They were on the road for some time already when Benjamin rode to the carriage to announce they would soon reach Brook Castle. He preferred to ride instead of sitting still in the carriage all the way. Iris wanted to join him on horse, but on his insistence that she needed more rest after their first night together, she agreed, wondering what the next night hold for her would. So now her new maids were sitting in front of her, chatting happily, excited to visit the old residence of the Martels.

”It is right after that hill, ” Benjamin said, ”we will soon see the tower. ”

Iris knew the Little River Road too well. Many times, they rode this route to Brook Castle, especially when her mother was still alive. The old castle resided on the shore of the river, making it easy for boats to reach it. Sometimes they would take a boat from the harbor at the Euxine Sea and sail to the Alutus delta and then up the river to the castle. She and Durian would compete to see which one could spot the Crow Tower first. There were three towers in the castle, but that one was the highest one, located in the southern part of the building making it nearest the river.

They would then run up the stairs, all 1224 of them and look into the horizon, only to come down again and lie that they could even see the Euxine Sea from there.

”Even the Azure Islands? ” their mother would tease them.

Those were the happiest times of her life. When her days were filled with laughter and games, with wildflowers which she and Durian would pick up for their mother to make them crowns. They would then pretend to be the old mage kings and queens who defeated the last dragon and protected their territories from its minions. Their parents would clap gladly after their play. And when they laid in bed, the duchess would sing a song of her ancestors or tell a story about a princess who needed the moons help to defeat the red goblins that wanted to take revenge for their lord, Orik the Dreadful. The story always ended with the goblins running back to the Forgotten Land in the east or turning into stone.

After passing the hill, Brook Castle was in sight and Iris smiled wistfully to see its dark stone walls again after so much time. After the death of their mother, they came here only on a few occasions, but it was hard for all of them to go on through the same corridors, be in the same rooms where they once were the happiest, just to know they would never be the same. Now she was glad to return there, even if only for a night.

They were almost at the gates when a party of 20 or so people, all with the balaur, half wolf, half snake, on their chest. Leading them was a young man, not much older than Iris, with dark hair cut short, standing high in his house. She recognized lord Rolfe at once, his stature making him stand out as always. Not for the first time, she wondered whether the head of Valchia had any meriasi blood to make him so tall.

”Lord Rolfe! ” Her husband greeted him, not very enthusiastic at the encounter.

”Lord Walter. ” He looked towards the carriage and spotted her, riding a little closer. ”Good day, my lady! I must express my sincere apologies, missing such an important event. Congratulations on your wedding! ”

”Thank you, my lord! ” Iris smiled gently at him. She always thought he was a gentler man than he let seem, although she could not be sure, meeting him only twice before. The first time it was at her coming-of-age party, her father invited him there, while the second one was during a ball in the capital. They danced both times and talked, Lord Rolfe showing impeccable manners despite his reputation as the Lord of Beasts.

”What business do you have here? Are you planning to stay the night? ” Benjamin inquired. He, on the other hand, didn like the unexpected visitor, partly because of the latter not offering the much needed help in chasing the monsters out of the Dark Wood.

”Not at all. It is not my intention to disturb newlyweds on their honeymoon. Duke Martel allowed me to rest a night here before continuing my journey to the capital to meet Lady Rayla for further discussion of the mining issue of black steel on her territory, with the permission of the king. ”

”The old countess? Is she in the capital? ”

”She is indeed. Or so I hope, else my journey would have been in vain. ” He showed a smile that didn reflect in his icy eyes.

”Black steel? Do you still use that obsolete material for swords? ”

”It might seem obsolete for those who do not know its value, ” he responded. Benjamin looked incredulously at him, his mouth beginning to look more like a straight line than his usual plump lips. But Lord Rolfe didn give him any chance to respond.

”I think it is time for me to leave. Until next time! ” He nodded shortly before riding away.

Iris followed his figure while moving away from them. The people in the east, from Valchia, were called the daoi, but everyone called them beast people behind their backs, being too scared to ever say it in their faces. They had the reputation of skin changers, taking the form of a wolf during battle and hunting down their enemies in the middle of the night only to feast on their flesh.

”What strange man, ” Iris let slip through her lips, ”so cold. ”

”He lives in a cold place, My Lady, ” Gilda explained, ”The cold froze him to the bone. ”

”The current lord isn even the son of the one before him, ” Mary added, ”Lord Varg Rolfe, the old beast lord, didn take any wife, nor did he have any children, not even bastards. Instead, he went south and north, east and west all around his territory and chose seven promising children whom he personally trained. ”

”Seven children? ” Iris asked, ”From the plebeians? ”

”Yes, my lady, ” the maid continued, ”The old lord chose one of the boys as his heir and adopted him, a boy of 16 who became lord the same year upon the death of his father. ”

”The death or the murder of the old beast lord? ” Gilda interrupted. ”Many still believe that it was the new son who actually murdered the old lord to get his title and possessions. ”

”But all the daoi stood behind their new lord, ” continued Mary, ”They said he was chosen because the blood of Vinca, the wolf goddess, runs thickest in his veins and no one could say otherwise as no other territory believed in those beast gods. ”

”The wolf goddess, Vinca? I have never heard of her. ” Iris thought of the many gods her mothers ancestors had, there was no Vinca. And the new religion prayed to the Mother and the Father only.

”How could you have heard of them, My Lady? They are pagans and so are their gods, ” Gilda said firmly.

The maid was raised in the new religion, not believing in any of the ancient ones. The Martels also prayed to the new gods and the church recognized them as believers, but while Durian had no interest in religion, his sister was more interested in the gods the mage kings rose temples for. There was one in the forest behind Tomis castle, an old ruin which knew too many seasons. But the paintings on the walls were still vivid, not bothered by the passing of time. Compared to the Mother and the Father who were always kind and forgiving, those gods were fierce, marching in battle with only a robe covering half their body. They were merciless with their enemies, but just with their subjects and loving with their children. Those walls told many stories. Iris did not dare say any of it to her friends before and less now to her maids. So, she just nodded.

The heavy wooden doors opened to let them inside the inner garden where she finally got out of the carriage, her husband coming to help her and lead her towards the entrance.

”Lady Martel, its been a long time! ” The butler greeted her, his watery eyes smiling at her.

”Its Lady Walter now, Brandon, ” she corrected him gently, ”and this is my husband, Lord Walter. ”

”You honour us with your presence, my lord! I have prepared the best room and warm food. Would you like to have dinner in the dining hall? ”

”Well eat in our room, ” Benjamin responded.

The butler seemed surprised but didn ask anything more. He called for a maid to show them to their room and to prepare a bath. It seemed strange to sleep in another room here and not in her old one. But her little bed was not big enough for the both of them. And they needed a big bed.

As soon as they were clean again, dinner was served. Lamb, pork and fish were served with freshly baked bread and grapes, along with the most delicious wine in the area. The hills here were known in the whole Argidava for their sweet grapes, trading both the fruits and their wine with the rest of the kingdom. They feasted on the food and drink, and when they were content, Benjamin took her to the big baldaquin bed.

He took down her robe while keeping her mouth busy. Kisses started pouring over her lips, ears and neck, their hands exploring each others bodies. She didn want to be passive this time, like the night when she didn know anything right about bed duty. Now she wanted to explore, to taste his flavour and to take more for herself. Last time she felt she needed something more, some kind of release and, although she felt ecstatic, something was missing. Something she had to discover that night. But their love making was fast, their hot breaths mixing with the wet noises of their bodies. Soon he finished inside her and collapsed in her arms.

Iris felt a little dejected. Not because she didn find pleasure in their encounter, but she didn find the missing part she was waiting for. This is just the beginning, she thought, and there will be many more nights and many more occasions to find out. The next day they would continue their way on the Little River Road, up the river to Alutus castle and her new home.

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