By: M.J. Haag

A knock sounded at the cottage door more than an hour later, jarring me from my thoughts. I recalled the driver’s promise, and I felt a stab of pain through my chest. A small part of me wanted Alec to rush through the door. Yet, if he did enter, which Alec would it be? The mercurial beast or the cold lord?

A shiver ran through me a moment before Aryana strode into my father’s room without knocking. Though her unannounced appearance shocked me, I didn’t sit up or acknowledge her. Instead, I continued to stare at the space the door had once occupied.

My heart continued to break as I realized Alec wouldn’t come because there was nothing left to say. Bitterness began to eat the pain. He’d gotten what he’d wanted. His freedom. And by mere seconds, he’d made sure I’d left with the last piece of myself for my husband. I almost snorted. Husband. There would be no husband for me.

“Fifty years ago,” Aryana said, pulling me from my musings, “Alec’s mother came south looking for a way to help her son. She found me just before she died. Her story and love for her son moved me enough that I gave her my word I would help him become a better man, a man of whom she could be proud.

“When I came to the North, I could not believe the depravity. It was simple to open the Whispering Sisters. We serviced men, and I gained power from their lust. I used that power to shift the balance. I cursed the beast and drove out the dregs he had let in. Those of his servants who had stood by and let their Liege sink lower and lower without attempting to reason with him joined him in his enchantment.

“To give him hope, I set the price of his freedom on one night of pleasure. His earliest attempts fueled me so much that some of the energy seeped into the estate, making it possible for him to control some of the enchantments when I allowed it.”

When she allowed it. The phrase struck me cold. She had been the one to control the vines, then. She’d allowed Tennen to take me, even after witnessing his past crimes against me. She’d sacrificed me so the Lord of the North might be free. Whatever friendship I’d thought we’d shared had only existed in my mind. The knowledge hurt me more than Tennen’s fist had.

“When I saw you, time and again, bravely walk the mist surrounding the estate and boldly confront the local boys, I knew you were the one to help him.” She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry for the lies and all you have suffered to free Alec. Yet, if he had been warned about your danger before dawn broke, he would not be free now.”

I could feel her expectant stare but didn’t meet her gaze.

After several long moments of silence, she stood. Did she think her story would justify how she’d used me? Anger and disbelief clawed at my insides.

“I’m sure his mother would be pleased with the result,” I said in a raw whisper.

She looked down at me for a moment, her expression closed, before sweeping from the room.

Father came to look in on me, but said nothing as I continued to lay there and sort through my thoughts.

When Tennen and Splane had started chasing me, I hadn’t hated them. I understood their angry reaction to my knowledge of what their mother had done with the baker. However, I struggled to see any possible explanation to excuse Alec and Rose from my burning resentment. The way she’d gone about trying to help him was a mockery. And, how could he have held me and listened to me read the night before, then make no move to help me when I needed him most?

When my father checked on me a second time, wringing his hands with worry, I decided I’d given those who’d hurt me enough thought. To think of them further would only allow them to harm me more. So I closed off my heart, sealing in the pain, and sat up and gave my father a small, reassuring smile.

“Is there anything to eat?”

He nodded and went to the kitchen to fix us a modest meal.

His attempt, boiled oats that looked more like paste, made me smile. We ate while laughing about it. The laughter didn’t touch me inside. I doubted anything would ever again.

* * * *

For the next several days, I stayed indoors, and Father remained my constant companion. When I asked about his teaching, he declared he’d educated the sisters as much as he thought possible for the time being.