OF :: The Witch’s Bastard

Title: The Witch’s Bastard
Arc: Aelphlond
Rating: PG
Written: Winter 2004?
Summary: The stability of Taealwhyn’s life hangs by a thread when a stranger appears.

These characters, stories, and ideas are the original, copyrighted work of Nicole Sharp and are protected under a Creative Commons License.

The stranger arrived during dinner that night. I watched from my usual spot in the shadows as a servant came to speak to her of him. My step-siblings, Rhys’ sons, were squabbling over food and toy soldiers between me and her, so I was unable to hear the first of their conversation. Gwaldyn let out an angry cry as his brother stole the last of his roll, and I stuffed mine into his hands to silence him as I crept closer to hear what was being said.

“But, m’lady, he ought to go looking to a tavern or inn for food and shelter. He has the look of one well-enough endowed not to be begging at the door—“

“I did not ask for your opinion, Haleth. I told you to let him by. Grillyoth will not have its reputation besmirched by sending away a kinsman in such weather as this!”

“M’lady, the King would not approve of letting his sort in here!”

My mother’s face flushed, and she stood to glare down at the servant. “The King left this land in my hands until he should return. You will do as I order now, or I will kill you and find another who will do my bidding.”

Such a combination of tone and height never failed to intimidate even the boldest of Rhys’ servants. I hid a smile in the sleeve of my tunic. Mother was as tall as Rhys was in his boots, and the man was considered quite tall among his people. There were none in the castle who could look down on him, except, perhaps, for Mother, though I’d noted that she rarely stood completely straight when he was about. I was perhaps seven years old now, and I very nearly reached my mother’s shoulder. To my amusement, no one, particularly those in the town, would believe that I was anything less than eleven. Not even my step-brothers believed that I was hardly older than them.

The room quieted noticeably as the man entered. He pushed his hood back, studying the room in one swift glance. I’d melted back into the shadows where I would be unnoticed. Mother, on the other hand, stood near the fire to welcome him. Servants took his cloak and seated him near to my mother; he smiled in return.

“You are undoubtedly tired and hungry from a journey in such weather, sir,” I heard her say. “Taealwhyn, fetch him food and wine.”

I frowned. Mother never asked me to serve guests, and she knew quite well that I’d intended to stay out of sight at dinner tonight. I handed the remainder of my own dinner to the boys and rose, hurrying to the kitchen and back in order to miss as little as possible. The stranger was still warming his hands by the fire when I returned, and from the level of noise in the room, I suspected that he had not yet stated his name and business. It was too quiet.

Silently, I offered him the plate and goblet, my hood shadowing my face and obscuring my features. He took them with quiet thanks and returned to the seat near my mother. I started to slink back to my corner but Mother caught my arm with a smile.

“Not so quickly, my pet,” she said, pulling me to the seat on her other side. “Come, off with the hood. You know I hate it when you hide yourself so.”

I could hear some of the others in the room snickering and whispering to themselves as I pushed the hood back with an angry glare at my mother. Swiftly I ran my fingers through my hair, musing it so as to hide my ears. The stranger, though, seemed to have guessed my purpose because he chuckled. “I had not heard that the Queen of Gryland had a daughter.”

“That is because few refer to me as such,” I replied before Mother could say anything.

“Oh? What do they generally refer to you as?”

“The Witch’s bastard,” I answered, straight-faced. Mother blushed furiously, whereas many of the others in the room blanched. Apparently they thought me deaf to their comments about me.

The stranger only laughed. “Oh, aye, then. Well, I’ve still not heard of you. I do hope you’ll forgive my ignorance, m’lady,” he said with a bow of his head. It sounded somewhat mocking, but, at the same time, I had the feeling that he meant it respectfully. It was, quite possibly, the first time anyone outside of Mother had acknowledged me with any sort of rank.

“Enough of us,” Mother said quietly. “What of you? Who are you and what brings you to Gryland in such weather as this?”

This was the question everyone had waited for, it seemed. Any conversations that had been feigned for the last several minutes were dropped abruptly. Suddenly the only sounds came from the children and dogs, both scrabbling over leftover bits of food, and even they were being shushed and restrained. The stranger seemed to pay the extra attention little heed. “Well, m’lady, you are correct to suppose that only something of great import could bring me so far north in these months of the year. I am Stevlon of the Dammermark, and I came to bear news that will be of importance to you and your daughter, m’lady,” he answered, his eyes straying from the fire only once, to me. “With your pardon, ma’am, I won’t speak of those things here, though it seems to me that I can also tell you of happenings to the south, as I will be the only one to cross the mountains this season.” He set his bowl aside and ran a hand through his hair absently, revealing, for the first time, what Mother and I had already known.

I heard several stifled gasps in the room, followed by a burst of noise as new conversations erupted suddenly. The man seemed oblivious to them or, at the least, utterly unperturbed by them. He sat back with a sigh and gave my mother and I a weak smile. “So, Laurewhyn, when will you introduce me to your daughter?” He appraised me swiftly. “Seven years old, are you?”

A smile spread across my face. “Yes!”

“So I thought, though they undoubtedly think you older,” he said with a jerk of his head.

“Eleven at the minimum.”

The man laughed. “These mortals are fools when it comes to judging our kind. It seems that little changes here, Laurewhyn.”

“In those respects, Sdholhen, in those respects.” I noted both her downcast eyes and the different name. Stevlon had not sounded like one of our names; was his tale of the Dammermark to the south also false?

“Some things do change, though?” he asked quietly, slipping his hand over hers.

“I am married, Sdholhen; you mustn’t do such things where anyone might see,” my mother answered, pulling her hand away.

“Married to a man you do not and have not loved,” he answered, letting her go. “You did it for power and position—I can’t blame you for that, given what choice you had.”

“It’s not as though my options have changed much in that time,” she answered rather sharply. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t speak to you so. It’s not your fault.”

“It’s alright. You’ve every reason to feel bitter,” he said. I caught his glance around the crude hall. “This is hardly what you deserve in life. And, if I may be so bold, she doesn’t deserve it either. That’s part of why I’ve come.”

“You said you knew nothing of Taealwhyn.”

“No, I said I’d heard nothing of her. There is a distinct difference, but we’ll leave that for the moment,” he said softly. “There are too many ears here to speak freely.”

“Taealwhyn, help Nanny to see the boys into bed. Then come to my chambers.”

“Aye, Mother,” I answered, rising to gather the three boys. Aelphed had fallen asleep in the corner, and Gwaldyn and Rhysson were fighting nearby. Their nanny herded them toward the door, and I knelt to gather Aelphed into my arms. Unlike the other boys, Aelphed was actually my half-brother and Mother’s son. The only sign of that, however, was his black hair, which could, in truth, have come from Rhys’ mother. Aelphed shared none of my mother’s other characteristics. He rolled toward me, eyelids fluttering, and smiled when he saw that it was me that held him. Of all the boys, he was the one who liked me the most. He crawled as often into my lap to ask for stories as he did to Nanny’s. I suspected it was because he could not remember the time before I’d lived in the castle.

“Is it time for bed, Taessy?” he murmured.

“Aye, love.”

“I can walk,” he murmured, though he didn’t move as though he would.

“And I can carry you, little one. It may not always be so. Close your eyes, and go back to sleep,” I told him. I was slower when I had to carry him, and, by the time I’d reached the boys’ room, Nanny had the older two in their bed. I set Aelphed down on the trundle bed and tucked the covers around him. He smiled in his sleep, and I kissed him softly on the forehead.

The older two giggled and squirmed under their covers. I gave them a half-smile. “Quiet now, and to sleep, or I’ll spell you to your dreams.” It was my traditional good night to them both. Gwaldyn, who was nearly six, grinned at me.

“You wouldn’t!” he protested playfully.

“Wouldn’t I?” I replied, brow raised.

“Nay, you wouldn’t!” Rhysson answered, also grinning.

With a mischievous grin, I whispered a few phrases in my own tongue into my clasped hands and cast it out over them. The boys’ eyes were wide as I did it—I normally did not—but as the magic fell upon them, their eyelids grew too heavy to keep open and they slipped into sleep.

Nanny smiled thankfully. “Bless you, girl. I would have had a nightmare getting those two to sleep tonight with the guest and all.”

“It was nothing,” I answered, my voice low so as not to wake them. “Just… don’t tell Mother. Or their father.”

Nanny nodded. She, at least, I could trust to stay silent. Her loyalties lay with the good of the children more than any agenda that might concern the King or Queen. I bid her a good night and slipped out, traveling the corridors to the east wing through the deepest shadows. Mother may care to have me seen, but I still preferred the anonymity of darkness.

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