There were bodies strewn about the room, haphazardly curled into corners or lying upon whatever semi-clean surface was available. Limbs were loosely intertwined over chairs, some on the floor, others cocked at unusual angles against the walls.
The occasional broken bottle shone in the faint morning light, and William tread carefully, absently making note that the floor wasn’t entirely safe. He paused mid-step, half over someone’s torso, when the full impact of the sight before him registered. No one was moving.
They couldn’t be…
William bent over the nearest body and pressed his fingers to the man’s neck. A few long moments passed before he was rewarded with a strong flutter against his fingertips; William let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. Not dead, then. Just passed out. As he stood, habitually smoothing his hair down with one hand, a bottle caught his eye and it all clarified.
The guild, of which he was now a member he thought with a bit of a jolt, must have drunken itself into a stupor. A few flasks had been opened before he’d dismissed himself and gone to bed"it wasn’t that far of a stretch. He almost laughed aloud but stopped, not wanting to risk waking them. The fact that they were, each and every one of them, asleep was the closest thing to a blessing he’d had in what felt like a lifetime. They wouldn’t see him leave.
William set his family’s contract on the table, avoiding dark splotches of what he assumed was spilled ale. Tired eyes had poured over the parchment before he slept in a vain attempt to find a loophole, something to get him out of this agreement that had been made for him. He finally fell into a dreamless sleep, irritated, hopeless, that nothing could seemingly be done. Refusal was out of the question. Deserting, were it a viable option, would not have been one he would have taken regardless. There were too many of them for him to murder and have it go unnoticed. The thought that he was now bound to this slavish, sick group weighed on his heart almost physically, and it was with disgust that he crept out the door.
His mother’s letters held no interest for him now: he would be going home and likely gain better understanding there than he would from her written ramblings. With a pulse almost as strong as his heart, William’s mind kept repeating, ‘Claire needs me. Claire needs me. Claire needs me.’ It beat a steady tattoo in his head as he mounted Lanius, spurred him due north, back to the estate he hadn’t so much as set eyes on in five years. He’d been promised excuses for his absence would be made and trusted the Bleeding Harts to follow through; it would be as much for their benefit as his.
He had no real way of knowing if what Torbjörn had spoken was true, but some gut feeling prompted him to believe the towering man. It was the same instinct that led him home, or what he had that passed for one. It had never felt like the sanctuary from the rest of the world that he knew it should be; the one safe place in the storm. The family estate was the storm and William had a sudden pang of guilt, knowing that he had condemned Claire to take the full brunt of it in his absence.
He would mend what he could if he had to ride straight through a week’s worth of nights. As William rode on, unspoken scenarios playing through his head stirring up a wealth of panic, he vowed that he would never again let his sister suffer for things that happened in his life. She was sick and he wasn’t there to help; she had to be seriously ill if his mother had written. He had never wanted to explain to Claire why he had left as badly as he did right then, alone and in the pre-noon calm of the unknown forest. But she wasn’t there to hear the confession so he tucked it behind his tongue.
He would make this right.
It seemed like the rain had followed him. Maybe it was just a reflection of how he felt about the place; grand though it was, especially in the fine mist of the inclement weather, William couldn’t stop the tightness in his chest as he drew near the estate. It was as though a winter-chilled hand squeezed his heart, turned his blood and emotions into ice. Nothing good had come of his home and though the captain told himself it was irrational to give in to his nerves, he allowed a moment to do just that. This was the place his father had died. Where his brother had been born, already dead. Where his mother had lost herself to grief, and where he had betrayed his sister though he couldn’t know how deeply then. If ever there were a physical location that embodied everything that had ever gone wrong in William’s life, it was ‘home.’ Suddenly it didn’t seem like such an unreasonable thing to be nervous about, arriving back for the first time in five years.
There were no servants in sight as he approached the stables, dismounting and habitually heading toward Lanius’ old stall before he realized it would likely have been reassigned by now. It was empty though; no horse, no straw even. William felt apprehensive but he ushered the stallion into the pen and removed the tack, setting it on the stall’s side before swinging the gate shut. Lanius, tired, shut his eyes, apparently at ease in the familiar setting.
William was not so comfortable and made the short trek to the estate proper with a growing sense of apprehension. It struck him that the air was empty"of birds, of their fleeting calls, and the lack of noise was an eerie backdrop. His boots scuffed against the worn stone of the entrance hall and it startled him, the sandpapery sound breaking the silence almost apologetically. The doors, big and sturdy enough to hold back all but the most determined army, were gaping open and he stepped through, half expecting to hear the doors slam behind him. But nothing happened and William came into the grand foyer, hair on end.
“Hello?” His voice sounded uncertain even to his own ears. It grew more tremulous with each repeated echo until William could have sworn that a little boy in hiding had parroted his words back at him. There was a shuffling commotion of noise that followed and the captain’s hand went to his sword; though unsure of what he could expect, William knew better than to be blithely trusting.
She came out from the far corner of the room, the archway that eventually lead to the servant’s quarters once you’d passed the kitchens and storage rooms. Deep golden hair was almost white now, and her skin had a ghostly pallor to it. She had lost an unhealthy amount of weight; William could see it in her face and his stomach gave a lurch of guilt. He started forward, dropped his hand from his weapon, but couldn’t get his feet to move in accordance with his heart.
“Brother"is that you?” Claire squinted at him as if looking harder would make his presence more real, more believable. She stood there for a long while, a well dressed shadow of what William remembered, before taking tentative, mincing steps toward him.
“You…are here,” she whispered, now only inches away from William. He could see that her eyes had dulled and the color had fled from her cheeks. She looked delicate, like a long forgotten doll.
“I am.” It was all that he could think to say as the distress humming through his head was louder than any coherent string of words. Pulling his sister close for a hug, William was startled all over again by how tiny she felt in his arms. She was all rough edges and points and he made to say so when she pulled forcibly away.
Claire stared at him, nostrils flaring with her short breaths and eyes panicky and wide, like a frightened horse. “You can’t be here. No, no, she will find you and make you stay.” She stole a few darting glances at the otherwise empty room as though expecting someone to join them. William placed a hand on her shoulder, unable to bring himself to say anything that might calm Claire. Beginning to spook, the captain withdrew and took a deep breath.
“Who will find me?” He had to focus on the situation, not the extreme discomfort of the young woman he had come to tend to; this was not what he had expected and William was not a man that liked surprises.
“The Lady. Our mother. Oh, she has gone quite mad. She remembers you, though, misses you…raves about you…” she said, the words tripping over each other as they poured out.
William opened his mouth, closed it. His own mother had lost her sanity? Her mind gone that far from her body? A surge of panic ran through his spine. He composed himself and took Claire by the elbow. “Where is she, ma chere? Can you take me to her?” Their blue eyes met and Claire was silent for what felt like a small eternity.
She said nothing, only nodded, sensing her brother’s need. Grasping his hand in her own tiny appendage, she lead him down the halls as he might have done himself years ago. The walls were dusty and the few tapestries still hanging were covered in cobwebs, ridden with tiny moth-eaten holes. William wondered how long it had been since anyone had taken a rag to anything in the estate.
“She might yell, William,” Claire whispered, breaking the brief silence between them. “Yell at you for not being here, for only leaving her with me. If she speaks at all…” She stopped in the middle of the corridor and pointed to a room just a few feet ahead; William recognized it instantly and was made all the more nervous. It was his mother’s dressing room, already filled with unpalatable memories. He steeled himself, however, affectionately squeezing Claire’s shoulder before entering alone"his sister seemed more than reluctant to join him, and instead stayed in the corridor, looking petrified.
It was the smell that hit him first. The air carried the scent of expensive perfume and powder, but something darker as well; it reminded the captain of meat gone rancid. But it was too dark for exploration, and he stood still while his eyes adjusted to the faint light that trickled through a partially open curtain across the room. A sudden rustle made him stiffen.