Chapter 4: The Master
The next morning, Mihaela awoke to her maid gently shaking her.
“Lady Mihaela, a guide is here from the castle to lead us there. I’m to help you get dressed.”
Mihaela rose with a yawn, languorously stretching her arms. “So the passes are clear, then?”
“Clear enough now, the villagers say. It is the strangest thing, though. He arove last night before they should have had a chance to.”
“That is strange. How is it he could have arrived here but we could not have gone on to the castle?” Mihaela mused as she finally rose from bed.
“I’ve no idea, miss.”
“Hmm...” Mihaela hummed thoughtfully as her maid began rifling through the drawers in search of a suitable outfit.
“What shall you be wearing today, Countess Mihaela?”
“Something sensible, nothing too overdone. The weather won’t allow for anything else.”
“Of course. Does the dark purple dress with lace frills work?”
Mihaela sighed. “That is the most simple thing mother allowed me to bring. That will have to do. I think I’ll wear it with the gray hat that has the dark green veil and my gray gloves.”
“Wonderful choice, miss,” the maid told her kindly as she laid out everything her mistress would need to properly dress.
“Do you think the carriage ride will be too long?” Mihaela asked as she held her arms up so the maid could wrap her petticoat around her.
“I don’t believe so. I know the mansion is just a few short miles away- the ride shouldn’t take longer than the shake of a lamb’s tail.”
As the maid was helping Mihaela get dressed, another was packing the few things that had been unpacked back into the traveling bags. Both tasks were finished at the same time, and the maid who had been tugging Mihaela’s clothes on stepped back to look at her appraisingly.
“You look beautiful, if I may say so, my lady.”
Mihaela gave the maid a tender smile in response, touching her gently on the shoulder. “Ah, you always know when my spirits need a lift, don’t you?”
The maid gave out a shudder as she looked superstitiously around her. “I think all of our spirits need a lifting, my lady.”
Just then, a shrill voice interrupted them.
“Mihaela, did you hear the news? We’re going to the castle, is that not grand! We will not be forced to stay in this stable for another night, I am so very delighted!” the countess prattled on cheerfully before Mihaela could respond, clasping her hands beneath her chin as if to send a prayer up to God- most likely to thank him for their salvation.
“Mother,” Mihaela weakly protested as a brilliant blush crept across her cheeks.
“What is it?” the countess asked inquisitively, not at all aware of what was going on in her daughter’s head, as usual.
Mihaela sighed. “Nothing at all,” she mumbled as she turned her head away, eyes downcast.
The maid coughed awkwardly as she stepped back, done with the minute adjustments she had been making.
“My lady, you are ready,” she told Mihaela with a final curtsy.
“Wonderful, and all of her things are packed away?” the countess chimed.
“Indeed, my lady.”
“Then we shall depart at once!” the countess grandly cooed.
A maid walking by carrying a large travel trunk stopped and popped her head into the room. “I’m afraid the count is still indisposed, my lady, and refuses to be awoken by anyone.”
“What?” the countess gasped. “He would be so rude as to make the man sent to get us wait? Not to mention, force us to stay in this- this hole even longer? Well, we shall see about that," the countess declared sternly before grasping her skirts and gliding off, as quickly as she deemed appropriate for a lady.
“I’ve a feeling this will not be good... but, at the very least, it shall be amusing,” Mihaela confided in the maid that stood beside her.
“Indeed, my lady, I imagine so!” the maid enthusiastically replied as she suppressed a laugh.
“Well, I suppose you might as well begin carrying the luggage down to the carriage. She will only be further peaked if she finds that my father is awake and ready to go but the carriage is not.”
The maid dipped into a final curtsy, “My Lady,” before picking up a heavy suitcase and setting off.
Mihaela looked about the room that was somehow so full of life a final time, and she felt a feeling of dread build inside her. It was not that she was coming to believe the tales she had been told the night before, it was simply that there was something very strange about the village, and she could only imagine the cause was the presiding lord. Whatever awaited them at the castle could not be good, as such. She grasped the cross that hung about her neck firmly, telling herself that it would be alright. Nothing bad could happen to her. The lord would only be human no matter the woman’s talk of monsters, and Mihaela was protected by her status as a royal.
With a deep breath she prepared herself for whatever was to come, reminding herself that at all times her God would be with her. Turning, she left the room and began to head downstairs to meet the guide that would be taking her to the dreaded mansion. Down the hall through an open door she could see her father sprawled on a bed with blackened wood and a yellow cover, his arms thrown over his head and his hands clasped firmly over his ears as the countess loudly berated him. She stood with arms crossed and chin held loftily up, eyes half hooded, giving him what Mihaela had always thought of as the look. It was a look that had given even powerful Dukes, socially inferior only to Kings, pause. Up the stairs marched a man Mihaela had yet to see, but judging by his self-important air she could only guess that he was the one appointed to be their guide. His clothes were simple- he wore a loose white shirt with a clasped vest of black and blue over it. His pants were black leather, a fact Mihaela shuddered at, considering it unbelievably tacky. Yet it seemed to fit right in with the olden motif of the village.
The man paid no mind to Mihaela as she stood looking at him, but instead breezed down the hall to the room her father rested in. She crept closer to hear what was being said, as the visitor spoke softly.
“... my master summons you, and I am afraid he is not a patient man. To be frank, he outranks you, and will consider your belatedness an afront when you have already caused enough of one. You have already so rudely shown up to the village that he presides over unannounced; it is ill advised to anger one who is superior to you any further.”
That rattled the fat earl enough to get him up. “What did you say?” he demanded, once more in that huffy way of his as he struggled to push himself up on his hands, trying to ignore the subsequent throbbing in his head; throbbing that was a product of him getting too deep into his cups at the village bar the night before.
“What needed to be said. I have the protection of my Lord, and I have been directed to bring you directly to him forthwith. To ignore his request after so inappropriately imposing on him to the extent you have would be an egregious and unforgivable affront, so I must insist that you hurry,” the man continued coolly, not at all caring about the rattled earl’s ire.
“I will not-
The earl began to protest as he went to rise from the bed, his teeth clenched. Mihaela had never seen him so angry- he was positively seething. She had to hold back a giggle; it would not be right for her to laugh at her own father... but his complete inability to accomplish a task as simple as rise from the bed made it difficult.
“You will sit down and not make a fool of yourself. He has every right to criticize you- we have been unbelievably rude, and it is not his words he conveys, but his masters. To question them is to question the lord of these lands himself,” Mihaela’s mother asserted before the earl could continue, her contempt for her husband only thinly veiled. She spoke in a calm voice, but Mihaela knew that if proper etiquette were not so important to her she likely would have gripped the earl by his red ear and hauled him from the bed already, screaming into his piggish face all the while.
“Thank you, Countess.” the guide acknowledged, still in a flat, monotone voice, his words conveying gratitude, but his tone not yielding the slightest hint of emotion.
The earl looked back and forth between the pair, his jaw working like he was about to say something. With a steady look from the guide he contained himself. Slowly, he rose from the bed.
“I will need a moment to change,” he insisted with as much dignity as he could muster after getting put into his place by what could only be a lowly ranked servant and his wife.
“What you’re wearing is fine,” the guide immediately assured the earl.
“I was in these last night!” the earl blustered as he puffed his chest out defensively.
“Then you should have changed out of them last night. We have no time to waste; we have already waited long enough for you, we must go now. Or are you telling me that you spurn the hospitality my Lord is offering?”
At that last utterance something entered the man’s voice that was very dangerous. Mihaela had to resist the urge to step back, instead moving forward to better ensure she didn’t miss anything.
The earl, dense as he was, seemed to catch the veiled danger in the guides voice as well. “No, no... I suppose these clothes are fine. Yes, these are actually the perfect clothes for travel. I would not wear anything else!” he announced grandly as he inspected his garments with an air of contentment, as if he had been the one to choose to remain in them.
“Wonderful. Let us be on our way, then,” the guide said without any preamble, turning on his heel and striding out. He walked right towards Mihaela, not bothering to go around her even though there was plenty of room. He stopped before her and stared her down as she did the same to him. Neither moved for the other. Mihaela didn’t know how long they stood there before she bowed her head and stepped meekly to the side. He brushed past her without a word.
Simple servant, indeed. She guessed he was more important than she had originally thought. The lord himself, perhaps. That would explain how he had so much moxie, commanding her father... Mihaela felt a warm grin come over her face. She hoped he was the lord, though she could certainly understand what the townsfolk were so blustered about if he was. He reeked so strongly of danger it could have been sold as perfume.
Mihaela made her way down the stairs ahead of her parents, who had been busy quietly whispering to each other as her and the guide had been having the little staring competition. Though their words were hushed there was an undeniable ferocity behind them. Mihaela wanted to be away from that. She was tired of them fighting, and tired of them, if she was honest with herself. There was no love lost between the earl and countess and their daughter. They had little love to give, both being cold and embittered people. Mihaela placed her hand over her heart as she wondered if she had inherited that same bitterness- if that’s why she always had to play a lamb when she was a snake.
It hadn’t always been this way between the family. Her father had once loved her and her mother, but that had been when Mihaela’s brother, the earl’s only son, was alive. Then he had gone to war and died in battle- it was a valiant death, but that did not matter. The earl had lost his only son. After that, the earl began to loathe the thing he once had cherished; when he looked at his wife he felt resentment that she had only borne him two children, and when he looked at Mihaela he felt only a penetrating disappointment.
The countess had been delighted with Mihaela when she was a child. Her daughter had been her pride and joy, for in Mihaela the countess found a daughter to dote upon, someone she could mold into a likeness of herself. That all changed as Mihaela grew up. She discovered a desire to serve God that was so ardent her life felt meaningless without Him in it, and her mother became disillusioned. Mihaela would never be the woman the countess wished her to be, one who coveted wealth and valued status above all else.
As Mihaela reflected on her past her hand wandered up to a familiar place. Closing her fist, she tightly clung to the object that always managed to enliven her with renewed strength. I am but a snake despite all of my repentance. My heavenly father, our one true Lord, drive the sin and anger from my heart so that I may truly be a worthy subject unto you. Amen. Mihaela walked as she prayed with her head bowed and eyes closed. As she held the cross tightly clenched in her hand the chain, which had grown fragile from use, broke. The necklace fell from where it had moments ago been so securely wrapped around her neck. Mihaela gasped in dismay.
“No!” she cried out as she lifted the necklace up and frantically inspected the chain.
“My Lady, is something wrong? What is it?” a concerned maid came rushing towards Mihaela, who had never before raised her voice in such a manner.
“It’s my cross. It- it broke.”
Mihaela began to cry. That cross may not have been her true link to God, for that resided in her heart, but it may as well have been. It made her feel closer to her Lord and reminded her that He was always with her. It was her most precious possession, the only one that she cherished, and it was now broken.
“Here, I’m sure we can fix it...” the maid began as she reached out towards it. Mihaela reeled back, clutching the necklace to her.
“No!” she shouted once more, this time vehemently. The maid jerked her hand back, shocked.
“I’m- I’m sorry. It’s just that I looked and there’s no way to fix it. Just- just leave it be,” Mihaela said softly as she hung her head, tears slowly drifting down her rosy cheeks like dew drops on a petal.
“As you wish, my Lady. Don’t worry- I’m sure it won’t be long until you can have it replaced,” the maid tried to reassure her before silently slipping away.
“But where will God be until then?” Mihaela whispered brokenly as she ran her thumb along the edges of the cross. Bringing the cross to her lips, she kissed it before wrapping the chain around her wrist. Tying off the ends, she shoved the cross into her glove, where it wouldn’t be damaged. Taking a deep breath, she raised her head and wiped away her tears. She was being ridiculous. God would always be with her.
She left the house and climbed into the awaiting carriage.
“What took you so long? We were waiting for you!” her father snapped. Her mother ignored her, continuing to stare out the carriage window.
“I’m sorry. Something happened,” Mihaela mumbled.
“Do not mumble, Mihaela. It is unladylike,” Mihaela’s mother gently reprimanded her as she turned her gaze from the window to her daughter. When she saw Mihaela her lips pinched together as though she were sucking something sour.
“Mihaela, breathe THROUGH your handkerchief. We are not away from the poor’s miasma yet.”
“Yes, Mother,” Mihaela relented in a subservient way that completely masked her own annoyance. Keeping her eyes downcast, she whipped out the object that was so offensive to her. She brought it delicately to her nose and inhaled the heady scent of rose petals as she shot daggers at her mother.
“What happened that made you late to the carriage?” the earl asked.
“I’ve no wish to talk about it.”
“Well I do. We were ready to go and you decided that you had better things to do. Tardiness is not an admirable quality in a noble, especially in a lady. You need to try harder. I do not want to be disappointed in you, but I find it difficult not to be. If only your brother were still alive. He honored our family name.”
Lightning flashed in Mihaela’s eyes. “Yes, somehow, despite his terrible breeding, he did manage to be a person worthy of admiration and respect. I, on the other hand, am not so fortunate. I do find it amusing that you have never considered that if I weren’t your daughter and didn’t have your detestable genes I would not be such a disappointment. Unfortunately, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
The venom in Mihaela’s words as she vehemently berated her father was so palpable the earl could taste the bitter sourness of them in his mouth. She did not have a morsel of regret within her even as she launched the tirade against him. She realized that she was being everything she had fought her whole life not to be and it didn’t matter; she had finally reached her limits. That he would dare to use her brother as a provocation...
Upon her words her father didn’t hesitate. With a resounding whack he reached out and slapped her as hard as he could. Mihaela’s head snapped to the side and her teeth rattled in her skull. She felt a prickling pain as she bit her tongue, and she could taste the metallic tang of copper as blood surged through her mouth. Even more overwhelming was the feeling of rage that swept through her with the irresistible fury of a tidal wave.
“Well, it’s a good thing Mother forced me to have out my handkerchief because of her absurd fear of me breathing in too much miasma. At least it will be useful for something,” Mihaela observed coldly with not a tear in her eye as she disdainfully wiped up the blood that trickled forth from the corner of her mouth.
“Why, you insolent child, I’ve had quite enough of you!” her father roared, but Mihaela just ignored him, turning to stare disinterestedly out of the window.
“You- you!” he began sputtering as he realized she was ignoring him. Mihaela’s mother released a weary sigh and turned towards him.
“Leave her be. She is clearly in a mood- I suspect it is women’s issues,” the countess defended her daughter halfheartedly, but only to get the earl, whose voice grated on the ears like a chair dragging across a floor, to stop talking.
It wasn’t effective. The earl, momentarily distracted from his daughter, only turned towards the countess to launch his risible tirade at her.
“There’s no respect, no respect, I say!”
Mihaela closed her eyes and let her parents bickering become background noise as she wondered how long it would take to reach the castle. They could not arrive soon enough.
The carriage swayed onward, the wheels creaking over the ground that was still muddy from the last melting of the snow. Every now and again the carriage would get stuck and the coachman would clamor down from his seat to pull the horses and once more get the carriage moving. It was insufferably slow progress but, inch by inch, the creaking carriage brought them closer and closer to their destination. Mihaela thought how strange and disjointed all the noises were- the creaking of the carriage and the occasional thunk from jolting over a bump fought to drown out her parent’s softly raised voices. Off in the forest she could hear the burbling sound of a moving body of water, which added a soft touch to the distracting noises that surrounded Mihaela. It was the lack of any other noises you’d expect from a forest- birds chirping, wolves howling- that prompted a wave of foreboding from within Mihaela.
“I don’t wish to go to the castle,” Mihaela finally interrupted her parents.
“Whatever do you mean?” the countess inquired with a guarded annoyance.
Mihaela knew she couldn’t tell her parents that she had a dreadful feeling about what awaited them at the castle. She knew they would reject her offhand, and she could not fault them for that. She herself had to admit that there was no reason for her to be so trepidatious, none that she could explain, at least. Desperately, she searched to find an excuse to turn around that they would accept. “It- it’s just that... we’re trying to find shelter from the war because our home has become too dangerous. However, we have already invoked the ire of the lord that presides over this land. And look at the villagers! They have so little to offer- their clothes, houses, and lands are all ragged and old. It is no stretch to assume the war has had an even greater impact here than in other places. Sheltering here, even for a temporary reprieve from traveling, strikes me as being counterproductive.”
The earl gave out a lofty snort. “Don’t be daft. We came all this way and we are not turning back now just because a few villagers do not have any noticeable fashion sense.”
The earl cut Mihaela’s plea off with a slash of his hand.
“No! We are unsafe in our castle, we need the protection the mountains surrounding this one provides. I will hear no more of this foolishness, I am done with this matter.”
Mihaela fell silent. She had figured he would say as much- he was a stubborn fool for all he pretended otherwise, just like any jackass without a harness. The rest of the journey continued with stony silence and icy glares, the only sounds to greet them coming from the outside world, where Mihaela desperately longed to be.
Finally, after what seemed like eons but must have been an eternity, the carriage began to slow.
“Oh my, do you think we have finally arrived?” the countess cooed as she craned her head, straining to catch a glimpse of the castle through the tiny carriage window.
“Indeed we have, Countess,” the gravelly voice of the coachman came floating back to them.
“It’s about time- I was beginning to fear we would never arrive!”
The countess possessed an uncanny talent of managing to find ways of complaining even in her exultations, but what she saw next put an immediate end to any sounds except a delighted gasp as the castle came into sight. Her mouth hung open in obvious appreciation. She made not a noise as she gazed awe-struck out the window, rendered speechless by the vision that lay before her. It was a dismal day- rain clouds hung over the valley and a light drizzle was coming down. Strong winds were whipping through as if trying to break free from the circles of mountains- they had been insistently rattling the carriage since it had broken through the throng of trees. All of this sought to hide the features of the castle, but it was still no hard task to discern the sheer magnificence of the structure that lay before them.
Dazzling stained glass windows, that no doubt would have shone had there been so much as a drop of sunlight to be found, decorated the walls of the first floor of the castle. Statues of cherub angels guarded the castle with tiny bows held at the ready, their chubby faces turned towards the approaching carriage, as if gracing its arrival. The light gray stone rose high, competing with the mountains for height. The edges were made of a lighter gray stone that contrasted nicely with the rest and high up, so high that they touched the clouds and the countess had to crane her neck to see them, rose strong towers with mighty parapets, perfect for stationed guards or stolen moments between lovers. The front part of the castle was set low, but further back the rest of it came rising up to tower dominantly above everything else. It was a place that bore the graceful dignity of a typical Irish castle.
The carriage pulled to a stop as the earl and countess stared at the castle in stupid memorization. Their daughter was unfazed by the apparition of the castle and gazed blankly onwards. She was as excited to enter the castle now as she had been to arrive to it before.
A footman decked out in a red and gold livery outfit that was fine, if a bit old fashioned, came rushing down the castle steps to greet the earl and his family. Pulling open the carriage door, he offered his hand to assist the countess out first. She took it without seeming to notice him.
“This is a lovely place. I say, how old is the Lord of this castle?” she asked innocently as she turned to face the man that had escorted their carriage along the path.
Mihaela suppressed the urge to groan, biting her tongue. She knew exactly what her mother was getting on about.
“The duke is young enough, Countess,” the man responded blandly.
“And is he married?”
“No, he has yet to take a wife,” the man told the countess, a queer sort of grin beginning to spread slowly across his face, like there was some inside joke that they were not yet aware of.
“Well, I imagine it must get quite lonely up here, isolated as it is. Mihaela, why don’t you... Mihaela!”
Mihaela hadn’t stayed to listen. Brushing past her mother, she had grasped her skirts in her hands and began walking quickly up the steps. If her mother was never able to suggest it then she would never have to consider it. She had dodged the threat of marriage for far too long and was quite adept at it at this point.
“Mihaela!” her mother called as loudly as she could without truly raising her voice, not wanting to ruin her image in front of the castle servants now that she had a vision in her mind of her daughter marrying a well-off duke. No, that wouldn’t do, he had to think the absolute best of them.
It was too late to go back, though. Mihaela had reached the doors. The footman waiting beside them obligingly threw them open.
“Lady Mihaela,” he greeted her politely as he dipped his head. She gingerly stepped over the threshold and entered the castle, looking cautiously around her. Towering stone walls with picturesque tapestries and glorious paintings greeted her. To the left was a spacious room with a crackling hearth that spread cheer to the castle. A large harpsichord decorated with a grand war scene sat atop a plush Persian rug, the kind that swallows feet whole. There was nothing openly strange about the castle- it was nothing but inviting, yet Mihaela still had a dreadful feeling.
“My Lady, if you would follow me right this way,” the butler, who had been waiting for the family to arrive at the entrance, directed with a stately bow while gesturing his hand past him. The earl and countess stepped through the doorway as he spoke. Mihaela didn’t wait, breezing past the butler as if she had been in the castle many times before and already knew the way.
“You’ll want to go to the right, Lady Mihaela,” the butler prompted her, and though his voice was every bit proper, underlying it was a strained note that revealed just how difficult it was for him to conceal that he was irritated by her lacking manners. Rudeness was something that would never do.
Mihaela turned left into a grand drawing room and finally paused in her determined march forward. If the outside of the castle represented the traditional Irish dignity that resounded in every grain of soil and every beating heart, then the inside was resemblant of the very soul of Ireland itself; robust, yet with an impressive and majestic undertone that was striking in the most direct of ways. With wood waxed to a keen shine and simple rugs in emerald greens and downplayed creams, it didn’t need opulent paintings and elaborate tapestries to create a lasting impression; every inch spoke of the Gaelic strength that each Irish descendant was proud to carry inside of them.
As Mihaela stared in stunned amazement at the simplistic beauty of the room, her parent’s filed in peacefully behind her, for once not bickering. They were instead focusing their energies on prying more information about their host from the butler, who obliged them willingly enough, but always with an answer that wasn’t quite direct enough for Mihaela’s liking. He always seemed to be skirting around something. Turning to look at them, she faced the butler head on. Squaring her shoulders, she wondered how what she was about to say would be received.
“It seems as though nobody in these parts likes to give a direct answer to any queries concerning your master or his castle. It makes one very curious.”
“Is that all that brought you here, curiosity? Well, anyone who lives here could assuage any thoughts of grandeur you may have. I assure you that this is a very boring place, as you must surely have noticed in the village,” the butler spoke coolly, gesturing towards a luxurious couch for the family to take a seat as he did so.
“Did I?” Mihaela scoffed.
A low chuckle issued from the shadows before the butler could respond. Mihaela whipped her head around as a man stepped forth. And there before her it stood- the very epitome of danger.