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lily of the valley

Chapter Text

"How dare you lift your blade against the goddess?"

"The goddess? Ha! No, I only struck against a witch."

"Do not mock me. To attack Lady Seiros is to attack the goddess herself. You, Sir Maurice...who I trusted as one of my own..."

"I do not fear you."

"Oh, but well you should. You know what it is to incur the wrath of a witch."

"I care not what is done to me. All I care...is that you burn."

"You will suffer greatly for your sins, cur. You, your children, and your children's children, and all who come after, will feel this curse within their very blood."

"Am I supposed to be frightened?"

"My lady! Is this truly wise?"

"Silence, Cichol. What this man has done is unforgivable."

"This is true, but to pass the punishment along to innocents…"

"I am not wholly merciless, my brother. There will be a way to break the curse. Now...it is done. Gaze upon your face, now foul enough to reflect the darkness within."

"I - I - "

"Yes. When did you last see your eldest son, Maurice? I suggest you pay him a visit...though he may not look as you remember him."

"You - you monster! You BEAST!"

"No, Maurice. You are the beast now. And so you and your descendants will be, until one of you has enough goodness in their heart to love and to be loved truly in return. But we both know that day will never come...

"...for who could ever learn to love a beast?"

***

Hilda Valentine Goneril is bored.

Painfully, excruciatingly bored.

Thanks to that war with Almyra, everything's expensive and hard to get, and her parents are all worried all the time, and her brother's always talking about defending Goneril from all the dangerous Almyran soldiers that are definitely interested in a measly old village a kazillion miles away from Riegan or anywhere that's actually fun. And because all the roads are plagued by Dangerous Rebels, Hilda isn't even allowed to leave the village anymore. No parties, no dances, hell, no evening walks! No fun. Every day's the same.

Hilda isn't made for this! She's made for adventure! Thrills! Delicious pastries and fancy dresses! But the family coffers are dwindling lower and lower. They had to let all the servants go, so Hilda has to do chores like some kind of person who actually cares about chores. The only thing she has to break up the monotony is training with Holst, but even throwing axes gets boring after awhile, especially since her brother freaks out every time Hilda gets so much as a bruise. Never mind shopping sprees or sightseeing. Nowadays Hilda's lucky if they can even buy her a new dress once a year. The highlight of the last six months was when her mother found an old can of peach preserves in the corner of the cellar and made a very flat, sugarless cobbler out of it. Yeah, that's the kind of life she's living now.

It didn't used to be like this. Hilda had a life! She traveled! She did things other than sitting in the parlor with her parents, or axe practice, or chores. But then the precious little prince of Almyra had to go and disappear while visiting his grandfather, who just happened to be Duke Riegan, leader of Leicester...the stupid spoiled kid probably just ran off, Hilda suspects. Sure, she's kind of a stupid spoiled kid herself, but at least she's not starting wars over it.

Stupid or not, with the war raging on for five years and no end in sight, Hilda doesn't see an end to this boring, boring, boring life any time soon.

Still, she's desperate for any kind of change in routine at this point, and that's why Hilda agrees to go shopping with her brother for the month's supplies, printed out on a list in her mother's neat, cramped handwriting. Nothing exciting, because they have no money. But meager or no, the groceries are heavy, and Hilda's back complains as she drags the sack through the town square.

"Seriously, Holst, you can't carry some of this for your precious little sister?" Hilda wheedles, worried that her legs are actually going to snap in two. 

Holst doesn't answer, his brow furrowed as he looks down at the list in his free hand. "Do you think Father would mind if we didn't bring back any fabric? I know he wanted to mend some of his shirts, but even wool has gotten so terribly expensive...I just don't think we can make it work."

Hilda feels a surge of guilt, clamping her mouth shut.

"Did you need something, Hilda?"

"Er, nothing," Hilda blurts. "Nothing at all."

Holst gives a long sigh as he pockets the list and turns to look longingly at a blacksmith's stall. There's not much for sale, and what there is costs more money than Hilda's seen in five years. The square is almost deserted, the early summer air balmy and suffocating. Everything in Goneril looks exactly the same as it always does. Boring, boring, boring.

"Do you see that, Hilda?" Holst asks, breaking her reverie.

"Hm?" Hilda turns to face the town notice board. "That old poster?"

"Not old, brand-new," says Holst, leaning across her to get a better look. "Don't you ever check the notice board, Hilda?"

"Um, no, I don't. Why would I?"

Holst sighs as he smooths out the poster, squinting at it, and then his eyes suddenly widen. "By the Goddess - "

"What? What is it? Someone selling a cow?"

"No," says her brother, the joke going over his head, as always. "It's from Margrave Edmund!"

"What - that old eccentric?" Hilda peers over her brother's shoulder. "I didn't even know he was still alive!"

"Nobody did," says Holst in a hushed tone. "He rarely leaves his house - look!"

To the good people of Leicester

Seeking a lifelong companion for a lovely young lady

Offering room and board at Maurice Manor and 80,000 G (willing to negotiate)

Inquire at Edmund Estate

- Margrave Edmund

"Lifelong companion for a lovely young lady…" Holst muses.

"A dowry, I suppose," says Hilda. "Though a very generous one. This daughter of his must be a real piece of work."

"Margrave Edmund has no children." Holst's brow is deeply furrowed. This is the hardest Hilda's seen him think in years. "Hmm…"

"Well, anyway, are you gonna help me drag all this stuff home?" Hilda huffs impatiently. Holst appears to take no notice. "Brother!"

"What?"

"Going home? Heavy bags? Your poor, sweet, struggling sister?"

"Oh, yes. Very well." Holst tugs the scrap of paper from the board and stuffs it into his pocket before effortlessly hauling a bag over each burly shoulder. "Let's head back, Hilda."

"Yep. Home sweet home..." Hilda looks across the square, and her stomach drops. "Oh, shit."

"Language, Hilda - "

"No, no, forget my language - hide me! Quick!" Hilda darts behind Holst's expansive bulk. "Pretend I'm not here!"

"Hilda, whatever is the matter? Oh, Lord Acheron!" Holst's voice booms out between the buildings. "How lovely it is to see you!"

Hilda moans, covering her face with her hands.

There's something else about Hilda's life she detests. Other than the boredom and the horrible, heavy cloud it casts over her life, well…

There's something even worse.

"Ah, young Duke Holst!" The short blond man sweeps across the square, coming to a stop in front of Holst and bowing with a flourish. "And lovely lady Hilda!" He simpers. "What good fortune brings you here today?"

"Merely some errands." Holst shifts some of the bags across his arms. "Hilda, whatever has gotten into you? Say hello."

Mentally vowing to make Holst pay the next time they have a training session, Hilda does the shallowest curtsy she can manage. "Lord Acheron."

Acheron takes Hilda's hand, sending chills crawling down her spine. "You are as beautiful as ever, my dear. And so kind, to help your brother with his errands."

"Er, yes." Hilda casts Holst a desperate look, but the big doofus doesn't notice, of course. "Kind and helpful. That's me."

"When we're married, of course, you'll have no need to dirty your lovely hands with such things," Acheron continues, twirling his immaculately hideous mustache. "The servants will be able to take care of anything you could possibly need."

Hilda nods mutely.

"I'm afraid I really must be on my way - I'm to take tea with Duke Gloucester, you see." Acheron bows again. "I will see you again soon, my sweet. Duke Goneril." He nods once more and then bustles off to where his carriage is parked.

"What a kind man," says Holst brightly.

Hilda doesn't answer, and remains silent for the rest of the walk home. She'd been able to largely put the engagement to Acheron out of her mind. It's fairly new, after all, and there's still a lot to plan before the papers are signed and they're officially wed. But it's still a reality, one that Hilda can't avoid.

Normally, Hilda would have shut this whole thing down. Thrown a temper tantrum, run away, made herself thoroughly undesirable. She certainly did when she got suitors as a teenager, after all. But now Hilda's twenty-three, and she's wise enough to realize the truth.

Acheron's disgusting, slimy, and two-faced. He's way older than Hilda, and all he wants is her title (and beauty, if Hilda says so herself.) But he has money. And the family needs money, more than ever. After all, House Goneril is dying, and the village with it. And while Acheron has no real noble standing, his family fortune is still easily enough to save them.

Hilda resents her parents for doing this to her. But she can't leave them to destitution.

Holst is quiet too, clearly deep in thought. It's an unusual sight for the meathead (which Hilda thinks as lovingly as possible) but she figures he's lost in his own troubles. It hasn't been an easy year for anyone, after all.

Goneril Manor still looks small with no guards, a dried-up garden, and only one old carriage horse in the stables. Much of the furniture has been stripped down or sold, and they're only living out of the barest handful of rooms now. Hilda unlocks the front door and helps Holst bring in the bags of supplies.

"Let's go speak with Father and Mother," says Holst, setting down the bags. "We'll put this all away later."

"Really?" Hilda blinks in surprise. Holst's not really a "do it later" person. "Okay."

Their parents are in the sitting room, of course. They were talking in low voices, but quickly cut off when they see their children enter, twisting around and looking as if they were just caught with their hands in the metaphorical biscuit jar.

"How was the shopping, dears?" Lady Goneril's smile doesn't quite reach her eyes.

"It went well enough." Holst bows. "Though I'm afraid we weren't quite able to afford the fabric."

"Oh, that's no trouble." Lord Goneril twists his hands together. The lines across his forehead are far deeper than they were five years ago. "I'm glad you two are here. There is some news I must deliver. Sit down, please."

Hilda and Holst sit down side by side on the sofa, facing their parents. 

"You see…" Lord Goneril glances at his wife, then back at his children. "I am afraid that while you two were gone...well, I have met with some people, and...suffice to say, we must advance your wedding, Hilda."

"Wait." Hilda stares at him. "What? Why?"

"Lord Acheron is growing...impatient, and…" Lord Goneril sighs heavily. "I am afraid that we have almost entirely depleted our savings. If we do not do something within the fortnight, then...then we will lose the manor altogether. And we cannot afford to purchase a new home. There is no other option. I am sorry, Hilda. I know you wished to keep enjoying your youth..."

"That's why Acheron was in the square," says Hilda slowly. "He was coming back from meeting with you!"

"Yes."

Hilda wishes she could protest. Normally, she would. Normally she'd be making a speech about how this was her life and her decision and she was not going to marry some old creep just to bail them out!

But her parents are too old, and she and Holst can't find work because there's no work because there's no money, and Hilda's protests all die in her throat.

They're idiots, but she can't let her parents and Holst starve.

"I am sorry, Hilda." Her father's voice is gentle. "But this is for Goneril."

"Besides, darling," her mother adds, "it won't be a difficult life as Lady Acheron. You'll have servants to do all your work for you. You'll be able to devote all your time to making those little trinkets of yours. Won't that be nice?"

Hilda doesn't answer. She's scared if she opens her mouth, she'll cry, and that would be super embarrassing. Hilda doesn't cry, unless she's faking it to get her way. She hasn't cried for real in years.

"Then this makes my decision clear," Holst murmurs.

"Holst?"

Holst takes a deep breath and sits up straight. "Father, while we were in town, Hilda and I found this." He pulls out what Hilda recognizes as the notice board poster and slides it across the coffee table. "It is a dowry appeal...from Margrave Edmund."

"From Edmund?" Lord Goneril's eyebrows nearly lift off his forehead as he reads the poster. "Good gracious."

"See for yourself what he is offering," says Holst. "Money like that could solve all of our troubles in one fell swoop."

"I suppose that is true," says Lady Goneril slowly. "But where are you going with this?"

"I…" Holst takes a deep breath and puts his shoulders back. "I have decided. I will take Margrave Edmund up on his offer, and wed this young lady he so desires to marry off."

Silence falls in the bare sitting room.

"That will never do," her father says at last, leaning back in his seat. "Holst, without you - what will become of House Goneril?"

Hilda can't help a stab of indignation at that. Hey, you've got another kid.

"We've little choice, Father," says Holst, clasping a hand to his breast. "Besides, Hilda - "

Thank you.

" -'s children will be able to carry on the name."

Never mind.

"I simply cannot fathom our family surviving without you," Lord Goneril frets, twisting his hands together.

"It is this, or our family does not survive at all," says Holst. "We cannot even afford a proper dowry for poor Hilda."

Hilda glares sideways at him.

"Besides, Hilda does not wish to wed, and I hate the thought of passing this burden onto her." Holst lowers his eyes. "It is shameful of me to allow my little sister to suffer for the sake of my own freedom."

Hilda takes back the glare.

"But, Holst…" Lady Goneril trails off.

"It won't be so bad." Holst looks back, his smile tremulous. "Old Maurice Manor's deep in Blutgang Woods, isn't it? They say those woods are haunted by monsters. I'm sure there's all manner of adventure to be had there."

Adventure?

"I admit, the prospect rather frightens me, but…" Holst gives a shaky laugh. "A mysterious young lady with a sprawling estate, deep in the woods? There are worse places to go, I suppose."

Actually, Hilda thinks, that sounds pretty neat. Better than Goneril by a long shot.

"So I will go and visit this Margrave Edmund," Holst concludes. "If he deems me suitable, then I will wed this woman. And you, Mother, and Hilda will be able to live in comfort. I would be lying if I said it was the life I wished for, but...well, so it is."

"Holst…" Hilda manages, but she can't seem to finish the sentence.

"Well, that is that, then." Holst gets suddenly to his feet. "I suppose I will retire. I will see you all for supper later." He rushes out of the room.

"That poor boy," Lady Goneril murmurs. "He would give you the world, Hilda."

"Yeah," Hilda mutters, looking down at the crumpled poster on the coffee table. "Yeah, he would…"

***

By the time Hilda is halfway to the Edmund estate, her mind is almost completely made up.

A mysterious abandoned house with a mysterious young lady nobody's ever heard of. No real job other than being friendly with said mysterious young lady. And if Margrave Edmund can offer that kind of dowry money, he and this girl must be super rich. No chores, no nagging, no rations - kind of like her mother said, Hilda would just be able to devote her time to making her little "trinkets," and she wouldn't be married to Acheron. Really, the more Hilda thinks about it, this deal seems pretty sweet. 

Besides, her options are A) marry Lord Acheron (barf, no) B) let Holst marry this girl even though he clearly doesn't want to (and Hilda would feel awful and guilty about it for ages, that jerk) or C) split the difference and take Margrave Edmund's offer herself. 

C is looking more and more tempting. And if Hilda's honest about it, it's not really for Holst's sake, or her parents'.

It's because this will be an adventure. It'll be doing something. It will be new and different and maybe even fun. And she won't be under the thumb of either her family or Acheron for the first time in her life.

Edmund's estate is pretty cozy, Hilda thinks as she dismounts and gives her horse's nose an absentminded pet. It's similar in size to Goneril Manor, but it doesn't have that run-down look Hilda's home has started to develop in the last few years. The lawns are immaculate, and the lamps inside are lit even though it's still mid-afternoon.

Yep, Hilda thinks happily to herself, jackpot.

Hilda raps smartly on the door and folds her arms behind her back, adapting her Precocious Little Lady expression that never fails to work on Holst. It's time to turn on the charm.

The door is opened almost at once by an old-ish man with dark green hair, who looks down his nose at Hilda like he's never seen the like of her before. "May I help you?"

"My name's Hilda," Hilda says, dipping a quick curtsy. "I wanted to answer Margrave Edmund's ad. In the town square?"

"Hm." The man looks her up and down. Hilda gets the sensation he's looking right through her, and tries to look as dutiful and sweet as she can. "Very well. Come inside."

Hilda follows the man into an elegantly decorated sitting room. The man gestures to a high-backed armchair. "Please take a seat. I will fetch the lord."

Hilda nods and sits down primly, laying her hands flat on her knees, trying to look innocent, poised, and oh-so-slightly curious. The man doesn't spare her a second glance as he sweeps back out of the sitting room.

The interior of Edmund's estate is as posh as the exterior, Hilda thinks as she casts a sideways glance around the room. Everything's neat and polished, and there's plenty of knickknacks and ornaments. Goneril pawned off most of theirs ages ago. This is looking better and better.

The door opens once more. Margrave Edmund is a sallow-faced man with pale blue hair, but his eyes are sharp and intelligent as he looks Hilda over. "So you answered my advertisement?"

"Yes, sir." Hilda bows her head. "My name is Hilda Valentine Goneril, the younger sister of Duke Goneril. I'm twenty-three, in good health, and I'm interested in your, er, offer."

Edmund looks her up and down, and Hilda tenses slightly under his scrutiny - it's even worse than that of the first man, who is standing near the door once again. "My offer, you say?"

"Er, you said that you were looking for a...companion. For a young lady."

"Yes, for my niece. She is...ill. She has been since she was very young, and due to the nature of her...illness, is unable to leave her home."

"I'm very sorry, sir."

"Seteth here has been the one caring for her," Edmund gestures to the green-haired man, who gives another stiff bow, "and he says that what my poor niece truly needs is a companion. A friend her own age, someone from the outside world...someone kind, compassionate, who gives of themselves…"

"Yes," says Hilda quickly, twirling the end of her ponytail around one finger and trying to make her eyes as large and sympathetic as possible. "Yes, that's me."

"You are a very selfless young lady," says Margrave Edmund. "I have placed ads all over Leicester, but none have ever answered me, I'm afraid. They were, er, frightened by the prospect."

"Er..." Hilda swallows. "The illness isn't contagious, is it, sir?"

"What? Oh, no, certainly not."

"So this…" Hilda decides there has been quite enough beating around the bush. "Is this a...dowry, sir?"

"No, no." Margrave Edmund shakes his head. "There is no need for you to wed my niece - only to provide her with companionship. Simply be a friend to her. That is all that I ask."

"Oh," says Hilda, slightly relieved. "Yeah, of course. I can do that. No problem."

"Should you take my offer, you will take up residence in my niece's home, the one her parents left to her before they disappeared - Maurice Manor. It is set deep in Blutgang Woods."

"I heard, sir."

"You will be free to leave the estate whenever you so wish - though of course, if you leave for an extended period of time with no sign of returning, then I will have to reclaim the price I offered. But the deed to the estate and the fortune will be yours so long as you spend time with my niece."

"Seems easy enough," says Hilda. "I'm pretty friendly."

"Very good, then." Margrave Edmund shakes Hilda's hand. "We depart on the morrow. Well, I say 'we' - Seteth will be the one driving you. I myself spend little time at the manor." 

No wonder your niece is lonely, then.

"If that is all." Edmund bows his head. "Thank you, my lady Hilda. I greatly appreciate this. You've no idea - well, I appreciate it. That is all I shall say."

"Yes, sir." Hilda gets to her feet. "I'll see you tomorrow, then?"

"Correct. Seteth, show her the way out." Edmund disappears back down the hall. 

As Hilda leaves Edmund's estate, it's only then she starts to wonder what she's gotten herself into. This whole thing feels weird, and fishy. Why is Edmund so desperate just to get his niece a friend?

Still, she's excited. This is new, and different, and weird - and at least she'll be out of the dismal halls of her family home. Anything's better than marrying Lord Acheron and living out a life of endless boredom, right?

***

"Absolutely not," Lord Goneril rests his face in his hands as he leans on the dining table. "Hilda, what were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that if Holst is so important to the family line, then he should stay here to look after things," Hilda snaps back. She wasn't expecting this much backlash from her choice, and embarrassment is making her cheeks redder and her tongue sharper.

"And what of Lord Acheron?" Lady Goneril twists her hands together. "What of your engagement?"

"Perhaps Holst can marry him," Hilda suggests brightly.

"Don't be ridiculous, Hilda."

"Hilda, you don't have to do this." Holst's large, earnest face is creased with worry, and Hilda tries not to look directly at him. "I don't mind."

"You do, though," says Hilda. "Listen, you don't have to be so self-sacrificing all the time. I'm fine with doing this. In fact, I'm actually looking forward to it."

"You can't merely go and live in the woods with this young lady," says Lady Goneril. "People will talk."

Hilda shrugs. "People talk all the time. I don't care."

"Perhaps there's no need for any of this," Lord Goneril murmurs. "We must simply hold out a little while longer. The war will end, and we'll all - "

"Almyra and Leicester have been at a standoff for years," says Hilda. "Unless that royal brat comes running home, this war's not ending anytime soon."

Silence falls at the dinner table.

"Look, I've made my decision," says Hilda at last. "I'm an adult. This will take care of our debts, and Holst will be able to stay home as the duke, and I won't have to marry Lord Acheron. It's a win-win-win, right?"

"But…but anything could happen to you out there!" Holst argues. "You could be eaten by monsters, even!"

"Um, you've been teaching me to fight for practically my whole life," Hilda retorts. "Besides, who says there's really monsters? Nobody goes in those woods. People take the long way round to get to Riegan."

"Yes," Holst massages his brow, "because of the monsters!"

Hilda sighs. "Look, I've already made up my mind, and you guys don't get a say. Take the money or don't. But I think that Margrave Edmund's offer is the best shot this family has of actually making it to the end of this war."

The room grows quiet again. Hilda holds her breath.

"...Fine," her father says at last. "I can see there is no swaying you."

Hilda resists the urge to pump her fist. "Thank you, Father."

"Though I've no idea what I'll tell Lord Acheron…" Lord Goneril sighs.

That's Father's problem, though, Hilda thinks brightly as she jumps to her feet. "I'll go pack!"

Chapter Text

Edmund's carriage is parked outside his home. Seteth is standing beside it, his expression making Hilda feel as if she's late despite there being no appointed time.

"Lady Hilda," he says, by way of greeting. "Are you ready to depart?"

"Yep." Hilda turns back to Holst, whose face is red as he hoists her trunk into the carriage's luggage rack. "Bye, big bro. See you when I get vacation time."

"Hilda…" her brother manages, wringing his hands together.

Hilda gives him a quick pat on the shoulder. "Don't get soppy! Just take care of Mother and Father, all right? I'll handle the rest."

"Right…" Holst grabs her in a sudden hug, which Hilda endures, gritting her teeth. "Look after yourself, Hilda. And don't get hurt, okay? I can't stand the idea of something happening to you…"

"Don't worry," says Hilda quickly, patting him on the back. "I might be a delicate flower, but I can look after myself. And I'll write you lots. I'll send you stuff I make, too."

"Right…" Holst manages a shaky smile as he pulls away. "Well, good luck." He turns to Seteth, who is watching the proceedings with an air of great boredom. "You'll look after my sister, won't you? She's very fragile…"

"No harm shall befall her," says Seteth stiffly. "On that you have my word. Let us be off, Lady Hilda. I would rather not cross the woods in the dark."

"Got it." Hilda shoots Holst a quick thumbs-up and then climbs into the carriage. It's tiny, pulled by a single, tired-looking horse and barely big enough to fit Hilda inside. Now that Hilda looks at it, it's super old-fashioned and a little dusty. Where'd Edmund dig up this fossil, anyway?

Speaking of fossils, Hilda thinks sourly as Seteth shoots her one more calculating look before climbing up into the driver's seat. She doesn't know why, but it feels like he already has it out for her. Or maybe he's just a cranky old jerk.

Holst waves, looking close to tears, and Hilda waves back through the carriage window as Seteth cracks the reins and the carriage pulls away, off down the cobbled street and towards the roads leading to Blutgang Woods.

What does Hilda know about the woods, anyway? She leans back against the stiff velvet seat, trying to recall her childhood lessons. Blutgang Woods have been around forever, a blot on the landscape between Riegan, Goneril, and the relatively tiny town of Edmund (which was pretty much just part of Goneril until about the last two decades, when Margrave Edmund had made a name for himself as a diplomat in Leicester politics.) Still, even though it's the best distance as the crow flies, the woods are dark, twisting, and dangerous, so most people just take the long route, skirting around it to travel through Leicester. 

On the other side of Goneril is Almyra, but the impassable mountains forming a solid wall pretty much rule out all chance of invasion through there. The bulk of that battle is being fought on Almyran and Riegan territory, not that the war hasn't managed to completely devastate all of Leicester anyway.

Regardless...Hilda's never been to the woods. Nobody ever goes there. It would take a complete idiot to wander in alone. Yet Margrave Edmund's niece lives there, in old Maurice Manor, which Hilda thought had been abandoned for decades.

What kind of girl is this mysterious niece, anyway? And what's wrong with her, if she's so sick she lives in that dump?

Hilda considers asking Seteth, but he doesn't seem like he'd be willing to give her answers, his back ramrod straight in the driver's seat ahead of Hilda. As if feeling her eyes on him, he suddenly turns around and closes the window behind him, leaving Hilda totally alone in the wooden box of the dingy carriage. Rude.

They enter the Blutgang Woods, the carriage bumping and rolling as they leave the road in favor of a winding dirt path. Hilda peers out the carriage window, watching the trees get rapidly thicker and darker. There's nothing but foliage and shadows, as far as the eye can see. Not a glimmer of life.

She doesn't see any monsters, at least. That's something.

The drive is long and largely uneventful, leaving Hilda staring aimlessly out the window, in a bored stupor. Eventually, though, the trees begin to thin. Hilda pokes her head out the window and sees a massive house rising up out of the trees. 

The first thing Hilda notices about the manor is that it's all gray, the walls light gray and the roof and trim dark gray. It's also a good four stories high, most of the windows are boarded up, ivy is creeping up the sides, and shingles are falling off the roof like flower petals. There's a massive garden, including a mossy lake, but it looks largely wild and overgrown, just like the building itself.

Yikes.

"We've arrived," comes Seteth's voice, and the elderly carriage lurches to a halt. "Welcome to Maurice Manor."

"It's...quaint." Hilda grimaces as she clambers out of the carriage, blood rushing back into her legs. "And uh, so...woodsy."

"Indeed," says Seteth. "It has been in the lady's family for generations. You would do well to respect it, to avoid any...ah, hurt feelings."

"Sure, sure," says Hilda quickly. "Loads of respect, right here."

"Father!" A young girl comes racing out of the building's black, chipped front doors, her cheerful expression out of place among the gray trees and crumbling building. "Welcome home!"

"Did you look after things in my absence, Flayn?" Seteth asks as he steps down from the carriage seat.

"I did!" Flayn nods vigorously. "Everything is in utterly perfect condition! Our guest's chambers are immaculate, if I do say so myself. Oh, hello! Is this our new companion?"

"Yes, this is Lady Hilda." Seteth nods to her. "Hilda, my daughter, Flayn."

"Greetings!" Flayn curtsies deeply. "I am also in the employ of the Maurice family. It is an honor to meet you! I am so glad you will be coming here to aid the young mistress - she is so terribly lonely, but I am certain a new friend will lift her spirits!"

"Yeah, I'll do my best," Hilda manages. "Hey, uh…" What even is Seteth's surname? Hilda decides not to worry about it. "Seteth, can you get my trunk?"

"I suppose I can." Seteth fixes Hilda with a beady eye as he does, though, and Hilda suspects she won't be able to get many favors out of him. Flayn, on the other hand, seems a softer touch, bouncing eagerly on her heels as she watches Hilda.

"As you can see, Maurice Manor is quite large," Flayn continues. She has an odd, slightly stilted way of speaking. "Despite being in employ here for quite some time, I myself do not yet know every nook and cranny of the place! However, for that same reason I must request that you use caution when exploring the manor. While you are free to come and go as you please, it would be best if you did not open any locked doors, so as to respect the lady's privacy."

Does Hilda look like the kind of person who picks locks? Well, she is, but still. "Oh yeah. Got it."

"There are also several, er...workers residing in the manor," says Flayn. "I am certain you will meet them all in time. They will be happy to help with anything you need. However, if you require anything of Father and me, you need only call on us." Flayn points to a smaller house, huddled in the sloping shadow of Maurice Manor. Despite being an eighth the size of the main house, it looks a good bit cleaner and cheerier, with faded green paint and a wreath of flowers on the door. "We are happy to be of service!"

"So, uh, you work here?" Hilda looks down at Flayn.

"I do indeed! Father and I have been in the service of the Maurice family for many long years." Flayn bows again. Hilda wonders exactly how many long years. The kid can't be older than fifteen. "I do hope you enjoy your stay! I am quite excited to have somebody new about the place. But oh, I have been prattling on! You must be exhausted."

Hilda suppresses a well-timed yawn.

"Let us lead you to your quarters posthaste! Father, you have the guest's luggage, yes? Excellent! Onward!" Flayn pulls a rusty-looking key out of her pocket. "Here is a key to the manor's front door for you, Lady Hilda. Please do feel free to come and go!"

"Be cautious and don't stray too far alone, though," Seteth adds, dragging Hilda's trunk up the front path. "There are all manner of creatures in this forest."

"Monsters?" Hilda asks wryly.

"Don't be ridiculous," says Seteth. Hilda notes that he never actually answered the question.

Flayn pushes open the manor doors. The inside is just as run-down as the outside, the halls dusty and much of the furniture strewn about haphazardly. There's a few lit candles here and there, and paintings and things on the wall, but some are so grungy Hilda can barely make out their contents. And aside from the occasional bug, there's not even a glimmer of life, even as Hilda peeks into every room they pass as they march down the hall.

Does someone really live here?

"I do apologize for the mess," says Flayn. "Father and I try to keep the place largely presentable, but we have enough of a job just keeping the walls and whatnot intact. And with the lady's...condition, it is rather difficult for her to keep up with housework."

"You said there were workers here?" Hilda asks, dodging a massive cobweb. "Don't they ever clean?"

"Well…" Flayn's posture seems to slump slightly. "It's rather difficult for them as well, you see. Ah, here we are! I assure you, I have scrubbed your quarters from top to bottom! Nary a speck of dust in sight." She unlocks a door with a tiny brass key before passing the key to Hilda. "And here you are, for your privacy."

"Uh, thanks." Hilda tucks the key in her dress pocket. "So this is my room?"

"It is indeed!" Flayn pushes open the door, and Hilda's relieved to see that she wasn't lying about its cleanliness. It's a little dated-looking and shabby, sure, but the bed is made, and there's a small candelabra lit and perched on the bedside table, casting the room in a warm yellow glow. The floor is immaculate, and there's a little bowl of flowers atop the wardrobe, filling the room with a faintly sweet scent. "The dining room is in the west wing, just down the hall and to the left. Father and I usually dine in our own house, but the workers will have dinner prepared for you in a couple of hours, if you would like to take a lie-down before then."

"Dinner with your mistress?" Hilda asks.

"We-ell…" Flayn and Seteth exchange a look. "The mistress doesn't usually care to leave her quarters, particularly during the day, but...but the dining hall will be set and ready for you."

"I thought I was brought here to be her companion," says Hilda.

"Well, yes, certainly, but…" Flayn casts another anxious glance at her father.

Seteth clears his throat. "We will...take things slowly. The lady is very shy, and she will need some time to...warm up to the idea before she shows herself to you, most likely. Until then, you are welcome to explore as you wish - merely, as Flayn said, avoid any locked doors. And do be cautious if you stray from the manor grounds."

"Got it." Hilda sighs. "Guess I'll start unpacking, then."

"Very good." Seteth nods to her. "Come, Flayn."

"Coming!" Flayn chirps. "I am certain all the workers will want to meet our guest. Well, I shall see you later, Miss Hilda. I do hope we shall get along!" She waves before following her father out of the room, the door clicking shut behind her.

Hilda sits on the bed, slumping down with a heavy sigh. 

This whole thing is really weird. It was weird to start with, but now it's getting weirder. What's going on here?

"Chin up, kid. It'll all be fine."

"What?" Hilda jerks her head up, staring around the room. "Who said that?"

"Me," comes the voice again.

"...Flayn?" Hilda's embarrassed by the tremble in her voice. She thinks wildly of her axe, but it's buried in the trunk under all her clothes - she'd never reach it in time. "...Seteth?"

"Nope and no," says the voice. "Over here. Little to your left."

Hilda's head swivels as she stares at her bedside table. There's nothing and nobody there but the candelabra.

"Yep, there I am." The candelabra jerks suddenly, bending at the middle, and Hilda flings herself backwards across the bed. "Nice to meet you."

Hilda stares at the candelabra. "You're kidding me."

"You're right, it's actually terrible to meet you - no, of course not. Why would I joke about that?"

"This is a joke. Seteth and Flayn are playing a joke on me…"

"I don't think Seteth knows how to joke, and Flayn giggles through every prank. Trust me." The candlestick waves one of its spokes. "No jokes here. Just some magic."

"So...you're really…" Hilda rubs her eyes. The candlestick is still waving at her. Maybe she's more tired than she thought. But this all feels very, very real. 

There are legends of magic, of course. Books and stories. Magic passed down in the blood, from Saint Seiros herself. Hilda's never been a religious person. But...

"You're a talking candlestick."

"Wow," the candelabra deadpans. "I never noticed."

"That is really weird."

"Get used to it," says the candelabra, crossing its - arms? Hilda tries not to think too hard about it - with an air of great indignation. "Trust me, it'll get weirder."

"Weirder how?"

"You haven't met the mistress yet, have you?"

"No…" Hilda blinks. "What, is she, like, a dining table?"

"No, worse. But you'll see. Anyway…" The candelabra bows with a flourish. "My name's Claude."

"Claude the candelabra."

"Yeah, yeah, I got it, it's funny." Claude gives a wounded sigh. "I can't exactly make expressions, but I'm sticking my tongue out at you, okay? Just picture it."

"Got it." Hilda snorts. "You're a cute little candlestick, aren't you?"

"Now I'm making a rude gesture."

"Okay, okay. Sorry, Claude. But you've got to admit, this is...unusual, right?"

"No, it's pretty much my usual," says Claude. "Been a candlestick for, oh, five years? Ish? Time flies when you're tableware."

"Seriously? What happened to you?

"Long story." Claude wobbles his spokes in emphasis. "But there's more people you should meet - "

"Oh, no…" Hilda moans.

"Oh, yes. Come on out, guys!"

The wardrobe door opens, and Hilda has to suppress a scream as a pile of household implements and cutlery comes tumbling out.

"'Bout time, Claude!" an armored helmet moans. "You sure like to hear yourself talk, huh?"

"Yes, it was quite cramped in there," huffs a teapot. "And Raphael was making the most dreadful jokes."

"Hey, my jokes are great!" a massive meat fork snaps back. "Ig likes them!"

"Guys! Guys." Claude has to shout to be heard above the din. "Settle down. The lady's here."

"Ooh!" A tiny perfume bottle hops across the floor. "Maybe this'll be the one - "

"Nope!" Claude cuts her off hastily. "You know what the mistress said."

"I wasn't going to say anything!"

"Um," Hilda manages. "So...who are you guys?"

"I suppose we should make proper introductions," says the teapot with a wounded sigh. "My name is Lorenz, and I am the household butler."

"I'm Ignatz," says a butcher knife, "and the fork is Raphael. We're kitchen staff."

"My name's Leonie!" says the helmet. "I'm the head guard around here. I've got a body too, but I pretty much just use it when I go hunting - otherwise it seems unfair. Y'know, since none of the others were lucky enough to get bodies."

"Lysithea," says the perfume bottle. "Lady's maid."

"Okay," says Hilda weakly. "Okay. You're the workers Flayn mentioned."

"Sure are! The happy employees of Maurice Manor, at your service." Claude bows again. 

"But, um..." Hilda rubs her forehead. "Margrave Edmund didn't tell me this place was full of talking furniture."

"Would you have come if you'd heard?" Claude asks.

"Um - I dunno. Maybe?"

"Really? Huh. You're a weird one."

"Says the talking candlestick!" Hilda snaps.

"I take your point, I take your point," says Claude, bowing his spokes slightly. "Anyway - we've all introduced yourselves, so what's your name?"

"Uh - I'm Hilda. Hilda Valentine Goneril."

"Goneril, huh?" Claude gives a tinny whistle. "That's pretty high-up. Wonder how Edmund managed that."

"Well, we've fallen on hard times," Hilda mumbles. She doesn't feel like explaining her family's financial and political woes to a candelabra. "I was hired to spend time with Margrave Edmund's niece."

"Got it, got it." Claude nods. Hilda realizes with faint horror that she's getting used to a candlestick's expressions. "Well, the mistress likes to hide herself away - and she's put us under pretty strict orders, so there's not much we can tell you about her. I'm sure your paths will cross eventually though."

"So, uh…" Hilda fidgets. "Hate to point out the elephant in the room, and maybe it's rude, but...why are you guys, like, furniture?"

"Oh, are we furniture?" the perfume bottle says in a fake-wounded tone. "My, we never noticed!"

"Be nice, Lysithea," Ignatz the knife scolds her. "She's new here."

"It's a long story," says Leonie the helmet. "And, well - "

"One of the many things your mistress told you not to tell me?"

"Exactly!" Claude cheers. 

"The lady catches on quickly," adds Lorenz the teapot.

"Great," says Hilda weakly, leaning back on her hands. "Just great."

"Well, it's been lovely meeting you, Hilda," Claude continues. "Dinner'll be ready at six, okay? Okay! We're off to get that started, then."

"You guys can cook? Like...that?"

"We improvise," says Ignatz. "It's a lot of work, but we've learned to manage."

"And it's pretty delicious, too!" Raphael boasts.

"I see," says Hilda.

"But we should really let you get your beauty rest," says Lysithea. "Let us know if you need anything, all right? Bye!"

The inanimate objects clatter over to the door. Claude hops onto Leonie to pull it open, and they clank away down the hall.

Okay. So there really was something strange about Margrave Manor. But it's fine, Hilda tells herself. It's fine! You always hear stories about witches. Maybe the lady of the house is actually a witch, and these guys are all her familiars? There's probably a perfectly reasonable explanation.

Probably. Hilda hopes. Besides, even a witch will go down with a good swing from an axe, right?

***

The next morning, Hilda ties up her hair, changes her dress, and sets off to explore the house. She came here for adventure, after all, and there's something appealing about a huge, fancy, empty building.

The place really is a mess, Hilda thinks to herself as she picks her way over and around mounds of rubble and trash. While there's no rotting food or anything super duper ick like that, clearly nobody's used a broom around here in ages, despite Flayn's insistence otherwise. Nobody's said anything about cleaning up, and Hilda herself certainly isn't going to offer. Doing chores is pretty much her least favorite thing in the world. Besides, it's not like anyone other than her would appreciate it. Claude and the others seem to largely keep to the ground floor (stairs are probably tough for them, Hilda assumes) and act entirely unbothered by the mess, and Seteth and Flayn have their own home.

Still, there's no question that this used to be a splendid place, fancier even than Goneril Manor in its heyday and twice as large. Dusty chandeliers hang from the ceiling, the dingy furniture is upholstered in moth-eaten velvet, and every shelf is filled with aged books and delicate ornaments alike. The garden is an overgrown mess, flowers and weeds alike completely carpeting the manor grounds. There's a greenhouse in the back, with a handful of blooming flowers - only the hardiest ones though, probably, since most of the pots are smashed to dust and soil is scattered all over the floor. There's also a stable, and although it's large there's only the one horse inside, the one who pulled the carriage earlier, and he fixes Hilda with a doleful gaze as he gnaws on a mouthful of hay.

Up the spiraling staircases, Hilda finds a massive library, dozens upon dozens of bedrooms, and most interesting of all, a ballroom that spans half the third floor, with a curved, cathedral-like ceiling and massive arced windows. There's a piano in the corner, keys thick with dust. The floor is so filthy Hilda leaves footprints behind, but when polished Hilda can only assume this room would be absolutely beautiful. Of course, that would take ages, and way more effort than Hilda can ever imagine putting in. Through one of the grimy ballroom windows, she can see Flayn sitting on the little dock poking out onto the mossy lake, fishing.

Hilda wonders vaguely what kind of fortune the Maurice family had to build a place like this, and why if they're so rich, they haven't hired people to clean it.

Up on the fourth, smallest floor of the house, there's a few locked doors. Hilda doesn't force them, just passes them by. After all, it's pretty much the only thing Flayn asked of her, so it must be important. All the unlocked rooms are just closets and bedrooms, though. There's a lot of memorabilia from the Church of Seiros up here, statues of the goddess and the saints and holy books, tucked with reverence onto high shelves. Though they're dusty, they don't look quite as untouched as everything else does. Maybe the lady's religious.

One thing particularly weird about the house (one of the many, many particularly weird things) is that there doesn't appear to be a single mirror. There's a few empty frames, but the glass has been removed.

There's also something else that's missing from the manor, other than people or a dustpan, and Hilda can't quite put her finger on what it is.

She descends the staircase back to the ground floor feeling slightly disappointed. Not even a ghost, and even less sign of the house's mysterious lady.

"Have fun?" Claude asks. He's lounging on a grubby blue-green sofa in the sitting room with a book open in front of him, turning the pages with one wax-covered spoke.

"You can read?"

"Well, I can see, so...yeah." Claude takes on a wounded tone. "I'm a very talented candelabra, you know."

"Yeah, yeah." Hilda perches on the edge of the sofa and tries not to wince about the dust on her dress. She's pretty messy from her explorations, anyway. "What do candelabras read about?"

"Oh, y'know. Storybooks, history, war tactics. Whatever he can get his candles on." Claude waves a spoke in emphasis. "There's all kind of things here. Sometimes the lady brings me her favorites."

"Oh, yeah...I couldn't find the lady."

"You won't be able to, if she doesn't want to be found." Claude idly turns a page. "Both in the house and out in the woods. Sometimes I don't see her for weeks. Me! Her best friend! She's rude like that."

"The lady's best friend...is a talking candlestick."

"You've got to do something about that biting wit of yours, milady," Claude tsks. "But yes. We household implements have feelings too, you know. We're all friends here, regardless of how animate we are. Flayn even takes us to market in her handbag sometimes. But uh, don't tell Seteth. We're not technically supposed to be doing that."

"Yeah, sure," says Hilda tiredly. "Why not."

"Lunch is ready, Miss Hilda!" Raphael booms from the kitchen. "Come on, eat up!"

Hilda obligingly enters the dining room. Just as at last night's dinner and this morning's breakfast, there's only one table setting, one Lorenz is arranging with his spout. "Uh, thanks."

"Settling in all right?" Lysithea asks, bouncing up to her across the floor. "It's kinda creepy here, but we try and make it lively."

"Yeah, it's fine." Hilda pokes at lunch with a fork. Her meat is crudely chopped and the potatoes aren't so much "mashed" as "blindly hacked at with a saw," but it tastes good. Hilda suspects the poor presentation is a side effect of the limitations of not actually having arms.

Plate balanced on his head (somehow), Lorenz pops a second helping of lunch into a small dumbwaiter cubby set into the wall before giving the rope hanging beside it a tug. The whole house creaks as the meal is sent up.

"For the lady," Lorenz explains as he hops back onto the table. "She doesn't always eat it, of course, but Raphael insists she needs more meat on her bones."

"Huh. She can't come down here?"

"Well…" Lorenz hesitates. "I suppose she could, in a manner of speaking..."

"Hm." Hilda suspects she won't be able to get him to elaborate. "I was wondering...am I ever going to get to see this mysterious lady of yours?"

"Well," says Claude, hopping across the dining room floor and then jumping up to take a seat beside her, "hopefully. Yes? Maybe."

"That's not very reassuring."

"Look, for now, just relax. The lady'll come around in time, I'm sure. Until then, just make yourself at home." Claude pats her hand with one brass holster.

"Yeah, sure," says Hilda. But - it's uncharacteristic of her, Hilda knows, but…

She really wants to meet this lady. Even if it requires effort.

***

Hilda's first few days at Maurice Manor pass with no sign of Lady von Maurice. Asking or even needling Claude and the others gets no results, and so Hilda continues her explorations of the old place, trying to figure out what the lady's horrible secret is. Considering her employees are all talking furniture, it must be something pretty bad, right? Hilda's morbidly curious. Some kind of horrible disfigurement? Maybe she's just, like, a rock or something? Or a zombie? Whatever it is, Hilda can't imagine it'll faze her. After all, most of her conversations these days are with cutlery.

But it's not long before Hilda gets her answer.

The noise in the middle of the night jerks her awake. It's the sound of echoing footsteps, coming from the floors above her. Hilda's first thought is Holst going to the washroom in the middle of the night, or her father sneaking something from the pantry, before she remembers her surroundings. None of this house's inhabitants would make such an organic noise. And the sound's continuing - footsteps, but there's an odd rhythm to them. Hilda reaches for the (regular, non-animated) candle on her bedside table, draws a cloak around her shoulders, and slips out her bedroom door. She can hear the others snoring in the kitchen as she tiptoes through the sitting room and up the staircase.

The noise gets louder as she climbs, and Hilda emerges on the third floor. Most of the doors here are as shut as ever, but there's one set that's ajar - the elegant double doors leading to the manor ballroom. And there's a light on inside.

Taking the quietest steps she possibly can and shielding her candle with one hand, Hilda tiptoes down the hall towards the ballroom and cranes her neck around the doorframe. Someone's lit a few candles in one of the chandeliers, so there's some light, although it's shadowy.

Yes, there's a shape here. It's moving in slow circles around the room. It's huge, though. Hilda squints.

The figure steps into the light of the chandelier, its features thrown into sharp relief, and Hilda catches a better glimpse. It's huge, all right. And furry, and it has massive claws and fangs that glint in the candlelight, and - 

Hilda can't help her scream.

A wolf got in, is Hilda's first terrified thought. A wolf broke a window and sneaked into the house. And Hilda doesn't even have her axe. Still, she holds up her candle, her free hand fumbling behind her for something, anything to use as a weapon. "Stay - stay back!"

The figure shrinks away.

"I'm warning you!" Hilda's hand closes around a small chair pushed up against the ballroom wall. She drops the candle (which sputters out harmlessly against the tile) and hefts the chair easily with one hand. "Stay away from me!"

"I'm - I'm so sorry!"

Hilda blinks, adrenaline fading slightly. "What?"

"I'm so, so sorry…" The voice is growling and strange, but soft and meek at the same time. As the tiny voice echoes through the ballroom, the hulking creature seems to shrink, curling in on itself, clasping its paws against its chest. "I didn't mean to scare you…"

"Wait a second…" Hilda lowers the chair slightly. "Are you...Lady von Maurice?"

The thing nods.

"Oh...well then, I'm the one who's sorry." Hilda puts down the chair, trying to keep her hands from shaking. "I, uh, thought you were a wolf. Sorry."

"Not a wolf," whispers the voice sadly. "Just a...beast."

"Well, I still feel bad. This is your house, after all." Hilda takes a better look at the beast. She's hunched over, as if trying to make herself smaller, but she's still gigantic. Her fur is grayish-brown and long, hanging over her eyes - Hilda isn't even sure if she has eyes under there. Her body's vaguely humanoid, but much bigger, more powerful-looking, like a massive wolf on its hind legs, and instead of hands she has paws that end in long, curved claws. All she's wearing is a simple black shift that comes down to her knees.

A beast, she said. There's no more fitting word to describe...whatever Lady von Maurice is. No wonder there's no mirrors in the house.

In that moment, somehow, Hilda realizes the thing that was missing from Maurice Manor. That missing piece she hadn't been able to put a finger on...

In all her time in this filthy, abandoned house, Hilda hasn't seen a single rat.

"So, we haven't been introduced yet," says Hilda, pushing back her shock and holding out her hand. "I'm Hilda Valentine Goneril."

"So you're…" The beast twists her claws together. She doesn't move to shake Hilda's hand. "You're the person that my uncle sent for…"

"Yep, that's me."

"I'm sorry," the beast says quietly, hunching her shoulders still further. She reminds Hilda of a guilty sheepdog. "I told Seteth and Uncle that this was a terrible idea, but they wouldn't listen to me - "

"No, really, it's okay," says Hilda hastily, lowering her hand. "I wanted to come here."

The beast peers at her. "You...wanted…?"

"Yeah. I wanted to get away from my family, and my fiancé - "

"Fiancé?"

"Look, it wasn't my idea. Anyway." Hilda shakes herself. "It's nice to finally meet you. You've been hiding this whole time, after all."

"It's better that way," the beast whispers. "Much better."

"Better?"

"You shouldn't spend time around me," says the beast. "I'm cursed."

"So you look a little funny." Hilda shrugs. "My parents always raised me to see past appearances - "

"No!" The beast shakes her head violently, stepping backwards. "You don't understand. You can't be around me - you can't! I only...I only bring suffering."

"Yeah, but - "

The beast shakes her head again, and, paws thundering against the dusty ballroom floor, runs past Hilda and out the ballroom door.

"Hey, wait - " Hilda calls, but by the time she makes it out the door, the beast is already gone.

Hilda wanted to tell her she liked her dancing.

Chapter Text

Dear Holst,

I'm all settled in at Maurice Manor. The valet here says he'll deliver my letters to the courier when he goes to market every month. So don't expect letters any more often than that, okay? It's a lot of work for your poor sweet sister.

This place is kind of a dump, but the people are friendly. Well, most of them. That valet seems like kind of a jerk, but all the other employees are really nice to me. Quirky, but nice. There's lots to see - you wouldn't believe how absolutely HUGE Maurice Manor is. Even if it's pretty messy, it's still cool to explore. 

Lady von Maurice seems shy. I've barely talked to her at all, and she locks herself in her rooms most of the time. I'm sure she'll warm up to me, though. After all, who wouldn't? I'm a real charmer. 

I'm still practicing my axe swings, and I'm keeping safe, so don't worry. No wolves or monsters are going to eat your sister!

I found some cool wood and carved it into a charm for you - it's in this package. I hope things are going well back in Goneril. Give my love to Mother and Father.

Love,

Hilda

***

The next weeks pass at a sluggish pace. Hilda explores the house and garden several times over, picking through shadowy furniture and overgrown bushes alike and finding nothing of particular interest. Just more religious memorabilia and old books, neither of which hold any allure for Hilda. Sometimes there's neat supplies to make accessories with, but even that's starting to lose its appeal.

The kitchen implements that make up Hilda's companions don't seem to mind the monotony. Claude always either has his holsters in a book or is doing something secret in a small hall closet (where strange bangs and the occasional foul smell seep out, so Hilda gives whatever he's doing in there a wide berth.) Ignatz is a hobbyist painter, smearing pigment on canvas with the flat of his blade and shrieking whenever Hilda tries to sneak a peek. Lorenz starts rambling on about nobility (how does a teapot know these things, anyway?) whenever he gets a chance, so Hilda avoids being alone with him. Leonie attaches herself to a full-sized suit of armor and takes old Dorte the horse out into the woods, returning with felled birds and rabbits that Raphael cooks for dinner. Lysithea reads even more than Claude does, or plays dress-up with some old dolls lying in a corner of one of the bedrooms (Hilda pretends not to know about that.) They've clearly been keeping up this routine for some time.

Hilda tries to keep busy. She really does. She makes her usual accessories, turning flowers from the manor grounds into jewelry and hairpins. She reads a few of Claude's beloved books (and they're all boring.) She eats the meals Raphael and Ignatz cook, watching Lorenz send a second portion up in the dumbwaiter every time (that frequently comes back untouched.) She gets roped into fishing with Flayn (and doesn't catch a thing.) And Hilda quickly realizes, with dawning horror, that despite the talking tableware, the mysterious building, the weird valet and his weirder daughter, and oh yeah, the giant beast living upstairs

...despite all of those things that should very much not be boring, Hilda is bored. Just as bored as she would be at home! Sure, at least she doesn't have chores, and nobody's telling her what to do, and there's always food on the table and she doesn't have to worry about how it got there, but…

But she's bored. She came here for adventure. And this boring, dowdy life is anything but!

And, well, as Hilda's parents and brother learned the hard way over the years…

Boredom makes Hilda restless. And a restless Hilda is dangerous to deal with.

She's tempted to pick all the locks in the upstairs rooms and drag the beast out of wherever she's hiding. But of course, if she does that, she'll just get kicked out and sent home. Without solving the mystery. So all she can really do is...wait for a miracle.

And yet, a miracle comes.

***

Hilda's brushing her hair (one hundred strokes, just because only the talking furniture sees it means nothing) before bed when she hears shouting from the sitting room - and she's slightly ashamed to admit excitement outweighs her fear as she yanks the door open and rushes down the hall. Claude and the others are all gathered there, and so, unexpectedly, is Seteth, his back to her.

"Hilda!" Seteth rounds on her. He looks completely frazzled, hair standing on end and jacket off, and there's nothing but sheer panic in his face. It's completely uncharacteristic, and the most emotion she's ever seen from him. The sight makes Hilda stumble backwards as his terror infects her, too. "Have you seen Flayn?"

"What?" Hilda drags herself together. "Uh, no. Not in a few days. Why?"

"Oh, goddess," Seteth moans, crumpling into a chair with his hands over his face. Claude pats his shoulder. "Where could she be?"

"She's missing?" Hilda asks.

"I haven't seen her since this morning," says Seteth. "I...I should never have let her out of my sight! What have I done? What if something happens to her?"

"Uh...this morning? Maybe she just...went off to pick flowers, or something?" Hilda says, trying to keep her tone gentle and not let Seteth on to how much of a helicopter parent she thinks he's being. Flayn probably just got sick of him and went off to have some time to herself. "It hasn't been that long, after all…"

"Flayn would never just leave the grounds for so long without telling me where she was going," says Seteth, voice muffled. "She was going to gather wood...she's done it a thousand times and she's always, always come back before sundown! But it's almost night! What am I going to...if she's hurt, or…"

"These woods are dangerous," says Claude, his voice also unusually grave. "All kinds of things…we need to go search for her."

"Yes, I must…" Seteth lowers his hands. He looks a thousand years old. "Now that I have ascertained she is not on the property, I must set off at once. I'll check the surrounding area...for any...traces..."

"She's fine," says Claude, but his voice clearly betrays that he doesn't believe his own words. "Flayn's a tough kid. We'll find her."

"I'll get my body and Dorte," says Leonie, and she clanks away, shouting orders to the others as she goes. They scatter across the house as Seteth staggers to his feet.

"I'll go look too," Hilda offers. "She can't have gotten far."

"Thank you…" Seteth manages. He clears his throat and stands slightly straighter, although he still looks like a tornado hit him. "I...I appreciate the assistance."

"Hilda," says Claude, still sounding stern. "The woods are dangerous. Especially at night. Can you protect yourself?"

"Oh, yeah," says Hilda. "You haven't seen me with my axe yet. I've got this."

"If you're sure," says Claude. "I'll go tell the lady about all this."

Hilda straps her axe across her back, wiggles her feet into boots, ties up her hair, and tears out the front door, pausing only to snatch up a lantern from the porch and light it. Okay, she really does feel guilty admitting it, but she's super excited. Here's an excuse to go on a daring forest adventure, and find out for real if there's any monsters lurking among the craggy trees. Flayn's probably fine, anyway. She's only been gone for a matter of hours.

All the trees look the same, Hilda notes, especially as the sun sets. She gathers up a handful of pebbles and stores them in her dress pocket, dropping one on the ground to mark her place. Safety first, right?

Hilda steps carefully among the trees, keeping an eye out for roots and other obstacles, and dropping a stone every few yards. There's some rustling from the trees - mostly birds and squirrels, and Hilda can't help feeling a little disappointed as she ventures deeper. The moon is starting to climb into the sky, and Hilda's vision is limited to the small pool of light cast by her lantern.

It's not like she wants to fight, exactly. But she's also super curious. She can't help it!

A raven caws somewhere, sending gooseflesh up Hilda's arms. Calm down, she scolds herself. She's no coward - it's Holst who screams at ghost stories. Still, the woods are seriously creepy.

A howl rings out, only a few yards from where Hilda's standing, and she freezes.

"Flayn?" Hilda's voice comes out in a whisper, and she clears her throat and tries again. "Flayn? You there?"

Another howl. A growl.

Shit.

Hilda pulls out her axe with her right hand and hefts the lantern in her left as she creeps towards the sound. She needs to check, at least. She needs to be sure. If Flayn's over there - well, Hilda tries not to think about it.

There's a small clearing here, and Hilda sneaks closer, as slow as she dares, trying not to crack even a single twig beneath her boots. There's a small cave on the far side of the clearing, and prowling around it…

Wolves. Three of them. Huge wolves, bigger than Hilda's ever seen. And within the cave...it's shadowy, but Hilda squints and leans forward...

A slumped figure. A flash of bright green. And the wolves are advancing on it...

Hilda doesn't think twice.

"Hey!" Hilda shouts, thinking only of distracting the wolves from Flayn's crumpled body. "Hey, over here!"

The wolves turn at the sound of her, and Hilda takes advantage of their momentary distraction, tossing her lantern aside, hefting her axe in both hands, and running forward. She throws her full weight behind the swing…

...The axe doesn't control you, little sister. You control it. Never surrender that control…

...and slams the blade hard into the back of the closest wolf. It yelps as Hilda drags the axe free again, blood gushing in its wake, and swings again. The blow crushes its spine, and the wolf collapses in a heap of gore.

There's no time to hesitate, no time to be sick. Hilda whirls around to face the second wolf, barely bringing her axe up in time before its jaws come down on her. She catches the blade of her axe between its teeth, shoved backwards by its massive weight - and pain explodes in her left shoulder from behind.

Hilda screams as the third wolf digs its fangs into her shoulder, red stars exploding in front of her eyes. Pain and rage draw her as she lashes out, kicking the second wolf hard. It's knocked away from her, axe still in its mouth, and Hilda claws at the wolf still latched onto her with both hands, trying desperately to shake it free. She drives her fingernails into its eyes and it screeches, releasing her, and Hilda falls to her knees, panting from the agony, wet, warm blood streaming down her shoulder and drenching her hands.

She reaches out blindly with her good arm, fingers closing on where her axe has landed in the dirt, and turns as the second wolf lunges at her, managing to bring the axe up just in time to slam into its head. It staggers, and she swings again, tugging the axe through its side and dragging it free again, spraying blood over the grass. The pain is overwhelming her ability to think, and she barely has a moment to be surprised when the third wolf is back, landing on her chest and knocking the wind out of her as her head crashes against the forest floor. The axe hangs limply from her fingers, and Hilda drives her knees up into its legs, shoving and punching at it. With a burst of strength she didn't know she had, she manages to roll over, pressing the wolf down into the bloody grass. Its ruined eyes are the only reason she's able to gain the advantage, and Hilda uses that moment of dominance for as long as she can, pinning the wolf with her knees as she uses both aching arms to swing the axe high over her head, plunging it down into the wolf's neck.

And then it's over, as suddenly as it began.

The axe falls into the grass as Hilda leans back, gasping from effort and pain. Her head aches, her shoulder screams at her, every muscle feels exhausted. But the wolves aren't moving. She won. And...

"Flayn?" Hilda chokes the words out through a ragged throat. "Are you there?"

There's no sound from the cave.

Hilda's pain is a weight on her back, but she manages to crawl, dragging herself the yard to the cave and the still figure within. Flayn's breathing, Hilda realizes almost at once, and she appears unhurt, somehow. Hilda doesn't have the energy to wonder why.

"Flayn," says Hilda urgently, shaking the girl with her good arm. "Flayn, you gotta…"

She doesn't move.

"Help…" Hilda gasps out, turning back to the cave mouth. "Leonie...Seteth...someone...anyone…"

But there's nobody here. It's only her. It's all up to her.

This sucks.

"Ugh…" Hilda moans, closing her eyes and cursing the goddess for dragging her into this situation. "Fine…" She tugs the girl into her arms. Her left shoulder is almost numb, but also hurting, which Hilda didn't even know was possible. It takes effort Hilda didn't know she was capable of exerting, but she staggers to her feet, Flayn cradled against her chest. The girl's light, but still far too heavy for Hilda in her injured state.

It doesn't matter. She needs to get help. She needs to…

Hilda turns back towards where her lantern, mercifully, hasn't gone out, flickering against a tree. Just go towards the light. Towards the light, and then follow the pebbles, and go home...and then, rest, and bed...and bandages, hopefully…

Hilda takes one painful step, and then another, dragging herself forward through sheer willpower. Blood is still streaming down her back, ruining her dress. How long does it take a person to bleed out?

No, Hilda is not going to die here. She is going to protect Flayn, and they'll make it back. She won't let them die. But her vision is nothing but a blur of color now, and she can't tell what direction the lantern is in, and there's a ringing noise in her ears...

Hilda staggers a few more steps, and then her legs give way beneath her, Flayn tumbling from her arms.

The last thing Hilda feels as she bleeds out in the grass is something warm and soft against her face.

***

Hilda cracks one eye open and immediately closes it, wincing.

Every part of her aches like she was just hit by a battering ram. Her shoulder and head are throbbing worst of all, but there's an insistent pain in her ankle and fatigue in her legs, both vying for attention. The pain pulses with her heartbeat. Hilda moans.

"Oh," comes a soft voice. "You're awake…"

"Ugh." Hilda mumbles. "Barely."

"I have something for the pain, if you can sit up…"

Something for the pain is incentive enough for Hilda to force her eyes open again. All she can see is fog. "I don't know if I can…"

"I'll help you. Just don't - don't be scared, okay?"

"Yeah, sure," Hilda mumbles, not completely sure why the voice is asking that of her but not bothering to think too deeply about it. Something slips under her shoulders and hauls her upright, gentle but with impossible strength…

The something is very soft and warm, and Hilda's eyes fly open, now completely awake. "Um - are you - ?"

The voice sounds sad. "The beast, yes."

"Oh." Hilda looks to the side. Indeed, that drooping, gray-brown face is a few inches from hers. Hilda bits back the immediate urge to scream. "What...what happened?"

"Drink this," the beast mumbles. She picks up a small bottle, uncorks it, and holds it to Hilda's lips.

Hilda only briefly considers refusing the medicine. But hell, everything hurts, and Hilda cares about other things more than pride or being poisoned right now. She gulps the bottle's contents down. The medicine burns her throat, but she manages not to cough as she looks around at her surroundings. A dark, dingy, messy room. Not the forest.

The forest…

"Flayn!" Hilda gasps. The sudden movement sends a jolt of pain through her. "Where's...where's Flayn?"

"She's all right," says the beast. "I brought her to Seteth. She's resting now."

"Really?"

"Yes. You saved her, it seems. Seteth is...very grateful, but I told him you shouldn't be disturbed."

Hilda's head is pounding. "Where am I now?"

"My room…" The beast sets the bottle aside and lowers Hilda back down onto a mound of pillows. "I was looking for Flayn...I smelled blood and heard a scream...I followed it, and found you two in the forest. You were hurt...so I brought you here...to take care of you…"

Hilda reaches up and prods her own shoulder experimentally. Fireworks immediately explode in front of her eyes, but she can feel the stiffness of bandages. "You treated me?"

"Yes…" The beast still has that hangdog look as she shuffles backwards away from the bed, like she expects Hilda to be angry with her.

"Thanks," says Hilda. "Really, thanks. I thought I was gonna die out there."

"Saving Flayn like that…" says the beast quietly. "That was very brave of you. Thank you for doing that…"

"Never thought of myself as brave," Hilda mumbles. "Bravery's too much effort."

"Hm," says the beast.

"Don't expect any more heroism for me, okay?"

"If you say so," says the beast softly. There's not a trace of sarcasm in her voice.

Hilda sighs. The pain is starting to recede slightly, although she's still very sore. She looks around. She's in a bedroom, a dark, cluttered bedroom. There's books, papers, and other junk piled on every surface, most of that clutter is dusty, and a lot of the furniture is overturned. The only thing of real interest is something large and square propped up in a corner, covered by a large swath of fabric. "Is this your room?"

"Yes..." The beast lowers her head. "It was the first place I thought to bring you, since I keep my supplies here...is that okay?"

"I mean, I guess?" Hilda winces again. "Ow. Why does everything hurt?"

"Well, your injury was very deep, and you had a mild concussion and a twisted ankle," says the beast. "You'll feel better with time and care...but for now, you need to take it easy. Leonie went out and brought your axe back. Your dress was ruined, though, I'm afraid...I dressed you in some of my mother's old things. I didn't want to go through your trunk..."

"Sure," Hilda mumbles, looking down at the old-fashioned nightdress she's wearing. "Thanks."

"Um...that's all that I can think of."

"Okay." Hilda tries to remember what happened more clearly. It's mostly a blur, just the wetness of blood on her hands and Flayn's still body. "Those wolves...they were massive, weren't they? They didn't seem normal."

"These woods...monsters live here," says the beast, in that same hesitant, halting tone. "They're not...not normal wolves. They stay away from the manor...because of me, and when I go out they avoid me. They don't normally bother people unless they're really hungry, but...you should be wary of them. Flayn knows to stay away from them...it sounds like she got unlucky and they cornered her."

"Got it. No more woods adventures to find wolves." Hilda pauses. "Look, I can't keep thinking of the person who saved my life as 'the beast.' So what's your name?"

The beast hesitates. "Marianne. My name is...Marianne. Marianne von Maurice."

"Marianne...that's a pretty name."

"Thanks…"

"So, Marianne...why haven't I seen much of you?" Hilda asks. "This is your house, after all. You don't have to hide away up here."

Marianne lowers her head still further. "I...it's better if I stay away from people."

"You said that before, in the ballroom."

"Yes…"

"Why?"

"You ask a lot of questions," Marianne whispers. "But...it's dangerous to be around me. When people are around me, it...it doesn't end well for them."

"What makes you say that?"

Marianne doesn't answer.

"Also, no offense, but this place is kind of a dump," Hilda adds. "Not really suitable for a delicate, wounded flower like me."

"Sorry…" Marianne looks even more hangdog than before. "I'm not...very good at cleaning…"

Hilda sighs. "Paws, huh?"

"Yes…" Marianne gestures with a furry arm at the disaster. "When I try to clear up, I end up making an even bigger mess."

"That's no reason to give up."

"I thought you were the one who said...you don't like putting in effort?"

Hilda's cheeks color. "Yeah, well, this is just basic stuff, okay? Here, can you at least get all those books back on the shelf?"

Marianne looks hopelessly at the sloping stacks. "Um…"

"Or are you just lazy? I mean, I'm not one to talk, but…"

"No, I...I want to do better," Marianne mumbles. "I just don't know where to start."

"Well, start by gathering all the books up," says Hilda. "Then you can sort them."

"Sort them?"

"By subject, or author, or color...whichever one you like. And don't forget to make a pile of stuff you want to throw away."

"Oh...I see." Marianne moves around the room, hauling dusty volumes into her arms. She can easily carry twenty at a time.

"There you go," Hilda leans back against her pillows. "I'd help, but I'm kind of in horrible pain."

"No, you shouldn't strain yourself," says Marianne, stacking up books. "Oh dear…"

Hilda sighs as Marianne's stack tips over, scattering pages over the dusty floor. "Try not to put heavier books on top. Or that happens."

"Right...sorry." Marianne gets back to work. "Can you...teach me more, Hilda? Nobody ever taught me any of this…"

"Sure, sure," Hilda waves her good hand. "I gotta have something to do, all cooped up in bed like this."

"Thank you…"

There's a knock at the door. "Marianne?"

"Seteth?" Marianne sets down the books and ambles over. "Come in. Hilda's awake."

Seteth enters the room. He still looks disheveled, but there's color in his face again. "She's all right?"

"Yes...she needs rest, but she seems to be feeling better," says Marianne, going back to her books. "The goddess was merciful..."

"Hey, Seteth," says Hilda, lifting her good arm in a lazy wave.

"Lady Goneril." Seteth bows. "I have no words with which to properly express my gratitude. Thanks to you, Flayn is safe. If you hadn't been here, I…" He closes his eyes. "I shudder to think of it."

"Don't mention it," says Hilda quickly. "I got lucky, is all. Don't expect much more of me. Where is Flayn, anyway?"

"She is...resting," says Seteth. "This ordeal was a great deal of strain for her. She will be asleep for some time longer, but when she awakens, I am sure she will be eager to express her gratitude."

"Really? I thought she wasn't injured."

"Not in the least, save a few bruises," says Seteth. Probably from me dropping her, Hilda thinks, but decides not to volunteer that information.

"How?" Hilda asks. "The wolves had her cornered when I showed up, and she was unconscious…"

Seteth's eyes flick back and forth briefly, just quick enough that Hilda wonders if she imagined it. He seems to be deciding what to say. "Flayn is...special. She was...able to protect herself until you arrived, I imagine, but using that much of her power...drained her."

"Power?"

"I am afraid I cannot share the full details with you, but...yes. However, her abilities are largely defensive. Had you not arrived when you did, then…" Seteth breaks off again. "Regardless, she is fine. I'm certain she will awaken soon."

"Well, that's good." Hilda's still curious, but she can tell trying to get more information out of Seteth would be like drawing water from a stone. "I was worried she was a goner."

"Ah...and how are you feeling?" Seteth looks a little sheepish. "My apologies, I know you were badly wounded…"

"I'm fit as a fiddle. Except for the agony," Hilda adds. "Pastries would definitely help me feel better. I'm just saying."

"I'll see what Raphael can do," says Seteth. "My thanks again, Lady Goneril."

"Uh, just Hilda is fine." Deference from Seteth is weird, and Hilda can't say she likes it. Maybe the old grouch is growing on her after all.

"Marianne," says Seteth, frowning as he looks over at her. "Are you cleaning?"

"Yes…" says Marianne softly, looking up from the heaps of books she's sorting. "Hilda's helping me…"

"My." Seteth lifts an eyebrow. "What an interesting change of pace she's already brought us. Is there anything else I can get for you, Hilda?"

"There's a basket on my dresser," says Hilda. "Can you bring it?"

"Certainly."

"And Seteth…" says Marianne softly. "Where do we keep the cleaning supplies…?"

"There's a closet on the third floor, and another on the first," says Seteth. "Though I believe Claude has reappropriated the latter, so I would not advise entering."

"Thank you." Marianne is weighing two books in clawed hands. "Let me know when Flayn's feeling better…"

"I shall." Seteth bows to them both again before leaving the bedroom.

The gray fog, long held at bay, is returning to Hilda's mind. Marianne says something, but Hilda can only manage a moan before sleep claims her again.

***

As days pass, Hilda regains more of her strength. She can rarely leave Marianne's bed, only leaning heavily on her beastly caretaker for short trips to the bathroom, but somehow, Hilda finds herself not minding very much. Marianne isn't the most exciting conversationalist, but she's a good listener, and the first time Hilda makes her hide her muzzle behind a paw at a dumb impression of Claude is a moment Hilda intends to treasure in her memory forever.

Seteth brought Hilda her craft supplies, so Hilda busies herself with her usual crafts, fashioning jewelry and accessories from the bed. Meanwhile, Marianne cleans, occasionally posing a question or bringing Hilda an item she's unsure about. There are fewer crashes every day, much to Hilda's relief - Marianne's not a hopeless case, just a difficult one. It takes a long time to even make a significant dent in the mess, but the place is definitely looking better. Marianne has reluctantly parted the curtains, letting sunlight stream onto where Hilda lies in bed, and it's all strangely domestic considering one person is bedridden and the other is a seven-foot-tall pile of fur and apologies.

"Sweep in overlapping strokes," Hilda calls as she carefully sews together strands of ribbon. "And make sure you get in the corners."

"Yes," says Marianne, dragging the decrepit broom across the floor with careful paws. Dust clouds follow in her wake. "Er...what do I do with the dust?"

"In the pan, Marianne."

"Right, right. Sorry." Marianne hastily starts sweeping the pile of filth into the forgotten dustpan. "Thanks for being patient with me…"

"Don't worry about it." Hilda's tongue is between her teeth as she rethreads her needle. "Not like I got much else to do in here. Hey, you missed a spot…"

"Oh, did I?" Marianne twists around, and looks sheepish when she spots the massive, untouched patch of floor. "I did."

"Uh, Marianne…" Hilda pauses, trying to think of how to word the question without sounding like a jerk. "Can you, like...see what you're doing? You've kinda got a lot of fur in your eyes…"

"Well, not really," Marianne mumbles, lowering her head. "But...but I don't like people looking right at me, and I don't want to scare people, so…"

"Yeah, but this would go a lot faster if you didn't keep bumping into things and stuff like that," says Hilda. "You should let me give you a trim."

Marianne seems to shrink. "N-no, I don't want that…"

"You want to hide behind your fur."

"Maybe," Marianne mumbles.

Hilda sighs. "Okay, then let's try something else. C'mere. No scissors, I promise."

Marianne sets down the broom and creeps hesitantly over to the bed. Hilda beckons her closer, rummaging in her supply box with one hand. 

"Aha! Here we go…" Hilda pulls out a barrette - delicately engraved and adorned with a fake flower, a former project and a well-done one if she says so herself - and leans up towards Marianne's face. Up close, she can see that the fur on Marianne's head isn't just that brown color - it's lightly streaked with pale blue, a color that reminds Hilda of ice. She scoops the worst of the tangled bangs away from Marianne's eyes with one finger, gives them a little twist, and clips them up neatly just beside her tufted ear. "There."

Marianne touches the barrette with one hesitant claw. Her eyes are like a human's, sad and round, and the same soft grayish-brown as her fur. A surprisingly warm color. Who knew gray could be warm?

"Hilda?"

"What?"

"Is there...anything else you need to do? You're still touching me…"

"Oh." Hilda's cheeks burn as she pulls her hand back from Marianne's head. "Sorry. Your fur's really soft, is all."

"Um, thanks...I try to keep it clean…" Marianne lowers those doleful gray eyes. "Are you sure I don't look...silly?"

"Nah. Here." Hilda rummages in her basket and pulls out a small hand mirror.

"No!" says Marianne quickly, recoiling.

"It's just a mirror," says Hilda.

"I don't...like mirrors…" Marianne mumbles. "I don't like what I see in them…"

"I get that," says Hilda, dropping her voice. "But I can't prove you don't look silly unless you look for yourself."

Marianne still looks unsure, twisting her claws together.

"Besides," Hilda adds, "the best part of giving someone something is seeing their reaction. Especially when it comes to my crafts. So I want to see you see yourself wearing it."

Marianne looks up. "You really want that?"

"I do." Hilda smiles. "But it's up to you."

"...Okay." Marianne squares her shoulders. "I'll look. Just...just a peek."

Hilda flips open the hand mirror and holds it out. Marianne takes it in a trembling paw, tilting it to get a good look at the clip. Her jaw drops, and the moment is just as priceless as Hilda hoped it would be.

"Wow…" says Marianne quietly. "It's gorgeous, Hilda. You made that?"

"I did," says Hilda, preening slightly. "It's a hobby, y'know. I've got loads downstairs in my trunk too, if you want some…"

Marianne lowers the mirror. "Thank you, Hilda, but...I can't accept it. Something so pretty doesn't belong on a beast."

Hilda huffs. "Well, I think you make it look even prettier."

"By contrast?"

"No! Like...how do I put it…" Hilda spreads her fingers out on her lap. "Everything looks prettier if it's being worn by someone who likes it. That's what I think, anyway."

"Oh…"

"And there's nothing more satisfying than people liking and wearing stuff I make. You should see the first necklace I made my brother. I've had to replace the cord three times, but he still loves the awful thing. Says it gives him good luck on the battlefield."

"Well…" Marianne hands the mirror back to Hilda. "If you really want me to keep it...then I will. Thank you, Hilda."

"No problem, no problem." Hilda waves a casual hand. "I can teach you to make them too, if you want. Once you've finished cleaning up."

"It probably won't work," Marianne mumbles, looking down at her paws. "But...thank you anyway, Hilda. I'm sorry I'm such trouble..."

"In exchange," says Hilda. "you can stop apologizing all the time. It gets old. Okay?"

"I'm sor - okay." Marianne looks up at Hilda with those bashful gray eyes. "Thank you, Hilda."

***

Dear Holst,

So I may have gotten into a spot of trouble. Don't worry, I'm totally safe! But I did take a small tumble, so I could use your healing thoughts.

The thing is, Lady von Maurice fixed me up. She's shy and kind of weird and clumsy, but she's also really nice. Because of her condition, she can't really leave the manor. I'm trying to help her expand her horizons a little. The poor thing can't even sort books! It's a little sad.

She also really likes my accessories, which is sweet. It's nice to be appreciated for your talents, especially when it's someone who isn't related to you. No offense, brother dear, but you're kind of required to like my stuff. I think it's a big brother rule.

I'm really starting to like it here, I think. 'Course, it'll be better when I'm allowed to get out of bed for longer than ten minutes, but everyone's been super nice and helpful. And Lady von Maurice is surprisingly good company. Being her companion isn't half bad.

Also, thanks for your letter - Seteth just brought it to me today. I'm glad the money helped so much. Keep looking after things while I'm gone, okay? Hope Mother and Father are doing well. 

Your loving sister,

Hilda

Chapter Text

"You're healing nicely," says Marianne quietly as she inspects Hilda's shoulder. She's wearing another barrette of Hilda's today, one set with sparkling pink gems. "You can move around freely now, though you should take it easy with this arm."

"Got it," says Hilda. Marianne's massive paws are always impossibly gentle when she handles Hilda, carefully rubbing on poultices and winding fresh bandages with a grace they normally don't possess. It's a strange sensation, but Hilda finds she doesn't mind it. "It's an excuse to do less work, at least."

"You make many excuses," says Marianne. There's nothing accusatory in her tone, just matter-of-fact.

"Yeah, yeah," Hilda mumbles as Marianne adjusts the bandages. "Thanks."

"Truly, though, your healing process is rapid!" Flayn nods eagerly as she watches Marianne work. "I could not have done a better job myself, Marianne."

Flayn looks a little pale and seems to be taking a lot of naps, but otherwise appears largely unaffected by her ordeal. She's been vague about what exactly happened, quickly changing the subject whenever Hilda tries to bring it up, but is clearly very grateful.

"I do not know how I can adequately repay you for saving my life," Flayn tells Hilda as she passes Marianne another roll of bandages. "I know you enjoy sweets, and I did attempt to make you a cake, but I fear it went...rather horribly wrong. Father has once again banned me from the oven for the next decade." Flayn gives a tired sigh. "I am far too old to be so inept in the kitchen. It is ever so embarrassing."

"Uh," says Hilda. "Right."

"Regardless!" Flayn clasps her hands together. "Know I will do all I can to erase my debt to you! It simply cannot involve cooking with active fire, as I am also serving out a ban concerning the stove due to a dreadful incident that was not in any way my fault. Other than that, I am happily at your service!"

Marianne passes Hilda her dress. "Let me or Flayn know if...if it hurts you, or the bandages need changing...okay?"

"Got it." Hilda wiggles into the dress. "It'll be nice to get out at last."

"Speaking of…" Flayn looks around the room with wide eyes, taking in the swept floor, lack of clutter, and wide-open curtains. The only thing untouched is the fabric-covered rectangle in the corner, which Marianne had avoided touching and Hilda had decided not to ask about. "This room looks a good bit cleaner than I remember it! Hilda, did you do this?"

"Nah, I was bedridden, remember? It was Marianne." Hilda ties her hair up with one hand (it comes out a little lopsided, but it'll do.) "I gave her directions. Can't take care of a patient in this dump."

"Regardless, it looks excellent! I have not seen this place in such good shape for quite some time!" Flayn clasps her hands together. "Ah, it reminds me of old times…"

"Yes…" says Marianne quietly. "It does…"

"Maybe we should continue this streak," says Hilda. "It'll be impossible to get this whole place done, but maybe we can at least make some of the common areas livable again."

"That sounds like a delightful idea!" Flayn bounces slightly on the side of the bed. "I am happy to be of assistance! I fear we have all rather let the old place fall apart in recent years, but if Marianne feels that it is time to start once more, then perhaps this is Maurice Manor's new beginning!"

"You'll be helping too, Marianne," Hilda adds. "Don't think you can get me to do all the work. Besides, I'm still an invalid!"

"Oh…" Marianne looks downcast. "Won't I just mess it up?"

"Even if you do, we'll just clean it back up," says Hilda. "How else will you learn? Oh, and you have to come eat meals with me, too. No more of this dumbwaiter nonsense."

"I thought…"

"You thought after I got better, you were just going to stay in this room all alone? That's no way to live."

Marianne's eyes dart between Hilda and the door, like she's considering fleeing.

Hilda sighs. "I can't force you to do anything. But I'm tired of watching you hide in here, acting like it's some act of big self-sacrifice to keep from scaring people, when the truth is that nobody in this manor is afraid of you."

"Nobody's...afraid of me…?"

"Of course not. You're not, are you, Flayn?"

"Certainly not!" Flayn nods indignantly. "Neither is Father. We've both seen far more frightening things!"

Hilda wonders idly what those things are. "And Claude and the rest of the staff aren't scared either, right?"

"I guess not," Marianne mumbles. "But…"

"But?"

"What about you, Hilda?" Marianne looks up at her through tied-back bangs. "When we first met...you were going to hit me with a chair…"

Flayn gasps. "A chair? Hilda!"

"That was a misunderstanding!" says Hilda hastily. "I thought you were a wolf who'd gotten in through the window! Not my fault nobody warned me."

Marianne still looks forlorn.

"Marianne, I didn't know you then," says Hilda, dropping her voice. "But now that I do, I'm not scared of you. Not at all. I realized quickly that you're nothing to be afraid of."

"Really?" Marianne mumbles. "Are you...certain of that?"

"Really. I mean, look at you. I don't think you could hurt a fly."

"I don't like killing bugs…"

"My point exactly," says Hilda with a nod as she gathers up her basket of crafts. "Harmless."

"You only have so much time in this world, Marianne," says Flayn. "If you let it all slip by...you cannot get it back." She looks somber. "It is a dreadful feeling...to miss the precious time you have with others."

"But do I really...deserve this?" Marianne asks softly. "Do I...deserve your kindness?"

"I think you do," says Hilda.

"We are all here for you," Flayn adds. "If you merely let us be."

"It's time to stop hiding, Marianne." Hilda holds out her hand. "Come downstairs with me."

Marianne looks hesitantly down at the hand, up at Hilda's face, and then rests her paw in Hilda's palm. Her hand dwarfs Hilda's, but it's gentle and so very warm.

"Come on, then," says Hilda, tugging the bedroom door open with her free hand. "Let's go see everyone."

Marianne's steps are hesitant, but she lets Hilda lead her along the dusty halls and down the stairs, Flayn trailing in their wake with the bag of Hilda's things. They pass the third floor ballroom, and Hilda glances over her shoulder to smile at Marianne. "I liked your dancing, by the way."

Marianne's eyes widen, and she ducks her head. "Oh - oh, I'm not very good..."

"Learn to accept a compliment, Marianne."

"Right...sorry. I'm...I'm glad you liked it. Thank you."

"That's better," says Hilda, satisfied as she turns to face forward again. Flayn giggles.

Hilda can hear chatter as they descend onto the first floor. She tosses her hair back as she waltzes into the sitting room. "Hey, guys! Guess who's back!"

"It's Hilda!" Lysithea chimes, hopping onto Leonie to get a better look.

"Hilda!" Claude jumps up from his book at the sight of her. "You're okay! And…" He does a double-take, which is a strange sight to see on a candelabra. "Marianne? What are you doing down here?"

"Um...Hilda wanted me to come down…" Marianne's eyes dart nervously between the staring furniture.

"Well, it's great to see you! Getting up those stairs to visit has always been a pain, let me tell you," says Raphael brightly.

"I love your hair, Marianne," Lysithea adds. "It's lovely getting to see your eyes again."

Marianne lightly touches the hairclip. "Yes...Hilda did it..." 

"Well, she did a great job!" says Raphael. "Hey, I should get to work on dinner!"

"Will you be dining with us tonight, Marianne?" Ignatz asks.

"Yes…" Marianne's hand tightens briefly on Hilda's. "I...I want to try harder."

"Well, we are eager to be of assistance, as always," says Lorenz, bowing so that his spout touches the floor. "And it is delightful to see that you and Hilda are growing close."

Lysithea giggles. "I told you she'd - "

"Quiet, Lys," says Leonie, nudging her.

"I want...I want to see if I can…" Marianne takes a deep breath. "I want to try...and clean this place up. Will you all...help me?"

"Really?" Lorenz nearly tips over, wobbling as he rights himself. "Well - well, a lady of your status shouldn't be dirtying her hands in such a - "

"Hush, you," says Leonie. "'Course we'll help out, as best we can."

"Thank you," says Marianne.

"Come on." Hilda tugs Marianne over to the sofa. "Take a seat, and let's all catch up. We all live together. Let's start acting like it."

"I didn't know you were so big on community, Hilda," says Claude.

"Well, it's less work for me when people work together, isn't it? And I'm sick of breathing in dust all the time." Hilda plants her hands on her hips. "Now, listen up. We're gonna make this place less of a dump, and we're going to do it together like a happy family, dammit."

Flayn claps. "Ooh, I cannot wait!"

***

Spurred on by mutual enthusiasm, the residents of Maurice Manor set about with a new routine. The first order of business is to get the main living areas thoroughly cleaned. Hilda's delegation skills are excellent, if she does say so herself, and so Leonie hauls buckets of water while Raphael and Ignatz sort through clutter. Flayn perches on tiptoe to dust high shelves as Lysithea, perfume bottle filled with suds, sprays the windows clean. Lorenz's porcelain body shivers whenever he's forced into hard labor, but he does as told when the others pressure him to. Marianne's still as clumsy as ever, but she's able to handle things without breaking them or sending them flying at least most of the time, so Hilda's pleased with her progress. Hilda herself gets roped into the less physically demanding chores (despite her efforts to milk her injury, but Claude doesn't buy it, and besides nothing gets done properly unless she's involved.) Seteth occasionally helps them out, and once or twice Hilda swears she even sees him smile.

It's not all slaving over a broom, though. Marianne's warming up to Hilda, slowly but surely. Hilda half-expects her to lock herself up again, but every morning, Marianne willingly appears for breakfast and stays in the others' presence for the entire day. She keeps her agreement to eat meals with Hilda (and while Marianne struggles to grasp utensils properly, she still has surprisingly good table manners for someone with paws.) She continues to be an excited and grateful recipient of Hilda's assortment of handmade hairclips, and always has at least one holding back her long fur, exposing those sad, gentle eyes. She's all apologies about hogging them, but Hilda doesn't mind. She's got way more than she needs, and it's not as if anyone else living in the manor can wear them anyway - although Hilda gives a few to Flayn and offers them to Seteth as well (much to her disappointment, he declines.)

While she's still quiet and rarely starts conversations of her own accord, Marianne is kind, and, Hilda has to admit, genuinely nice to be around.

"Well, I think we've gotten a lot done today." Hilda sighs. "Time for a break."

"Okay…" Marianne sets aside her cleaning rag.

"Thank goodness," Lorenz moans. "All this dusting is dreadful for my pattern, you know. Nobles aren't made for this kind of work!"

"Quit bellyaching," says Lysithea, tapping him smartly on the spout as she leaps down from a high shelf. "It's the duty of a noble to work to better themselves, isn't it?"

"The place is looking loads better," Hilda comments, standing up and stretching. 

"It's thanks to you, Hilda," Marianne murmurs.

"Know how you can repay me?"

"...how?"

"With pastries," Hilda announces. "Lots of 'em."

"Uhh…" Marianne's thick brow furrows. "I think Raphael keeps biscuits in the pantry…"

"That'll do for now," says Hilda brightly. "C'mon, let's go dig in before he stops us!"

"Let's…?"

"Everything tastes better with a friend," says Hilda as she waltzes from the sitting room and down the hall towards the kitchen. Marianne trails behind her, that usual guilty look on her face. "Wouldn't you say?"

"Friend?"

"If you're going to ask if we're friends," Hilda sighs, turning around to face Marianne as she walks. "Then yes, of course we are."

"Friends…" Marianne mumbles. Hilda's barrette is shining in her fur. "Really?"

"Really." Hilda tugs open the kitchen door. "Don't try to argue it, okay?"

"I won't…" Marianne twists her claws together. "Um...Hilda?"

"Yes?"

"There was something...I wanted to ask you…"

"What is it?"

"Will you…" Marianne reaches up and touches a hesitant claw to the barrette in her hair. "Will you teach me...how to make these?"

Hilda blinks. "Really? You want to learn?"

"Yes…you said you could, back in my room, so I thought...I'd take you up on it..."

"Nobody's ever asked me to teach them about making accessories," Hilda mumbles. "My parents just thought it was a silly hobby…"

"I don't think it's silly," says Marianne quietly. "I think it's wonderful...that you can make such beautiful things with just your hands."

"Um...thanks…"

They stare at each other for a moment.

"Um, Hilda?"

"What?"

"The cookies?"

"Oh! Yeah, right." Hilda shakes herself. "Cookies first, then crafts, okay?"

Marianne ducks her head. "Okay. Um...friend."

"Marianne?" Hilda squints, looking at Marianne. There's a curl to her muzzle that wasn't there before. "Are you...are you smiling?"

The smile disappears as quickly as it appeared. "Sorry," Marianne mumbles, putting a paw over her face. "I know my smile's creepy…"

"Genuine smiles are never creepy," says Hilda. "I'm just surprised, is all. I've never seen you smile before."

"You make me...happy," Marianne says softly. "For the first time in a long time…I feel happy. Thanks to you, Hilda."

***

Dear Holst,

I almost forgot to write you! Sorry about that. I've just been really busy here. There's a lot to do, and I'm pretty good at doing it all. I know that doesn't sound like me, but it's all because of Marianne - Lady von Maurice. Something about her just makes me want to put in effort. Weird, right?

The cook here is great, too. His cookies aren't professional quality, but they're still really good. The family's wealthy enough that we never have to worry about food, so it's nice to be able to eat whatever whenever again. I'm glad that all of you can live that way now, too.

Sometimes Marianne and I go out in the woods together. Don't worry, we're super careful, and anything dangerous wouldn't dare bother her, anyway. She knows a lot about this place, since she's always lived here. It's a lot cooler than I thought it was. There's a ton of plants and things that don't even grow anywhere else in Leicester. Marianne says she thinks witches used to live in these woods which is where the monsters come from which is why there's so much unusual stuff. She knows a lot.

I included some drawings I did of the woods here - they're kind of pretty, in a weird creepy way, don't you think? I also included a bracelet I made - I think it suits Mother. Or you can have it, if you want.

I'm happy everything's going so well at home. Give Mother and Father hugs from me.

Lots of love,

Hilda

***

The trees fade into fall outside as the summer moons wane and autumn begins. The woods shift from gray-green to faded brown, the air starts to chill, and Hilda realizes distractedly that she's been at Maurice Manor for a good few months now.

Hilda doesn't even remember the last time she felt time fly past her like that. But she hadn't noticed. She hasn't been bored at all. 

Hilda kept her word, and started teaching Marianne her time-honored accessory-making techniques. Marianne's terrible at it, clumsy paws and huge claws getting in the way of the delicate work, but she doesn't give up, tongue between massive teeth as she scratches away at wood and metal. She apologizes more than she needs to, but she's getting better at just accepting her mistakes without falling apart, which is a nice change that makes Hilda's chest spark with pride.

Hilda's a student in addition to a teacher, though. Marianne has hobbies of her own - mostly flowers and wildlife. Most mammals flee at the scent of her, but old Dorte the horse is very fond of Marianne, even happily eating carrots from her furry palm. Birds land on her massive head, twittering peacefully and pecking among the gray-blue strands as if expecting to find treats within. In addition to the fauna, Marianne's fond of flora - she's hopeless at gardening, she tells Hilda, but she likes looking at and reading about flowers, and has endless knowledge on any random weed Hilda points out, whether in the manor garden or out in the woods.

Hilda's surrounded by friends. By people who only expect things of her because of who she is, and not because of Holst, or the Goneril bloodline, or anything like that. It's a new feeling. But Hilda can't say she dislikes it, even if sometimes Marianne's expectant face makes her stomach twist with a feeling like guilt.

"What do you think...?" Marianne slides a somewhat crooked chain across the garden table towards Hilda. "It's almost done…"

"It looks neat." Hilda picks up the necklace. There's four little green gems in various shades hanging from it. "What did you have in mind for it?"

"I kind of thought I'd make it...to honor the Four Saints," says Marianne, pointing with a claw. "See, the gems are...Macuil, Indech, Cichol, and Cethleann…I picked gems that remind me of them..."

"Oh, I get it." Hilda's not sure why they're green, but it's not like she knows a lot about the Saints.

"The Saints are special to me," Marianne says. "Seteth always told me stories about them, when I was growing up, so...I feel like I know them well."

"I'm surprised you're so religious," says Hilda, who can't recite anything about the Saints other than their names, and even that can be a bit touch and go, much to her old pastor's chagrin. It's not her fault two of them start with a C. "I mean, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not like you have a church out here."

"My family wasn't really devout," Marianne says as she takes the necklace back. "But we had a lot of old things in my house, from people who were...and I was curious, so Seteth taught me. I find the goddess...comforting. I like the idea of her watching over me...and feeling her guidance. That's why I pray to her…"

"What do you pray for?"

Marianne freezes.

"Sorry," says Hilda quickly. "That was probably a personal question." She can probably guess, anyway. Anyone with a body like that would pray for a cure, right?

"No, no, it's okay." Marianne sets the necklace down with a gentle hand. "I'd just...rather not say."

"Of course." Hilda fidgets with the brooch she's making, hoping she hasn't crossed some kind of line.

"Hilda," says Marianne quietly. "All this time, and you haven't asked...but you weren't expecting me to be...a beast, were you?"

"Well...I guess I was wondering," says Hilda. "What exactly...happened to you? Were you born like this?"

Marianne shakes her big, heavy head. "No...I was a normal child, up until I was about six…and one morning, I woke up in dreadful pain, and..." She trails off. "I've been this way ever since."

"Why did it happen? Did you make a witch angry, or something?"

"Not quite…" Marianne watches the birdbath, eyes sad and heavy. "It's...a curse, you see. It's been passed down my bloodline for...Seteth says about a thousand years."

"Huh."

"The firstborn of every generation…" Marianne looks down at her claws. "becomes a beast. They say the founder of my family, Maurice...angered a witch. And she cursed him, and his bloodline...so..."

"So you ended up like this?"

"Yes." Marianne swallows. "It broke...it broke my father's heart. He hoped the curse wouldn't take hold in me. But when it did...he and my mother left. They promised me they would find a cure. But they...they never came home."

"I'm sorry," says Hilda quietly.

"Most of the beasts don't live very long," says Marianne. "Because of...a lot of reasons. My uncle, my father's older brother...he was the last one of us to have it. I never met him. He took his own life, when he was younger than me…My uncle Edmund is my mother's brother. When my parents disappeared, they named him as my legal guardian. But he never cared for me much once I became like this...he had Seteth look after me."

"Who is Seteth, anyway?" Hilda asks. "And Flayn?"

"That's not my secret to share...and I don't know all of it, anyway. But they've been with my family for a long time. Long before I was born." Marianne fiddles with her necklace again. "They're the only ones from outside who knew…until you came along..."

"I'm sorry," says Hilda, because she can't think of what else to say. The apology sounds flat in her own ears. "I'm sure it's been rough…"

"You never realize how much you can't do like this," Marianne mumbles. "When you can't leave the woods, and you don't have hands, or a normal body…" She picks at her formless black shift. "I always wanted to wear a pretty gown, and look all grown-up…to be beautiful, like my mother was…but I'll never be a beauty, not when I'm a beast."

An idea sparks in the back of Hilda's mind. "Says who?"

"Huh?" Marianne lifts her head. "What do you mean?"

"Just wondering." Hilda leans her head on her hand. "Also wondering...when's your birthday?"

"Oh...Red Wolf Moon. The twenty-third."

"Ironic," says Hilda, unable to help herself.

A small, bitter smile quirks at Marianne's lips. "I suppose. It's just another day for me, though...Raphael usually bakes me something and Seteth brings home a present from the market…"

Just another day, huh? Hilda can't help the grin that crawls up her face. And the end of Red Wolf Moon's a good several weeks away...

Oh, she has a plan.

***

"A ballgown, huh?" Claude is carefully spooning something into a vial, spoon balanced on his candle. Hilda keeps a careful distance, standing just outside the open door of his alchemy closet. "I was decent at sewing back in the day, but it's no good without fingers. Trust me."

"I can handle the sewing," says Hilda. "I was just wondering where I could get supplies."

"We-ell," Claude ponders. "Marianne's mother's things are locked up, but she doesn't care much for any of the other old stuff around here. You could take whatever and modify it."

"I don't think that'll be enough fabric. Enough of the same fabric, anyway. I'm not making a patchwork quilt."

"Use a curtain, then," Claude suggests. "Nothing on the second floor gets touched except for the library. Marianne won't miss it."

"I don't want to use old curtains for Marianne," Hilda grumbles. "She deserves something special."

"Oh? Does she, now?"

"What's that smug tone for?"

"Nothing," says Claude, voice slightly sing-song. "Nothing at all - oh, shit! Get down!"

In the next instant Hilda is smacked in the face by a flying candelabra as Claude tackles her. She keels over backwards, hitting the dusty carpet just as a terrific bang rings through her ears and a foul smell fills the air.

"Damn," Claude grumbles as he rights himself, climbing off Hilda's head. "There goes all my hard work." The closet is smoking.

"What did you do?" Hilda groans, dragging herself upright and rubbing her forehead. "What was that?"

"It was supposed to be a poison for boils." Claude hops back up on his stool and peers at the mess. "Did you get sprayed?"

"No."

"That's good, because, uh, I haven't refined the formula yet. No telling what it could do."

"Why do you even make this stuff?" Hilda grumbles as she gets to her feet.

Claude shrugs his spokes. "You never know. Could come in handy. They've saved my life before. Besides, it's a hobby." He starts to rummage through the rows of glass bottles. "I've got a ton of different poisons in here, actually, if you want a look - "

"Anyway," Hilda cuts him off. "What about Marianne?"

"Oh, yeah. Well, if you want fresh materials, your best bet is to ask Flayn and Seteth to buy you something. They go to market about once a month, usually in Riegan." Claude is already returning to his brew. "Good luck!"

"Thanks," Hilda sighs. "Try not to blow anything up again."

"No promises whatsoever. Starting fires is one of my specialties. That's one thing that's actually easier when you're a candelabra."

***

"Seteth? My favorite valet in the whole wide world?"

"What do you want, Hilda?"

"We-ell, I just was wondering about an itsy-bitsy little favor…"

"I am not cleaning your room for you, Hilda," says Seteth, fixing her with a beady eye as he clips back the rose bushes that are starting to overtake the front walk. 

"It's not that! This time. I was just wondering…" Hilda digs her toe into the dirt, trying to look as sweet and delicate and nonthreatening as possible. Usually a futile effort on people who know she once killed three giant wolves with an axe and her bare hands, but whatever. "The next time you go into town, could you get something for me…?"

"It depends on the something."

"Fabric," says Hilda quickly. "Nice stuff - dressmaking quality. I think blue would be good?"

"Another one of your art projects?" Seteth asks, eyebrows raised as he brings down the clippers again. The poor bush is practically a stump - no wonder his title is valet and not gardener, Hilda thinks. "You're quite industrious."

"It's a dress," says Hilda. "For - for Marianne, actually. For her birthday. But it's a secret!"

"Hm." Seteth sets down the clippers with a sigh. "I suppose I can see what I can find. You'll be needing rather a lot of it, I expect?"

"Yes. I actually took some measurements…" Hilda tugs a crumpled piece of paper out of her dress pocket and passes it to him. "I took one of her spare outfits for reference. But it'll be trial and error, so I'll need some extra, and a lot for the skirt, and probably a couple of petticoats…"

"Quite the project," says Seteth, raising an eyebrow as he looks over Hilda's notes. "But it would make Marianne very happy, I agree."

"Oh!" A bright voice chimes in, and Hilda twists around to see Flayn clasping her hands in excitement, a basket of fish over one arm. Hilda never understands how she manages to find anything in that filthy little lake. "That is such a splendid idea! I know Marianne has long wished to wear formal attire - Lysithea and I once spoke of trying to arrange some for her, but I fear my and Father's sewing talents are nowhere near up to the task, and it is not as if we are able to merely commission a tailor."

"Glad you think it's a good idea!" says Hilda, spurred on by Flayn's enthusiasm. "Luckily, I've got a good amount of time before her birthday."

"I am happy to be of any assistance needed, and I will most certainly assist Father in selecting the fabric!" Flayn drops her voice a note. "I fear his fashion sensibilities may be somewhat lacking."

"I am right here, Flayn."

"Good girl," says Hilda, ruffling Flayn's hair. "I'll ask you if I need anything."

"I shall not let you down!" Flayn nods rapidly. "Father, we must begin planning this market trip at once! No further delay! For Miss Marianne's happiness!" She dashes off to her house, fish basket bouncing merrily. Seteth gives a long-suffering sigh as he gets to his feet.

"Thanks, Seteth," says Hilda quickly. "I'll make sure to tell Marianne you helped."

"Think nothing of it," says Seteth, pocketing the sheet of measurements. "But I must now go rein in my daughter before she tears off to Riegan. When we do get ahold of the fabric, I will bring it directly to you."

"Thanks again!" says Hilda cheerily, waving as he sets off after Flayn. "Appreciate it!"

***

The ballgown quickly proves to be the most ambitious project of Hilda's life.

Marianne doesn't come in Hilda's room, so the small bedroom quickly becomes an impromptu dressmaker's shop, with yards of soft-blue fabric draped over every surface not occupied by needles, pins or (sometimes) Hilda. There's no dressmaker's form in the world that comes in Marianne's size, but Leonie manages to dig up a hulking piece of horse armor in the old woodshed that's approximately in proportion to Marianne's chest. With that as a base and Hilda's measurements (and best guesses), Hilda sets to work.

Without appendages, Lysithea can't provide any practical help, but she has a critical eye for fashion and what she calls "princess dresses" (though the closest thing to a princess Hilda can think of is the emperor of Adrestia, and the idea of her in a fluffy ballgown is downright impossible to picture.) Ignatz doesn't consider himself a fashionista, but he's an artist through and through, and his ideas about colors and fabrics are valuable additions.

"Sleeveless will be best," suggests Lysithea, tilting on one side as she looks at Hilda's drawings. "That saves you a good bit of work, especially because Marianne's arms aren't really human-shaped."

"An off-the shoulder look would be tasteful," Ignatz adds. "There was this dress in a store window when we were growing up - Raphael's sister Maya used to covet it. She never believed me when I told her it was sewn to the bust."

With their advice and Flayn's earnest (but odd - how many decades has it been since bustles were in fashion?) suggestions, the design is completed in a matter of days, Hilda happily signing the sketch with a flourish. On a sheet of butcher paper, Hilda sketches out patterns for a skirt the size of a child and a delicate set of lace-hemmed petticoats.

Then the real work begins.

Hilda practices making the dress using sets of old linen curtains appropriated from second-story bedrooms (thanks, Claude.) It's hard - Hilda hasn't made that much clothing in her life, and rarely has she made anything so elaborate. And she's never made anything so big, certainly. Still, Hilda's hardly someone to back down from a challenge (even if she tries to pretend otherwise) and she refuses to give up, even if her first few curtain-dresses look more like funeral shrouds or massive flour sacks. Flayn tactfully takes them away to slice into cleaning rags.

Marianne knows Hilda's up to something, but Hilda claims it's a present for her brother, and oh, it would be so embarrassing if anyone saw it before it was finished! Flayn is Hilda's apprentice, fetching fallen pins and holding seams in place while she works. Claude is placed in charge of running interference should things go awry (even if some of his so-called distractions are fanciful at best - Marianne doesn't believe that Dorte has suddenly come crashing through the dining room window, or that Flayn has caught a fish the size of a horse.) Leonie handles hauling and hiding the supplies Seteth brings back from town as needed, while Raphael provides what Ignatz calls moral support ("You can do it! Yeah, teach that needle a lesson!" ), and all of Lorenz's advice is discarded entirely for being horrifically gaudy.

It's a lot of work, and a lot of pressure, and sometimes Hilda wonders why the hell she's even doing this - 

But then she thinks of Marianne's rare, genuine smile, and she remembers.

As weeks become months, and Hilda's fingers develop permanent callouses in the shape of fabric scissors, those ugly sacks start looking more and more like actual dresses. By the time the last of the leaves are tumbling from the trees, Hilda is unwrapping the delicate blue silk and setting to the true work - and finally, finally, all her effort begins to pay off. Lysithea's awed gasp when she pops onto Hilda's shoulder and Ignatz's stammer about how the goddess herself would happily wear the dress - 

- well, they're probably being a little factitious, but Hilda's still happy to hear it.

By a few days shy of the last week of Red Wolf Moon, she's done. Hilda calls everyone (save the birthday girl herself, of course) into her room to admire the final product, and the chorus of gasps, Claude's low whistle, and Flayn's "By Cethleann!" are enough to let her know she did her job well. And she did do it well, if Hilda says so herself.

She can't wait to see Marianne receive it.

***

"Is the...you know...all ready?" Raphael asks Hilda, in what Hilda assumes Raphael thinks is a whisper.

"Sure is," says Hilda, shattering her bacon with her fork. Raphael likes it crispy. "I figured I'd give it to her after breakfast."

As if on cue, heavy but tentative footsteps come shuffling down the hall, and Marianne enters the dining room, her usual apologetic expression already in place.

"Happy birthday, Marianne!" Raphael booms at once. "Made all your favorites today!"

"I always ask you not to make a fuss…" Marianne mumbles, lowering her head.

"Nonsense!" Raphael's tines vibrate as he laughs. "A birthday's a birthday, isn't it? Sit down and eat!"

"Happy birthday," Hilda adds as Marianne takes the (larger) chair across from her. "I've got something for you after breakfast."

Marianne blinks. "Really?"

"Really, really."

"But I didn't get you anything…"

"It's your birthday, not mine."

"Oh, right…"

"Eat!" Raphael insists. "It'll get cold."

"Happy birthday, Lady Marianne," Lorenz adds, hopping up onto the table. "I've prepared the finest selection of tea I could find in the cupboard for you. And no, Hilda, before you inquire, it did not come out of me."

Hilda quickly closes her mouth. "Wasn't gonna ask."

Breakfast passes largely in silent, while Hilda is practically vibrating with anticipation. The moment Marianne sets down her fork, Hilda leaps to her feet. "Ready?"

"Um, yes...for what?"

"Your present, silly!" Hilda grabs a hairy arm. "Come on, come on! I've been working on it for aaages." 

Marianne, looking nonplussed, lets Hilda drag her back down the hall towards her room, Raphael and Lorenz following them. Flayn is waiting outside, rocking excitedly on her heels, Lysithea and Ignatz on each shoulder and Leonie and Claude in her arms. "Oh, Miss Marianne! I am so eager for you to see your present! It is simply - " Flayn clamps her mouth shut. "I mean, er, I am certain it will bring you much joy!"

"Wow." Marianne looks between them all, eyes wide. "Nobody's ever made such a big deal about my birthday before…"

"Well, that's what friends are for," Hilda says. "Now, close your eyes…"

Marianne obeys. Hilda quickly waves a hand in front of her face to check before swinging the bedroom door open. "Ta-da! Take a look at my masterpiece!"

The moment when Marianne's mouth falls open will probably be permanently etched into Hilda's memory. And embossed with gold, and put in a glass safety case to make sure she never, ever forgets it.

The dress is glorious. Hilda's certain her efforts paid off - yards of ice-blue silk with a wide, fluffy skirt, and tactful off-the shoulder tulle straps matching the translucent overskirt and array of handmade fabric roses sewn onto the bodice. The whole thing shimmers in the morning sun from where it lies draped across Hilda's entire bed (and it only barely fits, at that.)

Hilda grins over at the dress before looking back at Marianne's face. "So, whatcha think?"

Marianne's paws are over her mouth, her gray-brown eyes wide. "Is it really...for me…?"

"Of course! Custom-made to your size."

"You made...something so beautiful...for me…?" Tears are brimming in Marianne's eyes. "This must have taken you so much work…"

"Well, yeah," says Hilda. "Not really my usual way of doing things, but...I wanted to do it. For you." She blinks. Her eyes are stinging, for some reason.

Marianne lowers her hands, turning to Hilda. "Thank you. Thank you, so much…"

"Go on and take a closer look," says Hilda. "There's effort in the details, you know."

Marianne creeps closer to the bed, as if afraid the dress will spring up and run away if she approaches it. She touches a tentative paw to the fabric. "How did you…?"

"We provided assistance!" says Flayn brightly. "But the majority of the work was all Hilda. She has done incredible work, has she not?"

"She has...she truly has…" Marianne looks up at Hilda again. She's beaming now, even with tears trickling down her muzzle. "Thank you, Hilda. I can't wait to try it on…"

"My lady, you cannot wear such a masterpiece for any day-to-day occasion!" Lorenz hops up onto Hilda's bedside table. "That simply wouldn't do."

"She can wear it whenever she wants," Hilda tells him, scowling.

"No, I had no intention of offending. I merely wished to suggest…" Lorenz nods to them. "Perhaps it is time we clean out the old ballroom."

Marianne tilts her head. "You mean…"

"Yes, precisely! Long has it been since a ball was held at Maurice Manor - long, long before I came here, as a matter of fact." Lorenz gestures to the gathered crowd. "We may not be able to invite all of Leicester to share in the festivities - but we have enough guests here for a smaller soirée, do we not?"

Marianne's brow furrows. "Hm…"

"A ball?" Hilda brightens. "I'd love to have a ball!"

"Well, if Hilda wants one…" Marianne nods. "Then yes, that sounds like a splendid idea. It'll take awhile to clean the ballroom, but…"

"I have the perfect attire - oh, and we must decorate, as well!" Flayn's eyes are shining. "For music, there is that self-playing piano…"

"Wait a sec," Hilda stares at her. "Is the piano alive too?"

"No," says Marianne. "It's a kind of machine...I believe my great-grandmother purchased it in Enbarr, before I was born..."

"I gotta plan the menu!" Raphael adds. "We'll need finger sandwiches and moose-booches, and that kind of stuff!"

"Amuse-bouches," Lorenz sighs. "You commonfolk…"

"Man, I love a good party! Especially feasts," Claude chimes in. "Count me in!"

"This isn't really my thing," says Leonie. "But I'll help get things ready, if everyone wants."

"C'mon, let's go start making plans!" Claude gestures to all of them. "And maybe give Hilda and Marianne a few minutes alone, hmm?"

"Hey," says Hilda, "what are you - "

Claude has already led the noisy crowd away, leaving Hilda and Marianne alone in the bedroom.

Marianne runs her paw over the dress's skirt again. "I can hardly believe it's for me…"

"Well, believe it," says Hilda. "I can't believe we're throwing a ball - but in a good way. I haven't gotten to go to one since before the war started - so like, forever ago."

Marianne smiles again, this one soft and gentle but just as nice to look at. "I'm glad...I really wanted to do something nice for you, in return for everything you've done, so...I hope you enjoy the ball."

"Hey, you don't have to repay me!" Hilda pouts at her. "Didn't you save my life?"

"Yes...but only after you saved Flayn…"

"That didn't have to do with you."

"Well, you came to stay with me...to keep me company…"

"Your uncle paid my parents a ton to have me come here," says Hilda. "It's not like I did it out of the goodness of my heart. But - I'm glad I did it, anyway. I like it here. It's loads more fun than Goneril. And, well...it was really nice to meet you."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Nobody's ever said that about me before." Marianne's still smiling as she brushes back a stray lock of fur from her face. Her hair's always clipped back now, no longer hiding away her eyes. "Thank you, Hilda. For the dress, but also just...for being my friend. It means a lot. Oh, I should ask when your birthday is…"

"Pegasus Moon, the third." Hilda winks. "Put it in your day planner."

"Right...I'll remember." Marianne sounds almost wistful. "I'll always remember you."

***

Dear Holst,

Winter's here, and it's suuuper cold. The only thing I hate as much as summer is winter! I'm practically freezing my toes off.

I don't have a lot of things to write about, but everything's going well. Marianne's a wonderful friend, and we're both learning a lot from each other. I'm really glad I took this job, so don't feel bad about how things worked out, okay? Just focus on looking after Mother and Father.

Also, my birthday's only a few months away. Just reminding you.

Love,

Hilda

***

With the ball now planned, the manor is in an even greater state of excitement than it was during the dress process. Cleaning out the dusty ballroom is the first step, with a veritable army's worth of scrub brushes giving their lives bravely in the process. Most of the chandeliers just can't be fixed up by a group of amateurs, but they're able to get several of them looking at least passable. The arced windows are polished, the heavy drapes laundered, the old self-playing piano carefully cleaned and proven to still be operational.

While the cleaning's still in progress, Hilda gets to work on her own attire. She's not starting from scratch, at least, digging her newest (and yet, still six years old) dress out of her trunk and getting to work on making it at least a little more presentable with some ruffles and an added petticoat. It takes a fair bit of creativity and some suggestions from Lysithea, and it's nowhere near as impressive as Marianne's ballgown, but at least she won't look completely dowdy.

Raphael is planning the menu, Ignatz is in charge of decorations, and both are holding their secrets close to their (metaphorical) chests as to the precise plans. Flayn is practically bursting with excitement, and even Seteth seems...well, not completely opposed to the idea, which Hilda supposes is the most they can really hope for from him. 

As it turns out, the ballroom and the various projects involved with the ball are all completed just as the Guardian Moon begins to dawn, and snow falls softly against the windows of Maurice Manor as Claude proudly declares that the ball will be held the following night.

Marianne tenses with apprehension at his words, and Hilda reaches out unthinkingly, her fingers curling around that strong, soft paw. Marianne looks at her with wide eyes, and Hilda smiles up at her. "You'll be fine."

Marianne runs a thumb over the back of Hilda's hand. "Yes...I'll be with you."

***

"Ooo, you look such a proper lady! Nearly a princess." Lysithea gives a longing sigh as her perfume-bottle body hops across the dresser to Hilda's waiting, outstretched hand. "I do wish...well, nevermind. You look lovely, Hilda."

"Thanks." Hilda glances down at her hand mirror. "I'm no expert, but I did my best."

"No expert?" Lysithea scoffs. "You are nearly as fond of selling your talents short as Marianne is."

"Well, I don't like it when people expect too much of me." Hilda tilts the hand mirror, making sure her hair is all firmly in its updo. Handcrafted earrings swing on either side of her well-made-up face, glinting in the candlelight.

She does kind of look like a proper lady, doesn't she? Well, it's because she is. Even if she hasn't really felt like one for years.

Hilda sets down the mirror. "Guess we should get going, huh? They'll eat all the goodies without us."

Lysithea sighs. "Oh, I do so miss eating sweets."

"Yeah…" Hilda's long since learned not to try and figure out why, exactly, all of Marianne's friends have been turned into talking furniture. She just makes her way down the hall, Lysithea in hand. "I'll try and eat twice as much for you."

"That is no help whatsoever."

Hilda's skirts swish around her legs as she ascends the staircase to the third floor. Soft music is already echoing from inside, and there's a candelabra perched in front of the doors who starts excitedly when he sees them.

"There's the lady of the hour!" Claude beams up at her. He's wearing a tiny silk cravat. "Looking lovely. The pink matches your hair."

"I go with what works," says Hilda as she sets Lysithea down. 

"And it'll go nicely with a certain someone's blue," Claude adds. "Well, I'd better announce you."

"Announce me? To who?"

"It's the feel of the thing, okay?" Claude clears his (nonexistent) throat as he turns to shove the ballroom doors open. "Presenting...Lady Hilda Valentin Goneril!"

Hilda's almost dazzled by the light of the chandeliers as she steps into the room. The walls and floor are shining, warm gold and white, framing the snow-filled windows and the evening sky. Ignatz and Flayn have draped the place in long, silvery streamers and bundles of flowers. The piano music has picked up, echoing off the high ceiling…

...but, really, the only thing Hilda notices is the figure standing in front of her.

She looks nervous, but Marianne isn't hunched over, huddled as small as she can make herself like she normally is. She stands tall, if not proud, her paws loosely clasped in front of her. The dress fits her flawlessly, the pale blue skirts cascading to the ground around her. Her gray-brown fur has been neatly brushed and trimmed, and - Hilda squints - around her head, it has been woven, likely by Flayn, into a thin braided crown.

But by far, the prettiest thing of all is Marianne's smile - weak, hesitant, nervous, but genuine. It lights up her face, lights up the whole room, even more than the chandeliers sparkling overhead -

"Um, Hilda?"

Hilda blinks. "What?"

"You look...really beautiful." Marianne ducks her head slightly, but maintains eye contact with Hilda.

Hilda swallows. "So do you."

"Thank you." Marianne holds out a hand. "Um...may I...may I have this dance?"

"You really want to dance?"

"It's scary, but…" Marianne looks a little sheepish. "Yes, I do. With you."

"Then I'd love to." Hilda takes the proffered hand. "My lady."

Marianne actually giggles as her free hand settles on Hilda's waist. "I'm not that good, so…"

"Neither am I," says Hilda. "Let's just try not to trip on each other, and do our best."

"Right."

Marianne isn't a bad dancer, though, Hilda quickly realizes as they step slowly across the floor. Her hand is trembling slightly on Hilda's, but it grows steadier as they find a rhythm, twirling slowly, eyes only on each other.

("I was certain this ball suggestion would work," says a self-satisfied Lorenz from atop the piano.

"Good job," says Claude, beside him. "And they call me the schemer.")

The song ends, and Hilda and Marianne both curtsy as they part.

"That was lovely!" Flayn claps from her place beside the piano. She's wearing a very dated-looking green dress. "Ah, it was like two princesses in a fairy tale!"

"It was," Lysithea agrees. "Not that I read such things anymore, of course."

"Let us all dance now!" Lorenz declares, hopping down from the piano. "A lack of limbs cannot stop a noble such as I!"

"I didn't know how to dance even when I had a body," Ignatz mumbles.

Raphael hops up beside him. "Never know til you try! Come on!"

Flayn has already dragged her protesting father over to the dance floor. "Let us all enjoy this marvelous night together!"

Claude presses a button to restart the piano, and the music strikes up again.

"I guess it would be rude to hog you," Marianne mumbles to Hilda. "But, um...I kind of want to dance with you again."

"I can't say no to that," says Hilda. "Besides, most of these partners are a little small for me." She takes Marianne's hands. "Come on."

Hilda quickly loses track of time, or just how many dances they share. The others speak and laugh, but Hilda can only hear Marianne as they spin around the floor. Their dances grow more ambitious as they become more comfortable with each other, Marianne twirling and then dipping Hilda before lifting her altogether, up into the sparkling light of the chandeliers, making warmth spark in Hilda's chest and stomach. 

It's beautiful, it feels eternal and yet too brief, and it's in that moment that Hilda realizes she never wants to leave Maurice Manor.

No, she never wants to leave Marianne.

"I could really use a drink," Hilda gasps, red-faced and breathless at the conclusion of yet another waltz. "I'm a delicate flower, you know. Not made for all this dancing."

"Of course." Marianne doesn't say sorry, Hilda notes as they walk over to Raphael's beloved refreshment table. She's gotten a lot less timid, a lot less groveling. Hilda would hardly call her confident, but...but she's come further. Or maybe she's just more comfortable around Hilda. Either way, it's nice.

Hilda plops down in a chair, Marianne sitting beside her as they watch Flayn twirl around the dance floor with Lysithea cupped carefully in her palms. "Man, you guys know how to party. I wasn't expecting that."

Marianne giggles. "I wasn't, either. I don't think this would have happened if you hadn't come here."

"Well, good thing I did, then." Hilda rests a hand on Marianne's arm. "It's been fun here. I'm glad I came, really."

"Really?" Marianne glances over at her. "I'd expected you'd want to leave…"

"Nah, not really. I like it here. I like it with you."

"Oh…" Marianne ducks her head. "Thank you. But I'm certain there's more you wish to do…"

"I mean, what I really want to do is...have fun, and make my crafts, and spend time with people." Hilda shrugs. "Sure, it'd be nice to travel more, but with the war and all, that's impossible anyway."

"The war…" Marianne looks guilty again, although Hilda can't fathom why. "That's something else I pray to the goddess for...that Leicester and Almyra can find a peaceful solution."

"I hope so," says Hilda. "But my brother says Duke Riegan's stubborn as they come, and it sounds like Almyra's king isn't any better."

"One day…" Marianne looks out at the black sky, barely visible through the windows. "I'd love to see more of the world...I haven't left these woods for almost my whole life. And I'd like to...well…"

"Well?" Hilda prompts.

"I'd like to see it all with you." Marianne looks over at her. Her smile is trembling slightly. "I'd really, really...like that."

Hilda swallows. Despite the drink, her throat is suddenly dry again. "I'd like that too."

"It probably can't happen," says Marianne softly. "Still...still, if you're here with me...that doesn't seem so bad."

"Don't lose hope," says Hilda. "Maybe the curse will break someday."

"I...doubt it," says Marianne, her voice heavy. "It's been a thousand years, and nobody's ever broken it before."

"Maybe there's a way," Hilda persists, leaning forward. "After all, there's lots of stories about witch's curses out there…"

"No…" Marianne mumbles. She looks downcast again. "No, not for me...there's no way…"

"Well," says Hilda hastily, holding out a hand, "no need to worry about it right now. Let's go dance some more, yeah?"

Marianne takes the offered hand, a heavy smile crossing her face. "All right."

For the next dance, Hilda isn't thinking about the ballroom, or her gown, or even Marianne's smile. Her mind is preoccupied.

Hilda has made her choice. She'll break Marianne's curse. She'll make it all better again.

After all, Hilda is nothing if not stubborn.

Chapter Text

"You know this library better than anyone," Hilda announces as she carries Claude into the library. "So I'm letting you in on my top-secret plan."

"Sounds neat!" Claude nods. "I love secret plans."

"First, which way are the magic books? Like, tomes and stuff."

"Back left," says Claude promptly. Hilda walks over to those shelves, which are just as dusty as the rest of the place. "So what're we doing? Magic pranks? Those are always a blast - "

"Little more important than that," says Hilda. "You can't tell Marianne, though. She'll probably try to stop me, because she's so noble and self-sacrificing and junk."

"Stop you from what?" Claude's voice has suddenly grown wary as he hops onto a shelf. "Seriously, Hilda, what are you up to?"

Hilda pulls down a thick, black-bound book and rifles through the pages, searching for an index. "I'm gonna break Marianne's curse."

"What?"

"If a witch cursed her family, then someone can un-curse them right? That's how it goes." Hilda squints down at the yellowed pages. "Ugh, this is impossible to read."

"You can't do that, Hilda."

"Oh, ye of little faith. I know I'm delicate, but I can handle reading a few books if I really have to."

"No, I'm serious, Hilda," says Claude. "You can't."

"Who says I can't?" Hilda snaps the book shut and glares at him. "Just because nobody's done it before doesn't mean it's impossible."

"That's not what I mean…" Claude sighs. "Look, you shouldn't try to break this curse. It's not that you're not capable, or anything. It's just that..."

"That what?" Hilda snaps. "Do you not think this is important, or something? Marianne hates being in that body, and she can't do anything she wants to do as long as she's trapped in it - "

"Of course I know that!"

"Then why have you given up? Why isn't anyone in this house trying to help her?"

"We have been trying to help her," says Claude. "But - but we can't break the curse. It's - it's too dangerous. You have to stop, Hilda. I'm warning you."

"What'll you do, set me on fire?" Hilda drawls. "I'm a lot bigger than you, buddy."

"You have to let this go, Hilda. Please - "

"I'm not giving up on Marianne," says Hilda firmly. "Even if all of you have."

"Hilda - "

Hilda raises her voice. "Even if I have to do it alone. So if you're not gonna help, then get out of my way and let me work. The more time we waste, the more time Marianne has to suffer like that."

She sweeps past Claude, striding deeper into the dusty shelves, and he doesn't call after her.

***

Days later, Hilda runs her hands through her hair, staring down at the books piled in front of her across the library table. Most of them have been remarkably unhelpful. All seem to agree that the only common way to dispel a witch's curse is to kill the witch who cast it - and, well, if the curse was placed a thousand years ago, that witch must be long dead, right? And yet the curse hasn't broken, so maybe that wouldn't have worked anyway. Besides, it's not like Hilda will be able to find whoever that witch is, even if she is somehow still alive.

The books also note that witches can work other cures into their spells. Loopholes, like preforming good deeds or favors for the witch herself, can make curses break. But Hilda doesn't know if Marianne's curse has any such loopholes, or what they are. 

No, Hilda's best bet is to basically learn magic and do the whole thing the old-fashioned way. Powerful witches can break each others' curses by using their own spells to counteract the effects. And while Hilda's sure whatever witch cursed Marianne's family is extremely powerful, that doesn't mean she can't be beaten out, right? Even if it takes a really long time, Hilda can do this. She's never backed down from something like this before.

Still, it would be great if there was a loophole, Hilda ponders as she frowns at the book's rows of tiny text. That sounds a lot easier. Of course, the only way to find out would be to ask - 

"Hilda?"

"Marianne!" Hilda jumps, whirling around in her seat to face the library door. "Uhh, what are you doing here?"

"I know you're trying to break the curse." Marianne looks somber.

"What? What makes you think - " Hilda breaks off, sighing. "Okay. I am. How did you know?"

Marianne nods towards her own shoulder. Claude is perched there, looking a little less shiny than usual.

"You blabbed?" Hilda glares at him. "Claude!"

"I had to," says Claude. "You wouldn't see reason. Someone had to stop you."

"Stop me from what? From doing the right thing? Or do you want to be like this forever, Marianne? Do you never want to be cured?"

"You can't cure it," says Marianne. Beneath the usual growl, her voice sounds like she's holding back tears. "Trust - trust me, it can't be done."

"Says who? All magic can be broken, right?" Hilda snaps the book shut. "I mean, I'm no expert, but - "

"It can't," says Marianne sadly. "I know, because, well…" She looks at Claude again. "Because we already tried."

"You did?"

"Yes, and...and it made things so much worse." Marianne closes her eyes. 

"You think we should tell her?" Claude asks.

"We must." Marianne sits down in the armchair facing Hilda, which groans under her weight. "It was...five years ago."

"Five years…" Hilda's brow furrows. "Go on."

"I had never had any friends," Marianne whispers. "It was just me, Seteth, and Flayn, my whole life...after the curse took hold in me, my parents disappeared, looking for a cure. And I was alone."

Hilda waits.

"But five years ago…" Marianne opens her eyes. Her muzzle curls slightly as she smiles. "Five years ago, someone decided he would bring his friends to come explore the old, creepy manor in the woods."

"Hey," says Claude, "it seemed like a good idea. At the time."

"That was you, Claude?" Hilda asks.

"Yep. I was quite the rapscallion in my youth." Claude sighs theatrically. "And I had to beat the suitors off with a stick, let me tell you."

"He was in Leicester for his school vacation," Marianne continues. "He was exploring the woods with the friends he had made here...Lorenz, Ignatz, Raphael, Leonie, and Lysithea. He makes friends quickly, Claude...and one day, they found the house. I tried to hide when I heard them come in through the window, but they found me."

"We were lucky that was Seteth's day to go to market," Claude adds. "He'd have kicked us out in seconds flat."

"Lucky...hmm, that's one way of putting it." Marianne curls her fingers together. "I was so scared...but they were so kind to me. They were frightened of me at first, but when they heard me speak...it was Claude who talked them down, made Leonie put down her bow, and he...he held out his hand to me. Nobody...nobody's ever done that for me."

"I was scared, sure," says Claude, his voice low. "But I realized quickly that you aren't a bad person."

Marianne wipes her eyes. "So we became...friends, even though I was a beast. Like I said, Claude makes friends quickly. And all through that summer, they all visited me, almost every day. Seteth and Flayn must have known. We weren't that subtle. But they turned a blind eye. I think...I think they just wanted me to be happy. They didn't know…what Claude was planning..."

"I knew you wanted to be cured more than anything," says Claude. "And I've always been one to stick my nose in where it didn't belong."

"Claude searched for a cure," Marianne continues. "It took all summer, but he found something. A spell. Really, it was thanks to his drive...and Lysithea's knowledge. Her family comes from a long line of witches. They have ancient, powerful magic...with Claude's help, she managed to steal a book from her parents' library and brought it here. There was a transformation spell, and it required a lot of power, so they…"

"We all decided to cast it together," says Claude. "We all made that choice."

"But the magic of my curse, the curse of Maurice…" Marianne lowers her head. "It was stronger than the spell. When they tried to transform me, it...backfired."

Hilda swallows. "So that's why you're all…"

"Yeah." Claude sighs. "We woke up and we were all household implements. Magic is nuts. Anyway, none of us ever went home. How could we? I can't exactly hop up to the old man and go 'hey, it's your grandson!' Besides...the more people we got involved, the more dangerous it would be for Marianne."

"And if anyone else tried to engineer a cure, they would most likely face the same fate," Marianne finishes. "So they all...stayed with me. They aren't really my workers like we said they were...they're my friends, and they have nowhere else to go. But they do help me look after this old place. As you know, I'm no good at housework…"

"Yeah, I noticed," says Hilda. "Not that you guys did that great a job."

"Hey, most of us don't even have arms!" Claude huffs. "Cut us some slack."

"Sorry." Hilda tries to soften her tone. "And...I'm sorry that happened to you."

"It hasn't been easy," says Claude. "We all miss our families. I haven't seen Almyra in five years. But at least we've got each other."

Five years.

Almyra.

"Wait…" Hilda stares at him. "Don't tell me…"

Claude, despite being a candlestick, somehow looks sheepish.

"That missing Almyran prince," says Hilda slowly. "The one who started the war. That was you?"

"Yeah...I really messed up." Claude's candles droop. "My parents thought my grandfather kidnapped me. The old man thought they staged the whole thing as an excuse to declare war. But in the end, it's all my fault."

"Goddess," Hilda breathes, massaging her forehead. "I can't believe it…"

"In the end, everything that happened was my fault too," Marianne says. "I didn't stop them, because I wanted so badly to be cured...but now you see why, Hilda. I can't let anyone get close. This curse...it only spreads and claims the people around me if they try to help me."

"That doesn't mean we should give up."

"But it does mean that you shouldn't try to use magic to fix things," says Claude, gently nudging the stack of books away from Hilda. "It's not impossible that someday, Marianne's curse really will be broken. But a counterspell will just lead to more grief. And I don't want you to end up as a broomstick or something."

"Hey, I'd be something way cooler than a broomstick." Hilda bumps him lightly with her fist. "But, um...Sorry I was so rude, I guess. I didn't get it."

"Nah, we were all hiding things from you when we should've just told you the truth," says Claude. "We know you're trustworthy."

"I get it," says Hilda. "Thanks."

"I do appreciate this, Hilda," says Marianne. "That you would go to such lengths for me, well...it means a lot. But - but you mustn't put yourself in danger for my sake. All right?"

"All right." Hilda pushes away her stack of books. "No magic. I promise."

Marianne smiles. "Thank you. I couldn't bear it if - if something were to happen to you."

"But one day, I'll find a way to help you," says Hilda. "Promise."

"Right." Marianne's smile doesn't reach her eyes this time. "I look forward to it."

***

Hilda shivers in the snow, blowing on her hands to warm them as she squints up at the white-encrusted trees. Normally she wouldn't be out in this nasty weather, but she was starting to get cabin fever as the winter dragged on.

At least her birthday's soon, Hilda thinks to herself as she kicks at the thick, icy snow. Even if this might be the first year celebrating it without her family...well, she doesn't really mind. Raphael goes nuts with birthday cakes for someone who can't actually eat them and has the decorating skills of a blind hedgehog.

But it's really cold, and Hilda rethinks her venture out into the yard as she tugs her cloak more tightly around herself. Maybe she'll crawl into the stables with Dorte, where it's smelly but warm...

"Ah, Hilda." Seteth rounds the corner of the manor. "There you are."

"Here I am," says Hilda, raising an eyebrow. "Rare to see you out here. Isn't this cold too much for your elderly bones, or something?"

"Precisely how old do you think I am, Hilda?"

"I dunno. Like, five hundred or something."

"Hm." Seteth lifts an eyebrow. "You're slightly off."

"Anyway," says Hilda, always worn out by their weird battles of wit and backhanded insults, "do you need something?"

"Marianne told me about your recent endeavors," says Seteth. "I wonder if you might take tea with me in my home, Hilda?"

"Uh," says Hilda, waiting for the catch. Seteth's house is probably warm, at least. "Sure?"

"Excellent." Seteth turns on his heel and strides briskly down the winding path towards his and Flayn's cottage. Hilda hurries along in his wake as he opens the snow-flecked door and beckons her inside.

It is warm, and cheerful. The small, clean kitchen has gingham curtains and a row of floral teacups hanging above the crackling pot-bellied stove. It looks downright whimsical, and Hilda can't keep the amused look off her face.

"Flayn selected much of the decor," says Seteth as he sits down at the kitchen table, laid for tea and covered with a lace tablecloth. "Please, have a seat."

Hilda obeys, eyeing the pastries. "Is this bribery?"

"Not as such, no. Do you take sugar?"

"Yes, please." Hilda accepts the cup. "Where's Flayn?"

"Fishing," says Seteth.

"In this weather?"

"Well, she doesn't catch much this time of year, but it's a sort of ritual for her."

"Sure," says Hilda. "Um...so, what did you want from me, exactly?"

"From you? Nothing in particular. Please, feel free to take a pastry."

Hilda snatches an iced bun as soon as the words are out of his mouth. "Then, uh...why call me here? We don't exactly hang out a lot…"

"No, I admit it was not merely for the pleasure of your company." It's a testament to Seteth's will that he keeps a straight face while saying that. "I just wanted to talk with you about a few things. Namely, concerning Marianne, and her curse."

"Right," Hilda mumbles, gnawing on the bun. "Look, Claude and Marianne told me about...what happened...and I'm not gonna try and do any magic. I swear."

"I assumed that, with proper warning, you would do as such, yes." Seteth stirs his tea. "I just wanted to make certain. I do appreciate your efforts in trying to cure Marianne. I have been with her since she was born, and she is quite important to me."

"Okay, what's your deal, exactly?" Hilda asks. "You and Flayn have been here for so long, Marianne says, but you aren't that old, and Flayn's just a kid…"

"Flayn and I are...special." Seteth says special as if he's saying cursed. "There is little information more that I will offer on that front, however, for the sake of protecting my daughter."

"Special, huh."

"Yes." 

There's no way to break Seteth's pokerface, and Hilda gives up. "Okay, so, then why stay here? If you're so special and old…"

"Hm." Seteth looks into his teacup. "I suppose you could say...I stay out of guilt."

"Guilt?"

"The curse of Maurice," says Seteth lowly. "The one who cursed this family...was my friend. No, my family. She was...is very dear to me. I...I feel responsible for not stopping her. For not preventing this travesty. To curse Maurice was understandable. But Marianne has done nothing wrong. There is no reason she should bear her ancestor's sins. The same is true of her late uncle, and all the generations before her - they have all suffered, only for the blood they bear. The firstborn child of every family…"

"A beast."

"Yes. They have all died alone, shunned by society, unloved and unwanted. I always believed that one day, we would be able to find someone capable of ending this vicious cycle. But nobody ever has, and so the bloodline remains cursed, and every generation, another beast is born." Seteth sighs heavily. "So I have remained here for centuries, watching over the beasts of this family - as has Flayn. We work to atone for what we have allowed to happen, what we were too cowardly to stop, and yet - and yet we were never able to break the curse."

"Who did this, exactly?" Hilda asks.

"A witch. You would never be able to find her, let alone stop her. Please, take me at my word." Seteth looks solemn. "There is one other way to break this curse, however, that does not involve killing the caster. However...Lady Marianne has forbidden me to ever speak of it."

"What?" Hilda leans across the table, pastry forgotten. "A loophole? What is it?"

"I am sorry, but Marianne was most adamant. On this matter, I cannot disobey her."

Hilda sighs. "Come on, Seteth. If it'll break the curse…"

"It is not only Marianne's word. I fear that if you are told...then the solution will become inherently impossible for you to achieve."

"You don't trust me?"

"It is not that. But I can say no more."

Hilda leans back with a huff. "Fine."

"Do not despair, Hilda." A faint smile crosses Seteth's face. "I for one, believe...that you are already well on your way to breaking Marianne's curse."

"Wait...really?"

"Yes. Simply continue being yourself, and follow your heart, and the rest will come in time."

"Wow." Hilda blinks. "Never thought I'd hear you say 'follow your heart.'"

"Perhaps Flayn is rubbing off on me," says Seteth dryly.

"Thanks, though, Seteth. For the pastries, and the advice." Hilda pats his hand. "You know, Seteth, you seem like an old codger sometimes, but you're really just a big teddy bear, aren't you?"

"Pardon me?"

"Oh, nothing." Hilda bounces to her feet. "I'm off to keep being myself and following my heart!"

"I am starting to regret my advice."

"Bye!" Hilda bounces out the door and back towards the manor, cheer sparking again in her heart despite the cold.

Maybe she really can do this. Not that she ever had doubts to start with.

***

"So, guess what today is!" Hilda calls in a singsong voice as she skips into the dining hall.

Marianne only smiles as she looks up at her. "Happy birthday, Hilda."

"Aww, you remembered!" Hilda beams as she sits down across from her. "You're so sweet."

"You told me several times." But Marianne's smile doesn't fade as she looks fondly at Hilda. She hardly ever has that wounded expression anymore. It's nice. "And I could never forget."

"Breakfast!" Raphael booms as Lorenz skitters out of the kitchen, plates of pancakes balanced in a stack on his porcelain dome. "For the birthday girl!"

"Thanks, guys," says Hilda as she accepts the plates. "All this for me? Well, I guess Marianne can have some too…"

Marianne shakes her head, still smiling. "That's nice of you."

"So," Hilda continues as her fork squishes into her pancakes (Raphael is generous with syrup), "what's the plan for today? Any birthday surprises?"

"Well, yes, actually," says Marianne.

"Really?"

"I didn't really know how to make you anything nicer than what you can make yourself," says Marianne. "And I could send Seteth to buy something, but that's never as meaningful as picking something out myself, I think. But I thought...I could show you something. Tonight, after dinner. Okay?"

"Yeah, sure," says Hilda, blinking. "That sounds really nice. Just the two of us?"

Marianne looks a little embarrassed. "Yes, that's what I had in mind...is that okay?"

"No, it's more than okay," says Hilda quickly. "I'm looking forward to it. I bet it'll be way better than my brother's birthday surprises. Do you know, every year he gets me a sweater, and every year it's uglier than last year's, and I still have to smile and wear it because it makes him happy. I'm wondering how he'll top last year's monstrosity."

Marianne giggles. "It's sweet that he thinks of you, though…"

"Yeah, he says it's because I hate the cold so much." Hilda sighs. "But I can keep warm without looking like a total doofus, y'know?"

"Yes." Marianne stands up to bring her cleared plate to the kitchen. "I'll see you tonight, Hilda, okay? I have to...get some things ready. Meet me upstairs at eight...and bring a cloak."

"At eight, with a cloak," Hilda echoes. "Okay, I'll be there."

***

Marianne greets Hilda on the fourth-floor landing promptly at eight. She's wearing the ballgown Hilda made, the fur around her face braided back by a somewhat shaky hand - Hilda assumes she did it herself.

"You look really pretty," says Hilda. "And here I am just wearing whatever."

"No, you look pretty too," says Marianne softly. She holds out a paw. "Come this way."

Hilda takes the paw and lets herself be led down the hall. "Where are we going?"

"Somewhere I've never brought anywhere else…" At the end of the hall, Marianne pushes open a trapdoor set into the ceiling. It's just big enough to fit her. "Let me give you a boost…"

Marianne lifts Hilda up into the attic with little effort before climbing up herself. It's dingy and dusty, even moreso than the rest of the house, and Hilda can't help a shudder of revulsion at the endless cobwebs.

"This isn't the surprise," says Marianne hastily, now opening a window set into the sloping ceiling. "This is…here." She holds out her paw again and helps Hilda through.

Hilda steps out onto the roof, and into chilly night air, sharp enough to take her breath away. They're above the treetops, looking out at an endless, snow-coated canopy. Above her, the stars pattern the midnight sky, tiny flecks of light in infinity.

Marianne is still holding Hilda's hand, and gently leads her down the roof's slight slope onto a flat expanse that stretches out a few yards from the house, framed by a low iron fence. Along that flat area lies a checkered blanket, spread flat with a little basket and two china plates.

Hilda takes the offered seat. "Wow. I didn't even know you could go on the roof…"

"I'm pretty much the only one who ever comes up here," says Marianne as she opens the basket. "Unless there's a leak and Seteth has to patch it. But it's one of my favorite places in the manor, alongside the ballroom and the stables."

Hilda strains her neck as she leans backwards further, catching a glance of the full moon overhead. "It's gorgeous."

"I'm glad you like it," says Marianne. "People aren't really supposed to come up here, but if you don't go too close to the edge then you'll be safe."

"I wasn't worried," says Hilda, truthfully. "Maybe it's because you're here."

Marianne ducks her head, a small smile on her muzzle. "Here...your other present." She pulls out a rather lopsided, frosting-soaked small cake. "It's strawberry…"

"Ooo, thanks!" Hilda claps her hands together as Marianne sets the cake out. "Cake on the roof, huh...I like it."

"Raphael made the cake," Marianne admits as she cuts a shaky slice. "I assumed you'd want something without hair in it."

"Yeah, that's probably best." Hilda accepts the slice. "Thanks, Marianne."

"It's no trouble…" Marianne leans back against the sloped half of the roof. "I just wanted to show you this place...it's special to me."

"I can see why," says Hilda. "It feels...like its own little world."

"When I'm out here alone...I feel like the goddess is looking down on me." Marianne smiles softly. "And I hope that she's smiling. If anyone can love me like this...I'm sure she can. This is where I come to pray...where I feel closest to her."

"Oh," says Hilda, who never has much of anything to say on the topic of religion.

"Once, you asked me what I prayed for," says Marianne, clasping her hands together and resting them below her chin, as if in prayer. "Do you remember?"

"I do," says Hilda, wincing at the recollection. "Then I realized it was kind of rude, because you were probably praying for a cure…"

"No...I wasn't," says Marianne quietly. "I was begging the goddess...to bring me to her side."

Hilda can't think of anything to say to that.

"But I don't want that anymore." Marianne looks up at the starry sky, lowering her hands. "Since you came here, since we became friends...I wake up in the morning looking forward to every day. Even though I'm like this. I never thought I'd be able to feel that way."

"Marianne…"

"Sorry. I don't mean to seem sad. It's your day, after all." Marianne looks back at Hilda. "But I just wanted you to know...how much you mean to me. You're very important to me, Hilda."

Hilda manages to unstick whatever's caught in her throat. "You're...you're important to me too, Marianne. I think...I think you helped teach me...what I'm worth."

"What you're worth?"

"Yeah. With you, I...I don't have to be Duke Goneril's brother, or anything like that. You like me for who I am. Even when I mess up. You don't have crazy high expectations of me. I can try my best with you and not worry about not being enough." Hilda rubs her red cheeks. "That's how I feel, anyway."

"I'm glad to hear that," says Marianne. "You're always enough for me, Hilda."

"Th...thanks." The air's freezing, but Hilda's face feels like it's on fire.

"I can't wait for you to see the manor in spring," says Marianne. "Even with nobody looking after them, the flowers in the garden bloom every year. They're a mess, but they're beautiful anyway."

"Just like me," says Hilda proudly, and Marianne giggles. "What's your favorite?"

"Lilies of the valley," says Marianne promptly.

"The little white ones?"

"Yes. I don't actually know a lot about growing flowers, or what they're used for. But my father had this book, about the language of flowers. Have you heard of it?"

"Yeah...like, roses meaning love, and stuff like that?" Hilda shrugs.

"Yes, that kind of thing. When I read about the lily of the valley, I learned that it means...a return of happiness. Lovers give them to each other when they reunite. And something about that...just felt nice to me, I guess." Marianne twirls her skirt between her fingers. "A return of happiness. I thought that was impossible for me, once. I could never go back to my childhood, with my parents...but then I met you."

"Me?"

"Yes. And you brought me...a return to happiness." Marianne reaches up, almost absent-mindedly, and rests her paw against Hilda's face. "I think you're my lily of the valley, Hilda."

"Wow." Hilda can't quite breathe. Her breath tastes like strawberries and the air is crisp around them and Marianne's paw is gentle on her face, and she finds herself leaning up towards Marianne almost subconsciously, her eyes sliding shut…

...and there's a terrific crash from the yard below them, and both women twist around, eyes wide.

"What was that?" Hilda leans across the roof, squinting through the dark. "A monster?"

"No, I don't smell anything…" Marianne frowns. "Hm."

"Well…" Hilda shivers as another wave of cold hits her. "Goddess, it's freezing up here. Can we get into the warm?"

"Yes, of course." Marianne folds up the picnic blanket. "Let's head in."

"Oh, there's one more thing," Hilda adds as she packs the cake away in the basket. "Marianne, earlier you said that if anyone could love you, the goddess could...but I'm sure there's people other than the goddess who love you."

"I know everyone cares about me, but…"

"I care about you."

"Oh…" Marianne ducks her head. "Well...thank you, Hilda. That means a lot. It really does."

***

Lord Acheron scrambles to his feet, panting. The tumble out of the tree has left him disheveled, but he for once pays his appearance little mind as he stares up at the distant roof of Maurice Manor.

Lord Goneril had been quite cagey about the sudden ending of Lady Hilda's engagement. He had eventually disclosed that Hilda had been taken into the employ of one Margrave Edmund, but Edmund had refused to even see Lord Acheron, with quite a rude dismissal. Still, Acheron was nothing if not persistent. Perhaps it wasn't the most noble path, but with some careful eavesdropping, he was able to hear a conversation between Lord and Lady Goneril, discussing Lady Hilda's new employment at Maurice Manor - which, through his extensive intelligence, Acheron discerned was in Blutgang Woods.

At last, at long last, he had found the place! Months of fruitless searching in these dreadful woods, and at last, he had alighted on the new residence of his fair lady Hilda! And then he'd seen two figures moving across the roof. Desperately curious, he'd managed to climb one of the tallest trees on the property, and panting with effort and squinting through his always-at-hand opera glasses, he had seen...

His beloved lady. And a foul, dreadful creature wearing a woman's frock - a beast! A hideous, filthy, gray monster. With his lady! Holding her captive. No, this would never do!

The beast had grabbed his lady's face so crudely, dragging her close, and Acheron had been so overcome with shock and revulsion that he had lost his footing in the tree. The fall had been two stories, but fortunately a well-placed bush had blocked his fall. Still, it seemed in his distraction, the beast had vanished once more, dragging his fair lady back into its filthy lair.

Well, Acheron would not stand for this! The foul beast of Maurice Manor would taste the fury of a noble in love! And his lady Hilda would be rescued, and safe at last in his arms!

Of course, he could not do it alone. He would need to muster an army. And that would take some time. But if he disclosed the nature of the creature living in Maurice Manor, and a bit of his generous fortune changed hands, they would all be eager to...well, it would be a little while, but Acheron would return. 

Acheron gives a self-satisfied nod as he returns to his pony. Oh, return he would. And Hilda would, at last, be his. And nobody else's - especially not some foul, wicked beast's.

Chapter Text

Dear Holst,

Thanks for the birthday present. The sweater's super warm, and I'm sure I'll wear it loads. Marianne thinks it's really pretty too. She liked it so much she laughed for fifteen minutes out of sheer excitement. Maybe I'll get her one too.

The snow's finally starting to melt a little, although it's still way too cold. Spring is my favorite time of the year, and I can't wait for it to get here. Flowers blooming, birds chirping, and oh yeah, normal weather - just another moon or two to go, and I'll finally be able to go outside without my toes falling off.

What does it feel like to be in love with someone? Like, as in real love? Do you know? Because I think it might be happening to me I was just wondering.

Give Mother and Father my love.

Love always,

Hilda

***

Much to Hilda's surprise (and delight,) Lone Moon dawns with an unexpected wave of warmth. Within a week, the snow has melted, and Hilda actually can't see her breath anymore when she goes outside.

"The end of another year," Claude comments from his perch in the windowsill. "Man, this one's flying by."

"Mostly thanks to Hilda," Lysithea says beside him. "A change in routine can so make time speed up."

"I'm just glad the snow's gone," says Hilda, lounging on the sitting room sofa with her legs up on the arm. "I hate - "

"The cold, yes, we know," Leonie sighs. "We heard. Many times."

"Some years it snows again in Lone Moon, though," Lorenz drawls from the tea table.

"No! Don't jinx it!" Hilda waves a hand at him. "Just let me enjoy this."

"Spring's coming," Marianne muses as she sets down the bracelet she's engraving. "Wow...I can't believe how long you've been here."

"What do you mean?" Hilda asks.

"Well...in some ways it feels like you just got here yesterday," says Marianne. "And in others...it feels like you've always been here. I can't picture my life without you in it."

"Oh," Hilda squeaks, knowing she's blushing. Claude snickers. Lysithea bumps him.

"Truly, though, the time has indeed flown," says Lorenz. "Hilda is a part of our family, it feels."

"Aw, you never get this soppy!" says Raphael. "It's nice."

"I can't picture Maurice Manor without Hilda, either," Ignatz adds. "Thanks to her, Marianne leaves her room, and everyone's so much happier. She's been a breath of life."

"Well...thanks, guys," Hilda manages. "Don't expect any more miracles out of me, though, okay? That's a lot of pressure."

"I hope you'll stay with us for a long, long time, Hilda," says Lysithea.

"I want to," says Hilda.

"Do you ever...miss your family, Hilda?" Marianne asks. "I...I don't want to keep you from them…"

Hilda shrugs. "Sure, it'd be nice to see them again. But there's no rush. I'm happy here."

"See them again…" Marianne's brow furrows. "Hilda, I...have an idea."

"What?"

"This way." Marianne gets to her feet. "Something my father left me...I think I want to show it to you."

"Oooh, the thingy." Claude makes a tongue-clucking noise (somehow, without a tongue.) "Good idea."

"What? What thingy?"

"This way. It's in my room." Marianne beckons to Hilda, who follows her out of the sitting room and up the staircase. "It's a way...you can see your family. I've shown it to Claude and the others, so they can see theirs..."

"Really?"

"Yes. I think it's better if I show it to you…" They reach Marianne's room, and she pushes open the door. "Here…"

Marianne's room is still pretty neat, Hilda notes with satisfaction. Marianne crosses the room to something large and square, covered in a cloth. She pulls back the fabric, revealing…

Hilda squints. "A mirror?"

"The only one in the house," says Marianne quietly, giving her reflection only a quick glance before turning away. "Not that there were a lot to start with...but I got rid of all the ones left when I...changed. This is the only one I kept. Because it isn't just a mirror. It can be used to...to see people."

"See people? Uh, Marianne, all mirrors do that."

"That's not what I mean." Marianne turns back to the mirror. "Show me Claude von Riegan."

The mirror's image swirls, shifts - and turns into a picture-accurate image of the Maurice Manor sitting room. Claude and Lorenz are arm-wrestling with spoke and spout, the former handily beating the latter. 

"Woah," says Hilda. "Is it magic?"

"Yes...I don't know how long my family's had it." Marianne waves a hand at the mirror, and the image fades. "I used to watch my parents in it, after they left. Every day, I would come check on them, to make sure they were safe...but one day...I called for them, and they didn't show up. And they...and they never have again."

"Oh," says Hilda. "Marianne…"

"They're gone." Marianne shakes her head. "Somewhere I can't reach. I've accepted that. But this isn't about me...it's about you. Look in the mirror, Hilda. See your family."

"Okay." Hilda rests a hand on the mirror's smooth surface. "Show me...Holst Goneril."

The image spirals, and shows…

A huge, burly man, lying prone in bed. There's figures huddled over him, and Hilda can only make out his face, which is ghostly pale. As Hilda squints, she can make out one of the figures as her mother, who turns to face the village doctor.

"How long does he have…?" The voice sounds tinny as it echoes through the glass of the mirror.

"I cannot say," says the doctor. "Perhaps days...or perhaps hours…"

"What?" Hilda gasps.

"Oh no," Marianne whispers.

"Holst…" Lord Goneril whimpers into a handkerchief. "How could this happen…?"

"What's going on?" Hilda manages. "Is he...ill? Holst!"

"He looks dreadful," Marianne says quietly as she leans forward to look at the mirror. "Like he's been poisoned…"

"Poisoned?" Hilda stares at the mirror, trying to will it to show anything else. "And the doctor said...days or hours…"

Marianne rests a hand on Hilda's shoulder.

"I can't…" Hilda looks up at Marianne. "He's a big idiot, but if he's dying...I can't just let him die alone…"

"You shouldn't," says Marianne. "You should go to him."

"What? I can't leave you - "

"Yes, you can." Marianne takes her hands. "I'm not your whole world, Hilda. You have a family. You should go back to them."

"Don't you want me to stay?" Hilda mumbles.

"Of course I do." Marianne's head droops. "Forever. But - but your brother needs you, Hilda. More than I do. Take Dorte. He'll be faster without the carriage. I'll explain to Seteth."

"You're sure?"

"I am." Marianne's smile trembles. "It will all be fine. I can manage without you, you know."

"I'll come back," says Hilda, squeezing Marianne's paws. "I'll make sure everything's okay, and then I'll come right back - "

"Even if you never do," says Marianne, her eyes drifting away from Hilda's, "that would be all right. You've given me enough. You deserve to live your life...however you wish. Even without me."

"Do you really think I'd abandon you?" Hilda reaches up to rest a hand against Marianne's face, tilting her head so that they're making eye contact once more. "I told you I'd never leave. And I mean it."

"I believe you," says Marianne, voice small. "I'm just a little scared."

"Don't be. I can take care of myself." Hilda smiles. "I'll be back within the fortnight."

"Okay." Marianne releases her hands. "Go. Hurry! He might not have much time."

"Right!" Hilda takes Marianne's hand as she pulls away and, impulsively, presses a kiss to the hairy paw. 

She immediately realizes what she's done, her face lighting aflame. They stare at each other.

"Uh - I'll see you later!" says Hilda quickly, and then she turns and tears out of the bedroom.

(Marianne waits until she's gone to cry.)

***

Dorte's hooves pound against the road leading from Blutgang Woods to Goneril. Hilda grits her teeth harder, leaning low against his neck. 

She hadn't bothered packing anything, not even her axe. There wasn't any time to waste. It'll take her at least a few hours to reach Goneril Manor, even at Dorte's top speed. And by then...by then…

Hilda tries not to think about it. Holst won't die. He can't. He's too big and stupid and stubborn to die…

Anger bubbles in Hilda's chest. How could Holst do this to her? The idiot!

Hilda turns into Goneril, tearing past confused onlookers as she makes a beeline for her childhood home, and skids to a stop in front of the manor gates. She doesn't see the village doctor's carriage. Is that a good sign, or…?

Hilda dismounts, panting, and leads Dorte back to the old, empty stables, leaving him in the stall beside her family's old mare before she walks back to the manor to see her brother. Dorte worked hard, after all. She can't leave him in the lurch just because there's no servants to look after him.

Hilda knocks on the front door, and it is opened almost at once by Lady Goneril. Her mother looks bedraggled and pale, her eyes widening in surprise. "Hilda?"

"It's me, Mama," says Hilda. "Is Holst okay?"

"He's - how did you - "

"I heard he was sick," Hilda adds as she steps into the foyer. "How is he?"

"He ate some bad mushrooms," says her mother as she shuts the door. "And by bad, I mean...well, poisonous."

"The idiot," Hilda grumbles. "Is he okay?"

"Yes, he'll be fine. It was touch and go for a bit there, but the doctor says the worst of the poison is out of his system now." Lady Goneril gives a long sigh. "It could very well have taken his life, but...but the goddess was merciful. I'm certain he'd like to see you, though. He's in his room."

Hilda curtsies to her before taking the stairs two at a time to the upper landing. She knocks on Holst's bedroom door before cracking it open. "Holst?"

Holst's head turns on the pillow, bleary eyes focusing on her. "Hil...da?"

"Yeah, it's me." Hilda walks over to take a seat on the stool by his bed. "How're you feeling?"

Holst manages a smile, but it looks more like a grimace. "Pretty awful...but the doctors say I'll live."

"You better," Hilda tells him sternly. "I am not becoming Duchess Goneril, you hear me? That would be way too much work for this fragile blossom."

Holst gives a weak chuckle. "Got it. How...how're you?"

"Just fine," says Hilda, taking his hand. "I really like my job. I just wanted to make sure you were okay, so I took some vacation time."

"That's nice…" Holst's eyelids are sliding shut. "Sorry, Hilda...real tired…"

"I got it," says Hilda. "Just get some rest." She watches him fall asleep, and then gets up to leave the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.

Holst really is okay. Relief floods Hilda as she leans against the door with a sigh. She probably didn't even need to come back here. Still, it's good to know for sure.

The sound of shouting from outside makes Hilda jolt upright. She squints out the window, seeing a crowd gathering in the distant town square. Interest piqued, she leaves the manor once more, following the stream of people to where they're all clustered around the old silver-toned statue of the first Goneril.

Hilda looks up at the person perched on the statue's base, and immediately groans.

"People of Goneril!" Lord Acheron is calling, waving an ornate sword over his head. "I beseech you to lend you my aid in a people's militia! For a deed most foul has been committed! Duke Goneril's fair sister is being held captive by a monstrous beast!"

"I am not!" Hilda shouts, shoving her way to the front of the crowd and glaring up at him. "I'm right here!"

"Oh, Lady Hilda!" Acheron turns to her. "You've managed to escape!"

"I didn't escape," Hilda hisses, leaning backwards out of his reach. "I left to come visit my brother."

"Yes, you must have been terrified, poor dear!" Acheron strokes her hair, and Hilda doesn't even try to suppress a shudder. "But you have no need to fear. Brave Lord Acheron will slay the beast! Won't we, everyone?"

To Hilda's horror, a cheer rises up from the gathered crowd. People are waving weapons over their heads, chanting disjointed calls she can't make out. Some of them are wearing the uniforms of soldiers, and others are common people, armed with nothing but pitchforks, but still with looks of hate on their faces...

"Stop it!" Hilda shouts. "The beast isn't dangerous! You have to leave her be!"

Acheron ignores her. "Good people, the time has come to march! We make for Blutgang Woods, where the wicked monster makes its filthy lair! Together, we will fell the beast!"

The chant has become more organized, and the crowd's voices raise as one. "Slay the beast! Burn the monster! Slay the beast!"

It's not a crowd, Hilda realizes. It's a mob.

"Stop it!" Hilda yells, lunging at Acheron, but the men on either side of her grab her by the arms, holding her back. "The beast is harmless!"

"You are in shock after your terrible ordeal, poor thing," says Acheron. "You two, bring Lady Hilda back to her home, and have her parents lock her away. For her own safety. It wouldn't do if she were to get caught in the crossfire. For when all of this is over...she and I will hold our wedding over the beast's bloody corpse."

"Bastard!" Hilda shrieks, struggling as the burly men haul her away. She tries to kick at them, but they hold her too far from their bodies for her to do any damage. "I'll stop you! You'll see!"

Acheron ignores her, having turned back to rallying his mob. The men drag Hilda back to Goneril Manor and barge through the front door.

"Hilda?" her mother gasps. "What's going on - "

"She's a danger to herself, Lady Goneril," says one of the men. "Interfering with Lord Acheron's plans. We must ask you to lock her away. For her safety."

"They're trying to kill Marianne, Mother!" Hilda shouts, still struggling fruitlessly. "We have to stop them!"

"I…" Her mother's eyes drift nervously between the men. "Lord Acheron's orders, you say?"

"Yes, my lady."

"Then...we have little choice." Lady Goneril's shoulders slump. "I'm sorry, Hilda. Her bedroom is this way."

"Mother!"

Hilda is tossed unceremoniously onto her bedroom floor; as she scrambles to her feet, the bedroom door slams and there's the firm click of a lock. Hilda pounds on it fruitlessly, like she did as a child, but just as then, the solid oak doesn't give. Hilda rests her forehead against the door, taking a deep breath. Everything is happening quickly, too quickly, and Hilda's mind is swirling with panic and confusion - 

She needs to calm down. She needs to get a grip. Marianne needs her.

Hilda takes another deep breath and then straightens, eyes flashing. She first rummages in her closet, pulling out her spare axe and strapping it firmly across her back. First things first. When this is all over, she's gonna smash Acheron's smug little face in.

Hilda's bedroom window opens, but it's always been kept locked due to some childhood escapades. Still, that's never stopped Hilda before. She stands up straight, reaches up, and pulls a silver-toned hairpin out of her ponytail. There's a reason she always has a spare.

A few twists, and the small lock pops open, allowing the windowpanes to slide up and Hilda to hitch up her skirt and clamber through. From there, it's a nimble leap to the old crabapple tree and a quick slide down the branches. Easy enough.

There's still a clamor of voices from the town square as Hilda inches around the side of the manor, letting the shadows hide her. It sounds like Acheron's mob is moving out. Meaning Hilda's time is limited. Holst's too poorly to help, and Hilda's parents haven't been in good enough health to ride out in years, even if they were willing, which Hilda knows they won't be.

It's all up to her. So what else is new?

At the very least, Hilda thinks grimly as she dashes to the Goneril stables and lets Dorte out of his pen, she knows the way best, and she's on horseback. Hopefully she can make it there ahead of them.

She has to make it there. Marianne's life depends on it.

Chapter Text

Night has fallen entirely by the time Hilda is pounding through Blutgang Woods again, Dorte's breath hard and fast as they leap over roots and duck beneath branches. Hilda's torn her dress and there's a forest's worth of twigs caught in her hair, her legs aching from too much time in the saddle.

But they're nearly there, Hilda reassures herself as they speed through the woods. Gray clouds are swirling overhead. Nearly there. If she can just reach the manor...

Maurice Manor is starting to come into view. Distant shouting, crackling torchlight. And...Hilda blinks. A shimmering orb of light, twinkling between the trees, vivid against the gray sky. 

Hilda leans across Dorte's neck as they tear forward. The house is encased in what looks like a giant bubble made of pale, shimmering light, and the mob is gathered outside it. Not all of Acheron's cronies have arrived yet, but those that have are pounding on the orb, pitchforks, torches, and swords crashing harmlessly off the shield. Two figures are standing on the front walk, obscured by the translucent light.

Hilda braces herself as Dorte pounds towards the bubble, but they pass through its shimmering embrace unharmed, and Hilda leaps off the horse's back, panting as she dashes towards the figures. 

Flayn is standing in front of the house, her hands outstretched and folded over one another, her hair and dress flying as if caught in a strong wind. Her eyes are closed, her lips moving soundlessly. As an axe crashes against the bubble, she flinches. 

Seteth is standing behind Flayn, hands on her shoulders, face grim. He looks up as Hilda approaches. "Hilda?"

"I'm back," Hilda chokes out, reaching for the axe across her back. "What's happening?"

"I do not know," says Seteth, looking back out at the gathered crowd. "But this mob is calling for the head of the beast...for Marianne's head."

"Acheron…" Hilda pants. "He found out about her, somehow, and he wants her dead. I came to stop him, but…"

"Flayn will not be able to keep this up much longer," says Seteth darkly. "I have given her what power I have, but my magic is only a fraction of hers. And when her shield falls, Maurice Manor will be defenseless."

"No, it won't be," says Hilda. "It'll have me."

As if on cue, Flayn gives a little sigh, slumping backwards. Seteth catches her as she collapses. "Now that Flayn has used all her strength, the shield will only last another ten minutes at best. We must rendezvous with the others in the manor, and make some kind of plan. Fleeing is impossible - there is nowhere we can bring Marianne and the others where they will be safe from persecution."

"Do you think Marianne's uncle will help?" Hilda asks him as they turn to run up the front walk, Flayn's head lolling against Seteth's shoulder.

"Margrave Edmund?" Seteth shakes his head. "I doubt it most sincerely. He does not care enough for his niece to jeopardize his own safety - and even if he did, I doubt word will reach Edmund in time."

"Figures." Hilda yanks the door open and they sprint inside.

"Flayn's down?" Claude asks at once, hopping forward. "Oh - Hilda?"

"Hilda?" The soft, growling voice is music to Hilda's ears. Marianne is standing behind Claude, wearing the blue ballgown, her face a picture of shock. "You came back…"

"Of course I did," says Hilda. "I wouldn't leave you - "

"We gotta make a plan," says Claude, cutting the reunion short. "We're outnumbered and outmatched."

Leonie's in her full form, the suit of armor towering over everyone but Marianne. "We gotta stand our ground and fight. To protect everyone."

"I can fight too," says Hilda. "But none of the rest of you can, so - "

"Here." Claude nods to Leonie, and she pulls a sheet of furled paper out of her helmet, spreading it out on a side table. "We've gotta treat this as a siege for now. Leonie and I just finished boarding up the last of the first-story windows, and I don't think anyone'll be climbing higher than that. That leaves two main entrances - the front and back door. Back door's a narrow entrance, hard for more than one person to get through at a time. I say we barricade the front and post Hilda and Seteth to guard the back while Leonie goes out there to thin the herd."

"Uh...Seteth, too?" Hilda asks.

"I am perfectly capable of fighting," says Seteth. "This is not my first battlefield."

"We also need a lookout," Claude continues. "Marianne, you'll be able to move much more quickly around the manor than those of us without limbs. I know you're not much for fighting - "

"Sorry," Marianne mumbles.

" - so that'll be your job. Keep a lookout from the upper levels and keep us all connected. Besides, you're the one they're after. It's better if you don't show yourself." Claude runs a spoke down the parchment. "Of course, I don't think any of this will be enough. We don't just need a plan. What we need is something downright diabolical. A scheme."

"A scheme," Hilda repeats flatly.

"What I'm best at." Claude rolls up the map. "I've got my best poisons ready to go. None of 'em are fatal - but we're not trying to kill these people, after all. Still, if they start puking or their faces get covered in boils, then they'll retreat, and we'll thin their numbers. I call that a win."

"Most of them aren't soldiers - just people," says Hilda. "Hopefully, if we show we're a real threat, they'll turn tail."

"The shield will fall soon," says Seteth urgently, glancing towards the door. "We have no more time to plan - we must act."

"Right. Lysithea, Raphael, Ignatz, Lorenz, with me. Hilda, Leonie, that barricade. Seteth, lock Flayn up somewhere safe and then help them. Marianne, get upstairs and keep an eye out. You remember those codes I taught you? Tap 'em out on the pipes if you see anything of note." Claude twists his base, looking around at them all. "We're gonna win this."

Are we? Hilda wants to ask, but she doesn't, only salutes. "Gotcha, Your Highness!"

"Never call me that again. Now, move!"

They all rush off to their assigned stations, Hilda's blood pounding in her ears as she drags furniture down the hall to block the heavy front doors. Strength is no obstacle for Leonie, who hauls an armchair over each shoulder and adds them onto the pile. Still, at a time like this, the thought of getting her to do all the work doesn't even cross Hilda's mind (okay, it does, but she immediately dismisses it.) Seteth reappears without Flayn and joins them, and they don't speak as they get the barricade into position. It crowds halfway down the hall when they're finished - nobody's getting through those doors, Hilda notes with satisfaction, even with a battering ram.

Claude peeks out the back door as they reconvene. The rest of his squad all have bundles tied to them, and Hilda decides there's no time to ask why. "Okay, nobody's looking this way. You've all got your orders. Claude Squad, let's go!"

"Claude Squad?" Hilda can't help a guffaw, despite her terror.

"At least call us the Golden Deer," Lysithea groans.

"Golden Deer?" Hilda asks.

"Mythical protectors of Leicester since time immemorial, the traditional name of the Duke's personal guard," says Lorenz. "My goodness, Hilda, you call yourself a noble?"

"Deer or no deer, it's time to move," says Claude stiffly. "See you all soon." 

"Be careful," Marianne says softly.

Hilda swallows. "You better not die. Any of you."

"'Course not." Claude beckons with one spoke, and they all hop out into the dark, swallowed by the grass as they sneak to their positions. Flayn's shield is still shining, but not as brightly as before, and as Hilda watches through the open back door, it flickers.

"Less then a minute," says Seteth grimly. He's clutching an old-fashioned lance in both hands. "And then…"

"We'll be fine." Hilda draws her axe. "We better be."

"Hilda…" Marianne takes her free hand. "I just wanted to say that...I'm so sorry. Because of me, you're all in danger."

"Hey." Hilda squeezes her hand. "We're all doing this willingly. To protect you. Because you're our friend. Because we want to keep your goodness in our life. Got that?"

"Right…" Marianne's smile is heavy. "I...I better go keep watch. I'll see you when...when it's over."

"Holding you to that." Hilda watches Marianne rush off towards the staircase before turning her face to the gathered crowd. There's a clanking sound as Leonie rides up along the side of the house, mounted on Dorte and with lance in hand.

"Here we go," Hilda mutters, and as if on cue, Flayn's barrier gives one last, bright spark and fades. The crowd recoils as one in shock, but doesn't surge forward.

They're not willing to make the first move. A good sign.

Hilda steps forward through the doorframe. She watches all the gathered faces turn towards her as one.

"My name," Hilda calls as she stands on the porch, slinging her axe across her shoulders, hearing her own heartbeat slamming in her ears, "is Hilda Valentine Goneril."

There's a small intake of breath from the gathered crowd at the sound of her surname.

"That's right," says Hilda. "You all ever heard of my big brother, Holst? You might know him better as the new Duke Goneril. Six foot six and three hundred pounds, all solid muscle. Duke Riegan's protégé, and first in line to be the next leader after him, as a matter of fact. Retired general of the Leicester Army. Can kill hardened soldiers with his bare hands. Faces down entire armies without breaking a sweat. Once arm-wrestled a bear and won. Known to some as the Wall of Goneril. A man that makes the Almyran king wet his pants in fear. And I'm that man's little sister. I have had that man down on his knees crying for mercy."

Nobody speaks. Nobody's breathing. There's only the night air, thick and still around them, and the darkening clouds overhead.

"That's all," says Hilda, lowering her axe and resting it across both her hands. "So I'm just letting you know...if you want to get to this house, or hurt anyone inside it...you're gonna have to get through me first."

There's no answer at first, and then a rustle, and one of the men at the front of the group turns around, pushing through his fellows and sprinting off into the trees. It's the cascading stone that starts an avalanche - another follows, and then more, and then the crowd ripples as half of the brave beast-hunters suddenly remember urgent things they'd rather be doing.

"Cowards," says Hilda, returning her axe to her shoulder. "I thought so."

There's only about a quarter of the mob remaining when the first wave has fled, and most of them, Hilda notes grimly, are wearing armor and holding real weapons. Hired soldiers of Acheron's, probably, who know the battlefield.

Speaking of, Hilda can't see Acheron, but she expects he's hanging back, letting others do his dirty work. Smug pig.

As if on cue, a reedy voice rings out from somewhere in the crowd. "Enough delay! Charge! Find me that beast!"

There's a roar, and the mob surges forward towards Maurice Manor. Hilda grits her teeth as she readies her axe, and the first man to reach her is slammed across the chest with its blunt end. He doesn't get up again.

"We should try not to kill them," Hilda manages as she staggers back a step. "But we might have to - "

"I can make no such promises," says Seteth, his face dark as he digs the butt of his lance into another soldier's ribs. "It is our lives or theirs."

Hilda whirls as she sends another soldier tumbling to the ground. "Yeah."

There's utter pandemonium unfolding around them - Claude's specialty, Hilda supposes as she watches out of the corner of her eye. Ignatz and Raphael are jabbing themselves between the cracks of armor, leaving howls of pain in their wake. Lysithea's perfume-bottle body and Lorenz's teapot have been filled with Claude's most potent toxins, and they hop up into soldiers' faces, spray, and flee, leaving their victims clawing at their eyes. Claude himself darts among the chaos, slamming into knees and ankles and leaving them vulnerable to Leonie's flashing lance.

Hilda loses track of how many men fall to her axe - and she thinks, or maybe hopes, that none of them are dead, but it's too chaotic and it's hard to be certain. Shouts and screams echo around her, and blood stains her axe's blade and sprays over her dress, and -

"We can't hold them back!" Claude's shout rings through the night. "Time for Plan B!"

"Plan B?" Hilda yells as she kicks a man in the stomach, smacking him over the head with her axe's handle as he folds. "What's - "

"Stay back towards the manor!" Claude yells. "It's time to use the talents I gained as a candelabra!" Hilda catches a glimpse of him through the grass, his candles alight - 

- and he hops onto a barrel, and then the world lights up with flame, following a trail of oil and forming a ring that arcs across the manor lawns, causing several soldiers to fall back, screaming - 

"It's a trap!" one of them shouts. "Fall back!"

"Fire?" Hilda gasps. "Seriously? Claude, we'll roast alive!"

"Haven't you seen the storm clouds overhead?" Claude calls. "The rain'll put it out before it can reach the manor! Er, I think! Probably!"

"If my house burns down, Claude, I will kill you," Seteth grumbles as he drives his lance through a soldier's leg.

Leonie yells a wordless war cry as she plunges towards a group of soldiers, driving them back from the manor. The others are impossible to see, lost in the dark shadows between the orange tongues of flame.

Hilda pushes her bangs off her face, gasping for breath, her limbs sweat-soaked and heavy with fatigue. The fire has thrown Acheron's soldiers into disarray, fleeing and panicking, but many are still fighting on. "Where's...where's Acheron? If we stop him, then…" She trails off as she spies a figure between the flames. It's scaling a tree, and as Hilda watches, leaps from the branches to a third story balcony…

"Someone's getting in the house!" Hilda shouts.

"Give chase, then!" Seteth spears another soldier. "We will try to hold them here!"

Hilda hasn't listened for his answer, is already sprinting through the back door and dashing towards the stairs, two at a time as she plunges heedlessly forward, tripping over her own feet in her haste. Marianne is upstairs, and alone, and she doesn't know how to fight - 

As Hilda reaches the third floor landing, she hears the howl. It tears through her bones, chills her blood - she's only heard that sound once before, when she killed those wolves.

It's the sound of a wounded animal. But it's louder, far louder than the forest wolves.

"No," Hilda pants as she staggers up the stairs, moving faster than she ever has in her life even as her legs scream in protest. "No…"

When she emerges on the fourth floor, it's to a shattered window, glass sprinkled across the carpet. Hilda hadn't even heard it break, her ears filled only with Marianne's cry.

There's blood on the glass.

Hilda runs to the destroyed window, wind whipping her hair as she leans through it. Lightning flashes, illuminating a massive figure in a ripped ballgown lying hunched on the roof, a trail of blood behind it. A man stands over it, sword in both hands and lifted over his head, about to deliver a killing blow - 

"Marianne!" Hilda screams, nearly toppling off the roof as she leaps through the window. "Marianne!"

The fallen figure shifts. "Hil...da…"

Acheron brings the sword down, but Marianne's paw flies up, grasping it. Acheron gasps, trying to tug the sword free, but Marianne's leg lashes out, kicking him hard, and he staggers as Marianne drags herself to her feet, her form towering over him. Acheron takes a few more shaky steps backwards, looking between Marianne and Hilda.

"Marianne," Hilda manages, lifting her voice to be heard against the distant rumble of thunder and the crackle of flames below. "Are you okay?"

"Yes…" Marianne manages. She's clutching her side, though, blood seeping through her fingers and matting her fur with red, and her burst of strength seems to have faded. Rain is starting to fall, heavy droplets trickling down the roof and soaking Hilda's cloak, extinguishing the fires with loud hissing sounds and drifting clouds of gray smoke.

"Ah, Lady Hilda. There you are." Rain has plastered Acheron's perfectly-curled blonde hair to his face. "Now, watch as I slay this foul beast, and take you away to safety!"

"I don't want you to slay her!" Hilda snaps, hefting her axe. "I want you to leave her alone!"

"Don't be foolish, little one," Acheron pants. "I am the wealthy, powerful Lord Acheron! Whyever would a girl such as you prefer a beast over me?"

"Get it through your thick skull!" Hilda shrieks. "I never wanted to marry you, Acheron! And I never will!"

"Lady Hilda - "

"Enough!" Hilda spits. "People have gotten hurt, maybe killed, all because you can't take no for an answer! So here it is - no, Acheron! No, I will not marry you! And I will not let you hurt anyone anymore!"

Acheron pales visibly, lowering his sword. "You...do not...want me?"

"I don't," says Hilda. "And I never will."

Acheron stares at her. "I...I...see…" His head droops slightly. 

Hilda holds her breath. Rain thunders around them.

Then suddenly, without warning, Acheron charges at Hilda. Her axe only just catches his sword, but he overpowers her, and she's too fatigued and shocked to react quickly enough as he grabs her right arm and wrenches it upward, leaving her axe hanging uselessly in her left hand. She screams in pain as he squeezes her wrist, tight enough to bruise, her feet sliding against the rain-slippery shingles.

"If I can't have you," Acheron grunts, "then nobody can!"

"Pig!" Hilda spits, kicking at his ankles.

"Leave her alone!"

Acheron screams, and the pressure is suddenly released from Hilda's arm as claws grab him from behind, lifting him bodily and flinging him against the surface of the roof. He scrambles to his feet, bringing his sword around as Marianne lowers her head, baring her teeth, and charges him again, knocking the sword from his hand and sending it clattering off the side of the manor. She pins him to the roof with one claw, the other held up above her head, glinting in the moonlight - 

- and then stops, lowering her paw and leaning back.

"Leave Hilda alone," Marianne snarls at Acheron. "Leave this place. And by the goddess, do not ever return."

Acheron only whimpers, staring up at her.

"Hilda," Marianne calls, standing up and turning away from Acheron's slumped form. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm okay," Hilda gasps, axe still hanging loosely from one hand as Marianne walks over to her. "Just a little...rattled…"

"You came back for me," Marianne says quietly, lifting one paw to cup Hilda's face. Hilda rests her hand over it. "Hilda, I…"

Lightning flashes, and Marianne screams, and falls, and Acheron stands over her crumpled form, outstretched dagger dripping blood.

In the next heartbeat, Hilda's axe slams into his chest. Acheron staggers backwards from the impact, slipping off the roof's edge, blood streaming in his wake as he plummets with the axe still buried in him. But Hilda doesn't watch, instead dropping to her knees, reaching for Marianne where she lies prone on the roof.

"Thank you, Hilda…" Marianne breathes. "For coming back...for everything…"

"No, don't talk like that," says Hilda, frantically trying to stop the blood with her hands. There's waves of it everywhere, though, mingling with the blood from Marianne's other injuries, staining the tattered ballgown red. The rain isn't enough to wash it away. "You're gonna be fine - "

Marianne doesn't answer. Her eyes are closed, her breathing shallow.

"Marianne," Hilda repeats, leaning closer. "Marianne, you gotta stay with me, okay? It'll be all right...just keep talking…"

"I wish…" Marianne coughs, red staining her muzzle. "I wish...the goddess...hadn't heard my prayer…to join her..."

"No," Hilda croaks. "You're not going to the goddess. You're staying here with me."

"I want to stay..." Marianne raises one shaking paw. "I'm glad, though...I got to see you...again...and you're with me…"

Hilda clasps her hand in both of hers. "Marianne - "

"Even if this is the end," Marianne gasps out. "I'm happy...the time I spent with you...was the greatest...I ever…"

"Stop," Hilda pleads, her voice cracking. "Stop acting like you're - you're going to be fine! You're going to be fine, and we'll take care of you, and - and don't...don't die. Please, Marianne, don't die…"

Marianne doesn't answer. The slow, shallow rasp of her breath and the pounding of rain on the roof are the only sounds, filling Hilda's ears, her world.

"Please, Marianne…" Tears well up in Hilda's eyes, trickling slowly down her face, mingling with the rain. She doesn't even remember the last time she cried - for real, not just trying to get her brother to share his cake or her parents to raise her allowance. "You can't die. You haven't...we haven't seen the lilies of the valley together. You said you'd show me…I don't...I don't want you to die…" Hilda chokes on a sob. "I want to stay with you, forever, I...I want to dance with you again. I want to feed birds in the garden together, I want to sit on the roof with you under the stars, I want you to tell me things about horses that I don't understand but I'll nod and smile because it makes you happy. I'll even do chores with you, and I won't even complain. I'll do anything, and we'll do all those things together, so please, Marianne, please, stay with me…"

Marianne's paw slips limply from Hilda's hands and falls to the roof.

"No," Hilda gasps. "No, no, please, no...Marianne. Marianne!"

She can't hear Marianne's breathing anymore. She can't hear anything at all. Even the rain has stopped.

Hilda reaches desperately for Marianne's face, turning it to see her more clearly. "You can't do this! Marianne! I - I…"

Marianne is still. There is no breath against Hilda's hand.

"No," Hilda weeps. "No...Goddess, please… "

But the goddess doesn't answer the prayer. She never has.

She only answered Marianne's, even when she shouldn't have. And now the light is gone, the warmth with it, and there is nothing but the deepest cold Hilda has ever felt, buried in her bones, chilling her very heart.

"I love you," Hilda breathes, leaning down, closing her eyes against the darkness so she no longer has to see it. "Please, I...I love you." Her lips meet Marianne's cold ones, the briefest whisper.

Warmth fills her, and Hilda can see light welling up behind her eyelids. And as Hilda's eyes slide open again, the balcony is filling with soft, pale yellow light, suffusing Marianne's body, like Flayn's barrier but stronger, brighter.

Hilda grabs onto Marianne instinctively, but the light seeps right through her arms, and Marianne's body lifts into the air. Hilda falls backwards, staring as Marianne becomes little more than a glowing ball of light, a shining star, and then Marianne's figure shimmers, shifts, shrinks, gradually but so quickly Hilda's eyes can barely process what she's seeing.

The light fades as gently as it came, revealing a person floating in its place. The figure of a young woman, pale blue hair streaming down her back, wrapped in the ragged remains of a blue gown several sizes too big for her…

The woman lands gently in Hilda's arms, head falling against her chest. Hilda stares down at her, mind stuttering. The woman gives a soft moan and opens her eyes.

They're gray-brown, and warm.

"...Marianne?" Hilda whispers.

"Hil...da?" The woman blinks slowly. "What...what happened?"

"You're really…" Hilda rests a tentative hand against the woman's face. It's cold from rain and night air, but there's warmth lurking beneath. "It's really…"

"What do you mean? What's going…" The woman's brow furrows. "Why is it so cold? What's…" She looks down at herself, and gasps.

"It's you," Hilda repeats, still dumbstruck. "Marianne…"

"I'm…" Marianne sits up suddenly, staring at her hands. "Am I…you…" Marianne suddenly turns back to Hilda, beaming. "You did it! You really - " She cuts herself off, lurching forward and kissing Hilda. Hilda staggers back in shock, but Marianne is laughing, pure unbridled joy Hilda has never seen from her before pouring off of her in waves as she breaks the kiss and tosses her arms around Hilda's neck. "I'm - I'm human!"

"You are," says Hilda, a little weakly as she reaches up to hold Marianne. She feels smaller in her arms, and the growl is gone from her voice, but she's still warm, still Marianne. "What happened?"

Marianne pulls back slightly, cupping Hilda's face with one hand. Tears are shining on her face. "You did it, Hilda. You broke the curse."

"Did I?" Hilda stares at Marianne. She radiates beauty and happiness, and Hilda's too confused and dumbfounded and exhausted to understand what's happening.

But this is Marianne, Marianne's here in her arms and safe, and Hilda forgets all her questions as she reaches up to rest her hand over Marianne's. "I'm just...I'm just glad...you're alive."

"Don't cry, Hilda," Marianne whispers, brushing away her tears with her thumb.

"You're crying too!" Hilda's laugh mingles with a sob. "I - "

"I love you," says Marianne quickly. "I should have told you before, but - but I love you, Hilda. I do. You're...you're my lily of the valley, Hilda. You were my return to happiness. And now you've broken the curse, and - and you're so, so incredible, Hilda, and I love you so, so much…"

"Hey, slow down. You'll choke yourself." Hilda laughs again, still not understanding, but too happy to care. "You must be freezing in that…"

Marianne looks down at the rags of her gown, sloping down halfway to her waist, and blushes. "Ah, yes…I'm sorry, Hilda. The dress is...ruined. I was wearing it to...to remember you by, and then..."

"Hey, it's no big deal. Besides, it's not your size anymore." Hilda unfastens her own cloak and drapes it around Marianne's shoulders. "There you go."

Marianne tugs it around herself, blushing. It's a cute sight, Hilda thinks distractedly. "Thanks. Um, Hilda…"

"I love you too," says Hilda quietly, brushing Marianne's hair out of her face. "I forgot to tell you that. When you could hear it, I mean."

Marianne leans forward, and Hilda takes the hint, their lips meeting halfway. Marianne's hand lifts to curl in Hilda's loose, tangled hair as Hilda's arms wrap around Marianne's waist, tugging her close enough to feel her heartbeat against her own chest.

Marianne leans back from the kiss, eyes half-lidded. She only smiles as she looks at Hilda, eyes shining, the color of dust and stormclouds but bright as sunlight.

Hilda holds out an arm and helps Marianne to her feet. "We should get inside. The others…"

"Oh, the others!" Marianne's eyes widen. "Are they…"

"Marianne! Hilda!"

A unfamiliar young man comes panting out of the broken window, trailed by a crowd of people. Hilda instinctively presses Marianne closer, reaching for an axe she doesn't have, but Marianne gasps. "Claude? Everyone?"

"Who else?" the man beams, straightening up and holding out his arms. "Congrats, Marianne. You did it."

"Claude!" Marianne wails, breaking away from Hilda and running towards him. He catches her in his arms, laughing. The others gather around them. "You're - you're all - "

"Normal!" cheers a ginger woman, punching the air with a fist. "It is so good not to clank when I move anymore!"

"At least you had legs!" A man with an awkward violet haircut shudders. "I fancy I shall never drink a cup of tea again."

Marianne laughs through sobs. "I doubt that, Lorenz."

"Wait..." Hilda manages, taking a hesitant step forward. "You guys are…"

Claude beams at her over Marianne's head. "In the flesh, for real this time. Claude von Riegan, crown prince of Almyra and heir apparent of Duke Riegan. Nice to meet you."

"We grew while we were in that cursed state, thank goodness!" says a short, light-haired woman, looking down at her hands. "I cannot fathom being even further behind my peers in development…"

"You're still pretty short," booms a massive man who can only be Raphael. "But I know what you mean. Wonder if Maya'll even recognize me?"

"We can go home," mumbles a green-haired man with lopsided glasses. "Finally…"

"All thanks to you, Marianne. And you too, Hilda," says Claude. "C'mere."

Hilda takes another shaky step before running to join them, tears leaking down her face despite her laughter as she is caught up in their embrace. "We broke the curse!"

"It's over," Marianne weeps. "It's really over…"

Hilda's brow furrows. "But I'm still not sure what we actually did…"

"True love's kiss, I believe it was." Seteth's face is poker-straight, but a slight twitch betrays the ghost of a smile.

Hilda feels her face heat. "Oh. Yeah, I guess that was it."

"Ah, the romance!" Flayn sighs. She's leaning heavily on her father, and looks rather pale, but she's beaming. "Never in my life have I seen such a beautiful tale!"

Hilda looks around at them all again, making sure they're all safe, taking in their human forms for the first time. Claude's beaming, Lorenz is dabbing at his eyes with a lacy handkerchief, Raphael has his arms around Ignatz's shoulders, Leonie ruffles Lysithea's hair, Flayn is laughing, Seteth looks happier than she's ever seen him…

"Wait." Hilda's brow furrows. "Uh...who's that?"

The last person in the group looks slightly abashed, lowering their head beneath a curtain of blue-green bangs.

"Oh, this is my old tutor, Byleth!" Claude tosses an arm around their shoulders. "We dragged them into helping us break the curse forever ago. Teach, say hello to Hilda."

Byleth only nods.

Hilda stares at them. "Uh…what were they?"

"The sofa in the sitting room," says Claude. "Wait, did I never mention it to you?"

"Hold a moment." Seteth pinches his brow. "Byleth, you do not mean to tell me you never revealed yourself as animate to Hilda?"

Byleth slowly shakes their head.

"Unbelievable," Seteth mutters. "We have spoken about this…"

"Well, that's Teach for ya," says Claude with a shrug. "Never talks unless they have something worth saying. Plus, it was hard for them to move around in that form, so they usually just stayed put."

"Uh, okay," says Hilda, trying not to think about all the times she unceremoniously flung herself onto said sofa. Or the time she and Lysithea had a jump-off on it. "Well, I'm glad you're okay too, Byleth."

Byleth nods again.

"Let's all get inside," says Claude. "It's freezing out here."

"Is it safe?" Hilda asks.

"The soldiers saw Acheron's body land, and they all turned tail at that," says Leonie. "Cowards."

"More likely they realized nobody was left alive to pay them," grouses Lysithea.

"Come on!" Raphael booms. "I'm looking forward to my first meal in five years - and I'll make it one to remember! Last one to the kitchen gets dish duty!"

"Let's go." Marianne takes Hilda's hand. "Let's...go home."

***

"You have to write to us," Marianne mumbles into Claude's shoulder. "As often as you can."

"I will." Claude pats her back. "I promise."

"And send Almyran souvenirs!" Hilda adds as they break apart. "I'm dying to know what it's like there!"

Claude laughs. "Sure. Soon as I get the chance. 'Course, it'll be Riegan I head for first."

"Be careful," says Marianne.

"I will. But it's high time the missing prince came home and ended this war he started in the first place." Claude looks out at the trees, budding with spring. "It's time to tear down the wall between Leicester and Almyra, once and for all. And then...all the walls. Let a new world come rushing in. Build a new dawn."

"That is the exact kind of ambitious optimism I'd want from my king!" says Hilda cheerily. "Can't wait to see it. Maybe you'll even get Faerghus and Adrestia to stop fighting."

"Maybe. And maybe pigs will fly. Who knows? First off, though, time to settle things with the old man." Claude nods to them all. "You'd all better look after yourselves."

"We're off to our hometown," says Raphael, squeezing Ignatz's shoulders. "To see Ig's parents, and my sister...man, I can only imagine how much she's grown in five years!"

"They'll be so happy to see us." Ignatz smiles softly. "I do hope they're all right."

"I'm sure they are. Maya's tough like her brother!"

"I must return to my parents, as well," says Lysithea. "They're not as young as they were. I shudder to think how they're managing without me."

"I know my father is managing poorly." Lorenz shakes his head. "That fool has long extended this war with Almyra for his own gain - well, I shall be putting a most swift end to that, I assure you."

"I can't wait to see the old village again." Leonie swings an arm. "I gotta get back into shape! Not used to this flesh body."

"Flayn and I have...business to attend to, as well," says Seteth. "It is high time we made the effort to...rectify previous mistakes."

"But first, we will go and see Mother," says Flayn. "It has been so long, after all."

"What about you, Teach?" Claude asks. Byleth only stares at him. "Okay, the usual secret dark mystery adventures. Got it."

"It's a little sad, though," says Hilda. "Everyone going their separate ways…"

"Let's all meet again," says Marianne. "That's a promise...all right?"

"It is." Claude rests a hand on her shoulder. "We'll all see each other again."

There's another cluster of hugs, a few more tears shed, and then groups of horses and carts set out from Maurice Manor, quickly swallowed by the trees. Hilda waves until they're out of sight, then turns to Marianne, who's still looking out at the forest, smiling.

Marianne's wearing a dark blue gown, and her pale blue hair has been elegantly braided and pinned up. There's a lily of the valley tucked in among the braids. Only one, blooming far earlier in the season than usual, but Hilda had found it, just this morning, in the charred remnants of Maurice Manor's garden. A little ray of hope.

A return of happiness.

Marianne sees Hilda looking at her and turns, eyes widening. "Hilda? What is it?"

"Nothing in particular," says Hilda brightly, taking her hand. "Just that you're beautiful."

Marianne's cheeks color, but she doesn't duck her head. "Thank you...love."

Hilda can't help the tinge of embarrassment at how warm the word makes her. "I was wondering…"

"Yes?"

"For now, we've gotta stay at the manor until you get more of your strength back. But when you're ready...I'll show you the world."

"Yes." Marianne looks a little confused. They've talked about this before, after all. "I'm looking forward to it."

"But for now…" Hilda lifts Marianne's hand to her lips, bowing over it. "May I have this dance, Lady Marianne?"

Marianne giggles. "You may."

They walk to the ballroom together, hand in hand; they step out onto the polished white-gold floor together. They fall into a natural, effortless rhythm, the lights shining overhead as they twirl together, laughing, and Marianne pulls Hilda closer, dipping and kissing her, swallowing down her laughter with soft lips, and it's not boring, and it could never be boring. Not as long as they're together.

And the world is beautiful, and warm.

THE END