The next morning Aurora bound Kaspar's shoulder in a sling. The bone was not broken but she worried that he would move it too suddenly, further damaging the delicate skin that would soon be healing into a soft pale pink. The wound had closed nicely as far as she could tell in the milky morning light, although she would have to keep a close eye on it to make sure that it did not fester or tear open again.
"When do you think we will reach Manorbriar?" Aurora asked as she helped him tie the drawstrings of his shirt tight at the neck.
"By mid morning," he sighed, leaning closer to her. "God willing…"
When she tied the knot closed he reached his good hand up to touch hers and he clasped her fingers again. Their eyes met quickly. She wanted him to kiss her again. She hoped he would pull her ever closer and make her feel full of sensation as he had the night before. "We should go," he warned her. He pulled her back from her daydreams when he released her hand. "Soon dearest," he whispered sympathetically, as though he had read her frantic thoughts. He brushed his lips across her forehead teasingly.
Brynhild was already settled in her litter when Kaspar escorted Aurora out of the tent.
Kaspar bowed to Brynhild after he and Aurora approached. "Are you well Madam?"
Brynhild did not speak in reply but nodded her head curtly in his direction. Her face was etched long and puckered with a bemused expression. Aurora had to stop herself from sighing loudly in annoyance but when she moved to confront her mother for her rudeness Kaspar lightly tugged at her hand. His fingers wove a teasing design into her palm. "Shall we depart?" He inquired, tearing Aurora away from her exasperation.
"Yes," Aurora said, turning away from her mother, although she chided herself when after taking a few long strides away she looked back at her mother to make sure Brynhild was not upset.
"Anhalt," Kaspar called out after helping Aurora mount his horse. "How fares your wound?"
Aurora had not thought of Ranulf's wounds since she had seen him kneeling on the grass the day before. He did not look badly hurt, although she could tell by the way he sat astride his horse that he showed signs of discomfort.
"I am well Highness." Ranulf reported.
"And the pack?"
Aurora looked around for Senora but she was not stationed in her customary place by Ranulf's side. "Where is she?" Aurora asked Kaspar as the caravan once again began to move. Ranulf had already ridden ahead but Senora was still nowhere to be seen.
Kaspar was reluctant to answer. "The closer we get to Manobriar the more she will distance herself from the Duke."
"Why?" It was already clear to Aurora that they both cared for each other. "Why do they not wed?"
"It is not… fitting. The Duke must marry as befits his station even if he would choose otherwise."
Aurora couldn't stop herself from looking back toward the snaking line of Kaspar's soldiers riding in formation behind them. She narrowed her eyes, and tilted her head but Senora was nowhere in sight.
Late in the day Kaspar's horse crested the last hill. Aurora was struck by the lush emerald green grass and how the castle vaulted toward the sky. It gleamed and glistened in the daylight from the dazzling white stone. The surface glistened in the sun. The sight was so majestic that it made the breath in Aurora's throat come to an abrupt stop. Kaspar pulled his full arm around her and tugged her as close to him as he could.
"It's so beautiful," she whispered.
He sighed against her ear, "Its home dearest. We're home now."
Aurora wondered if this was what her own home had looked like long ago. If the castle walls had also shimmered as Manobriar's did? Or if hordes townsfolk had once gathered in the winding streets to pay homage to their rulers, as the people of Manobriar now did.
Kaspar's horse began the sharp trek down the bottom of the hill; their journey ever closer to its end. Out of the corner of her eye Aurora caught the sight of strange grey movement on her right side. Turning her face in that direction she squinted in the white light and saw a woman atop a horse staring down at them. She looked to be a half a mile away at least, and she sat astride a white mare. Her grey skirts flouncing and rippling in the wind. "Who is that?" Aurora asked Kaspar. He turned to better see what she was staring at and caught the sight.
It took him a moment to answer, and in the interim Aurora watched Ranulf part from the caravan and kick his mount into a fast run. He was nearly to the woman when Kaspar answered her. "My aunt," he said flatly. "That is Lisbet, the Duchess of Anhalt—by marriage—Ranulf's mother." Aurora was uncertain, and said nothing. Trying to fill the void Kaspar continued, "She has ruled as regent in my absence."
Ranulf had already reached his mother and Aurora watched the body language from their conversation. Both mother and son stayed atop their horses, and as far as Aurora could tell neither one had embraced the other. Their faces occasionally tilted during their discourses but Aurora couldn't discern any other intimate contact.
Aurora questioned, "They are cold with each other?"
"It is there way. The old Duke—my uncle—was a cold man."
Kaspar cleared his throat, "Indeed. He died when Ranulf and I were boys. He was my father's brother."
"You have never spoken of your father…" Aurora wished that she was not still atop the horse. She longed to look into his eyes.
"Yes, well—" Kaspar struggled to continue. "There is not much to tell, truly, he died when I was a mere child."
"You have been ruling since you were a boy?"
"Ruling? No, I am still Prince, not King. My mother aided me for several years," Aurora jerked her head to the side, wanting desperately to be facing him. "She is dead too," he offered in explanation. "Two winters ago. A fever took her." Aurora put her hand on the arm that still circled her waist. Despite the heavy sunlight his skin felt cold. "After my mother it was my aunt Lisbet, and Ranulf of course… and…" Kaspar's voice softened, and Aurora could hear the smile forming in his voice, "Kat—"
"—Kat?" she interrupted him. The fondness in his tone when he said the name made her stomach lurch.
Kaspar chuckled under his breath, "Katrina," he continued, "my cousin, and Ranulf's sister."
Aurora eased. "When will you become King?"
"When I take a bride," he said matter-of-factly.
Kaspar chuckled again, "That is not the way of it, dearest." She felt his lips lower to kiss the back of her neck. His touch sent a shiver down her spine.
Nearing the castle grounds Aurora could begin to see the throngs of people who had formed outside the gates to welcome their Prince home. Aurora couldn't help but feel the electricity of the men's anticipation in the caravan behind her. She could hear the whoops and hollers and cheers of the villagers and the knights eagerly responding to their jubilation.
Aurora's stomach filled with butterflies as they passed under the drawbridge. The portcullis had been raised and once inside Aurora could see how the people lined the streets. They threw flowers onto the roadway and curtsied as Kaspar's horse passed.
"They knew we were coming?"
Kaspar shrugged, "I may have sent my messenger's ahead to spread the news. After all," he moved his hand to hold her ever still tighter. "The fabled Princess has finally been released from the witches curse."
Aurora began to noticed that several villagers carried small placards and waved them at she and Kaspar as they passed. She eyed them closely from her position on the animal and they appeared to be miniature portraits of a woman with long flowing pale hair.
"What are they?" Aurora asked as they passed near a shop room window where similar wooden portraits hung as display behind the glass.
Either Kaspar did not hear her over the yells and cheers of his people, or he chose not to tell her. Either way her unanswered questions still burned in her mind.
When the head of the procession crossed the final iron gates that lead into the courtyard of the castle Kaspar drew in the reins of his horse. Aurora watched as a small gaggle of women emptied out of the gilded doors before them. Leading the small group of women was a tall dark haired lady of regal standing. Her long black hair tied up in a complex pattern of braids with glinting jewels woven in an intricate design. Her grey gown billowed outward in a slight breeze as she waited near the entrance. Her dark eyes fixated on Aurora as Kaspar pulled her down from the animal. Aurora knew without being told that this woman was the lady Lisbet, Kaspar's aunt and mother to the Duke of Anhalt.
"Nephew!" She smiled genuinely at Kaspar and after he sprinted a few quick steps toward her she embraced him. "I have prayed for your return." Aurora heard her say as she cupped her hands underneath his chin.
"Aunt," he began formally, turning his back on her and reaching his arm out to guide Aurora nearer to him. "This is the lady Aurora." Lisbet cocked her head to the side to better study Aurora. "Aurora, this is my aunt, the Duchess of Anhalt."
Aurora curtsied low to the dowager woman as a sign of respect.
"My dear," Lisbet held her hand out to Aurora with her fingers facing upward. Each finger was adorned with a large jewel. Rising up from her curtsey Aurora gently cupped the Duchesses' hand and kissed the egg shaped ring on her index finger. "She is lovely," Lisbet crooned, turning back to Kaspar. "You found her in the castle? Are you certain it was the right one?"
"Yes," Kaspar confirmed. He too turned to study Aurora and she suddenly felt very uncomfortable under the sharp gazes of them both.
"Her face…" Although the Duchess had remained very calm and her voice held very even Aurora could sense the slightest bit of shock mingling with doubt. "There is no mistaking it…"
"Yes," said Kaspar. Aurora felt confused by the cryptic conversation that seemed to be going on around her but she kept her mouth shut even though she was desperate for understanding.
"She is Aurorette; her features exactly, but her hair… so much like King Frederick's." Lisbet turned to Kaspar and Aurora noticed her hand was resting on his arm. "She cannot be Aurelia," Lisbet continued firmly. "She is too young…" A long silence passed where the only sound that could be discerned was the wail of the wind all around them. "It frightens me to look upon her."
"There is no need aunt," Kaspar spoke. He untangled himself from Lisbet's grasp and pulled Aurora closer to him. "She is royalty, you have confirmed it yourself just by looking at her. She belongs here. I have found her as I sought out to and she will be my wife."
"Of course," Although Kaspar's tone was not harsh Lisbet bowed her head in obedience.
Something behind Lisbet caught Kaspar's eye and he swung his head to the side. Aurora watched the smile burst across his features. "Kat," he yelped in excitement. A younger looking version of Lisbet squealed loudly and jumped into Kaspar's arms. Her unwoven black hair falling all around her shoulders and back as the wind wiped at it wildly.
"I've missed you cousin-prince!" She said between giggles. The girls laugh was infectious and it made Aurora smile.
"Aurora," Kaspar explained excitedly. "This is the lady Katrina, my cousin."
Aurora had not thought it was possible but Katrina's smile grew even wider. "My lady," she spoke delicately with a bow. "I am so glad that you have come, I—"
"—Shall we go inside?" Lisbet interrupted. "It's growing so cold all of the sudden."
"Of course." Kaspar pulled Katrina and Aurora inward with one on each arm. Aurora felt an unexpected chill creep down her spine when she crossed the threshold. It caused her to cling to Kaspar tighter.
Once inside the castle Aurora was shocked by the splendor and decadence that she witnessed. The sight of the polished stone walls with long torches which were lit and hung in perfect placement hypnotized her. The light sent gold and red spirals across the floor and ceiling.
Tapestries hung on either side of her by ornate golden rods. Even in the dimming light Aurora could see the finely woven cloth lightly swaying as their group made its way deeper into the caste. Aurora could see the dazzling colors of the thread that was used – some shades she had never seen before – stitched tightly to form a perfect stolen moment in time. Even though she and Kaspar passed them quickly Aurora could recognize many were of hunting scenes where a wild boar or stag stood ready for an attack while a spear – already spiraling toward it – was about to slice into its flesh. The depicted scenes were so alive and haunting that it hurt Aurora to look at them, although in truth she could not tear herself away.
In the throne room rows of knights lined the long inner hallway. They stood at attention, ready, Aurora assumed to protect the royal family with their lives. A fire roared near the hearth. The logs groaned and cracked and the room filled with a wonderfully thick heat that felt marvelous after traveling on the road for so long.
As Aurora attempted to take in every detail of the large room Lisbet studied her. "She has so much of Aurorette and Frederick in her; I simply cannot believe my eyes. It is almost like seeing a ghost after all these years"
"I know, I have remarked on it several times."
"She cannot be Aurelia; she is much too young Kaspar." Kaspar nodded solemnly. "She is even younger than Katrina… How can this be?"
"I cannot explain it aunt; it is a mystery even to me."
"Was she alone in the castle when you found her?" Lisbet suddenly asked.
"No," Kaspar began, saying his next words slowly and carefully. "Her mother was with her."
Lisbet raised her eyebrows. "Her mother?"
Aurora was ashamed that she had not thought of her mother at all since entering the castle.
"Dirk?" Kaspar called out, and without further instruction Dirk departed through the guarded door into the foyer. Everyone waited breathlessly. Aurora watched as Lisbet moved closer to the door. The excitement in the room became a tangible thing. When Dirk next entered the throne room he was cradling Brynhild in his arms. She looked weak and too fragile to walk on her own.
"You…!" Lisbet hissed after getting a good look at the old woman in Dirk's arms. "Guards!" She yelled, and the clamor of a dozen men echoed throughout the great room until they suddenly became alert and crowded at her sides. "Seize that woman!"
"Wait!" Aurora screeched. Fear gripped her tightly like a noose around her neck. "Please."
Instinctively Dirk clutched Brynhild tighter although he realized quickly that should it come to a fight there was no way that he could win against the Duchesses' loyal soldiers who outnumbered him severely.
"Stop this Lisbet." Kaspar ordered, and the men at her side seemed to relax.
"This woman!" Lisbet began angrily, turning back to face her nephew. "Killed the King and the Queen!" Her accusation rang in the air and seemed to hang there like smoke above them all. "She killed my father." Lisbet's voice was so bitter it hurt Aurora to listen to it. "I remember her," she went on, her eyes wild as she suddenly felt her mind thrust backward into the past. "The King was at my father's bedside when the fever took him. It was she who dragged him away when he took became ill. It was she who had always cared for the children - young Prince Oren, and the babe Princess Aurelia. It was she who my sister and I saw slaughtering the King's horse in the open courtyard the night we fled…"
"Aunt," Kaspar said gently, trying to calm the tension that had filled the large room. "How do you know she is the cause of all this? How do you know she is the one who killed the King and Queen?"
"When my sister and I were young we were cared for by an old medicine woman named Bess. When the fever took hold of her it was I who nursed her. She said the fever was not natural. She said no disease takes hold of its victims as this one did. She said it was poison, and that the only one who knew enough to cause such damage was the witch Brynhild."
Lisbet turned back to Brynhild who was still held upright by Dirk's arms. Brynhild said nothing and kept her eyes downcast so as not to look at anyone. "Did you laugh, old woman, when my father – the strongest warrior in the kingdom - died in his bed like an old man? Did you laugh when the kingdom became nothing but a pile of bodies to be burned in the streets? Did you get what you wanted?" Lisbet turned to look at Aurora whose limbs had turned to stone, keeping her rooted to where she stood half way between her mother and the Duchess. "What happened to the Prince and Princess? Did you kill Oren when he was a boy? I remember how the child dreaded being near you. Are his ashes on that same bonfire with the rest of the townsfolk or did you let him rest in the mausoleum with his mother? And the little girl? Aurelia? What became of her? Did you raise her to believe that you were her mother? Did you kill her too when she finally found out the truth?"
Brynhild faltered in Dirk's arms and nearly fell forward.
"Please stop!" Aurora begged.
Kaspar too went to aid the old woman. "That is enough aunt. The woman is frail and weak." Kaspar gestured to two of the guards who were standing by. "Take her to an empty chamber, and call for the physician to see to her immediately."
"She took everything from me Kaspar!" If the Duchess' words had been daggers everyone in the room would have been dead already. Aurora watched as the once serene regent balled her fingers into angry fists and her eyes filled with tears. "She is not your mother, child." She spoke to Aurora directly. "She is no kin to anyone. She is poison itself. She destroys everything she touches."
"Please," Aurora begged. She took one of Brynhild's arms and wrapped it around her neck, hoping to keep her from fainting. "I am sorry that you were caused so much pain. Please let me take my mother away. She is very ill…" Aurora hoped that Lisbet would understand. "She is going to die." She finished flatly.
"I will go with you to her chamber," Kaspar affirmed gently. "Aunt, please make peace with my decision to allow this woman to stay." Kaspar did not wait for a further reply. Instead he took Brynhild's other arm and he and Aurora escorted her out of the throne room. Aurora felt Dirk following close behind them with his hand resting protectively on the hilt of his dagger. Realizing that he was readying himself should any of the guards particularly loyal to Lisbet decide to attack.
It had grown dark as twilight fell over the castle and as they made their way through the long and winding hallways Aurora watched several servants set the torches ablaze. Long thin shadows followed them as they navigated the maze of passageways. "In here," Kaspar finally stopped them. Dirk held open the door and assisted Aurora and Kaspar with situating Brynhild on the bed.
"I shall see what's taking the physician so long," Dirk spoke. He seemed to be able to read everyone's mind without being prompted to.
Brynhild moaned when she was placed on the bed. Her eyes were closed but even in the dim light Aurora could see the flicker from underneath her eyelids and see the nightmarish pallor of her face.
"Momma?" Aurora whispered smoothing the hair away from Brynhild's face. Aurora could feel the warmth wafting from her mother's forehead and cheeks.
"She will be alright now," Kaspar told her hopefully. "My physician's will see to it."
Aurora did not voice her doubts.
When Dirk finally returned with the physician Aurora stepped away from the bed to allow the old man to work. Kaspar moved to Aurora's side and held her hand in the darkness.
"She will be well again," he whispered. Aurora did not answer him but instead rested her head against his shoulder. His touch comforted her more than words ever could.
"She is resting comfortably," the physician finally said. He had appeared to be studying Brynhild for a long time and only now did he finally speak. "She has a fever," he went on flatly. "I have given her a mixture of herbs to calm the humors in her blood and help her sleep."
"Is there nothing else that can be done?" Aurora questioned. Surely a learned man of medicine from Manobriar was more skilled in healing than she was, but giving herbs and recommending rest is what she too would have done had they been back home.
"I will return in the morning and bleed her. That should release the toxins from her body, and with time and rest she may be well again."
"May?" Kaspar must have heard the irritation in Aurora's tone because he placed his arm strongly on the small of her back.
"Yes," the physician stammered, clearly made uncomfortable by her tone. "Well… she is rather old."
"Thank you sir," Kaspar went on. "For coming to the castle so late, and we hope to see a brighter diagnoses in the morning."
"My Prince," he bowed low and quickly departed from the room.
Aurora went to her mother's bedside but Brynhild was already in a deep sleep.
"Come dearest," Kaspar whispered. "I shall show you to your chamber."
Aurora wasn't shocked to find Dirk waiting quietly outside the door with a lighted torch held upright in his hand. "Liege," he spoke quietly and handed Kaspar the torch. Aurora could not be sure but something deep inside her told her that Dirk would stand guard outside the door for the rest of the night. Before she let Kaspar guide her away Aurora smiled fondly at Dirk and squeezed his hand in gratitude. Dirk smiled back at her, acknowledging her appreciation.
"Come," Kaspar said. He took her hand and led her deeper into the shadows. "There is something I want to show you."
At the end of the hallway Kaspar took a sharp right and continued down another corridor until they came to a tall door. Kaspar opened it and guided her through it.
"Is this to be where I sleep?" Aurora asked. She had concentrated very hard on how she had gotten here because she intended to sleep little and go back to her mother's chamber early the next morning.
"No," Kaspar told her. "This is my chamber."
Apprehension suddenly took hold of Aurora. "Your chamber? Am I to sleep here?"
Kaspar chucked at her response. "No… But I do want to show you something." Keeping hold of Aurora's hand he led her to a corner of the large bedchamber that had previously been obscured in darkness. Holding the torch high the light revealed a large painting of a beautiful woman. Aurora studied the picture slowly, letting her eyes travel over the soft oval features of the woman's face. Her large eyes seemed to bore into Aurora's soul, and her delicate mouth was upturned into a knowing smile that made Aurora suddenly very calm and at ease in the dark room. The woman wore a pale blue gown and long ringlets of yellow hair fell forward across her shoulders and spilled over the edges of the painting as though overtime it had continued to grow.
Kaspar broke the silence. "She is queen Aurorette. Wife of Frederick."
"Her face…" Aurora was shocked.
"It is your face."
"But how did you come by this? How is that a portrait of her is here?"
"Before the war started," Kaspar began. "Frederick had the portrait painted for her father. It was her youngest brother who was commissioned to bring the portrait to him but he was captured and ransomed by my grandfather before he could reach his destination. Apparently the boy had been sickly and died in Igor's tower before the ransom could be brought here. Aurorette was overcome with grief they say, and her pain caused Frederick to declare war. Igor loved this portrait; he kept it with him always."
"Aurorette…" She tasted the sound of the word, letting it roll over her tongue slowly. "My grandmother!"
"Aurora," Kaspar stammered her. "I didn't mean…"
"No," she stopped him. "It's the truth. It has to be."
"Then your mother…?"
"Was the Princess… The little girl – Aurelia – the one that your aunt spoke of… And my father," Aurora seemed to be speaking to herself now. "I will never know."
"Come," he pulled her away and guided her to another door in his chamber. "This leads to your rooms." He opened the door and let her pass through the entry way. Stepping away from her he found an unlit candle near the bedside and held it to the torch to light it. Aurora watched him move silently throughout the room lighting the candles on the tabletops and the larger sconces that hung on the wall. "If you need anything," he told her. "Just call out to me. I will just be in the next room." He kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Sleep well dearest." Without another word he left her alone in the chamber, closing the door behind him as he went.