Date: 07 Wyndenn 816G – About 10 Years Ago
Roswynd Arrington giggled at the amount of honey bread bits stuck to Tharon’s face. She attempted to remove them, but Tharon swatted away her friend’s smaller hand. “Tharon, it is all over you.” She indicated the crumbs in Tharon’s lap.
Tharon brushed them off her dress and held her head down in an attempt to hide her blush. But Roswynd grinned at her friend, who was rather transparent when it came to her emotions. Roswynd handed over her napkin without comment. After Tharon was done wiping her face, she muttered, “Thank you.”
Roswynd bumped her shoulder against Tharon’s own and smiled when Tharon peeked at her. They were best friends, and so little was embarrassing between them anymore. The only occasional misfortune was when Roswynd caught Tharon with a morning erection, particularly if they shared a bed overnight. In the past year, Tharon had begun to sleep on her stomach rather than allow Roswynd to awake to something stiff poking her. However, the morning erection mishaps never bothered Roswynd, who learned it was only natural for Tharon, like all Alphas.
“Have you enjoyed the ball?” Roswynd asked, hoping to redirect Tharon’s mind.
Tharon smiled and nodded. “You know I have.” She leaned in closer and whispered, “The best part was our couples dance.” Four years ago today, they had shared their first couples dance on the balcony. It had since become their tradition to share one, but always on the balcony where no one could see them but the music could reach them.
Roswynd was about to respond, but she held her tongue when two nobles passed by. She and Tharon were seated on a cushioned bench inside the ballroom. The formal event had kicked off with its usual fanfare over four hours ago. A few guests had already said their pleasant good-byes to their kings and queens. Once the chatty pair near them were far enough, Roswynd ducked her head and whispered, “It was my favorite too.” Her heart swelled at how Tharon beamed back. “You have become such a wonderful dancer.” There was now a slight scent of a proud Alpha.
“Years of practice,” Tharon joked, but it was true. As a pup, she had two left feet, then she came into her own by her early teens. Over the years, Roswynd helped remind Tharon of the steps of each dance, but more recently it was unnecessary. Ever since Tharon had started growing into an Alpha, Roswynd had caught hints of Tharon’s developing confidence, assurance, and even skill. Tharon excelled at horseback riding now and learned archery, tracking, and hunting faster than most. Roswynd felt nothing but pride for her best friend’s accomplishments.
“Yes, I know.” Roswynd mirrored Tharon’s smile and leaned in again. “One day I hope we can dance together in front of everyone else.”
Tharon swallowed and glanced about the area nearest them before she tipped her head closer. “I wish the same.” She nibbled on her bottom lip and held Roswynd’s gaze. Her orange eyes echoed the harvest season’s rich sunsets. “If we could dance in public together at every Howling Eagle, would you want that until the end of our days?”
Roswynd opened and closed her mouth, trying to grasp what else Tharon might be asking her. It was rare for Tharon to speak in circles, but Roswynd sensed there was more to the question than simply dancing. Before she could respond, her mother’s raised voice pulled at her attention. “Tharon…” Roswynd frowned toward her father, who was rushing across the ballroom. “What ever is going on?”
Tharon jerked her attention toward their circle of parents. She craned her neck and mirrored her friend’s concern. “I am unsure.” She pressed her palms against the bench.
Roswynd pursed her lips as the commotion gained more volume. At the center, Tharon’s mother was being checked over by Eustace and Layla. Garrett spoke to Edeva and Eustace, then shook his head at Layla. “I think there is something happening with your mother.”
Tharon was gone.
Roswynd launched off the bench next, following in Tharon’s wake that rustled from her dress. They weaved and ducked around guests until they broke through the forming crowd around the royals. Roswynd slowed next to her mother while Tharon pushed into the middle of the group.
“Mother, what is wrong?” Tharon cut into the frantic conversation between the adults. For the first time, her voice carried a new authority that spawned from her developing Alpha.
Edeva offered a smile to Tharon, but it failed to appease her. A storm of chaotic pheromones hung heavy in the air around them all.
“Your mother is fine, Tharon,” Eustace answered in a stiff tone. However, the worry lines across his brow seemed to charge Tharon further. But before Tharon could insist again, Edeva spoke up.
“I merely ate something that has unsettled my stomach.” Edeva released Layla’s arm and clasped Tharon’s hand instead. “Your father and I are going to retire for the evening.”
Tharon rumbled low, then her scent strengthened and nearly matched Garrett’s own. “Mother—”
“Can you walk me to the room?” Edeva asked her daughter, forced smile still in place. Next to her, Eustace gave a soft, displeased sound, but he made no verbal protest. “Please, Daughter.”
Tharon traded a glance with Roswynd, who urged her with a faint nod. “Yes, Mother.” She drew closer until she was alongside Edeva. Once Edeva secured her grip on Tharon’s strong arm, she was guided forward through the ballroom.
Roswynd fisted a handful of her dress and held on to her mother’s forearm with her other hand. She watched in horror as Tharon escorted her ailing mother through the throng. The drumming of her heart grew louder the farther they became from her. “Mother, will Queen Edeva be all right?” Her voice seemed to pierce her mother’s strange daze.
After a sharp inhale, Layla turned to her daughter and replied, “Yes, I am certain she will be better by first light.” She gathered Roswynd, holding her closer with one arm. “It perhaps is from a sauf or shrimp,” she said and rubbed Roswynd’s back. “Nothing to worry over.”
Garrett looked from his daughter and wife, straightened his back, and called for the dancing and merriment to continue. The musicians in the corner rallied the guests with an upbeat tune. Between the musical notes, voices carried and laughter started again.
Layla patted Roswynd’s hand and asked, “Do you mind sitting with your mother for a moment?”
“Of course.” Roswynd attempted to smile despite the fact that her chest was weighty. She guided her mother to the same bench that she and Tharon had occupied earlier. The linen napkin that Tharon had used was forgotten on the floor, but a passing servant picked it up. “How is here?”
“Perfect.” Layla took a seat and patted the empty spot next to her.
“Do you need anything, Mother? Something to drink perhaps?” Roswynd was unprepared to sit. Her mother’s headshake cut short the prospect of Roswynd taking a short stroll to the drink table. She sighed, then sat down after sweeping her dress under her. Her Omega senses were underdeveloped at her age, but she could detect her mother’s distress. “Are you certain Queen Edeva will be fine?” She kept her voice hush, concerned about nearby nobility hearing their conversation.
“Rossy,” Layla warned and flashed a warning look to her daughter.
Roswynd’s shoulders drooped after the reminder about how to address Tharon’s mother. Similar to her best friend, she found it difficult to be informal despite knowing Tharon’s parents all her life. But like Tharon, she was toeing the line of adulthood and was expected to fill those shoes in the coming years. She nibbled on her lower lip and scooted closer to her mother. “I meant Edeva.”
Layla was quiet and gathered Roswynd’s hand into her lap. “Yes, I am certain Edeva will be better in the morning.” However, there was a shadowiness in her eyes that gnawed at Roswynd. Like her husband, Layla wasn’t known for coddling Roswynd, who developed her own strength as she grew older. “Have you been enjoying the ball?”
“Very much,” Roswynd replied, biting into her mother’s bait to change topics. However, without Tharon, she was unsure about the ball’s pleasure anymore. They each loved the formal ball because they shared it together. This was the first time that one of them had left early. Perhaps Tharon would return soon with positive news about Edeva.
“I am glad. Have you danced with any of the male nobles?” Layla asked and tilted her head. For once there was a playful smile on her features and a warmness in her gaze.
“Yes.” Roswynd hated to share a couples dance with anyone other than Tharon, but she was required to as a royal princess. “I danced with Byron Blackburn and later with Elgar Monet.”
“This is your fourth year in a row that you have danced with Byron Blackburn,” Layla said in a delicate tone. Her features were thoughtful while she studied her daughter.
“Uh yes.” Rosywnd smoothed out her dress, even though it was in pristine condition still. “He is kind and easy to converse with.” However, he was unable to compare to Tharon.
“Oh.” Layla perked up at the news and turned closer to her child. “Is that interest I hear?”
Roswynd fiddled with her tan girdle, which matched the light brown embellishments in Tharon’s dress. She weighed how to answer, what was expected of her versus the truth. She learned to hide the truth when necessary, but outright lying made her sick to her stomach. “No, Mother.” She hesitated, then peered up in time to catch a moment of amusement on her mother’s face.
“If not Byron Blackburn, then whom?” Layla lowered her voice, as if they were conspiring. Byron was known for his gentle disposition and politeness. He was a male Beta after all. Most Betas were peacekeepers among their three breeds. However, some Alpha and Omega Houses turned their nose up at the idea of an Omega or Alpha being wed off to a Beta. Alpha and Omegas belonged together while Betas had each other. In recent years, Roswynd had heard stories about Beta spouses being unable to properly care for their Alpha or Omega spouse.
Roswynd’s thoughts returned to her mother’s inquiry. She could end the conversation with a simple shrug and unsureness. But her heart pulled her in a different direction. “There is a certain Alpha who catches my eye,” she whispered to her mother.
Layla turned her attention to the guests, seeming to search for the special Alpha that captivated her daughter.
Roswynd decided to tempt fate and softly asked, “Is it against our laws for an Arrington to wed a Blakesley?” The harsh jerk of Layla’s head almost brought out a laugh from Roswynd.
“I surely hope not Saxon Blakesley,” Layla said in a gasped voice, then placed a hand against her heaving chest. The thin lines of worry etched across her features. Everyone in both families was familiar with the turbulent relationship between Roswynd and Saxon. This past summer, Saxon had played a dirty trick on Roswynd, who ended up locked in a wardrobe. “You two are fire and fire.”
Roswynd shook her head and clenched her hands together. “No, Mother. He is not the Alpha of the Blakesley family I refer to.” She lowered her attention to her lap and twisted the friendship bracelet around her wrist. For the first time, she shone a light on what had been on her mind for the past year. Days ago it was her thirteenth birthday, which meant she was growing closer to an age of marriage. Already, Tharon was a year or two away from being promised to a suitor. If Eustace promised Tharon to a royal or noble, then Roswynd would be attending a wedding. Her drumming heart wanted to seize at the idea of her best friend leaving her.
“Oh. I understand now.” Layla was quiet for a moment, then she placed her hand overtop of Roswynd’s fidgety ones. “I suppose this was bound to happen one day.” She squeezed Roswynd’s hands, then her scent grew stronger and eased Roswynd’s racing mind. When Roswynd looked up, she found adoration rather than contempt. Layla bent over and murmured, “You chose a fine Alpha, Rossy.”
“Bu-ut, we are both females,” Roswynd reminded. How could her mother forget the biggest rule among royals and nobles? Two females or two males were never allowed to join, much less breed. It was forbidden among their political circles. They were nothing like the peasants and held to a higher standard.
“Yes, I am aware,” Layla said in a playful manner but grew rather serious. “It is merely a rule, not a law.” She leaned in again. “Do you know how Tharon might feel about marriage?”
Roswynd sputtered from the unexpected direction of their conversation. Her mother’s warm pheromones helped her regain control. “I-I am unsure.”
Layla patted her daughter’s hand, let go, and straightened when Garrett broke through the crowd. “I suggest asking her one day.” She stole a final glance at her daughter and smiled at her. “Soon.” The ease at which she spoke about the topic punctured Roswynd’s fears about their future. There was a possibility that she and Tharon could remain together, until the end of their days. A marriage between her and Tharon meant no one could separate them, ever.
“Hello, my love,” Garrett greeted in a warm but exhausted tone.
Layla rose after patting Roswynd’s thigh. “Is it time to bid our guests goodnight?”
Garrett nodded and held out his hand. When the guests started to leave in droves, Layla, Garrett, Edeva, and Eustace always bid goodnight to them. But tonight, it would be up to Roswynd’s parents to handle the farewells.
Upon hearing her name, Roswynd stood and turned to the other Omega, who slipped between two adults. “Hello, Kymber.” The Omega was close to Roswynd’s age, but the similarities ended there. Kymber Monet was the younger sister to Elgar. Like all Monets, Kymber was often pleasant and friendly but had a stubborn streak that could outmatch Roswynd’s and Tharon’s combined. The Monets were a well-regarded House in the Kingdom of White Sommer. They attended every Howling Eagle festival and stood behind the House of Blakesley. Roswynd was certain there was at least one or two Blakesleys who married a member from the House of Monet. Like her deceased relatives, Kymber seemed to have an eye for a Blakesley.
Kymber wanted Tharon Blakesley.
Roswynd did her best to remain welcoming when Kymber approached her. “Are you enjoying the ball?”
Kymber smiled, warm and bright. She swept back a lock of dark hair. “Yes, thank you, Princess.” She clasped her hands in front of herself. Tonight she wore an elegant emerald dress that appeared soft to the touch. After a beat, her smile faltered, then she moved closer to Roswynd. “I could not help overhearing the concern for Queen Edeva. Do you know if she will be all right? Is she ill?”
Roswynd reiterated what her mother had said minutes ago. However, Kymber remained beside Roswynd and folded her arms loosely across her waist. “Do you think Princess Tharon will be okay as well? She seemed rather distraught.”
Bristling, Roswynd fought to withhold a bite in her response. Kymber showed genuine concern for Tharon. “Yes, she will be fine as well.” Roswynd glanced away after she sensed her answer did little to quell Kymber’s worries. “Princess Tharon is strong and can shoulder her mother’s minor ailment.”
Kymber nodded and turned her attention to the crowd, which had shrunk compared to a few minutes ago. “It is nice to see her stepping into the Alpha role of her family,” she remarked. Underneath her words, she was pointing out the fact that both Edeva and Eustace were Omegas, which was rather untraditional in a few people’s eyes. Perhaps many saw a new stability coming to the Blakesley family now that Tharon was growing into her Alpha.
“Yes.” Roswynd gave a curt nod and rocked on her feet. “It is nice.” Part of her willed Kymber to leave while the other half roiled with guilt. She was a princess, who had to uphold proper etiquette and her House’s friendliness, even with Houses from White Sommer.
“Well, I am relieved to hear Queen Edeva will be okay.” Kymber smiled and curled a hand into her dress. The slight tension started to roll off her in delicate waves. “Please tell Princess Tharon that I said good-bye and that I shall see her in Wulfbite soon.”
Roswynd returned the smile, forced as it may be. “I will, Kymber. Thank you for coming.” She exchanged a quick hug and offered Kymber safe travels back to Wulfbite. Once the young noble was gone, she released a strained breath and decided she was ready to leave the ball. There was no reason to stay. Gleda and her family had left over an hour ago and now Tharon was gone. She could only hope that her best friend would seek her out later.
Roswynd ducked out of the ballroom through a servant’s exit and returned to her room on the second floor. She collapsed into her bed, not caring about wrinkling her beautiful dress. A huge breath of air escaped her while she stared up at the canopy above her head. The warm light from the fireplace danced across the cream material. The last few weeks had been exhausting, as they normally were for her. Tomorrow would be the first day of the hunts for her family’s side. For the last four years, she and Tharon had joined a hunting pack, which was often led by Roswynd’s father. It seemed that her father enjoyed teaching Tharon and often praised her for her skill and talent as a hunter.
Behind her closed eyelids, Roswynd pictured her best friend watching over Edeva, who would fall asleep and wake up well in the morning. At least, everyone hoped that was the case. Roswynd disliked the strange heaviness that twisted deep in her gut. The urge to hurry to the guesthouse and check on Edeva and Tharon grew with each passing minute. But a soft knock distracted her.
“Enter,” she called and sat up, swinging her legs off the bed. She curled her hands into the blanket, praying that it was Tharon. Instead, Myla hurried into the room. Roswynd hid her disappointment and said, “Hello, little sister.”
Myla closed the groaning door and wrung her hands together. “Can I snuggle with you?”
Roswynd smiled and patted the bed. They both climbed into it together, curled up on their sides, and faced each other. “What is wrong, Myla?”
“I am worried about Edeva,” Myla whispered, as if speaking it any louder would set a curse upon their second mother. “Have you heard anything?”
“No.” Roswynd collected Myla’s hand into hers and squeezed it. “She will be fine.”
“I hope so.” Myla frowned and clenched her lip between her teeth. “It was so strange. Edeva seemed well for most of the night. I thought perhaps she was upset with Saxon.”
“Saxon?” Roswynd had done her best to not cross paths with him. Tharon supported Roswynd’s desire to have space from him after his last prank with the wardrobe. Roswynd would never trust him again, and Tharon refused to forgive her brother. Neither of them understood how he could be cruel when they both loved him.
“Yes, he and Edeva were arguing again.” Myla pulled a hand free, then traced her sister’s larger hand overtop of hers. “I-I think it was over you and Tharon.” Edeva often was the mediator between Saxon and Tharon. However, if mediation failed with Saxon, then she and Eustace switched to a firm hand. Often Edeva was the parent tested first by Saxon, who wrongfully assumed his Omega mother was the weak point.
Roswynd frowned at the news. “What about us? We stayed far from him all night.”
“I am uncertain.” Myla dropped her gaze and stared at their hands. “I heard your name, and I think Tharon’s. Then Edeva was shaking her head and telling him no.” She met Roswynd’s stare and whispered, “Perhaps he wanted to dance with you.”
Roswynd snorted and muttered, “Dance me right into a locked wardrobe again.”
“Why does he pick on you so?” Myla asked. Unlike Roswynd, she never had any misgivings with Saxon. He ignored her when she was a pup. But in the past year, he spoke to Myla and was pleasant with her. Saxon treated his other two sisters, Daisy and Holly, well enough too.
“I wish I knew,” Roswynd replied and noticed her little sister’s eyes brim. “But I am certain we will grow out of it in time.” She tried a reassuring smile that ended Myla’s distress. “We are all family.”
“And always will be,” Myla said with certainty.
Roswynd beamed at her sister’s love for their two families. The Blakesley and Arrington relationship was hundreds of years old and would defy forever one day. They were seen as two Houses but were one family.
Myla gave a quiet yawn and seemed prepared to fall asleep in her sister’s bed. It was common for Myla to stay one or two nights each week in Roswynd’s bed. Roswynd struggled with a guilty swell in her chest, but Myla knew the rule. When Tharon visited them, Myla wasn’t allowed to stay overnight with her sister.
“Myla,” Roswynd urged and nudged her sister’s shoulder.
“Must I go?”
“Yes. We made a promise to each other.” Roswynd ignored her sister’s pleading look. “Tharon could be here any minute.”
“Why can’t we all sleep together?” Myla yawned again but covered her face to hide it. They had discussed why in the past and tonight wasn’t any different. In fact, it was more important that Roswynd have Tharon to herself. Besides their agreement as sisters, Roswynd was certain that Tharon would be embarrassed if she had a morning erection around Myla.
“Tharon won’t mind,” Myla argued, her tone picking up a whine.
“Myla, you are acting like a pup,” Roswynd warned and held a stare with her sister.
“That is because I am. I will not be ten until next year.”
Roswynd rolled her eyes and reminded, “Princesses do not whine.” Myla’s next tactic was an adorable pout, but Roswynd was firm. “No. But perhaps the three of us can go for a ride and a picnic next week.”
Myla lit up at the prospect of such a fun afternoon. When they first started their picnic adventures, she often rode with Roswynd, but in recent years, she preferred Tharon’s saddle. “Okay,” she said after a drawn-out silence. “I suppose I will leave then.” She dissected herself from the furs and blankets, then hugged her sister goodnight.
Alone again, Roswynd considered whether to leave the keep and visit the guesthouse. Edeva was a second mother to her. She wanted nothing more than for Edeva to recover quickly. However, it wasn’t her place to butt into the matter, at least until tomorrow. While Roswynd went about preparing for bed, she considered other times that Edeva had been sick. There were a few instances when Edeva had a nasty cold, but she recovered within days.
After washing up, Roswynd changed into her nightgown, then left for the garderobe to relieve herself. The keep’s halls were chilly and encouraged Roswynd to hurry. As she hastened back to her room, she slowed upon seeing a familiar figure in the overhead lamplight. “Tharon?”
Tharon was a few steps from Roswynd’s room. She spun around and closed the distance between them. “Ros,” she murmured in a weary tone. “I am sorry that—”
“Please do not apologize.” Roswynd took her friend’s hand and guided her back to the door. They slipped into her warmer room and locked the door. “Are you okay?” The tiredness and concern hung off Tharon’s shoulders, which had grown in recent years but struggled against tonight’s weight. Roswynd had her answer. She gathered Tharon into her arms and held tight.
Tharon melted into the needed embrace and breathed in Roswynd’s scent. “Thank you,” she whispered and clung harder to Roswynd, who remained sturdy and solid. “I tried to be strong for Mother.”
“You are.” Roswynd rubbed Tharon’s back with both hands and kept Tharon secure against her. “And I can be strong for you.” She needed to comfort her friend through the turmoil. However, the fact that Tharon was still shaken led her to believe that Edeva continued to suffer. “Do you wish to talk about it?”
“Yes. But can I change first?”
“Of course, silly.” Roswynd helped Tharon change from the dress to a long tunic that was meant for a male Alpha. Tharon seemed to prefer them over the nightgowns now. They were long enough to reach past her knees. After Tharon cleaned up, they climbed into bed and snuggled together. The firelight allowed Roswynd to see the new crinkles across Tharon’s brow, along with the shadows in Tharon’s eyes. “Is your mother okay? Is it merely an oncoming heat?”
“It is not her heat.” Tharon was on her side, facing Roswynd. Their legs were tangled together while they held hands. “Father sent for your family healer.”
“Did Hardred come?” The family healer had been employed by the Arringtons for as long as Roswynd could recall. He was excellent and even studied to be a surgeon at a medical school. Hardred preferred to be called a physician, but many still referred to him as a healer.
“Yes, right away.” Tharon sighed and pulled one of Roswynd’s hands closer until her palm pressed against Tharon’s exposed collarbone. “He examined her, went over her symptoms, and asked when she started to feel unwell. He said it was a combination of fatigue and perhaps spoiled food.”
“Food poisoning,” Roswynd said in mild shock. “What did he prescribe her to do?”
“Rest and not eat for twenty-four hours so the spoiled food could leave her body.” Tharon went quiet, but her hands were sweaty against Roswynd’s skin. It was strange to see Tharon off-balance.
“Food poisoning is not uncommon.” Roswynd noticed how her words did nothing to comfort Tharon. There was more to it, if Tharon’s delicate whine was any indicator. “Did something else happen?”
“Father walked Hardred out of the guesthouse. I stayed with Mother, to look after her.” Tharon closed her eyes and let out a shaky exhale. “Father was gone for a while,” she whispered and looked at Roswynd again.
“A few minutes?”
“Closer to fifteen or twenty minutes,” Tharon replied. “I think he spoke to Hardred at length. He told me nothing when he returned to the room.” A mildly aggressive note clung to her scent, which revealed her displeasure in Eustace hiding more details from her. “He thinks I am merely a pup, but I am not. Soon I will be an Alpha.”
“I know, Tharon.” Roswynd smiled, trying to disarm her friend. “And I know you only wish to care for your mother.” She watched Tharon unravel from her offended mood. “I am sorry your father is difficult. But he seems to be trying. At least he lets you ride, hunt, and learn archery.”
Tharon fidgeted and looked away from her friend, then she nodded once. “I do not believe Hardred.”
“Mother was rather weak, and her eyes were glazed,” Tharon whispered and focused on Roswynd again. “I have never seen her in such a way.” Her confession left a cold mark inside Roswynd. They both trembled for a moment, but Roswynd drove back her own disbelief. “What if—”
Roswynd hushed her, unwilling to accept that anything would happen to Tharon’s mother. Edeva was healthy and would recover soon. After tonight’s mishap, their parents would perhaps inspect every food item that came out of the kitchen to ensure there were no repeats in the future. “You must be positive.”
Tharon pursed her lips and nodded after a moment. She rubbed her bare feet against Roswynd’s calves in usual habit. After a deep breath, she said, “I hope she is better in the morning.”
Roswynd scooted closer and hugged her best friend, offering her strength. In a firm tone, she whispered, “She will be.”
However, upon the first light shining on Skye Hunter Castle, Edeva had grown far more ill.
* * *
Tharon’s night was restless and plagued by bad dreams about her mother’s well-being. She half expected a knock at Roswynd’s bedroom and an announcement that her mother was dead. Several times she was jarred awake by her own fright, but Roswynd was there to hug and soothe her. Before she slept again, she berated herself for overthinking her mother’s illness and allowing it to best her. It was common for people to become sick, fight the symptoms, and return to normal. Sickness didn’t mean death.
At dawn, Tharon hurried from bed and put on a rich blue dress with white accents. Roswynd dressed and washed up as well. They both traded yawns back and forth. Today their families would set up hunting camps in the Icecrown Forest. The castle grounds turned into a flurry of activity and excitement for the week-long hunts. Once the different packs departed the city, Tharon and Roswynd would assist with setting up camp.
Skipping breakfast, the pair hurried from the keep and darted across to the guesthouse. Tharon paused beside the sealed door of the building and gazed about the inner bailey. Soldiers and servants were indeed busy bustling about the grounds. But rather than the usual supplies and equipment for the hunting trip, they were loading personal effects into the carts and wagons from White Sommer.
Roswynd clutched Tharon’s forearm and stared at the business in front of them. “Tharon, what is happening?” She peeked up at her best friend and tightened her grip. “They are loading your family’s wagons.”
Tharon was jolted to life by Roswynd’s same assessment. “Mother,” she murmured and shouldered the door after pulling the bolt. She and Roswynd hastened through the house until they came to the bedroom that her parents occupied anytime they visited. Tharon barreled into the room without knocking but slowed upon seeing her mother, who sat upright in the bed. To Tharon’s right, Eustace stood and went quiet.
“Good morning, Tharon.” Edeva smiled, but it was shaky. She traded a brief glance with her husband before she turned back to her daughter. “Good morning, too, Roswynd.”
Roswynd hooked an arm through her friend’s own. “Good morning, Edeva. How are you feeling?” Her question was kind even though the truth was before them all.
Edeva was slightly ashen. Overnight her skin had lost its normal radiant glow. Darkness had developed under her eyes, indicating a lack of sleep. Again, she attempted to smile and replied, “As well as can be expected.” She cleared her throat and shifted against the headboard.
“Why are the servants loading our wagons?” Tharon asked and looked at her father for answers. “They are not prepping for the hunts.”
“No, they are not,” Eustace replied and hooked his hands in front of himself. He remained poised at the foot of the bed. Nothing in his neutral expression gave away his concerns or emotions. “We are preparing to travel home.”
“Roswynd, perhaps you could assist Holly and Daisy with packing?” Eustace asked, but it was an order. “They are in their room.” His firm gaze left no room for a challenge. Their pending discussion was a family matter, which cut Roswynd out of it.
“Yes, sir,” Roswynd agreed and freed herself from Tharon but squeezed Tharon’s forearm. “I will wait for you in their room,” she whispered even though Tharon could use their bracelets to find her. A moment later, the bedroom door squeaked shut.
Tharon searched her parents’ faces, needing answers. She gravitated toward her mother first and asked, “Why are we leaving?”
“Your mother is unwell,” Eustace replied and approached them, closer to the middle of the bed. “It would be best for her to recover in Wulfbite rather than here.”
“But Mother’s condition might worsen from travel,” Tharon debated and gathered Edeva’s hand into hers. The clamminess of her mother’s palm brought on a frown. “Would it not be best to remain here?”
Again, Eustace responded rather than his wife. “It would be best to return to Wulfbite so that Bifan may care for your mother.”
“The Arringtons’ family healer is excellent,” Tharon argued and dared her father to counter her. She might have felt uneasy about Hardred’s awkward visit, but he was a well-educated, caring healer. He had taken care of Tharon’s ailments throughout her visits to Earna. There was another truth hiding underneath the conversation that was being left untold. Tharon was certain of it, but she could do so little to find out. She may have been the eldest child and growing into her Alpha these days, but her father continued to see her as a pup.
“Yes, I know, but your mother and I agreed that it would be best to return home. Bifan understands your mother’s health well, unlike Hardred.” Eustace looked to Edeva, who coughed once, then gave a slight nod. “We will make your mother as comfortable as possible for the journey home.”
Tharon rumbled and narrowed her eyes at her father, but she was in no position to change the plans. They would forgo the hunts for the Arringtons, cut their visit short, and hurry back to Wulfbite. They may even travel at night rather than rest in Leeward.
“Eustace, I wish to speak to Tharon alone.” After Eustace’s slight nod, Edeva waited until the door closed and the crackling firewood was the only sound. She scooted more to the center of the bed and patted the open space next to her. “Sit with me, my little Alpha.”
Whining, Tharon swept the dress under her legs and climbed into the bed. She faced her mother and sat with one foot still against the floor. With a deep inhale, she drew in and analyzed the sickly pheromones clinging to her mother. “It is worse than food sickness,” she concluded. The life in her mother’s eyes was already half-drained.
“Yes.” Edeva placed a hand on Tharon’s knee. “But we are not telling your siblings. Your father and I do not wish to alarm them.” She tightened her grip and said, “There is no reason to.”
Tharon dipped her head in agreement. “What if you worsen on the journey home?” She trembled and tried to regulate her erratic breathing, but her mother’s features seemed to worsen in front of her.
“Hardred has agreed to accompany us back to Wulfbite,” Edeva replied.
Bowing her head, Tharon struggled with her racing thoughts and wondered what she could do to help her mother. She rumbled in dismay and blinked against the sting in her eyes.
“You must be strong, my little Alpha.” Edeva covered her daughter’s hands with both of hers. Her grip was weak and damp, doing little to ease Tharon’s fears. “If you are strong, then I can be too.” She tugged on Tharon’s hand and whispered, “Come closer.”
Tharon leaned forward, sensing her mother’s desires. She pressed her forehead against her mother’s cheek and nuzzled into her. Even though Edeva’s scent was tainted with a strange illness, her scent markers were still there and comforted Tharon. “I am fearful,” she confessed in a tiny voice, unlike herself.
“Sssh, my little Alpha.” Edeva threaded her fingers into her daughter’s hair, which was so similar to her own. “This will come to pass, you will see.” She kissed Tharon’s temple. “Then we shall continue on as normal.” She massaged a delicate spot behind Tharon’s head, easing the strain there. “Okay?”
Tharon raised her head and gazed into her mother’s golden eyes that were weakened but confident. She released a strained sigh, then nodded and hugged her mother, who returned it with one arm. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, Tharon.” Edeva’s embrace was firmer than expected and settled Tharon’s racing heart. “So very much.” She withdrew from the hug and held on to Tharon for another moment. “The plan is to leave in the next hour or so. You should pack and visit with Roswynd.”
Tharon nodded and sniffed once. She ached at the thought of leaving Roswynd early. They were supposed to hunt together all this week. But her mother’s health was far more important than the hunts. Roswynd would understand their decision. After promising to ready, Tharon kissed her mother good-bye and went in search of Roswynd, who was still in the twins’ room.
Roswynd hurried to Tharon when she came into the bedroom. “Is every…” She lost her question when Tharon shook her head and indicated her sisters with a slight raise of her chin. Roswynd nibbled on her lip, then glanced at Holly and Daisy filling their trunks on the floor next to the bed.
“Tharon?” Holly darted over and asked, “Is Mother okay?”
“Father will not let us see her,” Daisy said, joining her twin’s side.
Tharon wrestled down the surge of panic in her chest. She straightened and smiled at her sisters, who calmed a degree. “Mother is still under the weather, but she will recover soon.”
“But we are going home early,” Holly pointed out with a downturn of her lips.
“I am certain it is for the best,” Roswynd said to them. “It is better to be at home when you are recovering from an illness.” She shifted closer to Tharon, seeming to absorb her strength. Tharon was grateful that Roswynd stepped in to support her and calm Daisy and Holly.
Daisy nodded without hesitation and took her twin’s hand. “We should finish packing.”
With a quick glance about the room, Tharon confirmed that her sisters wouldn’t need much longer to be packed. “Do either of you know if Saxon is packing?”
“Yes,” Holly replied, about halfway toward the wardrobe. “He complained the whole time that Father spoke to us.”
Tharon caught Roswynd’s eyeroll. “He will accept it.” She looked at her best friend and asked, “Can you help me pack?”
“Yes, of course.” Roswynd crinkled her nose a little, indicating her concern. She followed Tharon out of the room and went farther down the hallway. Tharon opened the door for her. Once the door was shut, she pulled Tharon into a warm embrace. “Are you all right?”
“No,” Tharon replied and slumped against her friend. She tightened her arms across Roswynd’s back, wanting to remain there. “Mother is still unwell. Now we are going home because Father thinks Bifan can care for her better.”
“Perhaps he can.” Roswynd pulled back but kept her arms around Tharon. Her eyes were glassy and mirrored the turmoil inside of Tharon. “Bifan is your family healer after all.”
Tharon hated how much Roswynd agreed with the idea to leave. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, unsure how to express herself. Her mother’s health was paramount, but Tharon was unsure if she could shoulder her mother’s illness if it worsened in the coming days or even hours. Roswynd was her best friend and the bedrock to her world. She fumbled with her messy thoughts, then a request tumbled from her lips. “Can you come with us?”
Roswynd dropped her shoulders and started to whine but cut it off. She looked to the side for a beat before she met Tharon’s earnest gaze. “I can ask Father.” They both broke their eye contact after the mention of Garrett. He would deny Roswynd. “We should pack your belongings,” she whispered and guided Tharon to the trunk. Most of Tharon’s items were in the room, but she had a few clothes in Roswynd’s room too.
First, Tharon changed from her dress to a pair of riding trousers, boots, and a tunic. They spent about half an hour folding and packing Tharon’s clothes, then placing them on top of the shoes, boots, and books in the bottom of the trunk. They spoke little, but the air was heavy between them. Roswynd often touched Tharon, offering silent support. With the last few items on the foot of the bed, Roswynd turned to Tharon and said, “I will go gather your dress from last night and sleepwear from my room.” She bounced from foot to foot and tugged on her friendship bracelet. “And talk to Father.”
Tharon nodded and expected Roswynd to go, but she instead hugged Tharon again. Tharon melted into the warmth and security that her best friend always gave her without question. Roswynd attempted to pull apart, but Tharon held on to her. “Thank you, Ros.”
Roswynd attempted a smile, but it broke. “I-I am worried about Edeva and you.” She tightened her arms around Tharon’s waist. “I wish I could do more.” Freeing a hand, she wiped her damp cheek. Then a knock at the door interrupted them.
Tharon sighed and released her friend. “Come,” she ordered, collected her coat, and became forlorn when a groom entered her room.
“Princess Tharon, your father asked that I collect your trunk, if you are ready.”
“I have to retrieve a few items from my room,” Roswynd said to the groom.
“But you can take it,” Tharon said to him and stepped over to the trunk. She closed the lid but forwent sealing it since Roswynd would bring the other items.
“I will leave it accessible then,” the groom promised and came forward to collect it. He called for another groom, who entered from the hallway. Together, they carried Tharon’s trunk from the room.
“I am going to check on my mother,” Tharon said. “And see if I can help prepare her.”
Roswynd nodded and followed Tharon into the hallway. “I will give the items to the groom and meet you outside.” The Blakesleys would depart soon. The guesthouse was busy with groomsmen going to and from different rooms, collecting items. Tharon remained with her ailing mother, ready to help take her to the carriage that was turned into a makeshift bed according to her father. Often her parents and her sister rode in the carriage while Tharon and Saxon rode on horseback. The Arringtons provided a few additional servants and a second carriage, which would bring Hardred back to Earna.
“Are you ready, my love?” Eustace asked his wife when two groomsmen entered their bedroom.
Tharon rose from the chair next to her mother’s bed. She adjusted her long coat and frowned when her father ordered a groomsman to carry Edeva from the bed to the carriage. Without thought, she stepped in front of the approaching servant and growled low.
“Tharon,” Eustace warned and gave a displeased rumble.
Tharon ignored her father and eyed the Beta groomsman, who took a step back and turned his head to the side.
Edeva attempted to speak but started to cough.
Tharon turned around and said, “I will carry Mother to the carriage.” Eustace opened his mouth to protest, until Edeva held up her hand at him. Coming closer, Tharon tossed the blankets and fur aside, bent over, and worked her arms behind her mother’s back and under her legs. She willed her muscles to support her mother, to be strong for them both.
Edeva snaked an arm across Tharon’s shoulders when she was lifted off the bed. A contented breath escaped her once she was settled in her daughter’s arms. She wore only a nightgown, having changed into it last night.
“Wait.” Eustace took a fur and placed it over Edeva, tucking it in. “It is cold and blustery outside.”
Edeva had a grateful smile and rested her head against Tharon’s broad shoulder.
Tharon headed through the guesthouse. Their servants stayed several steps ahead, ensuring their path was clear. One opened the front door, holding it for Tharon. Beyond the building, the chilly wind welcomed them to another winter day in Wyndenn. She spotted Garrett and Layla along with the other young Arringtons, except for Roswynd. It gave her a fraction of hope that perhaps Roswynd was packing to join them.
Beside the carriage, Saxon opened the door and helped Tharon maneuver their mother inside it. Tharon crawled in part of the way and adjusted the blankets and cushions until her mother was content. “Is there anything we can get you?” Tharon asked.
Edeva looked between her two pups and smiled at them. “No, my loves.” At the corner of her mouth a droplet of blood had dried against her skin. Tharon wanted to comment on it, but she was afraid it would alarm Saxon further. “I will be just fine.”
Tharon nodded and ensured the furs and blankets were perfect before she backed out of the carriage. The carriage itself was well insulated, specially designed for their region of the world. The respected carriagemaker was based in Wulfbite. She and Saxon went over to the gathering of their two families. Layla was pressed into Garrett’s side, but all her attention was on the carriage. Tharon withheld a whimper upon smelling the waves of distress flowing from Layla.
“You must say good-bye to Mother,” Tharon told Layla and captured her hand.
Layla snapped her attention to Tharon and stared with distant eyes, as if she were lost.
“Please,” Tharon whispered, knowing her mother would wish to have a proper farewell. Layla and Edeva were as close as any sisters.
Layla glanced at her husband, who was talking to Eustace. She freed her arm, murmured a thank-you to Tharon, and slipped past. Her steps were small and hesitant, as if she were approaching an unseen ledge.
Tharon redirected her attention to the conversation between her father and Garrett. Next to her, Saxon remained quiet and uneasy, shuffling from foot to foot. Tharon casted a glare at him for his annoying movements. It was a frigid day, but they were accustomed to such temperatures.
“If you wish for Hardred to remain a while in Wulfbite, he certainly will. He can confer with Bifan,” Garrett offered.
Eustace pursed his lips and gave a small nod. “Thank you. We will decide after we arrive in Wulfbite.”
“Of course.” Garrett glanced toward the two carriages, then asked, “Is there anything else we can provide for the journey back?” He turned back to Eustace.
“No, we have everything we require for the journey.”
“Will you rest in Leeward?”
Eustace shook his head. “I think it would be best for Edeva if we returned home as quickly as possible.” He spoke in a hard tone, unlike himself when he was with Garrett. They acted more like strangers than brothers.
“I understand.” Garrett stole a glance at Saxon and Tharon before he made a request of Eustace. “Please let us know of your arrival home and Edeva’s health.”
Eustace nodded, then pivoted toward his two eldest. “Are we ready to depart?”
“Yes, Father,” Saxon replied. “Daisy and Holly are in the other carriage with Hardred.”
“Say your good-byes to the Arringtons,” Eustace instructed them. “Then we must be off.” He broke away from the group without a second glance at Garrett.
Tharon tracked her father’s departure, and a furrow grew across her brow. Never in all her time had her father not embraced Garrett. They always shared a final hug and well wishes, until today.
“Please look after your mother,” Garrett told them both.
“We will,” Saxon said and received a quick hug from Garrett. He then went to Myla, Josse, and Archibold, who all waited behind their father.
“I am sorry you will miss the hunts with us this year.” Garrett shifted closer and gazed upon Tharon with genuine affection that eased Tharon’s nerves. Not only did he treat her as a daughter, but also a growing Alpha. Tharon had always loved Garrett, but in recent years she had grown to adore him for his devotion to teaching her.
“Tharon, I know you will watch over your mother.” Garrett sighed and looked toward the second carriage that Eustace had entered moments ago. “But you must also watch over your father.”
“I-I will try my best.”
“I know.” Garrett clasped her shoulders and squeezed them. “You are becoming a fine Alpha. One day when you are ready, I am certain you will be the Alpha your family so needs.”
Tharon swallowed against the aching lump in her throat. “Th-Thank you, sir.” She wanted to stay in Earna, with both her families. They had said numerous farewells in the past, all of them far easier than this one. For a strange reason, this departure felt final.
To leave half of her family was a stab in Tharon’s heart.
Garrett withdrew but nudged Tharon toward his pups, who waited for Tharon. Then he headed to Edeva’s carriage.
Tharon gathered her self-control and said her good-byes to Myla and the two troublesome brothers, whom she still loved despite their constant antics. She made sure to give Josse a playful punch to his shoulder and chuckled at his weak growl. She promised him he would grow bigger one day.
“Tharon!” Roswynd sprinted from the keep. Her light brown coat whipped behind her as she neared them.
For a beat, Tharon was relieved, until she saw Roswynd was wearing a dress rather than trousers for riding. She met Roswynd halfway and held out her chilled hands. “Ros,” she whispered in a breathless voice.
Shaking her head, Roswynd murmured, “I-I cannot—”
“It is all right,” Tharon interrupted and gathered her best friend into her arms. She whimpered deep and long into Roswynd’s neck.
“I am so sorry,” Roswynd whispered, then a soft sob caught Tharon’s ear. Tharon attempted to soothe her friend, but Roswynd shook her head and held Tharon tighter. “Father s-said I have to stay.” She twisted her fingers into Tharon’s coat. “But I could leave tonight after everyone—”
“No!” Tharon growled at the idea of Roswynd sneaking off late at night and following after her. It was far too dangerous despite their promises. Roswynd’s pained whine cooled Tharon’s protective response. “No,” she repeated in a softer way. “You could be hurt or worse. It is absolutely unsafe.”
“No,” Tharon cut off, ending Roswynd’s drastic attempt to keep them together. “Please,” she whispered, raised her head, and held her friend’s gaze. “Please listen to me for once.”
Roswynd blinked twice, but a few tears still dropped to her cheeks. “I will stay.” Even though she agreed to Tharon’s request, Tharon was certain Roswynd would nag her father about visiting Wulfbite as soon as possible. “I promise to stay and wait.”
Tharon nodded and let out a relieved breath. “I will write.”
“I will too,” Roswynd swore.
Tharon hooked her friend’s wrist, raised their arms, and indicated the Bracelets of Ælfwynn. “These will help us feel less alone.” After trading vows a year ago, they exchanged bracelets and had learned that the bracelets curbed their loneliness when they were separated. They had thought the bracelets were a hoax, but they proved themselves to Roswynd and Tharon.
Roswynd shook her head and argued, “Even without them, we can never truly be separated.”
For the first time today, Tharon smiled. She adored Roswynd’s certainty that she and Roswynd were inseparable. One day, Tharon would fulfill her promise to ensure she and Roswynd would remain together. Despite her father’s rejection, Tharon would find a way to marry Roswynd Arrington, then no one would have the power to split them apart again. Behind her, a commotion started and forewarned of her departure.
Roswynd glanced around Tharon and glared at the excitement of the horses and the voices ringing across the castle grounds. She shook her head and peered up at her best friend. “Is there time to say good-bye to Edeva?”
Tharon looked over her shoulder, then grabbed Roswynd’s hand. “Come on.” Together, they sprinted across the bailey, past Garrett and Layla, and skidded to a stop beside the carriage. Tharon opened the door and ordered, “Climb inside.” She assisted Roswynd into the carriage, then closed it so that the cold stayed out. Folding her arms, she scanned about the convoy and dared anyone to rush Roswynd. Then she heard a soft sob from inside the vehicle, causing Tharon to close her eyes. She stole a glance through the window and saw Roswynd holding Edeva to her chest. Tharon gazed upon the bright blue sky, which simply reminded her of Roswynd’s left eye.
When the carriage door cracked open, Tharon pulled it wider and helped Roswynd out of it. She ensured her mother was comfortable again, then resealed the heavy door. Together, they stepped away from the carriage and went closer to Tharon’s horse.
“Please be safe traveling,” Roswynd pleaded and wiped her face, rough and fast. “I-I…” She shook her head and yanked Tharon into a crushing hug that stole Tharon’s breath. “I love you.”
After a whine, Tharon buried her face into Roswynd’s neck and savored the distinct, warm scent that was her best friend. She had memorized it years ago and clung to it now. “I love you deeply,” she murmured. Somehow it felt like their last time, but Tharon chastised herself for the silly notion. She and Roswynd would be together soon, once her mother was healthy again. However, when Tharon withdrew, she saw the same dread reflected in Roswynd’s reddened eyes.
“Tharon, we must depart!” Eustace called from the other side.
Roswynd gasped and started to shake her head, but she halted herself. She took a step back and continued to hold Tharon’s hands in hers. They were both incapable of letting go this time. Around them, the White Sommer horsemen and groomsmen called to begin the march.
Tharon clenched her teeth and ignored the hot burn of tears on her skin. She yanked Roswynd back against her body and held her one last time. Their bodies trembled together, then they traded pained whines. Tharon would have to force herself because her mother needed her. She raised her head and cupped Roswynd’s cheek. “Until the end of our days.”
Roswynd nodded and hooked Tharon’s wrist. “Until the end of our days,” she whispered and smiled between the tears.
With a puff of her chest, Tharon tore herself free from Roswynd and rushed to her horse. She mounted with haste and refused to look at her best friend. With the reins in hand, she tapped the mare’s sides and joined the last portion of the convoy. Once she reached the gate, she directed her horse to the side and allowed the last few horsemen to pass. Tharon gazed toward the Arringtons.
Myla, Archibold, and Josse waved to her. Garrett and Layla stood beside them while Roswynd was in front of her family. Roswynd struggled with a few steps toward Tharon, as if fighting the mighty current in the Razor River. She hugged her own body.
Tharon lowered her head and heaved for a moment but the castle guards stirred next to her. She took a deep breath, straightened, and pressed forward. Peering over her shoulder, she etched the last view of Roswynd Arrington into her mind. Then, ever so slowly, Roswynd faded away from her view and later her memory, but never from Tharon’s heart.
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