It had been autumn when I had first met Brisam Teim six years earlier. I had only turned fourteen and was a month pregnant with Emalia. Though I was young, having a mother who was a skilled midwife, I knew what was happening to my body.
I was making my way back from the lake where I had gone for my morning walk. As I entered the courtyard of Highfire, I noticed a pair of horses I didn't recognize. A stranger dressed in the common garb of a vassal was speaking with my husband. I later discovered it was Brisam's father selling him to Sidimund to feed his family. I avoided them, unwilling to talk to Sidimund. I knew his reaction to the news of my pregnancy would be elation. All while I was sick with dread at the prospect.
Ducking along the wall towards the kitchen entrance, I caught the scent of roast pig. The sickly rich aroma dripping with grease turned my stomach. The nausea hit me before I could find a more dignified space to vomit. Dipping next to the granite steps, I emptied my stomach of the meager breakfast I'd eaten earlier.
The waves of sickness ebbed and I stood up, wiping my eyes while drawing even breaths. Someone coughed. I looked up. Horror washed over me. A half-starved boy, sunken cheeks grubby and clothes ragged, sat on the steps eating a crust of bread with dirty fingers. His large dark eyes skittered over me. He held out the scrap of clean cloth that covered his bread. Ashamed of what he had seen and scared he would know what it meant, I sniffed and lifted my head. I walked up the stairs past the urchin without a glance.
Riding behind that same boy turned man into the dusk steeped forest at the roots of the mountain, I regretted that moment. Taller and broader with a layer of scruff over his young chin, Brisam was nothing like that urchin anymore. Except for his natural goodness.
Meanwhile, I was still every part that scared fourteen year old girl. The only difference now was that freedom was mine to take. My life was my own for the first time. It was almost too good to be true, which gave me another reason to be fearful.
“You are very quiet, Hania. Do we need to rest?” Brisam called out, his voice jolting me from my foggy thoughts.
In my fur lined cloak with the hood warm around my ears, I hadn't realized I had dozed off. I cleared my throat and sat up in the saddle. “Did you know Sidimund's son lives near here?”
Brisam pointed west of the mountain. The clouds and growing night shielded the view of the manor. “I have been there once before when Lord Vultuff needed to send word to him.”
“What's his name?”
“Theodric. Have you ever met him?”
I nodded, warding off a yawn. “Once when I was a girl. He was fifteen and going to war for the first time. My father had originally promised me to him. When father died, my mother changed the marriage contract. She still got a Vultuff groom for me but one that was more than twice my age.”
I didn't know why I was rambling on about such things. My senses were swimming from the exertion of the recent events. No sleep, little food and after being attacked by my little brother, I was in no shape for travel. But I wasn't willing to give in to the weakness. I had no use for it, not now when I was just getting on my feet.
Dozing again, I nearly slipped off the horse. Eyes hazy with sleep, I didn't even see Brisam drop off his own horse and stop mine. I blinked down in the dark. His silhouette was the only hint of his presence. As was his hand gripping mine with the reins between my fingers.
“We are stopping-”
I pulled my hand away. “We are not. I am your mistress-”
“Which is why I must insist. I am responsible for your care to get you home safely. If you fall off your horse and break your neck, I will be held accountable back at Highfire.” He held out his arms to help me down.
With a huff, I got off the animal but on the side opposite from where Brisam stood. He didn't react to my snub but walked back towards his horse. He led us into a glade. I peered up through the break in the trees and saw that the clouds were dispersing. Only stars shone down, the moon a black shadow in the heavens.
Brisam struck a flint with some dry kindling he had brought with him and started a small fire. I moved towards the flames and held my trembling hands towards them. Wordlessly, he indicated that I should sit. He scavenged the outskirts of the clearing for any wood worth burning after the damp day. The cold pricked at my back, darkness swallowing the space beyond the halo of light.
“Rest. We will be here a while,” Brisam directed.
I bristled at his tone but sank down onto a mossy stone nonetheless. “How is it you believe you are permitted to speak to me that manner?”
Brisam snapped a branch over his knee with fervor, gritting his teeth and tossing it into the flames. He shot a glare towards me. The sight caught me by surprise. “You are my mistress, I am well aware of that. But this snobbery you have been baiting me with for the past few days has gone far enough. You are as haughty as your spoiled brother.”
The comment pierced me awake. I gaped at him across the fire, light filling the shadows of exhaustion under his dark eyes. “You are too bold, Brisam Teim. I will have you sent from Highfire when we arrive there.”
“No, you won't.”
“How dare you presume-”
“I don't presume anything. I know you, Hania.”
My heart leaped up my throat as he met my eyes. I had no response. I had never realized how transparent I was to him until that moment. Years of maintaining distance in our friendship, it had all been for naught. Brisam had always known how much I depended on him. It was never the secret I had been desperate to keep, veiled with pride and arrogance. My chin trembled and I looked away, unwilling to cry in front of him. I never had before.
Brisam threw the wood in his hand down on the damp ground. He strode over and knelt before me. I bit my bottom lip, swallowing down the tears rising in my throat. But I was too tired to fight them anymore.
“Ever since the news of Sidimund's death, you have treated me like I am still that dirty little boy on the kitchen steps. I would not have taken offense to it except that you hadn't done that in years. Hania, you have treated me as an equal.” He cupped the curve of my neck with a chilled hand. I shivered, unwilling to meet his eyes. “Do you remember when I taught you to swim? And we laughed like old friends, no titles or noble blood barring us? I am still that man. I am still the man who sat outside your door and listened to every cry you made when Emalia was born, praying to Dylene for your safety.”
“I know,” I hiccuped, finally making eye contact. “But don't you see? There isn't anything possible beyond what we have now.”
“I am well aware of that and I don't expect anymore. Just please don't shut me out. Let me stay by your side. Be here for you. That's all I want from you, Hania.” He leaned forward, pressing his forehead to mine.
In the solitude of the wood and the delirium of my exhausted brain, I breached my inhibitions. I pressed forward, capturing his mouth with mine in a moment of abandon. He inhaled sharply through his nose. Without hesitation, he wrapped an arm around my lower back and tugged me close. Deepening the kiss, he coaxed my mouth open. My senses reeled. I had never been kissed by a man who truly loved me until then.
A ghastly roar shattered the night, the frenzied race of a herd of deer trampled through the dark. We pulled apart, breathing hard and wide eyed with terror at the sound. A rumbling growl rose in the night till it reached a throaty howl.
“Bear,” Brisam breathed, rising to his feet. Unsheathing the sword at his side, he motioned for me to be silent. “Stay here. If you hear anything, take the horse and run. Don't look back, do you understand?”
I nodded numbly, trembling as I got to my feet. Brisam disappeared out from the friendly glow of the fire. The wood was quiet again. I paced around the flames, uttering prayers and rubbing my father's family pendant around my neck. Retrieving a discarded piece of wood, I lit the end and held it up, scanning the surrounding treeline.
My dream of the demon bear resurfaced in reality as a massive creature moved in the shadows. It lumbered into the glade, stopping in front of the fire. Black fur tufts rose up around a monstrous head and eyes shining out like gold coins, the bear rose up on it's hind legs and roared again. Paws larger than my head waved above me, disturbing the smoke from the fire. I blinked up at it, unable to move.
The beast came down hard on the ground. It was still on the opposite side of the fire from me. We locked eyes. Irrational hatred rose up in me. I had been through too much to make it to that place in my life. It wasn't fair that it could all end with just one swipe of a paw. Emalia's face flashed in my mind as she had watched me from her window. I hadn't said goodbye. I couldn't leave her like that, like how my father had been taken from me.
“Gah!” I screeched, jabbing the torch at the bear. “Come on then!”
The bear huffed heavy breaths, snorting with disinterest. It merely studied me. There I was, easy prey, and it never made a move. It blinked and cocked it's head to the side, eyes roving over me in contemplation. The sight was more terrifying than watching it roar. The bear was thinking, considering me like a human might.
Brisam burst from the trees. He stabbed at the bear, the blade slicing it's arm. Blood spurted and it roared. Brisam jumped back from the swing of it's claws and stood in front of me. The bear growled and shook it's head.
Then it merely turned and limped back out into the night.
We stood frozen in the glade till the squeal of a rodent caught by a hunting owl rattled us awake.
“Come, quickly. It could return,” Brisam instructed, kicking dirt over the fire.
“Did- did you see how it looked at us?” I stuttered as he brought the horses over. "Like it knew us. Recognized me."
He lifted me onto one of the steeds and mounted it behind me, leading the other beside us. My pulse slowed at the steady warmth of his chest on my shoulder blades. I leaned back into him as he wrapped his free around around me and grasped the reins.
“There are stories of ancient Tormod shamans in these woods. The people we took the land from, their priests still haunt these woods. My mother used to tell us about them to keep us from wandering out at night. Men who take on the shapes of beasts to fulfill terrible deeds.” Though his story was ghostly, I shivered more from the heat of his breath at the back of my neck. He sighed and leaned his face forward into my hair, kissing the back of my head. “But don't think on that now, love.”
I closed my eyes and rested into the hollow of his leather clad shoulder. Lulled to sleep by his steady breaths, I did not wake until a gray dawn showed the looming silhouette of Highfire above us.ns188.8.131.52da2