Rose opened her eyes to stare at the ceiling in the dim morning light. Blinking lazily, she rolled her head and checked the small window of her room. The winter wind rattled the shutters and even with the rags stuffed in the gaps, the freezing wind forced its way through the cracks.
She sighed and rolled out of bed, having chased sleep unsuccessfully all night. Even if the howling wind hadn’t kept her up, the nightmares did. Her sleep was fitful, and disturbing. Her dreams were haunted by gray wastelands and whispering ghosts. Recently, her dreams had taken a turn for the worse. The attempted coup on the castle over the summer had left different marks on Rose. That fighting, that type of pain was different than anything she was used to. It had left new scars, hidden and visible, on Rose.
Swinging her legs over the edge of the narrow bed, she absently rubbed the smooth burns that circled her wrists. Despite the thick wool socks, her feet quickly grew cold from the floor, and she glared at the faintly glowing stove. The orange coals did little to heat the small room.
She pushed off the bed and shoved her legs into plain trousers and a simple tunic hanging off the back of the long chair in her room. It was a small box of a room, large enough for a narrow bed, a desk and a chair. The stove was shoved in the corner between the bed and desk.
Unfortunately, the only coat she had was the deep blue uniform coat of the Light Horse: the messenger service of the king. Her belongings were sparse, and her actions over the summer required her to play the part of a Light Horse Officer. And, as her items were few and far between, she’d kept the uniform items. Shoving her arms into the coat, ignoring the feeling of being an imposter as she did so, she walked into the hallways in search of the kitchens.
They’d be warmer than her room, and maybe there was still a snack or two left lying about she could steal before attempting this feat called sleep.
Her life felt stalled. She’d come to the castle, after carrying the message for a dying Light Horse Officer, with the intent to leave again and continue her journey. But then she’d found another person with her magic. Something Rose thought was a mistake of nature or a curse of the gods, and then there was D’ray, the B’Leakon who’d attempted to overthrow King Micah. He appeared and upheaved her whole world.
And so she’d stayed, despite her fear of staying in one place, with the hope of learning more about her magic, of finding answers to questions she’d had all her life. Now, months later and winter fully set in, she had discovered nothing.
The stagnant feeling of her days added to her irritability and inability to sleep.
As she walked, she entered the older parts of the castle. Here the tapestries were older the further away from the public halls. Time had faded the once bright colors to dull, washed out fabrics, but you could still see the epic tales of warriors and kings sewed into their weave. One of the previous kings must’ve had a fondness for the sea, because along the hall to the kitchens, the tapestries were tales of sailors, great sea monsters, and the beginnings of the royal navy.
The suits of armor along these walls, tucked into the alcoves weren’t the shiny, polished displays for the public. These were tarnished, grimy, and damaged from time. She glanced at them as she passed and wondered where these went when they were replaced. Did the castle just throw them out? Or was there a giant room in some dusty old wing stuffed to the brim with old armor parts?
Outside, the raging blizzard beat against the castle and the hallways were frigid as a result. The wind rattled the shuttered windows and howled. The once thick carpets along the floors had long since been worn down by the hundreds of servants' feet over the years. The stone floor poked through in many places. The halls were dark, the few lanterns burned low, and the flames made dark shadows flicker along the stone walls and the suits of armor.
She tucked her fists into her pockets and trudged around the corner.
“Everything alright, ma’am?” A guard paused in his stride down the hall. His black and amethyst uniform made him blend into the dark.
“Yup,” Rose said and kept walking.
He dipped his head in a marginal nod and turned back down the hall. She continued on her journey to the kitchens, further into the belly of the castle.
Finally, at the door, feeling the residual heat of the hearths from inside the kitchens, Rose took a deep breath. Her bones were tired. A weight had settled in her limbs since the summer.
She wanted to sleep. To sleep for days, but she worried the weariness that she carried wouldn’t be cured by sleep.
Rose jerked at Aaron’s voice and found him sitting at the large kitchen table in the center of the room. The candlelight lit up little of his face, but with the shadows, Rose could see his high cheekbones and dusty blond hair. His face was full of sharp angles and lines. She was sure some would call him handsome.
“Everything alright?” he asked, his voice soft but attentive. She’d never seen him lose his attention or his patience.
Rose sniffed, annoyed she’d jumped, and settled across from him at the counter. “Yes.
Can’t sleep. What’s your excuse?”
Aaron, one of King Micah’s personal guards, glanced at her before returning to the block of cheese he was cutting into. “I’m getting off shift and needed a snack before heading to bed.”
Aaron was a tall mountain of a man that managed to sneak around and move with barely a sound in a way Rose was jealous of. She guessed he was a few years older than her, maybe somewhere in the later half of his third decade. He carried himself like a warrior, and she’d seen him fight to know there was no lie in the lithe, lethal way he moved. It made her wary, but she’d never once seen him raise his voice.
“Oh. Well, tell me, Aaron of the guard.” She nicked the cheese he’d sliced off the block and he frowned at her. “Do you enjoy it?”
Aaron frowned at her but sliced off another piece before pulling the teapot off the fire and settling at the table. He poured them both a cup before speaking. “Shield. Those who guard the royal family are Black Shields. And yes, it is a very fulfilling position.”
Rose raised her eyebrows and sipped the tea. “You enjoy following a man around all day, every day? And what royal family? It’s just him here.”
“There’s more to it, and you know that,” Aaron said with a sardonic look. “And yes, right now, only the king. But when his cousins or his aunt visit the castle, their protection falls to us. And eventually, the queen and heirs.”
“I see.” Rose ducked her head, shame burning her cheeks. She did know that. She’d seen the work and risk Aaron and the other Shields had taken to protect the king last summer. She shouldn’t have insulted him so. “I apologize. I’m in a mood, it seems.” She stared into her tea.
“Sleep disagrees with me.”
She pushed strands of her hair out of her eyes and tried to tuck it behind her ear.
Aaron nodded and pushed his plate toward her. “After the battle this summer, I’m sure many find sleep hard to come by. It will pass in time.”
She would bury these nightmares just like she has with all the others. These will just take her more time. More time and more rum. She started to rub the smooth scar on her wrist and had to tell herself to stop.
“Are you still training with Archie?”
Rose chuckled. “Everyone really does call him Archie when he’s not looking, don’t they?”
Archie, or Archibald as he preferred it, was one of the Swordmasters in the castle that trained new and upcoming recruits. His younger sister, Mariah Sayla, was captain of the Light Horse. She was currently trying to convince Rose to become a Light Horse Officer herself. Rose still had her doubts about that being a good idea. Assassins didn’t belong in castles.
Aaron laughed, a deep, baritone laugh. “Yes, and I’ll denounce you as a liar if you tell him.”
Rose laughed too and it felt good to laugh, like something had loosened in her chest with the sound. She hadn’t laughed since the summer attack on the throne room, when her magic had gone to shit, and she’d been trapped there after exhausting her magic, after letting the shadows in too far. Her hand went to the scars on her wrist again. D’ray had burned her wrists when he’d forced her memories out with his magic in an effort to assassinate the king. “Your secret is safe with me.”
He nodded his thanks, a smile still on his lips. “How’s your training going? It’s hard work, and not many stick with it. Archie must see something in you to keep you on, without being paid,” he eyed her with a raised eyebrow, “or a member of a corps.”
She crooked a smile and ignored the jibe. “It’s a challenge, and I like challenges.” It also lets me clear my mind and not… think or feel or... “It’s just me and the sword and trying not to get smacked.” She paused and chewed her cheek. “Although, I don’t like the broadsword. Archie started me with a long knife, but...I’m much better with my little daggers.”
Aaron scrunched his brows together as he thought, and Rose took the opportunity to steal more cheese. “I have watched you fight in the practice rings. All of the Shields are Swordmasters, but we are also trained in...a variety of weapons aside from the broadsword. You should train with us sometime. Maybe I can train you in some weapons more to your style.”
Rose nodded noncommittally. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to commit to more training with more people. The more ties she made here, the harder it would be to leave. Some part of her didn’t want to disappoint so many people if she disappeared, and fewer ties meant less disappointment. Although, she wasn’t sure when she started caring about what others felt. The thought made her frown. She was already becoming too attached here, and she wasn’t even sure she was going to stay.
The bells started their chimes, and even down in the depths of the kitchens, they heard their faint echo. “I really must be retiring. I suggest you try to do the same.”
Rose nodded and watched him leave. She stood and checked in the back of the cheese larder and found the bottle of brandy was still there.
“Mine,” she whispered as she grabbed it, stuffed it in her pocket, and finally turned back to her room.
* * * * *
Later that afternoon, while nursing a rather impressive headache, Rose sat curled in the stiff, overstuffed armchair in the common room for the Light Horse. The room was filled with a scattering of tables, and benches. The hearth had a large bookshelf built into the stone around it. Random knick knacks from the years were scattered on the plain wood shelving. A carved horse. A mismatched collection of books. Some trophy from a race she didn’t know. The room was old and shabby, but it was lived in and loved. She felt like an intruder sitting here.
The fire roared in the hearth, making the large room warm and cozy. The sound of wood popping and crackling in the flames filled the room. The storm continued to blow outside; the window on the far end of the room was crusted with ice.
In the back of her mind, the shadows were restless, no doubt adding to her brandy headache. Something was stirring them, the denizens of the Shadow Land. She could feel them prowling in the shadows, could feel their irritation. She’d never felt them behave like this before. Normally the shadowy beasts existed on their own and, up until this summer, kept to themselves. She didn’t know what it meant, but whatever it was… they were angry about it.
“What is causing such a frown?”
Rose blinked, focusing her eyes again, and turned to Sam Fiben. He sat across from her on the equally battered and old couch. He watched her with his expressive, eager eyes. Sam was also a member of the Light Horse and, like so many of the officers, had a magical ability. While it wasn’t a requirement, as far as Rose was aware, the corps seemed to attract lost souls with odd magics. Sam controlled fire. Poorly, but he was learning. The stoic captain also had magic and could read minds. A skill that had set Rose on her nerves when she’d first arrived.
“Was I frowning?”
He nodded, a small grin on his lips. His piercing blue eyes seemed to twinkle at her.
“You looked quite bothered.”
“Hmm,” she hummed and set her eyes back to the fire. “Something’s changed.”
“I don’t know,” she murmured and rolled her shoulders. But she needed to find out.
She stood with a sigh, head pounding behind her eyes, and turned from the room. She could feel Sam’s eyes on her, but she ignored the stare on her back. The people in the Light Horse were so open, so used to sharing their cares and troubles with each other, but she’d survived by keeping her secrets close to her. She didn’t know how to share. Didn’t know if she wanted to.
Instead, she retreated to her drafty room, her boots clicking on the stone floor with her hasty steps. Closing the door behind her, Rose’s hands shook. The last time she’d used her magic, it had taken control. It had harmed people, the king. She’d nearly lost her mind to the shadows. But the hells be damned, she wasn’t going to let them control her.
She closed her shutter, blocking out the little light from the afternoon. In her dark room, Rose dropped into the shadows, into the Undertunnels. Like stepping into a room, she entered the world that existed between worlds. It lived in the shadows, the darkness, the between spaces of the world. Here, the world was awash with blues and grays and a heavy mist settled around her knees. The dark world is broken up by little ‘windows’ looking into the world at places where light meets darkness.
She could feel the wolves pacing in the darkness, could sense their agitation. Perspiration broke out on her forehead at their nearness, but they made no move to break into her mind. A wind stirred the mist in a flurry, and dew gathered on her face.
“What’s happening?” she asked, her voice wispy. She ground her teeth in annoyance.
Red eyes appeared in the darkness and soon, the darkness condensed into a snout, a head, the body of a wolf. Standing nearly to her chest, the red-eyed beast stared at her, hackles raised and dew-drops dotting its fur.
“What is happening?” Rose asked again. This time her voice was firmer.
The wolf lifted its lips in a silent snarl, white fangs gleaming in the darkness.
“He’s awakened.” The voice echoed in her mind.
She fought back a grimace and told herself, again, that she was in charge of these beasts. Not the other way around. “Who?”
“He ruins the Balance. He should not be!”
More wolves appeared in the darkness.
“Who!” Rose shouted at them.
They froze, all blazing eyes turned to her. A stillness settled in her bones, and even the swirling mist seemed to hang suspended.