Prologue: What Has Passed, Has Passed
Sunset. The old religions said it was the time of day where the sun died and began awaiting rebirth. A time of day where creatures of the darkness and those of the light could intermingle safely for a short while, before going their separate ways and attempting to forget about each other. It was a delicate balance. One that, for the most part, no one was eager to change. Therefore, whenever it did, usually everything got turned on its head.
The village was a might busier that day as those from the enormous estate uphill—as the locals were known to refer to it—of them made their way in and out of the town far earlier in the day than expected. Though few of the townsfolk had ever come across them, one only had to look at the crest on each man and woman’s cloak to know that they served William the Blackheart…which had to have meant that something was wrong. They couldn’t be certain of what it might have been, though. None had ever defeated the lord of their lands in combat before and, despite the almost delicate design his estate had been crafted as, it was truly a fortress. This did nothing to ease their minds. If the Blackheart was unbeatable, and now his servants and guard were rushing back and forth, attempting to bring back various medical goods, then something truly terrible must have happened. But not a single one of the Blackheart’s messengers would speak a word about what was happening. How was the village supposed to prepare for a potential catastrophe if no one would forewarn them?
In the end, they did the only thing they could do: bar themselves inside their homes and hope it didn’t affect them.
Far above the worry-stricken village, the estate was in a state of strained near silence. If they were perfectly honest, very few people had any idea about what was going on. All they knew was that the deceangli lady had taken ill and now they suddenly required a great deal of supplies. To make matters worse, as soon as the news had broken, their lord had dragged his eldest son away with claims that they were to hunt and not return until there was enough fresh venison to “help the girl recover”.
Saoirse still thought it was a terrible idea—why in the world would venison help someone get better?—but at least it separated her younger brothers long enough for the healer to work on their guest. Sighing deeply, she gracefully stalked the halls, scattering servants in her wake. It was so like her father to leave her in charge of fixing a problem, but it did nothing for her mood.
“It is I,” she said quietly to the door once she’d reached her destination. There was no response from the other side and, sighing again, she was left to balance a small, warm pitcher and cup in one hand while attempting to open the door with the other. The scene that met her eyes was far different from the one she’d expected.
The room was utterly peaceful. The sound of filtered into the room on a cool breeze, and wild oat, millet, and blue marsh grass were lazily competing to see which would be able to dangle in through the unshuttered, pane-less windows—they didn’t seem to realize that a tangle of nightshade vines had already beaten them, clinging to the outer stonework and letting their purple flowers droop innocently down through the window. The bower faced west and so the dying rays of the sun were unable to stain the pale walls in hues of gold…which Saoirse thought was probably for the better. It wouldn’t do them well to be weak at this time.
She was almost hesitant to look at the young woman on the bed and found relief in the shallow rise and fall of her chest. Anwen had always seemed pale to Saoirse, but now there wasn’t a drop of colour left in her skin but for the fever-like redness in her cheeks. It was difficult to connect this Anwen—cold and statue-like in her slumber—with the girl who had ran barefoot through the gardens in naught but her chemise, her smile bright and her long curls, usually umber and auburn in the shade but shining with hints of gold and cinnamon in the sunlight (the colours of autumn leaves, Saoirse had always thought), tangling in the wind.
Saoirse’s gaze shifted slightly and she frowned at her youngest brother. He was seated directly beside the bed, fingers laced together and head bowed like the most pious of saints in prayer. She rolled her eyes. Remembering herself, she half-filled the wooden cup she’d brought and held it out toward her brother. “Drink.”
“Just go, Saoirse,” he muttered, not looking up from his knees.
“Anwen would not want you starving yourself for her sake.”
He sighed and paused a moment before replying, “Then set it somewhere. I have no desire to eat.”
Saoirse fought the urge to make a snide comment and grit her teeth, putting both the cup and pitcher on the window sill with a little more force than was necessary. She rested her hands beside them, attempting to put her thoughts back in order and remain neutral—she had said she would not get involved and she stilled planned not to. Her eyes roved over the land outside, attempting to find solace in it. The large pond at the bottom of their hill was choked with crowfoot around the edges and large patches of heather had taken up residence as its neighbor, pressing as close to the banks as it could manage. The heather faded into rye and meadow-grass the farther up the hill it grew, only sparsely punctuated by bluebells and lady’s smocks. Her eyes found part of the enormous patch of blackthorn that covered most of the hilltop—the rest home to the estate and a few harebells that were coyly peeking out through the thorny branches—and she managed to let out a breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding. The silence in the room was painful.
Turning away from the sight of a young hemlock that was fervently pretending it was just a shrub, Saoirse said, “I do not know what he did to anger you, but you must stop this. Both of you.”
For the first time since she’d been there, her brother looked up at her, a sharp glare pinching his features. “I will not. It will not end until he has paid for what he has done to me.”
Saoirse closed her eyes in a gesture of long suffering exhaustion. “And how many more will suffer for your feud? Will our home simply become a crypt to house both of my brothers’ failures? You cannot care for the trouble you will reign down upon us if you are so selfish as to—”
“You would not dare call me selfish if you have had to do as I have.”
“But I have and I do,” Saoirse replied coldly. She crossed the room in the blink of an eye, grabbing her brother’s arm and wrenching him up from his chair. “You cannot even look at her,” she added venomously, “Look at her. Can you even admit that this is your fault? Do you even realize that you have destroyed everything we have worked for here because you were too petty to accept that she made a different choice than you wished?”
“This was not my fault!” he protested, wrenching his arm free. “I did not…she….” He broke off with a hiss of breath and added lamely, “She promised.”
Saoirse was too angry to reply to him—her attempt at calming herself had failed. The silence had begun to stretch as she began to realize it was far too quiet. She strode up to the bed and reached out to feel for Anwen’s temperature and paused. The younger woman’s chest was no longer rising and falling. Saoirse reached out with her mind tentatively and felt nothing. She must have passed while we were speaking. “Whatever you think she promised you, it means little now. She has already departed this world.”
Her brother’s face had gone oddly blank, his eyes wide like a child’s. The next moment his face had drained of colour and his body had grown tense; it didn’t take long for Saoirse to find out why: there were footsteps coming down the hallway. She sent a silent prayer to her departed mother’s spirit that it was her father outside the door.
The door opened slowly and the elder of her brothers stood framed in the doorway. The entire world seemed to freeze as a flurry of emotions passed through his eyes before he settled on rage.
He whirled to face his twin and, in the most terrible voice Saoirse had ever heard, he managed to bite out: “You. What did you do to her?!”
Saoirse had barely felt her heart thud once before the chair her youngest brother had been sitting on was on its side and the boy had thrown himself at his twin, lunging for his throat.