Winter Reign – M.J. Stark

My name is Nevena of Ethore. It is my lot to be a servant girl and to never have known of my people or my ancestry. I serve the House of Gaelbreth, comprised of Lord Jacob, Lady Katrina, and their daughters Thea and Delirah; a noble and kind family. I live and work in the halls of Moerdra Castle, which has housed the great family of Gaelbreth through many ages of peace, fire, darkness, and love. I know nothing more of my past than that I was found in the valley of Ethore during the War of Four Heavens by Lord Jacob’s oldest daughter, Delirah. She was but a girl herself, had seen no more than nine winters, yet had stowed herself among the artillery of her father and his vassals. It is a wonder she lived, but that is who she has always been: the very spirit of adventure. Even now she is my truest friend and though propriety demands we be separated according to class and circumstance, it has never separated us. I have never known from who or why I came, I have never known the embrace of father or mother, but I have never lived a day without family. These halls have seen me pass 25 winters; me and my family, the other servants. Tonight Moerdra Castle is alive with the soft, rushing cacophony of our preparations. Grandestraer will tread these halls tonight. I cannot speak for the others, but since the day I heard his great title announced in the Open Chamber I have felt .

something. I think, perhaps, it is Grandestraer himself; I think his power is so great that any place where his feet are destined to tread is marked with his magic. Even from afar. I have always had feelings of a sort. More likely than not these feelings are preceded or followed by some small accident: a bowl tipping over, a chill passing through the room, an instrument playing a single note by its own will. Delirah has some magical ability, limited but beautiful, and these feelings come whenever I know she comes to see me. I have no ability of my own, but I can sense those who have magic. And I feel Grandestraer now. I have come to the Open Chamber, the great receiving room of the House of Gaelbreth. I must help with the final preparations. One hundred feet above us the servant boys are draping the massive banners of House Gaelbreth: the Eight-Throated Lion in white, with a glorious golden mane against a black background. The floors and walls have been cleaned to a state more shimmering than ever before.

The oak tables have been set and wait now to be laden with food. Grandestraer’s banner is hung in honor over the entrance: the Black Sun against a white flag. Hundreds of servants rush to and fro carrying paint, tar, chairs, and settings. I find Delirah near the Lord’s Place, using her magic to help light candles. “Have you need of me, my lady?” I ask. “Not just now, sweet girl. Though I suppose the drapes will be in need later.” She says this with a smile that none but I could read. She has spoken our code, our hint that we want to meet. “The drapes are in need.

” Propriety separates us publicly and we are not able to meet every day, but we manage. I nod to her. “Yes, my lady.” I give a small bow and turn. Ciraa needs help with the covers of the dais. I sneak up and frighten her. “Almighty, shield me!” she exclaims. “You are not a child, you know,” she says, laughing. “We’ve a great sorcerer joining us tonight. Old tales would have us believe people of such power can prolong their lives for centuries.

So when he arrives a girl of a mere 25 winters will certainly seem but a child.” “Aye, I dare say you shall. Give me a hand, love.” We lift each of the broad lengths of fabric and secure them as we’ve been taught. Ciraa and I spend as much times working as talking. She is my next closest friend after Delirah. When we’ve done, we move on to burnishing the statues and then to mopping the dais. I have heard rumors of the dissatisfaction some encounter when working in the house of a lord. So many have claimed to be disillusioned by their servitude, yet I have never regretted serving the House of Gaelbreth. Perhaps it is because it is all I’ve ever known.

It would be false to say I’ve never dreamed of another life, but it was not because this one is insufficient. I am a servant girl. I am happy. “I do believe I overheard something about drapes needing attention,” Ciraa teases. “A servant girl must serve, yes?” “Aye, she must. It’s just that those drapes do seem to need such recurrent cleanings and dustings and beatings and such. One begins to wonder why the lady won’t simply dispose of them.” “Perhaps they hold the value of sentiment.” “Perhaps a servant girl needs lessons in cleaning drapes. I believe mine stay clean for months at a time, though I’ve no interest in boasting.

” Ciraa is and has always been a perpetual teaser. She is the only one outside of Delirah and myself who knows of the code. By now the Open Chamber is finished and ready. The servants begin to leave, Ciraa and me with them. Some of the younger girls ask to touch my hair and I oblige; the young ones always love my hair. They never tire of the color. Ciraa and I enter the servant girls’ quarters and rest for just a moment before we begin to dress for the night. Ciraa, like all the other people of this House and land, is darker than I. I have heard foreigners call that skin “tanned.” I, however, am fair-skinned, like the Thriscles far east beyond the Doomed Mountains.

Every man, woman, and child in this land is born with either golden or black hair. Ciraa’s is black. The Gaelbreth line is golden. Mine is as white as ice. I once thought this was the color of my people, but I am told they were a red-headed race. Fortunately, despite my differences, this place and its people have never shunned me, never made me feel unwelcome. And my hair seems fitting enough: I have ever loved the snow. “Almighty, you’re gorgeous,” Sister says to me. She has seen more than fifty winters and is a mother to all us servants, girls and boys alike. “Aye, that she is,” says Ciraa.

“And does she use it? Does she care the first about the legions of men she could bring to their knees? No! Beautiful, kind, and wise. I could murder you daily, I could. If the Almighty blessed me with that I’d have to be beheaded for corrupting all the young men of the land.” “Corrupt the High King and there’ll be no need for beheading,” Sister says. “Oh, never you worry, he’ll be first. It’s all the women whose men I stole that I worry about.” “I thank you both for your compliments, but turn your attention to my clothes, lest you forget I am a servant girl.” “That’s nothing to you,” Sister says, standing and coming to take my hands. “Under the High King’s new edict a worthy and faithful servant may be freed once they’ve gained thirty winters. I’ve no doubt Lord Jacob will reward your good service.

And you’ll be a force, you will.” This is my family and this is why I have never wanted more than them. Freedom, whatever it is, is certain to be a wonderful life, but how could I leave these halls? What would I do in the world? What would I become? We all put on our sleek, shimmering dresses and pull our hair back in the way of servants. I watch myself in the looking glass for quite some time: it is my first real dress. It was Lady Katrina’s wish that we look more than presentable. She is a rather austere woman, but she has only ever defended the integrity of the women at her charge. She has always sought to help us see our own value. We have all just finished dressing when a knock comes at the door. Sister goes to open it. It is Lady Thea, the lord’s youngest daughter.

“My lady,” Sister says, curtseying, “How may we be of service?” “Mother wishes me to bring a message to Nevena,” she says, her young voice ringing like a beautiful army of silver bells. She is too young to even attend the ceremony tonight, but she is the most rapturously beautiful girl in the Land of Dao, and rumors hold her as the most exquisite in all the Hundred Kingdoms. “Nevena, the lady has a word for you,” Sister says as she steps aside for me to pass. “What need has your mother of me, my lady?” I ask. “She asks that you devote yourself to Grandestraer tonight, as his red shadow.” “It will be an honor. I thank your mother and you as well, my lady.” Lady Thea leaves and the girls gather to me, congratulating me and wishing me luck. To serve a highborn person as their red shadow is an honor beyond words for a servant. One must follow the assigned person and attend to all their needs.

You never leave their side so long as the night lasts. Red shadows have been known to attend the most secret meetings and experience the rarest pleasures while serving their chosen. At the end of the night – or day, as circumstance would have it – the red shadow is rewarded with gold and a blank red parchment; the parchment is used to obtain a vermillion vest, allowing the servant to buy food and clothes free of charge for a period of ten years. The position takes its name from the color of the parchment and from the fact that some red shadows have been obliged to die while protecting their chosen from attack, though this is rare. Traditionally, only the most diligent, wise and faithful servants of a House are chosen. The position can also be dangerous, as a poor performance could seal the servant’s fate. I worry not; I am ecstatic. “And now you’re a red shadow, too. The Almighty breathes on you,” Ciraa says. We all leave the room and mix with the servant boys on the way to the Grey Pasture, where one can get the first glimpse of arriving visitors and where Grandestraer will be first welcomed.

I say goodbye to Ciraa and Sister, make my way to the Lord’s Chamber. The red shadow must officially receive the charge from the master of the House and must take the Red Oath. As I make my way down the hall, I realize that I am completely alone. This provides an opportunity. I begin to wind through the maze of Moerdra Castle, going to the place I sometimes visit. I can only go there alone; I’ve not even told Ciraa and Delirah. It is my most thrilling pleasure and my greatest shame. Yet I can’t help going there. I can’t help watching. Often there’s no one there and on those occasions I simply stand nearby and reflect on what it must be like to be a part of that.

Yet this day I am in luck, for I can hear them on my approach. It will never be said that Moerdra Castle is inferior; not only is this the most sumptuous castle in the land, it is also the largest. I don’t think even Lord Jacob has walked every hall. And, of course, the lord of House would never walk among the servants’ halls unless there were some great disaster. Thus in the eighth west hall the servants have found a place to. indulge. We call it The Chasm, a large room where the servants have, over the years, deposited the lord’s old furniture. There is quite the collection there now and the servants take their pick when in need. The servants are all good people, though not without their needs. Being a virgin, I have not the experience of the sensation.

Hence my visits to watch others. I have little time, but I will risk it. I enter the room next door and find the fissure in the wall. I bring my stool up to it and sit down to watch, feeling ashamed but also exhilarated. I can see Chelle there, on her back, and though I’ve seen her here before, never have I seen or heard her this pleased. Her breasts, round and olive and ample, are rising and falling with each quick, deep thrust. Chelle is moaning like some wild thing and gripping a man’s back side to pull him down every time he rises. “Yes! Yes, Bron! I want more, I need more! Oh!” So it’s Bronden. I could not see his face – only the back of him, some of his left side, and a slight glimpse of what stood between his legs every time he pulled back. I can feel my own body responding to the sight of them.

I turn to leave before they catch sight of me, willing the flushing in my cheeks to subside. When I arrive at the Lord’s Chamber, the door is open and Lord Jacob welcomes me. “You are lovely,” he says. “A fitting appearance for a shadow to such a prestigious guest.” “It is an honor I should never have expected, my lord. I cannot tell of my gratefulness.” “You have earned it,” says Lady Katrina, busy at the looking glass. “You have been trustworthy from the moment you took to your legs.” I curtsey in response. The great honor has sealed my lips.

“You may take the oath,” says Lord Jacob. “I, Nevena of Ethore, having received the great honor of becoming a red shadow, vow that ‘til this night be done I will attend on my chosen as I would a child from my own blood. If by any or all the breaths of my body I may be of service, I swear to be such and to take joy in my service. I am the red shadow of the great sorcerer Grandestraer.” “I hold your oath sworn,” says the lord. “Though I must inform you that I met this great sorcerer once before. I tell you now as he told me then: he prefers Eduard.” * * * I am in the halls now, following my lord and lady to the Grey Pasture to receive our guest, my chosen. Only now has the gravity and grandeur of my new post dawned on me. I realize now that I am to serve the greatest sorcerer of our time, and for an entire night.

He will be watching me, expecting of me, and should I fail him in even the smallest way not only will it bring shame to the House of Gaelbreth, it will lower me in the eyes of the land forever. I may even be sent to serve in the halls of some lesser personage. I begin praying to the Almighty, if only for the strength to cease trembling. We are at the Grey Pasture now and Grandestraer’s party rides hard for the gate; one would think they ride to war. They slow as they approach and the party stops in front of us. Grandestraer is announced and his driver dismounts to open the door. Out steps the most beautiful man I have ever seen. Grandestraer, Eduard, is first and foremost a young man. The rumors led me to believe he was a man of many years, perhaps hundreds, but the sorcerer before me is no shriveled hermit. He’s tall, wellformed, pale-haired, and commands a presence I’ve never known.

Yet it is his eyes that have silenced the entire welcoming party. His eyes are changing colors. Every few moments they change; colors that are vibrant, intoxicating, but always soft, as if they wished not to inundate the world with all their beauty. Some large space of time passes, and then Eduard speaks. “I assure you all, my mere looking at you will neither harm nor change you.” A nervous laugh runs through everyone and we’re all alive again. “Welcome to Moerdra Castle, Eduard, sagest and most potent of the sorcerers of the Hundred Kingdoms. Allow me to present to you my family. My wife, the Lady Katrina. My Eldest, Delirah, who will be among the royal sorceresses under your mighty tutelage.

” Delirah curtseys, graceful as the wind rushing the trees, and though her sister is the famed beauty, the eldest daughter of the House of Gaelbreth is no forgettable fare. Eduard kisses her hand. “And this is my youngest, Thea. I mean not to boast, but perhaps you’ve heard of her beauty in your travels?” “Assuredly,” Eduard says, his brilliant eyes wider as he looks at her. “And though rumors are so often false, mere tricks of liars to serve some dastardly purpose, this is undoubtedly a terrific beauty. As are yourselves, my ladies,” he says addressing Delirah and Lady Katrina. “This is an honor, Grandestraer,” says Thea. “And it is all mine, young one. Please, call me Eduard.” “Poor Thea is a trifle upset with me, I fear,” says Lord Jacob.

“I’ve told her not to come to tonight’s ceremony.”

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