The Wolf and the Sparrow
Isabelle Adler © 2019
All Rights Reserved
“Derek, you lucky devil,” Macon said. “A marriage proposal the minute you inherit a title. How propitious.”
Derek ignored the note of bitter mockery in his brother’s voice. Instead, he focused on the letter lying on the table in front of them. Words were scribbled across thick paper in an almost careless hand, with nothing to indicate its earth-shattering contents at a casual glance. The red wax seal bore the emblem of a wolf’s head, and an unpleasant jolt went through him as he recalled the same sigil splashed over black-and-silver banners streaming above a bloody battlefield. Pain flared in his injured shoulder, as if in response to the memory, and Derek shifted uncomfortably in his chair, adjusting the sling that held his left arm. He made himself focus on the words again, tracing them as if they could somehow magically rearrange themselves into a different message upon rereading.
“Macon, this is not helping,” Lady Casea chided.
Macon threw their mother a sullen look that clearly indicated he wasn’t there to help. He was sixteen, the age when everything was painted black and white, right and wrong, with nothing in between. Both Derek and their mother knew all too well how washed-out those colors became with time.
They were all sitting at the round table in Lady Casea’s drawing room. The upheaval of the last few days hadn’t seemed to reach it, unlike the rest of the keep. Embroidered tapestries lined the walls, displaying flowers in fanciful patterns, and the chairs were lined with soft cushions. A familiar scent of lavender and sage permeated the warmth from the fireplace. How strange it was to discuss the grim future of their family in this cozy room, with the only reminder of the presence of death in the gray mourning ribbons tied around their sleeves.
“Let us go through this again,” Ivo said, picking up the letter. His tone was neutral, as if he were discussing a passage from a recently read book. He was the scholar among Derek’s siblings, but Count Johan had long refused to send him to one of the royal colleges in Oifel, the capital. Father hadn’t approved of bookishness, especially not in a nineteen-year-old man who was perfectly capable of holding a sword.
“Duke Bergen offers Lady Casea condolences on the passing of her husband, and asks for Derek’s—the new Count of Camria’s—hand in marriage to his eldest son and heir, Callan, ‘to secure the recently signed truce in hopes of reaching a standing peace treaty between our fiefdoms and show goodwill.’”
“‘Passing,’” Macon sneered. “‘Goodwill.’”
“Derek, have you even met Callan?” Ayleen asked, turning to him. “I had no idea he was interested in you.”
“I doubt he’d know me from a signpost,” Derek said dryly.
He’d only ever seen Callan in passing while visiting the Royal Palace a few years ago, and they had paid each other little heed. Undoubtedly, Callan had been in the field along with his father, Duke Bergen, when they fought Camria’s forces, but fortunately, Derek hadn’t encountered them directly, and neither of them had been present during the signing of the truce, delegating it instead to their field commander.
Ayleen was only twelve, and still somewhat charmed by the notion of romance. Derek was a little sorry to disillusion her, especially so soon after all the other shocks she’d had to endure in the past few days, but it was better if she knew exactly what was going on. Ignorance and pretense weren’t going to help any of them when their situation was so precarious.
“The proposal isn’t coming from Lord Callan, but from his father. There’s nothing to it but politics.”
Ivo looked up. “I fear Bergen’s essentially trying to annex us. Derek would keep the title while he lives, but with him being a lower noble, it’d eventually pass to his husband or to their heirs. Not to mention that his spouse—whoever they are—would be an equal ruler of Camria while Derek lives.”
While he lives. The words sank into Derek’s mind, laden with meaning. The marriage contract would still be valid, even if he were to die, effectively passing the fiefdom of Camria to the duke’s family. And with Derek out of the way, they’d be free to do what they wished with it.
He said nothing aloud.
“Can we possibly refuse? Find some pretext to decline the offer?” their mother asked.
Ivo shook his head. “I cannot see how. This is not exactly an offer. More like an order, if courteously worded. The letter continues on to stipulate that the wedding take place as soon as possible. In fact, as soon as it would take Derek to arrive at the duke’s ancestral castle at Irthorg.”
“What about postponing it, then?” Lady Casea turned to Derek in concern. “You’re badly injured. Surely, they cannot expect you to stand at the altar, still bleeding. At least a few months, until you’re well. It will give us time to petition before the High Queen. This is nothing short of coercion under duress.”
There were fading bruises on her neck peeking above the collar of her dress, a yellow imprint of fingers that had nothing to do with the recent battle. Not for the first time, Derek thought that perhaps their father’s death was more of a blessing than a tragedy. It felt treasonous to entertain such notions, as though he was betraying his father’s memory, but he hadn’t imagined the relief in his mother’s eyes when the messenger delivered the awful news. He was ashamed to admit, even to himself, that he’d felt the same relief.
But it also meant he was now the head of the family. It was his duty and his responsibility to protect them after Count Johan had failed to do so. Even if it meant marrying a man he’d never met, who’d nearly destroyed everything he held dear, who might still want him dead.
“I’m not hurt that badly,” Derek heard himself say. “Besides, I hardly think they’d care—or if the Queen would see it quite the same way. The truce expires in a week. If I don’t give an answer by then, I’m afraid there will be no long-standing treaty.”
Casea frowned and was about to say something else, but Derek forestalled her.
“I don’t see any solution other than conforming to Duke Bergen’s wishes. I’d rather not aggravate him while his troops still have free rein within our borders. There would still be an opportunity to do something when we’re not in such dire disadvantage. A marriage can always be annulled should the Queen prove sympathetic to our case.”
“So, we just roll over and give the duke our land?” Macon said. “That’s what he’s really after, isn’t it? He basically threatens us with another war, and he has the audacity to call it a gesture of goodwill!”
“It is goodwill,” Derek said quietly. “He doesn’t need this union to take the land away from us. In fact, nothing is stopping him from storming the keep and killing us all when the truce ends. It would be his right to do so since he was provoked, and frankly, we’ve already seen that Camria cannot hold its own when it comes to military strength.”
As a warrior himself, Derek was loath to admit it. But Camria was a small fiefdom, and its contingent consisted of the Count’s Guard, which numbered only two hundred men, while the rest were mostly peasants who had been hastily called to arms and had little to no fighting experience. That was hardly a match for Mulberny, a much larger and more prosperous domain with a long and bloody history of fending raiding sea pirates off its shores. But of course, these considerations had meant little to his father in the face of a perceived slight.
“You seem very eager to go through with it,” Macon sneered. His eyes were rimmed in red and recessed in deep shadows. “Can’t wait to become the bed toy of our father’s murderer?”
“Macon!” Casea said sharply. “Watch your tongue.”
“I will not!” Macon slammed his hand against the table, making everyone save Derek jump. “He’s only trying to save his own hide while his new husband turns us out of our own home!”
“Will you stop that?” Derek said levelly, fixing his gaze on Macon. He kept a tight rein on his anger. There was no point in getting into a shouting match with his brother, whose grief was perhaps the most acute of all of them. “No one said anything about turning you out. I’m trying to keep all of you safe, and it would be much easier to do from within the duke’s castle than from the chopping block.”
“Yes, much easier for you! You’d be the duke’s lapdog while the rest of us are reduced to beggars!”
Derek’s patience, already frayed, finally snapped.
“Maybe Father should have thought about that before he waged war on Bergen over a fucking river dam and got himself killed!”
Macon rose to his feet so abruptly he knocked over his chair. Without another word, he stormed out of the room, slamming the door with enough force to rattle the flower vase on the side table.
There was an awkward silence while everybody avoided looking at one another.
Derek sighed and ran a jerky hand over his face. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Lady Casea got up from her seat. “I’ve had quite enough of this squabbling. There are still soldiers’ wages and widows’ allowances to be distributed, and I have work to do. Ayleen, come.”
With an apologetic glance at Derek, Ayleen followed Casea out the door.
Derek slumped on the table, propping his head with his right arm. He wasn’t used to being in his mother’s rooms without her there; however, he was in no hurry to leave. They were all tired, hurt, and confused. Derek had barely slept since signing the temporary truce between Camria and Mulberny. The nagging ache in his shoulder had worsened, and now his head was throbbing as well. But he welcomed the pain. It was the only thing keeping him from numbness—and he couldn’t afford to sink into it at the moment.
This was not how he’d imagined coming into his inheritance. Shouldering responsibility was not unfamiliar to him. His father had been more than happy to let Derek handle the more mundane affairs of daily life in the keep and the surrounding villages—though Derek sometimes thought it was so he’d have someone to criticize. But this…this was almost too much to take on. He was good with a sword and possessed sound common sense, which was perhaps enough for a minor ruler of a small fiefdom, but now he had to admit he was in over his head. Despite trying to present a solid front to his family, he had no idea what to do to prevent more harm coming to them.
Ivo coughed delicately, drawing his attention.
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mother, but there is something you should know before you make a decision.”
Derek raised his head. He didn’t like the sound of that, but what could possibly make this entire affair worse than it already was?
“What is it?”
“Did you know that Lord Callan was married before?”
“No.” Derek straightened in his chair. He didn’t like the look on Ivo’s face, the one that said he was troubled. It was a bad sign. Unlike Macon, Ivo was rarely visibly upset over anything.
“Well, he was. To an Agiennan clanswoman, no less. I don’t recall her name, but it was about two years ago. Apparently, the duke has a thing for offering his son in marriage to secure his peace treaties.”
“What happened to her?” Derek asked, already knowing he wasn’t going to like the answer.
“She died. Some sort of accident, but…there were whispers about something not being quite right with that story.”
“And you know all of this how?”
Ivo smiled faintly.
“Unlike you, dear brother, I pay attention to rumors. Most of them are nothing more than idle gossip, but some contain a kernel of truth.”
“All this might be just that—nothing more than gossip,” Derek said.
“I’m absolutely certain he was married,” Ivo repeated. “Accidents do happen even to the most lofty, but you’d better be careful. Some people have an unfortunate tendency to bury their spouses all too often.”
“What are you saying?”
“You should consider why Callan wants to marry you—or why his father wants him to. Camria is a well-off fiefdom, but it’s hardly of much strategic importance. The duke’s heir could set his eyes on a much more advantageous match, striking a union with a foreign noble, or even marrying into the royal family. Your nuptials could be nothing more than a stepping stone for whatever larger scheme he envisions.”
“He can’t subjugate Camria based on a marriage contract alone, not until Callan and I either name or produce heirs. The law is clear—if something should happen to me, the fiefdom would pass to my next-of-blood kin. To you.”
“I am not yet of age to inherit. Your husband could be legally appointed regent, and if that is what they’re after, they don’t need you for any longer than your wedding night.” Ivo shrugged. “Once you say your vows and the marriage is consummated, he could contest the inheritance of your fiefdom at the Queen’s Court if you happen to die under tragic circumstances. And then Callan is once again free to take another spouse. Maybe someone more lucrative.”
It appeared Derek had not been the only one to have thought of that, but again, Ivo had always been the smartest of his siblings, and the most astute, despite his age.
“You make him sound like some sort of fairy-tale villain,” Derek protested, out of some stubborn determination to refuse to be intimidated, whether by Ivo or by his own apprehension.
But he couldn’t help feeling there was something odd about the proposal. It seemed entirely extraneous. Whatever treaty Bergen wanted to sign would have been achieved without a marriage contract to strengthen it, given that Camria was at a dire disadvantage. And Derek entertained no illusions about being so desirable a match as to be of particular interest to the other party. Moreover, while arranged marriages were par for the course among the aristocracy, nobles of similar rank (in this case a newly minted count and the heir apparent of a duchy) did not usually enter such unions for precisely the same considerations of seniority of inheritance Ivo had voiced earlier. If this was all about upholding the peace, it would have been much more reasonable for Duke Bergen to ask for Ivo’s hand in future marriage for his son, as he was the only one of Derek’s younger siblings close enough to the age of maturity.
“I’m saying that by agreeing to accept this proposal you might be placing yourself in danger,” Ivo said.
“And if I don’t, I’ll be risking all our lives,” Derek said sourly. “Macon might not understand it, and Mother might not accept it, but you do. Bergen is blackmailing me with this treaty. I have no choice but to agree to his terms.”
“I do understand. I just don’t want you to step blindly into a trap.”
Derek reached out with his good hand and squeezed Ivo’s arm.
“I know, and I’m grateful for your concern. But there’s nothing to it. Our best hope would be for me to marry this Callan and bide my time until we figure out how to convince the Queen to issue an annulment.”
“Unless you end up falling in love with your arranged husband,” Ivo said with a wry smile.
“You know,” Derek said, getting up with effort, “I think there’s a better chance of him murdering me in my sleep.”
By the time Derek reached his father’s study, he was ready to pass out from the pain. The doctor would most certainly be cross at him for exerting himself after being shot with an arrow through the shoulder. To be honest, Derek wanted nothing more than to lie down on his bed and sleep for several days.
But he knew he wouldn’t wake up to find all his problems to have magically disappeared. This unfortunate and untimely marriage proposal was now the top item on Derek’s long list of obligations, as if he wasn’t under enough pressure already to secure the peace treaty as soon as possible. His anger flared, as it always did when he thought about his father’s brazen attempt at using brute force to solve the long-standing disagreement between the fiefdoms over the Sevia River dam. Derek had tried to warn him, plead with him, make him see how disastrous the move would be, but his father had refused to see reason, as he’d often done of late. Count Johan hadn’t taken well to being opposed. He hadn’t dared hit Derek, not anymore, but he’d had no qualms about spilling his ire verbally on the son who was “as cowardly as he was useless.”
So Derek had stood by as his father attacked the Mulbernian garrison that guarded the dam which stemmed the flow of water needed for the newly dug irrigation canals the count had commissioned for the fields of northern Camria. The count’s victory had been short-lived: Duke Bergen, who was a seasoned warrior, a veteran of the bloody Seven-Year War with Agienna, the realm of the Outer Isles, had not taken the offense lightly. Just as Derek had predicted, his forces crushed whatever meager defense Camria had to offer in a battle that had cost Johan his life, and which Derek had been lucky to escape with only an arrow wound—and a new title that weighed heavier than a mountain.
The room he entered served as a stark reminder of that weight. Derek rarely spent time in his father’s study, and never when the count wasn’t there. Without him, the small, cramped room felt empty and stale, like a tomb. Mementos of his father’s presence were still strewn everywhere—the ledgers and the letters piled haphazardly on the carved redwood desk, the dried quill discarded in haste, the faded tapestries adorned with the Camrian coat of arms with its heraldic sparrow that had graced the walls for as long as Derek could remember. A map of Camria and the neighboring fiefdoms—which belonged to the Great Realm of Ivicia, along the shores of the Sevia River—was half-unrolled at the corner of the desk, catching Derek’s attention.
He traced a finger along the winding line of the river, upward, contrary to its course, past the village of Laurel Falls where the battle with the duke’s forces had been fought, until he came up to a large dot that marked Irthorg, the capital of Mulberny. It was hardly more than a castle surrounded by a small town and a few farmsteads. Derek had never seen it in person, and he wished he never would. Now, with Count Johan gone, Camria needed him, even if he couldn’t quite measure up to everybody’s expectations of a strong ruler. He lacked his father’s ruthlessness, a trait as necessary for a fief lord as the ability to breathe. People liked him and sometimes listened to him when he used reasonable enough arguments to sway their opinion, but it was hardly enough. It certainly hadn’t been enough to impress his father. It hadn’t been enough to protect his people.
But there was something he could do now to amend his failures. Perhaps he was a coward for giving in to Duke Bergen’s demands, as Macon seemed to believe him to be. And he was afraid, so afraid he was making the wrong move, the wrong decision. So much depended on it, and yet he couldn’t think of any other way to secure the peace they so desperately needed. Camria had grown soft, placid in years of quiet and relative prosperity. A single battle had sent the entire fiefdom reeling; a war would be nothing short of devastating. If he was a coward for scrambling to prevent it, there was nothing he could do about it.
He rolled the map and sat at the desk, pushing the books and papers away to clear some space with one hand. The dull gleam from the heavy signet ring that now adorned his finger caught his eye, and he splayed his hand to study the silhouette of a flying sparrow engraved deeply into the green stone’s surface.
This had been his father’s ring, his seal, the token of his office. It felt foreign on Derek’s hand, weighing him down, and he tore his gaze away from it with a twinge of guilt.
Taking out a fresh sheaf of paper, he dipped the quill in the inkwell, and began penning his letter of acceptance.