkes as he parried one of Tristan's blocks. They had been fighting for what seemed like hours, but little time had gone by. They were in one of the lower-level halls, used by the palace guards for training.

Fawkes had provided Tristan with a heavier longsword, something Tristan was not used to handling. The model of the sword was old but still commonly used by many at the court in Wessport. Tristan preferred the finesse of the dress sword, or even to combat with his fists—should the situation call for it. He wasn’t averse to using a knife although he was aware Alistair would never choose such a weapon for a duel. The knife was, after all, the weapon of the common people.

"I heard you defeated Henry Saxton?"

Tristan parried another strike. "In single combat."

"With that flimsy thing you call a sword?" Fawkes said. He stepped away from the fight, indicating it was over. He pointed to the side where all the weapons were stacked against the wall or propped up on hooks against the marble itself. A few dress swords and rapiers hung there, thinner and shorter than the longswords.

"Force isn't everything, my lord."

"If Alistair disarms you or breaks your sword, you will not be long for this world. He will not see the duel through until you lie dead on the ground," Fawkes said in a serious tone.

"I suspected as much," Tristan muttered.

"Aye, but there is more. He will want to settle his curiosity, with no respect for whatever wishes you have regarding your privacy," Fawkes forced, pointing at the mask.

"He will settle other men’s curiosity as well," Tristan responded, his grip tightening around the sword’s handle, his gloves creaking in protest.

Fawkes gave him a knowing look as he sighed. "More will wish him to win then, I suppose."

They both returned to their fighting, blocking, and thrusting as best as they could. Tristan fought with a laid-back comfort to his stance, a tell-tale sign that he had handled a weapon for longer than just the campaign against the English. There was a familiarity between Tristan and his sword that Fawkes could recognize in himself, revealing that Tristan must have trained in the matters of weaponry since his youth. As Tristan fought hard to concentrate on his duel with Fawkes, he couldn’t help as his mind drifted elsewhere—to something that had bothered him since setting the date for the duel. It was its date and location. Why had they insisted on it being set so far ahead? The fight would take place in four days. Usually, a duel was set for the following day, so that it might be finished as quickly as possible. Yet, Alistair had insisted it be by next week. Tristan wondered if Alistair was working together with Athar. For would not it be a wonderful chance to empty the Palace enough to walk their army toward its gates? But he considered it again. How could Alistair be working with Athar when he and the other lords had completely disagreed with him openly at the assembly? There had been a real despise from both men toward each other, the kind of contempt you couldn't feign.

Tristan felt the sword slip out of his hand as Fawkes uttered a frustrated sigh.

"Do not let your mind wander, Hawthorne," Fawkes snickered, walking to pick up the sword, his breath heavy as he did so, the perspiration running down his forehead. Large sweat stains under his arms revealed his state and he decided to put an end to their sparring. “Not as young as I think I am,” Fawkes said.

Tristan bid his farewell to Fawkes who sat down to take a sip of water, regaining his breath. Tristan left the hallway, swinging his doublet over the shoulder, his perspiration sticking to the white cotton shirt he’d worn underneath. He hastened his step, keen on getting warmed up by the fire in the parlor, passing the Outlook of the Palace in a rush.

It was a section that stood open. Tall arches with no windows stood instead of a closed wall. It was on the side of the castle looking south. Tristan stopped to admire the view, despite the chill. He took in the sights; they never quite outshone the views in Cadherra, but they were still impressive. They showed Wessport in all its glory. A thousand chimneys puffed pure smoke up into the sky as if the city manufactured the clouds that graced the blue heavens. The white snow clung to the ground as well as it could, melting one day and freezing the next. A treacherous layer of ice hid underneath the powdery substance. The night had seen another snowfall and heavy frost form to the woods that lay beyond the walls. The trees stood white, naked, and skinny, nothing like the proud and dense forest of Raven's Grove.

As he looked out over the city, Tristan was surprised when he realized that he did not feel at home there. He had suspected he never would. Instead, he kept thinking back to Cadherra, to the mighty Durun Mountains and the wide forests that clung to their feet. Adelton Hall had been more of a home to him than any other place he could think of, and he had only been there for a few months. As his eyes took in the wintry landscape of the north, he understood that after the duel with Alistair was settled, and Athar was unmasked as a traitor, Tristan had a choice to make. He had thought that once the war was over, he could leave these lands forever. But there was something that called him back to it. At first, he thought it was his sense of duty to his king. But then he knew what it was, he had known it for quite some time, yet never wanted to realize it for himself. He wanted to honor his word to Christine and secure a future for her in a kingdom that would not be hostile toward anyone. If that meant exposing the traitors and conspirators to the crown, if that meant that he would have to wear the mask for years to come, he would bear it for he could not get used to the idea of parting ways with her. But there was something else, something that did not entirely have to do with her either. It was the love he had come to know for Angloa. It was a small, insignificant island to most, but to him, it was more, it was home. And he cursed at himself, for letting this new feeling and sense of duty creep up on him. He could never leave now, knowing that in the deep crevices of his heart, he would always yearn to return.

"It must seem small and insignificant, compared to the vastness of Cadherra," a sultry voice said behind him. Tristan felt a cold hand caress his back, trailing along his spine until it rested on his shoulder. Victoria came to stand next to him, smirking as she contemplated the city with him.

"It does," he agreed with a stiff nod.

"It is good you have grown fond of your lands. But you do Wessport a great injustice, you do not know this city in the height of summer," she argued, her other arm motioned at the city. She wore a dark blue gown lined in white fur with her hood up to cover her raven tresses. Her golden eyes looked at him meticulously.

"Why are you here, Your Highness?" He brushed her hand off his shoulder and her face settled into a faint frown, the plump lips turning into a thin line.

"I heard about the duel."

"I suppose it is widely known then," he stated dryly. Victoria watched in delight as the cotton shirt clung to him when the winds picked up speed, pushing the fabric against his torso. She forced her eyes up, trying to catch a glimpse of his eyes.

"Alistair is a great fighter."

"That must be the only thing he is good at," Tristan deadpanned, walking away from her. But the click of her heels soon fell in behind him as she fought to keep up with his long strides. Tristan felt a chill in the corridor, but it was not due to the winter cold.

"I came to offer you some piece of advice, Lord Hawthorne," she said behind him.

"I can do without your advice." He stopped and turned around. Victoria stopped in her tracks so she would not bump into his chest. "As well as your advances, Your Highness," he muttered sternly.

"Arrogance has been the downfall of many men," she retorted with a tense jaw and a gleam in her eyes. "And so has pride," she added. Tristan remained with a stern expression in his eyes.

"I never do something unless I am positive it will be in my favor." He put his hands behind his back and looked down at her.

"I wonder how young Lady Vega must feel about this whole ordeal," Victoria said, knowing well that Christine was a sensitive matter to him. But even this did not seem to affect him.

"She knows why I must do this—she understands."

"Are you certain she does? We women always lie to protect the ones we care about," Victoria said truthfully.

His lips parted at the final part of her sentence. For once, Victoria had managed to catch him off guard with her words, but not with the words she had wished.

"I started this. It is my duty to follow through with it."

“If you should demand that Alistair take back his words to young Lady Vega, I am certain he would do so without spilling any blood,” Victoria said. There was a knowing look on her face, as if she would do everything in her power that it be so, should Tristan agree.

"I have no doubt of your good intentions, Your Highness. I thank you for your concern and will overlook the approaches you made to me the other night and ask you to not do it again," Tristan continued politely. It would do him no well to get on Victoria's bad side.

She only smirked at his statement.

"If that is your wish, my lord." He was certain that she wouldn't give up so easily, but getting verbal confirmation was better than nothing. Tristan bowed, leaving her alone in the cold corridor, and headed for the warmth of the fireplace and the food that awaited him in the parlor.

The sun was lowering on the sky, now touching the horizon as it brought the day to an end. If the day had shown anything to Tristan, it was that most of those who surrounded him trusted little in his abilities. It felt like he was back at the front, all those years ago, when he first arrived in Angloa to fight against the English. The only one who had trusted him back then had been General Melkeer.

"Should you not dress warmer, my lady?"

Maria was folding away the dress Christine had worn for the day. She sat sipping wine in her parlor, wearing nothing but her white nightgown: a white chemise in soft cotton with a detailed rounded neckline. The outlining had flowers sewn into it in green thread. She wore a sleeveless robe over it in light copper brown made in fine velvet, a present her mother had given her before returning to Cadherra.

"I am quite warm by the fire, thank you, Maria," she said distantly, staring into the flames. Her heart was just as heavy as that morning in the church.

The door opened and in walked a weary Tristan. His thin shirt did little in keeping him warm and he went directly to sit next to the hot fire.

"Where were you all day?" he questioned as he sat to warm himself by the fireplace.

"Keeping away from this dull place," Christine confessed, sipping her wine once more.

"Dull?" Tristan turned to Christine with a puzzled look on his face, a look even she could sense through the mask. She chuckled, the sound made Tristan's cold and weary body warm instantly. How he would love to hear that sound come more often from her.

"I had to get away, if only for a few hours." She stared at the simple goblet in her hands, savoring the rich liquid as it slid down her throat.

"Maria, prepare my clothes for the night and have a bath drawn for me." Tristan turned to the maid who quickly curtsied and went for the servants' quarters, to ask for aid with the buckets of water and tub that would be necessary.

"Where were you all day?" Christine asked the same question, looking curiously at the sweaty shirt and discarded doublet next to him. "Did you roll around in the snow?" she joked.

"I was sparring with Fawkes."

"Of course." Her face turned emotionless as she was reminded of the duel. Tristan leaned back further into the cushioned chair and sighed.

"Are you doubting my abilities as much as everyone else?"

She was quiet for a while, she wanted her response to be true and just, measured and thought out. Christine ran her hand through her loose tresses and put away the goblet. The action sent a flush to Tristan’s face as she exposed part of her neck to him unbeknownst to herself.

"I know what kind of man Alistair is." She locked eyes with him, even if she could not see them due to the darkness in the room. "He is not like you, my lord. He will not fight honorably when the day comes—like I know that you will." Her eyes got a spark in them. "But I do not doubt in you, I have never doubted you ever since the winter ball," she confessed quietly as she got up from her chair, pacing by the fireplace in short and slow steps.

Tristan got up from his own chair, placing himself in her way, stopping her from going forward. Christine looked up at his face, unafraid to face him as she had once been. Tristan found honesty, truth, and worry in her lavender eyes—and something else, something mixed into the pain and sorrow that had become so normal in them. He never thought he would see that emotion in those endless eyes of hers, to see it transpire and overtake everything else.

For the first time, her care for him was evident.

"But let me worry…" she said as her brows furrowed. "Let me worry for you if no one else will." Timidly, she raised her eyes and fixed them further on his face.

Her heart sped up considerably as she caught the first glimmer of his eyes. At first, she had expected that they would not be there, that there would only be two empty sockets, something she had gotten so used to seeing. Christine took another step forward. He watched in silence, mesmerized as her gaze truly met his for the first time. His heart swelled when she captured his eyes with her own and her lips parted slightly.

She felt as if she was staring at a myriad of colors ranging from blue to green. But blue seemed to be the most dominant. His eyes spoke of gentility, they were the kind of blue of a summer day's sky; the kind of blue that budded on emerald meadows in spring, flowers swaying gently in the breeze; the color of the landscape after a cold winter.

They were not harsh nor cruel as she had feared. Instead, they were calm and understanding. His blue eyes took her in, and it felt as if she had unmasked him then and there. His eyes spoke of wisdom she had yet to learn, of experiences both good and bad. His soul seemed to pour out of the blue, endless sky before her. How could a man with such expressive eyes be as intimidating and frightening as she had believed him to be? She saw pride there, but not some arrogant pride that was easily dismissed. It was pride that went beyond her comprehension, and it festered deep within the irises and the explosions of colors that they held.

"I do not want you to worry for me," he murmured after what seemed an eternity, an eternity where both of them were captivated by the other.

Her mouth closed as a sad smile grew on her face.

"You cannot tell me what to do," she argued halfheartedly.

Tristan took a step closer, their bodies slowly closing in and their breaths increasing, turning deeper as the tension in the room rose. He slipped a hand behind her back and leaned in. Christine never let her gaze drop as she tilted her head up. She was conflicted about what was happening, for a split moment she relished the of his hand on the small of her back, transfixed by a set of lips that approached her until their closeness was suddenly disturbed, ripped apart.

It was sudden, faster than the blink of an eye. Tristan moved away from her, standing on the other side of the fireplace. Three maids and two footmen entered the parlor, never knowing of the intimacy that had just been shared.

Maria and a blonde maid were carrying a wooden tub between them while the other maid and the two footmen carried buckets of steaming hot water between them.

"Your bath will be ready shortly, my lord," Maria said as she walked into his chambers, followed by the ensemble of servants. Tristan muttered something incomprehensible and followed them, leaving Christine to stand alone by the fireplace, a confused expression on her face as she grabbed her quickly flushing cheeks. She could scarcely remember what she had been doing before.

As the evening dragged on, Christine and Tristan wordlessly settled in their chambers for rest and sleep. While Tristan could not find a comfortable position in his bed, Christine fell asleep as soon as she lay down. She thought her mind would explode with new thoughts and questions about what had just transpired moments earlier in the parlor. But instead, a warmth extended in her chest. She was pulled into a peaceful sleep as soft winds caressed the windows of her room.

As was usual, the palace settled as people retired to their rooms. The empty hallways guarded the secrets that continuously flowed around inside the walls. It was an eerie peace, a great contrast to the stillness of Adelton Hall. No light from the moon shone in through the windows that night, the dark corners of the palace murkier than usual.

Hours passed by before Christine woke up with a strong thirst. She reached out in blindness, trying to find the pitcher of water that Maria always placed by her bedside. In her attempt to reach out for it, she knocked it over. The metal hit the stone floor with a loud clatter and Christine silently cursed, wondering if she'd woken up Maria or Tristan. The water spilled out and soaked the nearby rug. She got up, draping a gray mantle around her to keep the night chill out. Perhaps there was some water in the parlor. She skidded over the wet rug and put on her slippers, to guard her naked feet from the soaked and icy floor. She shivered when she left the warm covers of her bed and ventured beyond her room.

The parlor was empty as well. She had expected it to be so. The dying embers of the fire gave little warmth now and the chill from outside the walls penetrated the thick stone. Christine roamed around in the darkness, blinder than a mole, but careful to not knock anything over. She found a candle, bringing it to the embers to light it up. The weak flame illuminated part of the room. No pitcher of water seemed to be present. She found some wine instead—wrinkling her nose at the thought of alcohol.

Christine was about to return to her room when a sudden noise outside of the parlor door caught her attention. She tensed. The door was locked so no unwanted guests would venture in. Yet, the mere thought that there would be someone out in the hallways drew her closer. Were they being spied on? She thought against it, they had discovered the secret passageways by the fireplace and in Tristan's room. Surely whoever kept watch over them would not be as daft as to send a spy to guard outside of their apartments.

Involuntary steps took her closer to the door, her pulse rising as she had no idea what she would find on the other side. Her ears strained to distinguish any sound. In the stillness of the night, she could hear someone stumble as she neared. The young woman gathered the wool mantle tight around her. She gripped firmly at the metal candleholder as well, ignoring the little droplets of hot wax that escaped the metal base and found their way to her skin. Her own breath seemed loud and forced as she grew nervous. Christine arrived at the door and pressed an ear against the cool wood. At first, there was nothing, and it seemed like she stood there for an eternity—doing something forbidden, prowling like a thief in the night. She kept glancing back, afraid that Tristan or Maria would find her lurking in the wee hours of the morning. Maybe a second had passed, or perhaps it had been ten minutes, but she heard something again. This time it was the sound of someone grunting and stumbling. Perhaps it was some drunk courtier, making his way back to his chamber after a late-night rendezvous with one of the many ladies in the castle.

Instead of being sensible, there was something at the back of her mind that insisted she open the door. She fought against it at first, but slowly, as if by magic, her hand reached for the handle, almost as if someone else was controlling it. Christine turned the key and slowly opened it, just a sliver, so she might peek out and see who was on the other side. At first, she saw nothing, only the dying light of the torches that lined the hallway. She stepped back when her intuition screamed out. The hairs at the back of her neck and arms rose, there was something eerie about that hallway, something that needed to be investigated. She looked around the parlor, for a weapon—if whoever lurked out there should prove to be a threat to her. She could only find a thick book, a tome. It would serve well to smack someone over the head with its own sheer weight.

She pushed the door open further, allowing the light of the torches to invade the space of the parlor. Christine left it open—one shout would be enough to wake Maria and perhaps even Tristan. She took one big step into the hallway without hesitation. Christine felt vulnerable the moment she had left the comfort of the room behind her and the knowledge that the door could be shut as a barricade against her enemies.

She held the wax candle high and strained again to hear any peculiar sounds. Christine heard and saw nothing. She looked around the near vicinity of the hallway, only to find it empty. But the flickering light of dying torches cast strange shadows on the walls and floors, making her question what she saw. There might well be someone hiding in the darkest of shadows.

"Is there someone there?" her voice rasped, stiff from sleep. It sounded meek and weary to her. It did well in reflecting how she felt at that moment: frightened and strained. A weak grunt to her left made her jump. She turned in that direction and closed in with the wax candle. Christine almost slipped as she neared a still shadow. Her feet seemed to have slipped in water, or perhaps it was spilled alcohol. The shadow took form as she neared it—a slumped body—sitting on the floor, propped up against the wall.

"Sir?" Christine said carefully, still keeping a distance from the man leaning against the wall. He seemed drunk as his head kept bobbing back and forth. He did not hear her the first time, so she repeated her address, rather more forcefully the second time.


His head snapped in her direction and his face looked up at hers, letting the light of her candle and the torches illuminate it.

"Lord Linahan?" asked Christine as she recognized the face. It was white as a sheathe and sweat pearled down from his temples. It was then that she heard the wheezing coming from his chest. There was something wrong with him. Something terribly wrong.

She neared him, careful not to slip in the water or alcohol that he might've spilled. When she kneeled beside him, she saw him clutching his right side and a dark liquid pooling out from it. The metallic smell of blood then filled her nostrils and Christine realized that she was kneeling in a pool of blood—his blood.

"You are hurt!" she exclaimed, putting down the candle to examine his wounds. Jonathan Linahan could scarcely move to stop her. Her hands shook as they went for his side. He protested little as she moved his bloodied hand away, gasping when she saw the bloodstained shirt. The fabric clung to his torso, sticking against the open wound and the surrounding skin. Without a second thought, she turned around and shouted.

"Maria, my lord, is anyone there?" Christine did not know what else to do. Jonathan's heavy eyes locked with hers and there was a sadness on his face. He seemed to have given up as life poured out of him. His other hand came weakly to rest on her cheek as tears trickled down from his brown eyes.

"Angela." His voice was so quiet that she didn't hear it at first. "Angela," he repeated, caressing her cheek, smearing the blood all over it. Christine did not stop him, and she trembled while he kept hallucinating.

"You will be alright, my lord," she tried to reassure him. She cast away the mantle and started ripping off strips of fabric from the hem of her dress, pressing them hard against the wound. But the blood would not stop flowing. She could hear someone inside the parlor quickly making their way to them. Linahan leaned in closer, to her ear and tried to whisper something, but he was too weak.

"Linahan!" Tristan's rugged voice exclaimed as he quickly came to the dying man's aid. Tristan’s eyes widened as he saw Christine kneeling in a torn nightgown. Blood was smeared on her cheek and gown—the hem of the white textile a deep red as she sat in a pool of blood.

"He has lost a lot of blood," Christine said in a shaking voice as she kept tearing strips of fabric from her nightgown. She cared little for modesty at this point. Tristan got down on his knees on Linahan's other side. He carefully pried away the blood-covered cotton and sighed inwardly at what he saw. There were several stab wounds on his lower abdomen and back by his kidney. He had seen similar wounds during the war and knew that Linahan was breathing on borrowed time. As Christine fervently tried to stop the bleeding, Tristan placed a heavy hand over hers. He shook his head, feeling its weight increase as he stared down at the dying man. Christine’s hands fell to her sides, covered in Linahan's blood and her forehead furrowed in frustration.

"By the saints!" came another startled voice. Maria stood in the hallway as well, wrapped in a thick plaid mantle, holding a wax candle like Christine's high above her head.

"Go to the servant's quarters, have them alert the Chamberlain, and bring a physician," Tristan ordered. "Someone has tried to kill this man."

Maria nodded as the color drained more from her face. She did not even venture back to put on more clothes, and she headed in the direction of the Great Hall. Before she could go further Tristan stopped her. He pushed a small dagger into her hand.

"In case the killer is still lurking." He did not need to say more. Maria knew what she had to do, and she ran toward the end of the corridor, enveloped in darkness.

Meanwhile, Linahan grew colder in Christine's arms. She held his hand while trying to stop the blood with her other one.

"Angela," he kept whispering, his mind between hallucination and reality. She did not know Angela but in the end, she understood who it might be—a loved one, someone he cherished. Christine put a loving hand up against his face and cupped his cheek, turning his head toward her.

"I am here," she whispered back, forcing a smile to reassure him that all would be well. Tristan kneeled by her side, his heart tightening as he saw Linahan stare into Christine's face, his jaw tensed from the pain.

"Who did this to you?" asked Tristan.

Linahan's eyes were clouded, he did not seem to understand the question. He kept looking at Christine as if she were an apparition. The blood still flowed with force from his wound. His pulse grew weaker and weaker. Time was drawn out, and they never knew how long they sat there.

Running steps could be heard from the end of the corridor and Tristan saw Maria coming, with medical supplies. She was not followed by anyone. He guessed she had sent a servant for the Chamberlain and a physician while she ran to the kitchen where some medical supplies were kept.

"Who did this to you?" Christine repeated.

"H-He did," Linahan whispered, he was clinging to life by sheer will.

"Who is he?" Christine urged. "You can tell me, Jonathan," Linahan grew frustrated and shut his eyes, blinking away the tears that threatened to fall.

"I s-shouldn't have been… careless. I…" He could barely complete a single sentence.

"A name is all I need," Tristan said, moving in closer. "Give me a name."

The three of them sat in the darkness of the corridor. Linahan's hand dropped from Christine's face, and he slumped against her shoulder. His breathing slowly faded, and she could feel his warm tears wet her gown.

"Tell… Hawthorne…" Linahan sighed. "Athar," he said at last with one final breath as his full weight slumped against Christine as life left him.

Christine sat frozen, uncertain of how to act. The dead body leaned against her chest and shoulder for a while, as she sat still from shock and fear. Tristan stared emptily into space as a wave of rising anger slowly overtook him.

Maria rushed up to them, one hand placed over her mouth in shock as she saw the dead body of Linahan. Tristan carefully took the weight of the body away from Christine and placed it on the floor. Christine stared at it, feeling her hands tremble and bile rising in the back of her throat. She had seen men die before, but never so close.

When stories were told about battles and of the slaughter that took place, they never explained in detail the distant look a corpse's eyes held. They never talked about the gray tint the skin took. But worst of all was, they never talked about how inhuman the corpse looked. What had once been alive became a sack of flesh and bones. Christine stared at the lifeless form and found it impossible to believe that, just a few minutes earlier, it had moved—it had spoken. Thoughts and dreams had coursed through its mind. It had lived, and now it was all gone. The impact of how quickly a life could be extinguished, and of her own insignificance and mortality caused a morose sentiment to extend within her.

She could hear someone speak to her through the thick fog in her mind. It was distorted and never quite reached her. A hand shook her shoulder, and someone helped her stand. Someone escorted her back into the parlor and sat her down next to the now pitch-black fireplace. She could hear more footsteps outside the parlor, whispering voices trying to make sense of what had just happened. More running, more whispering.

"Drink this." Someone pressed a cold goblet into her hands, and she drank until it was empty. Seconds went by and they pressed the cold metal into her hands again. She drank the rich amber alcohol, feeling it calm her nerves.

"Is this the first time you have seen someone... pass?" whispered the voice, it finally managed to pull her out of the fog. Tristan's face was next to hers as he placed the gray mantle around her shoulders.

"No." Her own voice sounded strangely foreign to her. "I have seen it before. But…" She finished the alcohol in the goblet and handed it to Tristan.

"…never so close," he filled in,  revealing a look that spoke of experience in the matter.

"The way his life left him," she confessed at last. "I always thought death to be violent, something that happened in the blink of an eye. Not something as frightening; that slowly extinguished you..." She stared down at her bloody hands and looked away. "You must think me pitiful for having such a reaction."


They sat in silence as the people outside dealt with the body of Jonathan Linahan. Maria walked in at one point, approached her mistress, and embraced her as Maria herself fought hard to overcome the shock of what she had just witnessed. But she excused herself soon, wanting some peace of mind, wanting to be alone. Maria's head was in a million places as she dealt with the situation in her own way. Tristan was not as affected. There had been plenty of times when he had seen men die, some by worse means than others. He had held many of them dying in his arms, giving encouraging words as their life left them. But he remembered the first few times he had seen it happen—he remembered his own strong reaction as he had witnessed someone die. Christine was taking it better than he ever had.

"Let's get you to your room," he whispered in her ear, trying to get her to stand. The rummaging outside of the parlor only served to remind her of what had just transpired. They got up and Christine stumbled.

"My legs won't listen to me," she whispered in frustration, her voice strangely even. He picked her up and carried her in his arms, walking to her room. "You don't have to," she said, blushing despite herself.

"I don't mind," Tristan answered distantly. The effects of the alcohol were already wearing off. He walked into her dark room but stopped at the threshold. She felt him tense as he stared at her bed.

"You can enter," the same weary voice said, she rested her head against his chest out of fatigue. Tristan did so, walking into the room and placing her on her bed.

She felt so small and fragile as she sat on the bed. Christine sighed audibly. He started leaving but when he was by the door, she cried out for him.

"Please, c-could you stay? Just for a little while?" Christine hid her stained hands under the mantle and still shivered. He walked over to her, sitting next to her on the bed.

"I… I don't think I will be able to sleep tonight," Christine confessed while staring at the window, waiting for the sun to rise. He placed his hand over her bloodied one and squeezed it gently.

"Me neither."