Chapter 2: The Spirit Wood
It was not yet dawn, and Rosalynn's breath puffed white in the air as she went about her chores. She tended to the horses in the stables, and drew water from the well, and enjoyed the solitude. Most of the castle would not wake for hours; her bunk-mates always grumbled about having to rise so early, but Rosalynn liked the quiet.
Every so often, she would stretch or twist just so and her ribs would give a twinge. Lord Lord Roliff's kick had left it's mark on her. Sir Rhydderch had told her that she likely had a cracked rib or two, and she was lucky that that was the extent of the damage. It wasn't going to get her out of her chores, though, as he'd sternly reminded her. Not that she'd had any intention of shirking. The Deheubein household had taken her in, given her food and a warm place to sleep that terrible winter when her own family couldn't afford to feed her. She did everything she could to try to repay some of that kindness.
The sun dawned languidly as she went about her familiar routine. As the it crested the castle wall, she hurried with the washing she was working on, and double timed it toward the northeastern tower. It was nearly time for her to take her post on the north wall.
Entering the hall that led to the tower, she was greeted by a vision in a green dress. The cloth flowed to accent both a narrow waist and generous assets above and below. Rosalynn slowed to a halt, as Lady Lunessa stepped forward to greet her, hands behind her back. She was a little surprised to see Lady Lunessa here this early in the day, but they'd both long been used to meeting up whenever they could, for however long they could manage.
“Good morning, Rosalynn,” she said brightly. “I have a surprise for you.”
“Good morning, milady. What is it?”
“We are going to go out today.” Lady Lunessa brought her hands around, and she was holding a small basket, wrapped in cloth. Rosalynn caught a whiff of baked bread and roast fowl.
“Out?” Rosalynn asked. “Out where?”
“Why, where ever our feet take us! I've got us food; we can spend the whole day, just the two of us!”
“Then... you mean, go out of the castle?”
Rosalynn felt a fool, but all she could do was stare at Lady Lunessa. “Really?” she managed after a long moment. Aside from the rare trip to see her family up in Powyn Village, Rosalynn could count the number of times she'd left the castle in her eight years living there on one hand.
Lady Lunessa placed her fists on her hips and regarded Rosalynn severely. “Why, Rosalynn, you make it sound as if you don't want to go with me.”
“Oh no, milady, that's not it,” Rosalynn backpedaled. She did not want Lady Lunessa cross at her. But... “But won't your Lord father disapprove?”
“Oh, forget about my father! I don't care if he disapproves. I just want us to spend some time together. Doesn't that sound good, Rosalynn? When did we last get any time together at all?”
Rosalynn stopped and thought. It had been a quite a while, hadn't it? It did sound nice, taking a walk with Lady Lunessa, just the two of them, without having to worry about someone coming along to chide them back to their separate lives. And, when it came down to it, saying no to Lady Lunessa simply wasn't a move in her repertoire. Still, there was one other thing.
“Oh, but I'm supposed to be on guard duty. On the north wall. So...”
“Don't worry about that. It's all taken care of.” Lady Lunessa cut her off, and the sudden grin on her face told Rosalynn she was finished. “Squire Siors agreed to take your watch for you.” An image of Siors' cocky grin rose in her mind, and Rosalynn grimaced. She knew she'd be paying for this favor later. But she didn't mind that much.
“Very well, if milady insists,” Rosalynn said. Lunessa's grin widened, and she clapped her hands in her excitement, nearly dropping the basket of food in the process. “If milady will excuse me just a moment, I'll go get my sword,” Rosalynn went on.
“I will be right here.”
As she buckled her sword belt around her waist – it was a real steel blade, given to her when she had graduated from a simple page to a squire proper – Rosalynn wondered at this wisdom of this outing. Even if Lunessa had said to forget about Lord Deheubein, he loomed large in her worries. She hardly ever saw the man herself, but everyone said he that doted on his daughter endlessly. It seemed to Rosalynn that he would hardly be happy that the young lady had gone out into the countryside with no escort but a single squire.
Rosalynn shook herself. Lady Lunessa wanted to go out, and that really was the end of the matter. She pushed her doubts to the back of her mind, but they continued to worry at her despite her efforts to ignore them.
Back in the hall, Lady Lunessa beamed at Rosalynn as soon as she stepped into view. “Shall we?” she asked.
“Yes, milady. But how are we getting out? I don't think–“
“Oh, Rosalynn, you need to trust me more,” Lady Lunessa said with a wink. “I have everything figured out.”
With that, Lady Lunessa took hold of Rosalynn's hand. Rosalynn found herself being hauled away, but this was the normal arrangement when she was with Lady Lunessa. Again, she couldn't say she minded.
It took her a moment, but Rosalynn realized that they were making their way toward the southern wall. And thus, presumably, the main gate. Rosalynn wondered just what in the world Lady Lunessa's plan was. Rosalynn had to get special permission from Sir Rhydderch when she wanted to leave the castle, and she was just a squire. Would they really just let the lord's daughter walk out the main gate?
As they approached the gate, the guard at the top of the wall called out to them. “Who goes there?”
“Just a couple of little birds, out to spread their wings,” Lady Lunessa called back. Rosalynn glanced a question at her, but Lady Lunessa just smiled.
“Ah, hang on a minute,” was the response. The guard disappeared from sight for a moment.
“You're earlier than she said you'd be. Wasn't expecting you for at least another hour.” A door next to the gate, the ground level entrance to the gatehouse, opened, and a wiry, balding man in his early middle years stepped out. Rosalynn recognized him as Morcant; she knew the dozen or so men-at-arms in the castle by name, at least. She didn't know much more about him than that, though. She'd always been a little unsettled by the way his gaze lingered over her hips and chest whenever they chanced to interact, so she'd never had much of a reason to strike up a conversation with him.
“Getting everything together took less time than I thought would,” Lady Lunessa was saying. “It isn't a problem, is it, sir?” She favored him with a smile, though Morcant probably didn't notice, being too busy running his eyes up and down the young Lady's form. That irritated Rosalynn for some reason, and she had to fight down an urge to glare.
“Makes no difference to me,” Morcant said with a shrug. “Now she said there'd be something in it for me...?”
“Of course, of course,” Lady Lunessa replied. She reached into her basket and pulled out something Rosalynn couldn't see. He took it, and Rosalynn caught the glint of gold before it disappeared into a pouch on his belt.
“Ah, thank y' very much, my lady,” he said. “Alright, won't be but a moment here...” He turned, and hefted the bar set across the sally port. With a grunt of exertion he tugged it out of it's braces, and set it on the ground, nearly dropping it in the process. He then swung the smaller door within the gate open, and waved them through with an exaggerated bow.
“Thank you so much, good sir,” Lady Lunessa said as they passed. “Now, if anyone asks...?”
“Didn't see nothing but little birds all day,” he replied promptly.
“Good man.” She gave him another sweet smile.
“Now you two be back by sundown, you hear?” Morcant said with an attempt at severity marred somewhat by the way he couldn't meet their eyes more than half the time. “You don't want to be out there after dark. All manner of savage animals out there, and some o' them walk on two legs.”
“Do not worry yourself, we will be back long before the sun sets,” Lady Lunessa said. “And besides, I have Rosalynn to protect me, isn't that right, Rosalynn?” She took hold of Rosalynn's arm, the basket of food bumping against Rosalynn's thigh as Lady Lunessa pulled her close.
“Y-yes, milady,” Rosalynn managed, thrown off-balance by the sudden contact.
“Huh, well, I heard how well she did against his lordship,” Rosalynn felt Lady Lunessa's grip on her arm tighten, and while the young lady's expression didn't change, it grew a great deal more brittle. But Morcant went on without seeming to notice, “so you'd best just be back afore dark.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Lunessa said shortly. “Come along, Rosalynn.” She pulled Rosalynn away without waiting for a reply.
* * *
“Why do you keep looking over your shoulder?” Lady Lunessa asked.
With a guilty start, Rosalynn quickly snapped her gaze back toward the young lady. Even now, with the castle well out of sight, she kept expecting riders to appear behind them, intent on hunting them down for leaving the castle without permission.
“Um...” she said, not sure how to explain all of that to her ladyship. She juggled the surprisingly heavy basket of food between her hands uncomfortably. She'd taken it from Lady Lunessa not long after they'd set off.
“Oh, do relax, Rosalynn,” Lady Lunessa said, putting a hand on the small of Rosalynn's back. “You act as if we're a couple of fugitives. We're just going for a little stroll. I'm sure no one will mind all that very much.”
Rosalynn wasn't so sure, but she wasn't going to argue either. “Yes, milady,” she said with a sigh.
They walked along in silence for a few minutes longer. The only sounds were of the squirrels and the birds in the trees and a few insects buzzing about. Rosalynn tried to stay on her guard; her duty was to protect the young lady. But it was so peaceful.
“Isn't this nice, Rosalynn?” Lady Lunessa said softly. “Just the two of us, out in the fresh air. Not in some dusty corner, having to watch over our shoulders–” Rosalynn flushed, realizing she was doing it again. “–for the servants,” Lady Lunessa continued with a wry twist of her mouth.
Rosalynn did have to admit that it was nice. It seemed like forever since they had last had time together. Those talks with Lady Lunessa had always been the bright spots in her life, and they did seem to grow further and further apart the older they got. Truth be told, Lady Lunessa had always done most of the talking, but that was quite all right with Rosalynn. She was content to just listen, and Lady Lunessa always had interesting things to say about the goings on of the castle, about the things she'd learned from her tutors, and about her hopes for the future.
Glancing over at Lady Lunessa, Rosalynn realized that the young lady wore a frown, and was staring at some point in the middle distance. Before she could ask what was the matter, though, Lady Lunessa spoke up again.“Do you know what my father said to me last night?” Rosalynn could hear a tiny tremble of emotion in her voice.
“What did he say, milady?”
“He said that I spend too much time with you. Isn't that stupid?” When Rosalynn had no reply for that, Lady Lunessa looked over at her sharply, and Rosalynn could see a glimmer of tears in her sky blue eyes. “Well,
isn't it?” Lady Lunessa pressed. “And you know what else he told me?”
“I-I do not, milady,” Rosalynn said. Lady Lunessa was clearly upset, and Rosalynn wondered what could
have caused it. Surely a simple lecture, even one from her father, wouldn't have been enough?
“He told me that, when I get married, I would have to leave you behind!”
Ah. As painful a thought as it was, Rosalynn had long ago accepted that their friendship was a transient thing. She was only in the castle out of a lord's mercy for a starving child. She had no wealth or titles to her name. Lady Lunessa was destined to go on to greater things, and Rosalynn would just be in her way. But it seemed that this was a new revelation to Lady Lunessa.
“Don't worry, milady, I'm sure that, once you go, you won't even have time to miss me,” Rosalynn said, forcing a cheerful smile.
That had been the wrong thing to say. Lady Lunessa stopped walking, and her expression hardened.
“I don't want to go at all, spirits take it!” she screamed. Her hands balled into fists. Rosalynn raised a hand placatingly, and took a step back, just in case.
“I don't want to go off to the capital! I don't want to marry some man I've never met, that I'll probably never love!” Lady Lunessa drew a ragged breath, and then, as if this outburst had drained her, she slumped where she stood. Her hair fell forward to hide her face, and her hands gripped her skirts so tightly the knuckle went white. Looking at her, Rosalynn felt tears prick her own eyes.
“But...” The word came out softly, but it rang in the sudden quiet. Even the insects had fallen silent. “But I always thought, that as long as I had you with me, I could endure it all.” Lady Lunessa's voice was hoarse, practically a whisper. “I could leave my home, my family, everyone I know, as long as I had you.” Her voice started to rise again. “But now he tells me I must leave you as well!” She broke into full sobs, burying her face into her hands.
Rosalynn stepped forward and gently put her arms around the young lady. “Oh, Rosalynn!” Lady Lunessa threw her arms around Rosalynn, crying into Rosalynn's chest. Rosalynn's ribs protested at this treatment, but she kept quiet. This was more important.
“I know, milady, I know,” she murmured. Though she thought she had come to terms with it, the knowledge that she and Lady Lunessa would soon enough be parted still caused her throat to tighten. But she fought off the urge to break down herself. Lady Lunessa needed her support. “It pains me too, milady. But what can we do? That is just the way of things.”
Lady Lunessa looked up at her through tear-stained eyes. “Well then the way of things should change!”
“We can't change the way the world works, milady.”
Lady Lunessa gave her an odd look. Then her mouth quirked. “That's the same thing my father said.”
“Your father is a wise man, milady,” said Rosalynn.
Lady Lunessa snorted, and pulled away from the embrace. Rosalynn, happy though she was that the young lady's spirits were returning, found herself wishing it could have gone on perhaps just a little longer.
Taking a deep breath, Lady Lunessa dried her eyes on her sleeves. “Sorry, I seem to have gotten your shirt wet,” she said, after a moment.
Rosalynn smiled. “It will dry. Shall we walk a little more?”
“Yes, of course,” Lady Lunessa said. “I am sorry, Rosalynn, this was supposed to be fun stroll, and here I am talking about such depressing things.”
“I do not mind, milady. Just being with you is enough, whether the times be happy or sad.”
Lady Lunessa gave a damp little grin at that, and they set off down the path again.
“I haven't given up, you know,” the young lady said after a time.
“I'll find a way to bring you with me,” There was an edge to Lady Lunessa's voice that Rosalynn recognized. When she sounded like that, Rosalynn knew, there would be no dissuading her. So she didn't try. "Would you be my maid, if I can convince father to allow it?”
“Milady, for you, anything.”
* * *
They spent the next several hours talking. Lady Lunessa had months worth of gossip to catch Rosalynn up on. Rosalynn was regaled with tales of maids and tutors and Lady Mabyn's latest escapades. The last Rosalynn already knew mostly. Lady Mabyn was nearly a legend in the bunks of the northeast tower. Though Lady Lunessa had great many more specific details to share, and Rosalynn's face felt so hot she half-feared her head would explode in a cloud of steam. She found she could not look at Lady Lunessa's face as the young lady went on and on about things that Rosalynn would just as soon have not known about Lady Mabyn and her countless suitors.
Thus it was that Rosalynn, desperate for something to rest her eye on, realized that the woods were growing thicker as they walked. They had taken trails at random, paying very little attention to where they led. But now, with a uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, she began to keep a close watch on their surroundings, searching for a certain sign. She found it just minutes later, and stopped dead. Carved in a tree at the side of the path was a circle, with a pair of sinuous lines crossing it. The sign of the Spirit Wood.
Lady Lunessa walked on a few more steps before she realized that she was alone. She turned around to regard Rosalynn with a puzzled expression “Rosalynn? What is the matter?”
“Milady, we should turn back, find another path.” Rosalynn said, her eyes not leaving the symbol on the tree.
“Whyever for? It is nice and shady along here. Come.”
“No, truly, milady, we must turn back.” Rosalynn, tearing her eyes from the tree, lurched forward and grabbed Lady Lunessa's wrist, pulling her back. Lady Lunessa stumbled after her, nearly tripping in her surprise.
“Rosalynn? I don't understand. What has gotten in to you?” Lady Lunessa said, stopping short and taking her hand from Rosalynn's. She rubbed her wrist with her other hand, while raising an eyebrow at Rosalynn.
“It's the Spirit Wood,” Rosalynn said, gesturing at the carving on the tree. She was beginning to panic. She made another grab for Lunessa's wrist, but the young lady pulled back out of reach.
“The what? Rosalynn, you are behaving very strangely,” Lady Lunessa said, concern and confusion mingling on her face. “Do you need to rest? We should look for a clearing, so you can sit...”
“No!” Rosalynn felt ashamed when she saw Lady Lunessa start. She hadn't meant to shout. She forced herself to calm down, with limited success. “We must not go any further into the Spirit Wood! We have to turn back. Please, milady!” Despite her best effort, she couldn't quite keep the hysterical edge from her voice.
A cracking sound echoed behind her. Rosalynn whirled, dropping the basket of food in the dirt and groping for the hilt of her sword. She saw nothing there, but that really wasn't any comfort.
Rosalynn felt Lady Lunessa's hands on her shoulders, and with a certain amount of forcefulness, Rosalynn was turned back around to face the young lady. Lady Lunessa stared her in the eye. “Rosalynn,” Lady Lunessa said, slowly and carefully, “what is the Spirit Wood?”
* * *
Powyn Village lay just on the other side of the woods from the castle. The road between them took a detour miles to the east, in order to avoid the Spirit Wood. Legends abounded of those deepest, darkest, cursed woods. It was said that those who went too close to the Spirit Wood never returned. Or if they did, they came back touched, raving feverishly about the nightmarish things they had seen. Rosalynn had been raised on tales of the place, and how the spirits would come to take away bad little girls who didn't obey their parents. But she'd also been shown the symbols used to mark the deepest part, the ones used to warn woodsmen and hunters off, to keep them from being victims of the spirits.
She told Lady Lunessa all of this in a shaky voice, the words spilling out of her as she fought the urge to jump at every sound that came from the woods. Her eyes moved constantly; she was determined not to let some spirit ambusher take them by surprise. Lady Lunessa listened closely to her the entire time, her face blank.
When she was finished, she implored the lady again that they should go back and leave the cursed place behind. She had tried very hard to impress upon Lady Lunessa the dire situation that they were in, and so she was quite disconcerted when the young lady laughed aloud.
“Oh, peasants have such silly superstitions,” Lady Lunessa said merrily. She paused, the mirth fading from her face a little. “Ah, sorry, no offense meant, Rosalynn.”
“Of course, milady,” Rosalynn replied dutifully. Of course this girl, sheltered her whole life in the castle, would not have heard the tales of the curse. What were the chances she'd ever have cause to encounter it? “But it is not just a silly superstition, milady! The curse of the Spirit Wood is as real as you or I.”
“Silly girl,” Lady Lunessa said, but fondly. “I am perfectly certain that there is no curse, nor any spirits here to bother us.” Tears of frustration and terror sprung up in Rosalynn's eyes as she struggled to come up with some means of getting Lady Lunessa go come away short of dragging her bodily. Which he hadn't entirely ruled out, either.
“But,” Lady Lunessa said, “if it troubles you that much, we can turn back.”
Rosalynn's knees nearly buckled with relief, and she offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the Saints.
“Thank you, milady,” she said after a moment to compose herself. She gathered up the basket from where she'd dropped it – happily the food hadn't tumbled out – and they set off back the way they'd come. She didn't run, but only barely. As it was she took three steps for every one of Lady Lunessa's, watching both ahead of them and the trail behind, ready to draw her sword at any moment. It wasn't until they'd nearly left the woods entirely and she felt sunshine on her face once more that she was able to relax.
* * *
The sun had already passed its peak when they sat down to eat. They found a big, sun-dappled clearing to settle into, not far from the edge of the woods, and dug into the basket in earnest. The bread and chicken were delicious, though Lady Lunessa bemoaned a lack of butter. There was even a bit of cheese tucked away for dessert.
Rosalynn, having not eaten since before dawn, ate ravenously. Lunessa partook at a more sedate pace, but Rosalynn noticed absently that the young lady certainly ate her share of the meal. And then, with the chicken nothing but bones and only crumbs of the bread and cheese left, they leaned against the trunk of a great maple. They were silent, simply enjoying each others company. Rosalynn hardly noticed when Lady Lunessa's head came to rest on her shoulder.
“I feel as if I could stay here for a hundred years,” Lady Lunessa said softly.
“Mhm,” Rosalynn murmured, the warmth of the day and her full belly and the softness of Lady Lunessa's body pressing against her own all conspiring to settle a fog of drowsiness over her.
The sound of a horse's hoof-beats tugged at her attention. They were slowly growing louder, and try as she might, she couldn't think of any reason for a rider to be out this far from the main roads.
No reason, except....
“Um, milady,” Rosalynn hissed, suddenly fully awake. In response, she heard a soft snore.
“Milady Lunessa,” she said slightly louder. She tried to nudge Lady Lunessa awake, without shaking her off entirely.
“Hmm, wha–“ the young lady said, lifting her head. “Rosalynn, wha's goin' on?”
Rosalynn didn't get a chance to reply, as just then, a rider on a white horse came onto the section of the trail that was visible from the clearing. Rosalynn's heart sank. Even at a distance, she could tell exactly who it was. He was dressed in blue and gold finery, his matching cloak bearing the mark of the House Deheubein. His red-blonde head swept from side to side, searching. And then he spotted them, and any hope Rosalynn had had of him passing them by died.
Without even waiting for his horse to come to a halt, Lord Roliff leapt down, and advanced toward them. Lady Lunessa was getting to her feet, and she pulled Rosalynn up after her. Even through her shirt, she could feel Lady Lunessa's fingernails dig into her skin, so tight was the young lady's grip.
Rosalynn couldn't blame her; the expression on Lord Roliff's face was terrifying. As he entered the clearing, he ripped his sword from its sheath, and the near three feet of edged steel gleamed in the afternoon sun. Rosalynn heard Lady Lunessa gasp. She instinctively angled herself to put her body between the young lady and the weapon.
Lord Roliff stalked his way across the clearing, pointing his sword at Rosalynn the whole way. She raised her hands, eying him warily.
“Draw your sword, peasant,” he said, stopping just out of striking distance. Rosalynn blinked, not certain she'd heard him right.
“You heard me!” Lord Roliff snarled. “Draw your sword! I will have satisfaction!”
“Satisfaction for what, Roliff?” Lady Lunessa asked. She still had a death grip on Rosalynn's arm, though the pain of her nails was the least of Rosalynn's worries.
“For taking you from the castle without permission,” Lord Roliff said through gritted teeth, “for abandoning her post, and for not knowing her cursed place!”
“Don't be stupid, Roliff,” Lady Lunessa shot back. “She didn't 'take' me anywhere.”
“Don't you talk to me about stupid, Lunessa! Do you have any idea how furious father is? How dare you put yourself at risk? How dare you shirk your duty like this?”
“I did not shirk anything,” Lady Lunessa said, her tone level, though the tension hadn't left her body. “I merely went for a stroll. I would have been back by sundown.”
Lord Roliff shook his head. Rosalynn had never seen anyone quite so angry as the young man was then. He trembled with his rage. “I will not play at words, Lunessa. Father will deal with you, back at the castle. But first, I will deal with her.” He pointed his blade at Rosalynn. “Step away from my sister.”
Rosalynn went to move aside, but Lady Lunessa did not loose her grip on Rosalynn's arm.
“Milady!” Rosalynn hissed urgently over her shoulder.
“I said, get away from her!” Lord Roliff charged, sword extended. Rosalynn flinched, waiting for the killing stroke. Then, in a curiously slow way, she felt Lunessa haul her back, and she saw Lord Roliff's eyes widen as the young lady placed herself between Rosalynn and Lord Roliff, and she heard a sound of tearing cloth and a hiss escape Lady Lunessa's lips.
“Lunessa!” Rosalynn cried, reaching out, fearing the worst.
But Lady Lunessa was still standing. She had clapped a hand to her side, but her back was still straight. “Are you all right, Rosalynn?” she asked, voice strained. Lord Roliff had checked his thrust at the last possible instant, but his blade had still grazed Lady Lunessa's side. As Rosalynn watched in horror, the green of her dress under her hand started to darken.
Lord Roliff stared at the blood on his sword. “'Essa, you...” he mumbled.
“My Lord!” Unnoticed during the confrontation, a number of other figures had come around on the trail, and were now milling about at the edge of the clearing.
Without looking, Lord Roliff shouted back at them. “Don't just stand there you fools! Bring me bandages!”
There was a burst of activity among the men, then came the response. “My Lord, we have none with us!”
“Oh, by the Saints,” he muttered. He undid the clasp of his cloak, and began cutting strips from it with his blade. When he approached Lady Lunessa with them, she drew back from him, a furious glare on her face.
“'Essa, if I don't bandage that wound, you could bleed to death,” he said with surprising gentleness. “Come here.” With a glance at Rosalynn, Lady Lunessa did as he said.
Rosalynn stood motionless as all this went on, hand still outstretched, still trying to comprehend what had transpired. Lord Roliff glanced up at her from his task, his expression unreadable. “Take the peasant girl!” he shouted to his men. “Bind her! She is to be taken to the dungeons, by the order of my father!”
“No, don't! Roliff!” Lady Lunessa cried.
“Quiet, 'Essa,” Lord Roliff said firmly. “You are in it deep enough as it is.”
“But–“ Lunessa reached toward Rosalyn, then winced in pain. Rosalynn, eyes on her lady, hardly noticed as the men bound her wrists behind her. She felt a numbness overtake her, mind and body, which did not leave even as they marched her down the stone steps to Deheubein Castle's dungeons.