After almost a week spent in Ildemar, Lorelei started to get restless. It was a beautiful castle, no doubt, but somehow it started to look almost like a golden cage. Ever since the day she met Stone-face William, no, sir William de Mar, steward of castle Ildemad and Noah’s right-hand man, she had the strange feeling that someone is constantly monitoring and planning her every step. If she was in the library reading a book, taking a stroll in the Misty Garden or even quietly sitting in her own chambers, all of a sudden, a servant would come and offer her refreshments or try to entertain her, ask her how she feels or if needs anything, never leaving her alone even for a second. At first, she thought nothing of it, but little by little it started to get nerve-wracking. Even sir William himself would sometimes come to chat with her and, on those occasions, he was nothing like his Stone-face nickname. Rather, he looked pretty similar to his younger brother Jessup. Still, somehow, compared to Jessup’s naturally cheerful personality, William’s felt a bit… forced and artificial. As if he was desperately trying to please her all the time. Finally, it got to the point where she was forced to talk to Noah. After that, these spurts of unwanted attention seized.
Never the less, she remained restless. Then she decided that it is about time to visit Yalda. Noah had said that she could go anywhere she wished. Planning her little trip together with Saya lifted her spirits. Unfortunately, on the night before their outing, Saya’s two-year-old son got a nasty fever. Luckily, it was nothing life-threatening, however, Lorelei insisted that Saya remains by his side. This made her consider postponing the trip, but she then decided to take only Jessup as an escort and go anyway.
On the set morning, Lorelei finished her final preparations and looked satisfied in the mirror. Instead of the heavy, uncomfortable long dress, she was wearing a knee-long padded tunic with fine red and black embroidery, a pair of long, baggy trousers, tucked in sturdy leather boots, and a striped colorful scarf around her neck. This was a typical attire that many of the binshi women wore. Luckily, this type of fashion was popular even amongst some of the working non-binshi ladies in Yalda, so Lorelei’s attire was not that uncommon or strange. Over her shoulder was a comfortable leather bag, where she put a small knife and the money pouch Noah had arranged for her. Honestly, its content was more than she had ever seen in her entire life, but she remained silent after seeing her husband’s determined face. This was probably again a way for him to apologize for Shana’s unending war on her.
Lorelei sighed and went to the entrance hall. There, however, the first surprise for the day was awaiting her – Noah in his customary black attire, with one of the binshi twins at his side. When his grey eyes met hers, Lorelei gave him a small smile and greeted him politely.
“Good morning, my lord. To what do I owe the pleasure of meeting you here?”
“Good morning, duchess.” His deep voice carried a slight cheerfulness today. “I heard that you will be visiting the city with Jessup.”
He looked up and down at her with a discerning glance, then nodded satisfied.
“The local attire suits you very well, my duchess. However, I believe something is still missing.”
Noah gestured towards the binshi woman beside him. She just nodded and stepped forward, pulling out a blood-red embroidered scarf. She bent and tied the scarf around Lorelei’s waist, letting its ends fall free along her right thigh. After that, the woman took a small box from her pocket, filled with some blueish-black paste. The binshi dipped the tip of her thumb and carefully pressed it between Lorelei’s brows, creating a small moon-shaped mark on her forehead.
“Now, dear duchess, you truly look like a proper wedded wife from Norden.” Noah gave her one of his rare smiles. “According to binshi customs, red scarf tied to the right and the ‘kiss of the moon’ on the forehead are the symbols of marriage. I hope you will accept to wear them, at least for today.”
“I… of course, my lord.” Lorelei curtsied and felt her cheeks burning. Her emotions didn’t escape Noah’s sharp eyes but he braced himself. He shouldn’t tease his poor wife too much. Instead, his face became serious again.
“My duchess, I know that Jessup is a very capable lad, but Yalda, although safer than most places, still hides some dangers. Therefore, I have assigned Rish as your second guard today. Do not be fooled by her young appearance. She was personally trained by Gregor and is as capable as any knight. Believe me, if the imperial law didn’t forbid me, Rish and Rasha would have been knighted long ago.”
The binshi woman bowed at the compliment, her eyes sparkling from her master’s recognition. Still, her face remained as calm as water.
On her side, Lorelei had some real difficulties responding to this development. Seeing her hesitation, Noah asked:
“What is the problem, duchess? Is Rish’s presence not to your liking?”
“No, no! Absolutely not, my lord!” Lorelei hurriedly denied. She didn’t want to offend either of them, but still… “I am just… a bit concerned, my lord. Lady Rish is one of lady Shana’s companions. I wouldn’t dare to take her away from her duties.”
Noah clicked his tongue.
“If that is your only concern, you needn’t worry. This is my order, but Rish also agreed to accompany you. As for Shana, let me handle the rest. It is only for a single day, so it is not like they will part forever.”
Seeing his unyielding expression, Lorelei had no other choice but to sigh and agree. Her husband’s stubbornness was sometimes just too much. She knew that when he took a decision, he would follow it to the very end, crushing every resistance on the way. Well, Lorelei was starting to see whom exactly is Shana taking after. Still, she wished that Noah could be a bit more sensitive, especially when it concerned his own daughter’s feelings. Her going out with Rish would definitely have consequences.
With a bit of a heavy heart, Lorelei bid Noah farewell and boarded a small boat together with Jessup and Rish. The boatman pushed them away and they sailed the mirror surface of the fjord. The early spring day was promising to be exceptionally beautiful – clear sky, warm sun, and gentle breeze. All around, the fjord was shedding its winter attire and starting to show bits and pieces of greenery.
Lorelei was looking around, bright-eyed, enjoying every new sight. There was some wild and harsh beauty in Norden, that was very much to her liking. Suddenly, a light cough came from behind her. She turned around, only to see Rish, whose face had a strange expression.
“My lady,” the binshi spoke for the first time with a bit of hesitation, “I want to thank you for what you did before. No, for everything that you have done.”
Lorelei only blinked surprised and confused but gestured for the other woman to continue.
“I appreciate your thoughts about lady Shana.” Rish lowered her head. “Despite everything she did to you… Allow me to apologize on her behalf. Lady Shana is actually a very sweet kid. Her reaction is…”
“Thank you, lady Rish. You don’t need to say anything more.” Lorelei gave her a sad smile. “I hope that someday lady Shana and I will see eye to eye. Actually, it is me who should be thanking you for accompanying us today.”
“Don’t mention it, my lady.” Rish lifted her head and looked Lorelei straight in the eye. “My clan has a debt to lady shimsi that needs to be repaid. This is the least I can do for now. You saved the life of my clan leader.”
“Clan leader…” Amidst her confusion, Lorelei had a sudden realization. “You mean sir Gregor?”
“Yes, lady shimsi. Gerash is the turgan, the leader, of Wolf Mountain clan. He is also Rasha and mine third cousin. We are the only binshi clan currently life-bonded with his highness the duke.”
Lorelei was thrilled and intrigued. Somehow the people around Noah always turned out to be more than one would expect. For the rest of their journey, Lorelei asked Rish a lot more about her family and the binshi clans in general, and she readily answered all of her questions. From what she learned, the political situation in Norden was far more complex than she could ever imagine. But what was more – it was tragic and bloody.
Norden was a huge island at the northern edge of Limeria, its territory almost a fifth of the imperial domain. For many years it had been considered hostile and barren land where only a few ‘wild’ people lived, and thus of little importance. That was until some precious stones were mined there and the empire had concentrated its gaze on the North. Officially, all the mining sites and the fertile coast-lands were reserved for the limerian conquerors and their five barons. The indigenous binsh were driven to the cold and harsh inlands. This resulted in many bloody uprisings and many losses on both sides. Against the five barons stood the united binshi clans. There were initially seven large clans, led by the seven kush-turgan, or ‘great leaders of men’. Each one of them had several subordinate smaller clans, who in turn consisted of one or several large families.
The bloody war between the barons and the hordes of the kush-turgan continued for more than a century, until just fifteen years ago. Then the new duke Norden ascended the throne in castle Ildemar – a boy of only fifteen, not even a man yet. To everyone, this ‘duke’ was simply a joke, a piece of fresh meat to butcher. They had made their plans without knowing their opponent. Noah Lux Norden swept the lands with his knights, forcing the greedy barons into submission. Then he turned his gaze to the binshi, but contrary to everyone’s expectations, instead of bloody retaliation, he offered them peace. Initially, the seven kush-turgan were suspicious. The new duke came with promises of equal rights between binshi and limerians – a thing no one could believe. But the boy-duke kept his word and changed the local laws, enforcing harsh punishments without discriminating between race, religion, or wealth.
And then one of the seven great clans, the people of Star-path Valley, swore allegiance to the house Norden. This was unheard of! Despite being the smallest in numbers of the Great Seven, Star-path Valley was special even among the other clans. They were the spiritual leaders and guides of the binsh people, the ones able to talk to the Mother Above – the Morning Star. Their decision to join an alliance with the limerian invaders resulted in an uproar. What is more, they and their subordinate clan swore a life-bond with the duke – whatever happened, they were going to fight to the last soul, protecting house Norden. Kush-turgan Yanosh of Star-path Valley announced to all the clans that he does not wish to see the blood of his brethren being spilled in a war they could not win. That the Mother Above had given him a revelation, showing him two possible futures – the binshi would prosper under the wing of duke Norden, or they would perish under his sword. Hearing this, the other clans grudgingly agreed and finally, after innumerable years of fighting, peace came to Norden. Duke Noah continued to defend this fragile peace with an iron fist, closely assisted by his now friend and sworn brother Yanosh of Star-path Valley. In the meantime, he also dedicated his efforts to improve life in Norden – trade, crafts, construction, religion, military education, arts – he encouraged their development and allowed equal access to them for both binshi and limerians.
For almost seven years the land prospered, just as kush-turgan Yanosh foretold. Then the Cult of Pure Blood appeared. They were fanatics, proclaiming to be the holy army of the Morning Star, sent to cleanse the North. They started massacring any and all mixed families between binshi and limerians, deeming them ‘inpure’ and ‘heretical’ in the eyes of the Mother Above. Hypocritically enough, there was nothing more uniting than bloodlust – some members of the Cult were limerians themselves. They also started targeting the clans who had especially friendly relationships with ‘the monster-duke’ as they called him. Amongst their many victims was also Star-path Valley.
“It was horrible.” Rish’s eyes were glassy as she recalled the past. “In a single night, one of the seven large clans perished. I was twelve at the time but the sight still comes in my nightmares to this day. Even from Wolf Mountain, we could see the smoke rising in the night sky, clouding the stars. Our elders cried, but we were too late to help. The duke’s men also didn’t arrive in time. Gerash told me much later… that the snow was dyed red and on every burning house there was the bloody handprint-sign of the Cult of Pure Blood. There was only one survivor from Star-path Valley – lady Shana, the child of kush-turgan Yanosh… the next and last Star Maiden of our people. It was a miracle for a two-year-old to live through that massacre. But she did, and the duke took her in to raise her as his own. After that…”
“The Manhunt…” Jessup, who was listening the entire time without uttering a word, whispered fearfully. “I was little but also remember it. It seemed like the Cult had infiltrated everywhere. No one was safe. My… my eldest sister Jenna, her husband, and their unborn child were killed by the Pure Blood. Father and brother Allen went crazy, like… they were different people. Both of them participated in the hunt together with master. Mother even had to tie Will up so he can’t follow them. That was the last time ever I saw Will cry. It was… a horrible sight.”
“Yes.” Rish nodded bitterly. “My father and grandfather also participated as the duke and his men went out hunting. They didn’t leave a stone unturned. And everywhere they found members of the Cult, there was no mercy. The duke rooted them out like the poisonous weed they were. Gerash still refuses to tell us everything that happened, but… His mother once said that on the night the duke returned to Ildemar, he and everyone who followed him, burned their clothes. After that, Gerash washed for hours and vomited the whole night. Even to this day, there is only one fate awaiting the Cult of Pure Blood, if they try to re-surface – death.”
Heavy silence fell after Rish’s last words. Only the oar of the boatman splashing in the clear water disturbed it. Lorelei’s head sank and her chest felt so very tight. She had wanted to learn more about Norden. But it was never her intention to bring back the painful memories from Rish’s and Jessup’s childhood. She could never even start to imagine the horrors all of them had gone through. And Noah. Lorelei felt the tears running down her cheeks. She had felt from time to time that there was a bit of darkness in him, especially when he was really angry. Now she knew at least part of its source. He had lost many things and in return had gained a fragile peace and the title of Beast. She could finally understand so many things – the indifference and mockery in his gaze when the people in Sefis had called him ‘beast’ or ‘monster’; his sadness when he talked about his beloved home; the peculiar warm friendship he shared with Gregor, despite their big difference in status; the bond between him and Shana, that ran deeper than blood. Now, Lorelei really knew that she truly was nothing more than an intruder in the lives of these tightly-knit people.
“I am sorry, my lady.” Rish’s words brought her back to reality. “I have upset you. This was supposed to be a joyous, carefree day.”
“I asked you about Norden, and you’ve answered me honestly, lady Rish.” Lorelei wiped her face. “It isn’t right to blame others for my curiosity. Besides, I had to learn about this someday. Now that I know the truth, my gaze has cleared.”
“Please, my lady, don’t think badly of master.” Jessup sounded really distraught as he spoke. “He might have killed the members of the Cult, but he only did what he had to. He is not a blood-thirsty monster, believe me!”
“I know, Jess.” Lorelei patted the boy’s shoulder and tried to sound more cheerful. “You said it yourself. A shepherd’s dog protects its flock.”
As a bonus - my attempts at reproducing the coat of arms of Norden.
"Ad astra per aspera" means "To the stars through hardship".