CHAPTER ONE: BEWARE THE SHADOWS
Natalie had probably killed every dust mote in Stonehill Castle.
The trouble with the cursed things was that they regenerated, and no matter how much she swept and re-swept the long corridors and spacious halls, she always had to come back the next morning. Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoosh. The boredom. Was it possible to catch an illness from it?
She was almost falling asleep on her broom when clashing sounds made her start. She skipped to the tainted glass window, happy to have an excuse to stop working, and opened it wide, letting the warm sunlight bask her face.
Out in the courtyard, the knights, soldiers and young lords had just started their daily practice; they sparred with old, rusty swords and leather armour, grinning and laughing like madmen. Natalie spotted William's flaming red hair and a dreamy sigh escaped her lips. She watched him move for a while, smiling stupidly every time he managed a hit on his opponent.
William was gorgeous. With that fiery hair of his, and those clear, sharp green eyes, he was the man every woman dreamed of. Of course, he was a noble, the Lordling of Stonehill Castle, but that didn't mean a girl couldn't admire from afar. So what if every other servant girl in the castle was in love with him too? She had the right to dream.
But her smile turned into a frown when he was on the receiving end of the stick. He should have stepped to the right and blocked lower. He should have ducked. That's right, jump, horizontal strike, step back –
"Natalie!" Martha's voice bellowed from the other end of the corridor. "Get back to sweeping, girl!"
She morosely picked up her broom again. Swoosh. Swoosh. Clang! Her eyes, almost by themselves, wandered back to the open window and settled on William's elegant shape. This time his face was serious, the laughter lines at the corner of his eyes smoothed in concentration. He had switched opponents; now he was fighting Robert Maypole, his best friend, and a swordsman with a skill Natalie respected. They circled each other like tigers, neither of them making the first move, until William feinted and struck downwards, and their swords engaged in a maddening dance.
She would have loved to watch more, but Martha could reappear at any moment and yell at her again, so she contented herself with sweeping.
Creak. She stopped moving, straining her ears. She had heard something different from the clashing of the swords, something much closer to her, a noise that didn't belong in the silent corridor. She turned around and looked suspiciously at the darkness, but there was no one there. She didn't hear the noise again. Yet the little hairs on her arms stood up; she could feel she was being watched.
"Natalie, girl! How many times do I have to say it?" Martha's voice, coming from behind the corner, made her jump. Could the woman see through walls or what? She narrowed her eyes at the shadows one last time, daring them to spy on her again, and stalked off to sweep somewhere else. "Wait, girl!" Martha came back puffing, her face red like berry. Like a fat, splattered berry. "You're no good here. Go up to clean His Lordling's rooms."
"But he'll finish practicing soon," she protested, confused. "He'll want to–
"No buts, girl! Who's the boss? You or me?"
Natalie scowled and walked stiffly out of the building and into the courtyard, towards the Keep. Her steps slowed dramatically as she passed the sparring nobles to finally stop when she reached William of Stonehill and his dark-haired friend, enjoying the sight for a few seconds. No! Across. Dodge left, spin around, strike… Her concentration on the actual combat faded to the background, her eyes drawn by His Lordling's hair.
She spotted Martha's triumphant face at the window, pointedly turned her head away and kept walking, trying to make a somewhat dignified exit even while knowing she'd been caught in the act.
As she had predicted, she was still making the huge quilted bed when she heard William's voice in the corridor. It was accompanied by a lower one which she knew to be Robert Maypole's. Soon the pair erupted in the room. They had taken their armour off, and their clothes were drenched in sweat, but they seemed happy.
"… you know sword fighting isn't your thing." Robert was saying, a glint in his eye.
"You're just frustrated I got three clean hits on you today."
"They were hardly clean," the nobleman scoffed.
"Yes they were," Natalie argued from behind the bed. "I saw it." The two men turned towards her, surprised to find her there, and Natalie bit her lip, cursing her tongue. Stupid girl, Martha's voice mocked in her mind. Stupid, stupid girl.
"My room is supposed to be cleaned as soon as I leave for breakfast," William said slowly, completely ignoring her comment.
"Yes, my Lord. Martha forgot. My apologies." She came out from behind the bed so they could see her and did a little bow. "As you can see, I'm done. Should I leave?"
When time passed and still they hadn't spoken she risked a glance up. Both noblemen were staring at her in a strange way. God, he was handsome. His eyes were so clear; they seemed to see right through her. She shifted uncomfortably under their scrutiny. "I still have a lot of my morning chores to do…" Did their silence mean that she was dismissed?
"N-no," William finally said, which stopped her edging towards the door, and she looked back questioningly. He caught himself, his eyes veiled. "I mean, yes. Yes, of course you should leave to your… Morning chores."
Robert knocked him on the ribs. "What he means to say is that he'd love to stay and… converse with him for a bit." He chuckled. "Though I wouldn't mind it if you cleaned my rooms instead."
Natalie looked at him, puzzled. "But I know Martin did it just a couple of hours ago…"
He winked. "We could undo the bed again."
"Don't, Rob," William snapped. "You can go," he added, staring seriously at her. Natalie nodded, relieved, and went out, closing the door behind her.
She picked up her skirts and ran down the stairs, then across the inner bailey, not giving the meeting another thought, save for how nice William's green eyes were. And how his hair was wispy and fiery and how she'd love to touch it.
His Lordling was twenty-two, but he hadn't married yet. Nobody knew why; it most certainly wasn't because of a lack of candidates. His father, Lord Harrel, didn't pester him with it, though for Lady Calisse, his mother, it was a calamity. Of all the young noblewomen that came to the castle every day, accompanying their brothers or their parents, couldn't he choose one and be done with it? Lord Harrel and Lady Calisse were already old, and she would feel much more reassured if she knew that Stonehill would have a heir after William.
Natalie sighed in regret. What would it be like to marry someone like him? Live as a lady, without worrying or working her whole life, dressing in jewels and going to elegant balls, and meeting Kings and... She shook her head and concentrated on the task at hand.
If she was fast enough, perhaps she could avoid Martha's eyes, which seemed to be everywhere in the castle with the only objective of catching her not doing whatever she should be doing. The woman could definitely see through walls. She cleared the courtyard in a blink before hiding behind a column of the forge, her breathing shallow.
As she prepared to run out again, her gaze inevitably stopped on the swords and battleaxes displayed on the wall.
The practice weapons used by the knights had nothing on these swords. These were made for true battle, for killing. They were fine and sharp and glistened in the sun like the million needles of her sewing kit – but they were dangerous, deadly things that could slice off a man's head with a mere graze of the edge.
"What are you looking at, woman?" the smith grunted in her direction, not kindly at all. Natalie scowled at him, turned away from the swords and raced once more through the open space of the courtyard to stop at the foot of the inner wall.
She ran up the slanted stone steps to the chemin-de-ronde, where the sentries patrolled. She'd been doing this since she could walk, so they were familiar with her presence up here and didn't put any objections. One of them even winked at her. Natalie smiled back before eagerly leaning out between two crenels to stare at the landscape unfolded below, the thrill of the height making her heart pound.
The Stonehills were one of the most powerful noble families of the kingdom; as such their lands were vast, and their castle imposed majestically over them from the mountain ladder it had been built on, or rather, carved on. The castle belonged on the rock; it was a part of the landscape that made the grey stone of the mountain seem alive.
Beyond the walls of the inner bailey was the outer bailey, and the grey outer wall, much more thick and solid, surrounded by the cascading Stonehill falls and the stone bridge that crossed them. After that were rings of houses embedded in the rock, acting, in a way, as walls, too. Natalie watched a mule cart cross the bridge to the village to get lost in the streets, among the crowds of children and vendors. And beyond… beyond was a landscape of farmland and forest. The river divided it, but down there it was more like a lazy snake than a roaring dragon.
She sighed in delight when a cool breeze caressed her face. She'd been living here all her life. This was her home, the place she belonged in, and she was happy.
She heard steps behind her and soon someone came to stand next to her, leaning out to look as well. She opened one eye to see it was Moark, the stableboy.
Moark, too, had lived in the castle his entire life. He'd recently turned thirteen and been assigned to take care of the horses. He'd always been a scrawny lad, but lately he'd gained in weight and height; he was somewhat clumsy in his new body. Although he was three years younger than her, he was a friend Natalie held dear. Before, a partner in childhood conspiracies, now he was more of a confidant, someone she could talk to without reservations.
"Stand up straight," Natalie instructed, doing so herself. "I'm still taller than you," she remarked with satisfaction. Moark looked sullen and turned back to the horizon.
"Haven't you ever wanted to leave this place?" he asked after a while.
"See the world. Become someone great." He made a vague motion towards the sky. "Learn things."
"You learn things here too," she objected, a tone of hurt in her voice. "I taught you how to read."
"That's not what I mean." He turned around to face her, his light eyes serious. "I want to be... I want to go to places I've never been. I want to do things people will remember me for. I want to see things no one has even dreamed about." He paused and looked out. A breath of wind rustled his black hair. "I don't want to be imprisoned inside this castle as a mere servant forever, following the orders of stupid lords. I want to go outside."
Natalie laughed. Moark was still just a boy, after all. "Those are big dreams." Then, more softly. "What happened?"
He frowned, maybe annoyed by the fact that she could read him so well. They had known each other for as long as she could remember, since that time the weird little boy had arrived to the castle, and found nothing else to cling to but her skirts. She had looked after him when the other boys bullied him; they had shared all sorts of sorrows and joys together. His face was no mystery to her. "One of William's friends spat on me because I didn't know his name. I like His Lordling just fine, but …" He sighed and looked away.
"Nothing you can do about that," she consoled. Not all nobles were like William, kind and strong and just. Those things happened from time to time, and the servants of their class just had to bear with it. "Don't let it bother you."
"A man has his pride," he replied, wounded. A man? Natalie couldn't stifle a chuckle. He crossed his arms defiantly. "Fine. Mock me."
She bit her lip. "Maybe you could become a knight. They can go wherever they want to, and some of them don't even swear fealty to anyone." And they could fight in battles, and win tournaments, and become famous all over the country for their prowess... And songs were sung about them.
"By mock me, I didn't mean go ahead and do it," he replied, scowling. "It was sarcasm."
"No, I'm serious," she reassured. "Think about it. You're young, and you're awfully good with horses. You live in the most important castle for leagues, where knights come and go all the time. Some of them must be looking for a squire. If you make an effort to please them, perhaps…" She really thought he should go for it. If she were given the opportunity, she wouldn't think twice.
"It's not a squire I want to be," he insisted. "And besides, even if I did, I could never become one. I'm not a noble." His tone turned bitter toward the end. Natalie understood that it wasn't the first time he thought about it; she could hear the frustration in his voice.
"But that doesn't matter!" she exclaimed, wanting to dispel his sombre mood. "You're educated. You know things from the Lady's books." She nudged him with her foot. "His Lordling knows who you are, doesn't he? I'm sure he could put in a word for you. And then you'd travel the world with them. You'd eventually be a knight yourself." His eyes gradually lit up at the picture she painted, though he was still reluctant to believe in it. It was a flimsy chance in a sea of disappointment.
"I can't use a sword," he objected, but the spark of hope was already there. "All nobles my age know how to use a sword."
"We can work on that lat-"
"NATALIE, GIRL!" Martha's voice interrupted from below. Was the woman even human? "What are you doing up there? You aren't a child anymore, for God's sake! And they need you in the kitchens!"
"Make sure you know the name of the next one you meet," Natalie whispered before scurrying down the wall steps.
Dinner was always a big business in Stonehill Castle. Cooks fretted about, adding the last spices to the food and putting the first plates on trays, servants and maids came and went, some shouting orders, and the rest were occupied cleaning or helping where they were needed; the kitchen was a beehive of activity.
In the middle of the chaos, Natalie's back straightened as the sensation that she was being watched returned.
It remained all throughout dinner, even as she placed a plate in front of William of Stonehill, who paused in his conversation to look at her. His clear, green eyes met with her brown ones; they stared so intently that they glued her to the spot and she found herself unable to move or look away. She fought hard against her blush, but in the end it still crept up her neck to her cheeks.
"You really are a pretty thing," Robert, who was sitting next to him, commented. "You were right, Will. She has nice eyes."
Natalie's heart rate quickened. Had His Lordling said her eyes were pretty? "Thank you, my Lord, but I don't deserve such praise," she finally managed to say, tearing her gaze away from William's.
"I wouldn't say it if I didn't think it. Are you sure you don't want to come up to my room afterwards?"
Natalie's blush deepened comically. The invitation was outrageously straightforward, and she finally caught on to what he'd meant this morning, but luckily, Robert had spoken it low enough for only the three of them to hear, and now his eyebrows wriggled in amusement at her discomfort.
"Stop teasing her," His Lordling reprimanded. Natalie smiled gratefully at him and left.
William was still dazed by that smile as he watched her go. "She's too beautiful to be a servant," he declared shakily.
"And you are awfully jealous of me," Rob smirked.
"No. She wouldn't look at you twice."
"She would." To prove his point, Robert winked at her when she glanced back in their direction, and to William's annoyance, red did darken her cheeks. "What's her name?" his friend asked, the usual mockery in his eyes.
"Natalie. She's been with us since she was a baby. I remember my father bringing her back from… A burnt village." He paused, and his face suddenly lit up. "She really could be a noble! What if her parents-"
Robert brought a forkful of venison to his mouth and waved his fork around. "You're just hoping she is so you can marry her," he declared, with his mouth still full.
"Nonsense. I just want to know where she comes from."
They both stayed quiet as Natalie weaved her way back to their table, this time with a jug of wine. I'm right, William thought. The girl didn't walk like a servant; she made the dull uniform she was wearing look like a satin dress as it clung to her figure, which simply seemed to be made for a man's arms. Her brown curls had sunlight in them, falling to caress her bare shoulder lightly, making his fingers jealous. Her skin was smooth and fair, her neck curved elegantly like a swan. Her lips were caramel, begging to be kissed. And her eyes… They shone like they held the secret to the world.
William's breath caught. She just didn't seem real.
"Back to visit us, my lady?" Rob asked casually. William didn't pay him attention; his eyes were fixed on Natalie, wondering how he had missed the transformation. He remembered her from when she was still a child, all skin and bones and huge eyes. And admittedly, she had been lovely, but nothing could have prepared him for the beauty she had become.
Her perfect eyebrows furrowed adorably. The girl's face was like an open book; it was part of her charm. "Yes, actually, I had a question for my lords…" She looked at William with uncertainty.
Whatever she wants, he thought, putting down his napkin. I'll give her whatever she wants.
"Can a servant become a knight?"
He frowned. He hadn't been expecting that. Next to him, Robert choked on his wine. "You want to become a knight, my lady?"
She laughed delightedly, a million crystal bells ringing sweetly in the air. "No. I meant to ask if another servant could become a knight." She waved her free hand in the air to demonstrate.
William couldn't help the pang of jealousy that stubbed at his side. Whoever this other person was, it was clear that he was important to her. "Non-nobles have been knighted by my father… But they were extraordinary men, who proved their bravery on numerous occasions." In reality, there had only ever been two in the thirty years of his father's reign, but he didn't want to disappoint her. "I can't make a knight just like that." Though if you truly wish it, I will. "He'd have to be a soldier, or a squire first…"
She nodded gravely. "I understand. Thank you."
When she was gone, Rob raked him upside the head. "And she would have owed you a favour. Idiot."
Somebody was watching her. She was sure of it. Not Martha; the woman was too busy yelling at other girls to spy on her at the moment. Nor any of the cooks, either, who were bustling with the main course and dirty dishes, nor anyone else she could see. But a small shiver still ran down her spine as she discretely glanced up from the fruits she was arranging on the platter. A pair of eyes was following her, hidden in the shadows.
That night, when the servants were all cleaning up the kitchen, she quietly slipped through a back door and into an empty corridor. Once she'd walked far enough that nobody could hear her, she turned to the darkness and crossed her arms, glaring at it until whoever it was decided to come out. "Show yourself," she ordered. "I know that you have been watching me all day and I am tired of it."
It didn't take long. Soon, the shadows shifted to reveal the shape of a man all clad in black, though by the glint in his shoulder she could tell there was metal in his outfit, too. His face remained hidden, but in the midst of it glowed two swirling grey eyes.
"Hello, Capricorn," he greeted, an amused note in his voice.
This man was an intruder. "You shouldn't be inside the castle," she replied icily. "And, anyway, you have the wrong person. My name is Natalie."
"No, you are Capricorn. The stars in your eyes betray you."
The stars in my eyes? What is he talking about? "Why are you following me?"
He cocked his head, a strange glint in his silver eyes. "To protect you."
Natalie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This man was crazy. She didn't need any protecting; at least two dozens of soldiers patrolled the castle, day and night. Whoever he was, she had to make sure he didn't follow her again. "From what?" she asked, grinding the words out, but got no reply. When she opened her eyes again, he had disappeared.
The next morning she sneaked from her sweeping duties and went to find Moark at his workplace.
She wasn't supposed to be there, so it took quite a deal of running, stopping, running again, hiding, sneaking around back doors, more running, and by the end of it she was breathless. But what stopped her breath altogether was what she saw when she looked inside the stables.
Moark was there, of course, but he wasn't alone. He was with Juine, another servantgirl which Natalie knew worked in the outer bailey. And he was kissing her. And looking like he was enjoying it, too. Their bodies were practically glued together.
At first she just stood there, baffled, watching with a disgusted fascination. Luckily by the time she regained her senses and took a step back they still hadn't noticed her. Her mind started to race. Moark? Kissing? With a girl? Shaking her head, she crossed back through the courtyard. How... Why hadn't he told her about it? Perhaps she didn't know him as well as she thought she did. Perhaps she felt funny because she hadn't been kissed before, and he'd gotten to do it before she did.
This startling event had made her forget to be cautious, and so Martha spotted her quickly enough.
"You," she pointed to her from the other end of the courtyard. Natalie didn't actually hear the words, but she saw how they distorted her toothless mouth. "Sweep. Now."
Swoosh. Clang! Swoosh. Swoosh. Moark, kissing a girl. Now that was something she hadn't expected. Well, why not? He was already thirteen. There was nothing wrong with it. On the other hand, she was sixteen, and… Are you sure you don't want to come up to my room afterwards? She blushed, searching for something to distract herself with.
Clang! Really, those noblemen weren't very fast, she thought as she watched them through the window. They would move much more efficiently if they removed those heavy leather protectors and shields, and fought with lighter swords. As it were, even she with her broom could knock one on the head and that would be the end of it.
She stopped sweeping, shifted her broom to the other hand and struck at the air with it. Yes, that would have been the end of it.
Or maybe not. They were trained men, after all.
In a flurry of skirts she spontaneously followed with another strike, then another, then another, the broom whirling and flying around her faster than the eye could follow, her blood pumping in her ears, finally piercing her imaginary opponent and staying in that position for a moment.
Now that would have been the end of it.
The dry sound of clapping, coming from a corner of the room, startled her back to reality. A figure stepped into the patch of sunlight filtering through the window; it was the man in black from yesterday. She could see his features now – they were surprisingly young, fine and sharp, with high cheekbones and a straight nose. His grey eyes were laughing. He carried himself with the arrogance of the thugs that bullied Moark and she didn't like it. "Greetings again, Capricorn. I see you're starting to awaken."
She took a stance, menacingly pointing the broom in his direction. He had already seen her, so whatever he would think of servants swinging brooms around like they were swords didn't really matter. The laughter escaped his eyes and erupted through his lips in a low, hearty chuckle. "Intimidating, but it won't do you any good."
Taking into account the black sword hanging from his belt, and the heavy shoulder-guard on his left arm, he probably spoke the truth. "Who are you?" she asked, putting the broom on the floor.
A corner of his lips quirked upwards. "Scorpio." She waited for him to continue, but he said nothing else.
"What do you want from me?" She inquired impatiently. Couldn't he just state his business and leave?
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe me." Oh, great. She grimaced. "So I'll wait until the Shadow shows itself. You'll believe me then."
She had to make it clear that she didn't want him following her again. "I don't want you following me again," she said, looking him straight in the eye. "The next time you do it, I'll call the guards so they can throw you out of the castle. And if you're a spy for some other Lord, they'll hang you as well." The amused smirk didn't leave his face for the whole time she talked, which she found very irritating. "I'm serious."
"NATALIE, GIRL! WHERE ARE YOU?" Martha's roars, as always, made her start. When she turned back, the young man was already gone. Hopefully forever.
The next day Natalie didn't go to see Moark.
She spotted him in his favourite spot, atop the inner wall, gazing out to infinity, wind swirling around him, but she didn't climb up the steps to join him. Truly, she was still shocked about catching him with Juine, and hurt that he hadn't told her about it, and she didn't want to talk to him just yet.
Instead she decided to be good for once and do her morning duties without complaint. Martha certainly noticed the lack of her usual escape attempts. Natalie could sense the worried glances the fat woman was sending in her direction, but she morosely ignored them and simply did what she was told.
It was a relatively quiet day at the castle. Lately, most of the days had been quiet since Lord Herral and Lady Calisse left for a diplomatic meeting with the Lord of Silverspring; they would be returning to Stonehill soon, but, since William abhorred social gatherings, it was unlikely that any banquets or balls would be held until then. On the other hand, His Lordling had organised a tournament which had brought to the castle dozens of wandering knights, the ones Natalie enjoyed watching in the courtyard, and the ones Moark usually forgot the names of. Today, though, she didn't feel like it. Today there was something in the castle that unsettled her, a feeling that things were going to go wrong.
Yet everything seemed to progress peacefully, save for minor incidents. William sent a note to the kitchens saying that he was feeling ill and wouldn't come down for dinner, so his friend, Robert Maypole, presided over the table instead. Natalie made sure to avoid him as best as she could.
She was in the kitchen waiting for the nobles to finish their meal when Martha slammed a tray into her hands. "Carry this up to His Lordling. He might not be feeling well, but he should eat something nevertheless." The fat woman started pushing her towards the door.
"But he said he didn't want dinner," she protested. "And why does it have to be m-"
The door slammed in her face.
Sighing, she turned around and walked up the steps of the Keep, being careful that nothing on the tray would spill. Really, Martha could be so annoying. If he said he wouldn't be eating, why did she send her up with food? Natalie sometimes suspected the fat woman held some sort of grudge against her. No; she was certain she did.
Her steps slowed down as she approached William's quarters. An uneasiness knotted in the pit of her stomach; something was wrong, she could feel it. It was nothing tangible; she just had the impression that the shadows cast by the torches along the walls seemed to be darker and more menacing than ever, and the silence in the corridors thicker than usual, so dense she could practically touch it. She waved a hand in front of her to push it away, frowning, and stopped when she realised the futility of her motion. She swallowed and knocked on his door.
"Dinner, My Lord. I know that you didn't ask for it, but I was told to carry it up anyway."
"Bring it in," he said from inside. His voice had a strange hollowness in it which Natalie didn't like at all.
Still she crossed the doorstep and left the tray on a table on the other side of the room. As she started arranging the plates she heard him get up from the bed, and afterwards the soft noise he made as he turned the key in the door's lock, effectively trapping her inside.
She whirled around, alarmed. William was still facing the door, but the air surrounding him seemed to shimmer, and wisps of blackness flashed around him. Natalie gripped the table. Something was very wrong with him. She found her knees shaking but forced them to stop, and took a deep breath of the thick, smoky air of the room.
"Natalie, Natalie," he crooned as he turned around. His eyes were no longer the clear green she found so attractive, but a deep, frightening black… even the whites were tainted in darkness. He took a step towards her, and she edged back; except the table knocked against her legs and prevented her from moving further away. "I was pondering how to separate you from your friends, but here you come to me all on your own." He cocked his head. "I've been looking for you for a long time."
Her eyes widened in horror. This man no longer looked like William. The darkness enveloped him, growing bigger and denser. His eyes seemed to swallow her up, to devour her whole. It was fear now that nailed her to the spot. "Don't be afraid, Natalie," he said, lifting a finger to caress her cheek. His touch was so cold it left a scorching trail on her skin. "Or should I say Capricorn?"
She gripped a knife from the table behind her and jammed it in his throat.
She didn't know where she got the courage to do that, only that her mind was screaming at her that he wasn't William anymore, that he wasn't human anymore, that she had to get away from there as fast as she could. Nothing happened. No blood came pouring out. The knife just stayed stuck there while he tilted his head back and laughed. "Well, it wouldn't be as tasty if you didn't put up a fight." Then he lifted his hand and struck her across the chest, slamming her into the wall.
For a moment her vision blurred, then it became sharp clear. She saw how the monster suddenly froze on his advance towards her and looked down at his own chest. A black blade was protruding from it, and as he twisted his head around to look behind him his features contorted in rage. "You," he spat, before shattering into a million shards of glass. The last thing Natalie saw before fainting was a pair of swirling grey eyes.