Outside of the carriage windows, wickedly twisted trees and swirling shadows marked our passage through the forest. I tried to catch a glimpse of the world around me, but I couldn’t see beyond the trees that barely made the road passable. Occasionally, a branch would catch the carriage and the sound like nails across stone reverberated through the surprisingly luxurious space.
I was alone in the carriage with a few of my bags and the hound I had refused to part with. On the bench across from me, Hector was stretched out, looking for all the world like he wasn’t paying attention to everything. It had been worth the fight to bring him with me.
Two weeks ago, my father had pulled me into his office and my world had fallen apart.
Through some machinations, that I still don’t entirely understand, a bride had been promised to a lord I had never heard of. Since my family was the only house nearby that had a daughter of marriageable age, it had fallen to me.
I had been in shock at first, but it had quickly given way to rage. This was not how I pictured my life to be. I was going to marry for love. As the second to youngest of six siblings, I was to be afforded that opportunity. The three oldest of my siblings had married for political alliance. I was going to be different.
To add insult to injury, I didn’t even get a hand in planning my own wedding. My mother took control with the other women at court, along with the Queen herself. It was all arranged in a little over a week. Even the dresses that my family and I would be wearing, a hideous mixture of my house and his.
Just this morning, I had walked down the aisle with my father, in an obscenely cut, deep amethyst colored gown, and had been handed off to a total stranger whom I couldn’t even look at. He was tall. That is all that I had noticed. All that I allowed myself to notice.
The atmosphere in the castle was subdued. There weren’t even any whispers among the court that could be counted on to accompany every event, no matter how somber. Instead of people watching the bride, as was custom, their eyes had been locked on the dais where my doom waited in a black suit.
Somewhere in the kingdom, or in those surrounding us, was my fate. My match. And he would wait and wait forever for a woman he would never find because of what was happening.
I barely paid attention to the old priest in front of me. I responded when it was required of me, said the appropriate words and knelt when I was nudged by my sister. When the ceremony finally finished, I couldn’t see through my tears to notice any details about the man who had just sworn to love, honor and protect me.
He had lifted my veil and brushed a chaste kiss on each cheek, inhaling deeply as he did so. I tried not to notice that he had kissed the tears that streamed down my face. This was wrong, surely he had to realize that.
I was hustled back to our estate and up to my room to pack while my new husband signed the necessary contracts with my father and the king. My sisters and mother had long since run out of tears when they finally walked me down to the waiting carriage.
It seemed rather fitting that my new husband wasn’t going to accompany me in the carriage.
The rig itself was stunning. More luxurious even than the Queen’s carriage. Solid black with subtle hints of deep purple. The team of six, black as night itself, that was waiting impatiently for me to be underway were some of the most powerfully built horses that I had ever seen. I briefly forgot my misery as I stared at the horses, wondering what stock they had come from as we certainly did not have horses like that in the kingdom.
My father had been waiting to take Hector from me. I had been prepared for that. My hand had tightened on the leather lead in my hand as Hector let my father know that he was going with me whether he was given approval or not. My father had argued that I didn’t need a hound where I was going and what was I thinking?
The driver of the coach, wrapped in a heavy black cloak that covered his face, nodded to my father that it was acceptable for me to keep the hound. The dog, trunks and bags were loaded on to the coach while I said my goodbyes. In my anger, I didn’t have a word for my father. Instead, I hugged my mother and sisters, promising to write as soon as I got to where I was going.
Just as daylight was beginning to fade, we had abruptly turned off of the road and plunged into the forest, the team taking off like hell hounds were on their heels.
This was a part of the realm that no one went into unless they were invited. And, to my knowledge, no invitation had ever been issued.
The trees had been known to shift from time to time and, if that wasn’t enough to deter people, the sounds that came from whatever was hidden in the trees sealed it. There was something about the forest, the way it swallowed the light around it.
Hector leapt up from the bench. A moment later, I heard it. An unearthly howl that was answered by more creatures. And they were far too close to the coach for comfort.
I pressed a hand to my stomach, the corset I was wearing making it near impossible to draw a full breath. I couldn’t afford to be terrified right now. With my breathing restricted, I was likely to pass out if I didn’t calm myself down.
Hector bared his fangs and his coarse grey fur stood on end as he stared out through the window. He no doubt could see exactly what it was running along side the carriage. I cursed my father again and reached for the handle by the door I was closest to.
The driver cracked a whip over the teams’ backs and the carriage lurched forward as they picked up speed. Hector pushed against my legs and continued to growl, deep in his chest, at the door he was facing.
My heart jumped into my throat when the howls tracking the carriage were suddenly answered with an animalistic roar that shook the forest around us. I buried my hands in Hector’s fur when something landed on the roof of the carriage and held on. Branches continued to scratch the sides of the carriage as we tore down the road. I prayed to half forgotten Old Gods to get me to my destination in one piece.
I had nearly come to terms with the fact that I was going to die on that road when I heard the driver yell to someone and an answering horn that made me think of ancient war horns that I had read about. Whatever had been on the roof of the carriage leapt down when we sped through what looked like massive gate doors.
The door slamming shut shook the carriage as the team slowed to a walk, finally safe from the forest. I fumbled for Hector’s lead, taking the time to calm my nerves. I was determined to not show any fear or weakness in front of my new husband.
But it wasn’t him who was waiting for me.
Lined up along the half-circle drive and the steps leading up to enormous, heavy wooden doors were what had to be the staff. When the door opened, I forgot that I had been terrified on the road.
Before me was a shining example of Gothic architecture. Towers, a thick wall that protected the inner estate, armaments and even gargoyles. The arches and pillars that I could see were etched in painstakingly intricate detail, though I couldn’t figure out what story they were trying to tell. The stone was darker than the native granite that I was used to. Inside, soft electric light was welcoming.
My bags and trucks were lifted onto shoulders and a man who introduced himself as a member of the house led me towards a wing of the castle off to the right.
Another set of slightly smaller doors was opened for us.
Through the doors looked like a miniature version of everything I had just walked through. A home within a home. I was informed that there were kitchens, a green house, a library, several suites of rooms, an office for me to use and access to a garden when it was warm enough.
I couldn’t help myself anymore. Curiosity got the better of me. “Where is my lord husband?”
The man smiled sadly. “You have everything you need here, my lady. Your staff as been prepped for your arrival. Do not, under any circumstances, leave your wing after dark. Do you understand me, my lady?”
“Does he have rooms here?” I asked quietly.
He shook his head. “No, my lady. This is your wing.”
My wing. Alone.
“And if I want to see him?” I asked.
“Then one of your staff will pass along your request,” he told me. “But you will not be forced to see him. If you do not need anything else, my lady?”
I shook my head. He was free to leave.
I followed a young guard to my suite and waited patiently while my bags and trunks were sat on the floor in the front sitting room. No, I didn’t need help unpacking. Yes, I would like my meal delivered to my room.
Alone and locked in a wing of a castle. At least there was a library.