I see that you are. I can see your eyes tracking me as I move.
Can you understand me? Try to blink once for ‘Yes,’ and twice for ‘No.’
Well done. I thought I might be too late, my darling … I’m sorry, that was insensitive. My words are clumsy, my manners uncultured by your standard. Here in my mountain kingdom, I have little call for courtly manners and flowery language.
There were … things … that I had to attend to, or I’d never have left your side. I am so sorry about your affliction. I never expected this. I wish, for your sake, that I’d never brought you back to my harsh realm. It hurts me so much too see you like this, so pale and still.
I remember when I first saw you. I’d come down from the mountains to resolve some landholder and right-of-passage disputes with Count Scolatari. He’d insisted on hosting one of his balls while I was there, to distract me from the negotiations I thought at the time.
I’d not have attended, but my own advisors had been hounding me, claiming that at twenty-five I was too long without a wife and an heir to secure the Cragenrath lineage. “Seek out suitable candidates,” I was advised.
I was introduced to dozens of hopeful young women at that extravagant celebration. Then I saw you across the hall, holding a crowd of onlookers entranced with your sparkling wit, shaking your raven tresses with merriment. I was lost to anyone else before ever we spoke.
And when I did introduce myself, you made me feel sophisticated, even though I knew I was not. I was thrilled to discover that you had a keen intelligence, and that you had read most of the books that I had read, and many that I had not. Books have always helped my family get through our howling winters.
I was even more surprised when I learned of your modest skills with the sword. I eagerly volunteered to instruct you further in your swordsmanship, a skill that you took to readily, and far more gracefully than I.
I stayed long at Scolatari’s keep, and when I left, I asked you to accompany me. I asked you to share my mountain realm with me, to be my wife. I was overjoyed when you said “Yes.” It was the happiest I have ever been.
I wish now that I had never succumbed to your charms, because it brought you to this…
I’d rather have had a wistful memory of a long-ago dalliance, than this cruel reality that lies before us now.
When you arrived, I introduced you to all of my family and my retainers. I gifted you with the ring you now wear, a family heirloom of immense value. Everyone was impressed with your beauty, your polished ways, your wit. Everyone was overjoyed to meet you.
Nobody was more surprised than I when you fell ill the very next day. Surely, it must be just a simple sickness, easily abolished. But as you grew weaker, it became clear that you had fallen to the Curse of Cragenrath.
I am young, I know. But I am not stupid. The Curse only falls upon those who seek to harm Cragenrath. I never expected this and, obviously, neither did you.
I investigated further. It didn’t take me long to discover your compatriots.
AND YOUR HUSBAND!
I’m sorry. In the state you’re in, it’s unfair of me to shout at you.
Yes, I found your fellow plotters: the scholarly ex-monk, and your husband, a mercenary from Brylandia. I quickly identified the monk as the weaker of the two, and we broke him within a few hours.
I was appalled when I learned how you studied me. Discovered my likes and my weaknesses.
Guessed at my innermost desires. Your husband, using his roguish charm for extracting information from strangers. The ex-monk, with his talent for research.
And you, with your acting skills. An accomplished stage actress from a far-off realm.
Everything you told me was a lie. Even your love was just an act.
The scholar didn’t survive the interrogation. We threw his remains, unshriven, off a cliff. May his ghost haunt the mountains in torment.
And your husband … oh, how I hated him. He had your love, and I did not. But I had no choice in the matter. Honor stands above us all.
For the sake of what could have been, I gave him a fighting chance. We fought a duel. That I am here must tell you that he lost.
I can attest, though, that he fought bravely, and was more of a challenge than I had expected. He even gave me a minor scratch. But I am a warrior from the line of warriors that tamed these mountains. I have been trained from childhood by some of the finest swordsmen who ever lived.
He fell with my sword in his stomach. I could have let him suffer in agony for so long as it should take him to die. However, we lords of the mountains are ruthless, but not overly cruel. I gave him mercy and, for your sake, even buried him in the manner of his people.
The ironic thing is that you and your companions were seeking to steal the treasure of Cragenrath. My darling, you’re wearing it right now, the ring I gave you when you arrived.
My ancestor seventeen generations agone was a wizard. He crafted a magical heirloom, an ornate, jeweled ring. Our tradition is to gift it to anyone who seeks to join our clan. Those who intend us harm, die an agonizing and withering death that we call the Curse of Cragenrath. Sadly, the Curse is inexorable once it begins, and the ring can’t be removed without the magical backblast incinerating everything in this room.
My ancestor wrought far too well.
I’ve picked out a spot for you, overlooking the view that you found so stunning when you first arrived. I’ll plant our famous winter roses above your grave. They have great white flowers, and leaves so dark they’re almost black. Hidden beneath the leaves are the thorns. Treachery hiding underneath beauty.
Strangely fitting, I think.
I’m sorry that it has come to this. I still love you, you know.
Even now, I’d set you free if I could. I wish things could have been different.
Rest now, my darling. The pain will be gone soon.
“Winter Roses” Copyright © 2015 by David Keener