The Keeper of the Hearth
When Shadows Fall
Location: Lady Oksana's apartments, Stormholm Caer
Timeline: October 3550
Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I?
Merry of soul she sailed on a dais
Over the sea to Skye
Billow and breeze, islands and seas
Mountains of rain and sun
All that was good, all that was fair
All that was me is gone
Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I?
Merry of soul she sailed on a dais
Over the sea to Skye
Mikhael paused in the doorway of his eldest sister’s apartment. Oksana’s voice carried to where he stood just on the other side of the door, clear and throaty as she sang an old song about the mythical Isle of Skye and a lass who went missing through a cylch found there. The song had many variations on the lyrics but the melody was always the same, both haunting and strong and now, as sung by his sister, it was also compelling. He waited for the last refrain to fade away before leading Hawke and Renestrae into the living area where Oksana sat near a low-banked fire. At their entrance, she put aside a tunic that she had been mending and rose to her feet, the hem of her forest green robe brushed the stones of the floor as she stepped toward them.
Oksana D’Corwyn was a tall woman and strong of stature with a regal bearing that would insure none ever doubted her power or position. She was strikingly beautiful with rippling waves of red-gold hair, a creamy complexion and great, mysterious deep green eyes. Mikhael had heard his brother-by-marriage, Gareth D’Corwyn, liken them to the deep forests of his homeland, K’harsten March.
Crossing the short distance between them, Oksana took her brother’s hands and leaned forward to kiss his cheek. In the past, this would have been a forbidden greeting between the brother and sister, both having felt like strangers to one another for many years. Turning her cheek for his greeting kiss, she gave Hawke a smile of welcome. She had always viewed him in the same light as she did her brother and always welcome visitor to their home. Turning her direct emerald gaze on the unknown woman, Oksana raised a shapely winged brow at the purpling bruise on the woman’s face. Her glance flew between the two men.
“This should be good,” Oksana stated wryly as she gestured the unexpected guests to the area in front of the fire.
Hawke was distinctly not in a hurry to move into the open space in front of the fire. He lingered at the edge, not quite putting Mikhael between himself and the Chatelaine but not exactly staying in plain view, either.
The maternal warmth of Oksana called to Renestrae, who so sorely missed her mother. It was a stinging reminder that they would not raise their voices together again. She could so easily harmonise with Vashti in a way she did not with others. Her gaze sullenly was lifted once they made entry to the room, and she took in the woman who was the High Lord’s graceful oldest sister as subtly as she was able. It would not do to gawk, although if there ever was the desire to do so, she lacked the spirit now. The cell had broken her in ways she could not have expected, not by torture, but by revelations. She hesitated, glancing at the seating area with uncertainty. What was the protocol in such circumstances? She was suddenly aware of how unwashed she felt, how poor she surely looked. She could not have cared less before the High Lord, but there was something about Oksana that crumbled her sense of pride.
Oksana was not distracted by Hawke’s subtle move into her brother’s shadow. It was a game both men played, depending on which one was about to entertain her censure. In this instance, she felt it was likely to be both of them. Her gaze fell on the woman instead. She appeared to be perhaps in her mid-twenties. She was dark haired and slight of build. Her eyes...Now Oksana’s gaze flew to Mikhael briefly who shrugged his wide shoulders. His demeanor said little, but she could also see he was not concerned overmuch. He was not attempting to hide or detract from the resemblance...which was more color than anything. The young woman’s eyes lacked the usual arctic expression that lurked in her brother’s chill gaze. No, even had her age not made it all but impossible, Mikhael was not the woman’s sire.
“Please,” Oksana said to the woman, “be seated and rest yourself. I will summon a guesting cup and food in a moment.” Then, she turned her eyes to the High Lord and his friend, “Where did you find our visitor?”
“The dungeon,” Mikhael replied immediately and easily. “Should I summon one of the servants?”
“No, and you should not try to change the subject, either,” Oksana responded crisply. Dungeon? Stormholm Caer had dungeons? Of course, she knew of the holding cells at the garrison and in other forts around Cymeria...but within the great hold? Well, that matter would have to be dealt with later, “And,” she said slowly, while pinning both men with her great eyes, “presumably her face was battered by the dungeon’s stones or, let me guess, she walked into a door?”
“No...no,” Mikhael shook his head in denial before blandly stating, “Hawke hit her.”
Unseen by Sanya, Hawke’s arm shot up and out, driving his curled fingers under the back of Mikhael’s closest ribs with a muffled thump as he had always done when showing his disapproval of being tossed to either Oksana or Anastasiya as a sacrifice. Hawke glared at the other man until he realized Oksana had fixed him with her gaze. “It’s not what you think...well...maybe it is what you think, but let me explain.”
There was something decidedly satisfying about the men seeming to...squirm beneath Oksana’s even gaze. More so about Mikhael bluntly declaring the other man’s actions, said individual stumbling over an explanation. She was iron and fury without it being blatantly so -- more a careful, surgical sword than something as ungainly as a club. Elegance and control. She complied with the offer, carefully sitting, guarding her tongue until such a time she could speak freely. Her preference was to do so with the men absent; Oksana was far more approachable. Less intimidating, although that was not to mean the woman was meek, in fact, far from it.
It was Mikhael’s aggrieved ooomph, the rubbing of his ribs and his discrete sidling away from his friend that alerted Oksana to their antics. Bold eyebrows were raised in question, “Do tell, Ryndar Windwalker,” Sanya said sweetly. Her dulcet tones, however, did not seem to ease the men’s wariness. Good, she thought with a satisfied mental smile. It would do them good to squirm on her hook a bit longer.
Hawke looked back at Oksana, then blinked. “Well...you see...I heard about a woman asking after Lorcan. Brychan asked me to come and look into the matter. Once I was face to face with the young woman I saw her eyes...” Hawke swept an arm in the bard’s direction, “...so I reacted out of concern for the High Lord and his family...you know how those things can happen.”
“Your concern was for protecting Mikhael just as, if the roles were reversed, his first instinct would have been to protect you,” Oksana remarked dryly. These two men meant the world to her but she was not blind to their loyalties. Her gaze swept up to her brother’s silver flecked blue eyes which could darken to cobalt or grow as cold as glacial ice. The woman’s eyes matched his for color but not in expression. Mikhael’s eyes effectively hid his feelings, but not hers. They were redolent of recent pain. And now it was time to tend to her guest and get her story. But, one more thing had to be settled, “Mikhael, you accept her as a member of House Stormdanovich?”
The High Lord hesitated for a moment before answering, “I would not hand her the keys to the keep as of yet, but within reason, yes.”
His response left Oksana in no doubt that he intended to investigate the young woman’s claims to the best of his ability, but that was only practical. “Very well, I will hear more later, but for now you two should have your supper while I attend to our new kinswoman.” Mikhael gave his sister a respectful bow and another kiss on the cheek before he and Hawke exited. They had gotten off lightly all things considered, but Oksana had other things to attend to. Leaving the young woman huddled by the fire, Sanya summoned one of her ladies and sent her to fetch warm mulled wine and whatever the kitchen had left from the evening meal. After that, she bid Laoghaire to see to a room in the lady’s wing and to be prepared to attend their guest in one of the bathing chambers.
Oksana then crossed to the sitting area in front of the fireplace and dropped gracefully into the deep chair opposite the young woman. Her deep blue eyes softened with kindness, “I apologize for not staying the High Lord longer for proper introductions. I am Oksana D’Corwyn, Mikhael’s eldest sister. I serve my brother as Chatelaine for now, and you are a guest and a kinswoman of my brother’s House, but I do not yet know your name.”
Renestrae realised, as she surreptitiously examined Oksana from her vantage point, gaze partially hooded by the thickness of her lashes, that the Chatelaine was older than appearances would indicate. She certainly had a gift for the word; the Lady spoke diplomatically, neither truly approving of their actions nor berating them. The bard had taken care to appear more in control -- that was, until the Chatelaine pointedly asked after her brother’s acceptance of the bard’s familial ties. He had not even seen evidence to prove thus! And -- truly, a member of House Stormdanovich? But then, so were children out of wedlock also considered members, but tucked away from the eyes of the prying public. Her own eyes were rounded, her head sharply lifted by his answer. She looked away immediately after, her breath catching in her chest, snagged upon a cold knot.
What had she expected, truly? To eke a confession from her father, an apology? That he was some aristocratic monstrosity who cared nothing for her mother? He had asked her to accompany him, but it was her mother’s anger that drove him away. She took his defeat as disrespect, when he perhaps cared for her wishes enough to leave her be. But surely he knew those words were merely in anger? When had he died, to have never returned a single letter? And now, she had nowhere to return to. She then felt loathsome, furious at herself for her self-pity. What a wretched creature she was!
She was glad for the men having departed. She visibly flinched when Oksana sat before her and spoke, as though she weren’t wholly expecting it, so lost was she in her thoughts. She was so reluctant to offer information to them, but she had no defences against Oksana’s kindness.
“Renestrae tyr Vashti, your Grace,” she answered, with her lips barely moving and voice hushed. “I beg your pardon, but I have not been proven to be of the House, and if I were that, it is hardly a tie of any legitimacy.” Her head tipped forward, her vision blurred by tears she angrily did not want to shed before anyone. Her fingers laced together, for lack of something better to do. “I came here with the foolish belief that I might demand answers, and the gods have seen me humbled for my brash folly.”
“A lovely name, unusual for a Cymerian,” Oksana began and then halted as a rap on the door heralded servants carrying pitchers of hot spiced wine and cold water as well as plates of food. There was cold roasted wild fowl, fresh bread, butter, cheeses and cored and sliced apples. It was a good repast for so late in the evening. The two main ingredients for greeting and hosting a guest were there, wine and bread. Oksana occupied herself with sharing out the meal and drink while she marshalled her thoughts.
How did one explain the Cymry to another who, it seemed, was unfamiliar with that side of her dynastic heritage. To some extent, Oksana understood. Although raised in a Cymry House, she had been taught by her parents to fear and loathe their innate magical abilities and to distrust others of her kind, even family, that exhibited a strong affiliation to the arcane. It had only been since the Crossing of her beloved mother that Oksana had started exploring her full heritage at the encouragement of her husband, a powerful Cymry master although not an adept. Her brother had taught her far more simply by how he conducted his life and affairs in and around his arcane abilities.
So, how to explain that the Cymry could sense more than just the arcane about one? They could sense the call of blood to blood just as they could feel the nature of another’s arcane abilities.Oksana could sense it herself albeit not to the extent that Mikhael or a higher trained adept could. It was like a subtle scent on the wind, an undertone to a fragrance that was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. She might suggest that Mikhael seek out one of the Cymry Moonsingers who had stronger gifts of reading.
Oksana set one of the beautifully sculpted pewter guesting cups in front of Renestrae and filled it with the mild fruity wine. She also set one of the plates of food in front of her. There were all kinds of rituals for the first sharing of food, but Oksana felt that much in the way of ceremony might send the girl running. So instead, she broke apart a bit of bread and dipped it in the wine, taking a small bite, silently encouraging the girl to do the same.
“You would not have been brought to me if Mikhael were not already fairly satisfied that you are a kinswoman. Just as I can sense you carry the arcane about you, he would have been able to sense the common heritage of those powers.” Oksana tilted her head, the movement causing the glimmering red gold hair to spill over her shoulder. “The Cymry do not view legitimacy in the same manner as the Celts...the Cymerians in general. You are no more and no less of the House than any child begotten in the marriage bed. There are dynastic considerations, of course, but even those can be subject to the whims of the Land.”
“Lorcan up Gwenchellian was a much loved son to High Lord Mathias and the Lady Kerowyn, though she was not his birth mother, and brother to High Lord Kimber. It was his choice to continue carrying the name of the man who raised him and to keep his relationship to Kimber secret in order to better serve as his eyes and ears. He was also highly respected as a member of the High Guard. You have nothing to feel ashamed of in that regard.” Oksana leaned back in her chair to regard Renestrae as she awaited her response to the Chatelaine’s words that had been firmly yet kindly delivered.
The blue-eyed gaze, so similar and yet so unlike to Mikhael’s own, flickered distractedly as Renestrae drank in the surroundings. Never had she seen such splendour, all in one place. Her own wool and leathers, well-worn and weathered, lacked the fine craftsmanship that Oksana’s own fine trappings reflected. She ordinarily would not have been so cowed, but it was more a stark reminder of what she had come from. She was a nothing, compared to these folk so celebrated by the people -- these royalty. She felt out of place, perched uneasily on a seat that was likely worth far more than she ever would be.
She had never seen such fine food, carried in by servants! The Mar’kathi did for themselves, except for when they cared for their very old and very young. They raised sheep, sheared them for their wool, hunted beasts for their fat and meat and leather. They were people of the mountain, of its earth as much as the powdery scent of snow. She found herself looking upon the other’s hands, lacking the roughness of the bard’s own. Involuntarily, her fingers curled inward against the leather wrappings that crossed her palms.
“When did he die?” She asked, in a small voice. She did not reach for the bread nor the wine, lacking appetite and thirst in spite of not having eaten in the cells.
“Friday, 13 September 3539,” Oksana named the date, month and year of the day that had nearly destroyed Cymeria. “He was mortally wounded at the Battle of D’hassa and fell with his brother, my father, the High Lord Kimber. There are those that likely know the exact minute and location, but I do not. I know all I need to of that horrendous day.” Oksana’s voice was soft, a note of sorrow in its depths. Her father had started his journey toward Crossing that day setting into motion the loss of her mother as well. Gareth D’Corwyn, her lifemate and husband, had been injured and Mikhael had returned home with a grievous injury as well. Then there had been the injuries and deaths of so many others that those trained in the healing arts had felt overwhelmed and lost to one degree or another.
“In battle,” the bard murmured, even more quietly. She appeared oddly occupied with her hands. Little wonder he did not return letters, had he the inclination. She would have been perhaps fifteen when he had passed. When had her mother written letters? Had they ever reached him? Or had he thought not to return them? If he loved her after he left, it was a long time not to make contact. She would never have answers.
“I beg your leave, your Grace,” she said softly. “I have the answers I sought.”
“Do you?” Oksana’s question was delivered in a gentle yet stern voice. “Are you made of such stuff that learning things are not to be cut and dried, you retreat and seek no more?” The Chatelaine leaned back in her chair and regarded the other woman, who at that moment seemed far younger than her youngest sister. “You have an entire heritage that you are dismissing because your journey has hit a stumbling block and not proceeded as you thought it would.”
The younger woman looked up sharply, and perhaps it could be said that there was the Stormdanovich flare held within her gaze. She bore a countenance that was somewhere between indignance and sorrow, her posture now stiffened.
“Begging your pardon, your Grace, but I knew not of my heritage ‘til this day,” she said, her voice laced with quiet anger. “Nor do you know me, nor the stuff I am made of. Only I know that. Being royal-blooded does not simply make one so. I sought time for myself, so that I could perhaps think on what has transpired here. My mother is departed, and so I have discovered, my father has also. I can no longer return to Haradar, lest they discover I am arcane. Indeed, I had want of some time away. Or is that not permitted?” She wore a frown, having transitioned from deep-set melancholy to fiery upset. Lady or not, she would not be accused of weakness.
“Arrangements have been made for you for tonight as well as clean clothes and a hot bath. I will have your meal brought to your room.” Oksana rose to her feet, “I will not, however, ask any of our guard to escort you from the keep at this hour. For that you will need to await daybreak.”
Of course; could she have expected anything less? There was the possibility that they would keep her there beyond daybreak, but she trusted Oksana on her word. And if that was broken...well, she would find a way to leave. Renestrae’s mind was crowded with suspicion, but she remained respectful. Rising to her feet as the Lady did, she also bowed her head.
“I thank you for your hospitality, your grace, and shall await the guards at daybreak.”
She would have some time to herself, then. And then she would decide what she had to do.
Oksana escorted Renestrae to the door of the apartment where she bade a couple of her ladies to show her to a room. Then, in Renestrae’s hearing, she asked one of her guards to be sure to send a lady to fetch their guest at daybreak and to have someone ready to escort her from the keep. Once Renestrae had gone, the Chatelaine returned to her seat in front of the fire, but she did not take up her sewing. Instead, she lay a hand on the barely perceptible swell of her stomach, the small bud that was to be another daughter. After a fall from her horse resulted in a miscarriage, Oksana had believed herself done with pregnancy although she was rather young for a Cymry. It was time to give Gareth the news...as well as tell him of the events that had just transpired.
There was little else Oksana could actually do. She knew that unless he perceived the girl to be a real threat, which did not seem to be the case, Mikhael would not force her to remain at Stormholm Caer. Besides, she needed to find her own path and not have one forced upon her. Though some, should they learn of her kinship, might seek to use her against the family, Renestrae could not harm them otherwise.
Staring into the fire, she spoke quietly, “Your uncle has much to answer for, my darling, by leaving me with little information on our newly found kinswoman. However, he made no mention of her being a prisoner, so if I have short-changed his wishes, he has only himself to blame.”
*footnote: the song Oksana sings is the theme to the Outlander television series, lyrics by Bear McCreary set to the tune of the Skye Boat Song.