Chapter 5: The Promise of Uncertainty
There before her stood a tall, dark man, whose demeanor was that of one who had seen much through the years. He stood straight and tall, and though he was relaxed there was a tension about him, like he was ready to spring into action at any moment. It was the sort of pose that comes only with the experience of life. Beside him stood a daunting vision that made Mihaela quake. Her breath caught in her throat as behind her she heard her mother gasp, a sound soon followed by a loud thump. Looking back she saw her mother splayed out on the floor, the trauma of what she saw before her too much. Her skirt had fallen haphazardly above her knees, revealing her flouncy petticoats in quite an unladylike manner. Mihaela’s father had fallen to the floor soon after her mother, but not to check on the countess. Clasping his hands together dramatically, he was fervently praying to God above, for before them stood the largest wolf that the earth had ever been cursed with.
It towered above the ground. Its head reached the man’s shoulder, easily. Its legs were enormous chunks of muscle and its paws looked as though they could rip off a head with one effortless flick. It was a wonder the ground didn’t shake as it walked. Every part of the wolf was pure sinew. When it sat its brawny muscles rippled fiercely. Down its face, maring its silver fur, were three jagged, pink battle scars. The scars ran from the top of the creatures eyelid past a daunting red eye all the way down to the left side of its massive snout, the snout that was now curling back to reveal sharp canines that would need as much pressure to slice open skin as a finely honed knife pressed against a leaf would... still the lips drew back further, and further, until what sat before Mihaela was a happily smiling wolf. Slowly, its tongue rolled happily out.
“Good God, is it smiling? Is this it, is this the end? Oh Lord, if you deliver me from this evil-
“Now, now, my good sir, this dog presents no evil that you must be delivered from. Come now,” looking over his shoulder, the duke addressed his butler. “Do help the poor countess.”
The butler rushed to do his lord’s bidding and the duke returned his gaze to the quivering earl. “I must apologize for the fright, it was not my intention. I do not often have the pleasure of entertaining such lovely and distinguished guests as your wife and daughter, and I fear I forgot how gentile such creatures as they can be,” the duke earnestly offered his apologies to the earl as he offered him a hand up.
“That beast is completely tame, then?” the earl’s voice was filled with doubt.
“Indeed. I can honestly say it is the tamest thing in this castle,” the duke assured the earl with a tone that held a touch of amusement.
“Right. And I suppose that scar was a product of a day spent frolicking in a field chasing butterflies,” Mihaela remarked. The duke looked at her with a face devoid of expression.
“Actually, it was vermin.”
“Ah, of course. Those renowned vermin claws can inflict such terrible wounds. Once I had to have a whole bandage wrapped around my finger from a scratch inflicted by one of them. I dare say a few more days and it might have been beset by a fatal infection!”
The duke raised an eyebrow at her facetious words. “You are quite the surprise, Lady Mihaela.”
Mihaela looked at the man in stunned appraisal. “You appear to have me at a disadvantage, sir, for you servants seem to have informed you of who I am, yet your own name remains a mystery to me.”
“But of course. You must forgive me. It has been far too long since I have hosted anyone- I realize my manners are reprehensible.”
So saying the duke gave a deep, stiff bow. “I am Duke Cirin, first son of Duke Winslow and Duchess Eilis. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, though I understand if the feeling is not mutual. Especially for your poor, poor mother,” he remarked with a blithe glance in the direction of the countess, who had just come to with a pitiful moan from the coach where she’d been laid.
“Be it not on me to deny you the forgiveness you seek. I’m certain you meant no harm. My mother is of a rather delicate nature. I’m sure she will also want to assure you of her lack of ill will... that is to say, whenever she regains the power of speech,” Mihaela archly jabbed. Cirin gave a delighted laugh.
“Wonderful, I will wish it so with all of my being. I would hate to lose the favor of one so radiant as her.”
The earl, who had been listening closely while he had been doing his husbandly duty of attending his wife, irritating though he found the responsibility, came and bowed to the duke.
“Duke Cirin, what a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. I must say I have heard many good things about you. Your reputation is unmatched by any in Ireland. I am Earl-
“Yes, I know who you are,” Cirino cut off the earl with a flick of his hand, “what I do not know is why you are here, in my lands, visiting my castle.”
The earl, caught off guard by the pointed words, stumbled for a moment before blustering on.
“Ahem, yes, well. As I was saying, your reputation is untarnished. I have heard of your generosity and compassion, courtesy of your parents no doubt, though sadly I have never had the pleasure of meeting them. I must impose upon your good nature now. The land is beset with a terrible war that threatens me as well as what is left of my family. My son, God rest his soul, died in battle. Now I find that fear of losing my wife and daughter as well haunts me every night, allowing me no rest. That type of terror is truly crippling.
“At first I ignored it, believing that the problem would fix itself and the war would be diverted from us or end, but as the war has crept closer and closer to our home that which was once our haven has become our doom. Nobles, as I’m sure you know, being one yourself and thereby victim to the same dangers, are an enticing target for the rampaging soldiers of the land. A man must protect that which is his. So I have come here in hopes that I can call upon your generosity and compassion and seek refuge. Here, in the mountains, you are well protected, as I wish my family to be. I will of course reimburse you for any inconvenience we may cause- I would not think to prey on your hospitality needlessly.”
“No, you would just think to use me as a glorified inn.”
“Duke Cirin, I can assure you that is not at all my-
“Dearest earl, of course you may stay here. I will simply not consider payment. The life you offer this castle- that is quite enough reimbursement for me,” Cirin once more interrupted the earl whom, he had already deduced, liked nothing more than the sound of his own voice.
“Thank you, Duke Cirin, that is quite charitable of you.”
“I beg of you, think nothing of it. We are of the same ilk and it is my most humble of beliefs that we must stick together in these, the most trying of times. It is, after all, as you say- there are many dangers that abound for nobles such as us.”
“Am I hearing correctly? You will shelter us for the time being?” the duchess’ frail voice issued forth, and Mihaela went to check on her at the sound. She had been more affected than Mihaela had believed.
“Of course, my lady. I would be remiss to turn out two such lovely damsels in distress.”
“My, I had no idea that the mountains hid such a delightful gentleman as you or I would have made a point of visiting your castle much sooner. I must admit I do worry about you, though, Duke Cirin. It must be terribly lonely living out here all by yourself. I overheard you when you said that you do not receive many visitors. I am confident my daughter would be more than happy to keep you company while we are here; I’m certain you suffer from the lack of contact with the outside world, and offering our friendship is the least we can do in return for your most gracious hospitality.”
“That is a kind offer, but I wonder as to what Mihaela’s thoughts on it are,” Cirin rejoined teasingly.
“I should think that if you wanted female companionship you would know where to find it,” Mihaela pronounced stiffly, thrusting her nose defiantly into the air as her eyebrows drew together in a seething glare.
“Mihaela!” the countess gasped in dismay.
“No, it is quite alright- being able to converse with people I’ve never met before is quite refreshing, and the young countess’ bluntness is even more so. I dare say it is almost delightful, though I would caution you, Countess Mihaela- frowning like that, well... some men may very well take it as a challenge.”
“Men take everything as a challenge. If a man spits in front of his comrades they interpret it as a direct attack on their manhood and take it upon themselves to see who can spit farther. As long as some men realize that some challenges are never going to be won I don’t see how it’s either here or there what those men decide to take my frowning as a sign of.”
“Forgive me, my daughter is usually quite agreeable but I fear the troubles of the journey have upset her constitution and she is not herself. She seems to have lost the ability to watch her tongue,” the earl swiftly interjected.
“Do not apologize. I have never seen the benefit of mincing ones words.”
“Yes, well, at least we have that one thing in common,” Mihaela pointedly added.
Upon that bold declaration Cirin bestowed a beatific smile on Mihaela that made her breath catch. She was being so prickly towards Cirin because of her mother’s intentions for the two of them as well as her own residual doubts about the quality of his character (for the speech her father had given the duke concerning his reputation had been fully fabricated- nobody in Ireland had heard anything about the duke of the lands before the mountains, not even his name) and the land itself remained. The duke may have been disarmingly charming but that didn’t assuage Mihaela’s suspicions that something wasn’t right. When she took a moment to separate herself from those prejudgments, though, she realized that the duke was a bitterly handsome man. With his defined cheekbones and gently upturned nose, aristocratic forehead and freezingly cold blue eyes, soft, curved lips and strong yet dimpled chin, he was equal parts hot and cold, cruel and solicitous. Looking at him sent a shiver running up Mihaela.
She came back to awareness at the countesses piercing laugh and the wolves answering bark.
“Of course Duke Cirin, we would be honored to be your dinner guests!” the countess accepted Cirin’s invitation to dine with him after wearily glancing at the dog.
“I count the hours until then. Unfortunately, I have other business to attend to for now. I can’t delay any longer, though I wish I could give you all a tour. I will have my butler show you to your rooms and then, if you’d like, he could give you a tour himself. For now I beg your pardon.”
“Of course, Duke Cirin, we will keep you from your duties no longer. Rest assured we’ll manage just fine,” the earl assured him.
With a parting bow Cirin left the room, his dog close behind.
“If you will follow me, I have instructions to set you and your family up in the best rooms of the castle. I promise you, you will not be disappointed with your lodgings,” the butler directed as he ushered them all out of the sitting room.
“My Lord Cirin, tell me- how are the new guests?” Cirin’s most loyal and constant attendant asked as she ran a hand possessively up his arm.
Cirin gazed out the window. In his reflection she could see a boding look on his face that she had never seen before. “They are exactly what you would expect, except for Mihaela. She is a special case,” he mused thoughtfully before a delighted grin slowly split his face. It sent shivers up the woman’s spine to behold.
“Shall I assume her stay will be… extended, then, Master?”
“Mmm, what else. After all when playing chess one must maneuver carefully before one takes down the queen. It’s not about how quickly the game is over, Mordrea…” So saying he slid his tongue slowly over his lips, savoring the moment before continuing on.
“It’s about how you play.”
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