Tornmile: Part 31
Part XXXI: Hot Water
Brielle eased her eyes open and drew a deep breath of contentment as the last rays of dawn burst through the shutters and warmed her bare skin. She looked at the empty half of the bed next to her a little regretfully, though she knew Darian would not be in it. He had gone out early to meet Konrad and see what the man had learned overnight of Ferrer and his operation. Her regret turned to happiness, though, as her thoughts turned to the previous night and the memories of Darian’s lips on her own, the touch of his hands on her skin, the feeling of his warm body against her own. She stretched and let out a contented sigh.
Deciding that it was far too late to be in bed, she flicked the covers aside and swung her legs out of the bed. The wooden boards were cool beneath her bare feet, but not cold. The contrast with the warmth of the sun was refreshing. She rose and walked across the room, thinking of finding Léa to run a bath for her. She wondered if the girl was aware that she had not returned to her room the previous night, and concluded that she must be. The girl must have noticed that she was not there this morning, even if she had not noticed her absence the previous night. Imagining the look on Léa’s face when the girl realised where Brielle must be and who she must be with only made Brielle’s smile grow. Her cheeks already hurt from smiling too much, but she couldn’t help herself. She would dress, find a bath, and then she would aid Darian in his planning.
Dressing proved more difficult than she thought, though, since she had trouble locating all of her clothes. She had been careless of where they were falling when Darian had been removing them. Her dress was in a crumpled heap on the floor, her shift behind the headboard, one stocking was hooked over the door handle and the other caught in the curtain rail above the bed. It was not only the strange locations that her clothes had ended up in that made it hard to dress though. Picking up each item lead her to thoughts of them being removed the previous night and such thoughts were distracting in the extreme. Finally, fully dressed and with a wide smile on her face, she left Darian’s room and made her way along the corridors to her own.
The few servants that Darian’s father employed moved here and there, some cleaning and others running errands or carrying freshly laundered clothes and other linen. Most stopped to curtsy to her as she passed, which would normally have annoyed her, but not even the undeserved respects they paid her could touch her good mood today. She beamed at all of them and passed on her way.
“You look mad,” Léa said as soon as Brielle had walked into her own room.
“Is that the proper form for a lady’s maid?” Brielle asked, but she did so with a smile on her face.
“Sorry,” Léa said, “You look mad, mistress.”
“Somehow that isn’t better,” Brielle said, “but at least you’ve dropped the pretence of being a lady’s maid.”
“I’m sorry, Brielle,” Léa said, “I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that.”
“It’s alright,” Brielle said, “I’m not a lady and I don’t need a maid. What I do need is someone to keep their eyes and ears open in the household. The people who burned down the inn were Ferrer’s men. There’s a chance they’ll try to pay the servants to spy on me, maybe even to let his men into the house so that they can make good their promise to make an example of me. Darian thinks you will be useful to help keep me safe. That’s why he wants you to learn the sword.”
“So, I’m not really a lady’s maid at all. I’m a bodyguard posing as a lady’s maid?” Léa said, a smile as big as Brielle’s now appearing on her face.
“If you like,” Brielle said, sighing a little at the other woman’s excitement, “but only if you want to be. I don’t want you to be put in danger unnecessarily.”
“No,” Léa said, “I want to help. I know I wasn’t always as reliable as I could have been, but the inn was a sort of second home to me. You were always very good to me, even though business wasn’t great and I was an expense maybe you could have done without. I liked the inn, is what I mean, and if keeping an eye on you and all the others in this manor will help stick it to the ones who burned the inn down then I want to help and never mind the danger.”
Brielle pulled the girl into a hug. She tried to communicate how much those words had meant to her through it, because she found herself unable to put her feelings into words. The girl seemed a little taken aback at first, but she didn’t pull away. Perhaps she did feel Brielle’s gratitude after all.
“Thank you,” Brielle managed as the two women parted.
“Any time,” Léa replied, “anything else I can do for you? If I’m meant to be a lady’s maid then I ought to at least appear to be doing the job.”
“A hot bath wouldn’t go amiss and some fresh clothes.”
“Easily done,” Léa responded and she bustled out of the room as soon as she had spoken.
Brielle sat down on the edge of her bed and wondered whether the girl would manage to find anything out about the servants. The whole concept seemed very odd to Brielle, who had been brought up to do everything for herself, and often for others too. But it was not just the idea of having others do the work, it was also the idea of having people in your home all the time, especially people whose jobs required them to be more or less invisible. It was a sure way of inviting trouble. Her mind flicked back to what Darian had said about Lord Minham being murdered by his own man-servant. Wasn’t that proof that having people close to you was dangerous? You just took Léa into your confidence – was that a mistake? You have to trust someone!
Her thoughts were interrupted by a number of servants bringing in a large brass bath, which they set down close to the fireplace. One of them set a small fire in the hearth, so that water could be hung above it to top up the bath when it became cold and the rest brought hot water to fill the bath to begin with. They poured it from brass pitchers, which shone in the morning light, the reflections sparkling off the water in the bath and painting ripples of gold on the ceiling. Their work done, they curtsied and departed, leaving Brielle alone with the bath.
She removed her clothes as quickly as she could and then stepped into the bath. The water was perhaps a little too hot and she froze with the water covering no more than the bottom of her calves. Goosebumps covered her arms and chest. Little by little she lowered herself into the water, adjusting to the temperature. By the time she was reclining in the water, she was accustomed to the heat. It felt delightful. She scattered rose petals in the water to give it a little scent and then laid her head back and closed her eyes. Images of Darian danced in her mind and she smiled to herself as she soaked.
The scene suddenly shifted. She was not in the bath and Darian was nowhere to be seen. She stood alone in wide countryside, wearing the blue fencing dress and boots. The mermaid blade was strapped to her hip. It was night. High above her the silver dots that marked the stars could be seen, twinkling away to themselves. Some way ahead the stars danced on the ground as if they were candles with silver flames. There was water ahead – a wide lake that seemed familiar. She had been here before. She moved across to the edge and peered into the depths, expecting to see the faces of beautiful women, but all she saw was her own reflection lit by the stars and the moon. Loneliness gripped her heart and she begged the water to show her something more than her own face. The scene did not change, but the howls of wolves from the forest behind her caused her to turn rapidly. From the centre of the forest fire poured into the heavens. The howls were deafening. I have to get away.
She turned back to the water and began to walk around the edge of it. Though she walked quickly it seemed as if she made little progress, and so she began instead to run, to flee the cacophony of the howls that lay behind her and that bright blaze that had erupted from amongst the trees. The more she ran though, the less she moved. The blaze died away almost as quickly as it had come and the howls of the wolves abated, leaving only one or two solitary voices in the night. The fear did not leave her, but she stopped trying to run, and stood still instead, waiting. The only sound she could hear was the gentle ripple of the lake water and the sound of her breaths – short and shallow, almost alien to her ears in the darkness. She peered towards the forest, her sharp eyes picking out the differences in the grey shapes before her. There was someone moving in the first line of the trees.
Taking hold of the hilt of the mermaid blade, she drew it. Moonlight danced off the sharp steel. Cautiously she advanced towards the trees, trying to move quickly and yet move quietly. The person seemed unaware that she was there; it moved slowly as if it were taking its time, sizing the place out. As she drew nearer she saw that it carried a bow. She moved towards it and wondered whether she should call out a greeting, but her instincts told her that she shouldn’t. She continued her stalk towards the forest edge. The figure disappeared, moving deeper into the trees, lost from view.
She was close enough now to smell the leaf mould and the mustiness that was unique to trees growing close together. Cautiously, she moved under the first trees, peering this way and that for any sign of the figure. It had melted into the night though, lost beneath the trees. What now? She turned and looked back towards the lake. The stars twinkled on its surface still, but she didn’t think there would be answers that way. A snapping sound made her turn, spinning on the spot, but there was nothing behind her. I need to get away.
An arrow flew out of the darkness in front of her. She could not say where exactly it had been fired from, but the angle of its flight meant that the archer was in front of her. The silver head buried itself into the trunk of the tree next to her, the shaft quivering with the force of the impact. The goose feather flights tickled her cheek until it came to rest. A close shot. A warning shot or a near miss? She peered into the darkness of the forest and just ahead saw the faintest glint of metal and then the sound of a bowstring being loosed. The arrow thudded into her chest, right in the heart. The skin around the arrow’s shaft began to turn black and her eyes slid closed.
It was Darian’s voice. Brielle jerked awake with a sharp exhaled breath, clutching the rim of the bath tub.
“Are you alright?”
Darian’s face was etched with concern for her, but there was something more beyond it that she could not understand.
“I’m alright,” she said, smiling weakly at him, “just a dream. What’s the matter?”
He clenched his teeth together, his brows drawn together in a deep frown.
“Konrad’s been captured.”