The road to Redcliffe was not as safe as it once had been.
The woods of the South, where the old gleaming imperial road dropped off and the trees grew close on either side, had always seemed to be sun-dappled, quiet but safe. But a year ago, the skies had grown dark. Whispers told of the great and luminous Queen reduced to a mere princess, to be locked away in a tower to the north. The Regent held sway now, all thundering terror and marching steel.
Even the road to Redcliffe was not safe from him.
The trees seemed closer than they once had been, the leaves darker and more opaque, the shadows thicker. They were inky black and clinging, and in places they wholly consumed the path. Only those who knew the road from better days could follow it, clinging to bits of memory where sight eluded them.
And yet in recent months those bits of memory had proved more treacherous still. The path was true, but even when the Regent's men did not ride, there were stories of danger. At any moment a wolf could appear, a beast, a brigand- or worse.
Bann Teagan crept through the forest as quickly as the dark and the cold in the air would allow. His red cloak wrapped tightly around him keeping out the breeze, and the emblem of Redcliffe on his back was the brightest thing in the forest. It was thick, though not thick enough, and well-made, though the hem was stained and threadbare. He was hunched and his eyes watered from staring so long ahead into the chill breeze that wended its way through the forest.
He blinked bleary-eyed to make out the path ahead of him, stepping through thick brush that hadn't been there only months before when he had returned home from his brother's house. Under his cloak, he kept a hand tight on the hilt of his sword though his whole body ached, tense and overworked.
There was a sound from behind him, the sharp clop of hooves on the beaten ground. At first it was far away, half a dream or the sound of wind in the branches. He ignored it the best he could; so few rode these days, for one reason or another, and the thought of it was strange and out of place. But as the sound drew closer through the dark, he could make out the sound of panting.
And then a bark.
And then a howl.
His body went rigid, and it was only with great force of will and what felt like the last of his courage that he turned. Every sound was too horrible to hear, and too painfully loud after how silent the walk had been.
When the shadows finally parted behind him, three great and powerful mabari charging along the path, followed by an armored knight upon a great and powerful black destrier were revealed. It was difficult to make the figure out; the armor was a blackened metal, and its outline was nearly lost. It hauled up upon seeing Teagan, the mabari barking and surrounding him, and for a moment the line of the helm was illuminated.
A snarling wolf's head looked down at him.
"Off the road," came its voice: forceful, powerful - and female.
His steps faltered and he didn't know where to direct his attention, all threats seeming equal.
Once, at the sight of a knight on the road, even one in armor as frightening as that before him, he might have felt a sense of relief- of safety and protection. Now, there was a hard line of fear that froze inside him, knotting his belly. His cloaked loosened, a hand falling to his sides, the other sliding over the pommel of his sword, gripping tighter. His throat tightened and where once, words might have come- a demand to know the rider behind the wolf helm, now he only gave a quick, sharp nod.
His feet carried him off the path, slowly, each step with quick darting glaces at the mabari around him.
The knight gave no acknowledgment, not even a nod to show thanks. A breath and the dogs and the knight raced off down the path, no heed given to how it had fallen to darkness, no pause to find where it led.
Her cloak, booming behind her with the sudden motion, was emblazoned only with the twin rampant mabari of the capital - and the Regent.
He watched the path, long after it had swallowed the knight and her mabari in darkness. There was ice in each breath and a coil of fear lashing at him with each step he took after her. His knuckles were white around his sword, his hand rigid and unyielding for fear she or the dogs might return.
But there was nothing else to do; he followed what little path there was, tangled roots and bare branches in his way at nearly every step. The cold seeped through his cloak, and his shoulders and legs trembled. He forced his steps faster, the weather winning over the fear that he traveled in the same direction as the knight.
Each moment felt the same, as dark and cold and frightening as the last, until he exited the forest and a bare path that stretched up the hill to Redcliffe was before him. Over a bridge towered his brother's house, a keep that towered in stone and wood above the landscape. It had once been home to many knights in gleaming armor - not the sort of thunderous dark of the wolf's.
But now, no guard greeted him at the gate. The keep, too, echoed empty. Servants remained, but they were few and thin.
His brother's wife and child had gone, after the son had been discovered a witch, little more than a year before. The son and the mother had left for the north the day after, in search of somebody who could help, and his brother had been forced to his bed with shock, and there he remained.
They hadn't returned.
The courtyard was overgrown. No servants' children played there and no guards patrolled the walls. The stables contained only a single horse: a great destrier made for a knight.
He swallowed against the fear thick in his throat when he saw it. The black, fearsome steed in the stables could only mean that she was here. His brother was sick abed with shock and worry and a knight had come. The Maker only knew what threats the Regent would hold against his family now.
Teagan pulled his cloak tight as he climbed the steps to the massive front doors and knocked.
It was several minutes before the door opened, pulled agape by a young elf girl who stepped aside. "My lord Bann," she said, voice tremulous and small. "Have you come to see the Arl?"
He nodded, hands shaking, arms trembling. He told himself it was only the cold and the wind as he stepped inside.
Her gaze darted towards the dining hall, close by but out of sight. She dropped her voice to a whisper. "He has a guest, my lord."
His eyes widened at the hidden fear in the girl's voice. "I have seen the horse," he said, matching her whisper, though his teeth chattered and his breath was heavy. "Is she with him now? Can I see him?"
"She's taking a meal," the girl said. "... She has locked him away, my lord and won't let anybody see him. She took him his meal tonight, but nobody else was allowed in."
Teagan felt the chill work into his heart, and it seemed to stop beating for several moments.
"Before she arrived, how was he?" he managed, thin and nearly soundless.
"Very ill. He is not often awake, and only takes broth and water, almost never bread. Please, come in, my lord," she added, wringing her hands.
He unwrapped his cloak, stepping completely inside with careful, quiet steps, as the servant girl moved to close the door behind him. If the knight had heard his knock, she might be on her way, and he kept his hand near his sword. His body ached from the trip, and he badly wanted food and to rest.
But he would see Eamon first.
"Has she said why? Given her purpose here?"
The girl took his cloak from him, bundling it in her arms and holding it to her chest as if it were a poppet to comfort her. "She says the Regent has sent her to ensure that..." She wrinkled her nose. "She acts as if she will help him, but her words were, to ensure this matter is resolved before month's end."
Gooseflesh rose on his arms, prickling up the back of his neck.
To ensure this matter is resolved.
"What matter, his illness?" Or worse, he thought: the Regent means to rid Redcliffe of it's Arl.
"She wouldn't say. She said only this matter, and then took the only key to his chambers," the girl said, glancing again in the direction of the hall.
"Maker preserve us," he whispered. And then, with a small sliver of resolve settling along his spine, he said, "Take me to her."
The girl took a deep breath that rose her bowed, slender shoulders, before nodding and setting out ahead of Teagan to lead him. They walked through halls he knew well, too well, and he tried not to mark every change, every new shadow.
And when they stepped into the dining hall, he tried not to mark his brother's space at the table, empty - or who sat close by it.
The knight sat without her helm or her armor, but she was no smaller for it. Her dark hair was drawn back tight from her face, her jacket and leggings and boots pitch black. Her face was traced with lines of kaddis, in the pattern of the King's hounds, that matched the mabari who slumbered near to her feet, bones clasped between their paws.
She glanced up as the elf girl cleared her throat and murmured, "Ser," in greeting. Gaze settling on Teagan, the broad, tall woman set her spoon down, abandoning her half-finished plate of short ribs.
"So," she said with a slow smile, something more threatening than kind and marked by gleaming teeth, "you are the brother come to visit. Bann Teagan." She needed no wolf's head mask to make a wolfish grin or, he doubted, a wolfish strike.
He clasped his hands together at his waist and inclined his head. It was not a bow, but a brief observance for her position, and fear did not nest in his belly with such a small movement as he thought it might if he took his eyes away. He had no doubt she could cross the space in the blink of his eyes and the look on her face kept him alert, watching- waiting for her attack.
"I am, Ser," he said. His words were soft, as thought any louder might warrant a strike. "I have come to visit my brother, as word has reached me of his illness."
His eyes swept over her, both the hard and soft lines- the dark of her clothing, the swirls of her kaddis. She was no less imposing out of her armor than she had been on the road. He took a breath to steel himself. "I would like to speak with him to let him know that I have arrived."
"Your brother is not taking visitors at this time," she said, eyes never leaving his. They were wide eyes, dark grey, and they did not falter. "I will pass along your greeting. Sit and break your fast instead."
Food was a welcome thought, and his stomach rumbled with the idea, even as fear kept it tight and knotted. He tried to keep his eyes on hers, tried to meet them even as he could feel himself shrinking under her gaze. He was a bann, his brother an arl, and once that might have meant something. Now, it meant nearly nothing under the Regent's thumb.
"When might I see him?" he asked, nearly a whisper as his gaze fell to the floor and he felt very much like a young boy instead of a grown man.
"When the matter is resolved. The Regent has sent me to see to him, and I will."
One of the great dogs at her feet shifted, lifting its head to look at Teagan. It, too, was as unflinching as its master. He shied away from it.
"Sit," its master said again. "There is enough for the both of us."
He sniffed, adjusting finally to the slightly warmer air inside the keep and looked to the table. It was brighter there, a few candles lit for the knight's solitary meal, and his stomach tensed and rumbled again at the thought of food. With a nod, he took a seat and made a small plate for himself, self-conscious with every move that she watched him with those piercing eyes and frighteningly bright teeth.
As he settled and finished a bite of food that brought his appetite roaring back, he chanced a look down the table to her. He swallowed and cleared his throat with a long drink. The candlelight flickered and he hissed, his heart freezing solid with a roaring rush as he recognized her.
This was no ordinary knight. She was not here to play nurse to his brother. Not this woman.
She only looked back at him, brow quirked, and he felt himself begin to crumble.
When he had breath once more, he very slowly, asked, "Will you tell me what this matter is that the Regent sends such a knight as yourself, Ser Cauthrien?"
"You know me, then," she said with a low chuckle, her plate near-cleaned of meat. "The matter is your brother's health, of course. No more or less. The Regent is concerned."
Picking up one of the short bones, she tossed it to the ground. It had barely touched stone before two of the mabari were up and growling over it. The fight was resolved with a snap, a snarl and the crack of her boot heel on the stone floor, and Cauthrien dropped the rest of the bones down.
"You are known to the bannorn, Ser Cauthrien," he said, a stronger edge leading his voice as brittle ice turned to harder steel in his chest. He glared, unperturbed by the scuffle at her feet, even as the sound of claws and snarls echoed loudly off the stone. She might be frightening, but he had seen first hand the results of her cruelty at the Regents command - the starving people of the bannorn reminded him daily. The thudding in his chest slowed and he turned back to his food.
She waved a hand. "The matter of your brother's health will be taken care of," she said, ignoring his protest and his glare, "before the month is out. Have no fear."
His hand clenched tight on his fork. "My brother has been through much, I worry. Can you be so certain my brother will recover from his malady?"
She leaned back in her seat, reaching down to scratch a hound's broad head. "It will be taken care of my lord Bann," she said, and for that, at least, there was no mocking curl of her lips, only dead certainty held in flatness.
"I will see to your brother six times a day, more if his illness grows more grave still. Anything you would like to be passed along must come to me. Directly. And I will see that it reaches him."
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and picked at his food. It will be taken care of was not the comforting thought it could have been. He could see though that trying to wheedle out some reason or purpose would not work.
"If you could at least pass along a message that I've arrived, then," he said. "And I will pray the Maker brings him a swift recovery."
"I will pass it along on my next visit," she said, with a nod, and then she pushed herself up from the table. Attached tightly to her belt was a key, bound by lengths of leather cord. A dagger hung nearby.
As she stood, the mabari at her feet stood as well. One dog eyed Teagan as Cauthrien bowed slightly and said, "Do sleep well; your journey must have been very long."
And then she was gone, long strides carrying her out of the hall as if she knew every inch of it, as if it were her territory - or her master's - already.
He watched her go, much like he had in the forest, until he could see her no longer. His appetite was lone gone, dread settling in its place. He remained at the table even after the room had been empty for several minutes, and it was only as fatigue won out over worry that he pushed away from the table to go in search of his room.
In the morning, Ser Cauthrien was not at the table for the morning meal. One of her mabari greeted him instead, with growl as cruel as any she could have managed herself. He ate in silence, the only sound the occasion huff of the hound as it watched him.
When he finished and stood from the table, the hound stood with him. When he took a step, it watched closely, then followed as he took another. Teagan wandered the keep, troubled by the lack of staff, rooms in disrepair - all cold and dark, with thin layers of dust beginning to cover most of the furniture. He tried to approach the door to his brother's room once, and a snarl sounded from behind him.
He had no moment, no space to himself. When his guard left him, presumably to slink off for rest or food or water, it was only because another took its place. In the afternoon, he settled in the library, in a large chair by the fireplace to soak in what warmth and light he could. The mabari settled by the door as if to keep him in.
The days after the first were much the same. Ser Cauthrien was little more than a ghost, a haunting presence that he knew existed but rarely saw. In her place were the three mabari on shifts to keep his company- and to warn him away from specific areas of the house as he searched each morning, like his brother's room or what he could only assume was the room she had taken for herself. He took each afternoon in the library, the fire a small comfort against the darkness and constant cold in his brother's house. It was warmer than the world without, certainly - but that meant little.
The weather did not improve, the skies an endless grey punctuated by sudden rocking storms, the wind howling outside and even into the keep. Windows hung open for too long, with few to find or fix them, and the maelstroms that formed in the courtyard, little things too dangerous and too short to predict, sent barrels and stones and branches whirling through the air.
More than once the keep echoed with the sound of shattering glass.
Through it all, only Ser Cauthrien's mabari were visible, prowling the halls and following Teagan even to the doors of his chamber. The few servants that were left, reported seeing her pass - and seeing her slip into Eamon's room only to emerge hours later. She took the sick man all of his meals and was the only one to speak to him. If anyone attempted to talk at the door, a mabari would appear to snap and snarl until they left.
After a week, Ser Cauthrien once more made an appearance, striding into the dining hall as if she had not been a specter for so long. The two beasts not attached to Teagan's shadow followed at hers, and she sat down without a glance to him.
He stared at her. If it was possible, she seemed taller and broader than she had before. Shrinking a little into his seat, he stayed silent while she settled herself, while she tossed food down to the dogs at her feet.
Then, his voice barely carrying to her end of the table, he asked, "Ser Cauthrien, how fares my brother? Has their been an improvement?"
Why else would she have appeared, after a week gone, if there had not been some change in his brother? He braced for her news, a hand gripped tight on the edge of the table.
But she said nothing, pulling food onto her plate instead. She didn't look to him. In place of the dangerous confidence of the last time he had seen her, her brow was furrowed, her jaw and mouth tight.
He worried at his food, pushing scraps around while he waited, and waited, hoping she would answer. When the silence had dragged on so long it felt unbearable, he cleared his throat. He canted his head, trying to catch her gaze through the candlelight.
"Ser Cauthrien? Do you have news about my brother?"
A muscle jumped in her jaw, and finally she opened her mouth for more than food.
"Things," she said, "proceed."
He frowned and looked to his plate. Her words told him nothing and based on their last meeting, she was likely to tell him nothing. But concern drove him to ask a third time, even if he expected no real answer.
"Is that supposed to be good news?" If it was, he did not feel reassured.
She stood abruptly, abandoning her half-eaten meal. There was a snarl on her face, and she finally looked to him.
She almost looked as if she would speak-
And then she turned on her heel and stalked out of the room. Her mabari did not follow at first, then two scrambled to their feet and ran after her.
Teagan deflated and stared at his meal. It was the worst kind of answer, the one that left only doubt and fear. He shook his head at his plate and then, after hearing a snort of air near his feet, he shook his head again at the mabari that had stayed behind.
"I bet you know, don't you," he said to the hound at his side. "Not that you're going to tell me any more than she did." He lifted his chin towards the hall Cauthrien had disappeared into. The mabari let out a low growl, a sound that Teagan had learned well in the last week meant he was doing something he should not. But it was the only thing he could do: hope. Hope that Eamon would recover, that Ser Cauthrien would leave, that the oppressive darkness would lift.
The small, twin knots of hunger and fear in his belly had him pushing away from the table and lifting his plate to take his food to his room. There, at least, the mabari would not follow him.
On the morning that followed, there was no mabari waiting at his door when he emerged.
In fact, all of the dogs were missing; none waited in the dining hall, none prowled the hall. Teagan felt like a thief in his own brother's house, stealing quietly as he could through the halls with no mabari in his shadow. At mid-day one of the servants found them all, waiting outside of Eamon's door. When word reached him that the mabari had been found, blocking Eamon's door with sharp teeth and bright, alert eyes, his heart sank to rot in his gut. If Eamon was gone, what then would the Regent plan for his family?
He took each step down the hallway as carefully as he dared, unsure whether it was safer to meet the eyes of the guarding dogs or to avoid them altogether. There was no way he could reach the door around them. When he was still a safe distance from the door, he called for Ser Cauthrien. If she was anywhere, she was there.
The dogs shifted. He could make out the differences in them beyond the variations in their kaddis. The one that growled at him the most, rose to its feet, snarling-
But then the door opened, and Ser Cauthrien was in the hallway, brow contorted in anger. "Away, all of you!" she barked, and the three hesitated, staring up at her. He jumped at the way her voice boomed through the hall, and took several steps back. "Off!" she called again, and with a sharp nudge of her booted foot, the three mabari, with growls and wary glances, took off down the hall away from them both.
She closed the door behind her and shut it tight, taking the key from her belt and jamming it into the lock.
"You, too, Bann Teagan," she growled, looking to him with narrowed eyes.
He should have been cowed, should have backed away in fear and left like one of her dogs, tail between his legs. But as the lock clicked, some of his fear fell away. If she locked the door again behind her, it must mean that Eamon was at least still alive- if still sick.
And he was not above a little pleading to find out.
"Ser Cauthrien, please." His voice was not as loud as hers, nor so commanding, but it was also not the whisper it had been before. "Has he improved? Can I see him?"
She fastened the key to her belt once more with hurried, angry tugs. "I believe I told you to go, Bann Teagan. I am not in a mood-"
Her words faltered, falling into an angered hiss, and she pushed away from the door, glancing down the hall behind him.
She was in a mood he thought, one darkened by the snarl in her voice, a dangerous one. He retreated a step though he couldn't bring himself to follow her gaze, her presence seemingly the the more threatening one than whatever might have gotten her attention behind him. His mind was flooding with worries of what Eamon's future held, or indeed, his own, and it was the woman before him that held it all.
"He is my brother," he said, his words quiet once again. "My only one. Can you understand, at least, how worried I am?" He stared at her, blue eyes pleading to find some compassion in her.
Instead, he gained only a further contortion of her face, and her stalking fast towards him. "You will trust," she hissed as she came close enough that her breath was hot and bitter against his cheek, "in the Regent, and in what happens here."
He turned to avoid the worst of the steel her voice, his eyes nearly shut to block out her closeness, her warmth where Eamon's house had none. Teagan took a shaking breath, nodded his head even as his jaw tensed, his fear being chipped away by worry and anger.
He found it difficult to trust anything she said, though he could not say so. Not to her. Though his head bobbed an assent, his lips barely moving, he whispered, "Maker preserve him."
There was a moment where it seemed like she might snap or snarl. She was close, all heat and and the scent of leather, steel, dog, and kaddis paint-
And then she withdrew, fingers at her side twitching as if she wanted to strike - or press a hand to her temple.
"Maker preserve us all," she muttered under her breath, then stalked off in the opposite direction her hounds had gone.
He sighed heavily and leaned against the wall, grateful for her retreat, even as a chill breeze pricked at his skin. On his throat and face, he could just barely still feel the warmth of her close to him and the difference sent a shudder through his limbs. When he pushed away from the wall, it was with a glance after her- the echo of her words, the change in her tone- still sounding in his ears.
Maker preserve us all.
With a deeper, more steadying breath, he realized that he was alone in the hallway. No mabari had come back to watch him, and Ser Cauthrien's heavy footsteps had long faded. He glanced at Eamon's door, crept towards it slowly, and tried the handle: locked.
The knight would not let him see his brother, but her own words had betrayed her earlier confidence. Whether for good or ill, he needed to see his brother with his own eyes. Then, he could judge for himself the Regent's purpose in sending Ser Cauthrien here. He tried the door again: locked. He bent to examine the catch, touched at it, judged how best to open it.
When he and Eamon had been young, they had snuck into their older sister's room, looked at her armor, her sword, examined her hairbrushes. The locks now were a bit more complex, but-
He reached for the dagger at his waist, a tiny thing, a nobleman's protection against private threats of theft or assassination. A brief glance down the hall revealed no knight, no mabari, no servants. He slid the tip the dagger towards the lock, and then crouched low to squint at the shadows inside.
It fit much like he remembered, though his hands were not as nimble as they had been in youth and warmer days. The blade scratched at the metal, and he winced, but leaned closer, focused wholly on his task. He couldn't falter - there was no time or opportunity for that.
From the other end of the hall came a low growl.
One of the mabari had returned, and he worked only a moment longer before he froze, glancing without moving. It was the kindest of the three, though no less obedient, quick to correct him but less aggressive. It skulked. It did not charge. It did not threaten immediately.
Perhaps it was because its master had spurned it, but it approached slowly, low to the stone floor.
He turned carefully, avoiding sudden movements, thankful at least that the mabari hadn't made him jump or lose his dagger. Its continued approach, even if it was a tentative one had him pulling his dagger back from the lock, and standing again to slip it away. His lips pressed a thin line as he shook his head at the dog.
"Just had to come back, didn't you? Did she send you after me?"
He stepped closer to the opposite wall and made his way passed the mabari, his own head low and his hands held at his waist and out of immediate nipping range.
The mabari followed him down the hall, but when he turned the corner, it stopped and sat down. It didn't move, not in any large way- but there were twitches in its pricked ears, in its jowls, that spoke to a kind of nervous tension that hadn't been there before.
The others were nowhere to be seen and he had watched Ser Cauthrien go down the other hall.
Teagan raised a brow at the mabari, first because it was showing of something other than the same controlled duty and loyalty he'd seen in all of them, since his arrival. When it didn't move, he looked down the other stretch of hall in the direction the woman had gone. After her sharp orders, he didn't much like the idea of following after her.
He looked at the mabari again. Everything about the animal's posture and small movements, the low huff it gave as he stared at it, suggested that the dog wanted him to go the other way. That he was supposed to go towards the dark wolf instead of retreating to his room.
"Am I to follow?" he asked with a step towards the mabari. It shifted a paw as though it might move if he did. With another step he inclined his head down the hall and the mabari stood.
The mabari came to his heels with a soft whine, an odd sound for such a great beast. It turned to look the way the knight had gone, then took a few steps, looking back as if to say, come.
"If you insist," Teagan said with the first smile he had felt in far too long, at the near farce of a situation he was in.
Following seemed like a poor choice, and yet he did just that.
He was led not to a finely appointed sitting room, or the chambers Ser Cauthrien had selected for herself, as he half-expected. Instead, the hound led the way down past the empty servants' quarters and stopped outside the door to one of the mud rooms. It was one of the small chambers that led out to the yards where once, food had been grown and the servants' children had played, and nothing should have been within it.
The dog sat down, staring up at Teagan.
He looked at it with a shake of his head. It felt strange to be following after the woman the kept his brother locked away from him, but it was the only explanation. Why else would the dog have led him here?
His fingers, cold, so near to the outside, pushed the door open just enough to peek inside.
She sat on a simple bench, as if she might as well be sitting on a log or on the bare ground, and there was a bottle by her foot, half empty or empty, it was hard to tell with the way the shadows fell. The room was all but dark. There was only a single window, and the light winding in was thin. A candle had been lit, but it sputtered and guttered.
She didn't look to the door.
The kaddis on her face was smeared in places by fingers and palms.
If it hadn't been for the creak of the door as he pressed it open further, shoulder to the door as he considered stepping inside, he might have thought better of it, pulled back and let it quietly close behind him. Then, she wouldn't know that he had seen her in what seemed to him to be a moment of vulnerability.
As it was his presence was announced by the creak of the door and his feet scuffing loudly on the floor. She started, looking towards him with an unvoiced snarl curling her upper lip-
And then she seemed to fall, shoulders bowing with a long exhale. When she stood, it wasn't to approach him - it was so she could pace the worn and dirty floor.
"Yes?" she asked, watching him through the shadows of the room.
"I-" he looked back at the door, already closed behind him, the guide that had led him in safely on the other side. "I was... urged in this direction, one of the mabari led me. I didn't mean to interrupt."
He gave her a small shrug as he turned back and watched her pace, the cadence of her steps drawing his attention. It was easier than trying to understand the difference between the frightening knight from before and the uncertain woman in front of him.
He drew his arms tight around himself, as much for protection against her, than from the cold breeze through the cracks in the windows.
She moved like a caged beast, all coiled muscle and directionless tension. She thumbed her lip, and the paint caught beneath her finger smudged still more. "Did he?" she said, pausing long enough to glance to the door.
"Meddling beasts," she muttered, turning from him to continue her pattern. "There is nothing for you here," she added, with a sidelong glance to him.
He hoped, sincerely, that she meant here, as in that room, with her, and not in Redcliffe with Eamon. Though the way she looked at him, tense corners of her mouth and shuttered eyes, he didn't have easy feelings about either.
"I did try to resist," he said. It was easier to let out a smile, even if it was small, when she didn't look quite like herself, not nearly so imposing or impressive, not when a whimpering mabari had brought him to her. But the feel of it on his face just made it all the stranger. He shifted uneasily.
"But I'll go now. Like I said, I didn't mean to interrupt." He turned and reached for the door, pulling it open. He inclined his head, almost gracious, almost noble. "Ser Cauthrien."
"Bann Teagan," she said, coming to a halt once more, to watch him. Her hands hung at her side. Her sword-
Was not on her belt, and neither was her dagger. Only the key was still there.
Before he could leave, before he could turn fully away and shut the door behind him, push away the knowledge that it would be almost easy to get the key, she spoke again. Her voice was terse and thin, but the words were clear.
"I have lost my only brother. And my only mother. And my only father. ... the only thing to be done is to trust the Regent, and to keep moving."
He swallowed. If the thought had been made to comfort him, it only unsettled, and he didn't want to know what this woman had lost to bring her here. She said to trust the Regent, and she said it like it must be said when there was nothing else to be done. Not faith, or love, but resignation- and he could not reconcile the woman with the knight in that moment. And he had no answer, nothing to say that would make either of them feel better.
He stepped out of the room.
The door closed with a waft of cold air on his back and he tucked his hands into the crooks of his arms once more as he made his way back down the hall towards his brother's room. Two of the mabari skulked out of the shadows to take up positions outside Ser Cauthrien's door.
The third one, however, was not waiting for him. He made it all the way back to the door of Eamon's room unescorted. No mabari sat outside of the door. The memory of Ser Cauthrien as less than the wolf she'd been before pushed him forward, and he crept closer, seizing on his earlier boldness. It would be easy, this time. If the thought made his hands shake more, he ignored it. There could only be certainty.
He had not even placed his dagger against the lock when he heard the tell-tale click of claws on stone. But there were no growls of barks, and Teagan did not look up as he slid the tip home, working carefully and methodically. He told himself it would be the third mabari, the one that had led him to Ser Cauthrien, and for a wild moment, he hoped that the same hound would simply stare him down instead of attacking.
He could hear its breathing and when its mouth closed over his arm, not a bite but a warning, he hissed and dropped the dagger.
It removed its mouth, then growled, then waited. Carefully, he inched back from the door, picking up the dagger and rising to his feet. He swallowed, looking down at the dog. It was the same one he had imagined it would be, staring up at him, and suddenly being stared down seemed just as bad.
"I'm sorry," he said, and felt ridiculous for it.
When he moved away from Eamon's door, the dog fell in step at his heels. There was something different in how it moved. It followed instead of herding, instead of guiding, almost like a normal hound. It eased the spike of fear that had settled deep in him.
He gave it a narrow glare and shook his head. "I hope you're happy. Can't believe I followed you earlier."
With his escort, he took the corner at the end of the hall and made for his own room. It was just as cold and dark as he'd left it, but with a thought, he left the door open and eyed the mabari with a shrug.
The mabari looked up at him, sitting down on the hall side of the threshold. It cocked its head to the side, then pawed the ground a little. Then it rose to its feet and padded off down the hall, leaving him alone. It took up a post instead at the end of the hallway, settling down to sleep.
"Suit yourself," he called down after it and then shut the door.
His sleep was punctuated with nightmares of Eamon's keep frozen in ice and shadows. Even after he woke, his breath streamed pale in front of him. The low fire only did so much, and there wasn't enough firewood to build it higher. He pulled his cloak on over his clothes to keep what warmth he could near his body.
He had a single goal: to see his brother.
But for two days, he had little chance. The mabari who followed him, his shadows once more, were not the same one he'd left outside his bedroom. He could make out differences in them now, in the way their snouts tapered or the shape of their haunches, in the way their kaddis was applied - little differences, but he marked each one.
On the third day, it seemed the shifts had come back around and waiting for him outside of his door was the one who was not so imposing, much like its master had seemed in the little mudroom closet. He made his way towards Eamon's room and the hound followed without protest.
Teagan hovered until after he was certain Ser Cauthrien had left his brother. Like he had three days before, he tried the handle and found it locked. The mabari gave a low grunt, and he supposed it was like a warning. He shook his head at it.
"I need to see my brother," he whispered. "I doubt you understand that, but you saw her-"
He slid his knife from his belt and pointed it at the door. "Something's different- something's wrong. And I just want to see him for myself." He took a deep breath before turning towards the door. "Now..."
He crouched low, pushing his cloak over his shoulders to settle behind him, and looked at the lock as he slid his dagger into place.
On another day, with one of the other dogs, it might have lunged for him, or placed it great mouth around his arm again, or let out an alerting howl.
It did none of that, instead whining quietly and coming close enough to paw at his knee.
He let out a sigh. "I know. But look-" He bent a knee to the floor to steady himself as he reached hand out for the mabari's head. He scritched it gently behind the ear. "What would you do if it was her on the other side of this door? You'd go after her, try to get in. Right?"
Teagan dropped his hand and turned to focus on the lock again.
"That's what I'm doing. ... Now, go on."
It blinked wide, golden eyes at him and let out another whine.
Then it backed away, hesitated, took another step back, hesitated- turned, and exited the hallway.
He focused intently on the lock and tried not to miss the comforting warmth of the mabari next to him. It seemed to like him, that one, and though he knew he shouldn't, some part of him felt bad for shooing it away. What little comfort comes...
He held his breath as he squinted into the lock, pushing the dagger as delicately as he could into the opening and feeling for the catch where it would slide the lock away from the door. But it had been too long since he tried to wheedle a lock open, and his hands were too cold and he had to stop every few seconds to resit the dagger in its place.
There was no warning before it happened, the sudden slam of heat against his back as Ser Cauthrien drove him against the door, hand catching his wrist and twisting hard enough to make the dagger drop. His fingers curled after his dagger, far too late to catch it.
There was no warning, no shout or curse or bark of a dog, and at first she said nothing, body hard against him and breath hot on his ear.
And then she growled. "Bann Teagan."
He grunted at the pressure of her against him, her warmth wrapped around him. He blinked and drew in a shaky breath, more surprise than fear. When he could speak again, it was only to answer his name with hers, though his voice was lower, soft and breathy and expelled from his lips all at once.
She was silent.
Perhaps somebody else would have asked and what were you doing or did you think you could get away with it. She didn't. She stayed close to him, drawing him up to standing while keeping him to the wood of the door, and when she finally spoke, she murmured, her voice losing some of its edge,
"I can't allow this."
He closed his eyes against the heat of her. His breath quickened and his heart hammered in his chest. His legs threatened to give, and would have were it not for her hands on him, and the door beneath him to keep him standing. He tried to speak, to ask what she had done with Eamon, why he wasn't allowed close- but his throat was thick with fear and his tongue felt swollen and wrong in his mouth. So he said nothing, forcing his eyes open. He could barely see her but he tried to turn, to stare her down, as if to ask what she planned to do with him now that he'd been caught.
"The Regent would have me lock you in a dungeon for this," she continued, her nose nearly touching his. The breath that had been hot on his ear was just as hot ghosting over his lips and chin.
"For doubting him. And me."
Her hand on his wrist tightened a moment, but then relaxed, only pressing his hand to the wood. Her other hand held his elbow, and one of her legs slipped between his to better pin him.
He took in a breath, nearly a gasp at the closeness of her, but it was one of hers that he inhaled and it felt as though it might burn his throat and lungs as it slid through him.
"And you?" he asked, little more than a breath returned to her- an exchange of her warmth for the chill of his own.
She didn't respond, lips pursing and breathing growing shallower, quieter, as she thought. She did not accept the breath offered, not until she smirked faintly, then looked to the hall.
"I would not lock a man in his brother's dungeons," she said, drawing back and pulling him with her. "But I cannot allow this."
At the end of the hall stood the three mabari, the two who were not quite so friendly stealing forward as Ser Cauthrien dragged his wrists behind his back.
He stared at the mabari he'd shooed away and shook his head at it, even as his arms ached in the knight's grasp. He fought the urge to struggle against her, too aware of the other dogs' approach and how exposed his throat must be to them.
"You had to tell on me, didn't you?" he asked it quietly.
The dog didn't meet his eyes, and let out a low whine.
"They're well-trained, and loyal," Ser Cauthrien said as she began to push him down the hall. "If one is soft, it is still within the confines of its training."
There was an edge to her voice, nervous and a little angry, and for a moment her grip on him tightened. The hounds fell in at her heels, with the one Teagan knew best dropping behind with his tail lowered.
She led him to another of the great chambers. It wasn't Teagan's, but one that was once held for guests. She took one of her hands from him only long enough to take hold of a key - not the same key, but a key that had been tucked into her belt as if she hadn't expected to need it - and unlock the door. The dogs at her heels snapped and snarled at Teagan to keep him in check as she pushed him into the room.
And then she locked the door behind him.
Inside, the windows had been shut but not shuttered, and a fire burned high and merrily. It was warm in the room, warmer than the rest of the keep, and the bed was layered in clean and heavy bedding, furs and wools.
He stared at door, then was compelled to test it, even though he knew it would be locked. It was. He drew close to the fire then, grateful for it, at least, and it was the warmest he had been since he'd left his home in Rainesfere. He wondered if it was her room. He could think of no other reason for it to so richly and so warmly appointed when the rest of the house seemed desolate.
"Loyal, indeed," he muttered to himself a he drew his cloak around his shoulders, and dropped to his knees, hunched over in front of the fire.
It was several hours later when there was a scratching at the door and then the sound of a key turning in the lock.
He stirred, lifting his head towards the sound as he stretched his legs and shoulders. He had slept there in front of the fire, warm and comfortable even on the floor, and it had been the best sleep of his stay thus far. But he knew better than to say that to her, and had the decency to look uncomfortable and frightened as the door opened.
It was not so hard, after all, except for when he remembered her breath stealing into him.
The mabari that had turned him over to her preceded her into the room, padding over to the fire and settling down with a whuff. Teagan shook his head at the mabari, but reached out to scratch its head all the same, small betrayals forgiven in front of the fire.
Behind the dog was Ser Cauthrien, with a plate heaped with food and a goblet of wine balanced in her hands. She locked the door behind her and then went to the small table, setting it all down.
The food smelled better than he could remember of other dinners, and perhaps it too was changed because he was warm and better rested. He found himself watching her eagerly, his hand resting between the mabari's ears.
She didn't seem to notice his gaze until she turned to leave again. She stopped halfway to the door, and after a moment of looking back at him, she looked instead to the mabari - who had scooted closer to Teagan.
"Softie," she muttered.
He wanted to say that someone needs to be, but he didn't know why, and the words sat on his tongue. He shrugged at the mabari as if to say he appreciated it, even if she didn't.
Before she reached the door he looked back to the food and then to her again and just to be sure- because he wasn't sure if this pleasant room and the warm fire also warranted him a meal- but it seemed to-
"That's for me, then?" he asked.
"Yes." Her hand rested on the knob, and she had yet to reach for the key. "I'll be bringing you your meals, just as I do Eamon's. You should at least be comfortable here."
"Thank you," was off his tongue before he could stop it and he looked away from her quickly. It was a ridiculous notion, thanking her for locking him away, not only from his brother, but from the rest of the keep. And yet it was the best kept he'd been, and he bit down on his bottom lip to keep from saying that as well.
She thankfully didn't respond. Ser Cauthrien's hand brushed her hip, searching for the key - now hung on a cord like the other - by touch as she looked to the mabari again.
"Hafter," she said, the first time she had named one of the dogs in his presence.
Hafter didn't respond except to roll onto his side, offering Teagan his belly.
His hand reached out for the marbari's- Hafter's barrel chest, and patted him. Company, even a mabari- even her mabari- was welcome when it was so amiable. He shook his head. "Incorrigible."
"I've never seen him like this," Ser Cauthrien huffed, crossing her arms over his chest. "Hafter, are you going to come or not?"
Hafter did nothing except twitch a paw.
Teagan pulled his hand away from the mabari. He was still smiling at the creature, but his stomach rumbled at the smell of food and he feared her sharp words if Hafter continued to refuse on his behalf.
With a small shrug he let his cloak fall away from his shoulders and he stood, stretched briefly and then made his way toward the food she'd brought.
Hafter stayed curled up by the fire.
Ser Cauthrien finally sighed and reached for the key again. "Very well. I'll be back later, with your evening meal and to retrieve him," she said, and then there was the click of the lock, and she slipped out of the room. The latch caught behind her as it had before.
He didn't begrudge Hafter his coziness in front of the fire, having been there himself for most of the morning. But he settled down at the table, and started into his meal, closing his eyes and savoring the richness of each bite. He'd eaten well here, when he'd eaten with her, but each bite of this meal seemed sweeter or more savory, the wine more full-bodied than any of his other meals. And he stopped several times to slow his bites, to keep from devouring it all as quickly as he could.
When it was done, he pushed away the plate and finished the last sip of his wine. He stood and retrieved his cloak from the floor, but it was warm enough he didn't need it, and he folded it together and laid it on the edge of the bed.
Even with the sleep he'd had earlier in front of the fire, he found himself tired again soon enough, his belly full and body warm. It was almost too warm now by the fire, especially with Hafter so close. Teagan shed his doublet, laid it on top of his cloak and then settled himself onto the bed. His hands curled into the furs and before long, he was asleep again, full and warm with bright firelight across his back.
There was no knock at the door, nothing except the clicking of the key in the lock, and then the creak of hinges. The key in the lock again.
He stirred at the sounds, and after several long moments where he could make out nothing more, he turned over slowly, looking down the bed to find Ser Cauthrien watching him. He smiled at her lazily, still half-asleep, still warm, and his fingers carefully unfolded from the fur beneath him. He was at ease, and what was there to fear, here in this room?
This time, she brought a tray with two plates, two glasses, a bottle of wine, and she looked almost... uncertain. When he caught her gaze, she looked away. She crossed the room to the table, setting down the tray. Hafter, still by the fire, lifted his head and rose to his feet with a yawn. He padded over and she reached a hand down to scritch at his ears.
"Apologies for waking you," she said, though to which of them he wasn't sure. "Your dinner is- on the table." She looked to Teagan, then, and paused where she was.
He blinked a few times, looking between her and Hafter and the dinner she had brought - two of everything. He pushed himself up onto his elbows, less hazy but still languid, still at ease.
"Are you eating here, Ser Cauthrien?" he asked, reaching up to rub at his beard.
"... I'd considered it," she said, her throat bobbing as she swallowed. The kaddis lines shifted with the motion, drawing his attention.
He canted his head. "Had?"
Her gaze dropped from his face- and then she turned around, reaching for her plate. "I should go," she said, and she moved quickly- nervously. She was more a skittish hound than a stalking wolf.
Teagan pushed up to sit forward on the bed, hand falling from his jaw. "I meant to ask you before, is this- I mean, the way it's decorated and warm- is this your room? Where you've been staying?" It was too late to ask really; he'd already slept in front of the fireplace, had a meal at the table, slept in the bed. But curiosity had the better of him, and boldness, too. For the third time he could see the woman beneath the wolf, and he found himself curious as to what her outlines were, what her true form was.
She looked to the door, and took a step towards it, but Hafter whined and settled down on the ground between her and it. Ser Cauthrien was forced to stop her retreat. She looked back to him, awkward in her military undress with food in her hands.
"This was where I was staying, yes," she said, tone sharp as she nudged at Hafter with her toes. The mabari pointedly didn't move. She sighed, then turned back to the table and set the food down.
"It's yours now, though. Until the end of the month."
He raised a hand and rubbed at the side of his neck nervously, very aware of his shirt folded at the end of the bed. He couldn't very well apologize for occupying the room she'd claimed for herself, when she had put him in it, but he felt odd about it all the same. He put his hand down and started to push himself towards the edge of the bed.
"And that's your plan then? To keep me locked here until the end of the month?"
"Two more weeks is not so long," she said. "I can bring books... other things to fill the time." She turned around again, and stopped short, watching him with parted lips. Her gaze turned hungry, and she swallowed. "Just-" she said, and her voice was a little lower, "just say the word."
He stopped, just as his legs hung over the side of the bed, his hands curled over the edge. He looked up at her, wary of the way that she stared.
In other circumstances, two weeks didn't seem so long. In his other room or the rest of the house, cold and dark and quiet, it would've seemed an eternity. But here, in this warmth, with fire and food and company...
"That would be nice," he said, fighting the urge to squirm beneath her gaze. It made him feel hot all over, his breath quickened.
Ser Cauthrien nodded, looking not as his eyes but at his mouth. "Tomorrow morning, then."
And then she turned towards the bed. Her first step was slow. The second step was measured, but she didn't slink to the bed, didn't prowl. The third was faster. The fourth brought her close, and the fifth-
On the fifth, she kissed him, lips hungry and hands going to the mattress on either side of him. He tilted his head back with her kiss, trying to inhale around her, too surprised to properly take a breath. She followed him, one knee going between his legs as she bore him back onto the bed. What started fumbling and chasing, lips to lips, gained heat as she trailed her tongue along his lower lip, begging entrance.
He gave in easily, lips parting for her, one of his hands reaching out for her. When he had any moment to breathe, he wondered at her, at the hunger in her kisses. But his own felt much the same, rising out of wariness and warm, languid ease, and his hands were at her back, pulling her close.
She pinned him with her weight, one hand finding his bared waist, the other finding his wrist. She didn't seem able to shake the drive to take, and she pinned him there as she moved to straddle his hips.
One of his hands slid down her back, his grasp less urgent, less needy, trying to balance out her persistence. His fingers grabbed her waist, a thumb reaching at the edge of her pants. There was a clink of metal as he hooked his thumb on the leather cord that held the keys at her waist.
For a moment, it felt as though his whole body tensed, holding still enough to let the moment pass and realizing how close he could be to freedom.
The clinking didn't seem to get her attention, or at least didn't make her pause. Her grip on him went between too tight and almost nonexistent, her kisses shifting between desperate and deep, light and searching. Her hand on his waist trembled, and her eyes were tightly shut, as if she tried to forget who he was- who she was.
With another breath he was moving again, gentle responses to her searching ones. His concentration centered on those cords, the keys at her waist that would let him out of this room and into his brother's. His fingers found the loop, and even as he arched up to return a kiss, he was fumbling to free one of the keys.
She groaned against his lips, then rolled her hips against his. The motion stretched the cord tight, tugging on her belt.
And then she pulled away hard, gasping for breath and grabbing for his hand even before she could see what he was doing. Her grip was crushing tight, and her face contorted into a snarl. He stilled again, letting the cord slide out from between his fingers. He watched her with wide eyes, holding his breath as he waited.
But she didn't strike him, didn't shout, didn't do anything but reach for her belt. She untied the cords- and threw them behind her, to where Hafter waited. The mabari barked, then picked up the keys in his mouth.
"You," she growled, looming over Teagan again, catching his wrists and pinning them to the mattress.
Even with the temptation of the keys removed, he found himself stretching up to kiss at her throat, his hips rocking against hers.
It earned him another growl, though this was different from the first, trailing off into what was almost a moan as she met his rhythm, as she dipped her head to try and catch his lips again. Her hands were still tight on his body, almost painfully so, but her thumbs pressed more lightly, stroking over his pulse.
He thought to turn his head as she sought his lips again, but he met her lips with his. His wrists tried to turn under the pressure of her hands, but only to reach out to her again, keys or not, around her waist. He studied her between kisses, bright in the firelight, cheeks flushed. She'd said this was her room-
His room now, she'd brought him here instead of locking him away in the dungeons or his first room. Those were dark and frozen; they made him feel lonely, isolated. And she was anything but frozen.
Her hands released his wrists again, instead rising to cup his jaw as she deepened the kiss, nipping at his lip and sliding her tongue against his. He slipped his arms around her again, reaching up to her shoulders and pulling her down to him. His chin lifted to her, moving with her fingers as he let out a soft moan. The sound seemed to bolster her, and as she plundered his mouth she somehow fit her hand between them, tugging harshly at the laces of his breeches. Her lips left his in another moment, trailing over his jaw and to his throat, where she bit.
His hips rolled to give her better access, moaning again and louder. There was pain there, but not so much that he didn't want more from her, or that he felt like pulling away. And she soon soothed it with her tongue, suckling there and then nipping - more lightly, this time - further down as she finally loosed the knots and tugged his clothing down.
Teagan pushed his heels against the side of the bed, sliding under her and letting his pants fall to the ground. He pulled her up with him, a hand moving to her waist reaching again for the edge of her jacket and only briefly did he mourn the loss of the keys at her belt.
She pulled back after another nip, fingers tugging at the toggles of her jacket and then casting it aside. She didn't hesitate to pull her tunic over her head, or tear at the laces of her leggings. Her face was flushed and her lips parted, and her eyes never left his.
With the space between them, it was easier to remember who she was, to see hints of the knight he'd dined with that first night in the keep. She was different now- brighter, warmer, kaddis smeared across her face. He sat up and reached out for her, pushing at her clothes, removing more of the knight in favor of the woman beneath.
And she was a woman, beyond her flashing teeth and cruel smile, beyond her prowling of the halls, her snapping and snarling. She didn't catch his wrists and push him away, instead leaning in to his touch when his fingers brushed her skin instead of her clothing. She struggled to shuck her boots and slide from her leggings, but she managed it, descending on him again with only her smalls and breast band covering her skin - pale skin, surprisingly delicate skin except for the callouses on her fingers, rough as they dragged down his ribs. She abused his lips with tongue and teeth, pressing her body along his as if she sought- something.
His hands found her hips, grabbing at her again, smooth skin under his fingertips.
Her mouth left his for just a moment and she whispered, "What warm hands you have." Her lips curved into a wild grin, and her hand slid between them, curling around his length.
There had been a response, ready on his tongue until her hand wrapped around him. The words faded, replaced by a breath that had him tilting his head back into the furs beneath them. She chased him down, nipping at his pulse as she worked him in short, fast jerks, her own breath stuttering along his skin.
It wasn't enough. He arched up to meet her kisses, rocked his hips trying to keep up with the motions of her hands. He wrapped both of his arms around her, tightly, and tried to pull her to the side, to roll her over onto the bed. She yielded, hooking her legs around his. He pushed her to the mattress, a grin on his lips at the small power he had- if it was his one remaining freedom, he would take it.
Her own eyes were bright, hands searching as she released him, sliding over his chest and up into his hair to drag him down for another kiss. She groaned approval, pressing her hips up against him and pulling him down against her with a shift of her legs.
He moved a hand from around her to guide himself to her entrance, pushing her smalls out of the way and using the rocking of her hips to find the right moment and thrust inside. She cried out, head falling back and back arching. Her legs tightened around him and she took him deeper, her nails biting into his scalp. He leaned down, a hand against her jaw, brushing around her ear, and he kissed her cheek, kaddis beneath his lips. It wasn't gentle, but nearly desperate, heat and hunger building in his chest.
Her heel dug into his calf as she forced a rhythm for them, pulling her head back just far enough that she could catch his lips, smeared with her paint. She groaned something against his mouth, something that may have been yes or more or any of a thousand other small words, all translating to need.
Teagan worked with the rhythm she created, leaning down on her with rough kisses against her neck and cheeks as if he could steal her warmth through his lips, or sate his need- or hers, with each breath. He wrapped his hands under her shoulders holding her close against him as he rocked his hips with hers.
There was a noise between breaths that was not him, and as he opened his eyes and searched her face, he knew it was not her. He hesitated, faltered between motions and waited.
It sounded again- a knock at the door.
The servants had not bothered him before, not even in his own room, and his eyes went wide, looking at Ser Cauthrien below him. Fear spiked through him. She had locked the door, he had seen her do it.
If there was someone there-
He feared the worst, that something had happened with Eamon, or that the Regent had come to check on his knight's progress or had merely sent more soldiers to lend her aid.
"Ignore it," she growled, jerking her hips and clenching tight around him. She tried to force him over, hands shoving his shoulders and lips on his throat, drawing another helpless moan from him. "I'll take care of it," she growled, then bit. "I'll take- I-"
There was another knock, this one louder and more insistent. A voice followed, female and unfamiliar. "Bann Teagan?"
Another moment of clarity took him, fear giving way to the realization that there was a chance for freedom on the other side of that door. He grabbed Ser Cauthrien's wrists and held them to the bed as he pulled away. But there was a longing there, a warmth- a comfort that made it difficult. A need in them both that kept his lips on her skin, his hips moving with hers even as he rose, pushing space between their chests.
He took a shuddering breath, and the knocking turned to a pounding fist against the door. He closed his eyes for a steeling breath and pushed away from her, sliding his feet down, tiptoes against the cold stone.
The change in angle made his hold weak, though, and she was powerful, hissing through her teeth and trying to hook her legs around him, drag him back. When she couldn't find purchase, she jerked against his hold, kicking out. "I said ignore it- I said- Teagan-" Her eyes were wild and she broke free of him-
Only to be pinned back as Hafter leaped onto the mattress, covering her body with his. He growled, snout inches from her face, and she stilled, lips parted and brow creased in confusion - and hurt.
He stared at the mabari for a brief moment, then at Ser Cauthrien, before the voice on the other side of the door called for him again. He could hear something, someone, moving in the hallway. Her tunic was on the bed near Hafter's back paws and Teagan grabbed it, then wrapped a sleeve around one of Ser Cauthrien's wrists. She didn't resist except to curl her fingers, looking from Hafter to him, and then away at the far wall. He spared a look at the door as he reached for her other arm.
He called out, "I'm here."
Once he finished wrapping her other wrist, and knotting the sleeves together, he looked at her with something that felt a lot like regret. He almost didn't want to move away, but the person at the door was insistent and there was a glint of metal at the end of the bed-
And had it just been the two of them, if it had been different, he wouldn't have stepped away to retrieve the keys from the floor, fumbling with the cord.
"Teagan," Ser Cauthrien said, leaning up as best she could to look beyond Hafter to him. Her voice was hoarse from her sighs, soft, cracking along the edges. "I-" They failed her, and she growled, but it was from frustration and not anger, not triumph. She let her head fall back, staring at the ceiling.
He looked back at the bed with a small shake of his head. He toed at the ground, finding the edge of his pants and bent down to pull them on, waiting- or giving her time to find whatever it was she meant to say.
There was a shift, a creaking of the bed, as hound and human moved just a little. Hafter no longer snarled or threatened, instead laying his head down on her chest. Ser Cauthrien exhaled shakily, then said, barely loud enough to hear, "I'm sorry."
There were things he wanted to say, things he wanted to ask her about- everything. There was little time for that now, for anything else other than the keys he gripped tightly in his hand. He took a breath to say at least that he understood, or thought he did.
"Cauthrien," he said and there was a small nod of his head to go with it. He was at the door before he knew it, key against lock and his chance to say more was gone as the door shook under his hand.
"I'm here," he said again as he opened the door to meet his rescue.
The woman on the other side was Cauthrien in every opposite. Where Cauthrien was pale, she was tanned and dark; where Cauthrien's hair was pulled back tight, her hair was wild and free. Lines traced her face, but they were not paint. They marked the very surface of her skin. And where Cauthrien was tall and broad, she was small and slight, with not fire in her eyes but the heart of the earth.
She looked him over, in all his undress, and glanced to the woman and beast behind him.
"I have come," she said at last, voice accented from the forest, and he could see then the pointed tips of her ears peeking from her curls, "to request the aid of Arl Eamon against the Regent. But I arrived to find that wolves prowled these halls, and that he and you have been... consumed." She crossed her arms over her chest. "The servants led me here, and said the largest wolf of them all was within, with you."
He followed the woman's gaze to the bed. "She," he said as he turned back into the room, letting the door fall open still farther, "is no wolf. But I am grateful for your arrival all the same."
"Is she not?" the woman asked with a faint huff of laughter. "Well. Your brother's door is locked to me. Does she at least have the key?"
"I have only just claimed it." He held out his palm, both keys under his curled fingers. "As well as the one for this room."
It felt strange to offer them up so quickly after taking them for himself, but he let them drop to either side of his hand, turning it to keep just the cord between his fingers. He barely felt it when she plucked it away from him, and he sighed heavily with another look at Cauthrien.
"Let me go with you," he said. "I have asked after my brother for two weeks."
Teagan took a few steps back towards the bed, and bent to collect the rest of his clothes.
"Leave her," the woman said. "We lock her in; we will return to her later to deal with her. But a wolf, however docile, should not be allowed to prowl after us."
Cauthrien frowned, but did not protest, did not even work against the knots binding her wrists. She looked at Teagan instead. And she said, quietly, "Lock me in, or I will have to follow you."
He slipped his shirt on and then nodded, avoiding Cauthrien's gaze as he walked back towards the door. He pulled his cloak in a bundle, holding it close to his chest as he stepped out into the hall, passed the elven woman.
"It's the smaller key for this room," he said, his voice quiet and small in the cold hallway.
She didn't look at him with any sort of approval, or really anything at all, but she did lock the door and turn from him, beckoning him to follow.
He did follow, slowly, working to close the toggles on his doublet with shaking fingers while he stared at the strange woman in front of him. His interactions with elves were mostly limited to the servants and to meet this one was a strange experience. She seemed confident, almost commanding, and he wondered what it was, exactly, that had brought her to Eamon's house.
"Has someone sent you here, to find my brother?"
"I sent myself," she said as she led the way, without erring, towards Eamon's room. She must have walked those halls before, if only before she came to his door. But if that were the case, how had Cauthrien not heard tell of her approach?
"Your human Regent destroys the world," she added, fitting the key into the lock of Eamon's door. "And if you will not move to fight him, I will move you instead. I found the old treaties of this place, lost where nobody else had looked."
"They say my brother is sick," Teagan said. "Ser Cauthrien has had him locked away for the last two weeks. The Regent sent her, though I can only guess to his purpose." He waited for her to open the door, stepping in just behind her. She had only taken a few steps when Eamon's voice - thin, weak, but his - sounded from the bed.
Teagan stepped around the woman and went to his brother. He crouched down at the side of the bed. "Eamon, Eamon? It's Teagan." He reached for his brother's hand, finding it in the pile of thick blankets.
Eamon was propped up, just a little, and though he was thin and pale, he managed a smile for his brother. "I didn't think I'd see you again," he said, with a glance to the elf who came to stand close by. "Is she gone, then? Has the Regent been stopped?"
Teagan looked up at the elf. "I don't know of the Regent, but the woman, Ser Cauthrien- she is locked in her room." He sighed heavily at the memory of her. When he at last returned his gaze to his brother, he added, "I've been here two weeks. Did she tell you?"
"She did. She told me when you arrived and when you asked after me, when I was awake enough to hear it." He struggled to sit up still more. "She said little beside that, except to get me to eat."
It wasn't much, but Teagan was glad to know that Eamon had at least known about his arrival. That he'd come to see after him, even if the way had been blocked by Ser Cauthrien. It was a small kindness that she'd given his brother.
At the foot of the bed, the elf snorted. "To eat? She was here to have you killed, no doubt."
"And who is she?" Eamon asked, looking between the two.
"I need your help. Your knights, to help me slay the Regent," the woman said, stepping closer. "And I need you well, to carry your banner."
"I have few knights left to me," Eamon said, shaking his head. "They left, when my son was revealed to be a witch. They left when the Regent darkened the skies. They've been gone for... months, at least."
"Then you will call them home, and I will drag them if need be."
"And who do you fight for?" Teagan asked, letting go of Eamon's hand so he could stand and meet the woman's gaze.
"For all of you, because you will not fight for yourselves." She shook her head, then tossed the keys to him. "Leave me with your brother, Bann Teagan."
He caught the keys, but opened his mouth to protest. He'd gone long enough without access to his brother and didn't care to leave again so soon. But the keys were in his hands, and this elf, whoever she was, wanted to fight for the people. For the moment, that would be good enough- and after, he would have plenty of time to see to Eamon's recovery.
And there were other matters: a woman just down the hall, and one of the keys would let him in.
"What of Ser Cauthrien?" he asked, slow and cautious.
"She's the Regent's dog. Kill her," the elf said with a wave of her hand, but Eamon shook his head.
"Not so quickly," he said, and looked to Teagan. "What do you think, brother? She seemed to be... bending, these last few days. What have you seen?" For the first time, he seemed to notice the kaddis paint streaked over Teagan's face in places, frowning. "I feel you've seen... quite a bit."
Teagan lifted his empty hand to his face, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks. Of course, his brother, even sick in bed, would see. He nodded.
"She has changed- she... I think she is less a threat now. Perhaps imprisonment would be sufficient punishment?"
The elf snorted, but Eamon nodded. "Fair enough." He took a deep, if rattling, breath and nodded. "Take care of that, brother, while I speak with our guest?"
With a nod, Teagan folded the keys into his hand and left the room.
His feet took him back down the hall he had just come, to the door that the elf had left locked, where Cauthrien waited on the other side. He still felt as though his skin tingled where she'd touched him, and with the elf and his brother safe behind him, soft waves of heat met him even in the chill hall.
Though he didn't need to, he called to her. "Ser Cauthrien?" His fingers maneuvered the smaller key into the lock but didn't move further. "Cauthrien?"
There wasn't a response at first, and then, "Teagan?" A familiar bark followed. He spared only half a thought to the other hounds, missing, and to the elf's words - prowled, as if they did no more.
He hesitated another moment, the key in the lock just waiting for him to turn it. Then he leaned into the door and with just a quick glance down the hall to make sure it was still empty, he turned the key and opened the door.
She wasn't on the bed. She had slipped her wrists free of his hasty bonds, and was sitting instead by the fire. She hadn't dressed and didn't make a move to leave when he slipped inside. Instead, she just rubbed behind Hafter's ears, and Hafter yawned and settled his head on her knee.
But Cauthrien did look to him. "Is everything well, then? Have you come to kill me?"
"My brother is awake," he murmured as if that was answer enough that things were well. Maybe they weren't, but it was a beginning of something and it relaxed the knot of worry that had built in his chest over the past months.
"And no." He shook his head, closing the door and then leaning back against it. "You are to be imprisoned."
"I understand. And I submit to it - it's not so bad." He thought he saw the barest hint of a smile before she looked back to the fire, the muscles around her mouth tightening. "... I'm glad. That she arrived. That it's over."
"Are you?" He watched her, more undone and undressed than he had ever seen her. Maybe she spoke the truth. But-
She shrugged, a rolling of muscles along her back and shoulders. "The Regent sent me to make sure your brother died. That was my order. We thought he was dying already... I thought he was. But if he didn't die, I was supposed to poison him at the end of the month, to finish the job." She shook her head, gaze dropping to Hafter. "He started to rally about a week ago. When it was just watching his death - I did not doubt."
"But when he showed improvement?"
Teagan pushed away from the door. She wasn't moving away from the fire, and where before he might have feared she would make a move for the door, to escape, it seemed less likely now. Not as she looked now, resigned and almost relaxed.
He rested at the corner of the bed, not so far from where she sat, and he watched her in the shadows of the fire. She was not so threatening from there, and he could see the curves and sloping lines along with all the hard edges. With Eamon safe, he felt no fear, and he leaned forward, hands clasped before him.
"You doubted then?" he continued, voice softer. "He said that you informed him I had arrived."
"I told him you arrived the day you did. He didn't hear me that day- but I told him the next. And the next." Cauthrien glanced back to him. "But yes. When he rallied, I began to doubt. I didn't want to complete my task, even if I trusted the Regent. If I trust him. You saw me in that room downstairs. I haven't slept in here for the better part of a week."
For the second time that day, Teagan felt as though he should be apologizing to her. There was nothing to be done for it now, though. The worst was over. Eamon was safe, and they were both free. He didn't doubt that under proper attention, his brother would be on the mend soon enough.
Teagan took in a deep breath, biting the words down before he said them. He could wish things had been different, but he couldn't apologize.
"You can sleep in here tonight," he said with a faint smile. He could offer her that at least.
"Thank you." With another stroke of Hafter's head, she rose up to her feet. She moved slowly, keeping her hands in his line of sight as she turned to him- to the bed. She came only close enough to retrieve her discarded clothing. "... And- I am sorry. For earlier."
For her lips on his, her body around him. Her meaning was clear in how she held herself, how she couldn't quite look at him, how her hand closest to him hesitated, as if to reach out.
"Don't be." For anything else, he thought. But not that.
She paused, tunic held over her chest but her legs still bare. "Don't be?"
He shifted on the bed so he could face her better and gave her a soft smile. "No. I only left- I only stopped- I needed to see after my brother, and that was my chance. But-" he reached a hand out and laid it on her arm. "I wouldn't have left otherwise."
And I came back.
She stared at him, lips parted. "Oh," she said. And then came the almost predictable clicking of Hafter's claws on the floor as he nudged the back of her legs. Cauthrien looked down, frowning. "You need to stop interfering. I know my own mind, thank you."
Hafter only wagged his stump of a tail.
Teagan chuckled and where his hand rested on her arm, his fingers slid around to give the slightest of tugs. He leaned forward.
"Is that so?"
"... Would you truly have a wolf in your bed?" she asked, and she was so much in that moment the woman beneath the armor, her kaddis smeared to the point where the patterns only existed by her hairline, by the crease of her nose. "Because I would bed down there, with you, if you'd let me."
Teagan stood and made up the small distance between them in only a step. His free hand moved to brush a thumb over the last remnants of kaddis. His fingers curled into her hair and he shook his head before leaning in to kiss her, a soft, shared breath.
"Where you see a wolf," he whispered, "I see a woman."