Chapter i - Grace
The knocking sound came as if from far away. I rolled over, placing a pillow over my ears. The knocking became an insistent banging impossible to ignore. I turned onto my back and opened my eyes. The afternoon sunlight streaming in through the mullioned windows confused me. My mind was blank.
"Grace, wake up!” Tristam’s voice sounded and his frustration was clear. “Open the door!” His words recalled his proposal, and I felt my face grow warm. I didn’t feel ready to face him, but he deserved an answer. I couldn’t disobey him.
“Just a moment,” I called, scrambling out of bed. Just before I opened my door, I grabbed a cloak and pulled its folds around me.
“Tristam… I’m sorry. I couldn’t…I didn’t… sleep last night. Your question deserves an answer,” the words came tumbling out of me as jumbled as my thoughts.
“That can wait, Grace, right now there is someone here to see you,” he said stepping back and gently propelling a much younger man forward.
The man was slight of build and wiry. He had dark hair and chiseled features. His clothes were filthy and worn. His face held an arrested expression, and his eyes were burning with an intense light.
“Samuel?” I said, closing my eyes and shaking my head as if to clear my vision. When I opened my eyes, he was wearing a twisted smile. He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
“Samuel! It’s really you!” I breathed reaching for him.
“Genevieve,” he whispered, enfolding me in his arms. He smelled like wood smoke, and I was transported back to a time when it was our task to tend the hearth.
“Samuel, you smell just the same!” I exclaimed and he gave a shout of laughter. “I never thought I’d see you again,” I said into his shoulder, clinging as tightly as I could.
“Well, you’re not seeing me now,” he teased, sounding exactly like the older brother I remembered. He gently pried my clinging hands from his shoulder.
“Oh Samuel,” I said, stepping back and looking up at him. I caught a look of pain on his face, but it quickly became a smile.
“Was I hurting you?” I asked.
“My shoulder is a bit sore, that’s all,” he replied, shrugging off my concern.
“I remember when the mule kicked and broke your arm, but you never stopped until the field was plowed.”
“Imagine you remembering that,” he marveled, shaking his head from side to side.
“So, how seriously is your shoulder injured?” I insisted.
“It’s healing. You look wonderful, Genevieve,” he said, placing one of his hands on each side of my face. “I never dared hope you could look so well.” I flinched at his use of my old name.
“Which still doesn’t tell me what happened to you.”
“I was mauled by a bear on the journey here. I kept wondering how you made that trip alone as a girl.”
“First, I want to know why you’ve come here now. Is travel from Lolgothe allowed?”
“It is still forbidden.”
“And yet you’re here.”
“Have you forgotten I was never one for following the rules?”
“No, I remember that about you. I also remember you were always taking care of us younger ones. Tristam’s daughter arrived from Lolgothe today. I bet you had something to do with that.”
“I had forgotten your infallible intuition, but it’s rapidly coming back to me,” Samuel grinned. “Yes, I brought Faith back.”
“Why was she alone at the gate this morning?”
“Because I need to get back to Lolgothe.”
“To the others?” I asked, thinking of my two brothers and my only remaining sister.
“That’s part of it. We left them in early spring, and I expected to be home within a month. I hope Paul has taken control of the estate. For all they know, I’m dead.”
“I hope Luke is helping him,” I said, thinking of my fun-loving baby brother.
“Luke’s grown up to be quite dependable.”
“Of course he has. He didn’t have a choice. How is Delilah?”
“She’s grown into a hard working young woman. She and Faith became close.”
“There is so much I don’t understand. How did you meet Faith?”
Samuel opened his mouth to answer, but I rushed on. “Why were you the one to bring her home?”
“I owed her my life,” he said, answering my second question first.
“How is that possible? Those in the sisterhood never see men - just priests and guards.”
“She follows the rules about as well as I do,” Samuel said with a grin.
There was a glowing look on his face that I’d never seen before.
“I see,” I replied.
“What do you see?”
“You’re in love with her.” Samuel blushed and didn’t dispute me. “This makes it even more puzzling that you left her this morning. Unless…”
“Unless you didn’t think she loved you back.”
“It’s a good thing you left Lolgothe. If you hadn’t been the bride of The Beast you’d have been burned at the stake as a witch.”
“She’d be a fool not to love you back. That’s wonderful. How did you find out?”
“Tristam and a cheeky guard named Nicholas came after me,” Samuel said looking over at where Tristam had recently stood. Neither of us had seen him slip away. “I’m going to have to learn to speak Blinthian so I don’t need a translator.”
I grinned at the scene Samuel painted. “I can imagine that wasn’t an easy conversation. Was Nicholas unbearable?”
“Until Tristam stopped him. He’s given me permission to wed her if our love prevails. I never dreamed such a possibility,” Samuel finished, and he was positively glowing. “But, I have to get back!” he finished resolutely. “It’s going to be hard to leave.”
“You’ve been gone for many moon cycles. If there were consequences for your absence, our siblings have already paid.”
“The story we concocted was that my slave ran away and I went after her. Anything could happen to a man in those woods. Hopefully, that kept the family safe.”
“So, what is the true reason for your hurry?” Samuel let out a heavy sigh. I felt a stone lodge itself in my stomach. “What have you done, Samuel?” I asked and he stiffened.
“I have worked, scraped, connived, and stolen to keep our family from starving. Every time it seemed I might finally have enough money to be able to breathe comfortably, the taxes on the estate suddenly went up.
I’ve watched the tax collectors grow fat on the efforts of my labors and smugglers flourish. The king surrounds himself with toadeaters while good men lose his favor. You’re dressed in finery, but your sister, Delilah, has never had a gown she didn’t make.” He flung the last words at me.
“I’m sorry it has been so difficult.”
“Something has to change in Lolgothe!”
“And you decided you’re the man to change it,” I said, and it wasn’t a question.
Samuel gave me a rueful look and shrugged. “At the time, I didn’t think I had anything to lose. I never dreamed Faith could love me or that you were rich and well in Blinth. I wish you’d sent word to us that you were well.”
“You can’t tell me Nicholas wouldn’t have been able to slip into Lolgothe undetected.”
“I didn’t remember…I couldn’t remember anything about my past until recently.”
“Less than two moon cycles.”
“Did you try to send word?” The accusation in his voice cut into my heart.
I drew myself up. “By the time I remembered, I was on trial for murder; I was in no position to request favors,” I replied, not liking the coldness in my voice.
“You could never kill a mouse in the barn. How could anyone possibly think you’re capable of murder?”
“Because I killed a man.” I answered and watched Samuel stagger as if I’d struck him a blow. “He defiled me,” I choked out the words. “Have you been able to keep Delilah safe from those men Father sold me to in the barn?”
He seemed unable to speak, but he nodded. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I haven’t been as fortunate though I have more gowns than I need and have never been hungry in Blinth.”
“By the ugly beast!” Samuel swore. “Could Tristam not keep you safe?”
“There was a rebellion here against a just king. It’s been quashed, but the man who …the one I killed, he was part of it.”
“No wonder you’re dismayed about a rebellion,” Samuel interjected, “but ours is against an unjust king.”
“Yes, but rebellions are dangerous.”
“What did the rebellion have to do with the man who attacked you?”
“His family was instrumental in planning to overthrow King Stefan, but it couldn’t be proven that he had any part of it. He was young, so they stripped him of his estates and placed him under the direction of a military leader. He was angry. I’m not sure any of that played a part in his attack on me, but he hated Tristam. After losing Faith and Constance, Tristam was never the same. If you want to hurt Tristam, you go after his family.”
“Constance was Tristam’s wife’s name?” Samuel asked.
“Yes, do you know how she died?”
“She died protecting Faith.”
“Of course she did,” I said. “Tristam thought Faith was dead, and he was forbidden to continue looking for her.”
“Faith seems to think he could have found her somehow. One of the guards at the gate told Faith that Tristam’s only daughter was you. You can imagine how that made her feel.”
“I can,” I said and blew out a long breath. “What do you think? Is there anyway Tristam could have found her?” I asked and watched Samuel’s face grow thoughtful.
“Do you remember The Crone?”
“The woman who was in charge of the sisters?” I asked and Samuel nodded. “She’s a memorable figure.”
“I don’t believe she wanted Faith to be found.”
“How cruel,” I said.
“It would seem so, but she also protected Faith.”
“You still haven’t told me how you two met.”
“And you haven’t told me how you survived your journey or why Tristam calls you Grace. I also haven’t heard about this mysterious question of Tristam’s you haven’t answered.” I turned away from Samuel to hide the blush that crept over my face.
“We should find a better place to discuss all this. Let me call for my maid.”
“Do you need a maid to help you dress?” Samuel’s voice was incredulous.
“No, I was going to ask her to find an empty antechamber. The last time I left my chamber people surrounded me.”
“I was isolated for a long time both before and after my trial. Today is the first day I’ve left my chamber.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ll explain it all to you after you tell me about meeting Faith.” Just as I finished speaking I spied Bethany coming around the corner. “How timely,” I exclaimed.
“Is that your maid?” Samuel asked.
“She used to be; now she is more of a friend,” I answered before greeting her. “Bethany, this is my brother, Samuel,” I said giving her a hug. “Samuel, this is Bethany,” I said switching between the languages of Blinth and Lolgothe.
“I’m please to meet you,” Samuel said bowing.
“How wonderful that you two have found one another. Tristam fetched me from Tobias’s cottage. He seemed to think you might need me. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting.”
I didn’t bother translating her words to Samuel, I simply answered, “No, of course not. What you were doing was more important anyway.”
“Yes, we have Tobias laid out for burial. Father Gregory will do his funeral early tomorrow.”
“Tobias would have liked that. He was always in the garden early in the morning.” Turning to Samuel I explained, “Tobias was the first friend I made on my own in Blinth. He kept the castle gardens. He passed last night.”
“How sad for you,” Samuel said.
“For me, yes, but also beautiful. He died peacefully,” I couldn’t stop myself from adding, “which I doubt you will do, Samuel.”
Samuel gave a shout of laughter. “Can you dress yourself like you always did at home?” Samuel asked.
“Of course I can!”
“Will you rejoin me sooner if she helps you?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then by all means let her! I’ve waited years to find out what happened to my little sister, and I’m not a patient man.”
“Go look for an antechamber off the main hall on the lower level,” I said to Samuel.
“I’m not one of your servants,” Samuel teased.
“Please,” I added grinning at my brother.
“Since you added please, I will do as you asked,” he said. “Now hurry! I have a lot of questions and very little time.”
“Alright, alright,” I said as Bethany and I entered my chamber.
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