“Get to bed now or the troll will come and find you, and carry you off.”
It was a threat or warning or story that the young lady of the manor had heard plenty of times before. Elizabeth was not a child to whom bedtime meant much, not if she could get away with hiding a little candle and a book under her bedclothes. Normally the threat did have some weight to it though, everyone knew the troll was more than real enough to steal a child from her bed, especially if it saw a light flickering in one of the windows. Today though, she was thirteen. She was no longer a child to hide under the covers at the first sign of a specter, and as the only child and daughter of the local knight her bravery must be doubled.
“Will it really?” Well, maybe she didn't have to be brave all at once.
Her nursemaid looked over from where she had been laying out a dress for the next morning and saw the girl, with the covers pulled up to cover her arms and her dark brown hair covering the pillow. She turned away from the dresser and came to sit on the bed.
“Oh yes, the beast of the forest is very dangerous. On dark nights he comes out of the trees and will steal cattle and grain. He'll take you too if you see him, and whisk you away to his castle in the mountains where you'll never be seen again.”
The child pulled the blanket up to just under her nose then pushed them down again, putting on a face that was stubborn more than brave. “He has a castle?”
Her maid nodded, “Oh yes, a great stone castle full of spiders.”
The girl shivered, she didn't like spiders. She was still being brave though, so she didn't pull up the blankets or reach for her doll. “Why would a troll have a castle?” In truth, Elizabeth had always thought the troll would live in a cave when she thought about it at all.
At the words the nurse rolled her eyes and shook her head at the impossibilities of children. “The beast has a castle because he was once a man. But that is a long story and not one for tonight. All you need concern yourself with is that candle on your bedside lest he come and find you,” the nurse sent her a pointed look. “Now I will say goodnight little Betty.” She adjusted the girl's covers one last time, blew out the offending candle and a moment later could be heard closing the door.
There were matches in the drawer, so she could easily relight the candle if she chose. Tonight though, her mind was not on her stories, but on a man that turned into a monster and lived all alone in a castle in the middle of the forest.
Eventually, Betty would hear the full story of the creature. It came in bits and pieces begged from her nurse over more days than a normal little girl would stay interested. When she put the story together she understood it thus:
Once, before her father had been given these lands for his service, they had been ruled by a duke. The duke had been a man of great passions and great rages. When his wife declared she was with child he was overjoyed and the lands celebrated for three days. Then the child came and when the duke learned he had a son and heir his joy was doubled and the lands celebrated for a week. It was a month before the lord of the castle stopped toasting his son long enough to realize there was something wrong with the child.
The boy had never been heard to cry.
Doctors and wise women and priests were all called, and as each left without finding cause or explanation, the duke's mood darkened further. By the end of the child’s first year the whole of the kingdom knew of the child and none could give the duke a suitable answer.
It was not that the child was weak, far from it. He grew quickly and was rarely seen to face even the normal childhood ills. In the following years the problem might have been seen as a curiosity and set aside if not for the fact that as he grew the young lord not only failed to cry but to laugh, smile, raise a fist in anger or show any other emotion.
The duke, with no answer to this problem, grew more dour by the day. Often his wife would try to calm him but soon she stopped making trips from the castle and so when the duke went to survey his lands there was no one to curb his rages.
One of the duke's chancellors suggested at one point that if the boy had no emotions then he would surely have no fear, and earn glory on the field of battle. This pleased the duke for a time until the boy grew to an age where he should have begun training in the art of combat. The young lord had no talent for it which became plain at once, and the duke's mood again soured.
The boy was fourteen when the duke again tried to fix him, and by that point all the duke's lands were afraid of what their lord might do. Truly the child's condition was strange but the father's anger was by far more dangerous. This time the duke had found an old woman, skilled in the science of alchemy and rumored to be blessed or cursed with sight beyond sight.
Though the duke was confident as ever those around him feared that the woman like all those before her would fail in this task and that this time the dukes’ fury would be an end to them or their mistress or the young lord or even the whole of these lands. The crone looked upon the young lord when she finally arrived, humming and murmuring to herself before finally turning to the duke.
“I can unleash the boy's passions, but such a thing is not wise. God has decreed that this is how he should live and to change that would mandate a high price.”
The duke heard only of her potential success, ignoring the warnings she urged upon him. At last, she accepted the task declaring the price to be on his own head. When the duke asked what she would require, she asked for one thing only, a single rose in full bloom.
To find a rose out of season took some time, but before the month was out a rose was found and the spell prepared.
The spell was cast on an evening in mid autumn. Only one creature alive knew the truth of what happened there at the castle, for by the next morning the only thing alive in the castle and the village was a terrible green beast where once there had been a boy.
Ever since that day the monster roamed the forests around his home and the rages he unleashed towards anyone he found made his father's anger seem as a child’s tantrum by comparison. No one survived an encounter with it. All they could do was stay away and hope the beast would be content to be left alone.
When Betty had the full story she could not stop thinking on it. She knew a beast of such rage would be terrible indeed. Her own father would at times turn mean, but only when he was in his cups and that was bad enough. To live with such rage every day must have been a terror for the young lord and then to be engulfed by such anger. It was impossible to imagine.
Now that she knew the truth, or at least as much of the truth as anyone seemed to know, she knew how real and sensible her fear was. There was no denying that it was still there within her but it had changed, been put in its proper place and she could live with it. It was after all a child's fear, the fear of the monster lurking in the dark, and she was growing up. Any new fear that replaced it was tinged with caution and perhaps doubt. There were far more real things to fear then a monster she would never see.
At least, until she did see it.
She was seventeen when it happened.
The lands were once more at war, and her father had been called away to do his service as knight and general. Betty, had been left as mistress of her father's estates until such time as he should return or perish in the king's service. As a willful girl and suddenly finding herself without a caretaker or strict father to set her bounds, she reveled in the joys of the season.
Summer was upon them and the fields were full of grain as apples ripened in the orchards and the woods beckoned with the sounds of game. Betty had always been intelligent and as sole heir to her father’s lands and holdings she had long been taught how to manage a household and keep the books. Her routine became an easy one. In the morning she would take her tea in the library while she saw to her responsibilities. Then once the house had taken lunch she would throw off her shackles saddle the big roan mare and with a few roles in her pack she would wander wherever she pleased, at least until the sun began to lower in the sky.
Those first weeks were a fine time for all and the young lady became a welcome sight on the farms and roads within an easy distance from her father’s house. Then the distant war became slightly less so and a shadow fell over otherwise joyful times. A message was sent to all, that young men were to join the armies of their lords not merely out of choice and for the hope of glory but out of obligation. The quiet undertone was that any unwed man between the ages of 16 and 25 might just be arrested if they did not take up a sword. Even those with a family to care for and support were not completely free of scorn.
Above all else the taxes were raised. The extra grain lost did not too badly damage the stores for winter and spring planting on Betty's lands, mostly due to her care in watching over the details in her records, but she knew others were not so lucky. It was only the beginning.
Soon rumors of outlaws on the roads rose as soldiers from the front deserted in favor of those who would not fight back. As July became August thefts were reported from one end of the valley all the way up into the hills. The infrequent attacks from wolves and, other things, sparked anger where tensions were already high.
Betty spent long hours in her library fighting to put pieces together into a new picture rather than the desperate image of a starving winter. Her afternoon rides became more a luxury than a routine and a luxury that she could not often afford. August trailed to a close and the harvest was brought in with hope and fear. Every bushel was counted and accounted for. It would be enough if only just.
Then as September made a start at coloring the leaves and the first chills of coming fall hung in the air word came from the front. Immediately Betty feared for her father for she had not had word from him for seemingly an age. The letter was read. Betty's fears were realized at the news of an attack on the very heart of her father's camp. Then her heart rose in joy at the news that the attack had been pushed back. Her father was alive. The attack had not been without consequence though, the general had been injured, and as loathe as the king was to lose one of his most trusted, her father was no longer fit to serve. He was thanked as a hero to his realm by his king and sent home.
Betty could not help but be thankful. The lands she had governed for those months may have been prosperous but with a woman leading she knew no one would be taking them seriously. Other estates in the surrounding area may have been governed less well with gaps in the defenses they tried to raise against theft and the errant highwayman but it was her land that had been struck at most often despite her vigilance. It was cruel and wrong but she was nothing if not practical. Her father’s presence once more within the household would bring comfort and a boon.
It was on the final evening of her freedom, with her father set to return the following day that Betty chose to take a ride. She had not done so in weeks and with her freedom set to be stripped from her, she craved it all the more. Autumn was spread over the land in full with the October winds turning circles in the vividly red and orange colors the trees surrounding her home had produced. For a while she faced a joy comparable to that from the beginning of the summer, and she laughed in spite of the hardships that were still to come. At that moment such things were far away and unimportant.
Her piece was shattered by the arrow that sped from the trees around her and sent her horse rearing up. Betty clutched at the creature's mane. She was a skilled enough rider to stay in the saddle if only because fear was spurning her to do so. Her horse finally let its forelegs fall to the earth, dancing sideways and shaking its head nervously. Batty tried to calm the animal but she had noticed the truth of her situation and was growing more frightened than her beast.
There were five of them. Two on the path behind her, two ahead and the one who had shot the arrow, perching on a fallen log off to the left of her. They were all of them dressed roughly, with stains and wear upon the fabric showing and the leather of their hunting gear cracked and in need of oil. Moreover, all of them were armed with four swords and two bows spread between them.
They moved forward with no nerves showing in posture or stance, but simply the belief that they had the upper hand and would need to do no more to reach whatever malevolent goals they had planned. In terror Betty kicked her heels hard into the flank of her mount. The already frightened beast bolted forward, leaping into a full run without urging from its rider. The two men before her on the path drew weapons and set to cut her down, their features turning to anger. At the bright flash of steel the horse again panicked. When the girl sought to keep her seat and her balance she raked at he reigns without thought. The horse turned, plunging off the trail and into the brush that gathered thick at the edges of the path.
Without a direction or a sense of time Betty fought to stay mounted on the spooked animal. She dodged branches, ducked under hangings when she could and brought up a hand as shield when need called for it. Around her the forest changed from oaks to the pines of the higher slopes and the underbrush thinned.
Betty had calmed enough to start reeling in her mount's head, slowing them in the process when she first saw it. There was movement in the brush around them. Taking a better look around she noted the lack of birds in the area and the strange silence of all small animals. Time had passed more swiftly than she had before considered and with the turning seasons dusk was already overtaking the valley below her. Only her position on the easternmost slopes kept her position in sight of the fading sun.
The sides of her horse were slick with sweat, the creature heaving, with its head hung low. She moved to dismount, patting it gently and wondering what she could do in a situation like this. Following the slope downhill she knew would lead her to water and perhaps a farm where she might ask some small favors.
This plan does not go as well as she might hope, in fact it is derailed almost immediately. She walked for less than five minutes in her chosen direction before stumbling and putting a twist in her ankle. Useless she thinks to herself, even saying as much out loud, though it sounds odd and there really is no one around to hear her save the horse. Betty considers and finds it best to assess the damage done before the light fades too much to do so. With a twist she loops the reigns she has been holding up around the horse's saddle and lets it move to graze. A stone provides a perch as she carefully undoes her laces and slips off the riding boot. Her ankle is already swelling but it does not appear to be changing color. A minute more and she is certain that no serious damage was done.
The creature came out of the trees just as she is slipping her boot back onto her foot. It's larger than even her childhood fears could paint it with shoulders broad as a plow cart and skin the color of summer leaves. She must have made a sound for it turns to her and it's eyes glow with an unearthly light, green and gold all at once and bright enough to hypnotize. Betty finds herself frozen with fear. She is a mouse come face to face with the serpent and helpless. Her steed has noticed the beast and turns to flee into the woods, and were that she was as clever a creature. Yet no, her ankle keeps her bound to the stone on which she sits.
The terror of her childhood claimed her. It leaned forward sniffing at the air around her and she bit at her tongue to keep from crying out. Then without warning it's enormous hands were hoisting her up and into a pair of arms that held her as if she were a child. Betty closed her eyes and prayed for at that moment that was all she could do.
An eternity later Betty was tossed down into a pile of fabric and straw. In the dark she was left to lay there cold and alone.
When light peeked into the morning sky and sent glimmers of pixie dust dancing in the morning mist Betty woke, trembling in fear and cold to find herself in a rather unexpected situation. The beast she had so feared during the night had vanished with the morning's rays just as when she was a child but unlike her childhood ghost it's presence was felt. She was in a stables, but one that clearly held no animals for none would live in such conditions. Straw both dry and wilted was scattered throughout, as were the remains of the place's former purpose. Footprints large and small could be seen layered atop one another in the muddied earth. Horse stalls stood open and empty, under the leaking and rotting roof as did the large barn doors.
Collecting herself Betty drew up her courage and her riding skirts to venture out into the fall dawn. Again the childhood nightmare was nowhere to be found. In fact there was not a living soul in sight. The mist lay thick over the earth but she could see enough to recognize the form of a large stone wall mounted by a tower in one direction and in another a forest of rowed trees. An orchard planted years ago but abandoned to the elements without anyone to tend it. Apples hung heavy upon the branches dusted red with dew. Betty took a careful look around her lest the beast be laying in wait for the moment she set foot beyond the stable doors. When she found nothing she stepped forward, crossing the empty space to the nearest of the orchards trees on light steps.
Reaching the trunk of the old apple tree she clung to it and again had to muster her will before she could reach up and find her breakfast in it's branches. The fruit was crisp and sweet on her tongue. In a short while the sun rose high enough to sweep away the morning damp and Betty was able to see a well across the yard that might have a serviceable bucket. To her delight she found the well water both clear and cold.
Revitalized with both food and drink inside her and with no more sign of the beast then of a star on a summer's day she tucked several apples into her sash and went in search of a clue as to her location.
Betty followed the wall looking for any sign of other people, or the creature who she was now sure had brought her here. She did not think she was trapped within the castle’s walls, at the very least she could try climbing one of the trees in the orchard. The wall itself had been well crafted, but not well maintained, and there would be holds she was sure. It was a task that proved unnecessary, as she turned a corner and spotted the main gate standing open. Indeed it appeared that the wooden beams had been left open for some time as there was grass growing up around their base, and old season’s leaves piled in drifts around them.
She walked to the threshold and looked out, following the twists of the old disused road down to a small village that sat on the banks of the river that circled the base of the hill on which the castle sat. Betty could tell even from such a distance that the village had a kind of careworn quality. Patched but never properly repaired. Making due but not improving. Though the signs of life were encouraging it was nevertheless slightly disheartening. A city of that size should have had people about, women washing by the river, children at play, and tending animals, men tending fields. The smoke from a few chimneys was evidence of life but the few forms she could see were hunched down against the world, and no sound drifted to her on the wind.
Turning back to look up at the castle once more, Betty wondered what it would be like to live in the shadow of such a presence. Yes, knowing the beast she had seen was somewhere about was a terrifying thought, but there were dangers in any wood. Wolves and the occasional wild cat were known to hunt in the forest near her father’s lands, but no one paid it much heed unless they got into the flocks. This, she thought, must be much the same.
Then movement and a glint of red caught her eye. Around the side of the castle, opposite from whence she’d come, Betty could see a structure of iron and glass the likes of which she had never beheld before that moment. She approached and only when she noted how the sloped glass roof would be angled to catch the strongest of the afternoon light, did she realize what had been built here in this ruin. It was a greenhouse, and behind the glass walls were a hundred crimson blossoms.
A man, dark haired, lean, and dressed in simple clothing exited the greenhouse from a door hidden in the side of the structure he carried a pail in one hand filled with loose earth and plant clippings, which he emptied onto a refuse pile by the castle wall. He turned then and made his way back the way he’d come, his back straight with light gleaming off his spectacles.
Betty thought to call out but when she caught sight of his features, she paused. the spectacles would be odd enough since few could afford the precision glass work needed to make them, but beside the wealth of glass in the greenhouse they were a small enough thing. Similarly his clothing was suitable enough but hardly something for a sunday fair. His features though, were striking, straight and fair with a mouth that was expressive even at rest and eyes that, even hiding behind the spectacles, glittered with insight.
In a different setting she would have thought him a noble with titles equal or even greater than her father. Such a man however, would not be seen with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up and performing menial labor. Yet here she was, caught by the Hulk and without so much as her hat. Perhaps his fate had been similar.
Then he was gone slipping into the building and she had to shake herself from her thoughts.
“Wait.” she called and picking up her skirts she raced to follow him.
Pushing through the door she was faced with a second and even more astonishing sight.
A damp heat filled the greenhouse, surrounding and covering the vibrant blossoms of a hundred different shades of red rose. Dark vines heavy with dusty red blossoms escaped from their trellises to climb the walls. Stately shaped shrubs held half closed crimson clusters. Spindly straight stemmed bushes were topped with russet florets, while emerald brambles were strung about with soft pink buds like a woman’s set of pearls. some breads had wicked thorns and seemed to be straining from their pots while others were quiescent, subdued things whose color seemed to be more of a blush then a declaration. The glass walls and the water that had collected on them spun glittering rainbows across the unexpected glory.
Betty could barely react. The smell alone was nearly overwhelming.
Then she heard the footsteps of the man she had followed and determined to press forward. It was a trick to avoid the reaching branches and the thorns they held but after a moment she found herself in the middle of the room. There surrounded by the heady scent of the red flowers was an alchemist’s workshop. Glass vials and brass scales were crowded by copper bowl full of various powders and small clay bottles covered in striking blue and white glazes. A large slate had been propped up, leaning against one of the sturdy wooden tables and stubs of chalk littered the spaces around it with strange symbols and half smudged scrawls as evidence of activity. A brasure stood far enough from the rest that there was no danger of catching light, and the red coals only added to the rich heat. A kettle sat beside the brasure and as Betty approached it began to whistle. With the strange man still unaccounted for, she reached forward to take it off the embers.
She turned and there he stood, framed in the arch of a doorway that had been overtaken by a string of bloody blossoms. The room behind him seemed to lead into the castle proper and held more brass and copper contraptions. Betty was quick to realize that she stood only on the edge of the workspace and that the true treasures lay within.
Then the kettle became uncomfortable in her hands and she was forced to turn, finding a spot to set it down. “Ah, I’m sorry.”
He took the kettle, seemingly unaware of its heat and poured the steaming water into a mug of pale green leaves before setting it aside. The smell of mint mingled with the roses and Betty relaxed at once.
He blinked and his shock was clear on his face. “For what?”
“The kettle.” Betty smiled and there was laughter under her words.
“Oh, yes, of course. Here” He passed her the cup of mint tea and quickly looked away, clearly flustered, though she couldn’t imagine why.
“But, isn’t this yours?”
“It’s fine. I have another cup around here somewhere. He turned to the workbench and shifted the chaos with a tightly controlled precision that illustrated his unease, or perhaps it was embarrassment. Betty breathed in the tea and found the aroma both strong and pleasant.
“Thank you.” She said again, this time slower and with more care.
He stiffened with his back still to her and muttered to himself. “You shouldn’t be thanking me.”
Betty had always had exceptional hearing. “Excuse me?”
He shook his head, turning and leaning against the edge of the table rather than finding a seat of his own. “Where are you from?”
“My father is the Knight Ross of the lower hills.”
He glanced at her. Betty wondered if she imagined the longing hunger in his hazel eyes before he quickly glanced away.
“I see.” He took a breath. “I’m sorry.”
“For your hospitality when I’ve dropped in completely uninvited?”
He seemed to shrink in on himself a bit, still unwilling to turn his face to hers. When he spoke his voice was level and his words seemed almost by rote. “The monster brought you here. I’m sorry but you can not leave. It would be too dangerous. No one knows when he’ll show himself next. If he catches you in the hills, trying to get away.” He stopped, took a breath and went on his words deliberate. “You are welcome to stay in the castle as long as you wish, or you may go down to the village. There are houses there, that you can use as you like. It may not be what you are accustomed to but I suggest you make yourself as comfortable as possible.” at last he met her eyes and they seemed more green than brown as he laid down the final verdict. “You can never leave.”
After a moment he took off his spectacles cleaning them with a handkerchief. He found the cup he had been after and busied himself with making tea. Betty watched him fuss with leaves and kettle as if so many words at once had used up his reserves.
She thought on what he’d said. Betty had already come to much the same conclusion about any possible escape. even with a horse she knew it would be a full two day’s ride just to crest the hills around the castle. attempting such a ride would be dangerous all on it’s own, what with rockslides and having no road to follow. She did not know these peaks like she knew her father's lands, and would be lost at once. To try such a feat without a horse would be more than foolhardy. Even were she to know of a safe road the journey would take five days at the least. during which the beast could find her at any time.
No, as much as she yearned to see her father again, this matter needed patience.
“What is your name?” She finally asked her host.
He glanced up from from his cup as if surprised she would ask. “Bruce.”
“Well, it has been a pleasure to meet you Bruce. My name is Elizabeth Ross, but please call me Betty.” She offered her hand which he took. He brushed his lips against her knuckles in an overly formal gesture considering the setting.
“The pleasure is mine, Lady Ross.”
“Please, just Betty.”
He nodded, as if he still wasn’t sure despite what she had said. Bruce seemed disinclined to stand still. His hands especially, were always moving, turning his cup between them or taking off his spectacles again to twist at the frames.
He nodded, as if he still wasn’t sure despite what she had said. Bruce seemed disinclined to stand still. His hands especially, were always moving, turning his cup between them or taking off his spectacles again to twist at the frames.
Betty watched him fidget, finally taking pity on him, and changing the subject. “You live here in the castle?”
Bruce nodded, taking a breath. “I do.” He glanced around as if coming back to himself, then offered her his hand. “May I show you around?”
She nodded, taking the offered hand and rising from her seat. Bruce moved to cover the breasure so nothing would catch light and replaced the stoppers in a few of the bottles before opening the rose arched door to bow her inside.
She had barely glimpsed the room beyond when he had first entered and she had been impressed then. Now in the middle of the workshop her steps came to a stop as she gazed around in wonder.
The room was decked out with copper and brass. piping fit into the walls and wires wrapped into coils waiting to be used and melted into other contraptions the purpose of which she could only guess at. Herbs hung in bundles from the wooden rafters and it was clear that the glass vials in the greenhouse were only a small sample of his collection.
Color seemed to come to bruce's cheeks, although it was hard to truly tell in the dark. “I apologise for the mess. It sometimes gets away from me. Here this way.”
Betty smiled at his shyness and followed through another door, and into the castle proper. It was not so unlike her own home. The stone was different, for her own home had been built out of the red clay of the river valley, while this fortress had been constructed of the grey veined stone of the mountain’s bones. the cool dry air had the same feel though, and the many tapestries hung over the walls to keep the chill of autumn at bay depicted many of the same legends and historical battles that she had been taught as a girl. He showed her the front hall, the final dining room, the ballroom, which clearly hadn’t been used for its intended purpose in an age but had a magnificent view of the valley from the terrace. he showed her a series of guest sweats and went on at length about the hot springs he had managed to pump in that provided each with hot water.
When they reached the library Bruce didn’t say a word. He just let her wander among the shelves, looking over the titles and caressing the spines of those she knew. Of all the rooms he had shown her this looked to be the most comfortable and well used, save for his workshop. there were the embers of a fire set deep in the fireplace and the couches in the area were draped in furs and cushions, while the drapes that had been left closed over the windows in the rest of the castle were here drawn back and open. She could easily see him sitting there, a tome in his hands and his spectacles low on his nose.
Then came the smell of baking bread and rich roasting meat. Bruce let one corner of his mouth lift in something akin to a smile and he turned her down a short passage that must surely lead to the kitchens. Her guess was correct. the castle kitchens were bright and full of the smells of good wholesome food clean and welcoming. A young woman moved from hearth to pantry, chopping vegetables at the large wooden table and humming as she worked.
She was tall, with long brown hair that was pulled back to sit on top of her head in a haphazard bundle, and the same hazel eyes as Bruce. When she noticed them, she smiled and smoothed her hands over the apron she had tied around her waist. “Well, look at this. My wayward cousin willingly leaving his books and his potions to come get lunch.” She turned to Betty. “My thanks. I thought I would have to go into that workshop of his and drag him out by his ankles. I’m Jen Walters second heir to house Banners. Welcome.”
“Betty, heir of house Ross.” Betty answered as courtesy was due, but her mind was following the trail of the name. Bruce had not given his family name and as she looked to him now, she saw he was once again twisting his spectacles between his fingers in agitation.
She had heard of the house of Banners before, though it took a moment to place where. There was an old story told among knights about how the first Lord of Banners had had his men each carry two flags into battle so that the enemy would be unable to guess his numbers. That was where the family had earned the name. Her father had told her the story and she settled on that being where she must have heard it.
“Has my cousin bothered to offer you anything? I swear he would not eat himself if I did not force him to come to table.”
“We had a cup of tea in his workshop.”
“Tea? Bruce, a man can not live off tea alone. Have you bothered to eat today at all?” she grabbed his arm and shoved him in the direction of the kitchen table. He seemed to humor her, going willingly with that same slight smile on his face. She nodded to Betty as well, and the three of them sat to the meal.
The rest of the afternoon wove together in an easy fashion. While Bruce remained mostly silent Jen filled the empty spaces with light conversation. As it happened Jen lived in the castle as well, though most others prefered the village. Betty was hardly the first person the beast had found wandering the woods. Mostly the people who were brought into the valley were scared of the castle, as if the structure itself was the creature they feared. Jen would walk down the road every few days, acting as mediator for any trouble and helping to manage the land in exchange for some of the fruits of the earth. In many ways Jen acted in the same manner that Betty had in her father's household.
The one subject that both Bruce and Betty seemed disinclined to speak on, was the beast himself. The cousins were quiet on the subject of how they had come to this place preferring to speak of the current crop and what would need to be done to make the castle ready for winter.
Both Bruce and Jen assured Betty that she would be made welcome in the village, even after she mentioned she would be happy to take one of the smaller rooms, and assist them there in the castle. Since it was already late in the day they seemed to humor her, giving her freedom to choose any room she liked and if or rather when, she changed her mind, Jen would take her into town.
The room she chose was was on the second floor, which seemed to be less used, given the amount of dust. The room had a window and terrace overlooking the valley below with the mountains that bordered her own home, off to the left. There was a large hearth and a bed of goose down with enough quilts to keep her warm through the coldest winter. the furnishings were in a much older style, but they had weathered well and were more than suitable to her needs. There was even a collection of simple gowns that could be altered into a suitable wardrobe, given time and patience.
It was not until night fell and the three members of the household turned to go their separate ways that her spirit broke. She lay in the strange bed, and thought of how her father would have only just returned home. Would her horse have returned home without her? Would they set a search for her, and if so, how long would it go on before they assumed her dead? There would be no ransom, no sign beyond her absence. Was she truly expected to make a life for herself here, leaving all she had known behind her? During the day she had faced the future with all her courage, but now she could hold out no longer.
Wrapping a quilt around her shoulders like a cloak, she fell to her knees before the hearth and wept. The fire she had set, danced, shifted and finally sank into embers, as her tears cried themselves out. At long last, she was able to take a breath and wipe away her tears with hands that only shook a little. She found the room had grown colder and she had yet to bring a supply of wood up to her chambers to bank the fire. Wrapping her blanket closer around her shoulders, she slipped into the hall. A few logs from the kitchen would not be missed and perhaps she would then be able to find some sleep.
Before she could reach the kitchen she passed the doors to the library and the light from another fire caught at her steps. She paused in the doorway. Bruce stood there, his arms outstretched to grip the mantle as he stared down at the flames. Though the night had grown cold he wore only a set of trousers and the thinnest of cotton shirts, without even a set of slippers to protect him from the cold stone floors. His breathing was uneven, and harsh enough that she could hear it even over the crackling of the flames and across the room.
Fearful that he may be having some kind of fit, Betty stepped forward. “Bruce?” Her voice was low, but his reaction could not have been more fierce if she had shouted.
Fast as a whip crack, he turned to face her, his hands curling into fists while he bared his teeth in a snarl. More haunting than any physical threat were his eyes, for they glowed an unearthly poisonous green.
Betty gasped and fell back, until she found herself against the wall beside the door. His eyes found her, searching her form, before after a tense pause, he was able to relax. He leaned heavily against the mantle, as if suddenly bereft of strength.
“Betty,” His voice when he spoke was deep and harsh.
“Are you alright?” It took a moment for Betty to find the words but when she did they were steady.
“You should go back to bed.” This time his tone was steadier, but he refused to meet her eyes.
“Bruce, are you -”
“Leave.” His words cut her off with a finality that shocked her, and she retreated from the room without another word.
The next morning Betty found herself lingering in her rooms. She thought of how Bruce had looked and wondered if he had changed his mind about her staying in the castle, but no his anger may have been triggered by her entrance, but she hadn’t been the cause of it. What then, and what had made his eyes turn that terrible color?
It was long after the cock had announced the dawn that Betty dressed and descended the steps from her room. The kitchen was empty but the kettle was waiting to be swung over the fire and a bowl of porridge had been covered and set aside for her. She ate in quiet contemplation, unable to assess what the day might hold for her. Jen came in from the kitchen garden just as she was finishing.
“Ahh, finally awake. I see you found the breakfast I put aside.” Jen moved to set her basket down on the other side of the large table and started sorting out the various contents. she had the first of the winter squash, lettuce and a few late peppers and herbs, along with a few ears of corn and a pair of onions. As she spoke she started washing what needed to be washed and hanging the herbs to dry.
“If you don’t mind waiting until I’m finished we can head into town before lunch and get you properly settled in somewhere. There’s a fine young man, Samson, who does all the repair work, when people need it and he’s sure to make you feel welcome.”
Betty pursed her lips, wondering if the question on her mind would be considered to straightforward. she decided that even if it was she still had to ask. “Are you angry with me? Have I done something wrong?”
Jen looked up, “Why would you think such a thing?”
“Last night and now this morning you have acted as if my moving into the village is an inevitability. If you would prefer me to go then of course I will not overstay my welcome, but if i have offended you somehow, then I would like to correct my wrong.”
“Oh, no, you have not offended me, it is just,” Jen’s words trailed into silence and she would not meet Betty’s eyes.
“And Bruce, have I offended him?” Betty was uncertain if she truly wanted the answer but the words were in the air now and could not be taken back.
Jen met her eyes but could not seem to form words of her own.
“It’s just,” Betty faltered, then went on. “Last night I came downstairs to fetch a bit of extra wood for my fire and I saw him in the library. His whole form was shaking and I thought something must be wrong. I called out to him and when he turned, his eyes, his whole frame, so full of rage I could not bear it. he told me to go and I did. Please whatever I’ve done to cause such anger let me make amends.”
Jen leaned forward laying one hand atop Betty’s own. “It is not you that causes this anger, do not blame yourself, but understand, should you ever see Bruce like that again, you must not approach him. You must run and hide away. Do you understand?”
Betty nodded softly unsure of what to say.
Jen nodded then centered herself. “And you wish to stay even after last night? You may be more comfortable --”
Betty smiled and shook her head. “I will not be scared away so easily, if that is your only fear. In any case it must certainly be difficult to manage such an estate with only the two of you.”
Jen seemed to give in then, smiling. “Well, I admit it would be nice to have an extra set of hands.”
The two women spent the remainder of the morning relaxing in the gardens, harvesting and preparing them for winter. They picked apples in the orchard, and when the noon hour came around they both cornered Bruce, who had once more retreated to his laboratory, bringing him to table through cajoling comments and the fact that Jen dared to steal his spectacles.
The afternoon was passed with quiet common tasks that Betty had done or seen done all her life. in addition to the gardens, the castle had to be made ready for winter, wood cut, and stacked the windows shuttered and the small number of animals kept on the castle grounds squared away. Betty learned there was a grey cat, who prowled the halls and several geese and chickens had turned one of the outbuildings into a roost. Then there was the canning to do, smoking and drying meat and herbs, making preserves and putting away casks of mulled wine and cider. there was knitting and darning to be done on clothing that hadn’t been seen since the last cold season.
While Betty joining the household had certainly added to certain labors, it was clear that the extra set of hands was welcome.
Bruce would assist the two women but he would often become distracted and sometimes even wander off to be found hours later caught up with his work in the greenhouse. Not that the work wasn’t important. while he clearly had a passion for some puzzle that the cousins would not discuss, he also set his mind to mixing powders and elixirs to help with fever and cough, he mixed teas that would ease aching joints and other concoctions to cure all manner of small illnesses.
Betty only learned of this on her fifth day at the castle, when Jen brought out the two sturdy plowhorses that would pull their old cart to town. Bruce stacked box after box, each carefully labeled into the back of the cart while Jen added her own contributions of cider, fresh apples and cheeses that she had drawn up from the castles cold-rooms.
Betty elected to go into town with Jen, if only to meet a few new faces.
the village did not seem to have a regular market day, it was simply too small and being cut off from travelers as it was there was no inn, not indeed any proper shops. The smithy was not far from the central square and open to the road so that any man who needed a horse shod or and lady who might need a new pot could simply walk in and ask for such a thing. So to was the home of the old weaver woman, although she seemed to do most of her business from the front steps of her home, as she sat in a truly ancient rocking chair and mended things as she watched the world go by. the community was a small one indeed but clearly close knit as word had spread of their arrival and of Betty’s status as a newcomer before they had scarce passed the edge of town.
Children and dogs came to flank them on their way and as the lunch hour was upon them the men who were coming in from the fields to eat, walked beside the wagon, looking at what they had brought, or running eyes over Betty, sizing her up for she knew not what.
She was forced to assume that they, like Bruce and Jen before them would be expecting her to come and live in town. She wondered idly how many other young women had come to them as she had and if they were thinking of courting her or of the extra mouth that now needed to be fed. The castle stores had been surprisingly full, but she had little notion of if the same applied here in the village. Would they go to the castle in need, even as scared of it as they seemed to be?
She found herself hesitating as she spoke to the villagers, and Jen was the one to step forward and speak most often.
It quickly became clear that the villagers did expect her to join them as the women asked after her skills and mentioned things that they could spare from their own wardrobes, cupboards and larders. They tried to comfort her, and while it might have been appreciated at another time or if given in another way, the assumption and the condescension rubbed at her until she felt no better then after a hard day of negotiating with her father’s counselors. None seemed to believe her capable, and she failed to see anything wrong with her decision. There was nothing overtly off about the castle. Yes it was the home of the hulking beast in the stories she had been told as a child, but it was clear to her that the creature did not stalk the halls simply waiting to snatch up anyone who dared enter. In fact she had not seen the creature since he had captured her in the hills. The castle seemed as safe a place as any, and more comfortable then some. The creature most likely did not even venture into the valley.
Returning to the castle was a comfort.
While Jen had assured her that She was welcome, and that Bruce was not upset, Betty made up her mind to apologize properly. When she did not see him at dinner she set out to explore and see where he could be found. Jen had joked that his experiments kept him busy at all hours. Sometimes Jen would even have to remind him to eat. Today however, that did not seem to be the case. Bruce was not in the greenhouse, nor was he in the workshop beside it.
She thought to check his rooms, wondering if he had retired early. Knocking lightly in case he was asleep, she found the door open, and his bed empty. Betty checked the library, thinking that she had found him there before, but while the fire was lit, he was nowhere in evidence. Every room she checked, from the kitchen and larder to the heights of the tallest tower were empty.
Betty found herself pacing the entryway. She was afraid for him. While she knew she could handle himself, there was the beast to consider. Moreover full dark had come, a windy october storm plucking the leaves from the forest. She looked out past the castle gates. Surely she had missed him somewhere in the castle and he was fine, but if he wasn't....
Movement caught her eye at the edge of the wood. Swallowing her fear Betty took up a candlestick and held it aloft.
"Bruce?" she called, but her voice was lost in the rising wind. "Bruce is that you?"
The movement came again.
Betty was generally a sensible girl, but in that moment she chose to be brave instead of sensible. Taking a breath, she walked boldly into the gloom, holding her candle high. The woods groaned with the storm and rain started to fall. Betty turned up her collar and regretted her lack of a coat. Just a moment. she told herself. She would see if the movement was Bruce, and then return to the castle. After all Bruce would hardly thank her for catching her death if he was safely back in bed.
She stepped forward again, placing her feet carefully so that she would not slip or become entangled with a thorn bush.
In the distance lightning flashed, casting brief shadows over the whole of the valley, thunder rumbling off the hills. Betty startled, grabbing at her candle. The wind came up, and caught the flame snuffing it out. Suddenly the woods seemed a good deal darker and more sinister. The trees reached for her with grasping claws. Wolves howled in the distance. Betty turned, looking back, but could not see the castle or the path she had followed.
"Bruce?" she called. More desperate now to find him for her own sake. "Bruce?"
She shivered as the rain soaked through her gown. If this were the forest around her father's home she would have known how to escape. how to follow the hills until she reached the river, or the road, and from there to safety, but here she knew no landmarks, only the dangers. This would be the kind of night to meet a beast.
Once more a lash of thunder raked the sky and Betty's feet ran off with her. She raced through the woods, dropping her useless candle. She batted at the branches that tried to catch her only to trip on the uneven ground and go tumbling. She cursed herself for a clumsy oaf, but managed to duck her head and avoid all but a few scratches. When she came to a stop she was covered in mud and leaves, colder than ever and truly completely lost.
Trouble piled upon trouble, as she looked up into the yellow glowing eyes of a wolf.
She had surprised it, falling nearly into it's den. It rose from it's bed, looming twice as large as she, with a pelt that might have been a light brown or a light gray or even white, but that the dark and rain cast as a shroud of her death. It bared its fangs, and it's growl echoed the thunder, rolling off the rocks.
Fear tried to seize her throat. Betty scrambled back, and by chance her hand found a hefty branch. She yanked it free of the loose soil and with a defiant cry brandished it at the beast.
A second cry echoed her own. The wolf shrank back, still growling but no longer focused on her. Another flash of lightning came, this one casting a great shadow out in front of her. Her numb fingers lost their grip on the branch as Betty turned and for the second time came face to face with the green giant. His eyes were glowing with emerald fire, flists clenched as he looked at her.
"I was lost." Betty managed to gasp. "I was looking for Bruce and I got lost."
A frown creased the beast's brow but before he could do more the wolf drew their attention with a guttural howl. A dozen sets of golden eyes lit up the night around them.
Betty nearly staggered when the beast wrapped an enormous hand around her shoulder and pulled her close. It should have been terrifying, but as she pressed brought her hands up and felt the warmth of his chest, she was strangely comforted. He smelled of roses.
The beast held out his clawed free hand, letting out a roar that Betty felt in her bones. She saw the first wolf leap, and turned into his chest hiding her face with a desperate prayer. for an eternity the world was nothing but snarls and howls, the rain and the smell of roses. Then the beast snatched her up. She instinctively wrapped her arms wound his neck. With a single step he lept into the air. Her stomach fell and her ears popped. The rain came at them sideways. He reached out, caught something then flung them in a new direction.
There was nothing she could do but hold on as one jump led to another and another. In the gloom she couldn't see the forest around them or the ground beneath them. She had no idea how he was finding his footing, but he was.
Then with no signal as to what had changed, he stopped, rocked on his heels a moment and settled. He looked down at her. Betty slowly released her hold, and let him set her on the ground. Her hands trailed down his arms.
"Thank you." she managed after a moment. "You saved me." Betty hadn't heard the creature speak but enough stories spoke of animals speaking that she thought it was a fair bet, and after all he had been a man once.
He hummed. One hand came up and a finger tapped her chest, pushing until she took a step back. The rain stopped. Betty looked up and realized there was a roof over her. not just any roof either, the roof of the balcony off the castle ballroom. There doors behind her were latched, but unlocked, and she gratefully flung them open. just stepping through the doorway helped with her shivers. a hot bath and a fire might even keep her from getting a chill.
Betty stopped. She turned and looked back at the beast. He was still out on the balcony backed by the wind and rain. It could have been a scene from the stories of her childhood. A terrible monster here to take her away. If not for his expression she might have even believed it. He was looking down, eyes strangely large as he watched her with a desperate longing.
"Would you like to come inside?" Betty found herself asking. "The others won't mind. It is your castle after all. It would be rather backwards for me to get all warm and leave you out in the cold."
"Everyone leave hulk in the cold."
Despite her earlier thought, Betty had to hide a gasp at the beast's low rumbling voice. Then with all the grace of her upbringing, she rallied. "Not me. Please come in. I'll get a fire started."
Slowly the beast took two rolling steps, ducking through the doorway. His eyes were still bright even as the gloom hid the rest of his features. fear tried to get a new foothold in her heart, but she fought it back, calling up all the charm lessons of her childhood.
"I do apologise. I'm being dreadfully presumptuous offering you things in your own castle, but since I'm imposing perhaps I can at least make myself useful." She busied herself shutting the balcony doors and finding a candle. she didn't have any matches but there was a torch in the hall that was still burning. The beast quietly watched her, settling down on the floor when she knelt to build up a fire in the large hearth.
The ballroom wasn't the most comfortable place to spend the night, but there was a rug in front of the fire and a few dust cloths pulled from the nearby furniture were big enough to serve as blankets.
Betty considered sneaking off to her own room, but she didn't want the beast to feel alone, or rise his anger. Besides it would have been rude to just leave him. after all he was too big to go wandering the halls, even if they'd had a room prepared for him. Instead she settled beside the large green figure. Leaning against his side, she let out a low breath and let the last of the tension drain out of her. The warmth of the fire and the smell of roses was tricking her mind into believing everything was safe.
He carefully settled a hand on her shoulder drawing a thumb over her shoulder blade. Betty hummed, enjoying the sensation. Exhaustion pulled her into sleep before she could brace herself against it.
When morning came Betty woke in a pile of dusty cloth. She was sore and stiff and the fire had gone out leaving her cold as well. She sniffed and wondered if the inevitable cold would be as bad as she feared.
The beast was nowhere to be found. The balcony doors were closed, but that was hardly an obstacle for one such as he. No the truly astonishing thing was that he'd stayed as long as he had. She had been mad to act that way. Courtesy was one thing, especially when it was clear he didn't have a lot of human contact, apart from kidnaping people of course. But then she'd gone and fallen asleep on him. If the situation had been anything other than what it was, well, the more civilized world would never stand for it.
Making her way down to the kitchen, she found Bruce already awake and cradling a cup of tea. He flushed crimson at the sight of her. Only then did she realize she was still in yesterdays dress and it was rather the worse for ware. She'd have to change, but tea first.
"I'm glad to see you. I was worried about you last night." Betty said, fiddling with the kettle.
Bruce stuttered, "Yes, right, I'm fine. Are you? He didn't hurt you?"
Betty looked up, "Me? no, but you saw him? I'm sorry if it was presumptuous of me to invite him in, but the storm was dreadful."
"No no, it's his home as much as mine and Jen's... sort of..." He looked down at his cup as if it was one of his equations. Something for him to solve. Betty drank her tea.
Jen came in yawning. She fumbled for her mug and while she waited for the tes to steep her eyes landed on Betty and Bruce. "Did I miss something?"
"I met our beast last night." Betty said.
Jen went still, suddenly fully alert. Her eyes slid over to Bruce. "You did?"
Betty nodded, "Actually he saved me. I think he said his name was Hulk." She tried to remember the details of their conversation but she'd been rather frazzled at the time.
Jen was openly staring. Betty drank her tea. Jen shook herself and looked at Bruce, one eyebrow raised. "Well, I'd say that's certainly something alright."
Bruce refused to meet Jen's gaze. His blush was back.
Betty decided to leave them to it. She made her excuses and went to go get cleaned up.
The final weeks of the season passed in a buzz. They pushed to fit in all the preparations for winter. The storm Betty had escaped was the first of several and mere rain soon turned to snow. Betty grew used to waking up to cold toes and blessed the kitchen stove and the greenhouses for their welcoming warmth. Jen and Bruce who had weathered many winters in the castle, knew all the tricks to make the long hours pass pleasantly. There was the library to start with and Betty spent many hours by the fire, reading histories and fairy-tales that she had never heard before.
Bruce would spend hours in the greenhouses pulled away from his experiments by Jen in the evening hours. They had many marry and heated discussions. Betty found that her knowledge of the modern sciences actually outstripped his, as she had not been isolated for so many years. He asked for every scrap of knowledge she could remember, and he in turn told her where the books she had read that day had been found or written.
There was plenty of mending do be done, and small repairs that had been neglected over the year. Over several days Betty went through all the cupboards and came back with every chipped plate or cup, setting them aside. On another day she collected all the brass and silver for polishing. There was no chance enough of the villagers would want to trudge up the hill though the snow to attend a dinner party, but seeing the full set of gleaming silver shining in neat rows reminded Betty of when she was a girl and would pretend.
She told Bruce as much when he found her in the small dining room off the kitchen. "I would set up the silver and have the cook make my favorite tea. I would set up my doll and pretend that the queen of the fairies had come to see me. She was invisible of course."
"Of course." Bruce agreed.
"I suppose every little girl plays at having tea." Betty said wistfully.
"Maybe, I certainly played solder with the other young boys of the castle."
Betty looked him up and down. His sleeves were singed and his hair was wild. Moreover there was a wild energy about him that Betty had only recently tried to identify.
"You seem more like the wizard to me." She said.
Bruce laughed letting his hand run through his hair and muss it even further. "Maybe, but that wasn't part of the plan."
"Plan?" Betty asked. She wished she had more than the silver in front of her. Her hands itched to pour him a drink and lean in close to hear the secret.
"My father's plan," Bruce said and that was clearly the end of that. His expression became hard, and he turned without another word, walking away.
Betty sighed and set about putting away the silver. When it came to it she knew so little about her hosts. She did not wish to pry, but it seemed she would forever be stepping on their toes if she did not. Setting the problem aside for the moment, Betty went to find Jen and another task to keep herself busy.
Some days later, when the sun was clear and bright in the sky, sending its rays dancing across the snow, Betty decided to walk the castle walls. She had done so a few times when she had first arrived, and familiarizing herself with the castle. With her heavy snow boots on, she carefully climbed the stairs to the top of the wall. From over the gate she could see down into the valley. Smoke rose from the chimneys in the village and there were even a few bright spots as people moved about, fetching water or feeding the animals. The main street had turned from snow white to grey-brown with the passage of feet.
Betty turned to look at her home. The castle stood tall, it's towers dark and bare but still majestic even without the traditional banners. The slanted roofs were piled high with snow. Betty marked a few spots that they would need to check for leaks.
A breeze came up and Betty pulled her coat tighter about her shoulders. She had stepped out for a walk and it would be a brisk walk indeed if she stood around taking a chill. As she walked she looked down at the village again, and thought how much harder it would be to visit now without a broken trail. If they needed help or if the village needed help from them it would be quite a task just to come and ask for it.
Batty paused then, realizing a truth that should have been apparent. Here she was upon the wall, walking without trouble. The snow had been cleared from the parapets, completely cleared. She leaned over the wall and sure enough there were extra piles of snow where the excess had been pushed aside. the whole of the wall was clear, nearly a half mile all told. It was a task that should have taken several days and she knew that Bruce and Jen had not been so occupied.
Betty hesitated at the thought of another person in the castle. It was a large place but surely she would have noticed if that were the case. Moreover anyone glancing at the walls would have seen them, and why bother clearing the wall in any case? It was convenient at the moment, but hardly a common pastime. A shame too since there would be more snow before too long and all the work undone.
There was another resident of the castle who might have done it, but Betty could hardly think why the Hulk would have bothered. She had not seen him since the night of the first storm. She did not think that was uncommon, but it still made her wonder if he was safe and warm. He wasn't the monster everyone said, or at least, he hadn't been that night. In all the stories he'd lived alone in the castle. It piqued her interest, and made her wonder if he really was hiding somewhere.
The next day the storms were back layering more sleet and snow over the castle. Breakfast was a quiet affair and each of the castle's residence slipped off to their own tasks when the meal was finished. Jen was tending to the animals, and Bruce had once more retreated to the greenhouses. Betty spent an hour mending before she grew tired of pricking her fingers. Standing in the hall she considered making tea. Then her eyes caught on the curve of the hallway and her feet carried her to the ballroom instead.
She had long since tidied the space in front of the fire but the ashes from that night were still in the hearth. In a burst of inspiration she went to fetch the dust cloths. Sweeping out the ashes and laying the foundation for a new fire, took the rest of the morning, and she came to lunch smiling and covered in soot.
Jen nudged her cousin. They had been keeping company by the library fire as the evening wore on. Now the other woman spoke. "So when are we going to see some of your experiments outside the greenhouse?"
Betty looked up from her book, "Oh have you discovered something?"
Bruce blushed, looking down and away, then glancing up again, "Ah, no not like that. She means cooking."
"You can cook?" Betty asked. Up to that point in her stay that had shared such chores, making simple fare, eggs and bread and hearty soups, but it would have been nice to taste the sweet buns and toffees that were traditional for the season.
Bruce nodded slowly, "it's just a different application of the same skills."
Jen scoffed, "He's not giving himself enough credit. He could spend all day in the kitchen." She looked at him, "I believe you owe us after leaving us to do all the chores while you stay tucked up in your lab."
Betty couldn't help but giggle at the friendly teasing.
Bruce rolled his eyes. "If you're angling for toffees, then I'm not making them alone."
The cousins good naturedly negotiated over the toffees, agreeing that on the next clear day they would go down to the crop of maples and collect the syrup.
Three days later they did just that, packing a sled with empty jars and heading down the hill. They weren't the only ones who had had the idea, and they were not the first to arrive. Children ran between the trees watching the sweet sap dripping from the spouts, as their parents checked the jars and warmed their hands by a small fire.
When Betty saw the crowd she waved and smiled, pleased with the thought of company beyond what her companions could provide. Those same companions were not as joyful. Jen nodded to the villagers, and found several trees that had not yet been tapped. Bruce stayed by the sled, kneeling and examining the jars for any flaws despite already having done so before they left.
The village women smiled at Betty and seemed surprised, though at what she could not say. She gladly shared in the gossip and laughed at the the children's games. More than one of the women asked if she was truly alright and assured her that she would be welcome in the village. Betty slowly came to realize that they thought the beast lived in the castle. True that was what all the stories said, but if their experience was anything like hers then surely they knew the truth. Wherever the hulk was, he was not so close as to cause fear.
Not that Betty was sure she did fear him anymore. After all he had never hurt her. He had never tried to hurt her. Had in fact saved her on more than one occasion now.
They were afraid of the castle and what they thought lay inside it. Betty decided she would not be.
A cry went up and Betty turned. Bruce had his arm raised, shielding his face. There was snow on the arm of his jacket. One of the children stood nearby, snow on their gloves. Betty nearly laughed. It would be a lark to see Bruce play with the children, throwing snowballs. Yet the other villagers had gone pale. A woman Betty had spoken to rushed forward, her eyes wide on Bruce as she snatched up the child and pulled him away. There was a tension in the air as if another storm was on the edge of breaking.
Bruce slowly lowered his arm. He looked at his sleeve and brushed off the snow. A girl near Betty flinched. Bruce turned to the tree putting his back to the crowd as he examined the sap in the jar. Jen had apparently noticed the commotion and came running through the trees. She caught herself before she ran into Bruce. He held up a hand before she could say anything.
"I think I'll take these back to the castle. It's getting a bit cold for me out here." Bruce said loud enough that everyone could hear. He replaced the half full jar with an empty one and headed for their sled. Jen didn't say anything.
Betty didn't understand. It had been a harmless bit of fun hadn't it? The children had thrown snow at each other all morning.
Apparently it was not so, as Bruce took several jars from the sled, packed them into his bag, and took his leave back to the castle. Around Betty the crowd slowly relaxed. After several minutes conversation started again. Betty waited for a polite moment then excused herself and went in search of Jen. She found the other woman by the sled. It didn't look as if she was doing much of anything, but when Betty approached Jen held up a hand.
"Later. Whatever it is, it can wait." Jen looked up meeting her eyes, "Please."
Betty slowly nodded. While she did not understand, she understood the need for discretion when it came to family matters, especially for those expected to lead. Betty took up one of the last empty jars and declared her intent to check the trees, leaving Jen to collect herself.
They left not long after, making their way silently up the hill to their home, pulling the sled behind them. Betty hesitated to speak since it was apparent that Jen was still in a state of distress. when they reached the castle Jen rushed inside leaving Betty to take the sled around to the kitchen. Bruce was not there, nor was he in his greenhouse laboratory. Betty told herself not to worry, that they would be alright and she would be there waiting when things returned to as they had been. She set the sap aside for Bruce and put the kettle on.
One evening when she had spent the whole day alone and found herself unable or unwilling to retire early, Betty's feet took her on a walk about the castle. She met no one in the halls, as she had expected.
Though she knew the layout of the castle there were still rooms she had not visited, either because they had been closed for lack of use or because they reportedly held nothing of interest.
Finding herself frustrated with her hosts, Betty decided she would see for herself if they were hiding anything interesting.
One long hallway held a collection of guest rooms, that had clearly long stood empty. Another led into a solar with an arched ceiling, empty save for a long wooden table running down the center of the room. One room held a long disused lavatory. Another lead to a narrow stair to the cellar filled with dusty casks and bottles of wine and cider. She found a chapel with a single dusty, stained glass window. The dove it portrayed looked flat with piled snow beyond. Climbing into one of the towers she found an aviary where families of pidgins still resided though not in the pens intended for them.
Betty at last found herself tiring and turned to wander back to her rooms. Before she could make much progress however she felt a draft from under a door and paused. The door was high marking it as part of the proper castle rather then the more humble back rooms and service quarters, but it was not part of the castle that she or the others used. Perhaps a window had been broken in one of the storms she thought. If that was indeed the case then it should be fixed at once.
She reached for the handle, prepared to asses the damage, and gasped instead.
The room had once been part of a formal suit, and a lavish one at that. There were tapestries on the walls that, though clearly old, also depicted incredible skill. In one a unicorn rested by a reflecting pool. In another a rose covered arch framed a sater and two nymphs enjoying their revels. In pride of place a woman in a golden gown danced with a prince while the court looked on and cheered. The fireplace was large enough to cook in and there were signs that it had been used recently. There was a basin of fresh water on a side table, that was still clear and clean. While the only furniture had been shoved against the walls the floor had been covered in dozens of rugs and pillows. Unlike the other rooms she had had seen there was no sign of neglect. The source of the draft was a balcony door left unlatched and blown open. A light dusting of snow had drifted in on the wind though at a glance it was clear that like the walls this balcony had been cleared. In fact it was clear that someone had stood by the door recently. There were pools of muddy water that had not yet dried or frozen over, and one of the rugs there by the door seemed to have been used as a cleaning rag.
Betty found herself stepping forward onto the balcony, and peering down over the railing. She was higher in the tower then she had realized and the view was better than even that of the walls. To one side the orchards lay in winters embrace, while to the other the greenhouses were a splash of color. The walls were a dark line mirroring the more distant line of the mountains.
The wind whistled around her and Betty retreated tugging the door shut behind her.
The room was yet another mystery, but not a difficult one to solve. She had found the rooms of her beast, and she found herself torn. Betty looked up at the tapestry of the dancers. While the prince was looking at his wife, the lady was looking out at the viewer. She was smiling and the weaver had managed to capture a light in her eye.
"Well my lady?" Betty asked, "What should I do now that I have found this place?" Bruce and Jen must be aware of it, she thought. And clearly they were not troubled. They had likely hid it from her because they thought that she would be afraid. Perhaps they had told others in the past and those they told had fled to the village. It would certainly explain the comments she had received.
Sparing a last look around the room, Betty decided to let things be for the moment. It would be rude to have the beast return to an unexpected visitor, and besides, it was by now quite late. She closed the door to the room as she left carefully marking it in her mind so she could recall it later.
"Enough" Betty said one breakfast, after her companions sulking had gone on for long enough. "I will not ask for an explanation, but I will ask for it to be put behind us. I was promised toffee, and I still have not had your cooking Bruce."
Jen looked at Bruce with a raised eyebrow and a smile. He ducked his head at first, but a minute later he looked up. He wore an apologetic smile as he nodded.
"You're right, I'm sorry. Should we get out some of the dried apples as well?"
They made a day of it. Defying the light snow they made a fire in the yard and boiled the sap into a syrup tossing splashes onto the snow to freeze in sheets and be eaten like chips. The second batch they took inside, adding pecans and dried fruit. Then Bruce waved the women away getting out flour and sugar to prepare sweetbread pasties.
Betty expected the dinner that night to be extravagant but apparently Bruce had only finished the first of the preparations and it would not be until the following day that they got to enjoy the spoils.
Jen ambushed Betty the following day after their light lunch, pulling her aside. Jen had poured a bath and insisted on doing Betty's hair. Betty tried to chide her, saying it was unnecessary when it was just the three of them, but Jen just smiled and insisted. By the time dinner was to be served Jen had put Betty in an evening gown of blue silk with white and green embroidery tracing stars and flowers around the hem. Her hair was pulled back with golden pins and fell in a tail behind her. About her neck was a string of emeralds set in gold.
Betty felt foolish if secretly pleased.
Jen was in a much more sedate gown of russet brown, with copper at her wrists and neck. Betty tried to protest that Jen should have the finer gown, but Jen denied her by saying it wouldn't fit.
After all the preparation Betty was hardly surprised when Jen led her to the formal dining room, rather than the small room off the kitchen where they normally ate. There were three places set with the fine china and silver that Betty had spent all that time polishing. Most of the food was already on the table kept warm in covered trays. Betty breathed deep and her mouth watered at the smells of roast pheasant, watercress greens and baked apples. Mulled wine steamed from an earthenware pitcher while a selection of bottles were set out for consideration.
Betty turned and saw Bruce in the doorway. He was in a waistcoat, though there was a telltale dusting of flower over the hems of his sleeves. He held a tray of sweet ices nestled in a bowl of snow to keep them until the end of the meal. He set the tray down on the table without taking his eyes off her.
Betty fought not to blush as she curtsied. "I am honored to be invited to your table my lord."
As if in a dream he stepped forward, taking her hand and bowing over it. "You do me the honor. This castle has been a brighter place since you came to stay with us."
Bruce insisted on pulling out her chair. Jen grinned at her from across the table as she sat herself.
The dishes were uncovered with a solemnity that made them all smile at the strange formality. There was the roast pheasant, baked tubers with cheese, the sweet rolls Bruce had started the day before. There was rosemary stuffing rich with the fat of a slow roasted ham. There were savory rolls filled with greens, applesauce with cinnamon and nutmeg, and roasted pecan clusters drizzled with honey.
Before he took his own seat Bruce poured them each a glass of wine and lifted his own in a toast. "To family, and to the start of a new year. May it be better than all before it."
Betty blinked and tried to add up the days, sure enough it was the eve of the solstice, the longest night of the year, and she hadn't even realized. She raised her glass, and drank well.
"And to my hosts. I may not have chosen my arrival, but you have made these last few months better than I could have imagined."
Bruce looked down at his plate, and slowly sat. "I'm sorry. I..."
Jen looked between the two of them, and cleared her throat, "What he means to say is that you're welcome here for as long as you'd like to stay. Your company has made our days brighter too. Now should we eat?"
She started serving before either of them could answer, and the awkward moment passed. They spoke of lighter fare. Betty told stories of her childhood, of solstices past. She told of parties and dancing by the bonfire. In their turn Bruce and Jen told of the bright parties thrown when they were young. Of how the castle doors would be thrown open and nobles and villagers alike would fill the ballroom. The lamps would burn until dawn, chasing away the darkness for another year.
"That sounds grand. Why didn't we do that?" Betty asked after her fourth or perhaps fifth glass of wine. The remains of the roast had been tucked away, and even the ices had been savored. Bruce was as fine a cook as boasted.
"What, throw open the gates? Those small-minded," Jen searched for a word, "mice wouldn't poke their heads out if their houses were on fire. You'd think we terrorized them, stole away their children. Ha. As if they'd have a better life with the bandits and the taxes and the wars outside."
Bruce tried to take her glass but she managed to dodge him.
Betty giggled, "No but the dancing." She stood and waved her own thankfully empty glass. She stumbled into a curtsy. "After all, we're dressed for it! All but Bruce!"
"You do not want to see me in tights." Bruce protested.
"No, she's right." Jen declared, and together the women coaxed him down the hall to the ballroom.
Betty threw open the double doors, grateful that she'd done the work to make it presentable. It was only a moment to light the fire in the grate, and by then Jen had the lamps lit, sending rainbows from the crystal chandeliers. Jen pushed Bruce onto the floor and with a flourish pulled the dust cloth off a grand piano. She tapped at a few keys and they all made overly horrified faces at the off key notes that echoed through the hall.
"Well, I never!" Betty said in a high false voice.
Jen laughed, and began to pluck out a simple but lively tune. Betty kept up her mock affront until Bruce offered her his hand. She wasn't sure if it was the wine that made her face flush. Bruce put a hand on her waist, and stepped into a country dance that everyone knew. He led her around the floor through one song and into the next, and when they finally fell onto the rug before the fire they were laughing with exertion.
Jen filled a spare pitcher with snow from the balcony and placed it next to the fire to melt.
Betty pointed at it. "Snow. He clears the walls and his rooms of course, but not here? Why? Why clear the walls at all?"
Bruce emptied the last of the mulled wine into his cup, and used it to gesture at the room and the walls behind. He spoke with a deep note of a lesson long repeated. "A sword is no good if a man cannot wield it, but a knight without a sword is just as lost."
Jen snorted and spoke in a loud whisper, "The master of the guard used to shout that at every young soldier who was trained here. He'd go on and on about how a weapon needed a welder and a welder needed a weapon. He'd say it about the swords the armor, the walls even. You louts better keep your equipment in shape" She huffed out her chest and lowered her voice for the last, imitating someone Betty had never met.
Bruce pulled himself up and scowled in mockery of the memory, "What good is a wall if you can't stand on it." He said in the same deep voice.
Jen snorted a laugh.
"He sounds like my father." Betty laughed, but her smile faded. "He went off to war you know. The day I ended up here was the day before he was to return home. He was not always a kind man, but I do miss him dearly. He's the only family I have left."
Jen squeezed Betty's hand. "I'm sorry, at least you know he's okay."
Betty nodded solemnly, but the thought did not cheer her, "My father was injured in battle. While he survived to return home, I do not know wheat state his injury left him. I-- It is terrible to say but I fear for my people as much as for him. He has something of a temper and if he is bedridden or even simply reliant on another, he will surely be a strict taskmaster. After my mothers death, I was the only one excused from his tempers."
Bruce leaned back against the mantle and turned his head to the snow billowing outside the balcony doors. "You are lucky than. I know about fathers with tempers. Your father was at least a general and so knows what to expect when leading men. My father was a tyrant."
Betty sat in awe, for though she had heard Bruce and Jen talk around their pasts Betty had never heard anything so direct. The silence stretched and Bruce, seemingly lost in his musings, started on a tale.
My father was not a good Duke. He did not govern his people, he ordered them about. In his mind everyone was just as beholden to him as the castle mutt, and should be grateful for it. As his heir I should have been better than all of them, and I tried, but I could never live up to his impossible expectations. Most often I did my best to stay out of sight, and so: out of mind, but his quest to fix me was never truly put aside.
I never understood why everyone thought I was broken. My father would rage, throwing whatever he had to hand at anyone who displeased him. By contrast I spoke softly and used logic to prove my points. Surely that was the better way. All the books I read and all my tutors said that was the rule of civilization. Not that it mattered. The other nobles would ignore me if my father was not present, and follow his lead when he was. Most were too fearful of my father's wrath to actually threaten me, but they all knew the stories and nothing I did could eclipse that.
I was tolerated by the household staff. A few of them, the cook and the few of the stable hands in particular, took a shining to me and the rest fell somewhere between general disdain at someone of my rank or fond exasperation over my situation. When I was eight, the Captain of my father's guard encouraged me to follow along and watch the men. They treated me like a favorite dog. Teaching me little tricks like how to clean rust off a blade or how to keep your leathers supple. That was a good time until it became clear that I had little actual talent. Then I retreated to my books and tutors where I excelled.
Jen was my only real friend. She is my cousin, as you know, My mother's sister came to help support her in her later years. My aunt had never stood for the idea of speaking ill of family and so Jen did not see me as strange. I was simply a cousin, and one her own age at that. For my part I was grateful to have a playmate and I admit I followed her around for several weeks when she first arrived.
Ah, but I was speaking of my father. I'm sure you know the story. We may be isolated, but some news does get through, and my own reputation precedes me.
The woman my father found to fix me was tall, with hair that fell in brown curls that were going slightly gray. She stood straight as any woman at court or soldier on parade. I remember her clothing was well made, but no nonsense, apart from her hat. It was wide brimmed and had several red feathers like arrows sticking from it. Looking back I am reminded of a few of my tutors, for that was the air she showed the world. A woman with knowledge of the world that the rest of us could only hope to grasp.
I was called before the court, and while I had submitted to such inspections before I admit I was nervous. She did not pear down my throat or look into my ears or read my palm as others had. Instead she tipped my head back so my eyes met hers and asked my name. Whether it was the gravity of the situation or something she compelled, I gave my full name and title.
His grace Bruce Halak Banners, heir to the fourth tower. Duke of the Riacalla and Earl of the lands beyond. Called Lord of the eastern slopes.
Yes quite a mouthful. I remember regretting it in the moment, as my words rang in the silence of the large hall. I'm not sure that Father appreciated it, but she was a witch and even he wasn't foolish enough to interrupt a magic working.
It seemed that my name was all she needed for she bent her head then and there was the glistening of tears below her eyes. She composed herself quickly and turned back to my father. It is her words then that everyone remembers: I could unleash his passions, but I refuse. This is how God made him and you should be content with that.
But my father would not relent.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if she had, even then, refused him. It would have meant her death, but perhaps my salvation. Of course, where one knows a truth another may know it as well, so perhaps not.
When she was given no other choice, she asked for the rose. That is the other thing that everyone remembers, a single red rose in full bloom. Quite a picture it paints for all the stories.
Plenty of dried roses were brought. Primroses, and wild roses found on the slopes, but none would do for it was not the right season for the blossoms. Still my father had money, and he found a gardener in some distant city who kept greenhouses for the Queen. Several young plants were brought, carefully tended on the road so the flowers would not wither. My own roses were grown from those plants.
Plucking a single rose from the batch, the witch (whose name I knew by then was Margaret) asked my fathers leave and took me aside.
"This spell was not meant for you," she told me. "And so I am sorry that this trial must be yours. You do know love and sorrow and pain. You have known them all your life and buried them deep, so that no one else will be forced to know the same at your hand. It is not a bad thing to attempt and perhaps in time you would have learned to open this door a crack on your own. Not everything behind it is so damaging as you believe."
She bent her head then, and shook it. She refused to meet my eye, but I would swear that her thoughts were not on me or my father or indeed anywhere in that moment.
I followed her as she collected rain water, and retired to the kitchens. She made a batch of tea. By then I was quite confused as I had seen no magic despite what everyone expected. Then she brought out the rose.
"Do you know the meaning of a rose?" she asked me.
I told her it was the flower of lovers for even as young as I was, I knew that much.
She nodded and added several rose petals to the cup in front of me. It was then that I realized it was no cup of tea, but a potion I was meant to drink. The thought scared me more than the idea of a spell, for I could see it sitting there, looming.
Margret gently took my hand then. "All love comes with a prick of pain." she said, and with one of the rose thorns she pricked my thumb. A single drop of my blood fell into the cup. I remember it seemed strangely blue. At the time I wondered if red wasn't a better color, but I would have been more frightened to drink a blood-red potion so maybe not.
"It is ready." Margaret said.
She did not ask me to drink, but I knew I had to. My father would stand for nothing else.
The tea made the world soft around the edges, I remember that much, but I'm afraid that after that my memories are less sure.
I remember returning to the hall, though I do not remember how I got there. I remember a lot of people though I do not remember their faces. I do remember my father frowning from his high seat. Margret put her hand on my head and spoke, and while I can remember everything else she said with clarity, I can not remember what she said then. Whatever it was, it made my father stand. She must have gone then, for by the time my father stood before me I could not feel her behind me.
My father said something, and while I know that before I would have lowered my head or nodded or any manner of reasonable responses, I felt the sting of his words then as I never had before. There was anger and pain and then there was nothing at all.
Betty reached for her cup and found it empty. Jen bent to fill it from a new bottle her face somber. With a sigh she filled her own glass as well.
"Bruce believes that that is where his story ends. Like the sleeping beauty he will one day break the curse and go on as things were."
Betty shook her head, "Perhaps I have had too much of this lovely wine, but I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Then I will take up the tale." Jen said, and did just that.
While Bruce was speaking to the court I had been told to play in the gardens. I was far too headstrong for a girl of my age and my governess knew I would not stand quietly while the Duke held court. Not being content with the gardens I had wandered into the orchard and climbed a tree.
When the spell took effect the whole castle shook, and I was in a precarious enough position that I fell. I believe I hit my head and certainly the wind was knocked out of me for by the time I was able to sit up and look around the shadows had moved.
Worse, I had torn my dress.
I knew my governess would be furious and more so if I hid the offending garment and in her words "went about half decent in front of guests. My idea then was to slip away up to my rooms and change. I would still be punished, but I hoped to avoid the worst of it.
Except there was no one in the kitchen when I crept through.
Now you know how busy a full household can be, and there were a dozen guests to tend to. With dinner in a scant few hours, preparations should have been in full swing, and there are always those who need something from the cook or some such. I admit it pushed my ripped dress completely from my mind. I started looking for people, and eventually found a maid hiding in the laundry.
She was gibbering about a great green beast. I could not make heads or tails of it.
I was at the age where I knew beyond a doubt that I was bound for great adventures with magic and love and all the rest. A great beast wondering the castle seemed to be the perfect chance to start such an adventure.
The main hall was a mess. The Duke was dead, as were a handful of courtiers, his attendants and a good number of the guard. They had been tossed about like dolls. It frightened me, and I rushed away, back out into the yard. There too were signs of chaos. The main gate had been thrown open, a carriage had been dumped on it's side. The stables were empty.
Then I found him.
The green giant the maid had described was... well you've seen him. He was smaller then, the size of a tall man rather than a giant, and with less bulk. His clothes were torn his shirt hanging off his shoulders and if not for his belt, he would have been completely indecent. He stood in the middle of the training yard -- which was also empty apart from him -- looking around in confusion.
Now in all the stories I'd been told such creatures would kidnap children away to their caves or fight the brave knights who were set to rescue the princess. Except sometimes a princess had to be kind to a monster and then they were rewarded. I did not know what type of monster I was dealing with so I waited to see if he would do anything bad.
I did not wait long for he turned and saw me standing by the wall. He seemed surprised, then hopeful, then sad. He sat there in the middle of the yard, looked at his hands and started to cry. It was not a sight I was expecting, for monsters never cry in stories. I decided then that he must have been one of the good ones and stepped forward.
"Hello," I said. Yes the greatest of whit I know, but I couldn't think of anything better.
He said something that might have been a hello through all the grunts and tears. Since he seemed able to understand me I asked what his name was. I admit I could not understand his answer. It was our dear Bruce of coarse and I now know that he was indeed saying his name. His full name in fact, as the witch had prompted him earlier. The only bit of it I was able to grasp was his middle name and even that was mangled.
"I'm going to call you Hulk." I declared, then I fished through my pockets and found a handkerchief. That seemed to surprise him more than anything else I had done and so he sat frozen in place as I dabbed at his tears.
After that I once again was at a loss as to what to do. In the stories the princess bandaged the beast if he was injured but Hulk wasn't from what I could see, and I certainly wasn't interested in kissing him.
"Want to play?" I asked eventually. He nodded and so we did. We went down to the pond, and I tried to show him how to skip rocks, at least until we realized how strong he was and he started throwing the biggest stones he could into the water. We completely ruined all attempts the gardener had made to make the shore look picturesque. You can still see several of the stones. Yes those ones on the far side by the reeds.
After a time he grew tired and lay down on the grass. I made a game of finding shapes in the clouds, and before I realized what was happening, Bruce had returned to himself. He was fast asleep. I thought of waking him but I had realized what must have happened. I did not know what else the spell might do. So I left my jacket and went up the hill until I could see the gates.
I called from there until someone came to look. Many people it seemed, had fled, but others had only hidden. It was one of the groomsmen who finally came out to me. I told him that Bruce had fallen asleep and changed back, and I needed his help to get Bruce back to the castle and into bed. He did not want to help me, but I stomped my foot and pointed out that if I woke Bruce trying to bring him up by myself and something happened, it would be his fault.
So together we managed to get Bruce back to his bed sleeping soundly all the while. By the time evening had fallen and there was no more disturbance, others came out of hiding.
A proper search showed that 12 people had died. The Duke, four lords who were in the hall at the time, three guards and five others who had gotten in the way. It may comfort you to know that I had witnessed all of them scorn and taunt Bruce at one time or another. Others had run and were unaccounted for. More of the staff left that night, unwilling to stay once they had learned the whole of what had happened.
None of us were sure if it would be Bruce who woke or the beast.
Enough of them were willing to stay that the castle could be tidied up a bit.
Bruce woke late the next morning and came down looking for breakfast, making everyone think that was the end of it.
Bruce snorted, rolling his eyes. "No one thought that was the end of it. I got more stares then, than I had before the Hulk. And it didn't help that I barely made it through the morning before I transformed again."
"You did go through a lot of shirts that first week. But I knew what was happening by then and how to calm you down."
Bruce looked at her sidelong. "A week later those nobles who had escaped my wrath demanded the king do something about me. I did not react well to their demands. Now anyone in a uniform who crosses into the other guy's territory is killed. Everyone else, well, if they try to fight back, they do not make it to the valley. The people living in the village are those like you who froze at the sight of him. At least I assume you didn't fight. As I mentioned I don't have the clearest memories from when I'm him."
Betty sat back and blinked in shock. She understood now why everyone in the village was so afraid of Bruce, but even so she could hardly comprehend it. The idea that Bruce was a monster, even one like the hulk was completely ridiculous. And the Hulk. The idea of a beast was something she could accept. Something she had grown up with. That the beast was under a spell was simple as well. That the spell was still in effect and the beast was not always a beast, made her stop and consider things.
Or she tried to consider things, but the wine had rather gone to her head and all she could think of was her prior encounter with the Hulk.
"I owe you a thank you." Betty said, "You saved me from those wolves and I fell asleep on you. I can't believe I did that. I'm so sorry."
"You did what?" Jen asked with glee.
Bruce glared at her even as he said. "It's fine. I only remember snatches from his side of things anyway."
Betty refilled her glass, with water this time, and tipped her head in question. "From what Jen tells me he's like a child."
Jen shook her head, "He just hasn't learned yet. And he is you Bruce. How else would he know to get the snow off the walls? He likes the same food you do when I've gotten him to eat anything at all, even his room! Have you seen his room Betty? That tapestry of the dancers, that's his mother before she fell Ill. He'll lie there and stare up at it for hours."
"And then he'll go on a rampage and kill anyone wearing the wrong colors and kidnap anyone who isn't." Bruce grumbled.
Jen pointed at Bruce, "You just never learned how to react." She turned back to Betty. "I think he's like a little kid. He'll throw a tantrum if he's upset. Except he's so strong he doesn't know he's doing real damage. Like a little kid with a kitten. He has to learn to be gentle. And he is learning" she told Bruce.
"Or maybe my experiments are showing fruit."
"Is that what you're doing in the greenhouses all day?" To be honest Betty had wondered but had thought it rude to ask.
"It wasn't a spell it was a potion, which means the magic wasn't in her it was in the ingredients. If I can just figure out what those ingredients were I can fix this." He said it as if he'd said it a hundred times in the past and was likely going to say it a hundred times again, even if the only person he was convincing was himself.
"And I keep telling you, you don't need fixing, you just need to learn to control it. Make it your own," Jen said in the tone of an old argument.
Betty took a moment to fluff up the pillow she'd been leaning against and wondered at all she'd heard. If Bruce's memory of the witch was accurate, and she had no reason to doubt him, then perhaps it was a bit of both. After all one of the ingredients had been Bruce's own blood, so at least some of the magic was in him. More so now that he had the Hulk.
She looked out at the dark and snow beyond the balcony doors. If her sense of time was accurate then it was the early hours of the morning. Still hours before the sun would rise, but they were past the worst of it.
Betty decided she would think about it more when she had a clear head, then she looked at the bottle and realized it was empty.
"We need more wine, and more of those sweet breads."
Bruce chuckled softly.
"That is a wonderful Idea," Jen said. The other woman stood and pulled Betty to her feet, and together the three of them headed back to the kitchens.
Bruce apologized the next morning, when they were all fighting hangovers and too little sleep.
"I didn't mean to dump my life story on your shoulders. If you want to go..."
Betty tried to glare at Bruce, but was afraid it came out as more of a squint. "It is not something I had been planning before and I am certainly not planning it now that I know the truth. If you wish to kick me out I will go, but do me the favor of waiting until this pounding in my head has faded."
"Told you," Jen said, and that was the end of that.
With winter properly entrenched and the mystery of her companions revealed Betty once more found herself with time on her hands.
More often she found herself visiting Bruce in his greenhouse reveling in both the warmth and the company. She found she could comprehend more of his science then either of them had known. After a time he even asked her assistance with his experiments when he needed an extra hand. She retreated when it came to the testing however.
The first time she was witness to one of Bruce's test she hadn't realized what he was doing. They all drank tea every day and taking the tea outside was no issue as the day was full of weak winter sun. It cleared her mind as the ever present scent of roses the greenhouse produced was replaced by the crisp snow.
Bruce set down his tea and started on the buttons of his jacket. Betty blinked, startled, and wondered if she should turn her back. He was not unattractive. Not overly muscled like the soldiers she had glimpsed, but his shoulders were broad and he had a steady strength. She doubted he had been the type of man to ask others to do his work for him even before the spell. Since then, well he and Jen had managed the whole castle by themselves for years. No simple task to be sure.
Bruce retrieved his tea, and it was then that Betty realized what was about to happen. She had been curious about the transformation, but was unsure how to ask. Bruce offered his shirt and Betty took it without a word. Slipping out of his house shoes Bruce took several quick steps out across the snow. He drank the tea in one slow pull and for a moment nothing happened. Then the cup dropped from his fingers.
Bruce bent, hunched in on himself, and gasped. His shoulders expanded. He reached out clawing at the snow with hands that were suddenly too big. Betty's eyes widened as his very bones grew. The straining skin flushing green.
She expected the Hulk to roar at the sky or pound the earth. Instead he raised his hands, inspecting them, before snorting and looking around. Betty's heart was pounding but she did not hesitate. Tossing the shirt behind her to land somewhere inside, she stepped forward.
"Hello again," she said with a soft smile.
Hulk turned with the start of a snarl, but relaxed when he saw her, standing straight and smiling. He looked at her, and she looked back.
"I don't know what to do now," She admitted to them both.
Hulk scrunched up his face in thought. He looked around.
"Walk?" Hulk asked in a resonant rumble.
Betty smiled, reaching up to take his hand. "That sounds lovely."
He looked down at her small hand in his. In a startling move he reached out scooping her up in his arms. Unlike their previous encounter, this time when he lept she could see the ground fall away. She saw the trees shrink to bushes and decided focusing on the distant mountains was a far better plan. Then they landed atop the castle wall, and Hulk gently set her on her feet.
Betty was breathing heavily, her face felt hot. "That was," She looked up at him, trying to untangle what she was feeling.
"Not like?" Hulk asked. He looked so openly worried, and she rushed to relieve his fears.
"No, it was just sudden. I can't jump nearly that high, but I trust you." She did trust him, she realized as she said it. Though she had been taught her whole life that he was a monster. Though everyone was afraid of him, and he could kill her with a misplaced gesture. Though he was what kept her here, away from her family and everything she had grown up with. She trusted him.
Reaching out to take his hand again, they walked along the wall in a comfortable silence.
"Do you see that?" Betty asked, shading her eyes. She had taken to walking the wall both with Hulk and Bruce when he could get away. Now they stood over the gate looking out at the ridge to the left. Since midwinter the storms had eased a bit, bringing cold but clear skies during the day and soft flurries at night. In the middle of the afternoon Betty could see the whole of the valley. She knew the sight as well as she had known the roads around her home.
The plume of smoke from beyond the ridge was something she had never seen before.
Bruce squinted, removed his glasses and cleaned them then squinted again. "A wildfire perhaps?" His tone was curious rather then dismissive.
"With this much snow on the ground? It would have to have been set deliberately," she countered.
"A bonfire then? Or a pyre? Something intentional."
Betty nodded slowly. "It could be a pyre," she conceded. "If the ground is so frozen a grave could not be dug but... so much smoke? for one grave?"
To that Bruce had no answer.
Betty woke from her nightmare in a cold sweat. The fire had settled down to coals and even beneath her heavy blankets she was shivering. The dream had been a jumble, but she clearly remembered her father's face burning. It was the third such nightmare she had had since the first smoke trail. It had been a week since then and there had been more smoke every day, or perhaps it had never stopped. It came from the same point over the ridge, but with the wind and weather she couldn't always see it.
If it was a funeral pyre then there were too many bodies to count.
Betty pushed the thought back. She was awake and if the past few nights were any example she would not get back to sleep. Wrapping a thick robe about herself Betty tucked her feet firmly into her slippers and went to start some tea. It was only an hour or so before dawn and that wasn't even saying much considering the time of year.
By the time the others made their way downstairs Betty had made tea, and collected the eggs. Bruce watched her cut several slices of bread and raised an eyebrow.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Another nightmare. I'm fine."
Jen took the bread and knife from her, taking over the task as she urged Betty to sit. "It's not nothing. You've hardly slept."
Betty shook her head, more in defiance then negation. Bruce pushed tea on her and she took it, cradling the cup and savoring the warmth.
"I'm fine, there's nothing to be done."
Jen snorted, scowling down at the bread.
"I few sleepless nights wont kill me." Betty persisted.
After two weeks she was not so sure.
Betty clutched her cup of tea. It was her fourth cup and the stimulating effects were barely helping her stay awake. Every time her eyes closed horrific images filled her mind. Bruce sat and took the cup from her. Betty started to protest but he was refilling it with a new brew. One she could not recognize the scent of.
"What is that?"
Bruce glance at her. "It will make you sleep." He said.
"I don't want to sleep."
He nodded, but kept pouring. "I know, but this isn't getting any better. When you wake up we'll talk it over, find a real solution. Alright?"
She gave in and swallowed the concoction with a grimace. He helped her up to her bed and she sank into it gratefully. This time, while she still dreamed, they were hazy and distant. Some hours later she woke, groggy but aware of herself once more.
"There is nothing to be done." Betty once more told her companions when they had gathered.
"You can't keep going like this," Jen protested. "You're running yourself ragged."
"You could leave." Bruce offered in a quiet voice.
"What?" Betty's heart had missed a beat. She thought they were done with that. She didn't want to go live in the village. She wasn't afraid of him or Hulk.
"It's the smoke. That's when this all started. If you... If you saw what it was. If you knew that your family was safe I think it would stop. So, you should go home. People can actually leave the valley. He's the only thing stopping it, and if I stay in control then it won't be a problem."
Betty gasped. Bruce was looking down at his hands, fingers laced on the tabletop.
Once she had been made aware of the change Bruce went through she had quickly discovered how often he was Hulk rather then Bruce. As often as once a day he would get frustrated, or angry or even injure himself and Hulk would come out. Hulk would then spend a few hours wondering the woods or whatever else pleased him. Bruce hardly seemed pleased with the situation but he understood the triggers and could manage. Ironically it was easier when other people were around. He said it was because his will to protect them was greater than any fear or anger he might feel. Betty had wanted to apologize when he'd said it.
Letting her go, now in the middle of winter would mean... It would take her days just to get over the pass, and that was on horseback. The woods were thick enough that if she was careful and stuck to the trees she may not have to break too much trail. Even so, it meant he would have to stay in control for nearly a week to ensure her safe passage.
"Bruce..." She trailed off. She didn't know if it was possible. Would it hurt him? Staying emotionless for so long was not the natural state of things.
"Betty, please." He reached out and took her hand, "I don't like seeing you like this."
Jen bit her lip, looking between the two of them. "He's right. As much as I hate to see you go, I'd hate to see you waste away even more."
Betty closed her eyes and slowly nodded her acceptance.
There was no true road out of the valley anymore. The roads from Bruce and Jen's childhood were long overgrown from lack of use. Still they gave Betty a place to start when plotting her course. She had set out early on one of the castles horses. She had a fll pack that would last her for several days. Both Bruce and Jen had warned her of the dangers she might face and how to avoid them. Betty wasn't worried about the cold or the woods. She'd grown up just over the ridge and knew what to expect. She knew to be careful. Even so as the hours passed and the distance stretched between her and the castle, she couldn't help the sense of unease that grew in her belly. It did not feel like she was going home. Instead it felt like she was riding into the maw of a dragon. Like the valley was a safe haven that she had unwittingly taken advantage of.
She camped the first night in a crop of fir trees, the thick pines granting both shelter and a bed of needles that made sleeping on the ground more bearable. The next day she made it to the height of the pass in the late afternoon. The whole of the valley stretched out behind her, while her father's lands stretched ahead. She could hear the falls that were the head of the Riacalla River. She let her eyes follow it's wild twisting path down the ridge and froze.
Now she knew what caused the smoke that had made her uneasy for so long.
There was an army camped on the south bank of the Riacalla. There had to be several thousand fighting men, with all the support and equipment that they required. A stretch of land several miles long had been cleared of the worst of the snow, and tents erected. A swath of forest had been cut down to feed their fires. They flew the banner of the Hydra; the forces her father had been fighting on behalf of the king, before he had been injured.
If they had advanced as far this the land was in true perril.
By contrast the north bank of the Riacalla had been built up using rocks and snow, whatever was at hand. The river itself was always wild even in the height of summer. Crossing in any force was next to impossible in winter. Betty marked out where bridges were supposed to be, there were only the blackened stumps of charred posts. The force defending the north bank was far smaller than its counterpart. She did not know if that spoke of the limit of her father's forces or the confidence they had in the river.
Betty hesitated there on the pass. She did not know what to do. She was on the north side of the river so she would not have to cross through the enemy to reach her father. Yet what good would that do? It would only burden them with another mouth to feed. Oh she had no doubts that her father would be glad to see her safe return. He would be angry that she had been captured and held in the valley of the beast, for that is how he would see it she had no doubt. If he did not have an army at his gates, he would likely try to hunt Bruce down, even knowing all his men would be no match for the Hulk.
She could turn around. She had the supplies to make it back to the castle. She could tell Bruce and Jen of the army and...
But Bruce had no army to counter them. He he fought himself and was overcome there would be no one left to protect the valley.
She did not want to lose him.
What could she do?
No returning to the Banners castle would do no good. Now that she knew her fears were more than founded she would not be able to live with herself if she turned her back in fear. She was Elisabeth of house Ross, she would not stand by idly while an army sharpened their swords on her doorstep.
Betty nudged her horse to a walk and started her decent.
Betty spent that night camped just below the treeline. The following day in the early afternoon, she started to see signs of other people. First there was a huntsmans sign carved into a tree, a border marking and she guessed warned of Hulk. An hour later there was another sign, broken branches that could have meant anything. Then she came upon fresh tracks in the snow, less than a day old and making a clear path. Betty judged the direction of the path and followed it down hill.
An hour or so later she saw movement through the trees, She eased her horse to a stop and looked around, staying quiet. She'd seen signs of animals in the past few days but this was something more. Color shifted through the trees. Then she heard the sound of leather on steel and a voice called from her right.
"Hold your position girl."
Betty tried to project calm if only so that her horse would not spook. "Who is there?"
Two men slowly came through the trees. One held her as bow point while the other had a long knife unsheathed. They wore hunting leathers and had blue bands tied around their upper arms. At the last, Betty truly relaxed, The colors of Ross were blue and white, while the hydra used red.
"You first. Where are your colors?"
"I am Elizabeth of house Ross. I have escaped from the valley beyond here and seek to return to my father."
The two men looked at each other, sceptical.
"Return me to him unharmed and I assure you, you will be rewarded."
One of them shrugged, the other looked at her and nodded. He gestured with his blade, "this way, slowly."
Betty nudged her horse in the appropriate direction. She followed them for another hour before the two men met up with a larger group. They were scounts sent to make sure that hydra's forces did not seek a way around the current stalemate. One of the scouts was a man who had served with her father and recognised her well enough to vouch that she was who she said. After that the group as a whole was considerable friendlier. Betty brushed off any apologies with assurances that they were only doing their duty.
That night she slept in a proper tent though it was still upon the ground. It should have been a comfort to hear the soldiers outside, but after so long it was hard to think of it that way. She had become used to the quiet of snow, of an empty castle, and the thick stone that kept out all her troubles. She was truly outside those protections now, even more than when she was on the road. It wasn't a particularly comfortable thought.
The next day, Betty was sent with two guards to the forward command of her father's forces. Only to find that they weren't her father's forces at all. It was true that they flew the Ross banner along with the flag of the king, but it was another knight who marshaled their forces.
Betty remembered getting news of her father's injury and realized she still did not know the extent of it, though her companions assured her he still lived.
Betty had heard of Knight Stark before. She knew that while her father respected his skill with any weapon, they had very different ideas when it came to leading men. Her father had often decried Stark's use of unorthodox and untested tactics as well as fraternizing with the lowest of society. The way her father told it he had no respect for his title, rank or the chain of command.
She had therefore expected his command center to be an extreme. Perhaps a mess of papers, stacks of important reports mixed in with the day to day flotsam without any respect to either. Perhaps a mess of small luxuries, fine wine and rugs despite what his men endured a scant dozen feet away. Perhaps the opposite and his command would be unrecognizable from any other solderer's bunk. What she actually found was strictly organized, and highly functional. There was a cot in the corner and it was covered in an excess of firs. There too was a set of armor plated in the red and gold of house Stark. Otherwise she could not fault him for his organization or his thoroughness. There were detailed maps, with tokens indicating different positions, papers in neat piles and even the brazier was set so that any sparks would not be a danger.
Knight Stark barely glanced at her as she entered. He waved her to a seat and kept listening as his man finished reading a list of supplies.
Stark shook his head, "Fine, not much I can do about the lack. Ration what you have to but not at the expense of the healers."
"Sir." The man agreed, and made to leave.
Stark's eyes danced over her briefly before he turned and took his own seat. "I'm afraid I can't offer you much hospitality."
Betty shook her head, "No need, my arrival was unexpected after all. I will try to not impose on you for too long."
He nodded, "I've already sent word ahead to your father at Castle Ross. Perhaps you can convince him to get to an actual safe distance. When you see him tell him that his injury does not make up for his lack of sense." He rubbed at his eyes, glanced at her and sighed, "Apologies. I shouldn't pull you into the mess between your father and myself."
"Ah, accepted." Betty considered for a moment then spoke plainly. "I'm rather confused to be honest. I've been... away, since my father's injury and the first I knew that the enemy was so close was when I crested the ridge two days ago and saw them camped across the river. Anything you could tell me would be helpful, if it's not too much trouble."
This time Stark truly studied her. "Do you have any knowledge of tactics?"
Betty could not remember ever having been asked that question. She had grown up at her father's elbow, so while he had thought it improper for a young lady to learn the art of war, she had considerable knowledge regardless. His library had been full of books on the subject and she had read more than a few of them. Privately she thought that running a household was not so dissimilar. Managing supplies, and making sure everyone was in their places at the right time. Once that was done she just had to stand back and let them do their work.
"Some, informally." She conceded.
He waved a hand at the map covered table, "What do you think?"
"I think you shouldn't be showing me military secrets." She replied without even glancing at the table.
He snorted a laugh, "Your father would like that answer. Don't worry there's nothing there that anyone standing on the bank couldn't see. Honestly what do you think?"
Betty stood and stepped up to the table. It was much the same as she had seen from the ridge but on a more expansive scale. The map continued several miles down river showing where the river spread out into the start of the swamp lands. Apparently there were Hydra pickets every mile or so, though the main body of their force was as she had seen. Their own forces were split into smaller units. Enough men guarding the embankment to be sure they wouldn't try anything. Others scouting the woods as she had earlier discovered, while a larger contingent waited a few miles back at one of the nearby towns, ready to reinforce any point along the river while staying rested in the meantime.
"You have arranged yourself for a war of attrition." Betty noted aloud.
"Well it's not like we can go at each other with the river in the way." He waved a hand, seemingly distracted looking through his side table for a bottle that wasn't empty.
"Forgive me but you did ask for my opinion. When I entered you were speaking to your man about supplies. Were those the supplies from my father?"
Knight Stark found a bottle to his liking and mutely offered her a drink. She shook her head. When he had poured himself a measure and taken a sip he gestured to her. "Your father's been kind enough to offer a few supplies, though he has remained quiet about his reserves." His smile was full of teeth.
Betty well remembered the previous summer. Of her long days spent dithering over the accounts and trying to stretch whatever she could to provide for the winter. She remembered how her neighbors had not always been so careful. There had been thefts and a tightening of belts even before an army landed on their doorstep demanding supplies. Compared to winter in her family home, the bounty stored away in Bruce's castle had seemed almost excessive.
"Sir Stark, please do you fault my father. I was the one to keep the books while he was away on campaign last summer and I assure you he is not trying to short you or the king's men. We had enough for ourselves, but little enough surplus."
He shrugged with a nod. "I figured as much. He might hate me, but he wouldn't do that to the men." He set his glass down and leaned on the table, looking at the map. Betty's gaze followed his and her mind followed the trails laid there.
"You see it too?" He asked.
"A war of attrition will always be determined by who can last the longest. They may not have local supplies, but they do have access to the great road and from there, the sea. We could call on the king, but any support will be slow to come. By the time the passes open in the spring our people and the men will be starving."
"Freezing too, though that's already happening." Stark noted.
"My father must know this." Betty looked up at Stark unwilling to believe that her father would sit idly by.
"Oh he does," Stark said. "He thinks we should wait. That the spring flooding will keep them back long enough to get the supplies and reinforcements we need. He thinks we can play a long game and make it too costly for them since they have to bring everything over by ship."
The theory was sound, and if the Hydra forces needed more than simply food and basic supplies then it might have even been a solid strategy. Disagreeing with it would be disagreeing with her father, but well, her father wasn't here. She spoke her mind.
"I disagree with the strategy. They do not need to wait months for supplies when they have access to the sea. It may be undignified for a solder to fish for his supper but any man will do what he must when hungry. Any commander worth the title will see that and allow it rather then risk mutiny. Moreover they have our people. Those captured behind the line, will do what they must to protect their families even if it means supporting the enemy. We may get supplies from the king. I know he is a good man and takes this conflict seriously but..." She hesitated, biting her lip.
"It would be more effective to retreat. We could hold the northern pass far easier and with less men then it would take to span the length of the river. The spring flooding would hold them back long enough to get our people out."
Stark was silent, watching her. He wore a sardonic half smile. Betty looked from him down to the map again. Bruce's valley was marked very carefully in red. It was isolated enough, and enough people knew of the Hulk that all plans seemed to have been made around it, as if the mountains were impassable with nothing but stone and snow beyond.
Betty let what she'd been thinking escape her lips. "My father will not retreat, not from our family home. He would see that as an irredeemable flaw of character."
Stark filled his cup again, but did not drink.
"Your reasoning is sound. Forgive my bluntness but I'm glad not everyone in house Ross is so stuck in their ways. I agree with your long term assessment. If things stay as they are retreat to the north pass is our best bet. But you've neglected to consider the next few months."
"What about them. The snows have set in. No one can move in any force. They've entrenched themselves and so have you." Her voice turned up at the end making it not quite a question.
"Oh sure, if you don't count the scouts or the pickets or the locals who go out hunting and come back with troop movements, not to mention the guard rotations back to town and the castle. We're totally entrenched."
Betty folded her hands in her lap ignoring the eye rolling. If Stark was this flamboyant emphatic out on campaign, and with only one person as audience she could hardly imagine what he would be like at court. His outspoken charisma would surely win him many friends and more enemies. No wonder her father didn't like him.
"You suggest action be taken now? Some kind of subterfuge? Perhaps sneaking troops across one by one? You can only move so many people before the enemy will take notice. And they will have scouts of their own."
"True." He allowed, "But we know the area. You yourself came through the mountains unmolested just days ago." He met her eyes and she suddenly understood.
He wanted to know how she'd done it. He thought she knew a secret pass or a trick to get by the monster. Even with the snow, bringing an armed force through Bruce's valley would allow him to pin the enemy between his forces and the river, and even the river wouldn't be safe because their forces waited beyond it as well. It wouldn't even have to be a particularly large force, not if they could retreat back up the mountain and know they were safe.
Of coarse that all hinged on her knowledge of what they saw as a beast.
She wondered if Bruce would agree, if she asked him. In so many ways the Hulk was like a child, while other times he seemed to carry the weight of years. Would he understand what they were trying to do? Or would he see only more of the people who hurt him so long ago?
The flap of the tent opened before she could come up with a suitable answer.
Her father looked older than she remembered. His hair was full gray now and there was an extra scar creeping up from under his collar. He stood with his left hand at his belt and it took a moment for her to understand why that was odd. His right arm was pinned to his chest under his cloak. He did not use it when entering or when he stepped up to her and clasped her shoulder. His injury had apparently taken the use of his dominant hand.
He looked down at her, taking in her heavy winter skirts that were serviceable rather than fashionable. She had not had time to collect herself yet, so there was mud and snow staining her hems and her lips were chapped from the cold. She still had her cloak at least; it was lined in rabbit fur and had done well to keep her warm the past few days.
"The watchman said you'd returned." He muttered.
She knew it was as much sentiment as he would allow himself in front of his men, even if Stark was not strictly speaking under his command. She bowed slightly without standing.
"It's good to be home father. I am doing well." She offered the last with a twinge of irritation. He could see that she had all her limbs but even so, not to ask was just like him.
"Good, I'll see to it that you have a room tonight, and there'll be a squad ready to take you back to Castle Ross first thing in the morning." He squeezed her shoulder then turned to face Stark, planting his feet in parade rest. "I hear you've told the quartermaster to ration the supplies.
Just like that Betty had been dismissed. She had always known that her father was wholly focused while on campaign. To the point where her missives often went unanswered, or answered by clerks. In the past however she had always been far from the front and so put his actions down to an out of sight out of mind mentality. Now when she had been gone and presumed dead for months, when she sat before him in person, she warranted barely two sentences.
Betty felt colder than she had crossing over the mountain.
Stark leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the corner of the desk, directly in her father's path. "Well unless you want to give me the numbers for what you have squared away, I have to assume it's nothing. We're getting only minimal supplies from the crown with the passes closed, therefore, rationing. Unless you're reconsidering my proposal of ending this stalemate."
Lord Ross ground his teeth. "You do not have the authority to distribute my supplies."
Ross pushed Stark's boots off the table. Stark let him but used the movement to stand. Stark was shorter than her father, but didn't hesitate to enter his space, spitting his words into his face.
"Don't I? And here I thought that our lord and king gave me the task of commanding here after your tragic accident left you completely unable to hold a sword. Maybe we should go ask for clarification."
"You may have command of the men in combat, but they are still my men." Ross snarled.
"Oh sure. Well at least the first and second squad are yours. The third and fourth squads were from the king's guard originally and then there's the fifth, A squad put together from survivors. Who do you think they'd follow if it came to a challenge of leadership? Someone who's sat on his ass in the back all campaign, or the knight who's been out on the walls every other day and is actually coming up with ideas to finish the enemy, not just stall them?"
Betty saw her father's eyes turn steel gray. He was standing on the edge of lashing out and Stark seemed set on pushing him over. A part of her left over from when she was a little girl told her to run. To make herself scarce so she wouldn't become the target of the inevitable explosion. Another older part of her whispered of redirecting his anger, to save her family's reputation.
"Good Sir Stark," It seemed they had both forgotten her presence, their attention turning on her while without losing any of its intensity. "If I may ask a favor of you. I would feel so much safer if you were among the men to escort me back to my family home tomorrow." Betty kept her face smooth as she stood, her tone light.
"Miss Ross?" Stark asked.
While it was clear Stark was still trying to figure out what she was thinking with the proposal, her father had come to his own conclusions.
"Indeed." Ross said, nodding in agreement.
"Please Sir Knight?" Betty asked again.
Her father echoed the statement, "would you insult my daughter by denying such a simple request?"
Stark met Betty's eyes for a long moment, studying her, then lifted his hands in supplication. "As the lady wishes." He stalked to the entrance and held the tent flap for her, "Should I show you to your rooms now as well?" His tone was light but she heard the underlying tension.
"Thank you," Betty said as she slipped outside.
Stark led her to one of the few proper wooden structures. Before he left her in the care of the camp matron, he caught her arm and spoke in a low tone that wouldn't carry.
"I don't know what you're planning, but that move just gave your father an extra two days advantage. If you think I wont remember that you are very mistaken."
"Instead of losing a few days, I'd like to think you'd simply be spending them more profitably." Betty attempted a small smile before slipping away.
Stark watched her sidelong as they mounted up the next morning, but didn't immediately ask any questions. They had a compliment of twelve men, which Betty thought was more than necessary considering they were supposedly heading away from the front. She had managed to cross the mountains on her own, but the few miles back to her father's house on roads she'd known her whole life were apparently beyond her.
If she stayed here for much longer she was going to feel more trapped then she ever had with Bruce.
That being the case she did not hesitate to turn her horse toward the hills at the first opportunity.
"My lady--" One of the offers started.
She waved a hand to cut her off. "My father has given orders for me to go home. I no longer consider his house my home. I have lived as a guest at the Forth Tower with Duke Banners for several months and it is there I intend to return."
The soldier's face had gone pale as she spoke. He looked to Stark for direction but he waved a hand in acquiescence, a large grin on his face. "I'd be overjoyed for an introduction to the Duke, lead on."
The men glanced from them to the hills to each other. Betty could see their fear. She had known it herself, but she was also confident that Hulk would not hurt her.
"Soldier, what is your name?"
"Guy Bridge Ma'am."
"Well, Mr. Bridge. I have gone into the valley beyond these hills. I know the creature you fear and I tell you this now. As long as you stand with me there is no reason for you to fear. When we enter the valley you will remove your uniform and bind your swords in their sheaths. You will raise no hand against the beast, you will speak to him civilly, and use the name he has chosen, Hulk. If you do this, you have nothing to fear from him."
Her confidence seemed to steady the men around her. when she once more tried to head into the hills, they followed, flanking her.
Stark nudged his horse up next to her own. "I understand the weapons, but the uniforms?"
"Hulk doesn't like soldiers. They tend to attack him without thought."
Stark hummed, "Fair enough. it explains why he's been fighting off the enemy at least. He's really the Lord Banners son then?"
Betty glanced at Stank, considering her answer, "Yes, sometimes. It's best to see it for yourself."
They had gotten an early start, and there were trails to follow on this side of the mountain, at least to a point, so the group made considerable headway before nightfall. They set up camp just below the tree line and Betty made a point to survey everyone's appearance and confirm Hulk wouldn't see it as threatening. The soldiers were tense at first, but between her quiet confidence and Stark's joviality, most of them managed to relax enough to sleep.
Betty didn't know if they would see Hulk before they got to the castle. Bruce had said he would keep his other half contained, but none of them had been sure how long that state would last.
Betty only dosed that night and found herself half asleep in the saddle the next day. They approached the pass mid-mourning and quickly found the remains of the trail she had broken a few days before. They had been lucky with the weather, no snow had fallen since she had last been through, and the sky was bright and clear.
The men became even more uneasy as they made their way down into the valley. They slept with three men on watch, and once more Betty tried to stay up with them. She had a sinking feeling that if or when the Hulk did show up she would be the only one able to talk him down.
The hulk had still not arrived in the morning. With the castle in sight she urged the men to redouble their pace. They passed the village and a few of the residence came out to stare at them in awe. Stark tipped his hat jauntily, but Betty had no patience for such niceties.
The castle gate had been left open. Bruce and Jen had never bared it, since it would be too much of a hassle to unbar it any time they wished to leave, but by habit the gates were left closed. A sense of unease that had slowly been growing, settled as a weight on her heart. Glancing up, she saw the walls had not been cleared of snow, and the weight doubled.
It took an effort of will to bring her horse to a walk rather then simply leaping from the saddle. She led the procession around to the stable courtyard. It was as she had left it. The animals all looking up in mild curiosity at the strangers. There was a faint plume of smoke rising from the kitchen chimney.
No one came to greet them.
Betty dismounted. "There is food for the horses there, and you are welcome to use any of the stables that are clear. We will be staying the night. I will go find the Lord and Lady of the house." She forced her tone into the no-nonsense aloofness she had once used on a household who didn't believe a young lady should be managing them. In truth she barely spared a thought to them, beyond the projection of confidence needed to maintain calm.
Stark dismounted beside her and made a show of shaking out his legs from the ride. When she headed for the side door, he followed. She considered telling him to go back, but quite apart from making the men more nervous, it would take too much time to argue with him.
The kitchen was empty, without even a kettle set for tea.
The greenhouse and the laboratory was empty, The braziers cold.
The library was empty.
Jen's room was empty.
Bruce's room was empty.
The ballroom was empty.
Betty's pace quickened with each vacant room, until she found herself running through the corridors, desperate for any sign with Stark trailing behind.
What if something had gone wrong? What if Bruce couldn't hold the Hulk back and even Jen hadn't been spared his rage? What if hulk had gone into the mountains and he would never let Bruce come out again. What if Jen's body was lying in the snow somewhere, frozen and unable to go to her rest.
Betty turned a corridor and spotted a half forgotten doorway. Hulk's rooms. With a strength and swiftness born of desperation she flung wide the door and stumbled inside.
They were there, both of them. Bruce sat, his posture deceptively casual with his legs crossed leaning back in a pile of blankets and pillows. There were veins standing out in his neck and arms. He'd discarded his shirt and his skin was as green as spring leaves, the color swirling and shifting like paint on a canvas. As she watched his hands became claws, gripping at the cushions, starting to grow in size before shrinking again as he gasped.
Jen knelt beside him, her attention wholly on her cousin. She was crooning a soft song as she stroked a hand down his arm.
The room itself was much as she had seen it before, save for the heat. The fire had been built up and several large stones placed on the hearth to hold the heat even longer. There was a pot there too, not full of broth as Betty might have expected, but what appeared to be simply water. It might have been snow melt once, but now the water steamed making the room feel more like a rich summer day then the latter half of winter.
Betty stepped forward and fell to her knees in relief. It wasn't until she reached out, one hand to Jen's shoulder, the other to Bruce's leg that the two of them seemed to become aware of her presence. Jen looked up, blinking in weary surprise. Bruce's eyes were fever bright, and she wondered if he saw her or some phantom.
"You're alright." The words tumbled from her mouth, despite the fact that it was clearly not so. "I couldn't find you, but you're here."
"Betty." There wasn't any power behind the name, and if Bruce had spoken it at any other time she might barely have heard it. Instead it came out in the Hulk's low resonant register.
Jen bit her lip, worry warring with exhaustion on her features.
Before she could act, Betty spoke, "Yes, I'm here. I'm sorry I left, but I've come back. I missed you so much." As the words tumbled out she realized how true they were.
While she loved her father dearly, seeing him, even being in the same room as him, was like a bird willingly clipping its wings. She would never be allowed to be anything but a proper young woman at least until she became someone's proper young wife and then a proper mother and so on. She had always knows that as soon as her father returned he would get around to introducing her at court and she'd have a season or two to find the least terrible of the young noblemen and officers. It had always seemed like tomorrow's problem.
In that moment she thought of Bruce surrounded by his roses, of the three of them bleary eyes at the kitchen table nursing cups of tea before they started the day. She thought of long walks with a man who was so far from being a monster, and picking apples and reading by the fire.
She fell forward, letting her head rest on Bruce's bare chest to hide her tears.
"Well, this is... I'm sorry, I'm really not good with this kind of thing." Betty heard Stark say from behind her. Jen shifted, starting to stand. There was a tension in her and more then a slight tension in Bruce, who wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close to his side and growled low in his chest.
"It's alright." Betty hastened to assure them both. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, but made no move the shift away. "This is Sir Anthony Stark. He helped me get home, and would like to speak to you. Sir Stark, this is Lord Bruce Banners Duke of the forth spire, and his cousin, Lady Jennifer Walters."
The introduction seemed to put them all on more familiar footing. Jen stood and offered a hand, which Stark took and kissed.
"Please, call me Tony. I am sorry to drop in unannounced, but Betty assured me you wouldn't mind the company." He half turned and gave Bruce one of his blinding smiles. "I'm a big fan of what you've done on the eastern slopes by the way, or I suppose they'd be the western slopes for you. It's been a tremendous help what with securing our flank and all."
Jen who had relaxed a fraction, tensed again glancing at Bruce, but the latter seemed more puzzled then angry. Tony went on as if completely unaware of the potential danger. "In any case, I wouldn't want to interrupt the reunion any more than I have. We should speak, later. Now Miss Walters--"
Another of his over the top smiles, "Jen. If you would be so kind, I would like to find a place for my men. May I impose one step further and ask for your assistance?"
Jen glanced at Bruce then met Betty's eyes.
Betty nodded. "We'll be fine." She tried to silently will her trust in Stark to the other woman. Jen nodded and gestured for Tony to proceed her out the door.
When they had gone, footsteps fading down the hallway, Betty looked up at Bruce. He was watching her, his eyes Hulk green even as pink returned to his cheeks.
"Forgive me?" She asked.
Bruce nodded slowly. "I think I love you." He said, and this time his tone was more Bruce then Hulk.
Tears threatened again, even as Betty smiled. "I think I love you too." She let her head fall onto his shoulder, the tension slipping away from both of them. The lack of sleep the past few nights caught up with her, and Betty had no qualms about falling asleep right where she was, no matter how improper.
She slept through until morning, and Bruce must have as well, because when she did return to herself, she was still half atop him in the pile of pillows and blankets. She was rested but felt a mess after so long traveling. She hadn't had a proper bath since before she had left.
Bruce was reluctant to release her. No color encroached on his skin, but his eyes would flash green whenever she started to pull away. At last when they both were most certainly awake, she declared her intention to be clean, said she would see him downstairs, and kissed him soundly. His shock gave her time to escape, waving playfully from the door.
Somehow even with a bath and a change of clothing she managed to arrive in the kitchen before Bruce. Standing in the doorway she gasped at a sight that she never thought she'd see. The large formal dining room off the kitchen had been thrown open. The men of Stark's squad were lounging around it comfortably. Simple place settings were set out for everyone with the head of the table left open. Stark lounged in the right hand chair, the place of honor. More than the people however where what they were doing. Jen came back and forth from the kitchen, conscripting them as needed to help prepare food, and ferry it to the table. Fresh pots of tea sat beside hot porridge with sweet preserves, platters of eggs, and pitchers of milk. The men gladly submitted to her teasing demands and laughed together at stories Betty had not heard. It was a glimpse at what the castle would have been like in its glory, and the greatly enjoyed the feel of it.
Stark caught sight of her, standing with an overly elaborate bow. "My Lady. We had wondered if you and your lord would ever grace us with your presence." He came around the table and pulled out the chair to the left of the head.
Betty sat with all the dignity her red cheeks would permit her. "I apologize, I should have seen you settled. I had not realized how tiring the journey was."
"Something was tiring all right." One of the men muttered. Another laughed and a third elbowed him in the side. They were all smiling good naturedly so pretended she hadn't heard them as Jen came to sit beside her. The other woman was flushed from activity and leaned in to speak softly to her.
"The castle hasn't been this lively for an age. Even if Bruce doesn't approve of whatever it is Tony wants, I wanted to say thank you."
"They're not going to be a burden?" Betty asked, well aware of how much food twelve extra men could consume.
"Only if they don't pull their weight. I'm thinking of having them clean out and repair the guard house if they stay for any length of time." Jen responded with a smile. They were both distracted by a new voice from the doorway.
"Oh," Bruce seemed stunned. He took off his glasses and cleaned them as if that would make the twelve extra men vanish. Most of the men hadn't noticed him and those who had, did not seem to realize who he was. They glanced at him with open smiles without pausing their conversations. It was a world of difference from how the villagers shrank from him.
Stark stood, "There you are! Come, join us!" He crossed to where Bruce stood and pressed a glass into his hand, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "Your wonderful cousin tells me you're an alchemist. You must show me your laboratory while we are here. No, no business over breakfast, that can wait. First a toast." as he spoke he pulled Bruce to the head of the table, and at the last he raised his own glass, thankfully only full of tea. "To our gracious host, and the friendships we will build."
The men who had been paying attention nudged their companions and in a wave they all raised a glass and cheered.
Betty took pity on Bruce and drew his attention with a hand on his arm, "They came back with me after my Father ordered me away from the battlefield."
"No," Stark interrupted, "No business at Breakfast. I said that right? I just said that."
And so it went. Bruce seemed mildly confused, and amused throughout the meal, with Betty fielding questions and providing explanations when needed. It wasn't long before Jen was hustling the men out, some to wash dishes others to see to the animals and so on. The last of them cleared away all but the tea and only then did Stark allow the conversation to turn to the situation outside the valley.
Betty started by describing her journey, what she had seen from the pass and what she had experienced in her father's camp. Tony took up the story from there.
"You know of Betty's father's injury last fall. Well, shortly after that Hydra made several pressing advances. The commander in the field, Ross's second, fell leaving confusion in the ranks. By the time the first snow rolled in they were only ten miles from the river. The snow was lucky for us as it made the river impassable almost immediately. Except instead of hunkering down the enemy commanders decided to head up into the hills and find a way around.
"I arrived during that time and sent out our own scouts. Naturally as locals my men, or perhaps Betty's men, would not cross that boundary. I didn't understand until I started getting the reports of the Hulk's retaliation. Those who escaped and actually made it to our side of the river were a blubbering mess who surrendered without a fight as long as we promised to protect them. After a time the enemy gave up on that tactic and set up their encampment."
Bruce listened through the explanation silently. "If you're asking for Hulk's help, no. He's not a weapon." He said at last.
Stark nodded, "Okay, what about you than?"
"Well it's obvious that you don't have a knight's training, but even from the little I've seen, you have the strongest will of anyone I've ever met. Plus, you're still the Lord here. Giving us your support would be a big help. Personally I'd really like to take a unit and hit them on their eastern flank, but if' you'd rather not have soldiers traveling through your lands, then supplies would be a big help too. that's actually the main problem we're facing right now. Here, let me show you." Tony grabbed up several condiments left on the table and used them to draw a map, the same map that Betty had seen days before in the command center.
Betty let her mind wander as Stark outlined what she already knew, subtly and relentlessly drawing Bruce into the conversation. Before long Bruce was rolling his eyes and arguing about supplies and winter travel. Betty found her cup empty, and slipped away to make a new pot of tea.
Bruce and Tony discussed things all day. At some point they moved from the dining room to Bruce's laboratory. Betty took them some food there in the evening when it became clear that both of them were too engrossed to come out, or even notice the time.
There was a part of Betty that was concerned for her people and the threat they faced. She wondered if her father had realized that she had never reached his home? He likely knew that Stark was still missing as well. What would he think? Would he consider it an attack by Stark and try to come after them? Or were they of less priority then the stalemated combat?
On the second day after Betty's return, Tony told his men to be ready. Bruce and Jen partitioned out supplies of dried meat and fruit from the larders. Betty helped by going through the stores for winter coats and extra gloves for any of the men who needed them.
As Betty understood it, It was to be a rading strike. Stark would lead his men down into the enemy camp, take and destroy whatever they could and then retreat into the hills where the Hulk would be waiting. Tony had asked for Hulk's help, but apart from how he was far from stealthy, Bruce argued that it was too much of a risk. It was true that Hydra's forces would be badly damaged, but it Hulk were to cross the river their own forces would not hold their hand. Even with Hulk's strength the numbers would likely be enough to bring him down.
On the morning of the third day The members of the household and their visitors all gathered in the main courtyard. The last thing to be done was to introduce Hulk to the men. Bruce and Tony hoped that if he saw them now, he would know them as they fled and help them. The men were all prepared to ride, each sporting a new green band tied around their arm or neck. Betty and Jen held the horses at a safe distance as Bruce spoke to them quietly.
"Has he ever done anything like this?" Betty asked Jen.
The other woman shook her head, "In the first year or so he tried to keep hulk inside, but you saw how well that goes. After that everyone but me was gone. I think this is a good sign."
"I agree," Betty said, "He's seemed happy these last few days."
"He does," Jen agreed.
They were distracted as Bruce removed his jacket and shirt, laying them aside out of the way.
It was odd but in a good way to see the men surrounding him almost eager rather than anxious or fearful. It actually took several gestures for them to back away. Bruce took a deep breath and changed. The Hulk looked down at the awed faces with scepticism, but when Tony swagered forward he was willing to accept a hand on his arm.
Betty let her tension ease away when the men and Hulk did not set each other off.
Within the hour the men had departed. The Hulk had lept leapt off the battlements on his own way to whatever battle lay before them. Betty stood looking over the valley long after Jen had returned inside.
Betty watched the smoke rise from beyond the mountain and wondered if she was a coward. Instead of staying and fighting beside her people she had come back to this peaceful valley where nothing could harm her and sent the man she was falling in love with off in her place. No one would blame her. Many would say she had done exactly as she should. She was just a woman and fighting was men's work. Still the same unrest that had sent her out of the valley in the first place was creeping up on her again.
"Am I mad?" Betty asked Jen as she saddled a horse of her own.
Jen handed her the full pack she had prepared and shrugged. "Only if you're wrong, and in this case being wrong means that everyone is doing well, so you win either way."
Betty mounted up. "And you'll be alright here by yourself?"
"Last I checked a few days alone won't kill me. Go. Make sure my cousin is alright, and make sure you both come back safe." Jen stepped back. Betty nodded and urged her horse forward.
The last time she had made this teck she hadn't known the way, and it had recently snowed. This time she did not have to contend with either barrier. The weather had been favorable for over a week and the snow had melted considerably, what remained clearly showed the trail Tony and his men had used. Still, they were half a day ahead of her, and by nightfall her unease had not lifted.
Betty was almost frightened to look down on the river when she finally crested the pass. She knew Stark's men could not be more than a day ahead of her. They could not have made their strike. Yet she still expected to see soot and ruin where the two forces had been. Instead they are as she left them, or at least she does not have the tactical experience to notice any differences.
Betty is faced with a choice. She could follow Stark and his men down to the hydra forces, but that would put her in the line of fire when Stark retreats. She could stay on this side of the river and continue as she had before, down to her father's camp. That idea doesn't sit well. It was two steps forward and one step back. Her father wouldn't be happy and she'd have next to no chance to slip away again. That path felt like breaking her promise to Bruce. There was always the option of turning around and returning to the castle, but then why set out at all? She had been right before.
Betty turned her horse to the river. She heard the waterfall before she could see it. The bare branches of the trees scraped the brittle sky, the hard water the only sound. She had never seen the falls before, it was too close to the Hulk's boundary for a casual visit. She knew the stories though, and they were very clear that there at the head, the river was fast but narrow.
Finding the falls Betty caught her breath. The water flung itself off the cliff and down into a white mist. It glittered like diamonds in the weak sunlight. The valley below was just as stunning as from the pass, more so. Instead of a manageable slope the land simply vanished. This must be what a bird feels like, she thought. oddly it reminded her of Hulk. He might not have been able to fly but that hardly seemed to be a problem.
It was that thought that decided her.
While she was falling in love with Bruce, Hulk was a friend as well. She knew it was problematic to separate the two. Yet from one point of view she hadn't seen her friend in weeks. She hadn't even wished him well when He had bounded away. He was going to war, and she wasn't going to let him go alone, no matter how dangerous.
crossing the river did not prove to be too much of a challenge. Stark had done the scouting ahead of her and their trail led to narrow gap in the banks. A jump of a few feet with sturdy stone on the other side.
She made good time after crossing the river. Betty knew she was catching up. She didn’t catch up that day, but she found their camp less than an hour after setting out the next morning.
Betty is down in the pines, when she sees the first Hydra scout. She freezes in place and her horse shied, sidestepping at her nervousness. She was sure she had been seen, but the man did not call out or raise a weapon. It took her nearly a minute to see the red on his shirt for what it was. Not a banner of his allegiance but blood. The man was dead from a slash across his chest. Betty wondered which of the men had done the act, or if it had been Stark himself. It's cold enough that the body hasn't started to stink, but there are a few crows starting to circle.
Betty presses on. With the knowledge that there are scouts, she forces herself to move more slowly. She found another dead scout before a living one found her.
Betty had just bent to clear a low tree branch, when the scout called out in Hydra's guttural language. Betty tensed. Her horse shook its head and danced back a step. Then Betty's fear took control and she kicked the animal into a run. Behind her another cry went up. Something whistled like a bird. Betty heard the thunk of the arrow hitting a tree without comprehension.
More shouts went up. Betty tried to turn away from them. Somewhere distantly there was a horn call, low and long. She ducked under more branches, letting the horse choose the path. Following Stark's trail wasn't possible now. A second horn call came up from a distance. This one was three clear notes that she knew called men to arms.
Around her snow fell from the trees disturbed by her passage. The rushing of the river grew louder, filling her ears. Then suddenly it was in front of her. Snow gave way to mud and her horse slowed.
The golden light of evening tried to blind her and Betty tried to turn her mount. She had to find a way around or across. Betty glanced back and spotted dancing spots of red through the tossing branches. They were coming.
Betty hesitated. Would it be better to keep running? Upstream? Downstream? Should she try to fight? She wasn't completely unskilled but they were trained soldiers and she didn't know how many there were besides.
More horns sounded downriver. There was something happening in the camp. Tony had made his move if she had to guess. If she could escape these scouts then there probably wouldn't be more. An arrow zipped past landing in the river.
Her horse started to rear, and Betty yanked on the reigns to stay in the saddle. The horse spun in turning until Betty didn't know which way she was facing. Then they were off again through the trees with shouts and arrows lost in the brush behind her.
It feels like seconds and hours before the horse slows, heaving.
She could hear distant shouting, and the river some ways away. There are crows calling and circling overhead. If anyone was close, she could not tell. She didn't know exactly where she was, but she had to still be on the south side of the river. The Hydra side.
Betty dismounted and walked the horse for a while. She didn't know where she was or what direction she was going. She didn't think she was climbing, but there were enough trees that she couldn't see the sun, and the sounds of combat were echoing off the hills.
Betty wondered who was fighting who... at least until she heard the Hulk roar. She had never heard the like before but she knew it was him down to her bones. With her heart in her throat she scrambled up a slight hill, seeking a better vantage point. It was enough. She could see the sunset on the river and movement through the trees.
Leaving the horse she staggered forward.
The trees ended abruptly giving way to stumps covered in fresh hatchet marks. There were more then a few bodies among strewn among them. A few bore the marks of blade or bow, others had simply been rent asunder. She tried not to look too close at those. Beyond a stretch of open land was what was left of the enemy camp. It looked as if a whole herd of angry bulls had charged through the outer defenses. More than one tent was on fire.
Betty guessed her father had taken advantage of the commotion because there were boats pulled up on the bank. There was still fighting but it was less then it should have been This wasn't the clash of armies, it was a rout.
Hulk roared again, and Betty pushed down her exhaustion to run into the fray.
Jen was the only one who had ever been able to calm Hulk down when he was enraged. Tony didn't know how and he could be dead besides. She couldn't let Bruce wake up alone in a strange place covered in blood and surrounded by death. She couldn't let him take the lives of her father and his men, not when she had a chance to stop it.
Hulk was crouched in the center of a mass of ruined tents. Hydra had fled. The warriors who surrounded him wore her father's colors. It was clear the soldiers were scared, but they held their ground, a wall of spears pointed inward. they might have killed Hulk if they were willing to sacrifice half their number to do it. Tony was there, and four of the men from his party. They stood with Hulk, willingly putting their back to him, unafraid. Not one of them were clean of blood. Tony was shouting orders to stand down, mixed thoroughly with curses and threats.
Betty went unnoticed as she approached until the last line of spears. A soldier wearing spun, raising his weapon, then hesitated. She used the gap to push past him, stumbling into the open space between the two forces. A string of questions and curses went up from her father's men. Hulk tried to stand, then groaned and settled back.
"Hold!" Tony yelled in the same tone Betty had often heard her father use.
All eyes were on Betty. The tension in the air could be felt. Betty swallowed down her fear and projected her voice so everyone could hear her.
"I am Elizabeth Ross. I thank you for your service this day. The enemy has broken and fled. Everyone here is loyal to our true king and wants the best for these lands. You may stand down. Today's fight is over"
"You're bewitched." someone called from the crowd.
Tony snorted and rolled his eyes. "Do you have anything between your ears? I'm telling you to stand down. She's telling you to stand down. You all saw how this started right? Haven't you had enough fighting for one day?"
A sargent stepped forward, "With all due respect. We have orders from Sir Ross to eliminate that monster on sight."
The Hulk growled at the words. Betty agreed with that opinion. Her father had gone too far.
"He is not a monster," Betty let her voice lash out, sharp and stinging. "He is my intended and you will treat him with all due respect." She didn't wait for a response. Instead she marched forward, past Tony to where Hulk was crouched. Even kneeling they were of a height. Betty cupped his face in both hands waiting for him to meet her eyes.
"It's alright." she whispered, "I'm here. I promise none of them will hurt you. They'll have to go through me first."
"Betty," Hulk rumbled, slow and pained.
He was injured, she saw. Dark green-tinged blood flowed from a dozen minor wounds. Someone had tried to hamstring him, which explained why he couldn't stand. Betty wondered briefly if changing back to Bruce would heal him or make things worse. Then she put the thought aside. She didn't have much choice. No one would relax with Hulk here, but they might with Bruce.
"You did well." Betty whispered. "You can rest now. I'm here, and Tony's here. they're running away." Hulk bared his teeth and started to look away from her. Betty didn't let him. "Don't worry about them. They're my men. They'll do what I say and I say it's time to rest." Hulk huffed out a skeptical breath. "What, don't believe me? They let me through didn't they. you're the only stubborn one here." She leaned in pressing her forehead to his. Hulk's eyes crossed briefly before he let out another breath and slumped. For a moment he was nearly boneless, and Betty had to Brace herself under even a fraction of his weight. Then he began to change.
Betty had seen the transformation, but no one else there had, not even Stark and his men. It wasn't quite a reverse of when he became the Hulk. It was gentler, an easing of tension until like a sigh he sank into himself and was Bruce once more. Normally Bruce was exhausted after changing back, and this time was no exception. He blinked slowly, a hand coming up to tangle in the hem of Betty's blouse. She knelt beside him, quietly taking stock of his injuries. If she hadn't known better she would have said they were a week old rather than an hour.
Betty coaxed Bruce to lean against her and looked up at Tony. "If you would be so kind as to find us some food and a place to rest. I think we could all use it."
"Right away," Tony said, and started issuing orders to the men around them. For a moment no one seemed to know what to do. Confusion replaced fear and tension and after a moment the soldiers fell back on their training and followed orders.
Betty was aware of activity peripherally over the next few hours. She knew that men were sent out to harass the retreating Hydra forces. She knew men were salvaging what they could from the wreckage of the enemy camp. She knew her father crossed the river at some point and had a shouting match with Stark. She knew that he had been barred from seeing her, or more likely Bruce.
Bruce slept through all of it, holding onto her all the while.
It was two days before things were settled enough that all the parties involved could sit down and discuss things. Betty had refused to see her father the whole while, preferring to stay with Bruce which seemed to make everyone more comfortable.
Word of Bruce's transformation and her part in it had spread like wildfire through the camp. She was sure that even now it was being whispered across the countryside. She didn't feel like a princess or a great hero to break the spell with her love.
The spell was not broken, Bruce had confirmed that when he woke. He seemed more relaxed about the whole situation. Perhaps it was that the soldiers did not seem to openly fear him. Bruce was a curiosity to them, a distant noble, a stranger with some potential power. Most of them, if they had not been ordered to do otherwise, staired from a distance or ignored Bruce completely.
When the fateful meeting was finally held, Betty deliberately settled herself beside Bruce rather then her father, leaving him alone on the far side of the table. Betty and Bruce had not spoken of it but she fully intended a proper courtship between them. Even if they fell out of love, Betty did not plan to return to her father's home. That time in her life was done. If he could not accept it, than it only proved her point.
Tony lounged in his own chair one leg up on the arm of the chair, studying the bottle he turned over and over in his hands. "So, Hydra's on the run, the navy has been notified, medals for everyone, good job people."
Betty's father snorted, a scowl painting his features. "Of course you would ignore the fact that Hydra isn't gone yet. We're going to have to harry them all the way to the shore, otherwise they'll just fall back and hit us again in the spring, and if you were complaining about the supplies here, trying to get caravans through in winter is going to be a nightmare. Your plan, if you can call it that, was reckless and shortsighted."
"As opposed to what? Archaic? Barbaric? non-existent? Admit it Ross, this is the first victory we've seen in months and it's not because of you."
Her father opened his mouth, his face going red. Betty knew all the signs of an impending shouting match and cut him off. "No it's because of Bruce."
Bruce blushed, ducking his head. "I should have done more. I've been remiss in my duties."
Betty laid a hand on his arm, "but you're fixing that now." He covered her hand with his own and offered her a small smile.
Ross grunted looking between them. "You can start by returning my daughter, and paying recompense for her abduction."
"Recompense?" Bruce asked but Betty squeezed his arm and he went quiet.
"Father, while I support Bruce in his desire to assist our people, he owes you nothing. I alone will dictate my actions. I chose to stay with him and I intend to return with him when this is done."
Her father's back is straight as a board. His nostrils flare and Betty knows him well enough to see him calculating his next steps.
He can't take any physical action. that would be below his standing as a knight and Lord. If they were alone or if only his own men were present he might consider it but with both Tony and Bruce watching him that option will be discarded. Besides, between Bruce and Tony, any action he took would get out of hand rather quickly.
If they were in a more formal setting or again if only his own men were present, he could have demanded to speak with her privately. That would be all he needed to spirit her away until he had broken her will. Neither Bruce nor Tony would be willing to let that happen, Betty is certain. Tony has been just as adversarial with her father as ever in recent days.
If Bruce were not a noble he could claim she had gone mad or threaten to disinherit her. It wouldn't have stopped her, Betty has never been one to depend on the luxuries afforded by her rank, but it would have saved the family name in his eyes. As it is, if she and Bruce were to wed it would likely prevent a war of succession. The king had awarded Bruce's lands to her father when they thought the line of Banner was gone. If and when Bruce were to try to reclaim his birthright, the courts would have been in an uproar for years trying to work out the details. A union of their houses would neatly fix the issue.
Ross could appeal directly to the king. Tony would stand against him and it was said that Tony had the king's ear, but the grievance would still have to be heard and formally ruled. Except with Bruce's return and very visible victory Ross could not argue that he was nothing but a beast.
Simply put, her father had no move to make. He had to accept her terms or lose face. If he cared for her more than his standing then he would speak, ask her to reconsider, plead with her to come home, tell her how much he cared. They did not stand before the king and court. It was such a small thing, but he would not give.
Knight Ross stood, and without a word left the tent.
Bruce met her eyes. for a moment Betty thought he was going to ask if she was sure, instead he lifted her hand and kissed her knuckles.
They went home.
Tony promised to visit, but in the meantime he was needed to chase Hydra back into the sea.
When the passes opened properly in the spring Bruce and Betty spread the word that anyone in the valley who wished to leave was welcome to do so, and refugees from the war could come and settle in the shadow of the Forth Spire. By then their story had been told a hundred times over. Some scoffed, but more journeyed to see the young couple. It grew to be so much that Bruce would transform simply to get some peace.
Betty handled the situation by sending out wedding invitations. By her logic, if the whole of the kingdom was going to arrive on her doorstep, they might as well be there for a reason. Jen was overjoyed for them. Bruce seemed to be amazed. and very willingly showed her the depth of his love.
The orchard was in full bloom when they were wed, the scent of apple blossoms mixing with the roses. Tony stood as best man, with Jen as the maid of honor. Betty's father was not in attendance but she had not expected him.
They celebrated well into the night, and lived happily ever after.