The story of Cael’s parents.
(Continued directly from the end of Part 3)
Only one mercenary came close to capturing Adilia. Unlike his foolish comrades who were taken down from behind as soon as they made themselves known, he waited on the rocks along the road to Solitude.
“All you have to do is let me escort you to the gates, darlin’!” He cackled and began to draw his bow as far as it could go with Nipper’s hindquarters in his sights. Adilia grimaced as she watched Herger’s arrow strike through the bandit’s chest before he could complete it.
“That’s all of them!” Herger called as she thundered on to the city. It wasn’t enough to make her feel safe until she was within its walls, however. She completely bypassed the stables and threw the reins into the hands of a guard the second she dismounted.
“Take care of him!” She barked and entered the city without pausing for breath. Even then she could feel eyes staring at every part of her. Heeding Jorran’s advice she headed straight for Castle Dour, trying not to look at the Bracken-Throne residence on the way. So preoccupied was she with trying to think of what she’d say to Rona that she didn’t find it odd that the foyer was absent of anyone. When she found their bedroom empty she went to the place only she would know Rona would go. The small library Charlize would never enter since she already owned half of its contents. Of course she was right, but it was completely the wrong timing.
Without considering knocking to approach her older sister, Adilia burst in to find her in the arms of their lifelong friend and manservant.
Braden broke the kiss when he noticed Rona’s red and puffy eyes practically pop at the sight of the woman behind him.
“Ah, sorry.” Adilia winced and began aimlessly pointing to the hall behind her. “I’ll just… I’ll go… now. Come back later. Ahem. Sorry.” She then gracefully ducked out and shut the library’s stained glass doors on Braden’s appalled expression. She scuttled back to her own room with her arms firmly at her sides, but not before she heard Rona reassuring Braden that she’d speak to her.
Rona had come up behind her before the stunned expression of wired eyes and tightly pursed lips could have a chance to fade from Adilia’s face.
“Are you going to say something?” She demanded before she could convince herself to back out of the room and pretend the intrusion never happened.
“Well!” Said Adilia in a perfect ladylike voice then stiffly spun around on her heel. “You, ah, you kept that one hidden well.”
It was then Rona who was gasping as she saw her sister in full view for the first time that day. “Adilia! You’re bleeding!” She cried and lunged to the beds. Adilia had to frown down at herself before she remembered that Jorran’s blood almost completely coated her left side. The water of the Karth River had spread it more.
“So that’s why everyone was staring at me…” She remarked before noticing what Rona was doing. “No, I’m fine!” She exclaimed and held out her hand before Rona split their sheets for bandages. “It isn’t mine.” She then floundered as she tried to make a story up on the spot that wouldn’t alarm her. “It’s… a friend’s. He’s fine now, with friends. We, um, accidentally disturbed some bandits and…”
“And we’ve already seen that Forsworn don’t get along with bandits.” Rona smiled insightfully, shocking Adilia into silence. “You think I haven’t noticed?” She teased and regarded her sister’s tooth necklace with a sparkle in her eye. “You leave the city you’ve been enthusing about for years to go on rides. On a horse you first compared to a mammoth when you were forced to leave our stallions at home! You stare at the mountains every time you can’t go out and, oh, there’s the Forsworn who you’ve never noticed watching you from them.”
Adilia gaped at her. “And you’ve noticed all of this, but I’ve never heard about you and Braden?”
“Ah.” Rona turned sheepish now the spotlight was on her again. “I’m your big sister, it’s my duty to notice.”
“That wasn’t what I was asking and you know it.” Adilia crossed her arms and began cornering her sister.
“Don’t you want to change out of those clothes?” She asked timidly and backed up to the single bed’s headboard.
“How long, Rona?” Adilia asked and made sure she blocked the path to the door.
Rona was wringing her hands like the friction they produced would free her but eventually she gave in with a sigh. “Do you remember the party at Count Fitzelrond’s estate?”
“The one where we were all bored to tears because it turned out to be like a funeral?” Adilia nodded. “We retreated to the barn to race the horses then most of you started crying over Sean and by the time I got back you’d all split off into…pairs…” All Rona could do was nod at her sky-rocketing eyebrows. “You didn’t! But… That was the first time we went out after Sean left…three years ago…that long?” Adilia staggered back.
“He was…supportive. Remember he’d known Sean just as long as we had and…” Rona was trying to rub away her embarrassment by kneading her neck. “If you’re asking when we first kissed – that was when we were teenagers. We stopped it because of my status, but when Sean left… I’m glad we stopped holding back.” She said the last part assertively and held her head up but as soon as she looked at Adilia she became abashed again. “How do you… What do you think?”
Adilia cracked one of the biggest grins she’d ever pulled. With the strength of a wild beast she embraced her sister in a crushing hug. “I don’t know if I’m more mad at myself for not noticing or at you for never telling me, but this is fantastic! You two are made for each other.” She enthused and pulled away to let her breathe.
Rona laughed in giddy relief. “Well if it’s any condolence nobody else noticed either. Nor have they about you and your friend.”
“Honestly, I don’t think they care.” Adilia grumbled. Then her face was struck with horror. “And on Sundas you will be betrothed to Skegge.” She could only describe her sister’s reaction as watching a light die in her eyes. She pulled her into another hug, but this one was different. With every squeeze she imagined she was forcing the pieces of her sister to stay together. “Oh Gods, Rona… I’m so sorry.” The wall she was staring at over Rona’s shoulder began to blur. “This is…” Her hands curled into fists on Rona’s back. “This is absurd.”
“I know.” Rona whispered back and pushed her away with an attempt at a smile before Adilia blew her top. “But enough about me, how has my sister started fraternising with a Forsworn?”
Adilia snorted. “It’s hardly…” She started to ridicule but she stopped herself halfway. “Do you remember the boy from the Winking Skeever I befriended while you ‘bought food’ with Braden? He was the Forsworn’s brother. Peter Bracken-Throne killed him in front of me the day those bandits attacked Solitude. This necklace is his.”
Rona’s complexion had become a pasty grey. “I knew he was unruly but I never expected him to be capable of… You aren’t planning anything, are you?”
Adilia’s eyes shifted before she smoothly changed the subject. “He isn’t like what we’ve been told, you know. None of them are. Not the ones I’ve met anyway.”
“I would hope not, our brother is one of them!” Rona laughed while eyeing her all the while. It wasn’t smooth enough.
“You’d better tell Brady I’m not going to rat on you. I’ve seen skinned rabbits look less scared than he did.”
“It’s not just that, he cares about what you think too, you know.” Rona replied with a return of the ever-so-slightly chiding tone of an older sibling.
“Ah, but you said ‘not just’!” Adilia pointed out and they laughed.
“You’d better take a bath before our parents return.” Rona noted, indicating the dried blood now caked on Adilia’s limbs. She nodded with another small smile and they both ended up staring at their feet before Rona broke the charged silence with a fierce hug of her own.
“Be careful, Little Lia.” She whispered into her sister’s ear.
Adilia’s voice became choked at the nickname she hadn’t heard since she was five years old. “You’d better be coming up with one damn good escape plan.” She sniffed back and left the room before she could cry.
Rona smiled after her. “Yeah.” She sighed. It was like the well-wishes that guests gave an arranged couple at their wedding. They were necessary, but nobody ever believed them.
Loredas, the 8th of Sun’s Dawn, 180 4E
With the bloodied dress burnt and her body scrubbed clean, Adilia’s excursion passed undetected and she slept through the night as peacefully as one fraught with worry could. She replaced her dress with the only one she could find, a formless dull white linen one and her old noble fur coat, and made her way down to the stables as soon as she’d spent enough time with her family to not raise suspicion.
All the way down she wrestled with whether she should go to check on Jorran or not. Would she remember the way? Would she be leading the Bracken-Thrones straight to him? She decided that visiting Nipper would calm her nerves regardless but it didn’t matter, she never made it to the stables.
At the bottom of the road two guards were arguing over the horse they held in front of the city’s carriage.
“How’s it yours when you don’t even know its name?” The one folding his arms asked.
“Well I don’t know what she wanted me to do with him!” Cried the other with a firm grip on the solid brown horse’s reins. “This woman just shoved him into my hands didn’t she? ‘Take good care of him’ she said. Well I did, might as well put him to good use now hadn’t I?”
“Still don’t make him yours. What if she was talking to the guard on the other side, hm?” The arms-folder asked and prodded his own chest.
“Don’t be ridiculous, were the reins shoved into your hands?!”
Adilia smiled and Nipper snorted at her like he was rolling his eyes. “I’ll take it from here gentlemen, thank you very much.” She said and lifted the reins from the guard’s hands with an authority that left him stunned.
“S-see, tha’s her! But all proper-like!” Was the only thing he could stammer to his friend.
“Mi’lady.” His friend had the sense to bow and cuffed him as he went down. They all heard a muffled “Ow!” from within the helmet.
Adilia was about to mount and ride for the Reach when another voice sneered down from the wall above them. “Yes, little guards, do go and leave the lady in peace.” A jingling pouch fell to their feet. They lifted it and ran, bickering over splitting its contents all the way.
“So! Now that we’re alone, my lady. Long time no see. We haven’t met for years.” Peter Bracken-Throne grinned down at her. “Or was it the other week?” He pondered and stood to pace. Then he grinned at her again.
She looked back up towards Solitude’s gates and find that every guard had vanished. There was no one to see them. Panic rose until she realised she had a horse.
“Oh no, don’t run my lady.” Peter tutted. “You don’t want me to shoot your poor horse do you? You know I can.” He was satisfied to see her move away from Nipper. “In fact, why bother with formalities? We’re practically betrothed, Adilia.” The way his tongue prolonged and rolled over the syllables in her name made her shiver. “So imagine my shock when my bride-to-be is the subject of a report from a hired sword I sent out to ensure her safety.” He crouched down to see her discomfort more clearly. “Oh yes, thought you’d slipped them all? Well as it happens this scum is a coward. Has a scar through his mouth from being a coward. Right here.” He mimed the location with his finger, watching her the whole time. “He hid when you galloped away and returned to me after nightfall, all to dutifully inform me that my lady has exchanged devoirs with a Forsworn!” His voice then dropped from a mocking frivolity to a very dangerous tone. “Fraternising with my enemy, bad move.” Both his voice and his body shot up again. “When I saw you following that Forsworn runt I was willing to give your family the benefit of doubt, it’s not right to shun the barrel because of one bad apple, but now?” He shook his head and sat on the edge of the wall with his legs dangling. “But luckily for you we are so eager to call your beautiful faces ours that we’re changing the date!” He then jumped down and began to stalk towards her as mercenaries with the Bracken-Throne insignia branded onto their chests came out of all the places where the guards should have been.
“The betrothal is today.” He smiled and stroked her horrified face with a finger that was as cold and sharp as a knife. “Skegge can’t wait to meet your sister. I heard he beheaded five men just to get here fast enough…” He threw his head back with laughter when Adilia dived away from him and whipped a knife out of her belt.
“I know you can’t understand me but you know where to go!” She shouted at Nipper and slashed his flank with the knife. “Find him! Go! Go!” She screeched as one of Peter’s men grabbed her hands after a bored indication from him.
Nipper careened away beyond their sight with the whites of his eyes showing, but Peter only sighed. “You’re sending off a horse? Your Madman can’t help you now, my dear, I heard he was fairly banged up.” He chuckled and waved at his silent men. “Bag her. I can’t be betrothed to a tramp dressed like that.”
Adilia began to kick and scream, but it was only seconds before the rough weave of a sack came over her head. The darkness came from something solid hitting her from behind.
Whispers woke her. They were hissing, frantic and indecipherable. She opened her eyes but the darkness was still there. Her eyelashes scratched against fabric, still being in the sack was her conclusion. The whispers became louder and hissed closer. One whisper turned into a yelp. They escalated as did her heart, the only thing she could clearly hear. The only thing she could clearly hear a moment ago.
Now there was nothing.
Her heart thudded.
Then, “You put the dress on her face, you idiot!”
The fabric was swept off her in an instant. The room she was in didn’t have a lot of light to go by, darkness beyond a few candles, but it was enough to tell that the face hanging over hers was Rona’s.
“Well I’m sorry if I can’t tell where anything is in pitch black!” Snapped the impatient voice of a certain little sister. “These men will be lucky if they’re partnered to women with their dresses not inside out, forget the right way around.”
“Shush, I think she’s… Oh thank the Divines.” Rona smiled up at the ceiling and hid her head in her hands like some great weight had been lifted from her. “Are you alright?” She asked and stroked Adilia’s cheek as she blinked blearily.
She didn’t answer as she didn’t know. “I really hope this isn’t some sort of cell.”
Rona sat back on her feet and pressed her hands between her thighs. “Oh, no. It’s late now, you’ve been…asleep for a while.”
“She thought Peter had killed you.” Charlize gracefully broached the subject as she tried to struggle into an underskirt.
Rona glared through the smoke of the candles. “I did not.” She huffed and turned back to Adilia. “But after what you told me… Never mind. We’ve been waiting for you for a few hours. I don’t know what happened between you two but even his father was appalled when Peter brought you in.”
“And how was that?” Adilia groaned and tried to sit up from the pallet she’d been laid on.
“Over his shoulder.” Charlize mumbled from inside the folds of a satin blue dress she was pulling over her head. “It could have been romantic if it wasn’t for you flopping all over the place. You really have to work on that unconscious pose.”
“Oh really? No sign of a sack over my head?”
“What?!” Gasped Rona. “He said you fell!”
“It doesn’t matter now.” Adilia ground her teeth and rose to her feet. “If it’s been hours has there been no sign of… Anyone else?”
Rona frowned at her lap before she got to her feet too. “No.” She sighed and placed a hand on Adilia’s shoulder to guide her away from Charlize’s earshot. “Your friend isn’t coming, with the amount of blood I saw on you yesterday… Well, he may not be going anywhere for a while. You know what will happen if we don’t go through with this. This is our life now, let’s not make a bad impression on it before it begins.”
Rebellion flickered in Adilia’s eyes brighter than any of the candles but for her sister’s sake she swallowed it. “White?” She asked upon noticing the sleeve billowing from Rona’s arm. “I thought we weren’t doing the actual ceremonies yet.”
Rona pulled her arm back and shrugged, picking at the silky fabric. “We aren’t. Considering its significance I suppose they want a look at what they’re in for.”
“Or these are the only things they could find.” Said Charlize as she threw the dress that was originally on Adilia’s face into her arms. “Put it on, they picked them for us. And are waiting for us outside!” She then huffed off towards the door to try and look through the cracks. “Was Elijah really the ginger one?” She asked while pulling a face.
The only thing that Rona could do was give Adilia a crestfallen half-smile before following their sister. She bypassed oceans of pain and sacrifice just to keep a brave face for her sisters, all for a farce of a marriage. Adilia scowled down at the ruffles in her hands. That was the underskirt the top layer split over to reveal. The main fabric of the dress was red with dark stripes, Charlize’s had a simple boat neck and Rona’s sleeves were slit so they flowed. Only Adilia’s billowed out beyond the waist and had a sleeveless, plunging neckline. Of course Peter had chosen the most revealing one for her. A month ago the dresses would have seemed plain to them but after so long in patched but warm rags, they felt divine. If only the feeling overcame how they felt inside.
Rather than the inner circle of Solitude’s prison like Adilia still half-expected, a walk across the Castle Dour courtyard awaited them. Of their suitors there was no sign, but Lord and Lady Martel stood outside the door with varying stances. Their father stood tall with his hands clasped behind his back, astute and proper as expected but looked like he was sucking a lemon. Their mother attempted to do the same but ended up as bright-eyed and springy as Charlize. Both sported the fine clothes their children had been used to seeing them in, but enviably they had furs.
“Has it been called off?” Adilia asked their father glibly.
His greying eyebrow raised before he replied. “They went ahead to secure the forms.”
Adilia nodded dramatically. “Just lazy then.” She smiled, the veil over her hostility as thin as paper. “So we’re finally going to see where they’ve been skulking all this time.” Lord Martel only looked at her emptily.
“I don’t know why you’re so sour, it must have been that bump on your head!” Her mother burst in. “You’re lucky Peter found you. Smile, darling, you’re getting married! Of course it’s only signing forms but I’m sure they’ll hold a big party when we’re presentable again. I’m so proud of you all!”
“Proud?!” Adilia choked. Rona elbowed her before she could burst into a tirade, fortunately for her Adilia was not used to a corset and couldn’t recover from being winded quickly enough to start again.
“Remember this is an agreement, mother, a ransom.” Rona said tactfully.
“Yes, well, somebody has to see the best of it.” The light in Othella’s eyes had dimmed, but not enough to jauntily trot ahead with Charlize to their destination.
“At least mother’s happy.” Rona glumly remarked to Adilia.
The fuming sister rubbed her rib and tried to catch her breath. “Or on skooma.” She mumbled.
Rona didn’t respond but the sudden stumble she had as Adilia said it was an amusing consolation for what was to come. Their death march was not long at all as they didn’t need to leave the boundaries of Castle Dour. The doors Lord Martel held open for them were to the Emperor’s Tower.
Adilia stopped outside of it in preparation for the guards who she expected to yell at them for trespassing, but no one batted an eyelid at a parade of nobles walking into the noblest tower in Solitude.
“Of course.” She sighed and followed her family into the darkness.
There was no parlour in the Emperor’s Tower, the throne greeted the entrance as soon as it was opened. It was not Titus Mede II who sat in it but under the current circumstances it might as well have been. Lounging back on it like it was a worn armchair was Renald Bracken-Throne, a heavy-set man with a trimmed beard and clothes regal enough to rival the High King. Two brass braziers nearly the height of the throne flickered on either side of him but their light did not reach far enough to stave off the shadows that engulfed the room, in fact the contrast made them darker. The huge candelabra hung unlit.
“There they are, I told you we’d meet again!” He grinned down at them and brought his hands together when he saw their outfits. “Oh and aren’t they beautiful, boys? The documents are over there, Martel.” He waved to the only table that was graced with some light from the windows around it. “Sit down, have a drink while I meet my daughter-in-laws, you’ll be signing your name a lot.”
Three silhouettes stood before them. One was impossibly tall compared to all the slight Bretons, his arm thicker than his brother’s head next to him. Another was leaning back on the wall in complete darkness, only his folded arms and crossed legs made it out into the meagre moonlight filtering through stained glass. The third was instantly recognisable to Adilia, his moustache had its own shadow, but he turned away before he could so much as look at her.
“I want her bound.” He called out to the room in general. Adilia heard the brother in the shadows sigh before all the people behind her gasped.
“Now, Peter…” His father began to placate him.
“You didn’t see her when she lunged for my throat, father. I fear for her more than myself.” He smirked, the hulking Skegge had stripped off one of the many leather straps on his belt and was binding Adilia’s hands with it before he’d begun speaking.
“When I what?!” Adilia outright laughed until Skegge shoved her down to her knees. “Hey! You cur!” She barked as she only just pulled up in time to avoid cracking her head on the floor.
Peter tutted. “Watch that mouth, my dear, you don’t want me to bring out the gag already do you?”
“You told us she fell!” Said Othella in the only time she would defend her daughter.
“Oh, she did.” Peter sneered as Skegge stood beside him once more. “When my men hit her hard enough to make her break her hold. You see, Lady Martel, I fear this harsh sea air has not been good for your daughter. It was not one eve ago that I learnt she has been keeping the company of those… savages known as Forsworn.”
Both Lord Martel and Charlize jolted in alarm but the gasp that came from Othella was the loudest of all. “Adilia?! I knew Sean was always a bad influence but this…”
Adilia leered at Peter in disbelief. “Mother, you can’t really believe this twerp–” The slap that cracked across her face sounded louder than any gasp.
“I am not the mother of any sympathiser to those vermin in their caves of filth.” Othella spat and regarded her only in disgust. She walked away to her husband’s side and Peter held his hands up, but he was enjoying himself too much to sound genuine.
“Now now, not disowning the goods before I marry her, are we?”
Adilia glared at the carpet she knelt on to block out the horrified looks of sympathy from her sisters. She wasn’t sure if the trickle on her cheek was blood or a tear.
“Well now,” Renald remarked in the silence. “Children will be children! I’d say it reflects well on my son that he’s willing to stay by her side despite this….misconduct. Wouldn’t you say, Othella?”
“Most certainly, my lord.”
Adilia bored further holes into the ground. Deferring to a Bracken-Throne now? She thought.
Scratch scratch scratch. Lord Martel’s quill grated in the background, signing away their freedom.
“I’m sure that she’ll come to her senses soon. Now, Rona wasn’t it? You’ve never met Skegge. Elijah, stop lurking in the shadows and be a man. Your bride-to-be has had a shock.”
While Renald sprang down from the throne’s steps to play the generous host with the two eldest children, Elijah approached the suddenly shy Charlize. He had the civility to take her hand first and spoke softly, even though he didn’t try to hide that the whole situation was making his skin crawl. He never directly looked at Adilia but every time his gaze passed over her she saw no hostility. In fact he seemed humiliated, but before she could chase his looks further another man strode into her sights.
“Didn’t I hear Skegge is a war general, Renald?” Othella gushed with enough enthusiasm to compensate for their disinterested children, unable to stop herself diving into his hospitality.
“Oh yes, and a hero at that, right son? The Great War may have ended but that’s not enough for him!” Renald burst into a reel of all Captain Bracken-Throne’s achievements.
Peter wagged his eyebrows at Adilia, sneering at the conversations they could hear. His painfully sharp nail stroked her cheek. It didn’t break the skin but its dent left a pink trail all the way to the nape of her neck, then lower.
She only needed him to look at her and the pure, raw hatred burning in her eyes. So much that it made her shake. Peter didn’t stop his advance towards her but he pulled back, just a little. The tiniest flinch that made her smirk at him for once.
Then everyone flinched. A Legion banner had fluttered in the darkness where Elijah had once stood. The scratching of Lord Martel’s quill stopped. There was no door or window left open to provide a breeze. Nothing else had moved.
“W-what was that?” Othella asked.
Peter looked back at his betrothed with a frown but found no hint of a smug indication that she had a plan. Only hatred. It was the last thing he ever saw.
With everyone looking at the left wall nobody was watching the shadows of the right. A toothed sword sliced through Peter’s throat and his head dropped to Adilia’s knees. His moustache still had a shadow.