Year: Third Era 2113
A girlish screech echoed through the lush gardens of our estate, followed by boyish laughter and the rustling of leafy branches. A gentle thud reverberated from a short distance away as something dropped out of the flowering tree and my brother’s laughter both contrasted and harmonized with my sister’s theatrically irritable sigh in a discordant symphony.
I couldn’t see anything from my hiding spot, but I didn’t need to see to know I was about to win our game of hide and seek. My too-tall, too-thin eleven-year-old figure was wedged tightly into the tiny space between a tall, marble statue and the hedge. A twig poked me in the back, but I stubbornly refused to move because fully intended to win. This was the perfect hiding spot, after all, and I wasn’t about to sacrifice it over the matter of a little discomfort.
“I found you fair and square, Rhian!” Iolyn chuckled, though my sister’s disagreement was evident in yet another loud huff. He was sixteen summers, Rhian only six, and I was right in between. Despite the age differences, however, our games of hide-and-seek in the gardens were always fun, regardless of who the victor was (though it was usually me), we all won when the treats were brought out by our nanny. Derryth.
I giggled softly, a triumphant smile on my lips as I finally permitted myself a little peek around the sculpture’s base in search of my siblings. I heard Rhian’s petulant little voice complaining. “You cheated, Iolyn! I don’t want to play anymore!” She crossed her thin arms over her narrow chest. “I’m going to tell Derryth that you aren’t playing fair.” Her nose turned upwards into the air as she gave a derisive sniff and stomped off towards the house, her perfect black curls bouncing with her every step. My brother rolled his eyes and called after her. “It isn’t unfair when you are terrible at hiding, Rhi!” He shook his head, hands thrown lightly into the air in frustration before running through his wavy brown locks, now turning to look for me.
“Carys?” He called out, his head swiveling in his search. “Rhian quit, so you might as well come out!” He called out, though his attention was soon drawn to the young man coming from the greenhouse with a bucket of tools in hand. Brynmor’s shaggy hair was curling slightly as the combination of hard work and the hot southern sun had brought a sheen of sweat to his skin, but his labors didn’t keep his charming smile from his handsome face. He was a servant of our house, though his long-time friendship with Iolyn seemed to give him greater freedom in his role than he might have found otherwise.
Brynmor grinned at Iolyn, letting out a short laugh. “Well, Lady Rhian played for a whole thirty minutes this time before quitting. That must be a new record.” He teased, earning a laugh from Iolyn. I wiggled out of my place behind the statue, drawing their attention and Brynmor flashed me a smirk when he caught sight of me. “Looks like you won yet again, Lady Carys.”
I gave him a smug little smile. “I usually do.” He and Iolyn laughed.
The sound of shattering glass cut through the air and I flinched, ducking my head instinctively. An explosion? Were the Yehketim attacking? My eyes were wide by the time I looked up, seeing a gaping hole where Father’s study window once was. The small bronze statue that had once graced his bookshelf tumbled over the stone flooring until it stopped, laying on the patio amidst a sea of glass shards.
“What in the…” Iolyn stared, lifting his own head from the protective shield of his arms. His expression slowly shifted from a wide-eyed surprise to a brow-furrowing worry as he looked at the wreckage. Father had a temper, but never in my life had I expected to see him be so destructive. Brynmor frowned deeply, looking from the destroyed window to Iolyn. “I will get that cleaned up.” He murmured as he hurried off in search of the needed supplies.
I stared at the rubble on the patio, thoughts of my own safety nowhere in mind as I ran back to the house, Iolyn’s hand grabbing my shoulder as he strode next to me, likely more out of the good sense to keep me from rushing right into the middle of the mess than brotherly affection. His stride was so much longer than mine and I was forced to trot alongside as we hurried to the Manor. Even at this distance, we could hear Father’s furious shouting, and it grew angrier the closer we got.
“How dare they accuse me! On what basis can they even possibly hope to convince anyone else that I did this?” He bellowed and we headed inside to find Mother lingering outside the study door looking remarkably unfazed. I could not recollect a time when she seemed rattled by anything, and I hoped that one day I could share her steadfast calm.
“Run along, you two.” She said, offering a smile as though Father and his visitor were doing no more than discussing the various types of brandy the kitchen had in stock. Our worry would not be so easily assuaged, so neither Iolyn nor I moved. Mother was outwardly calm, but I could see the slow burn of anger at not being obeyed, though only for a moment before it was veiled once again. She patted my cheek gently before shooing us off, “There is nothing to worry about, alright? Go see Derryth, she will fix you something to eat.”
“What happened? Why is Father shouting?” I asked, trying to move past mother to enter the study, determined to find the answers one way or another. Her sudden grip on my shoulder was stronger than one would expect from a woman as slender as she, and my passage toward the study was brought to a halt as she gently pulled me back.
“Carys.” She stated with a slightly firmer edge in her tone. “Go with Iolyn to the kitchens and let me talk to Father once he calms down. I’m sure it is nothing to worry about. You know how your father gets.” She said smoothly, turning me with the hand still firmly gripping my shoulder and propelling me forward.
I huffed softly, turning back to give Mother an annoyed look over my shoulder as Iolyn pulled me away from the study and down the wide hallway towards the stairs that would lead down to the kitchen. I pulled free once Mother was out of earshot, looking upwards at my brother with a frown. “I don’t want anything to eat. I just want to go to my room.”
Iolyn arched his brow at me before narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “Are you actually going to your room or are you going to try to sneak closer to eavesdrop?” He knew me well, it would seem, but I gave him my best innocent look, which at the adorable age of eleven, still worked. Usually. “No, I don’t like the shouting, I will go read where I can’t hear it.”
Iolyn eyed me in silent contemplation, then waved me off. “Alright….but don’t get caught.” He whispered conspiratorially and I grinned, drawing a little x over my heart in a silent promise before I hurried off. I knew all the best hiding spots in this house and on the grounds, and it wouldn’t be the first time I sat listening to Father’s conversations in his study.
Highbend Manor was my home, named for its place high on the hill overlooking the river. It had been built by my ancestor upon his knighting, Egon, after these lands had been conquered by the Taurovan army in the first war against the Yehketim. Some might argue the war had never really ended, and this was the reason why a means of escape had been built into the Manor. I had discovered this passage by accident, though was both surprised and pleased that it allowed me to eavesdrop on many different rooms in the house, Father’s study included. It was there I sat in now, my ear pressed to the thin wood paneling that separated me from the scene inside.
Two distinct voices filled the air, my father with his fury and another with his quiet solemnity. I knew the other man was the Captain of Father’s unit in the military, but I couldn’t remember his name. It was he that spoke now, his voice low and pained, explanations to my father making little sense until I began to understand the circumstances that had led to Father’s destructive outburst.
“Llew, this is not the sort of accusation that can simply be made to disappear. He was a Commander, and his wife has tremendous influence among the aristocracy. Her accusation, regardless of its validity, will not easily be pushed aside. There are soldiers on their way here to arrest you, Llew. There will be a court-martial, of course, but…” The captain’s voice trailed off into a long sigh. “Innocent or not, you could hang for this, Llew.”
Even muffled by the wall, the outrage in my father’s voice was impossible to miss. “I did not murder him! Braith was my friend. He was like a brother to me. They can arrest me all they want, I will be found blameless because I am.” His voice was as hard as steel defending his innocence.
Father had been away for months, which was nothing unusual for his position, though his return a few days ago had revealed a much different man than the one that had left us. He spoke of the loss of his comrade, and I glimpsed grief in my Father, the depths of such emotion were unsettling. Braith wasn’t the first of his friends to perish in this war, and wouldn’t be the last, and I had assumed the Yehketim had killed him in battle. This news of finding his friend murdered within their own camp was something else entirely, and I now understood the despair that plagued him.
The Captain spoke again, his tone growing more urgent. “I know you, Llew, and I know you are innocent in this matter, yet his widow has procured evidence that very strongly suggests your guilt. From what I know of it, her evidence is overwhelming, You need to flee, Llew. If you are arrested, you will be found guilty, and you will never see your family again. What will become of your wife? Your children?” He let out another tired sigh before imploring. “Llew…”
My breath caught at his statement. My sense of right and wrong at the tender age of 11 was absolute and the thought of wrongful arrest had never occurred to me until now. Father didn’t do it, so how can they arrest him? What if we never see him again?
The silence lay heavy in the air for an eternity before the familiar creak of wood resounded as the Captain rounded the desk. “You still have time to run, Llew. Don’t be a fool. Say goodbye to your wife and children, and hide until your innocence can be proven or the true culprit is found.” I felt the floor beneath me creak and shift as he made his way to the door, the scuff of his boots on the rug the only sound I could hear. “There is a small cabin a few miles up the river, well hidden in the woods, Llew. You can hide there for a while until we can find you something better. Get your things quickly and meet me at the northern wall, I will take you to it.” He instructed my Father as he left the room.
I sat frozen in silence. I knew I should go to my room now that the conversation was over, but I was rooted to my spot in despair and heartbreak. Father’s leaving us behind? My mother’s voice broke the silence at last as the click of the door shutting reverberated through the room. “Anyone who knows you at all will never believe this lie, my Love.” Her voice was calm, though I suspected the emotion that churned beneath the facade.
Father’s voice was filled with simmering anger mixed with desperation as he responded. “Cole believes I should flee, Tesni.” I could hear him starting to move around the room, his steps growing hastier with every passing moment and I suspected he was packing the relevant papers to help prove his innocence, along with anything else in the study that he might need.
“What evidence could she possibly have?” Mother ignored what Father said. “He was your Commander and your friend for many long years. Anyone in your unit could attest to this and not one of them would even acknowledge this ridiculous accusation. What happened that night, Llew?”
An irritated growl echoed from my father as his movement paused briefly, and my ear likely left an imprint on the wood as I strained to hear. “It doesn’t matter!” He snapped angrily before continuing his hurried packing. A strange intensity rolled off the man in a powerful wave and it terrified me — my young mind was unable to comprehend the onslaught of emotion in the next room.
My heart thudded loudly in my chest, the sound nearly drowning out Mother’s words. “And the evidence she has is what, exactly? How could she have such damning evidence if you are innocent?” Mother asked, far calmer than Father.
“I don’t know!” He shouted, his temper erupting with Mother’s persistent questions that he had neither the time nor the mind frame to answer. A furious cry caused me to wince just as the wall shook, something heavy slamming into it to the sound of shattering wood. “I didn’t kill him, Tes, and I won’t hang for it!” More clattering as he knocked things from the desk in his rage.
“There is nothing to fear, Love. This will all blow over, you will see.” Mother was the epitome of calm, though at last, she relented. “Do as Cole suggests and hide until the truth comes to light.” Another growl from Father was aimed towards Mother, her cavalier attitude towards this predicament acting as fuel for his already raging inferno.
“Things will not just blow over!” He roared, now incensed and directing his fury towards Mother’s apparent lack of concern, believing she failed to comprehend just how dire this situation was. “This isn’t disagreeing over the flavor of cake for one of your silly parties, Tesni! I’m accused of murder! Do not treat this lightly, and for god’s sake, do not speak at all if you cannot help me!” He hissed in fury, and the room fell deathly silent, filled only with the intense hostility that emanated from my grieving, furious, and hopelessly cornered father. “Go get my clothes and make yourself useful.” He snarled at her, dismissing her completely.
A knock at the door seemed as loud as the banging of a gong, Mother’s ever-placid demeanor failing at last as she said tightly. “Come in.” The door creaked as a servant entered.
“L-lord L-Llew...Soldiers! They just broke through the gate!” The handmaiden’s frightened voice was heard easily enough from where I sat, an icy fear gripping my insides as I realized the horrifying truth. It’s too late...Father will be arrested and we will never see him again. A tear rolled down my cheek, then another as I pressed desperately against the wood panel as though trying to pass through it to go to the rescue of my father.
The sounds of movement within grew louder as it seemed everything was happening at once. Father’s rough and hurried orders to Mother before they shared a brief farewell, followed by the rushed thudding of Father’s footsteps as he left the room, and Mother’s irritable instructions to the terrified handmaiden, who had started to cry.
I crawled out of the wall passage, hurriedly trying to dust off my dress though Father’s large frame filled the doorway to the Library before I could even shut the hidden door panel in the wall. He stopped short, grunting in surprise as he obviously didn’t expect to see me there and his eyes met mine before looking beyond me to the open door, a brow arching. Three long strides brought him to me as his bag hit the floor with a thud, and a moment later I was being scooped up into his arms, his hostility fading as my slender arms wrapped tightly around his neck.
“You heard everything, I’m sure.” He whispered gruffly to me before wiping the tears from my cheek. “Take care of your mother, brother, and sister for me, Little Dove. I promise you, I will return soon. I love you.” His arms tightened around me as he pressed a kiss to my forehead just as a loud banging resounded through the manor. The guards were here, and Father was out of time. He set me down to grab his bag, vanishing into the passage with one last look to me over his shoulder. Have courage, I heard him whisper as he disappeared into the darkness.
I quickly shut the panel behind him before tugging a large plant in front of the door, trying to hide what little evidence there was of the panel’s existence. I heard the booming pronouncement of the guard as they claimed their intent to arrest Father for treason and murder, sending another icy stab of fear through me and I ran towards the main center room to find Mother. I was nearly trampled as the squad of guards swarmed through our house to begin their search, narrowly escaping by ducking into the stairwell, climbing to the second story, and panting for air from my growing anxiety.
My perch allowed me to look down into the foyer below where the Guard-Captain stood tall and confident, though even from my place up here I could see the doubt written on his features. He has a duty and will see it done, even if it’s wrong. I thought with a heavy heart, tears sliding down my cheeks. Their search was in vain, I knew, but the question that made my stomach begin to churn...What will happen after?